The Scottish school for scoundrels

In the age of the Asbo, men are flocking to a new finishing school in Scotland for lessons in old-fashioned etiquette, as Johnny Davis discovers
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The Independent Online

Any attempt to wash down the unwieldy dish also presents problems. Forget reaching for the water jug. That also has to be attained in the correct manner. This is, apparently, turning to your neighbour and enquiring, "Can I help you to some water?" At which juncture, they are supposed to take their cue, and reply, "No, but may I offer you some water instead?"

Then, Mather spots a problem with a bread roll. "Now, Jamie," she says, in a tone Barbara Woodhouse used to reserve for very recalcitrant puppies. "You must not butter it in the air. You must keep it on your plate." Jamie does as he's told. He's not the only one.

It's day two of The Finishing Academy's Three-Day Programme for Gentlemen. Taking Simone de Beauvoir's premise that a woman is not born but made and applying it to the male of the species, Mather and her colleague Penny Edge run the world's only finishing school for men. Yesterday, in the cobblestoned grounds of this 15th-century castle in rolling, rural Aberdeenshire, it was lessons in deportment, etiquette, public speaking and golf. Today, we'll be taught nutrition, wine appreciation, ballroom dancing, more public speaking and the art of carving. And tomorrow: fly fishing, Indian head massage, body language and a final dose of public speaking.

"Gentlemen," says Mather, getting to her feet. "Can I just talk about cutting cheeses?"

In these chavtastic times of Asbos, binge-drinking and happy-slapping, Mather and Edge are on a mission to prove that manners still maketh man. They've found no shortage of supporters. Their waiting list stretches into autumn. The varied individuals taking part this May weekend include former pharmaceutical worker Stuart Trigger, 49, from Cheshire; Anees Ahmed, 35, an Indian lawyer working in The Hague; and the aforementioned air butterer Jamie Forbes, 19, about to start his degree at St Andrews.

Edge, who is all mohair and hair, has a background in recruitment. Mather, whose sartorial style pitches somewhere between those of Dame Judi Dench and a Timelord, has previously sung in a pop band, danced on the QE2, acted in Coronation Street and read the news for BBC North West. "Good manners are ageless, priceless and classless," she says later. "British etiquette is seen as the gold standard around the world. If you are well-mannered in the British sense, it will take you to every court and every embassy."

Maher and Edge got together to launch The Finishing Academy last July, initially for 15- to 19-year-old girls in and around Cheshire. Their idea was to update the traditional finishing school (the course tackled not just skin care and flower arranging, but car maintenance and DIY), institutions that have long since bolted their doors in England, but live on in the genteel surroundings of Lake Geneva and in the biographies of our Royals (Camilla attended Mon Fertile; Princess Diana, Institut Alpin Videmanette). "All the English schools have closed down," explains Mather. "Their format wasn't even 20th century; it was 19th. And, from the 1970s on, the focus [for young British women] has been on achieving academically. The soft skills have been rather pushed to the background."

Staggered by their ability to pull in eager females from all over Europe - not to say America, India and China - in October they gambled on adapting the course for men, relocating it to the "more manly" locale of Scotland, somewhere with plenty of space for fly-fishing, clay pigeon-shooting and so on. They haven't looked back. Men, it seems, can't get enough.

Meanwhile, the media has been tickled by the novelty of "Hogwarts for hooligans" - the TV production house behind The Vicar of Dibley and Teachers having just beaten off 39 others to win the tender for a fly-on-the-wall series. Next, the Academy is going on tour. Throughout 2006, they will be teaching chaps the correct way to eat their puddings - never dessert - as far afield as India, Russia and Japan.

"I thought it was a joke," admits Anees Ahmed, among the threadbare rugs and gilt framed mirrors of Lickleyhead's drawing room. "But I am really happy to be here. Men are in bad shape when it comes to manners. We need this brushing up." He leans in conspiratorially. "At the office, I have not told anybody. I told them I was going to a conference on the democratic rights of the Congo. They were very impressed."

Mark Shaheen, 49, a developer for construction firm Caterpillar in Minnesota, experienced similar peer fear. "My colleagues thought it was a sissy thing to do," he says. "One guy in particular was laughing at me, but then he said 'Actually, there's something I want you to find out. My wife always corrects me when I sit down and cross my legs. Find out the correct way.' Men might say 'I'm a man, you can't tell a man what to do', but it's about knowing the correct manners. You can't go in grunting everywhere."

Hoping to encourage us to swap grunting for gliding are Alan and Jessie, the husband-and-wife team charged with teaching ballroom dancing. One afternoon, we all pile down to the village hall where Alan - resplendent in patent shoes, cowboy moustache and horsehead bola tie - explains the waltz. "The man has got to make the lady think he wants to make love to her," he says. "It's no good having her think he'd rather be watching the World Cup."

