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‘Gentlemen’ like Boris Johnson are over. Instead, all hail the true gent

The former PM was once awarded ‘Gentleman of the Year’ by a magazine, in the process killing off the term ‘gentleman’ entirely. In its place, writes Oliver Keens, should be a more spirited, earthbound alternative

Thursday 15 June 2023 06:30 BST
The late entertainer Paul O’Grady was heaped with ‘true gent' platitudes after his sad death in March
The late entertainer Paul O’Grady was heaped with ‘true gent' platitudes after his sad death in March (Getty Images)

It’s sad that when most people write about the East End of London today, it’s done in relation to lattes, frappes, fancy flats and pricey olives. The reality is a bit different. For example, there’s still a really potent cockney presence in the area that scarcely gets talked about. It’s a living, breathing force of actual pride, which manifests in fabulously unsubtle ways: pearly queens getting gently mobbed, for example, or the occasional old-school cockney funeral passing by – featuring all the trimmings such as plumed horses and wooden carriages.

It was seeing one of those grand spectacles pass by a few years ago that set me off on a wild train of thought, inspired by a flower arrangement in a hearse that just read “A True Gent”. What is “a true gent”, I wondered. How is it different to just calling someone a gentleman? Why did that phrase feel so profound in the context of a lavish cockney funeral, in a way it wouldn’t in some tepid marketing spiel or tabloid headline? Bear with me, I think I’ve cracked it.

I’m sure we all have a firm idea of what a gentleman is, or perhaps was. I was born in the Eighties, an era when everything was shot through the class prism – either explicitly in books by Rishi Sunak’s favourite author, Jilly Cooper, or under the surface, in comedies such as Blackadder. Notions of what was and wasn’t “gentlemanly” were still very much in fashion.

Nowadays, however, it’s clear that younger people are mostly grossed out by an old-fashioned sense of chivalry based on gender, one that heaps praise on men for being kind and respectful to women (shouldn’t that just be, y’know, standard behaviour?). Yet there are still people keeping the flame for the old-fashioned ways. Take Country Life magazine, which until 2017 ran an annual award for Gentleman of the Year. Its editor, Mark Hedges, once declared a gentleman is “occasionally drunk but never disorderly, he doesn’t sunbathe and he ‘makes love’ on his elbows.” Quite what that means I genuinely have no idea – perhaps it’s some kind of plank pose for posh people. The list in 2014 included one Boris Johnson in its top 10, who was praised – with some hilarity today – for being “a gentleman [who] knows how to apologise”, and that “few people in the public eye have mastered the mea culpa quite like Boris has”.

Yet while the notion of the classic gentleman crashes and burns in tandem with the reputation of our former PM, I’ve keenly watched the growing scenarios where people will invoke that phrase: “a true gent”. I really think we know one when we see one, even though there’s barely any common etymological basis to draw on (or minutes from a secret meeting of cockney elders where one stood up and said: “Enough with all the fake gents”).

Often in a written and reported sense, the phrase comes up in memoriam. Scan local newspapers, for example, and you’ll see it used a lot to celebrate a character who occupied a place in people’s hearts and in the community, no matter how small. It also gets used a lot in sporting circles, too, in tributes to footballers and rugby players especially. I used to worry it was just a synonym for straight white English males of a certain manliness, but that changed after seeing Paul O’Grady heaped with “true gent” platitudes after his sad death in March.

But in a colloquial, everyday sense, there’s an irresistible truth to the idea of a true gent, which goes beyond how it’s used in words. The purity of it gets me every time I hear it. In my eyes, a true gent trumps a gentleman hands down. A mere gentleman might be blessed with wealth, good looks or manners – which in turn make him widely respected. A true gent has none of these by birth. They struggled and strived for it, they earned that acclaim off their own back. We have all surely met that one person who is so economically generous beyond their actual means that it humbles you to the core. They get the drinks in, they offer to pay as a reflex, or offer you dinner at theirs when you’re feeling low. There’s a whole strain of capitalism that revolves around what I call “gentlemanism” – stressing the importance of having the right watch, the right hair, the right clothes, the right accessories. A true gent needs precisely none of these things. They impress us instead by being endlessly caring, even if they’re uncouth at the same time. Who cares? They’re dependable, even if – compared to a classic gentleman – they have comparatively little to offer. They’re that person who pursues their passions, even if they struggle to be quote unquote “successful”, out of a genuine love for what they do. That’s a 24-carat true gent, right there.

Using “true gent” as an honorific is also a way of hitting back at centuries of upper class people owning and defining concepts of what made a man worthy. And what arbitrary concepts they were – a gentleman never buckles his shoe on a Thursday, an MCC tie should be worn upside down during Lent, and so forth – as though they were deliberately engineered to piss people off. A true gent isn’t tainted by any of that guff. Their worth is real, it’s tangible, it’s… true. Things may be in a state of flux in the East End, and to deny it would be silly. But I’m pleased that where I live at least, gentrification hasn’t killed off the “true gent” just yet.

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