How to Behave in English Society
THIS IS a letter for snobs. Needless to state, neither you nor I are snobs. As a matter of fact, I have never met a man or woman yet who confessed to being one. Freedom from snobbery is like the possession of a sense of humor— everyone admits to both.
Of course there are all kinds of snobs—those who had a titled grandfather and live, like the Chinese, in a perpetual state of ancestor worship; those (and they are very numerous) who know somebody who had a titled grandfather; those who love to be seen in the company of celebrities; those who reverence the rich; those who are never happy except in the presence of highbrows, and find their greatest happiness in a magnificent intellectual confusion.
There are the travel snobs who once saw the Pyramids of Egypt and never let their friends forget about it. There are che honest snobs who love to see their names in the social column, even if it does no more than record that they poured tea or wore the same old green frock. There are the artistic snobs who am only read Russian authors, only enjoy a film if the dialogue is in German, and only look at a picture if it was painted a hundred years ago by a Frenchman whose name they cannot pronounce.
Finally there is the most virulent snob of all the selfmade man who in his vanity would deny the very existence of a father and mother and pretend that he created himself out of nothing.
I still realize that none of these classifications refers to a single reader of Maclean’s, and therefore I ask their forgiveness for devoting this space to what I might call, “A Guide to Canadian Snobs on how to behave in polite English Society.”
Climbing the Social Alps
"pYERY YEAR more and more Canadians visit the old country, and as they are highly popular I thought it might be as well to explain beforehand some of the intricacies of social life over here.
Let us assume that Mr. and Mrs. Julius McGregor, of Winnipeg, have arrived in London, and receive a note from Lady Smithers asking them to dinner at her house in Bel grave Square.
Now if Lady Smithers is merely the wife of a knight or a baronet and the McGregors still want to go, they address the reply to “Lady Smithers.” On the other hand, if the hostess is the wife of Lord Smithers
they write to “The Lady Smithers.”
This is important because nothing hurts a titled Englishwoman more than to be thought a Lady when she is something more.
On the other hand, when you meet her you drop the “The” at once. Even if you take her out for a
you a drink the next day and introduce her to a friend, you must not introduce her as “The Lady Smithers.” This all adds to the fun of English society, which consists of wondering who is who anyway.
However, Mr. and Mrs. Julius McGregor are by this time in their taxicab and on their way to the Belgravia abode of the Smithers. Julius is in a white shirt that is rather more stiff than a board, his wing collar is impinged in his throat, and he is in a bad temper caused by a combination of nervousness and a sudden nostalgia for Winnipeg.
“I’d give a million bucks, Madge,” he mutters, "if I could be playing poker with the boys back home.”
Madge says nothing. Like Napoleon taking over the command of the Army of Italy, she visualizes the victories that lie beyond the Alps.
A footman opens the dlt;xgt;r, and an under footman divests them of their outer garments in a hall which has all the charm of a refrigerator except its compactness.
A third footman takes a look at Mr. McGregor’s dress suit and asks, “What name, please?” as if to make sure they have not come in on someone else’s rain check.
Then they start upstairs. The footman throws open the door of an immense room warmed by a tiny open fire and there is a gust of conversation.
“Mr. and Mrs. Julius McGregor,” shouts the footman.
Fair Play at Dinner
T ADY SMITHERS detaches herself and comes forward with a preoccupied air but a pleasant smile. Two or three people glance at the new arrivals, but the rest go on talking.
Lady Smithers shakes hands with them. “It is charming of you to come. So nice. Let me see. Who don’t you know?” She takes a kxgt;k around and sees a walrusmustached old boy and a six-foot dowager who have run out of conversation.
“Charlie,” says Lady Smithers, “I want to present two
Canadian friends of mine, Mr. and Mrs. McGregor from Winnipeg.” The dowager smiles and shakes hands. So does Charlie. Lady Smithers disappears. The other sixteen guests go on talking. Charlie shifts uneasily on his feet. “What a lovely house,” says Mrs. McGregor desperately. “So close to everything, too.”
