At some point in childhood, most people have a grim epiphany when they realise that life isn’t fair. For me, that revelation came in the aftermath of a visit to my French penfriend.
When I was growing up, the protocols of deportment in the Shilling household were draconian – particularly when it came to table manners. Hands in your lap, not on the table; fork in your left hand, knife in your right; food to be conveyed from plate to mouth using the curved side of the fork (mashed potato came in handy here, for sticking the peas to the prongs); bread to be eaten in dainty bites, with the bitten slice laid to rest on the side plate between mouthfuls. And so on.
When I travelled to France, it turned out that my penfriend’s family were equally hot on etiquette. Why are your hands in your lap, my child? Ici we rest the wrists on the table. Tiens! Is that how you eat peas chez toi? But no. Fork in your right hand, bread in the left. No, we don’t bite it. We tear it. And then we put it on the table. There is no side plate.
Fine by me. In fact Gallic table manners had a certain logic that the genteel Anglo-Saxon version conspicuously lacked. In other areas, I was less successful: I’ve never forgotten the stony expression that froze the face of the until-then benevolent adult whom I accidentally addressed as “tu”.
Back in Blighty, my Frenchified table manners were not a success. “Honestly!” said I to myself, after the umpteenth telling-off. “Hands on the table, hands off the table. Prongs down, prongs up. What does it matter either way?” And there came my epiphany.
In the circumstances, you’d think that with my own child, I might have taken the Aleister Crowley view of manners – “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. I’d have been in good company if I had: a recent survey found that a majority of parents felt that trying to enforce traditional table manners made meal times into a battleground.
But for some reason I chose to make a fight of it. Not that it did me much good: the boy’s response to my suggestion that he eat his pizza with a knife and fork, rather than his fingers, was a pithy “Why?” – to which I found I had no adequate answer.
Elsewhere I did better. To this day he springs out of his seat on the bus for women and the elderly; and thank-you letters were never a problem, thanks to the brilliant wheeze from Willans and Searle’s How to be Topp – the Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter: (“Cut out hours of toil pen biting wear on elbows and staring out of windows”).
“Dear Aunt/Uncle,/Stinker/Gran/Clot/Pen-Pal,” this missive begins, “Thank you very much for the train/tractor/germ gun… It was lovely/useful/just as good as the other three… My birthday when next present is due is on…”. Etc.
Now that I’m out of the hurly-burly of child-rearing, it strikes me that good manners are essentially a matter of kindness. Children are, on the whole, naturally inclined towards empathy, and can usually see the logic of keeping your mouth closed when chewing, and not running around yelling at meal times.
As for the rest of it – the prongs and the elbows and the side plates – I’d be inclined to agree with my teenaged self that none of it really matters, were it not for an email from a friend who until recently ran the catering side of an Oxbridge college. His first task at the beginning of each academic year, he remarked, was to teach the young ladies and gentleman the purpose of a knife and fork.
- Telegraph UK