St George, patron saint of our manners: Royal toe-sucking in public is definitely bad form
Sunday 11 July 1993
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.
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