Unbelievable

GuardianKBushletter

Kate Bush is doing some concerts in London. You’ll have spotted this. It’s front page news, as she hasn’t done any concerts since 1979. I love Kate Bush’s LPs, especially the first four, which she isn’t apparently playing, and the fifth, which she is. I’ve lost my appetite for attending gigs, but these do sound rather special and a consensus seems to have been quickly arrived at that she’s on fine form, and, if you are old enough to have been at gig-going age in 1979, it was “worth the wait”. When an artist gets this much attention, and adoration, it can be a bit irksome if you happen not to like that artist, but really, move on, listen to something you do like. It’s not compulsory to kneel at Kate’s bare feet. Which is why I was taken aback to read the above-scanned letter in today’s Guardian. The full text goes like this:

• I played viola on Kate Bush’s last LP, and laughed myself silly at her nonsensical lyrics about snowmen. The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon this manifestly overrated singer is rather depressing, and summed up by your reviewer when he describes an audience who “spend the first part of the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause”. Enough said.
Bill Hawkes
Canterbury

When I started reading the first line, I expected to hear from a musician she’s worked with who wanted to add his or her own special perspective on this positive music event. But no, Bill Hawkes, Canterbury, is a viola player with an axe to grind. That he goes on to call Kate Bush “manifestly overrated” is ultimately a matter of opinion (to dismiss someone as “overrated” usually means you don’t rate them and can’t understand the fuss, but it’s still subjective and thus arguably valid). But to prefix this with a cheap dig at a former employer and to reveal that you “laughed yourself silly” at the “nonsensical” lyrics to which you were paid to provide viola accompaniment is simply bad manners.

GuardianKBushletter - Version 2

I looked up Bill Hawkes and he seems to be a viola player of some note. Born in Cambridge in 1967, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has been a violist in both the Balanescu and Nigel Kennedy String Quartets, also playing violin for Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. He’s obviously very confident in his ability, and perhaps with good reason – he must be to publicly belittle someone he’s worked with and to admit to “laughing” behind their back in the studio. I don’t have my copies of 50 Words For Snow, her last album, to hand, so I can’t confirm his contribution to it, although the thorough Discogs.com listing makes no mention of him, and his own, fulsome entry on the same site omits to mention any Kate Bush album. Which leads me to wonder: was he left off the credits, and is that his beef? If so, he should have said.

Maybe she was horrible to work with. Maybe she trod on his foot during the sessions, or stole his parking space. Maybe there’s some other bad blood we don’t know about, but there are ways and means of processing this – tribunals, even! – and name-calling in a public forum isn’t one of them.

I posted the link to his letter on Twitter, and many agreed with my assessment that Bill Hawkes is at the very least, even in the context of a personal or industrial dispute we don’t know about, an impolite man – and one who seems unconcerned that his actions may also make him look unprofessional. Assuming he is a freelance musician for hire, this looks a lot like an own goal. By all means have your say about the overratedness or otherwise of a famous artist in the public eye – write a letter to a national newspaper if you feel so moved – but don’t mock their work from the privileged point of view of someone who’s previously contributed to it. Is the current mania for Kate Bush really “rather depressing”? A female artist who dares to be over the age of 30 being received with great enthusiasm by – again – mature music fans attending actual live gigs in a recession? Regardless of who that artist is, there seems little “depressing” about it.

To reiterate, my point here is not about Kate Bush, it’s about good grace and picking your fights wisely and thinking before you press “send” (dear God, let’s hope he didn’t send the letter in the post). A couple of people on Twitter who agree with the opinion that Kate Bush is “overrated” basically defended Mr Hawkes on the grounds that he was “right” (or, that they agreed with his opinion), but even if I thought she was overrated, I wouldn’t be very impressed with the wording of this letter.

David Arnold, one of the few people I know who might actually look to employ a violist, said on Twitter, “It’s an odd way of asking for your p45.”

The Manners Manifesto 2012

It was new year, 2008. I felt it was time to “solve the problems of the world before it’s too late.” I know, a lofty ambition. But I’d worked out that we held the key to making the world a better place and that waiting around for politicians to sort it out for us was going to be a long one. I was pretty concerned about the environment in those days (still am, but I’m rather more fatalistic about the planet now – it’s clearly too late to save it), and none of what I went on to propose was going to mend the sky or wash the oceans or slow down the melting of the ice caps. It was simply a desire to adopt Derek Batey’s famous sign-off from Mr & Mrs:

Be nice to each other.