The six-foot dowager takes an appraising look round.
“It’s not really much of a place,” she says in a hoarse, out-of-door baritone. “Those imitation Adams ceilings are ghastly.”
Charlie looks up. “The drains are bad too, 1 hear,” he says encouragingly.
The door is opened and the footman shouts:
A gust of cold air and a good-looking young man about town arrive together. Lady Smithers welcomes him cordially.
"Sorry to be late; darling," says his lordship. "I’ve been sitting in a traffic block for an hour and twenty minutes.”
They disappear into the mob.
Dinner is announced and everyone trails downstairs. There are cards at the places, and eventually the twenty people are seated.
Mrs. McGregor, who is near the hostess, is served with soup. Her Canadian instinct is to wait until all are served, but she notices that each guest has begun.
This is important. If you wait at an English dinner, you will get nothing to eat. The butler has planned it all out, and expects you to eat as soon as served so that the servants can clear away in rotation. First served first cleared away, last served last cleared away. It’s just another example of British fair play.
Fish and .Slips
AÆR. McGREGOR finds himself next to a pleasant woman with diamonds that glisten as brightly as virtue. She smiles and says: “You are from Canada. Mr. McGregor. I was there as a girl at t he Quebec Tercentenary It was wonderful.”
Mr. M(Gregor warms up.
“Were you visiting friends?” he asks.
“Oh. no. I joined my father there. He was a sailor.”
Julius takes a lltMgtk at the diamonds and thinks of all the
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sailors he has known. She certainly had risen in the world.
“My sister lived for years in Quebec." she went on amiably. “Her husband was a soldier."
“Does your brother-in-law still live in Quebec?” he asks.
“No, he’s back now with the brigade.”
Julius gives it up. At any rate the fish has arrived, and he carefully takes up the fish fork to dissect it. To his astonishment, everybody at the table has a fork in the left hand and a knife in the right. Between them, the fish simply hasn’t a chance.
Julius blushes with embarrassment. Where was their etiquette?
Still curious he glances at his companion’s place card which has shifted accidentally toward him. It reads, “Lady Augusta Milldew.”
In other words, he has come into contact with the rigid rule of English society which forbids any mention of relatives or friends by their titles or ¡xjsitions. Of course Lady Augusta's father was an admiral, and her brother-in-law was a colonel in the Regulars and is now commanding the brigade of guards. But women who marry into the services always refer to their husbands as “a sailor, a soldier, a gunner or a sapper.”
If a woman is the wife of the permanent head of the Foreign Office, she says: “My husband is a civil servant,” which is exactly what the postman’s wife says.
But how is Mrs. McGregor faring on the other side of the table? By a lucky coincidence, she finds herself sitting next to Charlie who shows a lively interest in Canada, especially in the West.
“I’ve got a cousin out there,” he says. “I’ve forgotten his name but an awfully decent sort. We were at Eton together. I íe lives in Saskatchawitchewan.”
Mrs. McGregor swallows hastily.
“You mean Saskatchewan,” she murmurs.
“That’s right.” says Charlie. “He went out to Saskatchawitchewan after he was cashiered from the Blues. I’ve got some land out there in the O’Conagan Valley.” (He pronounces it the same as O’Donovan.)
“Do you mean the Okanagan Valley?” enquires Mrs. McGregor.
“That’s the spot,” says Charlie. “Right in the centre of the O’Conagan Valley. The blighter who sold it to me said there was gold on it.”
Here Mrs. McGregor was discovering that the English ear, which can absorb all the peculiarities of the dialects of India and Africa, is quite unable to catch the inflection of Canadian names of Red Indian derivation. She was also learning that there is hardly an Englishman or a Scot who has not relatives or investments in Canada—both of them frequently of a doubtful character.
And now as the dinner nears its end she is in for another surprise. Asparagus is served—not the thin pliant vegetable she used to know, but giant things like pieces of garden hose. Beside each plate is a little silver finger clasp with which to pick them up, dip them in the sauce and direct them toward one’s mouth.
