Charles Nevin: A nation in the grip of incivility? Far from it


Our politicians, I notice, appear to be in competition to do something about our manners. Some might be tempted to suggest that their pronouncements and efforts are, as usual, unlikely to amount to as much as the pile of beans in Hugh Grant's plastic tub, but that would be incivil.

For my part, and, of course, by your leave, I must once again come to the aid of this beleaguered island's community and insist that, actually, we're not doing that badly, civilly speaking.

Yes, I know all about the headline incidents, hoodies, the feral word and the various rages, ranging from road to windchimes (it's true, very nasty case in Petersfield), but if you consult yourself anecdotally, you must surely conclude that daily dealings are more civil, generally, than they used to be 25 years or so ago.

Which was before "Have a nice day" and "Everything all right for you?" became common currency in service exchanges, before those charming little signs, "How's my driving?", started to appear on the backs of lorries, and roadworks acquired signs apologising for any delay.

You might argue that all of this tends to lack both spontaneity and sincerity; and that any response other than "yes" or "thank you" provokes either incomprehension or mild panic in the inquirer: but that's not the point. Manners have always been more about gesture than content. These are new manners, trained, as were the old.

Random acts of help and kindness by strangers continue. We continue to rub along with one another by and large, despite the much trailed pressures of increased population and immigration.

Not long ago, I spent some time in Bolton comparing life there today with that just before the 1939-45 war, when it was being minutely examined by the pioneer sociologists of the Mass Observation movement, and I detected no great shift in courtesy: grumblers would be amazed at the amount of smiling, ushering and deferring.

You might say that this is just the fabled warmth of Lancashire. But I have encountered surprising graciousness in many places, not all of them recently. Having dictated a report on the 1981 riots in London, for instance, and making my way past the three large, laden looters who had been listening outside the telephone box, I was a touch nervous to be called back, until the largest one said, "You've left your pen behind."

But I do not prescribe complacency. You can never have too many manners, except at a revolving door. And, watching some of the marvellous early films commissioned by the French financier Albert Kahn on BBC4 recently, I was struck by the charm and grace of the bow, still prevalent among all in early 20th-century China, but now declined everywhere amid the thrust and pace.

What mutual respect an exchange of bows conveys, without any clammy handshaking, nose-threatening kissy-kissing or Tory hugging! Surely, too, the bow is acceptable to all cultures and sexes. Imagine the splendid, pleasing effect at workplace, in supermarket queue, or on traffic warden.

It can also be tailored to fit any social situation: from the shoulders, for example, would be preferable to the full Sir Walter of spiralling right hand in front and left hand thrust behind as you bend to the waist in salute of all upon, say, entering the Tube carriage at 8.30am. So, please, let's give it a go, starting today. No, after you.

Our bikes are beyond protection

Although the statistics that flurry past daily can prompt figures fatigue, or even numerate numbness, one gives pause: a bicycle is stolen every 71 seconds in Britain. Controlling the impulse to rush to the window to watch, and to make a feeble joke about worried spokesmen, I feel our pushed forces of law are wobbling on this one.

Such a scale surely argues a Mr Big figure? Someone with a grudge, still smarting from a run-in with a pavement pedaller. The AA? A recycler? Are we about to be attacked by bicycle-riding fifth columnists?

* Meanwhile, I am reminded that, several years ago, I returned to some iron railings to find nothing but an intact D-lock. Can anyone explain this, as it has helped make me the weighty figure I am today?

Dignified applause, please, for Mr Greg Billingham, of Cheshire, who, I hope, has finished running the London Marathon in slow motion for the Children with Leukaemia charity, choosing his method to reflect the slowing, debilitating effect of illness.

A splendid effort; even so, Greg is selling his message short. I like to see him also as a noble stand against all the haste and rush and fuss in the world, against the imposition of spurious, or selfish, limitations on time because we have forgotten that the search for perfection and the anticipation and deferment of pleasure are essentials of civilisation.

Greg is for slow food, sipping, staring, sitting, thinking, and just sitting. I like to see him, too, as nobly representing all those determinedly out-of-step rebels who go through life not really seeing the point of games, and this race-to-the-swift business, dodging or mocking them at every opportunity, regardless of the consequences. Just think, if only there were more of them, there'd be no Olympics.

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