Elbows off

As I think back, it strikes me that much of the time I have spent at table with my family has been spent not on high-minded conversations such as, what is the capital of Bolivia? (when they were young), or, why hasn't one of you got the guts to rid us of the Wilsons, the Greenaways, the Charauds of this world? but on such mundanities as: Will you please get your elbows off the table? Don't speak with your mouth full (darling). Cut your meat properly. The napkin is made to sit on your lap. And (most frequent), What would your grandmother say if she saw you eating like a pig? The grandmothers have shifted, but not the message. And oddly enough, autocrat of the dinner table that I may be, it is not my voice I hear wearily mouthing these imprecations, but that of their mothers: begging, cajoling, insisting; furious, resigned, despondent. So I take it that mothers feel that part of their nurturing duty is that of imposing something called "manners".

There are all sorts of reasons why manners are important, and now that the Junior Gastrognome has just passed his eighth birthday (a point at which he gets the privilege of scraping not only his plate, but everyone else's - next year, clear the table, the year after, stack the dishwasher), I understand at least one reason why manners should be imposed on a child. The French have the right word for it, which is sortable; that is, without manners, you can't take the kid out. And that is a bore.

If you look at this subject soberly, however, you will note two things that children are quick to realise: first that many grown-ups do not display the designated manners (they will talk with their mouths full, they do put their elbows on the table), and second that many of the prescriptions are not only boring, but really don't make that much sense. To the former, one can point out, at least to a sophisticated child, that a bad priest is no reason for abandoning a religion; but to the latter, the answer is more difficult. If grown-ups, at least at home, put their elbows on the table, that is because it is comfortable: especially had they been, like the child, spending a weary day conjugating the future of etre and avoir. Practicality would say that a napkin is handier by the plate than on the lap; it can be brought into service more quickly. And when, if you're hungry, is a mouth not full and available for words?

Putting myself in Master Junior's place, I can see a goodly number of reasons why many of these rules seem arcane and discommoding. But it falls to me, not my wife, who is a stickler on such matters as the French bourgeoisie generally is, to explain why the rules should none the less be observed. My explanation generally is - and I illustrate it by flapping my elbows wide like a chicken and bumping his rib cage - that manners are there as a means of promoting general civility. I will then explain that if his mouth is full, I cannot understand what he is saying (I am good at imitating a donkey with an apple in his mouth reciting Homer). The elbow- prohibition is another matter. As he is an uncle many times over, and in my family uncle-status allows elbows, I have to give him a wink, which he interprets (rightly) as, "You know how your mother is".

But I went through the same drill in my childhood. My mother was far fiercer, too. Why, I was not even allowed to sop up delicious sauces with a piece of bread! That was what peasants did. Ugh! She was, also, adamant, like any well-bred Italian, that fruit must not, under any circumstances, be eaten with the fingers: one peeled it on one's plate with a knife and fork, cut it up and put appropriate-sized bites in one's mouth.

From which I concluded that manners are a skill; and that if you want to have a certain station in life, you must preserve the manners and customs of the past. They are not unlike going through a marriage ceremony; not strictly necessary, but more decorous. Thus has civilisation ever preserved itself: by enforcing its rules on the next generation. And when you think about it, civilisation is right. Not to have your napkins on your lap is just the start of a slippery slope. So, kid, don't talk when I'm talking. And no, you may not get up from the table until you've finished what's on your plate

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
films
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

    £30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

    Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

    £35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

    £60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Opilio Recruitment: Full Stack Software Developer

    £35k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game