Eats, shoots and leaves, an essay on giant pandas
Posted By jlhance on Jun 30, 2011 in Wildlife
Giant panda in Chengdu in South Western China. Photo by: Shubhobroto Ghosh.
By: Shubhobroto Ghosh
Please note : The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not representative of the viewpoints of any organization.
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” – Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1932) in Physics and Philosophy (1958).
Among the hundreds of images and descriptions of what is possibly the cutest living animal, the giant panda, one particularly sticks in my mind, the anecdote about an animal that goes to eat in a restaurant. The animal looks at a dictionary lying on the table and finds the entry on giant panda saying : “Giant Panda – Bearlike animal found in China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” The animal takes out a revolver slung around its waist, shoots in the air twice, startles customers and leaves. The epithet is meant to serve as a lesson in English language syntax. It is not known if real Giant Pandas raid restaurants for food or carry revolvers around their waists, but there were plenty of offerings connected to this animal during a recent trip to China.
When I heard that my participation in a conference on animal protection was confirmed in early June 2011, I drove everyone around me and the organizers into a tizzy because I spoke of nothing but giants pandas till the time I actually landed in China. I forgot about everything else apart from the obsession to see a live giant panda in person, the symbol of World Wildlife Fund that is meant to serve as a beacon for conservation worldwide. I harried my co passenger Rohit Gangwal, of a wildlife protection group from Jaipur named Raksha that we would rush for the zoo as soon as we set foot in Chengdu in South Western China.
No sooner had the plane landed that my giant panda dream erupted vociferously and made me impatient with each passing moment. Rohit put up with a lot of unreasonable demands from me and sacrificed a well earned rest to accompany me to the Chengdu Zoo. We went in and the first signboard that caught my eye was that of the giant panda. My heart was racing at the prospect of seeing the animal alive, but the first sighting was disappointing to say the least. I came across a sleeping animal with his bum pasted to a glass pane. But it was a sighting after all and my excitement remained all the same as I ran to the other end of the enclosure only to find a second animal inside in a similar position. I was riveted anyway, and waited for the animals to wake up and almost ignored the smaller and just as cute red pandas eating lunch in an adjacent enclosure. I could have waited for eternity just to see the animals awake, but time was not of the essence and I had to move on.
Chengdu Zoo is a large one and the commentary I had heard prior to my visit had not been very charitable. And it did appear in real life that the facility lived up to the rather checkered reputation it had garnered for itself. It is a large facility, by any standards and the grounds are quite beautiful and tastefully decorated but what you see inside the enclosures really do depress you. Most large animals are in small, unfurnished enclosures that do not provide them any enrichment in their lives. And large animals there are many.
Among the notable large mammals displayed at Chengdu Zoo are white rhino, Asian elephant, lions, tigers( some of them white), northern lynx, giraffe, takin, addax, scimitar horned oryx, Pere David’s deer, Bactrian camel, chimpanzee, orangutan, sun bears and moon bears. Some of these species were seen by me for the first time and although it is always a thrill to see a new animal species, the enjoyment is compromised by the fact that they are in small barren enclosures that offer them little privacy. Among the more disturbing facets of the zoo are a cockatoo fed and being made to perform tricks by the public, a pony and a Bactrian camel huddled in small pens and turtles, goldfishes, hamsters and rabbits in tiny cages to be sold outside the zoo gate. It was also disconcerting to see live animals being fed to reptiles in the reptile house and a very distinct overcrowding in the aviaries.
Chengdu Zoo is an astonishing place for birdwatching with light vented bulbuls and rufous capped babblers flitting around everywhere. The zoo has been helped by Animals Asia Foundation in instituting better enrichment measures for their inmates and this is an endeavor that ought to continue.