What followed was The Manners Manifesto. I felt then, and I still feel now, that it is within our gift as individuals to make the world a better place, especially the world immediately around us, by returning to – or a formalising the continuation of – good manners. I republish the Manners Manifesto here as more people subscribe to and read my blog, and I have more “followers”, thanks to Twitter, and I feel it may strike a few chords with the decent folk who “follow” me. Also, I wanted to give it a spring clean and update it to include manners on the internet, a burning issue.

Here’s how we do it:

  1. Smile. Not all the time. Not at everybody. They’ll lock you up. But smile at the person who sells you your ticket at the station. Smile at the person behind the counter at the newsagent, and be glad we still even have ticket sellers and newsagents. Try this: look at yourself reflected in the train window, or the shopfront: your default face is one of tight-lipped, frown-headed anxiety. And with good reason. Now reconfigure it. Don’t show your teeth, this is England (or at least, it is where I’m standing) – but allow your lips to soften into a grin.
  2. Say please and thank you. I’d like a medium soya latte, please. I’d like one Lucky Dip for Friday’s Euromillions, please. Even if you insist, for whatever American reason, on using the phrase, “Can I get?”, suffix it with the p-word. It feels good coming out of your mouth. Combined with a smile (see: 1), it actually takes the edge off the sheer ritualistic, mechanical joylessness of an everyday transaction.
  3. Let that car in. Driving is a blinkin’ nightmare, especially in the cities, and even more especially in London. I’ve almost reached the point where I not longer use the car at all, and am contemplating a car-free future. Hooray. But in the meantime: you’re in the car, and you want to get home, or to the shops. Of course you do. It’s only natural. But so does that person ahead of you, indicating that he/she wants to cross the lane that you’re in, to make a right turn. Why not flash them through? It’s one of those maddening high streets that starts at the traffic lights with two lanes then almost immediately bottlenecks into one because of a bus lane, or a parked lorry. Come on: one at a time. You can keep edging forward to keep them out, but they’ve got to come in at some point. Why not now? And if someone lets you in, give them a friendly wave in the rear-view mirror. If someone cuts you up, or crosses in front without indicating, or jumps a light at a box junction and blocks your path, for a change, why not pull back from mouthing the word “c***” or “twat” at them, which won’t alleviate this temporary snarl-up; it will just make the atmosphere worse. Roll your eyes at them, or do an exaggerated tut, as if to say, “Cuh! The traffic, eh? We’re all in this together, and the sooner we get home, or to the shops, the better!” (To avoid being called a “c***” or a “twat” yourself, don’t drive into box junctions on amber, and use your indicators.) As I was told when I was learning to drive in 1982, driving is easy, it’s all the other drivers that make it difficult. You are one of the other drivers.
  4. Be friendly to strangers. We were brought up to be terrified of strangers, but we’re all strangers until someone introduces us, and only a very tiny percentage of the people you pass in the street will be paedophiles or murderers or knife kids. Most will be just like you, except with a different coat on, or a different bone structure, or with a few more miles on the clock. So if someone asks you directions, don’t run away, or pretend that you’re in a hurry, try to help them. Make them feel less like a stranger. Sometimes, the stranger will be shy, and would rather stand around looking lost than risk the humiliation of asking someone directions. If you see this, intervene.
  5. Help old people off or on the bus or train. There’s an etiquette here, so let’s use our discretion. Not all old people consider themselves old, and might look frail and in need of a seat, or a leg-up, but if you barge in there, they get embarrassed. It’s a minefield, but better to be the first person on a bus or in a carriage to offer your seat to someone with grey hair than to sit there, not knowing, willing someone else to do it first. I have found that helping people off or on the bus or train gives you a lift (ironic!) for the rest of the day. And not just the elderly – people with pushchairs, or loads of bags, or the infirm. (Helping blind people without guide dogs is another tricky one, but again, try and judge the situation on its own merits. Blind people are not usually afraid to ask for help, in which case, give it, and don’t run away, thinking, ha ha, they can’t see me. I think we all know not to pat or fuss guide dogs, don’t we? They are irresistible and the most noble of all dogs, but we must resist the urge, as it puts them off their job.)
