In the Manhattan City Journal, Peter Whittle reviews Sorry! The English and Their Manners, by Henry Hitchings.
The queue—that is, standing in line—has long been valued as a characteristic of English manners, both by outsiders and by the English themselves. As an example of social cohesion, an illustration of that much-celebrated (and much-satirized) English sense of fair play, it’s pretty much unimpeachable. It’s been said that one Englishman standing alone is enough to constitute a queue.
That was then. Anybody visiting London today will wonder where the queue has gone. It might still exist in provincial towns and rural communities, but here in London, the once jealously enforced public tradition of “waiting your turn” is on life support. One can see this especially at bus stops, where the crocodile line of patient passengers has given way to a slow-motion scramble. And nobody seems to mind much.
Queuing gets only a cursory mention in Henry Hitchings’s new book, Sorry! The English and Their Manners (available in the United States this November), which aims to tell how the residents of the British Isles wound up with the civil codes and courtesies that govern—or once governed—the way we live. Perhaps he didn’t want to dwell too much on the negative, leaving it to those conservative commentators who, as he puts it, make a living out of mourning the death of our way of life, particularly the decline of day-to-day civility. Yet the disappearance of the voluntary queue (it thrives where enforced, such as in banks and supermarkets) perfectly encapsulates how much the English have changed in recent decades.
Hitchings provides an elegant, well-researched history of the influences that have shaped the English sense of what was right and proper. Covering everything from the Italian Renaissance and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier to postwar America and Emily Post’s Etiquette, he explains the importance of outside influences on England’s sense of itself as a civil society. He’s cool-headed, but not so detached that he can’t share examples of his own experience of rudeness and socially crossed wires. He recounts how, when helping an elderly woman with her heavy groceries, he was surprised by the remark of a woman cycling past: “Don’t think you’re something you’re not, you sexist prick.”
Such naked aggression from a stranger would make me feel murderous—but, having written extensively about civil life in Britain, I’m among those who cannot help concluding that something has gone badly wrong. I once wrote an essay describing my experiences when I decided not to turn the other cheek to antisocial actions. Politely asking people to turn down their personal headphones, or speak a little more quietly on their cell phones, or remove their feet from train seats, prompted shock and even outrage. The English might once have turned a blind eye to this kind of rudeness, out of a desire not to make a fuss and cause social embarrassment; today, we avoid such confrontations out of fear of abuse, verbal or possibly even physical.
Undoubtedly, a large section of English society remains polite—perhaps, given the new strictures of political and emotional correctness, more polite than ever. But it seems absurd to deny that English public life is coarser and less civil than it was even 20 years ago. “Among the many quirks of modern manners,” writes Hitchings, “is an appetite for parading one’s lack of them.” This goes right to the point. Such downward aspirations, and on such a scale, reflect the popular belief among the postwar, middle-class New Left that social rules were merely insidious instruments of bourgeois restriction. They did away with them, by and large.
“I dispute the claim that manners are in decline across the board,” writes Hitchings in his last chapter. Complaints about falling standards have, he says, always been with us. Like a screenwriter told by the studio to end the movie on an up note, Hitchings seems to be straining not to conclude with gloom. “’Twas ever thus” is a comforting, complacent mantra that can be applied to most of our current woes.
If an American wants courtliness and consideration, even in an urban context, I suggest he or she look nearer to home. On a recent trip to New York, I held a door open at a coffee shop for an approaching stranger. The man thanked me warmly and then held for me the place ahead of him in line. Simple, reciprocal courtesy: rarer and rarer in my hometown these days, I’m afraid.
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Submitted by peterwhittle on Mon, 2013-03-25 13:11.
In the American City Journal, FRED SIEGEL reviews Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party, by Michael Szalay (Stanford University Press)
Michael Szalay’s unusual book, Hip Figures, is largely an account of that moment in the 1960s when, in the words of Gore Vidal, “politics and literature officially joined forces” by incorporating the black conception of “cool” into the critique of conventional middle-class morality. Though written in the obscurantist jargon of postmodernism and saddled by Szalay’s attempt to show how the novels of the 1960s instantiated Marx’s pre-modern labor theory of value, the book offers some valuable insights.
