Manners, in common with the English language, are in a constant state of flux. Behaviour deemed to violate convention by a past generation is now seen as acceptable, or at any rate unexceptionable.
Keeping up with what is acceptable as we make our way through the thickets and brambles of society is a problem, which might explain why Patricia Lee, wife of the vice-chancellor of a reformed polytechnic, Leeds Metropolitan University, has written a guide to modern etiquette.
She castigates those who tap their glass to attract attention – “the height of rudeness” – and those who tuck their napkin into their shirt collar – “the height of vulgarity”. Those two censures show Leeds Met in a most favourable light, since those of us who struggle beyond its ivy-clad walls and may only dream of tea and crumpets in the cosy rooms behind its ancient mullions daily see far greater heights of vulgarity and rudeness scaled.
Even so, she is surely right to offer guidance, and inspired by her example, though not hoping to equal her achievement, this column presumes to offer its own guide to modern manners. My modest effort is intended for use by that estimable body, VisitBritain, which may care to pass it on to foreigners planning to visit this sceptered isle. It is my belief that to fully experience and enjoy a country different from one’s own it is a considerable advantage to be able to blend, unseen as it were, with the locals.
v Personal appearance. Both men and women planning to visit these shores should first be tattooed and fattened up. Men should shave their heads and, if possible, should have a thick fold in the skin at the base of their neck running parallel to the shirt collar. Speaking of shirts, these are worn outside trousers. And speaking of trousers, these should be three-quarter length in summer and tracksuit bottoms in the winter months.
v Food and drink. Waiters may be summoned in a single, easy-to-remember word – Oi! Your fork is used both to push comestibles into the mouth and as an all-purpose indicator to emphasise verbal communication, which ideally is made through a mouthful of food. If you have small children with you, they should be allowed, or indeed encouraged, to run freely around the premises and to stick out their tongues at fellow diners, this being an English form of greeting.
v Motoring. It is not necessary either to give way to other drivers at junctions or roundabouts or to signal one’s intentions. Motorways are joined by entering at speed from a slip road and proceeding immediately at still greater speed in a diagonal direction through to the fast lane. As you execute this manoeuvre other drivers will sound their horns in cheerful acknowledgment of your skill and bravery and raise their forefinger and second finger in a cordial salute. The correct response is to raise a single middle finger.
v Public transport. English buses and trains are delightful places for relaxed social intercourse. Therefore, feel free to board with not only your luggage, for which a central aisle is set aside, but also a cheeseburger and fries or, since it has an even more penetrating odour, a Cornish pasty. If the seat opposite you is free, rest your feet on it. Should this result in sideways glances from other passengers – the English are notoriously reserved – raise your middle finger (see above) and grin. As an ice-breaker, this seldom fails.
v Queueing. A national pastime. The procedure is as in other countries with one exception. When waiting at a bus stop stand well back and to one side of the shelter. Then, when the bus stops, step smartly forward and board ahead of other passengers.
v Mobile phones. These instruments provide an opportunity for the English to shed their natural reserve (see above) and flourish an extrovert spirit that lies just below the surface. With a Nokia in his or her hand, the user will freely share intimate details of his or her personal habits, love life, tastes and preferences at the top of his or her voice. Feel free to do likewise and luxuriate in the friends it will win you.
v Shopping at Britain’s favourite store. You are expected to enter Marks & Spencer in the spirit of a voyager of discovery. The shopkeeper will have hidden the item you want and it’s your job to try and find it. Having at last succeeded, you must then locate someone willing to take your money. This may prove impossible. You will, however, have been out of the rain for an hour or two. v