Gentlemanliness is, without a doubt, Britain’s most enduring export. For Evelyn Waugh, writing breathlessly to Nancy Mitford in 1956, it provided no less than an explanation for ‘all our national greatness’. But, although he spent his entire life in thrall to the concept, he never explained what he actually meant by it. He, like most of us, assumed that you simply knew a gentleman when you saw one. Other writers have only managed to come up with partial definitions.
For George Bernard Shaw, a gentleman always ‘puts more into the world than he takes out’. Oscar Wilde thought that a gentleman is someone ‘who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally’. And for Surtees, ‘the only infallible rule we know is that the man who is always talking about being a gentleman never is one’. Sound points, all of them. But we feel that the rulebook could do with a good dusting off to bring it up to date. How does a gentleman comport himself on social media, for instance? What sort of car would he drive today? If you opened his wardrobe, what would you find in there?
In this issue, COUNTRY LIFE launches the very first Gentleman of the Year Awards, sponsored by Cordings of Piccadilly, designed to recognise and reward those in the public eye who embody the spirit of gentlemanliness. Far from being an endangered species, we believe that the gentleman is alive and well and thriving in modern-day Britain. Readers will be invited to submit nominations, but our panel of judges needs a yardstick against which to measure the candidates.
A modern gentleman always dresses for the occasion
After much deliberation, we have decided that the whole concept of gentlemanliness can actually be reduced to a straightforward formula. Put simply, a gentleman is someone who is at ease in any situation- and always puts others at their ease, too.
Firstly, and most importantly, gentlemen come from all walks of life. British public schools were designed to turn them out, but it’s by no means necessary to have attended one to fit the bill. Nor can the Etons and Harrows of this world insert what Nature omitted to include. Self deprecation, generosity, tolerance, thoughtfulness and a sense of humour: either you’ve been blessed with these gentlemanly qualities or you haven’t.
Edmund Burke was surely thinking along similar lines when he stated that the king may make a nobleman, ‘but he cannot make a gentleman’. And, when a notice was put up in a St James’s club that stated ‘Would the nobleman who has stolen my umbrella please return it’, the author pointed out, by way of an explanation, that it was a club for gentlemen and noblemen and that ‘a gentleman would never have stolen my umbrella’.
Appearances count, but not in the way you might think. Naturally, a gentleman is never underdressed and can be relied upon not to horrify the assembled company with a prettied bow tie. But neither does he overdress-and certainly never to show off. Bonfire jumpers and off the- peg reading glasses have an equal footing in his wardrobe with the smartest tailoring. And all the Panama hats in the world cannot a gentleman make. Perhaps Ian Fleming hoped that if he kitted James Bond out in enough Sea Island cotton and silk, he might pass as one, but he never does-he’s far too callous and self-centred. Really, the only cinematic Bond who pulled off an approximation of gentlemanliness was Roger Moore, forever affable and seemingly loath to squeeze the trigger.
What constitutes a gentlemanly career? Originally, a gentleman simply wouldn’t have worked. Gentleman farmers had a way of life, they weren’t doing it to make a living. Nowadays, needs must-and, in fact, leading a life of total leisure is considered rather ungentlemanly. Somerset Maugham held that it was impossible to be both a gentleman and a writer- not a view that the staff at COUNTRY LIFE espouse.
But can you be a banker and a gentleman? A bookie? A publican? Dickens thought not. ‘A gentleman may not keep a public house, may he?’ Pip asks Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. ‘Not on any account,’ comes the reply. ‘But a public house may keep a gentleman.’ Indeed, it may. Being a gentleman doesn’t mean priggishly passing on the Port. Getting steaming drunk is fine-the key is doing it in an appropriate setting. After one too many malt whiskies at his club, a gentleman might sink quietly deeper into the sofa. And, were he to find himself at a raucous do, he wouldn’t dream of putting a dampener on the proceedings by asking for orange juice. But he shudders at the thought of inconveniencing his friends by having to be poured into a taxi at the end of the night.
As this proves, you’ll know a gentleman not by what he says, but by what he does. Faced with someone baffled by an elaborate place setting, a gentleman will immediately start using the wrong knives and forks, too, so as not to embarrass them. Punctuality is his watchword. He engages cheerfully with children and animals, has a firm handshake, an incredibly obedient dog and never, ever makes a fuss. He still writes proper letters with a fountain pen and remembers that your great aunt has just come out of hospital. He is definitely not on Twitter, but might keep in touch with his godchildren (of which he has many) through Facebook.
Whether he lives in SW3 or Southwold, a gentleman’s focus is always local. He’ll stock the village church with jars of marmalade come Harvest Festival and will gamely judge the Prettiest Piglet contest at the fête if he’s asked to. He might attend Royal Ascot if he enjoys racing, but never simply to swank about. His car (it might be an ageing Land Rover, a trusty Volvo or an old MG) is primarily a means of getting from A to B-albeit a well-loved one.
If he plays cricket or rugby, he’ll do it scrupulously fairly (and often rather well), but he lacks the killer instinct needed to distinguish himself at a national level. Where affairs of the heart are concerned, gentlemen can find they lose out to Flash Harrys-at first, anyway.
Their straightforwardness makes them rather ill-suited to the chess game of seduction, but most women eventually come to recognise the value of a thoughtful, considerate chap, who arranges the next dinner date before the current one has ended and telephones you exactly when he says he will. Moreover, a gentleman- proverbially-makes love on his elbows. These points are just the beginning. We’ve chosen 10 inspiring men from literature who we think are perfect gentlemen and 10 who definitely aren’t. Some well-known friends of Country Life have given us their thoughts on gentlemanliness.
We look forward to receiving your nominations for the Country Life Gentleman of the Year. Good luck- and may the best gentleman win
Country Life’s gentlemanly commandments
1) A gentleman is at ease in any situation- and puts others at their ease
2) A gentleman is always on time
3) A gentleman dresses to suit the occasion
4) A gentleman will eat anything that’s put in front of him-but, left to his own devices, is happiest with unfussy fare such as omelettes and shepherd’s pie
5) A gentleman makes love on his elbows
6) A gentleman will occasionally be drunk-but never disorderly
7) A gentleman doesn’t flash his cash and is mindful of others’ financial circumstances when choosing a restaurant or booking group holidays
8) A gentleman is more interested in finding out how you are than in telling you about himself
9) A gentleman’s word is his bond
10) A gentleman can talk to anyone
A gentleman never:
* Sports a pre-tied bow-tie
* Drinks Malibu
* Buys fuchsia trousers
* Puts products in his hair
* Wears Lycra
* Writes with a Biro
* Forgets his wristwatch
* Plants gladioli
* Walks out on a play
* Owns a cat
* Finishes his food before everyone else
* Has a speedboat
* Adheres too strictly to sets of rules such as this one
Nominate someone for the Country Life gentleman of the year awards, sponsored by Cordings.
Which British public figure do you think deserves to be Country Life’s Gentleman of the Year? Email the name of the person you’re nominating, along with a brief explanation of why you think they deserve the title, to email@example.com before May 14. Alternatively, you can suggest names to us via our Twitter feed, @countrylifemag.
The longlist and overall winner will be announced in the June 11 issue of Country Life, which will be a special ‘Best of Britain’ number.