She has her finger on the clasp when she notices that not one person is using it. Without exception they are doing it with their bare hands, and consuming the asparagus with dexterity and enthusiasm.
In fact she has encountered the one unbreakableruleof British dining etiquette. You may survive the outrage of referring to a napkin as a serviette or asking for a demitasse instead of a small coffee, but no one could live down the disgrace of using the silver clasp for the asparagus.
I do not explain, I merely record.
Stinky Breaks His Neck
A LL THINGS come to an end. even an English dinner. Lady Smithers has caught the eye of the principal woman
guest, and the ladies rise together like the sopranos in an oratorio and make their way out of the dining room.
For once I shall do the unpardonable thing and join the ladies at once, leaving Julius and the men to their cigars. Naturally I shall be the “Invisible Man.”
The pleasant business of coffee “Black or white?” “One lump or two?” gives a nice effect of informality to the gathering of.the women. Mrs. McGregor finds herself an object of interest. “How marvellous to come from Canada!” “What a wonderful country and such charming people!” Is Mrs. McGregor visiting England for long? If it would not be too much of a bore, would she and her husband come down to “our cottage in the country” for lunch on Sunday?
Mrs. McGregor is disappointed to find that Lady Forteskew lives in a cottage. She has not yet learned that up to ten servants in England it is a cottage, and after that it is “our place in the country.” It is all part of the English genius for understatement.
Everybody is charming. Cigarettes are lit by those who smoke, and Mrs. McGregor is made to feel that she has fallen among friends. Her heart warms and she starts to tell them about McMurtry Boulevard at home. To her own astonishment, she proceeds to lie in the most reckless manner. McMurtry Boulevard becomes something combining the chic of Fifth Avenue, the dignity of Park Dane and the expensiveness of L’Avenue Henri Martin.
Astonished to find that they are still listening, she goes on to give a picture of social life at home which would be unrecognizable even by poor old Gertie Jones who has written the society notes on the Gazette for twenty-five years and knows every dress by heart.
In fact there is no saying to what heights of fancy Mrs. McGregor, President of the Canadian Woman’s Club at home and Vice-Chairman of the Choir Committee of Watson Crescent Tabernacle, would have reached, when suddenly the woman with the baritone voice says:
“Have you heard the latest about Stinky?”
Madge stops abruptly and smiles to conceal her disappointment. All the others turn with a new eagerness to the female baritone.
“Stinky’s broken his neck,” announces the lady.
“What again?” chirps a little thing in faded yellow. “That’s the third time.” “Twice.” says Lady Augusta. “It was only his collarbone last year when he was hunting with the Belvoir.” (Only she pronounces it “Beaver.”)
Mrs. McGregor wonders if they mean Lord Beaverbrook, but is afraid to ask. And who is the man with the horrible name of Stinky?
“Puffy says that Stinky was the worst rider in the Greys,” puts in a fat woman near the fire.
“What rot!” ejaculates the hostess. “Puffy was always underneath the horse, so how would he know?”
Mrs. McGregor leans over to her nearest neighbor. “Would you mind telling me who Mr. Stinky is?”
“Good heavens!” The woman gazes incredulously. "He’s my cousin. Freddie Toll feathers. I thought everyone knew F'reddie. He is a darling but an awful fool.”
“Is Mr. Tollfeathers a soldier?”
“Who?” blinks the lady. “Oh. Freddie! No, he’s given up the army. The ]xx>r fellow is a duke now, and has to spend all his time working for the income-tax people.”
Mrs. McGregor withdraws into her shell. Once or twice she makes an attempt to elevate the conversation to “Gone with the Wind,” but Stinky has the floor and
once he has appeared no other topic has a chance.
For ten years I listened to stories of Stinky in England. Now when I hear him mentioned I get up and say there is a division at the House. That is one reason why men go into Parliament over here, to get away from Stinky.
It Can All Be Explained
TNOWNSTAIRS, Mr. McGregor is ^ smoking an opulent cigar and enjoying that sense of courage that comes from a substantial ingestion of meat and drink.