It would be remiss of me not to mention my parting memory of Chengdu Zoo because they involve giant pandas. It was nearing closing time when I cajoled Rohit to accompany me for a final glimpse of the sleeping beauties. And lo and behold! They obliged by sitting upright in front of us, munching their bamboo sticks, the classical giant panda pose that has beguiled many a conservationist and the general public in countries throughout the world. It was indeed a sight to cherish and I stood like a statue for half an hour savoring the animal going about its dinner. It was an unforgettable sight, but I repeat that the giant pandas in Chengdu Zoo are not in the best of conditions. Their dens are featureless and they are forced to be in public gaze, and although this is how I managed to see the mythical creature for the first time, I would rather have them getting access to their outside enclosures (filled with greenery and of a modest size) for twenty four hours a day. The irony is heightened by the fact that the zoo has loudspeakers in front of the giant panda enclosure playing songs like, “I see skies are blue…..” Well, the skies are maybe blue but in a coop, it is certainly not a wonderful life for the inmates and this practice ought to be stopped in the facility.
Part of my dream realized, I returned to the hotel feeling satiated and replete with memories of the day. Friends and colleagues from across the world were met and accosted and courtesies, pleasantries, hugs and kisses exchanged. Some of them whetted my appetite for seeing more giant pandas by showing me pictures of the animals in the famed Chengdu Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base (winner of the United Nations Global 500 Environmental Award).
So another round of desperate requests and pleadings followed and this time I found three companions to visit the place : Arvind Sharma from Himachal Pradesh, Sashanka Dutta from Assam and Jiban Das from Orissa. The Giant Panda centre does make you feel the magic of the natural habitat of the animal. The moment you enter, you well and truly imbibe the spirit of the Giant Panda and evoke memories and descriptions of the animal as portrayed by George Schaller, Desmond Morris and the French missionary Pere David who is credited with having brought this creature to the notice of Westerners (This element of discovery has a dubious aspect that is increasingly being taken note of by many).
There are several trails that lead one to different enclosures housing the animals. The first one only revealed a sleeping animal and a specimen ambling in the bush far away. But again, luck was on our side and just as we were about to depart for another enclosure, one animal came walking within visible range and started feasting on bamboo. Again the classical pose, and the cameras started clicking. I guess one can never ever tire of seeing a Giant Panda in that position, the cuteness of the animal is extraordinary. The animal, due to its neotenic features spontaneously solicits a bond and connection bordering on profound spirituality. Observing the animal in his home country, in his home state, in surroundings that do approximate the wild state although the animal is in confinement, does fill one with a sense of awe and respect. The sight of a living giant panda can make even the most hard nosed scientist or biologist forget objectivity. As many field biologists are now tending to acknowledge, it is well nigh impossible not to get emotionally involved in the lives of individual animals that one observes as part of a study, the compassionate component is as important as the scientific element.
There are many young giant pandas on display in the Chengdu centre and there are always hordes of people ogling over them. The centre has 96 giant pandas under its custody, 22 of them loaned to zoos in China and abroad. I had the great good fortune of having a personal session with Sarah Bexell, head of Conservation Education at the Giant Panda Center. Sarah demonstrated many conservation initiatives that have been instituted in Sichuan province to help protect this animal in the wild by taking into account needs of the local populace.
Although this article is principally about giant pandas and my absolute and childish fascination for seeing an animal in flesh that I had read tomes about, the narrative would be incomplete without paying a tribute to the Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson and her energetic team at the Moon Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu. I had the privilege of visiting this place with several luminaries of wildlife conservation and welfare and can state unequivocally that it stands out as one of the best captive animal facilities I have seen anywhere. Here, bears that have endured a lifetime of abuse in captivity in bear bile farms are accorded a second chance to live.
But I must get back to the pandas, especially because I also saw the beautiful and cute red pandas at the Giant Panda Center in Chengdu. I saw only one animal, clambering through the dense foliage and his scarlet pelage seemed as brilliant and attractive as the piebald colouring of his larger cousin.
The most enduring image of the symbol of World Wildlife Fund remains a cliche, but one I do not resent writing. An animal sitting upright, holding its food in its pseudo thumb, eating shoots and leaves. The imagery given by the animal in the restaurant anecdote is well justified in real life on all grounds.
