Last week’s readers tea party at The Spectator was a delight. You always suppose that the people you’re writing for are interested, intelligent and nice….and there you go: they are. But after meeting them, I’ve been brooding about the importance of, how can I put it, charm, as a class issue. One attractive woman – who had been telling me how, in the Sixties, she thought something was wrong with her if she didn’t get groped on the Tube – encouraged me to move on with the observation: ‘I must let other people enjoy you’. Graceful and expert.
For ages, coming from a background that was the reverse of grand – my parents both left school at 14 – I was always a bit on my guard when it came to charm, feeling vaguely ill at ease with those Etonians who would, in discussing an issue, remark: ‘Do you really think so?’ My own approach was a bit more gloves off. But then again, with an Irish background, you are used to a different kind of social ease; the sort that turns everyday conversations into a humorous exchange. It’s kind of good manners, making the best of things.
But what strikes me in the context of one of the most important social developments of my own lifetime – the transformation of the working class into an underclass – is the extent to which fluency, articulacy and manners are a class thing. It’s hard to say what I mean without sounding preposterous, but I can only say that there’s been a generational change; that the grandchildren of some working class people I know are significantly less able to handle social encounters well than the older generation did. It’s not mere etiquette; it’s a shared notion of good behaviour. It’s not true across the board – lots of young people from badly off families have lovely manners – but it’s a shift that I’m conscious of whenever I return to my home town – where jobs are, not coincidentally, far harder to come by than they were.
Last week, the editor of Tatler, Kate Reardon, observed that good manners are more important than good grades when it comes to forging a career. And in quite a different context, Professor David Metcalf, head of the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee, that the British school system’s betrayal of less academically inclined pupils is forcing employers to look overseas to fill low-skilled jobs.
Too many school-leavers, he said, lack not only the rudiments of literacy and numeracy, but even the most basic skills to ‘look people in the eye and get out of bed’.
So, let me make a modest proposal. Let’s make socialising the young part of schooling. I’m not talking about anything terribly fancy, like how to handle a fork and spoon when eating your afters – though I remember how very intimidating that once was – so much as the really, really basic things. How to say how do you do; how to shake hands; how to make eye contact. I remember my first meeting with perhaps the best-known newspaper editor in Britain when he first took over the paper I worked for. It was a textbook case of eye contact plus firm handshake and smile. And it was a social skill that had been learned.
What I want is for children in bad areas, in poor schools to be given those skills. The Evening Standard, my own paper, has launched a programme to promote apprenticeships to bring together employers and young people whose job prospects are slim. Well, in some cases, part of the business of preparing them for jobs by the partner charity that runs the scheme is teaching these young people awfully basic things, like punctuality. It shouldn’t have been necessary after twelve years or so at school.
So here’s something concrete. Teach children from primary school the importance of thank you letters. That’s the pre-eminent middle class skill. In the first week at school after Christmas, get the entire class to write a thank you letter to some relation who gave them a present. When the class goes on a museum trip, get the whole lot of them to write to the people who took them round telling them how they enjoyed it. Every term, one thank you letter. And then, in secondary school, teach them how to write to would-be employers. Teach them the devastating skill of writing to thank their interviewer for seeing them. Teach them how to reply to a job refusal with the request that the firm bear them in mind for the future. Teach them how to write, Kind regards, and Yours faithfully and Yours sincerely. And teach them how to lay the thing out and check the spelling.
We all know that social mobility is slowing up. So we need to equip children at the bottom end how to close the gap. You do it in all manner of ways. But social skills have to be part of it. They’re a class thing, and the people who need them most are those at the bottom of the pile.