  6. Say “No, thanks” to Big Issue sellers. I rarely buy the Big Issue. But I smile and say, “No thanks” to Big Issue sellers, which, in terms of manners, is better than looking at the floor, or regarding them with contempt for slowing down your walk to the bus stop with their untidy appearance. Let’s be honest, they’d rather you bought a Big Issue. But if you prefer not to, look them in the eye, smile, and say, “No thanks.” Your relationship with the homeless is a delicate one, especially in a recession where you might be the one in debt, and worrying about that, while the person without a home has a different set of worries. (You could have to sell your home at a loss; he or she doesn’t have one to sell.) I was once approached on the beach at Bournemouth by a beggar who claimed he had lost the return half of his train ticket in the sand. He was obviously a liar. I still gave him some. There are no hard and fast rules. I am more likely to give money to a homeless person who has a dog, but that’s just me.
  7. Be polite to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, I do object to people knocking on my door after dark, as I always think of the old lady I used to live next door to in Streatham, who would have been terrified of a knock after dark, even if it was from an accredited British Gas salesman hawking for her electricity business. I think it’s OK to pretend you’re not at home if the doorbell goes after dark. You’re doing it on behalf of the old people. But if you do answer the door and it’s a young lad with a case full of inferior cleaning products, or two smartly dressed men asking if you ever think about Jesus Christ (or at least getting to that key question after luring you into small talk about non-religious matters), just politely tell them that you are not interested or that you are busy and smile as you close the door. No matter how annoyed you are for being disturbed, at least you can go back to the telly – they have to keep knocking at all the other doors, which must be shit. I am even polite to canvassing politicians.
  8. Never swear at people on the other end of helplines. They are just doing their job. If they cannot help you, ask to speak to their supervisor. During my BT problems in the summer of 2007 (by far the worst stretch of customer dissatisfaction I have ever experienced – but then again, I am not a Santander or LA Fitness customer), I reached the point of no return and calmly informed the Scottish gentleman on the other end of the line that I was about to swear, but not at him, only through frustration, and that he should not take it personally. Then I swore. (“This is fucking ridiculous,” were my words.) I’m not proud, but I think this preface helped. Keep them in the loop. Stay calm, and if possible, stay PG certificate. There’s enough tension in the world of customer service without blaming it on someone with a job on the other end of a phone. It’s not his/her fault, it’s the system’s, or the management’s.
  9. Never, ever drop litter. This may seem to be outside the remit of manners, but it’s not. It’s about respecting the space we share. It’s an extension of smiling and being nice. I’ve seen grown adults eat the last crisp in a packet and literally let the packet drop from their hand to the pavement below, without even a look back. Putting a coffee cup neatly on the pavement is no better than chucking it, overarm. Put it in a bin. If the nearest bin is full, take it to the next one. That cellophane bit around the cigarette packet? Just because it’s see-through doesn’t mean it isn’t there when you drop it to the floor. I live near a parade of shops with a KFC-copycat chicken outlet on it; pretty much every morning, especially Saturdays and Sundays, I see boxes and bags with this place’s logo on them, dropped in the streets adjoining. Clearly, late nite chicken eaters are beyond the niceties of etiquette, and maybe even drunk. I tut to myself at them, even though they have long gone. Even drunk people should be ashamed of littering. At least vomit can be sluiced down.
  10. Leaving bags of stuff outside charity shops when they’re closed? Come on! The signs are clear enough. Just because you’re a superhero for giving an old jigsaw and some jumpers to charity it doesn’t mean you can just dump bin bags by night with a clear conscience. Yes, the old ladies who work in there are volunteers, but does that mean they can think of nothing nicer at the start of a working day than sorting through your rain-sodden rubbish before they can even get in the door? On the same ticket, if you’re recycling cans or bottles, don’t just tuck the empty plastic bag down the side of the bin because fuck it, if they want you to save the planet, they can chuck your sticky bag away as well.
