27 April 2022

Courting the good life, just remember to mind your manners

| Sally Hopman
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Book cover

Back in the 1950s, if you didn’t want your cocktail party to be a terrible bore or needed to know what to do when you bumped into royalty, this was your bible – Manners for Moderns. Photo: Supplied.

Thank heavens for second-hand book shops, “modern” manners and a sense of humour. Where would we be without them? Illiterate, rude and probably really cranky.

Back in 1950, Ray Allister wrote a book that, no doubt, made life a much better place for everyone who read it. Called Manners for Moderns, it was billed as a “much-needed book of up-to-date etiquette”, full of handy hints on how to cope with everyday life.

Things like how to act when you accidentally bumped into royalty, or had to leave a party “gracefully” or be popular abroad “though British” by being a good tipper. Then, in what probably should have been the sealed section, what to do when you had to go on a business trip with your boss and his single room and your single room were on the, wait for it, SAME FLOOR!

If there is a “mistake” and the secretary finds she has an adjoining room with her boss, it is up to her boss to get her another room, the book says. If, for some reason, no room is available “she must accept the situation with dignity and good sense”. The secretary is also warned against “expecting anything more than office life in a different setting when she is away with the boss”.

“If she does she is an inexperienced little fool – and life is awfully hard on fools”. And, it seems, secretaries back in the 50s.

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But perhaps the most helpful chapter is the one entitled, Meeting Royalty, full of helpful hints for the subjective folk among us.

Like how to curtsy: the right foot goes back with the knees bent and the curtsy is just a little bob. And a warning for the blokes: the bow does not come from the waist. Don’t know exactly where it should come from but, as long as everyone’s bits remain fully covered, God will save the Queen.

The first step, it tells us, if you want to meet royalty, is to be presented at court. No, we’re not talking drink-driving here, more like the royal court where really important people and their diamonds sparkle their way past the rest of us.

Apparently there’s rather a lot of bother to get to court, unlike downing too many shandies, but apparently it’s worth it. You get to curtsy in front of someone you don’t know while they look around the room for someone more noble.

As far as tipping is concerned, it’s like the war: don’t mention it. Our learned author advises that when you’re travelling, the best person to ask anything of is the public relations officer of the shipping line you’re travelling on. (Sorry, if you’re going by plane or train).

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“The public relations officer at the head office of the shipping line will give you information on everything, except tipping. It is the ostrich-like habit of shipping companies to pretend that tipping does not exist.”

In what can only be described as a stern preface, the author writes: “Etiquette – a frightening, fascinating word! A French word which I don’t intend to use in this book. I hate its suggestion of stiff old ladies and foppish young men in a supposedly charmed circle, raising supercilious eyebrows at any other human being who tries to come in, but does not know the passwords.”

That’s a bit harsh, Ray. We originally thought Ray was a Mr – until we checked the back of the book and there she was – not a man. She was also, clearly, according to the following back cover notes, the perfectly correct person to write the book:

“(Ray) made her first attempt at social competence when she was three. Her mother told her to talk nicely to her grandmother. Ray climbed into an armchair, pulled her frock over her knees, and said solemnly: ‘My gwoodness! Servants are a twouble!’ Ray remembers how hurt she was when Granny failed in social competence by laughing.”

But wait, there’s more. Prior to writing this gem, Miss Allister had secured a Diploma in Journalism at London University, as well as an honours degree in economics. Just saying.

Original Article published by Sally Hopman on Riotact.

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