Old-fashioned lessons for life
First launched almost 80 years ago, the original Teach Yourself guides still have plenty to say to us about etiquette, self-help ... even how to fly. As five vintage editions are republished for the digital era, Jonathan Shipley, commissioning editor of J
ONE day in 1937, at an editorial board meeting at Hodder & Stoughton, a plan was hatched to launch a new series of books that would educate the public on subjects as diverse as how to cook, raise children, learn a foreign language or stitch a dress. As peacetime gave way to war, necessity became the mother of invention and the British population seized upon the prospect of self-improvement, self-help and self-sufficiency with great enthusiasm. Ultimately, their goal was to “get on in life”, and the series of books planned on that day became a valuable companion on that journey, providing reassurance, expertise and support to millions.
Teach Yourself has a proud history stretching back 80 years and in that time the imprint has evolved in terms of appearance and content countless times – just as the social and cultural climate of the modern world has evolved. Taken individually, Teach Yourself books are fascinating insights into the way the world used to be described. Read collectively, they tell an extraordinary story about the ever-changing narrative of pre and post-war Britain.
Revisiting these books, we found much to admire – wonderfully pragmatic, terse advice from an age less schooled in psycho-babble, as well as moments of extraordinary wisdom and unwitting comedy. Several titles stood out as fascinating, hugely enjoyable reads, and 2017 felt an appropriate time to return them to the nation’s bookshelves. This week, five vintage editions are republished. They range in topic from simple good manners to actionable instructions for handling a plane, are brilliant, readable and amusing insights into a distant era. They were written by an extraordinary collection of authors – spies, polymaths, war heroes and philosophers whose enthusiasm for the subjects they wrote about shines through their prose. The world that produced these eccentric, inimitable books has much changed, but the books are as charming as ever, combining moments of startling clarity with advice that traverses the sublime and the ridiculous.
TEACH YOURSELF GOOD MANNERS By WS Norman (1958)
In making an introduction, don’t mumble, but pronounce both names distinctly. Many Americans, when introduced, have a sensible habit of repeating the name of the person just made known to them, which gives the other the opportunity to correct it, if he has not heard it properly. (But if your name is a difficult one, resign yourself with a good grace to hearing it mispronounced rather than make the other person feel embarrassed at having got it wrong.)
If two individuals are introduced each should shake the other’s hand. This does not mean crush it, pulverise it, paw it, pump it up and down or retain it. The owner wants it back, quickly and intact. So take it lightly but firmly, looking at its owner while you do so, not at someone else, then let it go.
If a man is introduced to a lady who is sitting down, she should not get up. If, following the introduction, the pair begin to talk, the man, after a moment or two, should say, “May I sit down?” and do so.
When two people are introduced to each other, both should say: “How do you do?” This does not call for an answer and is a purely conventional phrase. But it is a better one than: “Pleased to meet you.”
If, when you are walking with a friend, your companion sees someone whom he knows and you do not, you should move away a little, leaving it to your companion to call you over if he wants to introduce you. This applies even more if the friend is a lady. He would then normally ask her permission before introducing you.
Duties of guests at dinner parties
If guests are invited to dine at eight o’clock, they should do their utmost, despite tardiness of taxis, missing collar studs, laddered stockings and the general cussedness of things, not to be late. If the invitation states 7.45 for eight o’clock
they should aim at arriving not before but very shortly after the earlier time limit.
Having shaken hands with their host and hostess, the newly arrived couple should shake hands with or bow to others in the room whom they know.
In particular the man should seek out the lady whom his host informs him he is to take into dinner. If he can (without too much insincerity and fortified by sherry) tell the lady in question how pleased he is by this prospect, he will have begun the evening as a good guest should.
On reaching the dinner table, the man should not sit down until the lady he is taking in has done so. He should, indeed, draw back her chair for her, but there is no need to be obsequious about it.
Bad manners in the theatre
When people offend in this way, a glance in their direction will sometimes indicate that their talking, rustling and whispering are unwelcome. If this has no effect, anyone sitting near is entitled to ask them to keep quiet. but any such request should be made politely, eg: “Would you mind not talking, please? We can’t hear what the actors are saying.” However annoying interruptions may be it is a mistake to lose one’s temper, for the rudeness of others does not excuse bad manners in oneself.
