I just surfaced from immersion in an article about etiquette – the kind of thing that brings out the zealot in certain people and transforms them into pre-occasion monsters – what sort of gift to bring to a party, how many drinks should be the maximum, whether to formally introduce anyone lower in rank than a Duchess, and so on. Not a pretty subject (well, not to me) and not a new one, either. In fact, the days of ‘finishing school’ and ‘Coming Out’, while not entirely behind us, have dwindled into a rather comic back-cloth, like those back-projection movies shown through car rear windows on old silent films.
And I quite miss them…..
In my world I am one ant in thousands carrying a bit of leaf back to the nest. I am a six-figure number on a Government computer, vaguely scared in case someone presses the wrong button. I’m a file in the system; Google has a picture of my house, when I go to buy a pair of shoes someone asks for my address, when I go to buy a TV the retailer already knows my address….
Great grandfather proclaimed himself a ‘Society Photographer’. He married an impossibly air-headed flapper (my great-grandmother) when he was fifty and still using the kind of camera that required his subjects to remain motionless while he went for lunch. Technology had moved past him, but he didn’t care, and what is more, he was very successful. He drove an open-topped Morris Oxford down the centre of every road in London demanding loudly that elderly pedestrians and other motorists get out of the way. He died of a stroke at ninety-two.
My grandfather was a merchant sailor with a master’s ticket. When they finally gave him a ship he got his own cabin, which he lined with bottles of brandy. He died aged forty-four, probably of alcoholism, though I like to think he baled rather than face a life in retirement running a Torquay guest house.
Aunt Daisy was a coiffure’d Edinburgh lady who swam and dived in the sea of etiquette as only a Scottish lady can. Long and elegant, she pronounced any form of ribald enjoyment ‘sinful’ and was devastating in her criticism of bad Scottish dancing. She also put away prohibitive amounts of very good sherry without turning so much as a hair. Her house was always filled with flowers which Uncle Hubert insisted should be stripped from their vases and re-deployed for her funeral. Uncle Hubert was parsimonious in other ways too. At dinner he was famed for his detailed examination of restaurant menus. His habit of carrying menus from several different restaurants with him and openly comparing them with the fare offered did not necessarily endear him to waiters.
In my youth I befriended a sign-writer: not one of those undoubtedly highly-skilled guys who cut out and stick vinyl letters onto plastic, but a genuine original with paints and brushes and a ladder. The back seat of his car was a mass of colour with spilled paints and congealed brushes stuck all over it. The car only had three gears and Harold had never learned to change them, so he drove everywhere in second…..
Where have they all gone, these probably unpleasant but colourful, interesting people whose lives were defined not by what they were, but by who they were? In today’s world ‘The Gov’nor’ my great grandfather would have quailed before digital technology and his driving or his manners would have ended in a gaol sentence. Shipping in the English Channel would be far too busy for my grandfather to miss all of it, and Daisy would be a sad old woman buffeted by a busy street.
What of Hubert, confronted by ‘fine dining’? Driven downmarket, might he have resorted to Pizza Express? Imagine, if you can! And Harold the sign-writer? Well, the times caught up with Harold long before the retirement he richly deserved. His craft died far too long before he did.
The obvious common characteristic of each of these individuals was just that – their individuality. What was so different, then? When did we become the sober, calculating machines that people the modern Metropolis? How did it creep in, this insidious ‘patterning’ we are told we all must follow? What, in floods and volumes and avalanches of individuality have we suppressed – have we lost? Orwell warned us, and we thought we listened, didn’t we?
So this New Year I raise a calculating glass (150 calories, 75cl alcohol content) to those who turned the grey street of my past into a kaleidoscope of colour and I wish them well, at whatever stage they have reached upon their journey. They may have sworn at me or made me laugh, hit me or kissed me, but not one of them would be seen carrying a bit of leaf back to anyone’s nest.
(media courtesy Microsoft clipart)