When I met Sir Harold Acton, the famous aesthete, I was bowled over by his manners.
Whenever we entered a room at Villa La Pietra, his Florence palazzo, he held the door open for me. Not so strange, perhaps – except I was 11 at the time.
I later read that no one had ever followed Sir Harold into a room in his life. That is the quintessence of manners: putting others first, quite literally.
As a girl, the Duchess of Cornwall was told by her mother: ‘Talk! I don’t care what you talk about. Talk about your budgie or your pony, but keep the conversation going’
Manners were the bedrock of the Duchess of Cornwall’s childhood, too. As she recently revealed, “how to behave with people, how to talk to people” was engrained in her.
When bores came to dinner, young Camilla was never allowed to bunk off. Her mother told her: “Talk! I don’t care what you talk about. Talk about your budgie or your pony, but keep the conversation going.” Without that upbringing, she “would have found royal life much more difficult”.
I learnt more by example than draconian parental instruction. I was lucky enough to grow up bumping into my parents’ journalist friends, such as Auberon Waugh, formerly of these pages, and Alexander Chancellor, my predecessor as editor of the Oldie magazine. Manners are really a form of kindness, a way of making those around you have a better time; and you always did around them – they never mansplained, monopolised the conversation, told you what to do or told you off.
So what manners should we impart to children, these days?
“Always get to your feet when any adult enters the room, and approach strangers with your hand outstretched,” says Virginia Ironside, the Oldie’s agony aunt, who was recently struck by the manners of the children of the journalist Toby Young. “I was amazed to be approached by his son the other day, who immediately shook my hand, while saying his name.”
The polite post-war lessons of Camilla Shand’s youth impress even more, today, it seems. Perhaps as they’re fast falling from fashion.
“I was brought up not to say please – one is not pleading – but to lay on the thank-yous with a trowel,” says interior designer and socialite, Nicky Haslam. “’While you’re up, can you get me another drink? Oh, thanks, you are an angel, I’m so grateful, simply can’t thank you enough.’
“But now people are taught to be so horribly, speciously, run-of-the-mill polite that politeness has lost its intended aim of pleasing whoever one’s talking to.”
Some ‘stuffy’ etiquette rules are eternally useful because they are – the essence of manners – selfless; oiling the wheels of social interaction.
“All children should be encouraged to use napkins because, for many guests, the only thing worse than being seated opposite a child, is being seated opposite a child with food all over their face,” says Sam Taylor, editor of The Lady.
“Also, children need to learn that their only means of escape is to recite the magic words, ‘May I leave the table, please?’ It’s a request rarely refused.”
And if children are reluctant to learn these wise lessons? The answer, says Mary Killen, the Spectator’s agony aunt and Gogglebox star, is to get all Victorian on them.
“I know a child who was strapped to a chair, with his arms through a back-to-front shirt, with the button side done up on the chair back – to improve his posture,’ she says. “He’s now grown-up, with perfect posture.
“The same goes for a friend’s daughter, forced to do an hour’s piano practice every day as a child. She wasn’t allowed to open her birthday presents until she’d addressed the envelopes of the thank-you letters and had written the first paragraph. She’s about to become a professional piano player.
“The children brought up with strict manners are the best company as adults. They’re on time. They’re considerate. They end up with the best jobs and the happiest relationships.”
The Duchess of Cornwall may be grand, but manners aren’t a class thing. I’ve met some of the rudest people on earth in St James’s gentlemen’s clubs. “Manners makyth man”, as the motto of Winchester and New College, Oxford, declares; they also makyth woman, and makyth anyone of any background or intelligence.
“It doesn’t matter how many A-levels you have, what kind of a degree you have, if you have good manners people will like you,” agrees Kate Reardon, editor of Tatler. “And, if they like you, they will help you.”
Manners are much like muscle memory – once learnt, never forgotten.
“All our impeccable Johnson table manners were imported by our French grandmother, who was born in Versailles and extremely bon ton,” says the writer Rachel Johnson. “She insisted we ate crisps with a knife and fork, and made us look around the table to see if anybody needed salt, pepper or redcurrant jelly, before we put our faces into our nosebags.
“In Brussels in the Seventies, we had a heavenly Norland probationer, Mary Kidd, who made sure that we did not hold knives like pens, that we stood up when an adult entered the room.”
Even if manners are for life, that doesn’t mean they automatically pass down the bloodline.
“I have sadly failed to impart these crucial life lessons to my own children, but have only myself to blame,” says Johnson. “As for conversation – it’s every man for himself.”
For further information please visit http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/whatever-happened-teaching-children-good-manners/