Thursday, November 12, 2009
At the end of his column in the Telegraph, Toby Young tells the story of a man named Bill who gained a poor degree at Brasenose College, Oxford, and was classified by the university's appointments committee as 'not quite' meaning 'not quite a gentleman'. The Bill in question was William Golding who went on to become Brasenose's only ever winner of the Nobel prize. Would the then commitee have changed its mind knowing he was to win the Nobel? Obviously not. Being a gentleman is not conditional on such fripperies. On the other hand, a contemporary committee would be very unlikely to classify anybody as NQG, the term is just too class-laden. This is interesting. I have always been absolutely certain that I am not a gentleman, but I have known a few (Nige is one) - which is just a way of saying I believe in the idea. But what is the idea? Well, as a class distinction, it is somebody who, for example, eats pheasant, has a close relationship with his tailor, takes the weight on his elbows, treats non-gentlemen and women with unwavering courtesy and kills his enemies with immense regret. The pheasant apart, it's a nice package but too specific for me and, in the world in which we now live, it is no use as a defence of the gentleman. Most people will go through life never meeting such a person and, in any case, quite a lot of people who fulfil all those criteria turn out to be absolute swine. After some thought, I have come up with the one qualification that fits men of all classes, though not all creeds. A gentleman is not a fanatic. A fanatic, in this sense, obviously includes militant atheists and creationists and anybody possessed of vulgar certainty, but it also includes those who are fanatical about behaviour. I once wore black suede shoes to a London club and one member told this story for weeks afterwards. This is fanaticism. I would like to think this makes me a gentleman, but I am, alas, prone to red mists of fanaticism, though I never actually believe in this mist. I am working on it, however, and, in time, I hope to be able to look Nige in the eye, gentleman to gentleman.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:11 am