Impolite society: Who is to blame for Britain's bad manners?

Britain is in the grip of an epidemic of rudeness and anti-social behaviour. And finding a cure has never been higher on the political agenda. But it was only when William Leith got into a fight over a taxi that he realised the unpalatable truth: we are all to blame...
Click to follow

There comes a moment when you get pushed beyond the limit, when you can take it no more. It happens to everybody. For me the event took place in the middle of London.

I hailed a taxi. The taxi stopped. I got in, closed the door, and sat down. Another guy, about the same age, height, and weight as me, got into the taxi from the other side. I gave the driver my instructions.

"Camden, please."

The other guy said, "Clapham."

I said, "I got in first."

He said, "Fuck off." That was his contribution to the argument. He didn't say, "No, I got in first." He wasn't entering any kind of debate.

I said, "But this is my taxi."

"Fuck off."

Now, I'd been in these situations before. I often used to wait for taxis at the end of my street, a three-way junction, where a subtle form of etiquette operated. A taxi might approach from each of the three directions, although locals knew the exact order of likelihood - most likely from the north, less likely from the west, least likely from the east. The done thing was to wait at different points around the junction, and defer to those who had been waiting longest. It wasn't quite a queue. But people had come to an understanding.

One day, late and flustered, I was standing at the junction, my eyes fixed at a point in the distance, willing a taxi to come my way. I was at the head of the virtual queue. A guy was walking up the road towards me. He walked past me in the direction I was looking. Then a taxi appeared and he hailed it. It stopped; he opened the door.

"Hey!" I said. "That was mine!"

The other guy closed the taxi door, and gave his instructions to the driver. As the car pulled away, he smiled at me. I inwardly cursed him. Bastard! I was late for my appointment.

Purely because of that bastard and his bad manners.

But something else happened that day, too. I changed my behaviour. I stopped waiting on the corner for taxis to come to me. Now, I began to walk up the road to seek them. At first, this seemed like innocent behaviour. But sometimes, I'll admit, I walked past somebody who was already waiting. Mostly I was out of sight by the time I saw a taxi, so the person I was being bad-mannered to never knew anything about it. But one day the taxi appeared at a most inopportune moment - just as I had walked past the guy who was waiting. I hailed it. It stopped. I opened the door.

The guy who had been waiting had a look of horror on his face; he had been robbed. I closed the door. My taxi - his rightful taxi - pulled away from the kerb. I thought to myself: well, at least I didn't smile.

But now I was in a new situation altogether. This time my rival and I were both sitting in the taxi.

Again, I said, "This is my taxi."

Again, he said, "Fuck off."

I appealed to the driver: "Can you tell him I got in first?"

The driver said, "Nothing to do with me, mate. Sort it out between yourselves."

The guy sitting next to me said, "Get out or I'll smash your fucking face in."

At the time, it occurred to me that something bad was happening to the world around me. It was only later that I understood my part in the decline.

One of the problems with bad manners, as you can see, is that they increase exponentially. If I behave badly, you behave worse, and I must behave worse still. If I steal taxis with stealth, someone must steal my taxis with threats; if I am threatened it's a situation I have helped to bring on myself. But there is another problem, one that's less obvious, and that explains why the cycle of bad manners begins in the first place. And this is the problem of good manners. The thing that nobody mentions is that good manners can be a bigger problem than bad manners.

But let's stay with bad manners for a while. Everybody loves bad manners. It's just that they love different types of bad manners. People who are now pensioners loved it when Kenneth Tynan was the first person to say the word "fuck" on television; they loved John Osborne's unmannerly play Look Back in Anger, and Colin Wilson's book The Outsider, which gave the reader the sense that he was an individual, alone against the world, and that the most appropriate response to this fact was a metaphorical two-fingered salute. Wilson himself, of course, was (omega) inspired by Sartre and Camus, who had delivered their own two-fingered salutes, and these two were accompanied by other paragons of unmannerliness such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

And all of the above were preceded by former grandmasters of bad manners and individual freedom - blows were struck by Dostoyevsky, Musil, Nabokov, Hamsun, and Beckett. Where would our sense of personal freedom be now without those seedy, edgy characters? And how much do we owe Marcel Duchamp for exhibiting that urinal? The bloodline of bad manners is a long and distinguished one; typically, the history of any art form reads like a litany of transgression.

