August 01, 2015

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We all agree that a world without manners would make this a pretty grim place to live in. Offensive informality is pretty much accepted nowadays, and manners are at times seen as a superficial activity. But good manners are as much a part of our culture as great books, great paintings, and great classical music. Occasionally, of course, one can carry good manners too far. My friend Timmy, a gent and a gem of a man, has exquisite manners, a couple of titled daughters, and a fondness for beer. He never fails to thank his host or hostess, and makes it a habit to do so in print. Not too long ago, perhaps five to ten years, he persuaded a friend of his, a speechwriter for the Tory party, to allow him to serve as a waiter at an orgy. Yes, I know, it sounds funny, but even Tories like sex and some of them even have orgies. Not to beleaguer the point, Timmy dressed up as a butler and was given a tray and allowed into the inner sanctum of a grand London house where the gig was on. The moment he walked in, however, he burst out laughing, dropped his tray, and was unceremoniously shown the door by a couple of naked men with drooping you-know-whats. When I heard about it, I asked Timmy what the hell was wrong with him. “I simply couldn’t keep a straight face,” he said. “Watching a naked man with a huge erection demanding to know the host’s name in order to thank him made me drop the tray.” “So who was the host?” I asked. Timmy wouldn’t tell me, but I soon found out, in a national newspaper, of all places. He was a Tory speechwriter, and he organized heterosexual orgies on the side, but has since stopped the practice. I know the man well. They don’t come any smarter or nicer. Go figure, as they say.

“While we Greeks were inventing democracy, building the Parthenon, writing tragedy, practicing philosophy, and understanding the cosmos in general, the Brits were scratching their furry parts and eating roots.”

The thing that sticks in my mind are the impeccable manners of the man with the huge erection trying to locate his host in order to thank him. I’m afraid had I been in Timmy’s place I most likely would have done the same. I think Julian Fellowes should include a similar scene whenever he writes the next Downton Abbey, it would make for verisimilitude and make those nobs he venerates and writes about a bit more believable. Mind you, bad manners can also ricochet at times, as it happened in my case around 20 or so years ago. My childhood friend Atalanta Goulandris was getting married to Stephane Griparis in a grand Athens wedding at her house in a northern suburb of the capital. Atalanta was a barrister and had invited hundreds of law types from merry old England. Needless to say, the booze flowed uninterruptedly, the music and the dancing went on until dawn, and somewhere in between I was asked to say a few words to her guests. I was well in my cups and stood up on a stage and welcomed them. I then announced that for their benefit there would be doggie bags provided to get them through their Grecian stay. The British contingent cheered. I then praised the newlyweds and reminded the visitors that while we Greeks were inventing democracy, building the Parthenon, writing tragedy, practicing philosophy, and understanding the cosmos in general, the Brits were scratching their furry parts and eating roots. The grandfather of the bride, a wonderfully old-fashioned gentleman, thought it the rudest thing he’d ever heard. “These are our guests, and they are foreigners to boot,” he told me.

Never mind. Brits are known for their sense of humor, and back then their food was nothing to write home about. For days afterward, however, whenever I’d run into an English contingent scrounging around an Athenian beach, they’d ask me where the doggie bags were. Well, guess who needs doggie bags nowadays? It’s us Greeks, no ifs or buts about it. But quickly back to orgies. About 30 or so years ago, I was asked to speak to the law society of Oundle School. I suppose it was because I had lost four libel cases in a row, and the society must have thought I was an expert. My only advice was as follows: If you are defending, and the plaintiff looks like someone who would make love to his wife in an orgy, settle immediately. Otherwise go to the bitter end.

It is bad manners, of course, to write about such things as orgies, but it beats writing about celebrities, or what passes for a celebrity these plebeian days. Manners matter, even if they can be fatal, according to a Telegraph writer. Gerald Warner has written that Britons are more endangered because of their hat-tipping tendency to stand aside while brash foreigners extricate themselves from tricky situations. Warner is obviously of a certain age, because there are very few hat-tipping Brits around. My favorite story about manners is that of an old lady dining in a grand Parisian house and feeling herself dying. “Quick, bring the dessert,” she told the footman. She was not overcome by greed. She simply wished to hurry the dinner along as not to drop dead before the party rose from the table. Now, that’s what I call good manners, perhaps less funny than the man with the huge erection trying to locate his host in an orgy, but infinitely superior.


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