A couple of columns ago I wrote about an incident that took place at the Eagle Club here in Gstaad. I indicated that if cowardice prevailed, I would go into detail (and I’ve had two weeks to think about those details). Well, cowardice did prevail, but although the Eagle has not lived up to the requirements of a club, what happens in a club stays in
a club. I need to live up to the standards of someone who joined 60 years ago and generously contributed to it financially when it was floundering and about to go under.
As I wrote a fortnight ago, the mix of gentlemen and low lifes is a toxic one. The latter are bound to step out of line and revert to type. Like throwing a punch from behind having misinterpreted a joke, or lying about what had taken place beforehand. Fraudsters should not be invited into clubs as guests, not because they might set up a crooked deal — which they would if they could — but because manners go hand-in-hand with morals, and a fraudster lacks both. A toxic mix indeed. And when my wife, who was born a serene highness into a 900-year-old noble family and has never in her life had a snobby thought towards
a fellow human being, feels insulted enough to commiserate with a woman by telling her she’s sorry the woman had to marry a man so common (no use going into details about that particular incident) it’s time to call it
a day. I’m off for good.
The irony is that I no longer like the place. A club cannot be run by a Mrs Danvers who, although an employee, chooses who comes in and who doesn’t. She will, of course, bring in low lifes. Having said all that, I wish the place well. My children are members and my grandchildren use it, but the next time
I cross its portals I will be a transgender black woman wearing fishnet tights.
Mind you, the days when men walked on the outside of the pavement and stood up when a lady entered the room have gone the way of high-button shoes. I am told that giving up one’s seat to a woman on public transport in America can land one in trouble. Feminists do not take kindly to what they feel is condescension. Edmund Burke thought that manners were more important than laws. Poor old Edmund, he wouldn’t exactly have been sought after by television producers seeking to push the boundaries nowadays. In fact, common courtesy might soon become a statutory offence.
Good manners are not a superficial activity. They serve a moral purpose. They illustrate that one is willing to put others first. A Schubert song, a Hopper painting, a Chopin nocturne, a Mozart aria; all strike a blow against the rudeness and the brutality of modern life. The great Paul Johnson wrote that a duel, with its code of conduct, was better than the murderous brawls in the streets, the punch from behind.
The media are at present obsessed with the Weinsteins of this world. But Hollywood etiquette has always been about reminding others that you are more important than they are. The level of hostility and the decline in civility in Hollywood reflect wider society, where young people remain glued to screens that depict vulgarity and violence. The raging cult of celebrity — the I-am-somebody-important-you-are-a-nobody syndrome — has spread throughout the world. Once upon a time, not only were celebrities gracious and polite in public, they also aped society swells whom they considered their betters.
Displays of selfish, hostile behaviour may be common in Hollywood and downtown New York — and even in London — but it’s not always the ‘stars’ who are responsible. The diva-like behaviour filters down, and personal assistants are as obsequious to their bosses as they are aggressively disdainful towards others. What is worse, however, is the modern cultural phenomenon of needing to shock and of letting it all hang out. The utter drivel I read every day from so-called celebrities shows that the two words most missing from today’s lexicon are ‘self’ and ‘respect’. Revealing things that one would hesitate to tell one’s shrink — I haven’t got one but some of my best friends do — is now commonplace, replacing the dignified silence that was once worth a thousand words. Whatever happened to reticence?
Yes, society is corroded by low lifes, but it was ever thus. Remember when men took off their hats when a lady walked into a lift or when they went into a restaurant or bar? Try telling a man nowadays to take off his hat and put up his dukes. Offensive informality was always more American than British, and I for one never minded that. The rural south always had better manners than the north, and where I went to school manners were more important than anything — except honesty. One never lied or cheated. And how brilliant was the great Hank Williams Jr who sang: ‘We say grace and we say ma’am/ And if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.’
I’m off to the Bagel, a week late already.