Sunday, January 25, 2009

A gentleman after all?

There has been discussion recently on the Times letters page, most of it feeble in the extreme as is sadly typical these days of the Times letters, of what is a modern definition of a gentleman. When this comes up, as it does from time to time, I cannot think beyond the wonderful Beyond the Fringe sketch about the railway lost property shop advertising 2000 pairs of ‘lost’ corduroy trousers. Jonathan Miller muses about how they came to be lost all at once, imagining a regiment of men detrousering on command at a predetermined point in the journey and marching off bare legged, to the horror of a watching matron in charge of a group of children – ‘turn your faces to the wall dears, while the ‘gentlemen’ walk by’.

The trouble with the sort of definition that Times readers come up with is that it is nearly always pseudo-funny or pretentious, when gentlemanly behaviour is more than anything a matter of good manners and certainly nothing to do with class. I had a supervisor once who might have passed at first meeting but soon revealed his true colours through his inability (it seemed more than a reluctance) to say please or thankyou to waiters or secretaries. (He also claimed to speak French but could not grasp that a feminine noun in French, such as personne remains feminine even when it refers only to males, a dead giveaway if ever there was one.) In fact it was almost a defining feature of British industry up to at least the sixties that senior ranks behaved in this way – the lack of please and thankyou I mean, not the bad French.

Which brings me to Alastair Campbell. I have long regarded him with the utmost distaste and have held it against Tony Blair that he would ever employ such a person. But from the rash of opportunistic memoirs that have appeared recently following Blair’s departure it is clear he moved in polluted waters. For Cherie Blair, in her own most untimely and inappropriate memoirs, made a number of uncomplimentary remarks about Campbell, including the accusation that he once referred to her ‘personal stylist’ Andre Suard as ‘only a fucking hairdresser’. Campbell denies this vehemently with what, if true, is a good working definition of a gentleman in the modern world. He claims ‘there are other direct quotations... which were not accurate, but this is the one I would like to deny, not least since it goes against the rule I have tended to operate most of my life, which is to save my harshest words for colleagues at or above my level within the organisation’. Of course this could just be an obtuse way of placing his boss’s wife in the pecking order of the Downing Street entourage.

Maybe for a final thought we should revert to Jonathan Miller, discussing the meaning of the famous sign that used to be found in train lavatories: gentlemen lift the seat. Was this, he wondered, a new kind of loyal toast, or maybe a latter day definition of a gentleman?

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