Unless there is a good reason, such as the need to catch the last train home, people ought not to leave a theatre or a concert hall until the performance has finished. If they are obliged to leave, they should do so as unobtrusively as possible. At the end of the performance there is still no justification for scrambling for the exit doors as though the building were on fire. The playing of the National Anthem may strike some people as a meaningless formality, but that is no reason for walking out in the middle of it. Nor is it unreasonable to give the actors or the orchestra their meed of applause before making a move.
Walking in the streets
When a man is walking along the pavement he should place himself on the left, that is, nearer to the kerb. If he is accompanying two ladies it is still correct for him to be in this position and not between them. In a crowded street it may not be possible to walk three abreast all the way, so the man must be prepared to drop behind when necessary. This practice of the man being nearer to the pavement edge than the lady is a survival of polite custom from former times. In the old days roads were apt to be very muddy, so the man exposed himself, rather than his companion, to the mud thrown up by passing carts and coaches. He was likewise the recipient of household refuse thrown out of windows in the days when the upper storeys of houses projected further over the street than the lower, the person nearest to the wall of the house, therefore, being the best protected.
Paying for oneself
When a man, having met a girl a few times in the company of other friends, invites her out to dinner or to come to a dance with him, the reason, surely, is that he finds her attractive and would like to know her better. If this feeling is not reciprocated, the girl has only to decline this and subsequent invitations on the pretext of previous engagements. If, on the other hand, she is interested in him, she will doubtless accept the invitation and go as his guest. After one or two such outings the girl can raise the question of paying her own share in future. By this time she should know something about him and be able to say in effect: “I enjoy going out with you. I should like to do it again. But I’m earning my living, you’re not a millionaire, and it’s not fair that you should go on paying for both of us every time. So either I must stop going with you, which would be a pity, or you must let me pay my share.” She may be more inclined to express this point of view if she suspects that his feelings towards her are warmer than those she has for him. She can then, as it were, detach herself or stabilise the position on a firm basis of friendship without giving him any grounds for feeling that she has led him on or shown herself to be a “gold-digger”.
Giving up one’s seat in a bus
Not so long ago the most elementary sense of good manners caused a man to offer his seat in a bus or tram to any lady who would otherwise have had to stand.
There is now a much greater degree of equality between the sexes. Women now enjoy the same political rights as men, and have thereby in the opinion of many men forfeited any claim to preferential treatment in other matters. Consequently a man returning home at the end of a day’s work may feel under no obligation to give up his seat to a woman whether she has a paid job or is a housewife.
Under these changed conditions it is difficult to lay down rigid rules, particularly when, if a man does give up his seat, a woman may take it without bothering to thank him. Yet there is no justification for being impolite merely because other people are. Perhaps the best solution is for a man to offer his seat to an elderly woman, to a mother with a child in her arms and to any person of either sex who is obviously infirm.
It is a safe rule to steer clear of politics and religion. These are subjects on which people are liable to hold decided opinions, and it is rash to embark upon them or to be assertive or dogmatic, for either people may be stung into a heated argument or else, in the interests of good manners, they do not speak their minds and chafe under a sense of restraint. Either way offence may be given and the conversation will languish.
A good conversationalist does not dominate or lay down the law. He should allow others to have their say. A good story is welcome, but a succession of anecdotes is likely to become tedious. It is rude to interrupt, especially when an older person is talking. When a conversation shows signs of leading to vehement argument or where the topic appears to be distasteful to one of those present, a well-bred person will drop the subject or divert the talk into other channels. Sarcasm at the expense of someone who is shy or stupid is unforgivable. Mimicry likewise should be employed with discretion. Malicious gossip about mutual acquaintances is in bad taste and may cause untold distress.
