What constitutes the definition of an old-fashioned English gentleman? The socialite Leonora Cunningham once defined it as being someone “who can fold a newspaper on a crowded train”. Country Life magazine has come up with a new list of essential prerequisites that any modern gentleman must possess to deserve the title – and it makes for interesting reading.
While today’s gents would be more likely to be found at the Glastonbury festival rather than at the Royal Opera House, and drive a 4x4 rather than a Rolls-Royce, some things haven’t changed, and of the 39 essential traits listed by the magazine, many would still be recognised by the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. These include “tipping staff and the gamekeepers in any private house”, having the ability to “train both a dog and a rose”, and “never letting a door slam in someone’s face”.
Sartorially speaking, a gentleman similarly never blow-dries his hair, never wears sandals, and “can tie his own bow tie”, rather than relying on the ready made elasticised contraptions favoured by so many nowadays. And as for wearing lilac-coloured socks, the magazine leaves us in little doubt that this is close to being a hanging offence.
So far so good – nothing here to frighten the horses and suggest that the fabric of the nation is tearing like tissue paper. But wait – in among these time-honoured accomplishments that are said to signify nature’s true aristocrats, there are other, more modern skills included in the inventory, ones that that suggest a much looser, not to say loucher, approach to modern mores.
A thoroughly modern gentleman, it states, “can negotiate airports with ease”, will “recognise that facial hair is temporary whereas tattoos are permanent”, and “always turns his mobile phone off when at dinner”.
He should also be able to cook an omelette to die for, would never own a Chihuahua, and knows when to use an emoji. I confess I had to look this term up to even find out what it meant, let alone when to use it (it turns out it describes those insufferable little electronic illustrations used to punctuate the end of text messages).
In fairness, the Country Life list merely mirrors the loosening of conventions in our more modern, less class-ridden Britain.
Indeed, the royal princes themselves, William and Harry, are just as likely nowadays to be photographed wearing jeans and T-shirts as sporting evening dress or sober suits, a sartorial and cultural relaxation that would have been unthinkable even to their father, the Prince of Wales.
Indeed, many frustrated toffs argue that it’s almost impossible to be a gentleman nowadays in a world that is changing so rapidly and in which social interaction has become so fluid.
As for demonstrating courtly chivalry (surely a prerequisite of anyone wishing to claim the appellation of a true gent), whenever I open a door or offer my seat on a train for any passing female nowadays they nearly faint with shock. In modern, classless Britain, it’s every man – and woman – for themselves.
Still, when all is said and done, the definition of true gentlemanly conduct surely lies, as with everything, in the eye of the beholder. My brother, who is an itinerant jazz musician, once recalls playing in a particularly rowdy working men’s club in the north of England during which a female singer of ample proportions and even more ample vintage was being roundly heckled during her big number by the assembled audience, who were anxious to get to the real business of the evening, their nightly game of bingo.
At length the compère shouted from the wings “Now come on everyone, give the silly old bat a chance.”
“Thank you sir,” she said, turning to her saviour with tears of gratitude in her eyes, “at least there’s one gentleman in the building …”
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins