What was Vladimir Putin thinking? There he was at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in Beijing, a gathering of stratospheric importance for future relations between China and Russia, and what does he do? He goes and drapes a horse blanket around the trembling shoulders of the Chinese President’s wife.
Yes, it was a cold night at the Olympic Stadium, and apparently it wasn’t a horse blanket but a “camel-coloured shawl” that he settled over Mrs Peng’s black silk frock, but it could easily have been construed as an insult to the Chinese premier. As if Putin was saying: “How can you let your lady wife freeze in the night air, you unfeeling Chinese brute? See how I drape her, like a tiny bird, in a comforting rug, which is more than her chilly husband would do. We Russians know how to look after our womenfolk…”
If not an insult, it could have been interpreted as a cheeky come-on, which is how commentators on TV and Twitter saw it: they accused Putin of being a touchy-feely Mr Tickle, a tactile opportunist seizing the chance to envelop the matronly-but-giggly First Lady (and former chanteuse) in a blanketty embrace, hiding his naked Cossack lust behind an affectation of gallant solicitude. No wonder the Chinese authorities rushed to remove the TV footage.
You see how it goes, Vladimir? One minute you’re the epitome of tough politics and gruff good manners, the next you’re bracketed with pick-up artists and sexists such as Dapper Laughs and Julien Blanc. It could only have been worse if you’d taken off your jacket and draped it round Mrs P’s shoulders, perhaps giving her a vigorous back rub over the bra-strap region while you were at it.
Photographs show the blanketed Mrs Peng was seated beside her husband, who was talking, oblivious to his wife’s discomfort and her saviour’s intervention, to Barack Obama – a scene reminiscent of the moment at Nelson Mandela’s funeral when the US President found himself in a selfie with David Cameron and the foxy Danish PM, to the irritation of Mrs O.
Of course, she and her husband are serial etiquette blunderers. You may recall how, at their first meeting, Michelle Obama clamped her hand on the Queen’s back as they looked at pictures together; Her Maj stiffened like a racehorse at this unwonted intrusion. You may recall how the President cocked up the loyal toast during his most recent visit. He said, “To Her Majesty, the Queen” followed by a few words, instead of saying “The Queen” and shutting up, and thus found himself struggling to speak over the national anthem.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, to find that world leaders are so rubbish at protocol and etiquette, the small change of human interaction that’s boomed around the world as if it mattered as much as signing a treaty.
Obama and Putin couldn’t even agree on body language when they met this week. Putin tried to give Obama an encouraging back slap, but missed when Obama turned unexpectedly, and left Putin looking like someone waving away a fart. The men reportedly talked vaguely in each other’s direction without making eye contact, like Elyot and Amanda on their balconies in Coward’s Private Lives.
What does this remind us of? Why, Downton Abbey, where standing around like tailor’s dummies while chatting is the default position for the cast. This week Alastair Bruce, the show’s etiquette and historic accuracy expert, insisted that this was how people behaved in 1926 – when diseases were rife, pre-antibiotics, ladies and gentlemen didn’t touch each other, let alone go in for hugging and kissing. Bruce is a stickler for correct form – so can he, and the people behind Debrett’s Etiquette and Correct Form, get together, write a guide to summit conference protocol and send it to all world leaders before the next shindig? International relations would be immeasurably improved if everyone knew, for instance, these simple rules:
1. Indisposition of First Ladies. Should the wife of a world leader be taken ill, or seem to be experiencing discomfort, you must alert her lady-in-waiting with the words, “I believe Mrs – may need attention.” On no account should you cover the First Lady with blankets, chafe her wrists, loosen her clothing or attempt to take her pulse. Slapping her cheek, dashing water in her face or offering her brandy are quite inappropriate, as is seizing her shoulders and repeatedly shouting: “Are you OK?”
2. Hand gestures. Before the cameras, a firm handshake is all that’s needed. Away from the conference room, it is correct for male heads of state to pat each other once on the back in passing, to symbolise good fellowship. When emerging from a meeting after voting co-operatively, gentlemen may bump knuckles to suggest gang membership. Declarations of alliance in, say, war may be expressed by gentlemen clutching each other’s curled fingers, making a sawing-wood motion and playing with each other’s thumbs.
3. Mobile phones. Not to be employed in public, unless you want the world to think that a call from your dentist is more important than talking to Angela Merkel. And never, ever, at a funeral. You know?
4. The Queen. Don’t shake her hand. Don’t talk to her. Don’t ask her about politics. Don’t tell her the weird dream you had about her last week. Don’t hug her. And as you value your life, don’t try to put a horse blanket around her.
Fan fiction’s fine – as long as the lovers are believable
A guarded welcome for Project Remix, a new initiative in schools which suggests that students aged between 13 and 19 years of age re-make literary works in new genres: re-casting books, stories and poems – from Pride and Prejudice to “Ozymandias” by way of The Hound of the Baskervilles – as strip cartoons, music, film trailers, book-jacket designs or “creative writing.”
It’s important that pupils should find out that literature is full of crazily vivid plots (with twists), brilliantly clever dialogue, sexy heroes and heroines and amazingly cool poetry. The only thing is, they’ve already been re-made. The Pulp! The Classics imprint already has presented Pride and Prejudice and Tess of the D’Urbevilles as trashy 1950s movie hoardings with tag lines (Tess: “She’s no Angel!”).
Literary classics have also been appearing in strip cartoons since the 1960s; I know well-read people familiar with, say, Titus Andronicus only through such cartoons. A recital of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” was used as a trailer for the last season of Breaking Bad. And so on.
But I’d certainly like to see scholars encouraged to try “fan fiction” adjustments to Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield. The only problem would be to stop them bringing some of the famous characters together in unlikely sexual convergences.
It’s one thing to write a fan fiction in which Harry Potter and Hermione get it on. Not so with Uriah Heep and Betsey Trotwood.