Importantly, though, the people who loved the way Thelonious Monk impudently refused to play the right note didn't necessarily like the way Mick Jagger did his thing. And his fans thought Black Sabbath were incredibly vulgar. And we know what Black Sabbath fans thought of the Sex Pistols. They were outraged. They were like retired colonels. I grew up listening to Johnny Rotten; I rather liked him for making the older kids, so superior in their flares and beads, look like old colonels. Then one day I found myself listening to drum'n'bass, and having a conversation I never thought I'd have.

"It's not that I need a melody. But this stuff... I can't see the point. "

"They don't want you to see the point."

"Well that's just ridiculous."

"You've become your parents."

I said: "I have not!"

But I had.

Consider the case of John McEnroe. For people like me, who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was the poster boy of bad manners - much more significant than, say, Johnny Rotten or Mark E Smith. Here was this guy, in tennis whites, playing at the All England Club... and when a call went against him, he yelled out, "You cannot be serious!"

He wasn't quite questioning the rules. But he was questioning the ability of the people in charge to apply those rules correctly. He suggested that, as a 20-year-old, his eyesight was better than that of the umpires. He openly barracked them. He often appeared to be on the verge of losing control. "He is a master of the unexpected," said Bjorn Borg, McEnroe's great opponent, who was himself quite the opposite. McEnroe was impulsive, childlike - he had mastered the unexpected partly because, when he did something, it would often be a surprise even to him. "The way I acted on a tennis court was more the way people acted in life," he later said.

On the one hand, then, there was Borg - the epitome of stoicism and consistency. On the other was McEnroe - mercurial, unpredictable, and needy. (I take all these examples from Tim Adams' brilliant book Being John McEnroe). The date, crucially, was 1980, the dawn of a new era. Borg was the champion, McEnroe the challenger. Borg, as Adams explains, prepared himself for the match as he always had - he went through his familiar routines of exercise and massage, having examined the tension in the strings of each of his 50 rackets by sitting down with his coach, both men "hitting them together and listening to the sound they made."

Before the showdown with McEnroe, Borg walked on to the court with a steady stride, and sat down "like a concert pianist". McEnroe, meanwhile, tossed his rackets on the ground and stretched out in his chair, studiedly impudent. Borg's girlfriend later said he looked like a man "stretched out on a deckchair on Miami Beach".

And what happened next? McEnroe lost, of course. But he won the next year - his impulsive, childlike, needy-greedy way of playing got the better of Borg, the stickler for convention. But what's important is what happened after that.

One development was that Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, enlisted McEnroe's services as the face of the company. This was exactly the sort of role-model the company was looking for. "The kind of athletes that embarrass grown-ups," he said, "were entirely acceptable Nike guys. " McEnroe was, as Adams puts it, "like the ideal consumer: perpetually dissatisfied, restless, and constantly seeking personal gratification."

More significant still, though, is what happened after that. Naturally, there was a price to pay. The economy of the tennis circuit began to depend on McEnroe's outbursts - bad behaviour was what people came along to see. So McEnroe began to get away with more and more tantrums. The tantrums were expected - they were the done thing. In the end, McEnroe was trapped - he was now the establishment. His bad manners had become the new good manners. He said, "I'm the greatest player who ever lived. Why do I feel so empty inside?"

Well, we wanted an egalitarian society, and we got it. But the main thing about an egalitarian society is not that we're all equal, but that nobody is equal to anybody else; we all occupy customised rungs on the ladder. So good manners don't work in the way they used to. Having good manners only works in two types of situation - when everybody is equal, or when everybody knows their place. These days, both situations are extremely rare; we're all touchy as hell about our status.

One can think of plenty of examples. Larry David works this territory beautifully in his sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. What do you do, for instance, when the disabled toilet is the only one available? Should you avoid using it if you're able-bodied? Or would this in itself be an insult to people who were not able-bodied? If you didn't use the disabled toilet, would that be in some way patronising? (In the show, David uses the disabled toilet, and receives a dressing-down from a wheelchair-user; later, he finds the wheelchair-user in the able-bodied toilet and tells him off.

This sort of thing is always happening. We are beginning to unmask the manners of the past and see them for what they were - euphemisms for patronage or deference. You're supposed to say "please" when you want something. But what is "please"? It's a version of begging. Saying "please" is like saying, "I beg you"; it's deference. And "thank you"? This, surely, is telling somebody you're beholden to them. The only time people say "thank you" - or, more likely, "thanks" - these days is when they are not beholden to somebody, or when they are being sarcastic.

