An intelligent letter from a reader, Stanislas Yassukovich CBE, warms my heart. It’s nice to know there are others as appalled as I am by today’s so-called elite’s ghastly manners. Good manners, a rarity these days, are not a superficial activity. They serve a moral purpose, that of an inner unselfishness, a readiness to put others first. They are the opposite of brute force, concealing man’s natural belligerence. After the Titanic went down, it was revealed that first-class passengers had died in disproportionate numbers because they had queued in an orderly manner for a lifeboat. Forget the movie, that was Hollywood bullshit; Astor and Guggenheim, the two richest on board, chose not even to try to save themselves.
And speaking of Hollywood, where bad manners got their start, selfishly hostile behaviour among stars is as common as name-dropping, and diva-like attitudes have filtered down to their personal assistants, publicists, managers, trainers, stylists and nutritionists, not to mention their bodyguards. I once asked Martin Scorsese why he included so much swearing in his films, and cinéma vérité was his answer. In his movie GoodFellas, the F-word was used 212 times, whereas in the 1971 film Dirty Harry, despite the violence, it was used only once.
What I don’t understand (actually, I do) is why producers and directors and of course writers choose a constant diet of filth in their shows, and when I say filth I mean the most puerile and degrading kind. Well, I’ll tell you: lack of talent. The F-word, used with lots of blood and explosions, covers up their inability to tell a clean story without the audience falling asleep or falling over themselves running for the exits. Most great books contained no filth — the writers left that to the imagination of the reader. Needless to say, by now the battle for decency has been lost, what with the epidemic of vile, coarse texting in the schools where our future captains of industry and government are being ‘educated’. No society has been corroded as ours has, and don’t believe those Roman orgies ever took place (if they did they were behind Roman walls among patricians).
Patricians, of course, are no longer what they used to be. Here’s my correspondent writing: ‘It is not only striking that new money now rejects the taste and lifestyle of old money; manners and general behaviour are also unrecognisable. Both parents and children converse in strident tones and at a volume level suitable for a disco.’ Yes, new money no longer apes old money and its manners, and this makes for a zoo-like atmosphere. When I was very young, swearing was a real no-no. At boarding school and university, a gentleman never but never used profanity, something that is almost impossible to imagine nowadays.
Back then more than half of the American population was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, Wasp, and in my fraternity at university every single one was Wasp except for the poor little Greek boy. It was the time of Wasp ascendancy, both in Washington and New York. America’s role models were Wasp, Hollywood made films about rich, good Wasps, and the group supplied the role model followed by other Americans, whether Wasp or non-Wasp, who were on their way up. Somewhere along the line the Wasp ascendancy ended and its role models vanished. I cannot put my finger on why the Wasps lost power, but they sure did, and are now looked upon as exotic creatures whose dress is as archaic as their manners.
I was recently looking at a school yearbook of 59 years ago, and most if not all the names were straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tom Trowbridge, Gerald Foulke, Bucky Weaver, Billy Cook, Carleton Roll, Temple Brown, Sam Van Allen, I could go on. Today’s yearbooks are very different. Wasps were instantly recognisable by their dress, their mid-Atlantic accents, called Park Avenue lockjaw by some, and by their smell, Bay Rum. The last was to be found in all country club locker rooms such as the Bath & Tennis in Palm Beach or the Westchester Country Club. Wasps owned family houses they had inherited, and the more ramshackle the house, the older the family. There were no McMansions, as these new monstrosities are called, although Newport families did go a bit overboard with their ‘cottages’.
Wasps paid their taxes and served in the armed forces and avoided publicity, and the world thought of America as a kind of Norman Rockwell country, which alas it wasn’t. Still, it was a paradise compared with other places, and people from other places kept coming and coming and coming. In 1965 Ted Kennedy pushed a law through Congress that made it harder for white Europeans and enabled people from Africa and the Caribbean. Well, one can see and hear the results all over Manhattan. Race is all politically correct pundits talk about, and although more than 70 per cent of black Americans are born outside marriage, the old days are the bad old days and people like me who yearn for them are racists and secret Ku Klux Klanners.
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