Lynne Truss: The eff-off society

Whatever happened to good manners? Why are we all so horrible to each other? The author of 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves' reveals her theory to Sholto Byrnes
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Hold on, hold on; this is all a bit unexpected. This is Lynne Truss, author of the most unlikely publishing sensation of the past couple of years, the whimsical Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Subtitled "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation", Truss's guide to the mysteries of the semi-colon and the Oxford comma has now sold three million copies worldwide, delighting both the author and Profile, the small publishing house that found a runaway bestseller on its hands.

Its success was at least partly down to the good humour with which Truss cut through the impenetrable thickets of history and rules that surround English grammar. So when she turned her hand to manners and produced her new book, Talk to the Hand, most expected that she would gently nudge the reader towards a set of sensible guidelines as she did with punctuation. But Talk to the Hand has a much more serious message.

"This is an age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence," writes Truss in her new book. We live in an 'eff-off society' which has reached a "state of confusion and decadence".

The author even confesses that she would like to see graffiti-daubing hooligans "sprayed all over with car paint and then strung up for public humiliation".

"It is more serious," concedes Truss when we meet at Profile's offices in Clerkenwell, east London. "The intention was not to be comically grumpy, because there are lots of people doing that in books and on television. I wanted to examine why we are outraged by issues of politeness and manners, going on to morality at the end, and whether or not you're a better or worse person for considering other people."

Truss, a blonde 50-year-old who looks younger than her age and a tad mumsy, seems ever-so-slightly taken aback - and possibly dismayed - that Talk to the Hand reads as soberly as it does. "I tried to make it funny." She is funny, and so is the book. But both she and the book have a didactic undertone; she strikes me as a schoolteacher manqué. In conversation she is even graver about how the decline in manners is symptomatic of a deeper moral decline than the new book's subtitle, "The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life", suggests.

"A lot of people are feeling angry a lot of the time," she says. They're angry that they don't get thanked for holding the door open for passers-by; angry that they get put on hold for half an hour by call centres located somewhere in cyberspace; angry that they're lonely and isolated; but angry if communication with others includes any suggestion that they should modify their own behaviour.

"It could get worse," says Truss, "because the reaction to rudeness is a flashpoint situation, and I think a lot of people feel offended a lot of the time."

This may seem rather a departure for Truss, but in fact it is not. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves she wrote: "It is no accident that the word 'punctilious' (attention to formality or etiquette) comes from the same original root word as punctuation." In Talk to the Hand she links the two subjects again. "Just as the loss of punctuation signalled the vast and under-acknowledged problem of illiteracy, so the collapse of manners stands for a vast and under-acknowledged problem of social immorality."

I suggest that she sounds like someone who thinks of herself as a liberal, but is worried by her own growing reactionary tendencies. "I think that's not uncommon," she agrees. "You can't talk about 'standards' without thinking to yourself, 'I can't believe I'm saying this.' It's become taboo. So I did feel I was being quite brave in confronting it. But then," she adds, "I could just be having the classic rightward shift that people are supposed to have in mid-life."

Whichever it is, Truss is certain that well-meaning but mistaken educational policy has a lot to do with our confusion, both moral and grammatical. "A lot of people are being held back from learning in the name of egalitarianism and liberalism," she says. "They're being told that how they read and write is good enough. There is no better or worse. What they know already is perfect. You don't need anything else."

And in the name of that egalitarianism, she says, "we're actually probably creating a caste system as opposed to the old-fashioned class system. I think there are people who will never escape from their backgrounds because they're not taught to use the language well enough." The answer, according to Truss, is that we "cannot endorse this relativist claptrap that everything that everyone does is of equal value."

The banner must be flown for standards. "We're in this marvellous situation where a lot from the old class system has gone," she says, "so why don't we have a different system of manners based on simple morality? Maybe we could move into a different world of being more considerate to each other."

In Talk to the Hand Truss has identified what she thinks of as the problem. The big difference with her previous book, I say to her, is that she doesn't really offer any solutions.

"The thing is that it is supposed to be a funny book," she pleads. "Maybe if I'd stood back for six months, maybe then I would have worked out how I could save the world from yobbery."

There is plenty of humour in the book, which deals not only with these larger themes, but also minor gripes such as Truss's irritation at the response "No problem". ("If you ask for the soup in a restaurant," she says, "and they reply 'No problem', you think,'Why would there be a problem? It's on the menu.'")

But there's no doubt it is neither as light nor as much of a guide as fans of Eats, Shoots & Leaves will expect. "Maybe they will expect it to be more prescriptive," she says. "I hope they won't think I'm a horrible person, terribly censorious. But perhaps I am alone in how censorious I am. Or perhaps nobody else wants to admit it."

The issue of how it comes across only arises because of her last book's phenomenal success. Before that, Truss had worked as a radio scriptwriter and sports columnist, and had written three novels that enjoyed limited sales. Her life, she says, has not changed enormously since the publication of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. "I've had some work done on my house in Brighton, I've paid off my mortgage and my mum's mortgage. So those were lovely things and they take away any worries."

She hasn't splashed out? "Maybe you're supposed to go and buy a helicopter. But if I had one I know I wouldn't use it. And if I started hanging around in clubs in London doing coke, I wouldn't know any of the people, so that would be a bit daft." She enquires anxiously: "Does this show a terrible lack of imagination?"

The one indulgence Truss does allow herself is travelling first class on the Brighton to London train. In the meantime, she is working on a radio comedy series with Chris Langham, and is hoping to stage a play. Is she prepared to be attacked for the views she espouses in the new book? She could, after all, have avoided controversy by continuing to delve amusingly into the syntactical maze.

"I could have done a book on the dangling modifier," she jokes. "But I do want there to be a debate on this. I want other people to run with it. I think there are all sorts of triggers that make you feel that you don't like the world you're living in - just because someone doesn't say thank you. The issue is important."


Born: 31 May, 1955. Truss's father worked in the Territorial Army and as a bookkeeper, her mother was a telephonist. She grew up in a council flat in Petersham, Surrey.

Education: Tiffin Girls' Grammar School, Kingston upon Thames, and University College, London, where she gained a first in English and was awarded the Morley Medal. She applied for a grant to do a PhD, but started working while waiting to hear if funding was available.

Career: Deputy literary editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement; literary editor,

The Listener; sports columnist, The Times. Has written three novels, and several radio series and monologues; made a fellow of UCL in 2004.

Lucky break: bumping into Andrew Franklin of Profile Books at a Christmas party in 2002. He'd enjoyed her Radio 4 series on punctuation, Cutting a Dash, and asked if she thought there was a book in it. Truss said not, but later thought better of it ... Eats, Shoots & Leaves has now sold three million copies worldwide.