Manners Maketh the City

A recurring source of puzzlement for urban planners and architects is why it is that so many of their new designs and developments fail to gell as proper places. Why is it that new sub-divisions, new towns and new public spaces so often lack the characteristics of older neighbourhoods and townscapes? To a degree, part of the answer lies in the design of new places and public spaces, and this is an area of professional expertise in which great advances have been made since the 1980s. There is also much truth in the argument that good places need time to mature.

But even after the passage of a decent amount of time, the everyday usage of neighbourhoods and places often falls short of the designer’s intention. Most Australians seem unimpressed by their cities: they are either too busy or sprawl over acres at too low densities; they are not sophisticated enough, not urbane enough, not well enough designed, lacking in creativity. This caricature does not quite chime for me. Melbourne is a very good city indeed, with a good public realm and streetscape. Sydney has pockets of great interest, and Western Sydney is not just a sea of suburbs as it is often portrayed. Brisbane is becoming more interesting with each year, although it suffers from too many petty rules and regulations, too many silly and petulant bans.

Then there is the problem of rudeness, road rage, cycle rage and all the other rages, while at night our evening economy is coming to resemble the Wild West in many places. What price manners and everyday decency?

The concept of “urban sociability” has recently been introduced as an attempt to combine an appreciation of community development—how people come to identify with the places where they live and with each other—and with a wider notion of civility and public social life within the public realm. “Urban sociability” is present where people are inclined to pass the time of day with both neighbours and strangers, saying “please” and “thank you”, observing the everyday courtesies of urban life. Yet this can only occur if basic standards of morality are observed. At its simplest, morality is some inner restraint within society. Without it, extremes of bad and anti-social behaviour will push us, as individuals living in a society, ever further apart.

If this argument is correct, then no matter how well we design or refit urban places, fear of crime and anti-social behaviour will drive out the good people and with them our good intentions. Whatever the modern embodiment of fundamental decencies may be, observed through manners and everyday conduct, we may need to consider them soon and urgently.

There is a rising concern in Western societies that crime—especially violent crime—is escalating out of control. Every day, it seems, there are horrific stories of gratuitous murder, drug gangs, gun crime and “gangsta” culture. Everyday standards of decency are also in decline. Bad language in public and on television is the least of it; general rudeness appears to be endemic, certainly in England. Anti-social noise, shouting and swearing in the street, drunkenness and violent behaviour, inappropriate clothing in social settings—all of these are widely believed to be symptoms of a moral slide, a growing “obscenification” of everyday life. In response, the recent UK Labour government felt compelled to introduce Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), although these became something of a bad joke. 

Other societies are addressing these concerns by attempting to alter behaviour not by retrospective punishment but by teaching people proper codes of behaviour. In China, for example, there are moves afoot to improve everyday manners, covering sundry matters such as hawking and spitting, littering, queue-jumping, answering mobile phones in cinemas, as well as standards of personal hygiene. The Pride Institute, set up in Beijing by Lu-Chin Mischke, sees the lack of good manners as a symptom of low self-respect and an economic handicap for the less well-off. Certainly there is not much point in taking a job in the retail and hospitality industries if you can’t be bothered to say please and thank you. In Australia, Don Watson has observed that if standards of public behaviour are to be improved, the place to start is with the language itself. This may require a change to how people are taught to behave in schools, although one suspects wider influences of postmodernism and moral relativism will also need to be confronted.

It may be that everyday manners are a form of social glue that binds our identities—in a broad sense—to each other, and therefore underpins wider social cohesion. 

In her account of English manners, From Courtesy to Civility, Anna Bryson argues, following Norbert Elias, that manners are a set of principles and values that reflect a society’s culture and identity. She sees manners as a set of rules governing “bodily decency and decorum, and forms of dress, address and demeanour”. Bryson goes on to argue that manners are also a way of “structuring and interpreting the social world”, an argument that is also posited by Pierre Bourdieu in his sociological treatise Taste. That manners and taste—even patterns of speech—can also signal a person’s standing in society (including their class) is not at issue, and it is true that some concepts of good manners are more or less a game of social differentiation, taken up these days by aspiring celebrities. Even so, the essential point about manners is that, whilst they evolve as societies themselves change, they nevertheless also have the intended effect of civilising social behaviour.

“Politeness” in the early eighteenth century was the sense of “being polished”, of tempering or removing forms of behaviour that would cause offence. This required new standards of personal behaviour, many of which well-mannered people these days take for granted, such as not standing too close to another person, not poking them in the stomach to make a point, and not spitting, yawning or belching. Always a minority, polite people would seek each other out in assembly rooms, clubs, coffee-houses, spa towns and in the promenades. There developed accepted ways of making conversation, dancing, and greeting people, so that coffee society came into being and with it new industries such as insurance and journalism. These “good manners” extended to the “languages” of dress, art and architecture. In the Bath pump rooms, for example, women not properly dressed and men wearing boots were refused admission.

