EVIE PRICHARD needs to be less like her breasts.
There are two things in my life which I consider absolutely sacred: manners and grammar. This can become confusing, as these also happen to be the names I’ve adopted for my breasts.
They sound a bit like Gladys or Phyllis, leaving me imagining two pudgy old ladies stapled to my chest; peering out of my bra in disapproval, grumbling when I dance too energetically and every now and then making a bid for freedom when they think my top’s too low-cut.
Flights of fancy aside, manners and grammar are two of the most useful weapons we have against the outside world. People listen to you when you can speak properly, and people want to help you when you’re polite to them. I was watching the BBC’s 2003 series ‘Cambridge Spies’ the other day (a must-watch if you like your Cambridge patriarchal and full of lurking Nazis) and one of the characters came out with the best defence of manners I’ve ever heard. I’ll paraphrase, but roughly he said, “Always open doors for the elderly and always be the last to leave a lift. That way, no matter what else happens in your life, there’ll always be people who like you.” Even if you become a professional kitten killer or resurrect the dinosaurs in later life, carry a stranger’s suitcase up a flight of stairs and there’ll be at least one person in the world who doesn’t want you dead. That has to count for something.
Both manners and grammar have their downsides, of course. Always get ‘whom’ right and there’s a very real danger that the rest of the world will think you’re a pillock. With manners it’s a little more complicated. They have us enduring long conversations with drug addicts while we wait for the bus, or pretending we’re going to consider letting the light of God into our lives, or apologising when other people barge into us. And that’s just the sane among us: I’ve done much worse.
It’s particularly in romantic situations, I think, that manners backfire spectacularly. Take the time a friend and I bumped into one another facially at a teenage house party. The next day I nodded politely along to his ramblings on the subject; by the time it dawned on me that what he was trying to do was ask me out, it just seemed too rude to stop agreeing. Thirty-six torment-wracked, diary-scribbling hours later I finally got up the nerve to set him straight and earned myself the most emotionally loaded gesture we groovy 17-year-olds could share: the “shortest relationship ever” high-five.
A lot of female friends of mine can report similar, if less pathetic, situations. Let things get to a certain level and it just seems rude to tell someone to stop there. Once you’re dancing close-up with someone you can’t really stop them kissing you; once they’ve walked you home it’s hard to tell them to leave. And I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s felt unable to repulse drunk guys intent on doing an incriminating limpet impression all over my neck. In my case, though, the boy was a biter and I was scheduled to appear in a Pinter play the next evening. Not exactly the place for gnawed, swollen lips and a neck with a bad case of bubonic plague.
This is the real danger of good manners – they can become warped until instead of representing a code of conduct they become a sort of weakness. I hate to make this a gender thing, but anecdotally at least it doesn’t seem to be a problem that boys have to deal with.
Take, for example, the friend I wrote about last week. This boy (let’s call him Dave) stupidly forgot to put a time-limit on my permission to make him look like an idiot in print. I’m therefore at liberty to report on the night – actually the same one on which he tried to have sex with my ex-babysitter after my father’s sixtieth birthday party – he went home with Moustacha, the moustachioed 26-year-old (who demands this kind of reaction).
He got all the way back to her flat, listened to the Rite of Spring, pocketed her underwear and still felt comfortable running away as soon as he noticed that she had a single bed, and that she’d made more than her fair share of anti-Semitic comments.
I think we could all learn a little from his example.