Red panda in Chengdu in South Western China. Photo by: Shubhobroto Ghosh.
About the author: Shubhobroto Ghosh is a former journalist for the Telegraph newspaper whose work has also been published in the Times of India, New York Times, The Statesman, The Asian Age, and the Hindu. He has worked on conservation issues in India and UK for several organisations and was project coordinator of the Indian Zoo Inquiry project. He did his Masters thesis on British zoos. He currently works in the NGO sector and maintains a keen interest in environmental issues.
Truss has just published her latest effort, and it, too, taps into the retro appeal of strict rules. The title offers its own mini-sermon: "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door." The book's basic contention is that people in public places no longer bother to treat one another with even a semblance of Old World courtesy or respect. Writing in a tone of comic hyperbole, Truss claims that the "politeness words" -- her term for "please," "thank you" and "excuse me" -- have dwindled to the point of near extinction. Is there a scintilla of truth to her findings? Possibly not. In her book, Truss acknowledges the research of the British social anthropologist Kate Fox, who has conducted field experiments on politeness, like bumping into random pedestrians to see how many would say "Sorry." As it turned out, 80 percent apologized, and Fox concluded that manners have not declined.
But Truss remains unconvinced, and in her book she adopts an isolationist policy; instead of proposing a new code of social diplomacy, she laments the violation of her personal space. The offenders, as she sees it, include smokers, graffiti artists, moviegoers who chat in theaters, bicyclists who ignore red lights and children on skateboards and the "breeders" who created them. She is nearly always "shocked," except when she is "incensed," and at times she aims her ire at such seemingly innocuous subjects as waiters who say "There you go" when they put a plate a food in front of her. Rudeness follows her like an unwanted companion even when she is up in the sky. "Air travelers on long-haul flights change into pajamas in the lavatories," she notes with typical disapproval, leading you to wonder if it would be better if they changed in the aisles.
Truss probably exercises her satirical gifts to their best advantage in her analysis of automated phone systems, in which nonhuman operators have come to represent the last defenders of courtesy and decorum. Isn't it confusing, she asks in one passage, "that our biggest experience of formal politeness comes from the recorded voices on automated switchboards -- who patently don't mean it? 'We are sorry we cannot connect you at this time,' says the voice. But does it sound sorry? No, it doesn't. It is just saying the politeness words in as many different combinations as it can think of. 'Please hold. Thank you for holding. We are sorry you are having to hold. We are sorry to say please. Excuse us for saying sorry."'
The book, which lacks an index and is padded with anecdotes and sociological asides, makes no pretense of being exhaustive. It is not intended as a book of etiquette, and it is not instructive in the way that her book on punctuation is. Thus, if "Talk to the Hand" is to appeal to readers and become the mass sensation that its publishers assume it will be -- in New York, Gotham Books, a division of Penguin, is running a first printing of 417,000 -- it must do so as a comedic performance. And Truss, as a writer, does cast herself into a dramatic role, that of the moral scold, ill-tempered and loud-tongued, holding a high opinion of little besides her own opinions. It is hardly a new female type. You can take it back at least as far as Shakespeare's Kate, the tantrum-throwing, suitor-rejecting heroine of "The Taming of the Shrew," although Kate is probably too nuanced and sensitive a character to pass muster with her contemporary descendants.
Lately, the archetype has enjoyed a resurgence, particularly on television, where game shows and news programs starring high-paid shrews can be described as either a new branch of entertainment or a deviant branch of feminism. There is Nancy Grace, hectoring her guests on CNN's "Headline News," or Anne Robinson, the host of the BBC's "Weakest Link," who interrogates hapless contestants with reform-school severity before beating up on the class dunce. Or Ann Coulter, the right-wing bully who seems too loud even when you mute the television. The scold is an innately comic figure, and Truss's achievement has been to elevate it into classically unfunny and fussy realms, namely that of punctuation and manners.
