‘Tiring people! Without manners!’


(Ancient Greek vase painting: Prometheus pecked)

‘Tiring people! Without manners! . . . They would presumably run the world now. It would be a tiresome world.’[1]

So Christopher Tietjens, on the Western Front in the latter stages of the First World War. Writing a couple of years before Ford Madox Ford’s novel is actually set, Ezra Pound, thinking of Henry James, wrote in ‘I Vecchii’:

They will come no more,
The old men with beautiful manners.[2]

I was thinking of manners as I stood in the newsagent’s yesterday. In front of me, a man held a phone clamped to his ear while he vaguely pushed small piles of coins around on the counter. The shopkeeper waited patiently. I stood behind phone man, holding my newspaper, scanning the headlines. Eventually, I flapped my paper a couple of times. It might have seemed no more than a small, nervous spasm; or it might have sounded like a voice from a dense, black cloud, saying: ‘I am the great Death Bird, your Apocalypse Now. And in the afterlife, I shall eat your liver daily, as did the eagle to Prometheus, unless you move your sorry and mannerless arse now!’

In any case, he shifted the necessary distance, even murmuring—could it have been ‘Sorry?’ Perhaps. It may, of course, have been ‘Sherry’, ‘Surrey’ or even ‘Slurry’. When I used to walk to work, I would pass, most mornings, a wide blonde woman with three children. I would sometimes linger a little on the pavement, just out of curiosity, but no, my presence always remained wholly unregistered and I always had to step into the road. I was reminded of how, when I was bookselling, we reached the point at which we had to explain to indignant customers that, if they wanted to buy something from us, they had to finish their phone business first since it was damned rude to think they could do both simultaneously. They gazed in moonfaced, baffled wonder. Rude? Whassat?

Different times, different manners. A great many people seem unable to distinguish ‘deference’ from common courtesy. I always thought that the best defence against undue deference was to be equally polite to everyone: cleaners, computer scientists, cloakrooms attendants and countesses. Others apparently believe that the safest way is to be equally offensive to everyone. It is, I suppose, a point of view.


(Goodwood House 1906 via periodliving.co.uk)

In earlier periods, there certainly was deference; and there was a class-based expectation of unearned respect. Writing of the aftermath of the complete destruction of Edwardian England, Samuel Hynes observed that the ‘conclusive factor’ in this was ‘the attitude of the soldiers themselves towards their elders, the Old Men in Whitehall who had sent them into battle. The mood of bitterness that emerged from the First World War has no like in any other war that England has fought; no other British army felt itself so betrayed, or so scorned the causes for which it had fought. In that mood the post-war generation rejected altogether the world-before-the-war – its propriety, its overstuffed luxury, its conceptions of society and manners, its confidence in England and in Progress.’[3]

And, of course, manners change. Boswell recalled Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’. Elsewhere, he remarked of the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son—purportedly instructing him in etiquette and the worldly arts—that ‘They teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’.[4] It was with the Doctor in mind that Norman Lewis wrote of several men of his acquaintance in wartime Italy who were impoverished descendants of eminent families: ‘They had grand manners, and hearing them talk one sometimes seemed to be listening to Dr Johnson in an Italian translation.’[5]


(Marianne Moore, via The Spectator)

Of George Moore, W. B. Yeats remarked that he ‘lacked manners , but had manner’.[6] It’s a useful distinction. By all accounts, Marianne Moore’s manners were faultless but Randall Jarrell commented that, ‘Sometimes, in her early work, she has not a tone but a manner, and a rather mannered manner at that’.[7] (It was also Jarrell who remarked that, ‘to Americans, English manners are far more frightening than none at all’.)[8]

My favourite exposition on such matters is Guy Davenport’s, who records ‘the best display of manners on the part of a restaurant’ he’d witnessed, at the Imperial Ramada Inn in Lexington, Kentucky. Davenport went there in the company of the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (‘disguised as a businessman’), the poet – and Trappist – Thomas Merton (‘in mufti, dressed as a tobacco farmer with a tonsure’) and an editor from Fortune magazine, ‘who had wrecked his Herz car coming from the airport and was covered in spattered blood from head to toe’. The meal was served, Davenport adds, ‘with no comment whatsoever from the waitresses, despite Merton’s downing six martinis and the Fortune editor stanching his wounds with all the napkins.’


(Thomas Merton)

‘Who has manners anymore, anyhow?’ Davenport asks. ‘Nobody, to be sure; everybody, if you have the scientific eye.’ And so it proves.[9]

So manners, or the perceptions of them, or expectations of them, are constantly revised. Once or twice I’ve tried to remember this: when I was young and someone older said in my hearing that something or other ­– a product, a company, a service – used to be much better, did I think: ‘That’s just because you’re old and sentimental and living in the past; when I’m your age, everything that is brilliant now will still be brilliant then’? My general sense of collapse and disintegration is sometimes sharpened by specific moments that neither confirm nor deny that general sense but merely serve as punctuation marks. As I walk across the pedestrian crossing, carefully avoiding the arrestingly ugly vehicle which some bulky fool has stranded there by moving forward when his path was not clear; or read the newspaper; or watch the news on any day at all, I sometimes suspect that there are no more questions about the future of the species that need detain us. We can fool around with the word ‘extinction’, making whatever anagrams are available but no other raw material than that is called for. (‘Toxic in ten’ occurs to me – the countdown has begun.)

Sometimes, though, in the optimistic moments that still startle me from time to time, fluttering up abruptly like birds almost stepped on at the edges of paths, I wonder how much of it is not boorish and antisocial but simply heedless. The slack-brained noddies cycling on pavements or wandering into the road or leaving their toddlers to stray into ponds or ditches or the jaws of dragons while they moon over their mobile phones and other handheld toys, the featherheads I must walk around while they drift unseeingly across whichever planet may be accommodating them ­– it may not be enemy action, may not be expressly designed to make me bury my head in my hands and whisper the word ‘doomed’. Yet sometimes it’s actively damaging: I recall Nick Carraway’s reflections as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby draws to its close:


(Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton  in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby).

‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’[10]

Ah, the other people. Yes.



[1] Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 119.

[2] ‘Moeurs Contemporaines: VII’, Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 180.

[3] Samuel Hynes, An Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968; London: Pimlico, 1991), 14.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509, 188.

[5] Norman Lewis, Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth ((1978; London: Eland Books, 2002), 50.

[6] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 443.

[7] Randall Jarrell, ‘Her Shield’, Poetry and the Age (1955; London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 177.

[8] Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1954; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 12.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 348, 349-350.

[10] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1926; edited by Ruth Prigozy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 142.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: