A recent jaunt through the NSW South Coast town of Bermagui sparked a friendly family rivalry over whose forebears had the starchiest, most severe manners. (I doubt many young people could contribute to such a discussion in these fallen days.) This was occasioned by a visit to the Bruce Steer Pool, where a somewhat hagiographic council plaque honoured old India hand and relative-by-marriage, Colonel John Mansel Bruce Steer, fisherman and all-round community developer. He was pictured posing beside a giant marlin, his military bearing and authority exuding from his SAS-style beret down to his dark fatigues, looking as though he was about to lead a night raid on to the beaches of Crete.
My husband and I both grew up under the thumb of ramrod-straight elderly female relatives for whom speaking with food in your mouth or holding your knife and fork pointed skywards were hanging offences. To apply feminist Anne Summers’ memorable phrase, they were not ‘Damned Whores’ but ‘God’s Police’. These were grandes dames with bosoms, not breasts, who never wore trousers, who once in a blue moon got ‘tiddly’ on one or two sherries, who kept proper houses with well-polished silver tea sets, now clogging up op shops across the land, and who, despite having far fewer clothes than most today, were always smartly turned out.
My grandmother’s tales of woe formed a strong entry. As a child she pinched some chocolate cake from the pantry and was discovered – one didn’t eat between meals or snack at will. She was forced to sit and eat the rest of the whole cake in front of the assembled household, humiliated and sickened by her cake overdose. Another time she cut off her long hair, also an infraction of the rules. Her mother made her sew the hanks of hair back on to her remaining locks and walk about looking like a fright. Line honours, however, went to my husband’s Hong Kong socialite godmother, titanic in both personality and bulk, who swept imperiously through Alice Springs on a family trip in the mid-1960s. Her dementia failed to diminish her sense of propriety and following her afternoon naps she would emerge to demand bacon and eggs breakfasts from the bewildered dinner staff, confused by her nap into thinking it was morning.
To be fair, these grandes dames were grooming their young for an era in which your social status could and would be judged by your table manners or your vowels, a strict and unforgiving society which must seem unimaginable to today’s young. Rules were rigid, clear and enforced.
How things have changed in 50 years. Now a Brittany Higgins can get drunk and end up unconscious and naked in the nation’s most prestigious spaces, without incurring condemnation; indeed, she has become a praised public figure by behaving in a way which would have seen her relegated to the social dustbin previously.
Manners themselves, like so many foundational precepts in our society, seem to be in freefall. We are even confused about that most basic of protocols, how to greet each other, with the Anglo tradition of shaking hands and nodding heads recently giving way to the European kiss on the cheek, perhaps two (and for Belgians, it’s three). Some older Aussie men fail to pick up the finer points of this new behaviour, and imagine that wet mouth kisses are called for (they are not). The China virus has changed things again, and now we also have fist or elbow bumps, usually accompanied by laughter to cover the awkwardness of it all. Some determined souls grimly adopt one form of greeting for all occasions, which only works if everyone remembers it. Otherwise the outstretched hand meets the incipient kiss or hug and the usual contretemps ensues. No one can be sure any longer what the appropriate manners are, so far has our social fabric frayed. In Oprah’s notorious phrase, we all have ‘our own truth’, and this includes our own manners, which too often means hardly any manners at all.
In little things, so in big. In this case small things like manners are the equivalent of broken windows policing at a wider, community level. If society ignores minor disorders like graffiti, litter and broken windows then society is on a path to putting up with much worse criminal behaviours that shouldn’t be tolerated. What does it say about the West now that we cannot even unite around such small things as manners – or pronouns, or gender, or whether to include our Christian heritage in a national education curriculum? Our decay in the small, intimate matter of manners mirrors our society’s wider loss of unifying values and cohesion.
Recently I attended the launch of academic Scott Prasser’s new book Robert Menzies: Man or Myth, a short monograph on Australia’s longest-serving prime minister and the founder of the Liberal party. Prasser told a story about Menzies’ retirement, when he found himself neither wealthy nor propertied. A group of businessmen chipped in and offered to buy Sir Robert and Dame Pattie a home in Malvern, Melbourne. Sir Robert accepted the gift only on the condition that when the house was eventually sold, the proceeds should go to charity, not the Menzies family. Public service was his motivation and it carried through even into his departure from public life, into something as private and no doubt desirable as a suitable home. Such heights of altruism and integrity seem inconceivable these days, emblematic of a culture in which, for all the historic faults that we hear so much about, high standards of behaviour were understood and admired, even if frequently honoured in the breach. By contrast, a Black Lives Matter activist turns out to have amassed a property portfolio while working for the poor and oppressed in her movement. Self-indulgence is more the rule these days, so commonplace it barely makes a scandal any more.
Humans not only like clarity, they need it, in little things and in big. Too much choice, and too few clear rules make life anxiety-inducing, the equivalent of walking daily through a social minefield. Historic artefacts such as the Bruce Steer Pool memorial remind us that life used to be different, and could yet be again.
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