To write a book on manners is to risk presenting yourself as an unattractive person, a sourpuss, a spirit-crusher, a crank at odds with the contemporary world. Truss is aware of this; she knows that her new book is not likely to endear her to a generation of adolescents who consider it the height of fashion to allow their underwear to peek out above the low-slung waistlines of their jeans. "It does, however, have to be admitted that the outrage reflex ('Oh, that's so RUDE!') presents itself in most people at just about the same time as their elbow skin starts to give out," Truss writes with typical informality. "Check your own elbow skin. If it snaps back into position after bending, you probably should not be reading this book."
To be sure, most people, regardless of the precise elasticity of their flesh, would like to live in a world where everyone respects one another. Yet Americans have always harbored a suspicion of manners, which evoke visions of English history at its most hierarchical and hoity-toity -- of dukes, earls, lords and viscounts tripping over one another in phony displays of deference and veneration. Who would want to live with all that kneeling and curtsying, all that monarchy-mandated fawning? Not the American revolutionaries, who believed that a fluid class democracy should subscribe instead to "republican manners" and promptly did away with titles.
In our own time, the belief that manners reinforce social inequalities was key to the upheavals of the 60's, when the shaggy-haired counterculture broke every rule in Emily Post's book of etiquette. In the years since, American culture has become more tolerant of individual desires and differences, and one probably understudied side effect has been the blurring of private space and public space, of domestic life and street life. Activities once reserved for the privacy of your home (playing loud music, cursing, eating, wearing underwear as outerwear) now routinely occur on sidewalks. Some people see this as liberating; others denounce it as a pandemic of impoliteness. But bad manners are not necessarily all bad. In 1996, in an essay titled "Seduced by Civility," the critic Benjamin DeMott defended rudeness not only as a basic right but also as a necessary inducement to change and social progress.
Indeed, who wouldn't rather live with incivility -- with the curse words in rap songs and the excessive chatting in movie theaters -- than with inequality? In her new book, Truss remains mostly silent on the subject, forgoing social analysis in favor of groaning about the status quo. Asked why she would be moved to write a book of manners in the first place, she said: "I always think of myself as a traditional liberal lefty, but I've just written a book about manners, so I do obviously have reactionary tendencies. I am shocked by the world."
That comment was made on the afternoon we first met, at her home in Brighton, where she settled about a decade ago. She lives on a street closely packed with stucco houses, at the top of a steep hill, away from the rocky beach and the barefoot, libertine atmosphere that draws tourists to this old resort town. "What I have always liked about Brighton is its impersonality," she said, somewhat cryptically. "Since the 18th century, people have come, used the place and gone home again."
Truss is a tall, large-boned woman of 50 with a helmet of blond hair and a booming voice, and on this August afternoon she was sunk into the enveloping fiber of a jumbo yellow chair, one of her two elderly cats, Buster, perched on the headrest. "He's a good boy, and he is my darling," she cooed. The interior of the house seems at once bookish and girlish, the sort of place where serious fiction and literary biographies share the shelves and table tops with a collection of bric-a-brac that includes miniature bottles of French perfume and a sculpture of two cats entwined in a kiss.
Truss insists that her day-to-day life has remained basically unchanged since "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" lavished her with substantial income and attention. She still writes in a cluttered home office without the companionship of a secretary or an assistant, and on a typical night she eats her supper on a tray in front of the television. "My favorite thing in the world is a quiz show, 'University Challenge,"' she remarked with a straight face, "so you can see what kind of sad person I am."
Nonetheless, as if eager to furnish evidence of a budding talent for hedonism, she went on to list the material pleasures to which she has lately succumbed. In the past year, trying to burn through her book royalties, she renovated the top floor of her house and purchased a Volkswagen convertible. In the real-estate department, she has paid off her mortgage ($240,000) and her mother's mortgage ($40,000) and rented a furnished pied-à-terre behind the British Museum in London, for $5,000 a month, in the hope of venturing out more. "I suppose it is playing with identity," she said of the apartment. "I want to be someone who doesn't spend all her time sitting home watching 'The Simpsons' on the telly. It is on between 7 and 8, and I watched it every night."
