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May 23, 2013updated 10 Jan 2016 3:46pm

Review: Sorry! The English and Their Manners

By Spear's

Sorry! The English and Their Manners

Henry Hitchens

John Murray, 400pp

Reviewed by Peter York

Are the English uniquely class-conscious? Does it display itself in our manners, the manneredness of our manners? The legendary odd-nesses and inversions of them? Our constant apologies; the fact that English people apparently say ‘sorry’ on average eight times a day?

All this and much more is discussed elegantly and amusingly in Henry Hitchings’ book. It’s just as well he’s kept himself to the English — it’s ‘visceral’, he says — rather than involve the whole construct of Britain and its manners, or we’d be there all week, such is the range of Hitchings’ reading and reference.

I sense that Hitchings is a sort of mini-cult among some of my better-educated friends; a one-man counter-trend. Not yet 40, he’s clocking up books, prizes and fans like mad with dense scholarly books about our language, its social history and its role in our culture wars. He’s written five books, starting with one on Dr Johnson and his dictionary, but Sorry! is my first. Sorry.

I came to Sorry! with high hopes. Hitchings does write well; he is amusing; he does import tasty modern references from popular culture and the South London street; he’s the new kind of fogey boy who’s comfortable with all that. And the chapter titles are funny and promising, especially ‘The Englishness of English Manners’.

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Sorry! is delicious and indulgent. It’s full of nice byways — the sexual imagery of shoes in the redness of Christian Louboutin’s soles — and the kind of stuff that makes the reader feel he — and I think the readers will mostly be he — is a bulwark against ADHD, Google-it culture. A man who, possibly, goes on vineyard visits.

Hitchings often rises above the delicious displays of learning worn quite heavily and goes straight for the prize, decoding what, as he says, foreigners regard as a peculiarly English affliction: strategic misrepesentation. Saying what you absolutely don’t mean. It’s a staple of upper-middle-class English conversation — sometimes dragged out into quite maddening banter (again, of course, a bloke thing). 

Thus something described as ‘interesting’ is regarded as tedious nonsense, a ‘brave’ plan is an insane one and ‘quite good’ means disappointing. And there’s the absolutely English killer ‘with all due respect’, which means something closer to ‘now listen to me’.

I could happily take chapters of this, but then in a few pages we’re back to Addison and Steele. I know we’ve got to go there, just as earlier we’ve got to go to Pepys and the Earl of Rochester. Or — back to the 18th century — Chesterfield. 

There’s a lot to blame the 4th Earl of Chesterfield for, but his letters to his son Philip are the best and best-remembered guide to a code of manners written to help the reader get ahead in the mad Great World of later-18th-century London, ‘a code of manners marked by amorality — and not the immorality of which his critics would later convict him’. Dr Johnson thought Chesterfield’s letters were likely to ‘teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’.

One of the driving themes of English Upper-ish manners — one which Ann Barr and I developed in the original Sloane Ranger Handbook and I’d hoped Hitchings would take further — is the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Boring’. It drives the Art of Making Conversation which never touches the sides of reality, which entertains but never remotely upsets the horses or anyone else. It’s a dying art, full of coded self-deprecation, coded class-identity markers (‘one’ marks the spot) and a mass of grace-notes and dying falls. 

If I’m all over the place, it’s because Hitchings is. In the delicious diversions, he is often wonderfully funny. In his Victorian Values chapter he cites an item in the Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express about a young woman who boards the smoking carriage on a train, with her Skye terrier in tow:

‘Objecting to the smoking of one of her fellow passengers, she snatches his cigar from his mouth and tosses it out of the window — about which he says nothing, though a minute later he seizes her Skye terrier and flings it from the window. The young woman says nothing, the two travellers descend at the next station without exchanging a word, and a French passenger who has witnessed these events is left reflecting bemusedly on “les Anglais taciturnes”.’ This predated There’s Something About Mary by more than 100 years.

There’s more — the 1920s gents in a tent who couldn’t use each other’s Christian names, for example. I can see what Hitchings is about and I can enjoy great swathes of Sorry!, but I can’t help wanting to edit it in an almost American utilitarian Samuel Smiles-y way. The only answer, of course, is to give it another go, on a train to Kincardineshire. 

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