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

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

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.



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

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