Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 28 September

Dear Thomas

I was curious to see the new Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, being interviewed on TV with rows of learned-looking books behind him. It’s a long time since we’ve seen anything like this, isn’t it? So I’m wondering if we should be concerned about what books we display. Or just not bother? Have books had their day?

Denise Temple, Littlehampton

Dear Denise

I think you’re right: books have suddenly become old-fashioned. How did that happen? Perhaps we should be encouraged that the new Brexit Secretary sets store by book learning, regardless of whether he’s read the formidable tomes on economics that were on view behind him. I’m sure he has. Yes! I saw that interview, too.

Those on the make have long known the value of books in giving a brainy impression. Years ago people used to acquire job lots from second-hand bookshops to create an instant-scholar effect, or even installed fake books, with the result that everybody’s books became suspect: had the owner really read them? Were they actually books? An alternative approach was to rather despise books in one’s best rooms as untidy, especially if left lying around. The most that would be permitted were a few carefully chosen ‘coffee-table’ productions featuring exotic luxury travel destinations, Royal Palaces, fabulous flower arrangements and so on. These publications, consisting mostly of pictures, were looked down upon by those fancying themselves as real readers.

Nancy Mitford never commented on books in the home, but I’m sure she would have categorised the sitting room/lounge equipped only with coffee-table books as dainty and pretentious, therefore non-U, whereas a true U person wouldn’t care. They’d be living among a rat- bag of books and magazines heaped about all over the place. The late Duke of Devonshire is an example of such a one, with a notoriously untidy desk in the middle of a room full of world-class treasures. HM The Queen is a little bit the same, although she is tidy, of course.

Now we’ve moved even beyond books. Everything’s gone online. Books don’t say anything any more. So-called coffee-table productions, being so much less expensive to produce, have lost their power to signal an elevated income. Drawing rooms have grown barren. Not even any videos or CDs, because all you need now for entertainment is a device and an ability to download. It’s a shame, but there’s nothing we can do about it. You go into people’s homes and find out little about them. Even if they do read, it’s probably on a Kindle. So, yes, do please display your books, or leave them lying around. You don’t have to have read them all – as long as you hope to do so one day. Your books must be you.


 WHAT TO DO ABOUT...The meat counter

All of a sudden, highways England is going to do something about tailgating. They’ve conducted a survey and found that the practice, or rather malpractice, is the most common source of annoyance to motorists, with nine out of 10 saying they have been victims. Just fancy that! You’d think they could have worked that out for themselves. I’ve never been able to understand why, amid all the talk of road safety, driving too close to the car in front, usually in a spirit of imperious out-of- my-way fury, is never mentioned. The worst is on the motorway, when you’ve carefully left the required amount of space between you and the vehicle in front and somebody drives into the gap from the other lane. Most of the time, luckily, aggression and rudeness is the extent of it, but a lot of serious accidents are caused by cars being too close. I may be deluded, but I think driving behaviour has improved recently. grand imperious carry-ons are no longer welcome in our poorer but happier world post the financial crash of 2008. I’m sure highways England’s campaign – don’t be a space invader – will have some effect.

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