Sorry! The English and Their Manners, by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $28)

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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