Katy Guest: Canoodling in a coracle, and other social gaffes

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The Independent Online

Remember a time when things were simpler? When rules were rules, mummy knew best, and everyone knew why you had to eat fish on a Friday? Don't you pity a generation that has grown up without these boundaries? Publishers clearly do. And, just for once, a pre-Christmas rush of humorous books on a tried and tested retro theme looks like being a helpful thing.

The latest on the market is Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe, by Tanith Carey, which will be published by Boxtree this week. Following the massive-selling little books, Don'ts for Husbands and Don'ts for Wives, which offered such pearls as "Don't 'manage' your husband too visibly" and "Don't despise the potato" – a philosophical one, that one – the book reproduces the wisdom of agony aunts from the 1800s to the (apparently) more liberated 1960s. And do you know, ladies, they have a point.

The problem referred to in the title is a classic one. A young lady writes to the Girl's Own Paper in 1895, nervously wondering whether she should accept an aquatic adventure with a like-minded male friend.

"It surprises us," replies the agony aunt, "to find that a girl sufficiently educated to write and spell well should be so deplorably ignorant of the common rules of society to think that she may go out alone with a young man in his canoe." The advice is still wise, of course, for in this day and age the youth is bound to have been binge drinking. Could there be any other explanation for picking up a woman with chat of his enormous coracle and taking her out to play near deep water?

Other advice warns of men who "talk and behave so rationally that their real condition is not discovered until some terrible deed has been accomplished by them". Indeed, my dear: it is the rational ones that you have to worry about. Related to this is the 1927 rule: "Don't buy a boy an expensive present until you are really engaged." Don't buy him one even then, girls; what he really wants is a bacon sandwich, but don't make him one until you've figured out just how many other naive young women are feeding him pork products in a dorm room just down the road.

Yet wiser counsel regards men who will press their suit upon one in an autobus. To be honest, don't allow anyone to press anything on you on an autobus; canoodling on public transport is actually extremely bad manners.

Equally up-to-date is the 1893 edition of Journal des Modes, which informs the young reader that "to visit museums is as good an anti-fat exercise as to climb the Alps". Quite right, and climbing mountains for no good reason is plain silly. Just ask Ben Fogle and his fogeyish, frozen-bearded chums.

So au courant are these ancient guides that one begins to wonder if they have been secretly concocted for the modern market after all. Certainly Debrett's Etiquette for Girls got it right upon being updated and republished last year, when it said: "Ensure that you never do legs, cleavage, big hair, make-up and heels all at once." Was that aimed at Amy Winehouse in particular?

One can have too much of a good thing, though (as a 19th-century agony aunt probably wrote). If one last edition could be written, entitled Don'ts for Publishers and distributed for free around Soho and Bloomsbury, it would have to read: Don't keep publishing Don'ts until you hit the bottom of the barrel, dear. No man desires a publisher who's flogging a dead horse.

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