Of course, to partake of such pleasures as dressing well and attending the assembly rooms, one had to have property and wealth; it is no coincidence that the rise of manners coincided with a wave of prosperity brought about by advances in science and technology. Yet as English society as a whole became wealthier, standards of everyday behaviour also improved. This was not a linear progression, for at times the old values or manners have been challenged and occasionally overturned, for a while at least. This is especially the case in relation to public forms of entertainment and fashion, the more public enjoyment of pleasures.

In Downwave, Robert Beckman contends that the cultural characteristics and values of societies change over time, swinging between social liberalism and moral control. He argues that the West rejected previous forms of authority in the late eighteenth century (the American and French revolutions), and in the late nineteenth century (atheism versus the church). The 1920s witnessed a surge in personal freedom with the development of the self (Freudian psychology) and syncopation (jazz). The late 1950s gave rise to rock and roll and “the teenager”, followed in the 1960s by the “permissive society”. Beckman notes particularly the “action-music and action-dances” of the 1950s (jive); 1920s (Charleston); and 1860s (waltz). Beckman also proposes that women’s fashions are closely linked to cycles of morality, themselves underpinned by waves of wealth creation, particularly in relation to hemlines, necklines, and whether backs are covered or bare. Fashions such as low-cut bodices and accentuated derrieres were evident in the fifteenth century, in Elizabethan England, and at the time of the Restoration. In between times, necklines were higher and hemlines lower. In the postwar period of economic growth (1948 to 1974) we saw the rise of hemlines in the 1950s, the miniskirt in the 1960s, hot pants and glam rock in the early 1970s. By the onset of evident economic crisis—the early 1980s—fashions were more formal once again. In the early years of the twenty-first century women are once again revealing more—this time the lower backs, abdomens and hips, as well as legs and breasts.

Beckman’s argument is really a discussion of public morality. It can be argued that when women’s fashions are more revealing, public morality may also be less constrained by social mores. According to Thomas Burke’s history of the English city at night, clamp-downs on city night-life and wider morality have tended to follow a period of relative relaxation. For example, entertainment activities were subject to strict moral control under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, during which time actors were flogged in the streets, horse-racing was abolished and adultery was punishable by death. The Restoration of 1660 heralded a new era of “frivolous amusement and criminal pleasures”: duelling was re-introduced, “gallantry” became the accepted term for adultery, while the theatre and literature became increasingly sexually explicit.

The Royal Proclamation on Immorality was handed down by William and Mary in 1698. This marked the culmination of a period during the 1690s of rising concern over obscenity in the theatres, widespread prostitution, swearing, lewdness and drunkenness. Shortly afterwards, the Society for the Reform of Manners was set up and supported by, amongst others, Sir Richard Steele, who would go on to found the Tatler (1709), as a vehicle for social and moral essays. Steele would later establish the original Spectator (1711) and the Guardian (1743). There followed a period of stricter controls over pleasures of the flesh and the opening hours of entertainment venues. Gentlemen’s clubs began to appear in the early 1700s, women being banned in order to guard against prostitution. The clubs had to close by 10 p.m., and most other places of entertainment—pubs, gin palaces, theatres, restaurants—by 11 p.m. It was widely believed that standards of public decency could be improved by restricting alcohol consumption and the opportunities for prostitution. A combination of these and other measures gave rise to what would become known as “polite society”.

Similarly, in the mid-1750s, the excesses of the previous age (Hogarth’s England) were denounced as “noise and nonsense”, and Beau Nash declared that all entertainment in Bath should finish by 11 p.m. The late eighteenth century brought concerns over public morality, “bare-knuckle fights” and gaming houses. This was the age of the Prince Regent (later George IV), the Prince himself being a notable hedonist, dividing his time between London and newly fashionable spa towns such as Brighton. By the early nineteenth century, women’s fashions were once again modest, and there was a further growth of the gentlemen’s club in Piccadilly and Pall Mall. No women were permitted in the clubs, and they closed by 10 p.m.

The 1840s saw the rise of the London pub alongside the gin palaces, the opening of the casinos, theatres remaining open until midnight and the advent of “Haymarket Actresses” or “Piccadilly Whores”. Visitors to London would comment on the extent of public drunkenness: Verlaine (1873) remarked that Londoners were “noisy as ducks and eternally drunk”; Dostoevsky (1862) that “everyone is in a hurry to drink himself into insensibility”. The 1870s saw the rise of temperance societies, while “respectable” tradespeople and the middle classes preferred the music hall to the theatre. The temperance movement gained influence during the late nineteenth century. The 1890s witnessed the rise of the Savoy Theatre, the Café Royal, later pub and restaurant opening times, supper and dance clubs. This all came to an end with the imposition of restrictive pub opening times as part of the First World War. After the war, the 1920s were a time when public morality refused to accept controls over dress, dancing and drinking. 