Szalay argues that the work of novelists such as Norman Mailer, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, and William Styron made them “the most important political strategists of their time.” They paved the way, he rightly argues, for the creation of the contemporary liberal lifestyle of upwardly mobile people who, in their twenties and thirties, are square by day, swingers by night. Today, we might call them hipsters. By the time they settle into genuine adulthood, they’re no more capable of defending the bourgeois virtues that propelled their careers than a Communist commissar would be. But Szalay’s thesis also entails considerable overstatement: the sixties novelists, he asserts, cleaved the ties between economics and culture that Daniel Bell identified in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. A writer less attached to antique Marxist categories would have noted that the split between culture and economy was, in large measure, a matter of unprecedented affluence undermining the self-discipline and social relations that had long buttressed economic prosperity.
After signing the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson exclaimed: “Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend . . . the two currents will finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come” as “the American Negro [claims] his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life.” It was an optimistic vision. But another novelist, Ralph Ellison, saw the potential underside: “It was as though the word had gone out, that the outsider, the unacceptable, was now acceptable, and young people translated that to mean that all of the suppressed psychological drives, all of the discipline of the instincts, were fair game. ‘Let it all hang out,’ they said. ‘We have become black men and women.’”
As the riots and revolutions of 1967 and 1968 would make clear, the costs of this liberation were high, though they remain invisible to Szalay, who seems only to see their promise. In his marvelous Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charles LeDuff describes how the intersection of unprecedented prosperity and cultural liberation wrought havoc on his once-solid working-class family. His beloved “hellcat” sister turned hooker and was murdered. Her daughter, his stoner niece, overdosed, and one of his brothers lingered in a crack den. In the 1970s, while Japanese competition demanded renewed American economic commitment, the scourge of Aquarian prosperity produced divorce, drugs, and school dropouts. “What our generation failed to learn,” writes Leduff, “was the nobility of work. An honest day’s labor. . . . For us, the factory would never do. And turning away from our birthright—our grandfather in the white socks—is the thing that ruined us.”
It was not just closed factories, but people closed off to work, that sent cities on a downward spiral. In his 1959 book, Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer anticipated and welcomed the rupture: “The next collapse in America may come not from the center of the economy, but within the superstructure of manners, morals, tastes, fashions and vogue which shape the search for love of each of us.” Robert Penn Warren saw the dangers of that rupture and, like Ellison, worried that it would cut blacks off from the promise of American life. Penn Warren feared that the hipsters who became Mailer’s “White Negroes” could constitute a political vanguard that would hamper blacks’ ability to enter the American mainstream, as LBJ had hoped they would do.
Penn Warren anticipated Detroit under the leadership of the badass hipster Marxist Coleman Young, who served as the city’s mayor from 1973 through 1992. Young rejected middle-class values. He effectively dismantled the police force while presiding over 20 years of arson, armed robbery, assault, and outmigration. His Maileresque mayoralty left the city devastated and African-Americans more marginalized then before. Nearly a half-century after the Voting Rights Act, African-Americans are more than ever saddled with the burdens of a black underclass—a reality that should be a matter of great concern in academia. It’s not, in part because professors like Szalay are stuck in a time warp, using the “magic” of postmodernism to distort the historical record.
He’s hardly alone. A few years ago, I listened to a gaggle of academic presentations explaining how the riots of the 1960s, which left sections of American cities in ruins, were actually liberating moments. Szalay offers an English-lit version of these fantastical accounts. But unlike his compatriots, he notes that some, like Penn Warren and Ellison, saw the shape of what was coming. If only for that, his book is worth reading.
Fred Siegel, a contributing editor at City Journal and scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, is currently writing a history of American liberalism.
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Submitted by peterwhittle on Thu, 2013-03-21 15:37.
Helen Szamuely, editor of the Conservative History Journal, reviews Peter Whittle's new book Being British: What's Wrong With It?
