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SORRY! by Henry Hitchings


The English and Their Manners

by Henry Hitchings

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-374-26675-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

He might have been a Roosian, a French, or Turk, or Proosian, or perhaps Itali-an: Gilbert and Sullivan aside, the subject of Hitchings’ (The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, 2011) latest is the beleaguered, class-obsessed Anglo-Saxon and the very notion of “Englishness.”

The author opens with the 1977 duel at Wimbledon between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, the latter of whom put a face to the word “ill-mannered.” As Hitchings notes, we have all moved on: Today, “we find McEnroe’s conduct authentic, even courageous, while Borg’s seems that of an android.” Yet McEnroe still speaks to the central point of this book: that rudeness and politeness both stem from the same origin, namely, “twisting one’s way out of discomfiture.” And no one is quite so discomfited as a Briton trying to make sense of the elaborate rules that govern society (see Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean). Though the mores-and-manners school of national description leads naturally to stereotyping and isn’t much used by geographers or anthropologists these days, Hitchings clearly has fun with his subject(s), both the English themselves and the code of conduct that has evolved since the Middle Ages—when, he notes, someone commodiously counseled that “one should not attack an enemy while he is at stool.” Evolve is a useful term here, since, as Hitchings notes, manners are not static. For one thing, “English eating habits have become markedly less predictable,” even if sex remains “a subject mired in hypocrisy, mostly handled with either purity or prurience, often treated in a manner that seems a mixture of the furtive and the fetishistic.”

John Cleese’s observation that the English are the only people on Earth with clenched hair is more economical, but Hitchings’ book, if sometimes overgeneralized, is still a pleasure to read.