Just Wil­liams

‘I can’t stop my­self say­ing what I think peo­ple want to hear: “Wow, did you cook this your­self ?” “You can’t be 70!”’

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

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

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