Abuse and litter in the age of contempt
By Lynne Truss; Profile Books pound;9.99
I readily and quickly apologise to people, but I then get annoyed when they frown or otherwise don't accept the apology gracefully. In fact, driven by the confidence of advancing years, I've started to challenge them, usually with, "Come on! This is the bit where you smile and say, 'That's OK'." This produces interesting results.
"Look, I've got flu and I didn't want to be here in the first place," said the man I trod on at Birmingham Hippodrome.
"It was actually the third time you'd done it," was the very mild response of the person whose Achilles tendon I nearly severed with my luggage trolley in a queue at the airport.
Both encounters demonstrate that the English qualities of tolerance and grace under pressure are alive and well, in other people if not in me. Any book that provokes supportive stories from readers ("She's right! I was in Tesco the other day...") is going to be a winner, and this one, like its predecessor, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, works by lashing out at the blithe shamelessness, both corporate and personal, with which we are surrounded.
You name it, Lynne Truss has a go at it. Banks which expect you to do their work for them. Shopworkers who talk across you, or ignore you. People who throw rubbish out of car windows. Parents who allow their toddlers to trash your house.
She's quick to deny that she's just ranting: "I need hardly defend myself against any knee-jerk 'grumpy old woman' accusations, being self-evidently so young and fresh and liberal." What worries her about modern manners, which she specifically claims not to be writing about, at least not in the "correct knife and fork" sense, is that they're a symptom of something more worrying. We now live, she believes, in an age of contempt, exemplified here by two chapter titles, "Booing the Judges" and "Someone Else Will Clean it Up". It's a world where nobody can accept being corrected, let alone told off. Experts who make strong judgments are jeered at and challenged as if they are perverse simpletons (observe the behaviour of the audience of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing if you want to see this in action).
"Many parents nowadays," she writes - all teachers are now nodding - "(believe) that if a child has reached maturity and is not intimidated by anyone or anything, a fine job of parenting has been done."
Schools don't escape criticism. "Every so often, a television experiment will place ungovernable modern schoolchildren in a mocked up old-fashioned school with bells and a merit system, and they not only visibly flourish and calm down, they even learn the capital of Iceland and a bit of Latin grammar."
Now you and I know this is an over-simplification; she's forgotten that what's on the screen is not a social experiment but a television programme.
Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with a school knows that the people there work their socks off, in the face of the tidal wave of moral rubbish that Lynne Truss so well describes, to impart exactly the values of respect, community responsibility, deference and care that she longs for.
Teachers still, too, claim the right - the duty - to make expert judgments, to tell children they're wrong, and to teach them how to accept correction and learn from it.
I do admit to some loopholes in school courtesies. Are we always as polite to children as we want them to be to us? Are we mindful of the problems of other colleagues: cleaning staff, for example? And do schools of all places - likely to be phoned, after an evening of heart-searching, by a worried parent - really have to join the rush to install automatic call answering? On the other hand, I'm not convinced by the author's international comparisons. French shopkeepers may be excessively courteous, but have you ever driven across France with a Renault Laguna half a metre from your back bumper? Or seen the uncertain bewilderment with which a French driver greets your friendly "after you" wave?
There isn't much optimism in the Truss message, although she does see what she calls "a big plus side to the breakdown of formality", which is that we all experience friendly, casual encounters more often than we used to.
That's surely true. Without that informality, train journeys and visits from plumbers wouldn't be half so interesting. We don't need, surely, a return to the English reserve that we once actually boasted about.
The full version of Lynne Truss's title is "Talk to the hand, 'cause the face ain't listening" and I first heard it from a seven-year-old girl, a relative. I grabbed her hand and kissed it. Maybe that was rude, too, but it's always worth a try.