The mark of a gentleman may well be concealed

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
Click to follow
What is a gentleman? There are many ways to tell a gent - his accent, his bearing, the way he shakes one by the hand - but the surest way of all is to take a long, hard look at his underpants.

This is the handy rule-of-thumb I propose in my contribution to a new tome edited by my old friend and quaffing partner Dr Digby Anderson, aptly titled Gentility Recalled. Others of my learned colleagues argue that, for instance, an English Gentleman is someone who never steals a lollipop from a small child, or pursues financial reward by menacing elderly ladies with sharp knives, a corkscrew, a sawn-off shotgun and a baseball bat. Indeed, in his most cogent essay, Dr Anderson himself suggests that a true gentleman is someone who will only ever produce a sawn-off shotgun from beneath his tailcoat either when a queue is very long and he simply does not have the time to wait, or when he finds himself in a branch of one of the four main high street banks and he is particularly hard-pressed for cash as his inheritance has yet to come through. In no other circumstances, argues Anderson, is a sawn-off shotgun permissible, other than for the forcible detention of state-educated schoolchildren who have scored less than five out of 10 in an on-the-spot clean-fingernail inspection.

Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what a gentleman may or may not do. In the very same tome, Sir Terry Worsthorne argues that one can tell a gentleman by the way he posts a letter. "Only those with frankly 'common' instincts place a letter in an envelope, address it, stick a stamp on it, and then post it through a letter-box," he writes. "The true gentleman will always perform the operation in reverse, posting a clean envelope through a letter-box before locating a stamp, looking up the correct address and finally writing the letter. For this reason, letters from true gentlemen can take up to 18 months to receive, but are, of course, all the more welcome for that."

Elsewhere, that consummate English gentleman Lord Wyatt of Weevil offers a compelling analysis of the issues involved. He prides himself, he says, on being able to speak on equal terms with a Duke or a dustman, "or I certainly would, had I ever encountered a dustman", he adds. Alas, though, he feels duty-bound to exclude all dustmen and garbage operatives, however well-behaved, from his definition of a gentleman as "they are prone to dirty hands, and, after a busy day on the streets, their dress-suits can become rumpled or even soiled".

In a perceptive essay, Lord St John of Fawsley declares that a gentleman can be judged by the way he treats the fairer sex. "No gentleman would ever unbutton his trousers at a dinner party, take out his penis and waggle it about in the salad if ladies were present," he intones, "without first removing his white gloves." One can only agree with him.

And so to my observations re underpants. The gentleman always wears his underpants back-to-front in order to stop his penis, if any, from slipping out while he is addressing a formal gathering or in the company of close friends. Geoffrey, the doorman at the Garrick Club, remains rigid in his determination to stamp out any front-forward underpant-wearing on or about the premises. Ever-vigilant, he is not afraid to stop and search members and their guests in the hallway before they gain access to the further reaches of the club. "Excuse me, sir," he said to Sir Robin Day, casting an eagle eye over the bottom half of that larger-than-life personality as he attempted to enter the club last Wednesday, "but I have reason to believe your underpants are being worn in a vulgar manner. I would ask you to accompany me to the changing rooms for a full body-search."

Sure enough, Sir Robin was found to be wearing his underpants front-forward. Frog-marched straight to an emergency meeting of the Standing Committee (Undergarment Enforcement), the poor fellow broke down and blubbed, begging for mercy. But it did him no good. The underpants in question have now been posted to the main notice board and a group 10-deep can generally be found staring at them in horror. A gentleman is to be trusted, and it is to the sorrow of everyone when he proves himself unworthy of that trust.