An hour or so into our meeting, she remembered that she had hoped to prepare tea. Hurrying into the kitchen, she turned on an electric kettle and took out two PG Tips tea bags from a bulk-size box of 240. I was trying to calculate the number of months the box was likely to last when I realized that there is no table in her kitchen and no dining room in her three-story town house. Asked where she seats her dinner guests, she replied: "I don't have any guests. When I redesigned the kitchen, I thought a table just would have taken up too much space."
Her solitary life, it became apparent, is one she has actively chosen. When I mentioned at one point that I was traveling with my family, she frowned with marked displeasure. "I don't know how you put up with it, your kids and all that," she remarked. "I don't think I have ever felt that I was with the person I wanted to marry. I am not against marriage. I lived with someone for 11 years. But we weren't in love, and I thought that was quite important. I am probably not very good at compromise, and I am bound to get worse."
As the afternoon wore on, it was hard not to wonder how a woman who, by her own admission, eschews engagements of both the social and the emotional sort could claim to be an expert on human behavior, could find fault, as she writes in her book, with "a generation of people who seem, more than ever, not to know how to interact." On the other hand, there is no law that says a writer of a book deploring public rudeness must be gracious and thoughtful herself, anymore than a restaurant chef is obliged to prepare gourmet meals in his off hours at home or an internist is required to have annual checkups. Or so I thought, as Truss turned on the television during my visit and began watching a cricket match. "I was never into cricket particularly," she said by way of explanation, "but this is a very important test series."
Truss does venture out from time to time, and invitations arrive steadily from people eager to have a cultural personage in their midst. Last year, she was summoned to a private garden party given by Queen Elizabeth II. It seemed like a great honor, until she arrived at Buckingham Palace, where she was one of some 8,000 guests to be offered a cup of tea and a sliver of cake as the queen lingered in the far distance. "Why would we queue up just to get a look at her?" Truss said.
She has fared better with Tony and Cherie Blair, whom she recently met for the first time. On the morning of July 7, Truss was waiting to board a plane at Gatwick Airport when she heard the awful news about the rush-hour bombings. Undeterred, she continued on to Gleneagles, Scotland, where Cherie Blair was giving a dinner that night for the wives of the G-8 leaders. Despite the terrorist attack, the dinner proceeded as scheduled. According to Truss, she was seated beside Jenna Bush, who raved over "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" and insisted that reading is one of her great passions.
Born in 1955, the second of two daughters, Truss grew up in a working-class household in Richmond, just west of London. She speaks of her childhood as if it were an unpleasant obligation from which she tried to extricate herself as soon as opportunity permitted. Her family lived in a so-called council house, a red-brick row house owned by the government, and her mother worked as a maid.
"My parents weren't terribly happy," Truss told me matter-of-factly. "They weren't particularly fond of one another, and they just had arguments and things. My mother was very disappointed in my father, who was a negative person. He didn't expect to have a great career. When I was about 15, he started an egg route and went around and sold eggs from a van. But he didn't keep it up. By the time people were getting them, they were very old eggs."
Perhaps the anecdote says less about her father's passivity than about her own determination, her industry and self-reliance, her lack of debt, her refusal to own a kitchen table at which to wile away the empty hours swilling tea. Asked if her parents pushed her to succeed, she shook her head and said: "No. My achievement thing is more about rejecting my family and going out there and doing it for its own sake."
She studied at University College London, which, as someone once pointed out, could use a comma in its name. After graduation, she went into journalism, working as a literary editor at the Listener, as a television critic for The Times of London and even as a sports columnist at the same paper. "It was an interesting phase of my life," she said of her four years covering sports, "but it did throw me off course. I was concerned that watching sports might produce testosterone. I really did worry about turning into a bloke. I noticed that I was leaving towels on the floor."