  11. Talk to people at the checkout. You don’t have to say much. God, even something inane like, “Busy in here, today, isn’t it?” or “Not as busy as usual in here, today, is it?” might put us on the road to peace in the Middle East. People everywhere are, by and large, just doing their jobs. When a man or woman in a brightly-coloured kagoule offers you a free newspaper, the very existence of which makes your blood boil, remember that it’s not his or her fault – they’re just trying to earn an honest crust, like you – so smile and say, “No, thanks” (see: 6). It takes a second. You don’t even have to stop walking. Likewise, if someone tries to give you a flyer, or a card, don’t take it as an affront. And if their technique is to hold their arm outstretched in front of you, which is an oppressive, invasive action, why not say, “Excuse me” as you push past?
  12. Don’t swear when there are kids about. I do, occasionally, if I forget when – say – I’m in a family-friendly eaterie, and it’s not nice. Reel those swear words in.
  13. Think before you post that nasty comment online. Seriously. Read it back. Then imagine you are the person who’ll be on the receiving end of it. How would you like it? If you’re on Twitter, have you “@”-ed the person you’re about to insult into the Tweet? If so, remove the “@”. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and to like/dislike anyone in the public eye. (If you’re replying to a Tweet, check first that you’re not automatically replying to everyone “@”-ed into the original Tweet. Do they all need to read what you think?) I reserve my hate for elected politicians, dictators and people who are cruel to animals, but even then, I would think very hard before insulting them in a public forum. There are some Tories in the Cabinet I hate with every fibre of my being, but not personally. Save your hate for the system that allows the super-rich to avoid tax and for murderous tyrants to stay in power and for the planet to be polluted industrially because of the power of unregulated industry with deep pockets. (Most of the crimes committed on the internet are basically down to manners. Do not say anything to anyone online that you wouldn’t say to their face. Simple as that. And if you must post anonymously – I don’t really have a choice – do not use that cloak of anonymity to be a more horrible bastard than you are in person.)
  14. Oh, and don’t talk, eat loudly or text in the cinema. Basic stuff. The cinemas – even my beloved arthouse chain the Curzon – sell crunchy food. It’s their fault, ultimately, but if you must buy crisps or popcorn or sweets in noisy bags, try and time your racket with a racket on the screen. Talking is only permitted at the lowest possible volume, a comment whispered into the ear of an adjacent companion and no conversations. And turn your phone off, you moron. (Sorry to have to call you a bad name, but really?) If your wife is likely to go into labour, or a relative is about to die, stay by his or her side; don’t leave him or her and go into the cinema and leave your phone on. (I’m assuming that’s why people leave their phones on in the cinema? I mean, it has to be something life or death, right?) Key thing to remember: the cinema is not your front room. Other people have paid to come and sit in it. Respect them with your actions.
  15. Get out of the way. I have always thought that the world is divided into two types of people: those who get out of the way, and those who don’t. As long as we pretty much divide down the middle, this can work. But what if there are less people who get out of the way than those who do not? Anarchy. Why don’t we mix it up a bit? Get out of the way most of the time, but not always. Roll with the situation. I walk across the super-crowded concourse of a major London railway station most days. It’s amazing there aren’t more punch-ups. That’s a lot of people all going in different directions at once, crossing over all the time. It takes your full attention to avoid collisions. Give it. (This covers that most idiotic and perplexing of acts, texting while walking. Any activity that involves you looking down and not ahead while walking is a bad idea. This also includes reading a book. If you must do either, stop and stand to one side. I speak as someone who does occasionally text and walk when I think there’s nobody around, but they could be coming round the next corner, so unless you live in  the middle of the country, it’s still a bad idea.)

