THE people whom we are most wont to despise are those who are most similar to us. It is, as Freud termed it, the narcissism of minor difference. According to this precept, the producers of Behaving Ourselves: Mitchell on Manners (Radio 4, Monday to Thursday) and The Etiquette Guide (Radio 4, Monday to Friday) will have been eyeing one another suspiciously across last week’s schedules.
So similar were these two series in concept that the only explanation for their appearing in the same week is that neither was courteous enough to budge. Behaving Ourselves, fronted by David Mitchell, should, perhaps, have been granted precedence, in that it had the wider remit; but it would have needed a courageous manager to tell the presenter of The Etiquette Guide, Ann Widdecombe, to stand aside.
Mitchell is the perfect guide to English manners: his persona is one of annoyance simmering under a lid of embarrassment. His comic inability to confront enables him to create a substantial comic riff out of the line “Do you mind if . . . ?”, which normally precedes some wholly anti-social infraction of good manners.
Guided, in part, by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, his take on the history of manners was essentially relativist: that we have devised customs to differentiate ourselves according to class. Good table manners, for instance, might, at first, seem as if they have arisen through a concern for good hygiene. But, as Professor Stephen Mennell pointed out, doctors were all for the health benefits of spitting at table until the aristocracy decided that it was infra dig., and then spitting became unhygienic.
Widdecombe takes a more universalist approach to etiquette, even when considering the contemporary rules that surround behaviour on the internet. Thus we were introduced to the pioneering work of Virginia Shea, whose 1994 book Netiquette presages many of the rules that we might hope would govern modern online interactions, such as to respect privacy, and imagine you are talking to your interlocutor face to face.
Sadly, it does not work like that, and the registers of communication used on the internet are as multifarious as the platforms that enable such communication. One suspects that any grand theory of communication in the modern age is going to be behind the curve.
One person who knew how to use and abuse manners was the late Pierre Boulez, whose death last week added an extra gravitas to the Radio 3 season “New Year New Music”. As a young composer, Boulez was not afraid of outrage; as an older conductor and cultural politician, he was not shy of glad-handing.
The music showcased on Radio 3 last week may have borne witness to a turning away from Boulezian techniques, but Music Matters (Saturday), in particular, reflected a genuine end-of-era sensibility. The composer Oliver Knussen recounted how, when Boulez appeared at a performance of one of his more “accessible” pieces, he felt like a teenager caught by his father in possession of a dodgy magazine. I suspect that there are several composers working today who share that ambivalent feeling about the great man.