St George, patron saint of our manners: Royal toe-sucking in public is definitely bad form

HAVE YOU ever written a formal letter - an application for a job, perhaps - and signed it, 'With love'? If so, according to Andrew St George, you have been guilty of bad manners - 'I get formal letters with 'Good wishes', 'Best wishes', 'All the best', even typewritten letters from professional people 'With love'. Extraordinary]'

Dr St George, a junior research fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of a forthcoming book, The Descent of Manners, suppressed his indignation. It is unmannerly to disclose too much of one's inner persona.

His book deals with the manners, etiquette and rules of the Victorians, who, as John Stuart Mill pointed out in 1869, lived in an age morbidly self-conscious, in which 'the English, more than any other people, not only act but feel according to rule', thus becoming great practitioners of manners ('social control self-imposed') and exponents of etiquette ('class control exercised').

It explores the conduct of Queen Victoria's subjects as they 'bowed all round promiscuously' and Oscar Wilde's stand against the 'wilful absurdities' in accepted behaviour. The author also has strong views on modern manners, the finest of which 'should be like a well-fitted suit': unlike the man who wore jeans 'at the most formal event of Oxford University's year, the Encaenia garden party' - 'He made me feel uneasy, and therefore he was bad- mannered.'

When he met me, Dr St George was wearing a black leather jacket. Feeling uneasy in my dark pin-stripe, I accompanied him to the library. At 31, he is an expert on a formidable range of subjects: English literature, public relations, merchant banking, the European Community, American affairs - and, of course, manners. But when he fetched a chair for me, his sunny face solicitous beneath Byronic curls, I warmed to him.

He radiates happiness: his Portsmouth childhood was 'very happy', his schooling in Bath 'wonderful', his double first at Cambridge and PhD at Oxford were triumphs, his marriage to an American educational psychologist is a joyous union one month old. 'Being yourself and having self-respect - that's really what good manners are,' he said.

Bad manners are sucking royal toes in public, describing the Chinese as 'slitty-eyed' (the Duke of Edinburgh), elevating fingers at Wimbledon, the Boat Race, or a horse show (remember Harvey Smith?) - 'things that make others feel uncomfortable'.

What about the inability of the younger generation to sit at table, elbows in, holding a knife properly. 'Ah yes, HKLP - Hold Knife Like Pen,' he said. 'My grandmother would crack my elbows on the table - not in any cruel way but to explain that if you had your elbows out you were inconveniencing other people as well as eating inelegantly.'

In the press release he wrote for Chatto and Windus, publishers of Descent in Manners, he says manners have always been more important to the English than laws - a tendency dating 'from the last century'. However, they seem to be an even earlier obsession, as I found by flipping through Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature, published in 1839. In 'Anecdotes of European Manners', he shows that Spanish etiquette, for example, could be a life-and-death affair. In an earlier century, a palace guard who broke down a door to rescue his queen from a fire was sentenced to death for unlawfully entering her private rooms; good manners prevailed when she reprieved him.

Dr St George traces the 'steady descent' of manners to the mid-19th century. Robert Browning, he found, was an ill- mannered poet: 'He huffs, and spits and blows in your face at dinner,' said Mary Gladstone, the former prime minister's daughter.

As for more recent celebrities, Jeremy Paxman's 'Aren't you in real doo-doo?' is not bad manners on television, but would be if addressed to dinner guests. Sir Patrick Mayhew's unfortunate remark about everybody dying in Lucia di Lammermoor and nobody dying in that day's Belfast riot was definitely bad manners, though his prompt apology made up for it.

Dr St George admires American manners. 'Certainly ask someone directions in an American street, and they won't say things like 'I wouldn't suggest you start from here', or lie to you - which is also very bad manners.'

Would he consider it bad manners to fax a 'Get Well' card to someone (assuming that the patient was likely to last longer than it would take a letter to arrive)? 'It depends on the person. I would not fax it to my grandmother, but would fax it to someone who regularly sends faxes.'

And his own professional manners? They are evident in his book's fastidious 32 pages of notes, crediting everyone to whom he feels indebted.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before