Nige reviews a handy new guidebook…
The publishers Plexus, perhaps emboldened by my unearned reputation as ‘Cravat Wearer of the Year’, sent me a copy of this handsomely produced little volume to see if I might be interested in it. Of course I was.
Manly Manners for the Impeccable Gent is a reissue of a 1961 title by one ‘Guy Egmont’, described as ‘a shining specimen of modern manhood’. The designers have done a lovely job with it, breaking up the text with typographically inventive ‘pull quotes’ (as we hacks call them) arranged in various bold and decorative fonts, sometimes forming the shape of what is being written about: for example, the words ‘Never call a soft hat a trilby unless you are a detective, which you are not’ are arranged in the shape of a trilby – sorry, soft hat.
This is a book that takes you back to a gentler, more innocent, more decent age, when manners counted for something and were never to be forgotten, even in the workplace. Though workplace is far too strong a word for the office environment presented here – a long-lost world of short hours and long lunches, compliant secretaries, strong drink and good cigars, contacts fostered on the golf course or in the gentleman’s club.
Egmont presents some tips for getting on in business, but his book is many miles from any modern self-help manual for the aspiring exec: ‘This manual is primarily devoted to teaching tact,’ the author declares at the outset. Tact! I don’t think that’s on the syllabus of the Harvard Business School.
This book also, as advertised, teaches manners, in the most humane sense of the word – being amiable to all, wherever they may be in the social scale, never being unkind, taking care to be especially polite to women, and presenting yourself as best you can, simply to make the world a more agreeable place for all. ‘It is not clever to be deliberately unshaven,’ says Egmont, to silent cheers from this reader, though the war against stubble is now sadly lost.
The author’s world is one where everyone wears a hat (and the ladies all wear gloves), and here he is on hat etiquette:
Always take your hat off if a woman is present in a lift belonging to a block of flats, private house, or hotel. But it is quite unnecessary to do so in a department-store lift. Always take your hat off to woman you know if you meet in the street. Don’t just tip it… If you pass a woman in a narrow space, lift your hat. Always walk on the side nearest the road when you are escorting a woman…
Ah, words from another age (though even today I instinctively follow the last dictum). It was an age when the middle classes still had servants, when gulls’ eggs were ‘smart and inexpensive’, when the ‘hi-fi’ was such a novelty that Egmont can airily refer to its ‘stereoscopic’ properties, when stiff collars, wing collars and cigarette cases were still around, when suede shoes were just beginning to be accepted – ‘unless they are black, in which case they are thought to be slightly la-di-da’. It was also an age – or a world – in which women were either secretaries or wives. By far the shortest chapter in the book is ‘Egmont’s Wife’ – there is no whiff of feminism in Egmont’s world.
The true subject of this book becomes apparent in the chapter titled ‘Egmont the Urbane’ – it is ‘the profession of swanning or Egmonting’, which seems to involve achieving a high level of worldly success without apparent effort, staying at the best hotels, dining in the best restaurants, enjoying ‘the season’, etc. ‘You must be a first-class ladies’ man, dress well, be a connoisseur of wines and food, in fact you must be a complete cosmopolitan.’
At this point, I found myself reflecting that anyone who had actually achieved that kind of life would hardly bother writing a book about it – he’d be too busy enjoying himself, and would have no need of the money. But we don’t know anything about ‘Guy Egmont’, who seems to have nothing to his name but this one book.
There are wise words in this volume – ‘Try not to hate people. It is too exhausting’, ‘”As ever” is a crafty sign-off. It can so easily mean “As never”’, ‘Remember that pacifists are very belligerent’, ‘Never play boule. It is both common and silly’. Actually, the last of those is debatable.
Some of Egmont’s dicta, though, are a good deal more questionable: ‘To break you neck out hunting is the epitome of smartness’, ‘Never talk about your wallet. The word is pocketbook. You never cash a cheque; you change one’ – and, get this, ‘There is no such thing a cravat’! Whaaat?