Friday, 12 May 2017

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 12 May

Thomas Blaikie on noisy pubs and the importance of a timely chocolate biscuit

Dear Thomas
I appreciate that sometimes people want to get on with what they’re doing but do they really have to be quite so snappy about it? My gardener refuses all banter and if I offer her a chocolate biscuit she just looks cross. It’s a bit grim. What do you advise?
Muriel Silk, Melton Mowbray

Dear Murie
I’ve never been much of a fan of concentration myself. And Henry James agreed, describing the process of writing novels as restless fidgeting and pacing about. It’s when you stop concentrating that ideas come or you see how to finish the sentence or solve the equation – or so I find. Those who ruthlessly ‘focus’ on their work perhaps fear that otherwise they will slide into chaos – it’s an insecurity.

Others said to be ‘unfocused’ are really more easy-going, confident that somehow the thing will get finished. Or, a great show of ‘getting on with it’ is just a smokescreen for incompetence designed purely for publicity purposes – and therefore, to put it bluntly, rather annoying.

So I speak a little spitefully, perhaps. Everybody has their own way of managing their work, which should be respected. Even I can be maddened by incessant interruption, especially when the work is not going well or the person might just manage to see that I’m preoccupied. Looking at it another way, at least your gardener is working, and not hanging around chatting at your expense.

But there’s no excuse for rudeness, especially if you’re making a kind offer of a snack. ‘Excessive devotion to the task,’ as Call the Midwife’s Sister Monica Joan might say, ‘is a vanity.’ Small interludes and a bit of jolly repartee aid the concentration. Human beings are not machines and if we try to be, we might get brain fever and collapse.

If she really must forge on, why can’t she say, ‘Thank you so much but I won’t?’ And just a soupçon of conversation won’t kill her. After all, do you really want a louring partial- human on the premises? Other people’s intense concentration is actually quite threatening and fundamentally antisocial – and sometimes meant to be. Although of course there are times when we just have to get something finished. But we should try not to be brusque about it.

Can anything be done? Can a person be charmed out of their terrible driven existence? It might not be easy, especially if the ‘workaholicism’ is a defence against untold vulnerabilities. Whatever you do, be sensitive to their dislike or fear of interruption. Make it clear that you’re not staying long, that you’re not going to launch on yet another story. Be encouraging, if possible, about whatever it is they are doing. ‘You’ve weeded so thoroughly. Do you really think you need to do any more?’ ‘Have a little rest?’ ‘How about a sit-down?’ It might work, or it might not.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Noisy groups- again

You may remember a week or two ago the editor and I thought that a large group of young people near us in a local restaurant were going to be noisy but they weren’t. Well, next time we were not so lucky. Last Friday, in a high-end gastro pub, the editor, who had just moved heaven and earth to put The Lady to bed (in other words, dispatch the next edition to the printer), and I were hemmed into a corner of hell, battered by the most ghastly din on all sides. She begged for another table that might be minimally quieter but in vain. Two things were to blame: the abolition of carpets perhaps the least of it. But a sound-absorbent floor covering plus sound-insulation in the ceiling would have helped. The second thing is: if you’re a pub offering artisanal hand-reared lamb from the Essex marshes etc (at a certain price) you’ve got to have somewhere decent for your customers to eat it. It’s no good allowing vast sprawling groups of pub-goers (next to us was such a table, all heaped on top of each other) to bellow away right next to diners.

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