These are not impossible dreams, are they? The one that have survived from the first draft weren’t in 2008, and they aren’t in 2012. It’s all about a state of mind. It’s remembering that you share the planet, which is a lot easier if you first remember that you share Waitrose and the high street and the train carriage and the motorway.

There’s nothing in there to argue with, really, is there? It’s common sense. All I’ve done is arrange it into a nice list, with numbers, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Addendum:

I’ve already had a couple of excellent sub-clauses suggested via Twitter.

2a. Hold doors open. If someone holds a door open for you, say, “Thank you.” If you have just come through a door and someone else is coming through afterwards, hold it open for them. How hard can any of this be? And if you’ve just come through a door and it was closed before you opened it, close it behind you. This is extra pertinent on trains.

5a. A bag is not a person. If you’re on a bus or train and it is filling up with people, don’t wait for someone to ask you to move the bag you’ve plonked on the seat next to you. Take it off before that happens. There’s nothing worse – as you well know! – than having to ask to make this to happen if you’re standing up and wishing to sit down. And here’s a revelation: putting a newspaper up in front of your face does not make the tiresome other passengers go away. We’re still here.

5b. Don’t do anything on public transport that you normally do at home in the bathroom. I once saw a man actually clipping his toenails on a train once. His toenails (which as we all know are smellier than fingernails). He didn’t have a care in the world. I know it’s a cultural thing and probably a compliment in some countries, but let’s lay off the spitting, too. And even though some men pick their noses (and sometimes dispose of the contents orally – yuck!) without realising they are doing it, let’s start realising we are doing it!

5c. Let the people off first. It’s basic. It makes the world go round. If you wish to board a train, wait until people have fully disembarked before you step foot inside that carriage. And that means: nobody gets on until every single person who wishes to has got off. No crossover. If you were getting off, you’d expect nothing more. Here’s the newsflash: you will be getting off at some point.

11a. Put your phone down when you’re being served. Even if it is beyond your social powers to chat to the person at the checkout or the counter, don’t continue with a conversation you’re already having on your mobile. The same goes for texting. Have a bit of respect, and offer the person you’re expecting to serve you the full span of your attention. If your phone rings, why not take the call and say, “Sorry, I’m in a shop, I’ll call you back”? (Oh, and say “sorry” before you take it.) Equally, if you’re having a coffee with someone, whether it’s a friend or something more formal like a meeting, don’t take a call without first saying, “Sorry, this is really important, I’d better take this.” And then get up and move elsewhere. I realise that if you’re reading this and you’re of an age to have grown up with mobile phones, all of this simple etiquette is going to require some un-learning. But stick with it. We need to dial back from the unpleasant state we’ve got into with our always-on mobile devices. (I take great pleasure in turning mine off, but I realise I’m a maverick in this.) Real people come first, people on the phone come second.

(I’m all for further sub-clauses, by the way.)

Eatiquette

I must apologise once again for the scarcity of 2012 blog entries. If I’m not here, or popping up in a rectangle on the Guardian Culture website telling you what I think of a telly programme, or reading out some light-hearted news items on Radio 2’s weekend breakfast show between 7-7.30am, or timewasting on Twitter, you can be pretty sure I’m sitting in a library or coffee shop typing.

The second series of Mr Blue Sky for Radio 4 moves on apace, as they say, and it has little choice, as the deadline for delivery of six brand new half-hour episodes is the end of February. Since you ask, I’m almost through the first draft of Episode 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished, as we stacked up many drafts of the four episodes in series one before they were camera-ready, or whatever the radio equivalent is. We’re also having to re-cast one or two of the main parts due to that ol’ devil called availability. (I can confirm that Mark Benton will return to play Mr Blue Sky himself, but other principals are in flux.)

Anyway, I’m relying on Twitter as a form of what we shall quaintly call “staying in touch.” This morning, in need of a break from scriptwriting, I repaired to a Costa with my laptop (I still count it as a “screen break” if it involves a little walk), and threw out a hypothetical.

The response was mixed and interesting, so I thought I might throw it out again here, in a more formal fashion, and without the 140-character discipline. It is yet another question of etiquette and manners, which must be constantly updated and adjusted, so as to properly reflect the world around us, which changes constantly. When I was a teenager, I wore what we shall again quaintly call a “fisherman’s cap” inside the parents’ house of a girl I wished to woo, and it was only afterwards that I was informed of my social faux pas. Her Victorian parents were not impressed by my failure to remove the cap whilst under their roof, and I was oblivious.

It didn’t matter in the long run, as the girl was not in the least bit interested in going out with me, but I remember feeling a bit guilty for doing the wrong thing. As it happens, my hat was pretty securely fixed to my head by way of backcombed and lacquered hair at front and back, but the 19th century parents were not to know that.

