How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world, says Simon Kelner

Click to follow
The Independent Online

What do Alan Titchmarsh and Steven Gerrard have in common? Here's a clue: Alan doesn't have a sweet right foot, and has never, as far as I know, played in a holding position in front of the back four. Also, I'm pretty certain that Steven doesn't know his narcissus from his nasturtium.

No, the answer is that they are both gentlemen. That's according to the writer and multi-purpose social commentator Jilly Cooper, who was invited on to Radio 4's Today programme in her guise as a judge of Country Life's Gentleman of the Year award and asked to name public figures who had gentlemanly attributes.

Obviously, Ms Cooper's was a highly subjective list, which, as well as Liverpool's captain and TV's gardener, included Prince William, Sir Terry Wogan and Ben Fogle, but it threw up some interesting questions about the interpretation of a gentleman in this day and age. There have been various definitions of what makes a gentleman down the ages, ranging from the ancient – Cardinal Newman in 1852 said that a gentleman is one who never inflicts pain – to the modern – the Japanese author Haruki Murakami averred that "a gentleman is someone who does not do what he wants to do, but what he should do".

Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh

Using both these definitions, it is difficult to make the case that gentlemanly behaviour should be in any way gender specific. In an age which purports to sexual equality, it seems strange that a list of gentlemen should include only men. Or are we to assume that women behave in a way that is concomitant with acts of politeness and sensitivity? If there is to be a modern definition of a gentlemen, it might be simply described as someone who would never engage in anti-social behaviour, such as talking loudly on a mobile phone in a public place, or dropping litter, or being unaware of others in a queue, or refusing to give up a seat on a bus for the old, the infirm or the pregnant. Articulated in a more positive way, a gentleman is the sort of person who would gallantly step in when he – or perhaps she – observed such anti-social acts.

Country Life's exemplars of modern-day gentlemen are possibly more contentious even than Jilly Cooper's list. Included, alongside Nelson Mandela (not much argument there) and David Beckham (ditto, although rather odd to see them both in the same category) is the Duke of Edinburgh. He is included for "his stiff upper lip". Not sure whether that quality a gentleman makes, and my only personal experience of Prince Philip doesn't speak necessarily of politeness and courtesy. At a reception held at Windsor Castle for members of the British media, he asked who I was representing. "The Independent, sir," I said. "What are you doing here?" he asked. When I told him I had been invited, his reply was admirable in its frankness. "Well, you didn't have to come," he said.

It all goes to show that gentlemanly behaviour is in the eye of the beholder. And it makes me proud to be British to know that we have a spectrum with Prince Philip at one end of it and Steven Gerrard at the other.