John Walsh: Tales of the city

'When sex rears its head, says Barbara Cartland, a woman should be a nymph fleeing from a satyr'
Click to follow

How nice to hear that Barbara Cartland's Etiquette Handbook: A Guide to Good Behaviour from the Boudoir to the Boardroom will be reissued next month. It was first published in the 1960s, when Ms Cartland – a vision in shocking-pink tulle, false eyelashes, lime-green eye shadow, five ropes of pearls and enough bijouterie to furnish a stall in Camden Market – was taken seriously as an arbiter of taste and good manners.

Her advice is admirably precise: "If you are asked in [by neighbours] after dinner, you leave at 10.30, unless you are pressed to stay to the end of a televised play." Or, "It is wrong to say, 'Cheers!'" Or, "When opening the door to female guests, the husband should say, 'Would you like to go upstairs? You will find my wife's bedroom if you turn left on the top landing.'"

I'm puzzled by the third one. Why is the female guest being shooed upstairs? Does she need the wife's bedroom because she looks a fright? Will the guest find the wife upstairs in the bedroom because a) she is a recluse, b) she is having a nervous breakdown or c) she has the gin in there, under lock and key?

Ms Cartland was an old-fashioned dame, whose book recommends newly married gels to cook breakfast for their husbands every day unless they're ill. Bowing to the spirit of the age, however, she gets frisky about correct behaviour in the bedroom. When sex rears its head, she says, "there should be no reserves, no barriers, no restrictions... a woman should always appear to be a nymph fleeing from a satyr."

Those of you shocked by the advice of Tracey Cox, "sex doctor" in The Independent's new Guide to Love & Sex will relish such counsel. Like a nymph fleeing a satyr, eh? One strives to imagine a coquettish Ms Cartland, her diaphanous robe flowing around her, striving to escape a lust-crazed, goat-legged gentleman admirer as he pursues her priapically around the four-poster. But we shouldn't sneer. Standards of human interaction have slipped so much since her heyday, we could do with more of Barbara's bracing advice. What would she consider right and proper, if she were around today?

On romance. After meeting a wealthy sportsman, it is poor form to sell the story of your sexual encounter in the Harrogate Travelodge to the Sunday Sport after only one night. Three or four nights is the norm.

On marriage. After maintaining a steady, loving, mutually supportive courtship for a year, it is correct form to decamp to Las Vegas and marry someone else in the Chapel of Abandoned Hope, without telling anyone.

On dinner. For a simple but nourishing supper with friends, instruct your cook to ring the Gourmet Burger Kitchen and ask that it prepare eight chilli burgers, which Gordon will pick up in the Saab in 20 minutes.

On neighbours. If your neighbour owns a dog or cat which seems likely to stray into your garden, defuse any awkwardness by poisoning the animal, then nail up a sign saying, "Danger! Rat Poison! Don't Say I Didn't Warn You!"

On communication. After a memorable night at a friend's house, it is polite to express thanks. This need not be elaborate. A simple text message saying, "Ta 4 lam shanx, wuz brill, Id luv 2 shg RogR, lol Barbs x" should suffice.

On dress. If attending a film premiere, you must respect a strict dress code. You must wear a violently patterned polyester top with a tweed skirt and yellow plimsolls, in order to feature in the coveted "What Were You Thinking?" slot in Heat magazine.

On accidents. If you pass by the scene of an accident, prompt action is urgently needed. Rush to the accident site, ascertain if the victims are alive or dead, capture the scene on your mobile telephone and post it on the internet.

On society. In a social milieu such as a public house, tempers may be inflamed by drink. If so, it is correct to confront a stranger who looks at you in a funny or disrespectful way, take him into a thoroughfare and stab him to death.


"The relationship between Dennis and Walter was always one that worried me," says Euan Kerr, former editor of The Beano. "We decided to make sure Walter was completely happy about who he was, and a confident, likeable character." It's touching, the concern Kerr shows for the bow-tied "softy" Walter in the Dennis the Menace comic strip. Readers may recall how the violently anti-social Dennis would prepare a disgusting cocktail, usually featuring mud, custard, pig slurry and human intestines, to launch at Walter's innocently trusting face. It turns out that in the late 1980s, the cartoon's devisers had to tone down the level of abuse because it was thought it might encourage gay-bashing. They even went so far as to give Walter a girlfriend, to show he was Completely Normal.

Despite the regular incidence of bottom-smacking and slipper-wielding, I don't think it crossed my mind that sexual politics were ever at play in Dennis the Menace. True, Walter did mince around the neighbourhood, picking flowers and holding tea parties for his teddy bears, but we thought he was just a sissy. But how piquant it is to wonder if Dennis's strenuous disgust was a desperate strategy for denying his feelings....