Monday, September 15, 2008

Some gentle British mockery

We are but in the middle of September, still several severe weather warnings away from the official end of summer. Yet my thoughts have already turned to Christmas. Barbara Cartland's Etiquette Handbook: A Guide to Good Behaviour from the Boudoir to the Boardroom is to be republished, 50 years after it first nannied us about our conduct.

Within its pages are dozens of tips to help us negotiate the minefield of modern manners. Such as: "Unless she is ill, a woman should get up and cook her husband's breakfast before he goes to work in the morning", and: "It is very wrong for a woman to chatter with other women across the dinner table unless it is on a subject likely to interest their male partners." That's my wife's present sorted, then.

Cartland died eight years ago, but she remains unsurpassed as a guide through the myriad pratfalls of social activity. Which isn't a bad effort for someone who, in her latter years, bore an uncanny resemblance to the racing tipster John McCririck. There was, under her forensic gaze, no area of life so obscure that it could not benefit from strict adherence to the done thing.

"I can see no social advantage," she writes, "in installing a toilet-roll holder bought in Lucerne that plays music when the roller moves." Without Cartland, who would have known? There must, even now, be Swiss entrepreneurs still bitter that their plan to dominate the world musical toilet-roll market was thwarted at the last by a romantic novelist who seemingly preferred to wear her lavatory novelties on her head.

Hers may not have been the first, but it was Cartland - and her meticulously recorded snobbery - who unleashed a succession of etiquette guides. Still they come and still they have their uses. Forewarned is always forearmed. It might, for instance, have been pertinent for some of us to learn that it is a good idea to ascertain what people do for a living early on in dinner-party conversation.

Some may regard this as the height of dullness, but it is a simple precaution which can prevent the kind of silence that ensues after you enthuse loudly about the justice of major redundancies in the City to several recently fired bankers.

Now, into this tricky world of social regulation steps a new escort. The man we must regard as the next Barbara Cartland is Liam Byrne, previously known as the Government's immigration minister. Yesterday he published his own pamphlet of manners. In particular, he is anxious to dispense advice on how best to pick our way through activities to mark the Government's proposed bank holiday to celebrate Britishness.

This was Gordon Brown's idea, launched soon after he moved into Number 10. You can tell it was his idea because it is thin, ill thought through and unlikely to work. It has yet to be decided, for instance, which day of the year is to be thus marked. There has been talk of a Monday at the end of August, but the Scottish Parliament didn't much like that (just as it doesn't much like the concept of Britishness). May Bank Holiday has also been mooted, which has the advantage of already being a bank holiday, so therefore won't actually give us any more time off.

But despite such apparently significant obstacles, Byrne has been busy suggesting ways in which we could spend this one day of the year "bringing together citizens throughout the United Kingdom as well as new immigrants".

In his booklet, A More United Kingdom, Byrne has thought of the following: a ceremony to remember the good things in the past year; Morris dancing; and town halls hosting community discussions. Not since the contents of the Millennium Dome were first unveiled has such a riveting catalogue of events been put together. Let's hope the police will be able to cope with the queues forming outside town halls across the nation of those anxious to secure their place at community discussions.

Emboldened by the reckless excitement of his programme, Byrne has also delivered suggestions about how we should behave as we wave our Union flag in time to the gentle clip-clop of the Morris man. We should, he says, talk about how we appreciate the weather. Cultural dress, he adds, is to be worn (what is cultural dress: a frock designed by Melvyn Bragg?). And, above all, we should spend our time drinking.

Yes, Byrne suggests that time be put aside on the day for the substantial public consumption of alcohol. And why not? Booze is what we're good at, after all. Mind, on that particular suggestion, Byrne's predecessor Barbara Cartland was uncharacteristically sane.

"Intoxication is neither amusing nor mannerly," she wrote. "It is objectionable."

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