An extraordinary amount of excitement and patriotic fervour was erupting around me as I was reading Peter Whittle’s Being British – What’s Wrong With It?. Team GB (an expression that would have been guaranteed to bring nausea to any right-thinking or, for that matter, left-thinking of the old school person before the vocabulary of Cool Britannia permeated public discourse) was winning medals. All doubts about the pharaonic and overweening arrogance that created the mega-farce of the London Olympics for which we shall be paying for decades to come have been dispelled, at least momentarily. Britain was winning medals and nothing else could possibly matter. One person on another forum jubilantly wrote about the first couple of gold medals “because we are GREAT Britain” as if that was the definition of this country’s greatness.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, what a peculiar position sport occupies in our political and social consciousness. As far as sport is concerned all the virtues, so eloquently extolled by Peter Whittle in his book, that have been abandoned or made to seem embarrassing, become acceptable. People are allowed to wave flags and cheer their country (though some problems arise with people who appear to think that certain sportsmen and women are Scottish if they win and British if they lose). Even the BBC joins in.
There is another difference: for a short time the people who are presented as heroes and role models are not vacuous celebrities but people who have, necessarily, kept the old virtues of hard work, self-discipline and aspiration. This will not last. Soon we shall go back to endless gossip about celebrities, including loutish footballers, and the accepted “virtues” of instant gratification and celebrity for no apparent reason. Of course, Olympic medal winners are not particularly useful as role models in another way: very few people can achieve those standards. If we do want children and young people to aspire to achievement we need to present them with models they can emulate with some hope of success.
The cult of celebrity is not particularly new as a swift reading of past publications can tell us but as Peter Whittle points out, its overwhelming importance that excludes and dismisses the more traditional virtues that allowed people to achieve things in life is something new and immensely harmful to several generations of children in this country who find themselves unable to compete either with their coaevals from other countries or from the private educational sector.
Other problems raised in Being British – What’s Wrong With It? are the deliberate destruction by the self-hating political elite of pride in one’s country and one’s culture, the whole idea of multiculturalism related to it, mass immigration that is both cause and effect of it, the dismissal of working class virtues, their destruction through all the above and the overwhelming and rapacious welfare state, and, above all, complete ignorance of the country’s history. Of these I personally consider the last to be the most important. (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?) Not knowing or understanding the past means an inability to understand the present or to imagine a future. Once or twice I found myself vigorously shaking my head in disagreement. For instance, history tells one that riots were a reasonably frequent part of English life till late in the nineteenth century as was criminality. All too often when Britishness is invoked the reference is to a relatively short period of around 100 – 120 years from around 1820 to the beginning of the Second World War, when the state took over the running of people’s lives, never properly letting go again and stifling all the many very good qualities that those people possessed. Nor am I impressed by any sentimental feeling towards the 1950s. A swift look at the films and books of the period will show a decade of greyness and depression despite the political hype (for how else would one describe Harold Macmillan’s famous comment about never having so good and one of net emigration. People did not simply talk about wishing to leave as they appear to do now according to the author of Being British but actually did so in large numbers.
Nevertheless, the main argument of the books is entirely accurate. Britain has created many good things in the country and in the world though often those who did the creating were the ones who found many of the solid British virtues tiresome and stifling, a curious contradiction noted by George Orwell many years ago, but those achievements have been deliberately denied and belittled by a weird self-hating elite. The people of the country have been deprived of their history, of their pride and self-respect. Given that this is a country and a culture that has been admired and emulated across the world (though not the NHS) it is strange and disturbing to see its denigration at home.
However, Peter Whittle (who is, incidentally, a good friend as well as the Director of the New Culture Forum) sees many causes for hope. The future might be brighter than the immediate past. People seem to be refusing to knuckle under: they remain stubbornly proud of their country and its achievements, they want to learn about its history and they are waking up to the importance and necessity of all that has been taken away from them. Let me recommend this book to anyone who is perturbed by what has been going on and would like to see the hopeful signs to develop into something more lasting.
This review will also appear in the forthcoming Salisbury Review
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Submitted by peterwhittle on Tue, 2012-08-07 08:15.
Peter Whittle's new book Being British: What's Wrong with it? (published by Biteback, £12.99)has been receiving strong media attention in the wake of the Diamond Jubilee and with the Olympics coming up.
So far it has been the subject of a major centre-page spread in the Sun, recommended in the Daily Telegraph and explored in a feature in City AM.
This week Peter was interviewed about the book by BBC Radio London, which you can listen to here.
Being British: What's Wrong with it? is available at Waterstones and all good bookshops, and of course, at Amazon
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Submitted by peterwhittle on Thu, 2012-06-21 15:38.