And "sorry"? Puh-lease. When you say "sorry", you are supposed to be recanting. But the word has almost lost its original meaning. In her excellent study on manners, Talk to the Hand, Lynn Truss tells the story of Janet Street-Porter, who tried to get a group of schoolchildren to discuss the use of the word "sorry". "Children," she said, "in every family home, there's a word which people find it really hard to say to each other. It ends in 'y'. Can anyone tell me what it is?" Truss writes, "there was a pause while everyone racked their brains, and then someone called out 'buggery?'"

When do I use the word "sorry"? Not when I have done something wrong, and decided to recant. No, the word formulates in my mind when I am about to do something wrong - say, barge somebody out of the way - and want to cushion the blow, psychologically speaking. For me, "sorry" is a more evasive way of saying "sod off".

Etiquette has not gone away; it is just much more complicated these days. Etiquette was designed to demonstrate the victory of social control over Darwinian competitiveness. It's there to help us relax when we are doing the things which remind us of the fact that we are, in fact, animals. But the old pecking order has broken down. Now we are all rivals.

It keeps happening to me, this confusion. Recently, I had trouble with a builder - we seemed to agree about what he had been asked to do, and on what terms. He started off being almost embarrassingly deferential, and gradually worked through the whole spectrum - earnest, brusque, flinty, dismissive, and finally, patronising. When the job started, I was made to feel like the boss; by the end, when bad news had to be broken, deadlines deferred, and bills increased, he had become a ranting martinet. And I could see exactly what had happened - we live in a confusing world, and he had developed a way of taking advantage of this confusion.

I was complaining about it to a friend. "It wouldn't have happened like this in the old days," I said. "In the old days..."

"In the old days, he would have known his place."

"No," I said, "I was never going to say that."

Every generation loves its own bad manners, because the members of that generation hate the good manners of the previous one. I'm happy that, when I sit down to eat, I'm not expected to stuff a napkin into my collar, or even place one on my knee; my parents are happy that, if a bottle of port appears, nobody really cares which direction it's passed in. I thought it was perfectly acceptable, as a student, to take drugs that made you hallucinate, so people looked like frogs or fish, and plates and cutlery seemed to be trying to kill you. But I was quite shocked, years later, when I watched a later generation take drugs that made them huddle together in groups, hugging each other.

Of course, there is no answer. Manners work only to the extent that people agree on them, which, in a changing society, is less and less. It used to be rude to mention someone's sexual orientation, and then not rude, and soon it might be rude again. In what we call a "consumer" society, etiquette gets more complicated, because money creates endless niches - as capitalism rolls on, there are more and more obligations to show how polite we are by spending money. Easter used to be about eggs; now it is about gifts and eggs. Mother's Day used to be about a phone call; now it's a card, a dinner, and a bottle of champagne.

On each of these occasions, you must buy a gift that is, at most, only slightly more expensive than the one you were bought the year before. Last year, it was rude if you didn't wrap your gifts in decent paper. This year, it might be rude if you wrap them in paper that has not come from a sustainable source.

Meanwhile, the world gets ruder. Music in cars gets louder. People seem to be spitting more. Celebrities bitch at each other: Britney versus Christina, Posh versus Jordan. Cheryl Cole says that Lily Allen looks like "a chick with a dick". Lily replies: "Cheryl, I may not be as pretty as you, but at least I write and sing my own songs without the aid of auto-tune. I must say, taking your clothes off, doing sexy dancing and marrying a rich footballer must be very gratifying, your mother must be so proud, stupid bitch."

This is acceptable; soon it will be necessary. It's everywhere. People in public spaces are behaving more aggressively. Rules are being broken all the time, but this does not mean they are disappearing; it just means they are splitting into different rules, more rules. Manners are metastatising. We understand them less and less. The nuances are becoming finer and finer. Football referees these days must be aware that their job goes beyond enforcing the rules; a good referee must punish some infringements, but turn a blind eye to others. If he did not do this, every game would come to a standstill.

In a world of constant novelty, social codes break down. Our main response is to become more aggressive. The other day, a man was pushing a pram along a crowded pavement in my home town; he almost mowed a guy down. When challenged by the girl who was with him, he snapped: "Well, he should have seen me coming!"

"He was blind."

It was true. The man was tottering off into the distance. The other man, the man pushing the pram, was me. I had no consideration. For that, I am genuinely sorry.

But the guy who got in my taxi? I should have smashed him in the face. Or at least stood my ground. But I didn't. I meekly got out; in our new Darwinian, and very confusing, world of etiquette, he had made a request, and I had acceded to his request. I watched the car pull away from the kerb. Neither of us smiled.