It would seem that for England at least there is a relationship, going back centuries, between a relaxation of social mores and legislation designed to control, at least in part, public morality. Typically, it seems bursts of “excess” are followed by the emergence of more modesty in dress, less “boisterous” forms of behaviour and restrictions on the opening hours of entertainment activities. The periods of less controlled public morality were notably the 1690s, 1870s, 1920s and 1960s. Legislative attempts to influence public morality occurred after such periods, during the 1830s, 1890s, 1930s and 1990s. 

Something broadly similar happened in Australia. Whilst the notoriety for being the first person to be tried for drunkenness goes to a Mr Tomas Eccles in 1788, it was not until 1796 that Australia’s first licensed hotel was opened in Parramatta. Governor Macquarie would later encourage more breweries to open their own pubs, and by 1892 New South Wales had nearly 4000 pubs and inns. However, as was the case in London, the late nineteenth century saw the rise of the temperance movement: a Temperance Vote in 1907 led to the closure of 293 pubs and forty-six wine bars.

The real turning point, however, came in 1916. On a hot February day, thousands of drunken and disgruntled army recruits rioted through Liverpool and Sydney, looting hotels and shops, attacking suspected “foreigners” and frightening locals to seek sanctuary in churches. A referendum on licensed premises was held and the good people of Sydney voted to reduce pub opening hours to one hour a day—the infamous “six o’clock swill”. For drinkers this was bad enough, but the introduction of rationing in 1941 clamped down even further on beer consumption. A second referendum was held in 1954, this time extending pub closing times to 10 p.m. A short time later, poker machines were allowed in pubs, and so too betting on horse and dog racing. In the 1980s, pubs were permitted twenty-four-hour trading. Since that time the link between drinking and gambling has become ever deeper, a situation that few people other than the pub owners, the gamblers and the state governments find acceptable. The states occasionally refer to the need to do something, but the revenue they receive from the pokies is too important.

So now in Sydney you can visit hotel after hotel that looks pretty much the same as all the others. The music is loud, there are people playing poker machines, you have to ask for a glass if you drink bottled beer; the places themselves are grubby, and in some of them the carpets are sticky. Sydney pubs smell funny. Those with twenty-four-hour licences expel the drunks and the vomit onto the streets in the mornings. 

In A History of Sin, Oliver Thomson argues that human history displays an oscillation between the virtues of self-restraint and family values, against “hedonistic self-gratification and abandonment of discipline”. He muses that these swings may be due to the reaction of one generation against its predecessor at its simplest, but perhaps also a “tendency to move towards extremes … to the point where a reverse swing becomes inevitable”. He also argues—and this seems compelling—that the periods of strictest control tended to be accompanied by everyday suffering or “man-made misery”. Even so, as Thomson argues, the end point of periods of hedonism tend to be “characterised by an aimless and never-quite-satisfied search for personal pleasure”. Eventually, people become bored and cynical, as was the case of the Romantics in the mid-nineteenth century. Often, the response to this is towards self-restraint, greater virtue and the return of manners.

Perhaps the only sensible approach is to avoid the self-indulgent and puritanical extremes in morality, and aim for a sort of moral “third way”. This, of course, is the value of manners as opposed to rules and regulations, as they represent a voluntary code of behaviour. Many fear that in the coming period it will be difficult to maintain what are regarded as old moral values. Yet history would suggest that the adherence to moral codes tends to fluctuate over time, and that loosening of moral codes tends to occur at the end of a period of prolonged economic growth (the 1820s, 1860s, 1890s, 1920s and 1960s). The hope is that if the Western economies are at the start of a new wave of wealth creation, then more people than ever before could become part of “polite society”—at least for the next forty years or so.

If this happens, then there is hope yet for the old urban planning concepts of community, public spaces and civilised discourse among the citizenry. It will be necessary to give manners a chance in the face of yobbery and boorishness. Indeed it is essential to do so. For, as they have in previous times, manners maketh the city. Taste and elegance, though they are reckoned only among the secondary and smaller morals, are of no mean importance in the regulation of life. Could we have more polite cities in Australia? 

John Montgomery is the author of The New Wealth of Cities (2007) and Upwave: City Dynamics and the Coming Capitalist Revival, published last month by Ashgate.

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