Anyway, mobile phones did not exist in the early 80s. Nor did portable computers. And nor did something called “tablet computers.” Etiquette was more about hats and shoes, and taking them off when you went into houses. But things change, and these days, among many other things that annoy me as the author of the 2008 Manners Manifesto, it is increasingly the use, or misuse, or abuse, of phones that gets my goat. But this was new …

I was dining, with a co-diner, in a restaurant [not pictured] the other night. It was a local restaurant, and not “posh”, but it was the evening, and it was a cut above nipping into Pizza Express with a voucher, put it that way. The lighting was low, and candles flickered sensually from each table. This was not a Costa in the afternoon. It was pretty full. Along one wall, tables for two were arranged side by side. This is where we were seated. A solo diner was seated beside us. This diner might have been waiting for somebody to join them, but they were solo on arrival. We, meanwhile, had ordered, and were waiting for the starter.

The solo diner took an iPad out of their bag. They turned it on and started fiddling with it, reading and scrolling and clicking in the usual touchpad manner. The combination of the tilt of the iPad, the diner’s failure to adjust the brightness of the screen (which many on Twitter were quick to point out as a sensible option), the close proximity of the tables, and the low, some-might-say romantic lighting meant that the peripheral distraction caused by the lit-up 9.7-inch screen was more than noticeable, it was a problem.

I ask again: is this socially acceptable behaviour in the candlelit environment of a restaurant in the evening? The diner did not put the iPad away. They were not checking emails, they were using the iPad as a companion. Because the diner was alone, I felt some empathy. I have, in my professional life, dined alone on many occasions, and some of them in quite formal restaurants. As a music journalist, I was often sent off to other countries on my own (not always with a photographer or press chaperone), and as such grew accustomed to going into eating and drinking establishments on my own. I usually took a book, or a newspaper. Electronic versions thereof were not invented.

Had the adjacent diner pulled out a book, or paper, or indeed a Kindle, which emits hardly any vestigial light, I would have given them not another single thought. Indeed, I would have admired their independence. I actually think it’s a heartwarming sight to see someone so self-assured and confident that they are willing to walk into a restaurant, order and eat a meal. Why should they care about what anybody thinks? Go for it.

But the iPad is a new addition to the social armoury. And I personally feel that there is a time and a place for whipping out a glowing tablet, and a restaurant at night, with people sitting either side, is not it.

But I’m always interested in what others have to say on the matter. As I say, I have sympathy with the solo diner, and respect for them, but occupying one’s own space is paramount in mixed social situations. Flashing light around in the dark is just as much of an intrusion as talking loudly, or taking a call on a phone (which, if I owned a restaurant, I would ban outright). The glimpse of an illuminated screen in a cinema out of the corner of your eye is a major irritant. I have asked people with phones on to turn them off in cinemas, if I’ve felt that a knife would not come out. Just ask politely if the patron wouldn’t mind turning off their screen, as it’s distracting you from the film.

In a restaurant, it’s not so clear cut.

You may remember me writing about my dismay in 2008 that a family eating out – this time in a brightly-lit, unromantic Pizza Express – allowed their tiny child to sit with headphones on and watch a cartoon on a portable DVD player. My blog entry wound up a lot of parents, who didn’t see why their enjoyment of a pizza should be spoiled or their evening’s plans inconvenienced just because they’d given birth to a baby. It can be a sensitive issue. I don’t have kids. But I don’t want to be a fascist about it. (By the way, I said nothing on the occasion of the headphoned baby. Didn’t even sneer from a distance, or tut.)

You can re-live the Pizza baby debate here. But your thoughts on this latest conundrum would be welcomed.

The electronic teat

Your thoughts please …

Scene: Pizza Express, 7pm, Sunday evening.
Family of four enjoying a pizza-based meal. Mum, Dad, daughter (estimated age: four), son (estimated age: two). Son is eating doughballs. He is also enclosed in a large pair of headphones and is gazing, trance-like, at a portable DVD player. The DVD player is playing Finding Nemo. Mum and Dad talk to daughter, but son is completely isolated from family occasion, child-minded by Pixar. Soon, the daughter is allowed to share the DVD player by plugging in her own set of headphones and joins in the trance-like consumption of Finding Nemo, while the parents watch them. A waitress tries to make a jolly comment to the son, interrupting his gaze, and he starts to kick off. She leaves it. He goes back to uninterrupted viewing until the end of the meal.

Is this a good and happy world we inhabit?