British manners died somewhere around 1978, didn't they? They developed a persistent cough when the last man with a pocket handkerchief and well-shined shoes stepped aside to allow what he called a lady to pass through a doorway – and was told what a patronising old chauvinist he was. They were sent for a chest X-ray when schoolboys stopped raising their caps. They took to their bed when pedestrians ceased to acknowledge drivers who braked to let them cross the road. And they were delivered into the hands of the funeral directors when wishing colleagues "Good morning" became regarded not as standard practice but as an eccentricity.
That, at any rate, is the popular theory, and you would think that, as a regular commuter on the London Underground, I would agree. After all, on most journeys I have to endure the intrusive racket of an impersonal stereo, or watch as one of the capital's many excessively overweight travellers sits splay-thighed across more than one seat. But in recent times I have learnt that, beneath these mean city streets, manners, consideration and a smile eek out an existence on these jerky troglodyte trains.
It first happened last year. I had turned 60, and, although my appearance had never encouraged vanity, I was still somewhat taken aback that, as I stood on a Circle Line train, a young woman should rise and offer me her seat. Since then, it has happened with increasing frequency – a tribute, probably, both to the obviously debilitating effects of a lifetime of journalism yet also to the politeness of our young women. Curiously, no male has yet taken pity on this grey-haired grandfather swaying between Gloucester Road and South Kensington. Nor, for that matter, has any child looked at me and, fearing that I may not survive the rigours of the journey while upright, offered me its seat.
And what has been my response to these kindnesses of women? Well, once, I confess, I accepted the offer, mainly because I had much writing to do, and could at least cram a few paragraphs in while seated. But generally I decline, normally with a cheery: "Thank you. It's very kind. But I only look old." They smile. I smile. And my wife finds it all hilarious.