Today, it appears the lady would rather be doing anything other than dancing with the man - the usual volunteers, ladies from the village, fail to show up - but Mather and Edge, plus their helpers, gamely fill in. Other attendees partner up with each other. As we all career round the room with various degrees of despair and flat-footedness, Dick Black & His Scottish Dance Band foxtrot out of Jessie's ghettoblaster. (omega)

Does the modern man really need to know how to ballroom dance? Isn't it all a bit Graham Norton? "It's essential for the modern man," froths Jessie. "Ladies love a gentleman who can dance. It's bad manners for a woman to refuse. Imagine if you danced with your boss's wife? Say you're due a raise, she would put in a word for you." Going on this afternoon's performance, though, one wonders quite what word that would be.

On the face of it, today's man might appear to be more Noel Gallagher than Noël Coward; but The Finishing Academy's success hasn't happened in a vacuum. Look around, and there's plenty of evidence blokes have started to pull their socks up. Etiquette books, including Essential Manners For Men by Peter Post, Lynne Truss's Talk To The Hand and Neil Strauss's dating guide The Game have scaled the bestseller lists. Last year, British men spent £7.8bn on clothes, up 54 per cent in a decade. The male grooming industry has gone from just wet-look gel to a billion-dollar business built on quintuple-bladed razors, "holiday skin" moisturisers and teeth-whitening kits. Bespoke tailoring is also on the up. The latest collections at Dior Homme and Emanuel Ungaro would have given Beau Brummell cause to rip his britches with jealousy, while comic Russell Brand's buccaneer look has made him the pin-up of the hour. Last week, the UK's sportswear market announced its sales had declined by 10 per cent, thanks to "younger men smartening up".

No wonder, when hip-hop icons such as OutKast's André 3000, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z are leading the charge from the 'hood to the haberdashery. "We are living in the golden age of disrespect," Fonzworth Bentley, the dandy, umbrella-toting associate of Combs told this magazine in 2004. "Where is the 'yes, sir' and the 'yes, ma'am'? When did we lose that?" Double Xxposure, a New York agency, even promotes a course teaching rap artists how to order in restaurants and "express themselves without swearing".

"It all comes down to status play," says Reinier Evers, who runs the Trendwatching.com global trend agency. "Now that so many 'luxury' goods are available to the masses, we're seeing an increased interest in non-monetary status symbols: etiquette, skills, manners. It's another way to set yourself apart."

Failing that, you could always just order a nice bottle of wine. "There's a lot of nonsense talked about wine tasting on TV," says David Fyffe, who imports thousands of bottles a year from the Rhône to Scotland. "Anybody can taste wine. It's not a mystery." It's evening, the dress is black tie and Fyffe is leading us through a crash course in grape and vineyard. We learn that 10am is the best time to sample wine, on account of the liveliness of the palate. We all think we can detect blackcurrant, but not acacia. We get to finish the bottles.

Next, Mark the chef shows us how to sharpen knives and carve a joint of roe deer. "If you carve well, you can make even the tiniest joint last 16 people," advises Mather. Then we get to eat it up, something that takes far longer than it feasibly should, on account of being forbidden from "scooping" our peas with our forks. "I can think of no greater turn-off for a woman than a man shovelling food into his mouth," chides Edge. Come off it, where's the dessert? Sorry, pudding.

The next day gets underway with May the masseuse having us strip to the waist and rub oil into each other's neck, arms and heads. "This contains sandalwood," she explains, of one of her potions. "The Egyptians used it for years to preserve mummies." Then it's out into the 30-acre grounds to meet David White, a quintessentially twinkly-eyed fisherman. He gives us the lowdown on salmon and trout, and the different types of fly - "this one simulates a daddy longlegs; use that and they go bananas" - and holds a competition to see who's best at casting off. IT man Honza Cep, from Prague, is the winner. "You're style is appalling," chortles David. "But you've got the hang of it."

It's unlikely anyone will graduate from The Finishing Academy walking like Chris Eubank and talking like Peter York. But, then, Mather and Edge would hardly expect them to. At times, the weekend resembled a toff's stag do; the emphasis being on one fun activity after the other, rather than any life-changing upgrade. What's more, the finicky might criticise the disparity between the course's posh packaging and its occasionally mid-range contents. Ballroom instructor Alan is an amateur who drives a Tesco van for a living, the spaghetti we painstakingly twirled was Sainsbury's own brand, and despite being drilled on posture and the correct handshake, none of the Academy's lessons seemed to start on time (plus, you can't help but think the only people for whom the information that you tip your butler £20 and your gillie a fiver is news are those who'll never use either, or anglophile foreigners).

Mather's not about to disagree. "The people on this course are already well mannered," she says. "What we're actually selling is confidence. Men are now going through the same awful process as women. There are choices where there didn't used to be. Your father would put on a tie and a jacket and be comfortable anywhere. Today they're thinking, 'What do I wear?' It's harder."

The final round of public speaking practice draws to a close with applause from and for all concerned. Business cards are swapped, promises to visit other countries made. Everyone, you sense, has "grown".

"To me, it was light-hearted but you could get something out of it," says Stuart Trigger. "And if it takes a lesson in balancing a book on my head to build my confidence up, then so be it."

Mather, meanwhile, remains gobsmacked - in the most ladylike way - at her success. "We never expected to go global," she says. "We thought we'd just be doing two courses a year in Cheshire for local girls."

Never underestimate the value of manners.

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