‘I can’t stop myself saying what I think people want to hear: “Wow, did you cook this yourself ?” “You can’t be 70!”’
Simon on the politics of politeness
AS A CHILD I became fascinated by an old print in the downstairs loo. It was of a young Edwardian couple (one of each gender was de rigueur in those days) and underneath it was written:
The long croquet game being over Young Emily seeks rest Richard’s kindly courtesy
Her smiling face attests,
He brings her cake, he brings her wine, You must agree with me A boy can be a gentleman
What ’ere his age may be
I learnt it by heart and try as I might I’m unable to delete it from my memory – 65 years later the sickly verse is still lodged in the ragbag that passes for my brain. Perhaps I imagined it would come in handy when I was grown up. Having played croquet I would take cake and wine to a girl like Audrey Hepburn, then we’d kiss or climb trees. My maverick older brother took girls on his motorbike and made them listen to Miles Davis; surely he’d never get a decent wife without the kindly courtesy. I became one of those smarmy young shavers who called his girlfriend’s father ‘Sir’ and helped with the washing up. I didn’t know then that sucking up to the parents is not the way to a girl’s heart. Manners maketh wimp. Regardless of the truth, I can’t stop myself saying what I think people want to hear: ‘Wow, did you cook this yourself?’ ‘You can’t be 70!’ ‘Oh, what a beautiful baby.’
As children we were taught manners as an algorithm. Shake hands nicely. Elbows off the table. Leave the seat down… My mother always made me walk on the outside of her on the pavement; today with chivalry dead in the water, it just looks like harassment. I no longer open doors for women, I swerve in front of them to show how modern I am.
According to the actor Nicola Mcauliffe, ‘Politeness puts people in their place whereas good manners put them at their ease.’ I love the story of Queen Victoria whose lunch guest drank the water in his finger bowl – sacré bleu! – but without hesitation the sweet old Queen followed suit. Good manners are simply a form of kindness. I’m with Henry Higgins in Pygmalion when he says, ‘The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners… but having the same manner for all human souls.’ In Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah!, two elderly widows are discussing the sexual protocol of their husbands, and one confides, ‘He was very well brought up – he always asked first and said thank you after.’
Perhaps that’s carrying the manners thing too far.
Simon will be reading at the Royal Festival Hall ‘Remembrance and Freedom’ concert on Thursday with The Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra