Letter From London: Polite Notice

Photo by Nathan Lemon

The world has lost its manners. Sometimes described as socially acceptable ways of behaving towards people, they seem to have fallen away. In other words, if good manners are about treating people well, often in public, it doesn’t tally at all with what we are seeing today, though at least some of the young here in London seem more civil than their elders. If manners show respect for people’s comfort and feelings, there is little of that coming from the grown-ups here. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, at it again last week by saying homelessness was a lifestyle choice, is a case in point. Now planning to actively restrict the use of tents by rough sleepers, she is like someone who wakes up each morning with a pair of binoculars by her bed ready to find yet another person vulnerable enough to take a pop at. Thankfully, there are still one or two lasting slip roads entering or leaving this expressway: ‘It is a great mistake for men to give up paying compliments, for when they give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming,’ said Oscar Wilde once. For me, even when manners fail, they grant good grace.

It was at an early age for me that manners first impressed. Without parents, I was shifted around a lot, having to read every situation quickly, without the requisite skillsets. Only by the age of four did any instincts kick in. I discovered that young children are far more perceptive and resilient than people give them credit. Don’t for a moment believe the children being bombed in Gaza right now are unaware of what is going on. At one railway station aged four I remember a giant picture of pop star staring down, their spiky hair full of danger. Strangers in the foreground lugged heavy, belted suitcases. People in uniform blew loud whistles. A man selling newspapers kept shouting about the world. I could have been angry with the world myself, but what would that have resolved? Why curse the ground we walk upon? Why hiss at the sky we love? Only when we can do something about something should we stir. Besides, it was not in anyone’s interests to cause a scene, especially with those tasked to look after one.

People say it is rather old school and English to believe in manners. They say manners are like the management of emotion, but a luxury all the same. They call them cute, not bold. If so, there was not much sign of any such luxuries or cuteness at the Covid inquiry here in London last week. All I saw were mostly Oxbridge people tearing into mostly Oxbridge people, with all the savagery of supercilious insects. This week will no doubt be the same. The misogyny in some of the ranks at the hearing was enough to develop in viewers, even passive observers, a hatred, dislike, or mistrust of men. Dominic Cummings listened to his own expletive-driven messages being read out by offering back slightly skittish, viperish glances, left and right and left again, delivered without any insight. It made me realise that the reason for the malevolent sweeping away or lining up against the wall of manners in this country has been a direct result of the people most recently in power here in Blighty, and not really from anywhere else. I feel sure I will write about Covid one day, as I did at the time speak directly to various government officials, as one member of a team of volunteers. This included having several group chats with senior Cabinet Office officials, whose exhaustion, it must be said, seemed not from partying but brutish long hours. The whole Boris Johnson thing appeared elsewhere, like a giant dog being fed raw steak in an adjoining room. Occasionally, you would hear across the ether the moral equivalence of blood-licking, which you just put down to eccentric government, little knowing it was, in fact, pure anarchy.

I am probably biased but I do find myself believing the Scots well mannered. In England it can seem as if the more educated we are, the less tolerant we become of another person’s point of view. In Scotland, erudition is a right not a badge. As a member of the Colony Club in London, I used to tire at the amount of times people gleefully called called one another ‘cunts’ at the bar as if thinking they were being incredibly funny, when, in fact, they were just being incredibly dull, something, ironically, they claimed to despise. This seemed especially the case among very rich members pretending to be slumming it. Conversely, manners for me have always been about social mystery and a kind of ripe discretion. They exist as a cloak of finesse over a light and gentle breeze. I have also always believed for example that keeping the peace is the true essence of good manners. Notice the absence of peace today. Notice the absence of manners. In addition, we are forever told to take sides, as if the middle ground, that great unloved cropland of peace, must be deserted forever, made into a kind of No Man’s Land.

That all said, I was telling a Chinese friend in central London last week that I long believed that when we show respect to others, we always get it back — unless something is out of control and like an aberration something we simply must move on from. We spoke about the great Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, said to have died trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, when in fact he was drunk and simply fell into the cold water and drowned. Our discussion prompted all sorts of literary allusions, including the controversial American poet Ezra Pound, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and Maxim Gorky’s non-fiction writing on his childhood. We both agreed — polite at all times — that Li Bai’s work was so clear and accessible as to belong to everybody: “Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go / Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss / Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.”

If the world has indeed lost its manners, I wonder where they went. Is there any merit in still looking for them? I was trying to work out if Blighty’s present loss of them began — however unwittingly — with the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics and the ‘Isles of Wonder’ extravaganza that took place at the Olympic Stadium. This was a beautiful celebration bristling with good intention. What it did not realise however was that by repackaging patriotism in this way, by rating our national story as somehow above everyone else’s, as if a lesson to the rest of the world, this would one day unleash the darker side of nationalism. This is because a lot of Brits who had otherwise never really thought about nationhood suddenly found themselves voting affably enough — or so they thought — for Brexit. That small group could well have been what pushed us over the edge. For Brexit, read Trump. For Trump, read insurrection. For insurrection, read Putin. For Putin, read Iran. For Iran, read Hamas.

Finally, soon by simply undermining the UK, people can be branded extremists. This is according to documents seen last week by the Observer, suggesting government officials have drawn up proposals to broaden the definition of extremism. This means anyone who ‘undermines’ our darling institutions and so-called values could soon be charged with ‘extremism’. On a bad day, perfectly legitimate groups and individuals — such as journalists — can be branded extremists if they do not toe the government line. It sounds to me like the official death of all manners.

Peter Bach lives in London.