Howard Jacobson: In these chaotic times, we all secretly hanker after Cranford's social certainties

Rules and regulations we mistakenly think of as stuffy oiled the wheels of interaction

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You want to know why we've all been glued to Cranford? I'll tell you why we've all been glued to Cranford. But first consider this: a Christmas party invitation is slid under our door. No stamp; delivered by hand. What that usually means when you live in an apartment block is that a neighbour is throwing a bash and means to circumvent your anger at being kept awake all night. You can't really call the police, can you, to shut down a noisy party to which you've been invited, let alone one to which you are contributing noise. That's if you turn up. That's if they really want you to turn up.

This is a nice distinction. Are they asking you to their party so you can't complain because you're there, or are they asking you to their party so that you'll have the decency not to be there and still not complain? There is, of course, a third, less cynical explanation that they are telling everyone about the party in a spirit of neighbourly good cheer and would like you to come along for no other reason than that they'd like you to come along. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that they can't want every one in the building to come along, a) because there are too many of us and b) because we can't all be the sort of people you would want at your party. We are wild, some of us. There is no knowing what we might do.

I, for example, have been known to throw wine at people at parties. That was a long time ago and mainly in Australia, but you could argue that a wine thrower is a wine thrower and you can never be sure when he's going to re-offend. I'd think twice about inviting me myself if I knew about me what I know about me.

So what we have to decide is whether the couple giving the party mean all of us to do the tactful thing, which is a) not come to the party, while b) not calling the police should it still be going at five in the morning. Or whether they mean only for some of us to do the tactful thing, and others to accept the invitation for what it is, and turn up. Which raises the further question: which some of us?

We aren't exactly intimates of the party-givers. But we know them to say hello to in the lift and we like them well enough, which is not a guarantee that they like us well enough. They are, at a niggardly estimate, younger by a decade or so than we are. And the young are not always tolerant of the old at parties. But then we aren't that old. And both of us can still shake a leg. Or at least a leg between us. So out of a sort of defiance of the imputation that we're past it, we write and accept the invitation.

When I say write, I mean email, though neither of us is comfortable with this form of accepting an invitation. The truth of it is that we email as a compromise, because one of us thinks it is OK to RSVP an invitation that is slid under your door by sliding the RSVP under their door, and the other thinks an RSVP should always be stamped and posted.

A couple of days before the party we run into the husband, looking younger than ever, in the lift. Just outside the lift, actually a detail that's important because he's going down and we're going up and the conversation is therefore truncated. "So glad to hear you'll be popping in briefly," he says, before the lift doors close and he is whisked away.

We look at each other. Popping in briefly. Briefly!

So how are we to read this? As an injunction against staying? As an injunction against going at all? As a mere slip of the tongue?

The latter gets short shrift from us. My wife's a psychotherapist, I'm a novelist we don't do slips of the tongue without examining the tongue's motives. Why slip on the word briefly unless in his heart unless in both their hearts brief is what they want our appearance to be? And what's a brief appearance but a subconscious wish for no appearance at all? We are too old for them, they don't like us on that and God knows how many other accounts, and they are praying we won't come and lower the spirits of their Christmas party. I am so angry I vow that we will stay till dawn when I'll start throwing wine around.

But after a period of quiet reflection I come up with another and more flattering interpretation. The word briefly did indeed denote a subconscious anxiety, but what the husband was anxious about was not us but them. Unable to believe that people as reverend as we are could possibly want to come to their party at all, let alone choose to stay a long time, he was in effect apologising for having dared to ask us. Indeed, he wanted to make it clear that even the briefest appearance would be appreciated and understood. We had, presumably, a thousand more important parties to go to than theirs, and could not be expected to do more than pop in, sprinkle stardust, and leave.

"Doubt it," my wife says.

"Doubt we'll sprinkle stardust?"

"Doubt they care much what we do. A thousand martini glasses were delivered to their apartment this morning. Together with two van loads of sound equipment, lighting, a stage, and four bars. There are paparazzi gathering in the street already." So we went, danced and drank for hours, and left when we could no longer stand. "Going so soon?" the husband enquired as he caught us at the door.

"How do you read that?" I said when we were back in our flat. "Sarcasm, an embarrassed allusion to his earlier 'briefly', or was he genuinely sorry to see us go?"

"Go to sleep," my wife said.

That's why we've all been glued to Cranford. We long for social certainties, what Mrs Gaskell called Cranford's "rules and regulations for visiting and calls". Rules and regulations which we mistakenly think of as denoting a stuffy society, but which in fact oiled the wheels of interaction, formalising what would otherwise have been chaotic, anticipating misunderstanding, obviating embarrassment, at every level sparing people's feelings. We think we love our own social anarchy where anything goes, and never mind who gets hurt, but we don't. So we stay at home where it's safe, turn on the telly, and imagine a time when we were codified into consideration and kindness.

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