Is Britain going to the dogs? We ask these well-known figures for their verdict

Jilly Cooper, writer

A lovely friend of mine wrote a piece a few months ago which was really quite strict. It was about how when you go to stay with people you must take a present and you must always write a thank-you letter, and you must do this and you must do that, and I think there's a resurgence in this. Young people are terribly well-mannered now. They arrive with flowers and bottles of champagne and write thank-you letters.

It goes in cycles. The 1970s and 1980s were tremendously class-conscious times and I think it's coming back. I think you should take presents when you go to stay with people, you should offer to take them out to dinner - and I think emails and faxes are tacky.

Things do change with the generations. My lovely son used to be an estate agent and he always opens car doors for women. I think that's fine, but it's deeply silly when a woman goes to the car and waits for a man to open the door for her.

Someone recently said to me that a friend of theirs had brought along a new woman, and it was extraordinary because he was rather grand and she didn't know how to hold a knife. I just laughed; it doesn't matter how anybody holds their knife. It's just a social shorthand, which says to people of a certain class, "This person might be of our class," which doesn't mean anything and it doesn't matter. I don't think people exclude people for it, it just ticks over in their mind, like a social register.

When we first came to Gloucestershire we went shooting and our car was so clean it shone like blue sapphire. When we arrived there, all the other cars were filthy and muddy. I have this concept that in the country you don't have a carwash, you have a "cardirty".

Boris Johnson, Shadow Minister for Higher Education

London is deeply uncivilised now and public space has become uncouth. There has been a universal outbreak of incivility and we're all too terrified to say anything to people who are misbehaving because we don't want to get stabbed, and that isn't London-specific, it's everywhere. I ascribe it to the complete collapse of table manners. Children have no concept of them. I think it's because families no longer sit down and eat together as a unit so there's none of that "pass the marmalade" - we don't do it in our home enough. I also blame television and video games, and I think children are appalled by the language of adults.

There is an abdication of responsibility by adults. I blame their cringeing wetness in the face of the growth of children's rights and their pathetic inability to reclaim the streets. I blame the Labour government and their general outlook on life. Gordon Brown is a big girl's blouse and Labour should be kicked out as soon as possible.

Lady Isabella Hervey, socialite

Everyone seems to be very critical these days, especially about people's behaviour. I think there are very high expectations of young people, and so a lot of people are too self-absorbed and quite selfish, more so than in the past.

I think today people are too busy trying to be the best at things rather than just being nice to people. I do consider myself to have good manners. I am polite, I have my priorities right, and I'm there for my friends, but I'm not perfect, especially if I'm in a bad mood or I'm having a bad day.

Everyone seems very rushed and I wouldn't think it unusual for someone to push past me on the street, but I do think it is important to be on time, for work or for meeting people. If there's a reason to be late, such as traffic, then fair enough, but if not it's rude.

I do swear and I don't really notice it. I try not to swear around my mother as she hates it, and I don't have an excuse for it.

Toby Young, writer

I find myself being weirdly more offended by bad manners than by almost anything else. When it emerged that Kimberly Quinn was the mother of David Blunkett's love child and she was besieged by the press I wrote to her saying how sorry I felt for her and that a friend of mine owned a cottage in a very remote part of Scotland if she and her family would like to hide out there. We weren't good friends but I wanted to show my support. She didn't even acknowledge the letter and I had far fewer qualms then about co-authoring a sex farce featuring her.

When I don't remember things myself I feel wracked with guilt and shame, more than over any other misdemeanours. I think that's a peculiarly English thing. We are more prepared to forgive any appalling lapse in behaviour than we are bad manners.

The only place I really become a manners activist is in cinemas. If someone is talking or texting or checking their Blackberry then I will shout at them.

Peter York, style commentator

While etiquette is about form and class-based stuff, manners are something different - they're about lubricant. It's mad to assume you don't need some protocol and manners to lubricate society or everything becomes dysfunctional and abrasive. The perky 1960s politically correct idea that we can do away with them is nonsense.

There are fewer shared assumptions about the way the world works and what words mean now than ever. But I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that sometimes I hear things that grate horribly. There's no legitimacy in it as there are no clear codes, but they grate. All kinds of fake informalism, for example, get me annoyed, such as people calling me "Peter" straight off - it's "Mr York" to you, madam.