In 2000, she quit her job at The Times and turned her attention to radio, composing both original monologues narrated by actors and humor pieces she narrated herself for Radio 4, the BBC arts station. "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" was initially conceived as a spinoff from a five-part radio program on punctuation, "Cutting a Dash," and her new book, too, began life on the airwaves.
There were also three comic novels, which were published in London in the 90's and have just been released in this country for the first time, in a bulky paperback titled "The Lynne Truss Treasury." Although her fiction has sold "nothing," as she says, it is solid and assured in its cleverness, and at times it can put you in mind of the verbal exuberance of P.G. Wodehouse.
I was curious about the scale of her literary ambition, wondering if she sees herself as an essayist and humorist who has lately been blessed with commercial success, or rather as an unfulfilled novelist, an artist who still dreams of adding an object of beauty to the world. She has not received much acclaim in literary circles. When "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" was published in this country, Louis Menand lambasted it in The New Yorker as a sloppy work riddled with errors. In her new book on manners, Truss mentions The New Yorker review, claiming that she never read it and quoting her London publisher, who describes Menand as a "tosser," tosser being one of those British pejoratives whose meaning seems destined to elude Americans.
"You have to take yourself very seriously to get the respect of certain people," Truss said, reflecting on her reputation among the literary elite, "and I do not take myself all that seriously. I undermine myself constantly. I write so many different things."
Of all her books and essays, Truss described her 1996 novel, "Tennyson's Gift," as "the best thing I have ever done." Set in 1864, on the Isle of Wight, it sends up various eminent and artistically inclined Victorians, particularly the poet laureate of its title, an unrepentant egomaniac who recites his own verses to his furniture as his invalid wife hides his bad reviews in teapots or buries them in the garden.
Getting up from her chair, Truss opened a cabinet where she keeps extra copies of her own books. Out came a paperback. Might she sign it for her visitor? She obliged, then chuckled as she closed the book. "This is terrible," she said, presumably referring to her inscription. "I'll do another one for you when I know you better." Who could have guessed that that book would inspire an act of rebellion less than an hour later?
Leaving her house around 6, I headed along a steeply sloping street that ran down to the waterfront, to the large white hotels and lacy cast-iron balconies that overlook the sea. By a pleasant coincidence, I had just stepped into the lobby of my hotel when I spotted someone I knew bounding toward the entrance, a novelist who lives in Manhattan, a tall, tautly muscled man with a shock of bleached hair. Michael Cunningham, as it turned out, was making the rounds in England to promote his new novel, the ambitious, Whitman-inspired "Specimen Days," and had stopped in Brighton for all of one night to read at a local library.
And what twist of fate had brought me to Brighton? he asked, as he lighted a cigarette. I told him about my visit to the house up the hill, showing him the novel I happened to be holding. He leafed through a few pages until his gaze fell on the inscription.
This is what it said in a large, bouncy script: "With all best wishes, Lynne Truss."
It seemed harmless enough, but what followed was nearly unbelievable. He ripped the page from its spine, crumpled it into a ball and popped it into his mouth. He stood there chewing it, as if it were a piece of tough meat, perhaps realizing for the first time that paper is not easily pulverized.
"I don't know what came over me," he said a few moments later, after he had removed the page from his mouth. "The inscription was so bland and generic, all I could think of to do is rip it out. She had just talked to someone for four hours, someone who had come from another continent. Writing is her business. She can come up with something a little more exciting."
Perhaps there was something about being in England that had encouraged him to act out the role of the lawless American, to be free and incorrigible in a country that runs toward the rule-bound and civil (even if British civility exists nowhere more brilliantly than it does as a fantasy in the minds of Americans). Or perhaps the notion of a book on grammar had elicited in him a shiver of memory so sharp that he had momentarily felt himself slip back in time, a schoolboy enraged by the constraints of authority. But probably it was nothing as complicated as a clash between cultures or generations. This wasn't literature, it was merely life, and the truth is, he is a vivid person with a restless mind that chews up everything in sight.
