“Elbows off the table!” my father would bark. “I said elbows off the table! Don’t speak with your mouth full.” And so it would go on. God Almighty, we thought, could he never let up? God Almighty, it was like eating with Hitler.
Except it wasn’t like eating with Hitler, apparently. Hitler, it seems, could have done with a few lessons from my father. Hitler ate “rapidly, mechanically”, according to some notes made by a captured high-ranking Nazi which have resurfaced in a house clearance this week. “At the table and in his speech” he showed “many unpleasant facets of rather uncouth behaviour”, chewing his fingernails, scratching his nose and frequently breaking wind. His severe flatulence was fuelled by a vegetarian diet and a penchant for cakes. This, clearly, was a man who liked a nut cutlet, a man who liked his master race blond, but his food brown.
Unrefined table manners may, it’s true, not have been Hitler’s biggest misdemeanour, but, several decades on from my father’s fierce lessons, they’re beginning to seem quite bad enough. Actually, a table would make a pleasant change. Now that everyone slurps their soup over their keyboards, and dribbles their dips over their neighbours on the Tube, and fills every confined space with the smells, tastes and litter of a fast-food emporium, a table seems like an unimagined luxury, a relic from a time when nuclear families sat down to eat together and Mad Men-type mothers, with frilly aprons and pointy breasts, actually cooked.
Other people’s snacks, and spilt cappuccinos, are now such a standard feature of public transport in this country that no one thinks to mention it. Transport for London clearly has bigger fish to fry. When it’s not instructing you (in tones of which Hitler would certainly have approved) not to leave any luggage unattended at any time, and not to block the doorway, even though you can’t actually move or breathe, and to move right down into the carriage, so that you arrive at the office feeling lectured and hectored and you finally leave the office for more of the same, they’re flashing you warnings. Big signs everywhere tell you “not to take it out on our staff”. They don’t say what “it” is. A headache? A bad marriage? An overspent Oyster card? Whatever, their gossamer-skinned staff, those precious petals disguised as burly men in uniforms, can’t hack it. One raised voice and they’ll be rushing to their mummies.
There are other signs, of course. Among the posters telling you to have a breast enhancement (“the best decision I ever made”, according to a woman with a big, new cleavage and a tragic life) or to chuck out the common sense and buy a new Ikea kitchen, there are little signs suggesting that you might like to turn down your iPod, or even offer an old, or disabled, or pregnant, person a seat. No chance, obviously. A London Lite, large fries and Lady GaGa are quite enough to juggle, thanks. Not much scope for seat-relinquishing acrobatics.
When did we all become so rude? When did we all decide that the left-hand side of escalators were made for tripping up commuters and chatting to our mates, that floors in public spaces were made for spit and gum and urine? When did we decide that the musicscape of our heads was, like Cadbury’s chocolate (but only in the adverts), made for sharing? When, for that matter, did we decide that, if we were stuck in a lift, or eating chocolate, or glimpsing a “celeb”, that this was news that warranted instant annunciation? When did we decide that the world would be littered not just with our cardboard buckets from Starbucks, but with the twittered banalities of our brain?
I don’t know. I only know that if manners were once a way of reinforcing the demarcations between the classes, and patronising those perceived to be below you in the social order, and preserving a complicated social edifice that turned out to be made of cards, and enforcing petty distinctions, and cleaving blindly to ludicrous conventions, they’re also now beginning to have that sepia tint, that vintage glint, of something precious. In these times, an unexpected act of kindness – a proffered seat, an extra politeness, an effort beyond the norm – can seem like a gift.
Good manners oil the wheels of a society. They keep it ticking along. At their purest, they’re about treating other people with consideration – treating other people, in fact, as though they’re real. Which, for some reason, in spite of all the noise, and litter, and twitter, we seem increasingly to forget. Good manners, to quote a book that’s barely taught now (a book, incidentally, that shaped our literature and our legal system and our art), are about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In the weeks and months and years to come, we’re going to need more kindness. And, whatever those signs at Warrington station say, we’re going to need more kisses, too.