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Talk to the Hand, by Lynne Truss
A manners manifesto with a note of apology
Friday 04 November 2005
Lynne Truss's new book,
Talk to the Hand - The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life (or six good reasons to stay at home and bolt the door), is a curious work, part social commentary, part lament, and part battle cry. It seems fitting that an author whose last book concerned itself with one set of Ps and Qs should progress smoothly to the other sort. We were taught at school - it seems incredible now - that an educated person whose grammar leaves a lot to be desired is also likely to be lacking in moral energy. Perhaps Truss was taught the same.
Talk to the Hand is a melancholy book. The subject of rudeness is more stimulating to the author than the subject of good manners. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss's preoccupation with correct grammar seemed recherché and altruistic. In fact, that book is really the story of a love affair.
Objecting to other people's rudeness, as the author does again and again here, does not carry the same panache. There is less joy in the writing than in all her earlier works, although one or two flights of fancy are worthy of a top-class comedian. In a slightly random aside about people-who-need-people being ultra-lucky, she paints a little picture of the alarm that employees feel when a sighing and clingy person enters a casino or a betting-shop, because there's just bound to be an enormous run on the tills.
Truss is so aware of the pitfalls of writing such a book that it is extraordinary that she completed the task. She admits that people who concern themselves at length with the behaviour of others are often conventional and conservative - and no better than they ought to be themselves.
She refers to her book as a "rant" and it is full of apologies, self-directed put-downs and get-out clauses. "It's not worth saying" and "It's already been said" is how she frames the points she makes. Perhaps because of this ambivalence, Talk to the Hand suffers from an awkwardness of tone. Truss states in her introduction that "The author apologises for the high incidence of the word 'Eff' in this book... If you don't Effing like it, you know what you can Effing do. (That's a joke.)" I didn't quite feel that it was.
Yet Truss's concern for the morality of our everyday interactions is thorough and affecting. She never tries to simplify this thorny subject, with all its political and moral dimensions. She bemoans the intolerance of our "Eff Off" society while celebrating the appeal of intolerance. Truss questions society's obsession with safeguarding its personal space, while commenting on how shocking intrusions into this can feel.
She deftly names and shames the sheer brutality of much conventional English politeness and her dissection of English reticence is genuinely stylish. She also writes with insight about the breakdown in the distinction between private and public codes of behaviour.
Truss's conclusion - and she apologises for the lack of surprises - is that good, imaginative, well-mannered behaviour makes the world a better place. Well, yes.
Some other findings are less reliable. She writes: "If we looked inside ourselves and remembered how insignificant we are, just for a couple of minutes a day, respect for other people would be an automatic result." It seems to me that personal feelings of insignificance never did much to enhance human behaviour.
The book's surprisingly moving ending evokes a fantasy world where everything is done kindly and with consideration. It reminded this reader of Truss's great gift for comic fiction. Perhaps a fictional world where good, thoughtful, slightly obsessive characters triumph over their rough, unmannerly counterparts might have brought Truss's points home with more verve.
It is also regrettable that Truss chose not to lay out a plan for how people really ought to behave in social situations with a bank of gritty and acute bullet-points for her readers to relish. Her reasons for this omission, she claims, are the degree of exposure her own conduct would attract. "Famous author in shock neighbour-blanking horror incident," is the sort of criticism she dreads.
Talk to the Hand does occasionally read like a thank-you letter extended ambitiously to the second side of the notepaper. Yet it addresses an important subject with intelligence and humour, and for that we should certainly be grateful.
Susie Boyt's latest novel, 'Only Human', is published by Review
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