The talk is of politics. Julius likes it. He knows that all politicians in England arc straight, that all politicians in America are crooked and that all politicians in Canada are just a bunch of fourilushers and chisellers. You can’t fool Julius on politicians.
“I think Neville is doing a good job,” says the host, passing the brandy. “He certainly is better on detail than S.B.”
Julius shakes his head with perplexity. Neville . . . S.B. . . . Probably Chamberlain and Baldwin, but why don’t they say so?
“Winston was awfully good about Duff yesterday,” says another.
“They liked Duff at the War Office,” declares Charlie with the argumentativeness of a man not likely to be dissuaded from a point or a port.
“You ought to hear Sam on Duff,” remarks the host.
“For that matter,” drawls the tall young peer who arrived late, “you ought to hear Sam on Sam.”
“Haw! Haw !” laughs Charlie. “Isay, McGregor, are you saving that brandy for a christening?”
Julius passes the decanter and begins to feel his collar becoming too small for his neck. Who the Samhill is Sam. and what kind of a duffer is Duff?
“What do you think of Tony’s chances of becoming P.M.?” enquires a distinguished-looking general from the other end of the table.
“Oliver has a better chance, I think,” answers the host. “After all. Edie Derby still has a lot of influence and Oliver does his job well.”
Mr. McGregor draws a deep breath and takes his cigar out of his mouth.
“Mitch beat Earl in Ontario.” he blurts defiantly. “R.B. was sore as the devil, and Mackenzie doesn’t admire the winner either. We think a lot of Charlie at Ottawa. But my money is on Mitch.”
“How interesting!” comments his host. “I suppose you have a lot of racing in Canada.”
All of which is regrettable, but easily
explained. In the present British Cabinet, something like fourteen Ministers went to Eton or Harrow.
In a dinner party such as I have described, eight out of ten men present would have gone to the same schools. Eton and Harrow comprises the strongest trade union in existence.
Sam is, of course, Sir Samuel Hoare. Duff is Duff Cooper, Oliver is Oliver Stanley (second son of Lord Derby). Tony is Anthony Eden, Neville is Neville Chamberlain. Winston is, of course, Winston Churchill, and S.B. is Stanley Baldwin.
You must remember that the sons of the aristocratic English families are torn from their mothers at the age of seven or eight, and sent to boarding school until they are eighteen. Thus the monastic system of English education becomes the most jxnverful influence in their lives, so powerful in fact that they retain the standards and customs of schoolboys all their lives.
They do not mean to be rude by speaking of “Sam” before strangers. On the contrary, they pay you the compliment of assuming that you are “one of them” or you would not be there. I, myself, never got any nearer to Eton than once almost applying for a job as a bright youth to Eaton’s in Toronto. Nevertheless it is quite natural for me now to refer to “Winston” or “Neville” or “S.B.,” although I would speak of the Home Secretary as “Sam Hoare” and the P'oreign Secretary as “Eden.” In other words, familiarity increases with age.
If it seems a little strange to you or exasperating to Mr. McGregor, may I refer you, as he did, to Canadians’ own “Mitch” and “R.B.” At the same time, I agree that in the greater formality of Canadian social life, the host or hostess would make sure that a stranger understood exactly what “Mitch” and “R.B.” really stood for (if they knew!).
Nor is “Stinky” a purely English constitution. There are Stinkies in New York, Montreal. Toronto, and in the best circles of Vancouver. The only difference is that in England we have Stinky at his highest.
Flowever, the McGregors are now home at their hotel. Julius has removed his collar at last and breathes with relief. Mrs. McGregor has removed her shoes, which are of course too tight, and is enjoying the freedom of the feet.
“What a pretty woman that was on the right hawnd of Lord Smithers,” remarks the good lady. “Who was she?”
Mr. McGregor unbuttons his waistcoat. “That was Sawm’s wife.” he says enigmatically.
But then. I warned you that this Letter was for snobs.