The next day, meeting with Truss again, I told her about my encounter with Cunningham and the torn-out page, curious to hear how she would assess this gross breach of etiquette.
"Now why would he do an odd thing like that?" she asked cautiously.
He is a wild spirit, I replied, a runaway horse. "Well," she concluded, "he obviously can't be that wild if he agreed to go on a book tour!"
At the time, we were in her Volkswagen convertible. The day was bright and cloudless, and we were zipping through the verdant countryside toward Charleston, a remote 18th-century farmhouse enshrined in Bloomsbury lore. In the years following World War I, Vanessa Bell lived in the house amid predictable bohemian chaos, sharing the premises with her children and Duncan Grant, her fellow artist and occasional lover. Every inch of the house bears the imprint of its former occupants, who covered the walls with fantastic murals and obsessively painted the doors, fireplaces and furniture as well, slathering pigment on virtually everything except their pets.
When Truss and I pulled up outside the stone farmhouse, a group of black-spotted cows were grazing. There was no one in sight, and the parking lot was nearly empty. Truss groaned when she saw a sign announcing the hours of operation. Although she had recently been invited to join the board of Charleston, she had forgotten that it is closed on Tuesdays.
Sitting down on a wood-slatted bench overlooking the lily pond, in the warm late-summer sun, she wondered what we should do. As if to compensate for the disappointment of not being able to see any paintings, she eventually decided we should go somewhere else; the idea was to pay a spontaneous visit to two friends of hers who own an antiquarian bookshop.
Within an hour, we were in the medieval village of Alfriston, walking along the old cobblestones of High Street, with its thatched cottages and ivy-laden ruins and weathered beauty. When we reached Much Ado Books, Truss gently pushed on the black-painted wooden door. It failed to swing open. Realizing that her friends had closed up early, she suggested that we walk to their house, a few blocks away. Again, no one answered.
Driving back to Brighton late that afternoon, she chuckled over our futile outing. Three places, all of them closed. It had been a day of bolted doors and darkened windows, of shadows and silence. Yet in some ways, the experience -- in itself a repudiation of experience, a temporary estrangement from the consolations of paintings and books and friends -- seemed entirely apt, affirming the supposed British tendency to remain closed off and shut down to any display of feeling.
For what are manners, anyhow, but a distancing device, a mechanism for widening the spaces between people? As Truss writes in her new book, citing the research of the sociolinguists P. Brown and S.C. Levinson, "One of the great principles of manners, especially in Britain, is respecting someone else's right to be left alone, unmolested, undisturbed."
Now, as she sped along the winding road back toward Brighton, the wind flapping in her hair, Truss said: "I think the British are much ruder than Americans. Someone once said that British politeness is about keeping people at arm's length and American politeness is genuinely about wanting to be friendly. I think I've written about manners from the British point of view.
"We aren't direct," Truss went on in a vexed tone. "We are known for not saying what we mean, for being ironic, and we use the word 'ironic' to cover anything. We are always covering ourselves, and then we wonder why people don't understand what we are saying. It is a fault in the British people."
Even now, as she critiqued the British penchant for indirectness, it was unclear if she was being fully direct. Was she in fact speaking for the entire population of Britain, as she claimed, or rather referring, in a reflexively veiled and oblique way, to the limitations of her own ironic self? Perhaps she felt a twinge of remorse, regretted her careful life, the fixation on good punctuation and good manners, the compulsion to correct, to mock those around her. Was she sorry she had faced the world shielded in an armor of humor?
Posed the question, she reflected in silence, as if preparing to bare her soul. But in fact she did no such thing.
"While I was writing the book, I hardly went out," she said in her usual droll tone. "It was quite interesting, because when I did go out, people would be courteous, and I would think: For goodness sake, I'm only out for half an hour. Be rude to me! I've got to get material! I met any number of very charming and helpful assistants in shops. It was kind of galling to be presented with so much counterevidence."
Deborah Solomon, a contributing writer for the magazine, is completing a book on Norman Rockwell.Continue reading the main story