TEACH YOURSELF TO LIVE By GGL Du Cann (a self-help classic published in 1955)
It is important, above all things, to decide early and finally on the main general purpose of your life. It does not so much matter what it is so long as it is worthy of effort, even if not a great and good effort. Thus it may be the attainment of a vast fortune, or brilliant success in your profession or calling, or becoming a saint or hero, or, if you are a woman, the fulfilment of yourself by wifehood, motherhood, grandmotherhood.
It must not be small and petty and easily attainable. Otherwise it fails to inspire and is quickly exhausted. It must be something worth dedicating a lifetime to, and something that calls for a life struggle.
Once the main aim is decided, everything falls into place and the life-pattern quickly begins to take shape. Each day and every day, in spite of interruptions, digressions, divergences and setbacks, that are inevitable, the circumstances of human existence being what they are, your life follows its pattern and traces its intricate design.
And this – more than most things – lends interest and value to the routine of living, to the daily round and common task. Nothing gives the life-owner more satisfaction, even if he be not ambitious in the vulgar sense of the term, than to feel he is progressing in the direction he wants to go.
So – choose your purpose, if your purpose has not already chosen you.
TEACH YOURSELF CYCLING By Reginald C Shaw (1952)
To learn to ride, you do not need anybody’s help. You will be better off on your own.
Just borrow a bicycle that is not too big. Lower the saddle so that when you are sitting on it you can put both feet fairly and squarely on the ground. then find a nice quiet road – preferably a gentle hill. Take up a position on the left-hand side of the road, facing downhill, so that if there does happen to be any traffic about you will not be a bigger nuisance than you need be at this stage of your cycling career.
Now take hold of the handle-bar grips, after making sure that the brakes work and that you know which lever operates the back one ...
All you have to do now is to push off with your feet. If you are on a hill, just let your feet scrape along the ground until you have got the feel of the bike. Then try lifting them just clear of the ground, so that you can restore your balance quickly by putting them down again. And try not to use the brake until you really do want to stop; the faster you go, the easier it is, so long as you do not let the cycle get out of control.
If you are not on a hill you will have to push off with your feet and then use them to scoot along.
In either case do not bother about the pedals until you have found out how to balance the bike. It will not be long before you can manage to travel several yards without having to put your feet down, and soon after that you will discover the trick of recovering your balance without putting your feet down at all. You do it by manipulating the handlebar, but the knack will come naturally and more quickly if you do not try to think it out and do it deliberately.
When you have learned the trick of balancing and steering, you can put your feet on the pedals and start turning them round. Now, at any rate, you are a bike-rider.
TEACH YOURSELF TO FLY By Nigel Tangye (1938)
The title, Teach Yourself To Fly, I do not intend to be taken literally. However confident the reader may feel when he has reached the last page, it will not be advisable for him to go to an aerodrome and jump into a waiting aeroplane in the belief that he will be able to fly it. For he may have overlooked the direction in which you push the rudder-bar, or some equally important item. And no aeroplane-owner exactly welcomes the man who cracks his aeroplane for him.
Let him go to an aerodrome by all means, but let it be one with a flying school, where the instructor will welcome him anyway, but will enthuse over him when he discovers that his pupil is familiar with all the controls, the flying jargon and the control movements of the more simple manoeuvres in the air and on the ground. How much wearying, patient explaining will the instructor be spared! Incidentally, your instinct will often play you false when flying. Treat it as a fickle jade, and you will do much better. Instinct often tells you to go slow in the air – when flying near the ground in fog, for instance – but you must fly fast: as fast as you can, so that you have all the control necessary to clear a sudden obstacle. When you are flying in cloud by instruments, your instinct will often all but persuade you that your instrument is lying. The needle shows you to be flying straight, but your instinct shouts in your ear, louder and louder, that you are turning to the left. Be strong, and pay no attention to its voice. Your instrument will be right. And when you have been flying on a compass course for some time over country on which you have been unable to pick out a landmark, the voice of your instinct will start whispering in your ear that your compass is wrong. It will soon be shouting in your ear that the compass is leading you too far to the right. No wonder you cannot pick up the expected landmark. But pay no attention to your instinct on such an occasion. trust your compass.
These are edited extracts from the Teach Yourself Vintage Editions, published in hardback by John Murray on September 7 priced £7.99 each