The contrast between the media world and their verbal codes, the verbal codes of corporations and the codes of diplomacy and protocol are just full of hilarious contrasts now. There aren't recognised ways of behaving, so in effect there are lots of people around not understanding each other. This has all been brought up by the Kate and Mrs Middleton affair, where the question was, do these things in general matter, and are the rules still the same or are there new or different sets of rules? When Nancy Mitford articulated this rather apologetically in the 1950s she said, "Here's a set of ways" - and she was being deliberately disingenuous - " whereby you can tell one particular tribe from another." She explicitly said that no tribe was any richer or more powerful or better educated or in any sense better than any other tribe, but just that it had these semantic ticks. Fast forward to 2007 and this country is owned by people to whom you couldn't contextualise Nancy Mitford in a million years. But do we know that Mrs Middleton really chewed gum throughout the whole passing-out ceremony? If she did, almost irrespective of who you were, it's not fantastically clever. I think instinct would say to most that you don't, because the symbolism of chewing gum is a sort of adolescent rebellion. It says, "I don't care about you and your rules."

Christine Hamilton, media personality

I'm not singling out young people, although they are possibly the worst offenders, but we all seem to be in such a hurry these days. I'm not against a more casual way of life, and I'm the first person to use email as much as possible, but there are times when you should jolly well settle down and write a proper letter. All the old-fashioned courtesies seem to have gone out of the window. Very few men stand up when you enter a room, which is a charming gesture, and as they don't wear hats, they can't raise them to you anymore. Their defence for not offering you their seat is "women's lib", but I think any real man would remember all the courtesies. I also think quite a lot of women don't do things they should. It costs absolutely nothing to say thank you to someone, or to hold a door open.

Language is absolutely appalling at the moment, and you hear children who don't even know what the words mean using them, but what can you expect when a lot of parents use the words in front of them. I'm certainly not blameless in this regard, and use words I wouldn't have 30 years ago. I can't pinpoint who's to blame. We live in a throwaway society and everyone is pressed for time. We ought to have more leisure now that we have machines to do everything for us, but it hasn't turned out like that.

Paul Bailey, writer

I was brought up by my working-class East End mother to have impeccable manners at every turn - politeness in every sense, only speaking when you were addressed and never putting yourself forward - all things I've disobeyed all my life. I'm 70 now and over the years I have noticed that certain gatherings have changed. I used to be terribly nervous about going to things where you had to dress up. I'm going to Glyndebourne tomorrow and I've been to performances where I've just worn a jacket and a fashionable T-shirt and that seems to be OK. There would have been stares of horror years ago but nobody notices now. It's all such a nonsense because over the years the most popular opera at Glyndebourne has been The Marriage of Figaro. It's about the triumph of the servants over the decadence of the upper classes, so it's funny to see this revolutionary opera attended by all these ridiculous people dressed up to the nines.

Years ago I was about to write a biography of the novelist Henry Green. His real name was Henry Yorke, and he came from a pretty posh family - Eton and Oxford. I was lunching with his widow and the lovely cockney housekeeper had cooked - as Yorke's widow, of course, couldn't cook. We had a steak and kidney pie and boiled carrots and once the nice lady had left, Mrs Yorke turned and said, "I don't know about you, but I find carrots frightfully common." It's such rubbish. Dickens was making fun of it over 100 years ago.

John Humphrys, broadcaster

I think it is regrettable that you can't take a child to the park or anywhere without them being exposed to foul language. There's nothing new in swearing, but it did use to be much less common in public spaces. I'm not sure how you can date these things, but there seems now to be no difference between the public space and the pub on a Saturday night - the awful phrase "it wasn't like that in my day" comes to mind.

It particularly struck me about 15 years ago when I saw a girl walking down the street with a T-shirt on with the word "Fuck" spelled out on it. An old lady walking towards her looked rather appalled by it. I understand the argument that it is just a word but that's not the point if it offends somebody. That old lady has a right not to be offended.

One could argue that in three, four or 10 years the F-word will be more or less ubiquitous. Maybe the C-word will become ubiquitous in not too long a time, and maybe when that happens it will no longer matter. I don't have a problem if I'm watching a so-called adult movie on television at midnight and the character uses foul language in a context where you expect it to be used. I do have a problem with the gratuitous use of it when children are present. Then I'm offended on behalf of my six-year-old son. I don't want him to be exposed to gratuitously bad language.

Saying thank you has almost gone as well, which is unfortunate but not the end of the world. I've never believed that the way you ask someone to pass the salt at dinner is necessarily the way to judge a civilised society. But there is a sense that something has been lost when you look at people today. I know it sounds awfully like the ramblings of a grumpy old man but there has always been a point to common courtesy, and when it disappears it coarsens society.