According to Ogden Nash, the reason the British aristocracy wrote so much is because they could never understand what they were saying to one another. Much of the advice proffered in Gentlemen’s Pursuits (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) from the pages of Country Life, seems aimed at people who can neither write nor talk.
Take this tip on how to jump a fence from Lieut-Colonel MF McTaggert DSO in 1924: ‘Umpty, umpty, umpty, one, two, three over!’ Even to the layman this sounds worryingly short on technique. By contrast, lighting a bonfire is regarded as a brain-knottingly complex business: ‘To start the fire, push lighted paper into the hole and at once the flames draw away with a roaring noise.’
The proper gent is someone who ‘always uses a butter knife ,even when alone’. But plainly there are other factors involved — an unquenchable appetite for slaughter, for one. Another correspondent, writing in 1922, practically swoons with delight as he describes shooting a crocodile — it’s best to catch them when they’re asleep and aim for the eye. Apparently ‘no compunction need be felt’.
But a gentleman does not lack a social conscience. In a piece about the joys of shooting parties, the writer adds that it’s a good idea to feed your beaters if you don’t want them drifting towards Bolshevism. At the same time, the proper gent, when not alone with his butter knife, is equally at home with dukes and draymen: the first Lord Hailsham was appreciated as a man with no enemies, ‘not even in the Socialist party’.