Brian Viner: Don't despair: polite people do still exist

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Trying to find uplifting words in the national press can be like fishing for marlin in Lake Windermere, so I am indebted, as Cyril Fletcher used to say on That's Life! to John Grist, whose letter in these pages yesterday put a spring in my step and a song in my heart.

Mr Grist and his wife are in their mid-eighties and live in south-west London. They find that the popular depiction of modern Britain as a land of boors, bullies and bad manners does not tally even remotely with their experience of travelling round London on public transport, often with shopping bags. "We meet nothing but good manners," Mr Grist concluded, "and they are British."

If he will pardon the pun, these sentiments are grist to the mill for those of us who maintain that in 21st-century Britain all is far from lost, courtesy-wise. We are still a friendly lot, too, on the whole. My wife passed three strangers while walking the dogs on the downs yesterday morning, and all three ventured a cheery hello and a platitude about the weather. Britain won't go to the dogs while people are exercising their dogs (often with pooper-scoopers, which were unknown 20 years ago).

Meanwhile, pleases and thank-yous abound, doors are usually held open, and harassed mums wrestling push-chairs up flights of steps are generally given a helping hand. Whenever I am luckless enough to find myself on the London Underground at rush hour, I quite often vie with the man sitting opposite me to offer an elderly person my seat. The impulse is largely selfish, slaking the desire to make me feel good about myself, and partly born of the fanciful notion that a youth might see me and be inspired to do the same one day for a woman in her eighties who will happen to be my mother. But good manners don't really need analysis. They just are.

It was my mother who taught me mine, and I have tried to pass them on. In our middle child, 13-year-old Joe, my wife and I have raised a boy who is possibly over-polite. It was his birthday last week. "Happy birthday," I said, when he came into our bedroom that morning. "Happy birthday," he replied. A few days later he complained that his manners had landed him in trouble at school. During a lesson a classmate returned the ruler he had lent her. "Thank you very much," he whispered, and was promptly reprimanded for talking in class.

It is often said, and more often barked, that good manners cost nothing. This is true, yet they have a precious value. They are a civilising influence, in an age when it is easier than ever to lack civility. The mobile phone, of all the accoutrements of modern life, encourages an inconsiderate attitude towards other people. Perhaps those who sit on trains suffering from the delusion that all their fellow passengers might care to overhear what Siobhan from accounts said when Simon from the sales force asked her out (and that's one of the more interesting exchanges I've been subjected to lately) would, in a mobile-free world, find other outlets for their thoughtlessness. But let's be kind, and give them the benefit of the doubt. I think most people are innately polite.

Scheduled for next Monday evening on ITV, though, is an edition of the Tonight programme subtitled Bad Manners Britain. "Have we become a nation of louts?" it asks, a question pretty much answered by the title. Still, Mr and Mrs Grist think there's hope, and that's good enough for me.

Bernard never had a chance

What's in a name? Everything, yet nothing. My wife, who has negligible interest in boxing, asked me on Saturday why I was willing to wake up in the dead of night to watch live coverage of Joe Calzaghe's fight in Las Vegas. "Who's he fighting?" she said. "A guy called Bernard Hopkins," I said. She shrieked with irreverent laughter. "You're kidding? Bernard Hopkins? That sounds like someone my mum and dad play bowls with in Barnsley." I had to admit she had a point. There's no reason why it should, yet it's amazing how often the sporting greats are blessed with exactly the right names: Pele, Diego Maradona, George Best, Zinedine Zidane, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Emil Zatopek, Tiger Woods. We'll overlook Wayne Rooney.

* Two days ago, a Republican voter in Pennsylvania was asked what he disliked about Barack Obama. "He's just like Jimmy Carter," came the half-sneered reply. "Full of good intentions." Those enduring good intentions have just carried the 83-year-old Carter to Jerusalem, where, at an age at which most ex-presidents find fulfilment in completing a round of golf, he is trying to broker negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Yet to most Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans, his one-term presidency, launched with a barrage of good intentions, is still a byword for muddle-headedness. They issue grave warnings that Obama might turn out like Carter, a fellow with a Nobel Peace Prize in his locker, and an altogether strange kind of bogeyman.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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