Writing Talk to the Hand was a process of synthesising and organising. I had been banging on about the rudeness of modern life for a couple of years on the radio; I’d also written talks about the burden of choice and the pernicious effect of the internet on the way people think of themselves in relation to “society”. There is a lovely example in one of David Lodge’s novels of a person sitting final exams, carefully pouring his knowledge into his answers, day after day, until he’s poured out the whole lot and the exams are over. I felt something similar about Talk to the Hand. I had so many things I wanted to say, but I had to say each thing in exactly the right place, and not to have any left over. When the process was complete, I felt quite purged. As far as I was concerned, I had laid out the problem to my absolute best ability.
People still tell me I wrote a book on etiquette, which is a bit depressing, but I suppose Talk to the Hand was a bit hard to classify. It didn’t tell people how to behave, in the style of the traditional book on manners; and although it was, unashamedly, a big long moan about modern life, it didn’t have much in common with Grumpy Old Men or Is It Just Me, or Is Everything Shit?, either. I was trying to do something quite new with Talk to the Hand: maybe amateur sociology, in the way that Eats, Shoots & Leaves was amateur linguistics. Anyway, “forensic polemic” was how someone described my strategy, and I liked this description very much. If you hate something, I think you have a duty to ask why you hate it, and also whether it’s reasonable to hate it; then you have to try to understand why this hateful thing seems to have come into existence. I brought a lot of modern life under the umbrella-category of rudeness – including automated switchboards, customer service, mobile phone abuse, littering, and telling strangers to Eff off. And, as I said, it made me feel ever so much better.
Why it was the equivalent of Eats, Shoots & Leaves was that I felt the time was right to challenge a taboo, and try to separate this subject from concerns of class and snobbery, which simply get in the way of seeing it clearly. The state of written English has nothing to do with class and everything to do with education; meanwhile the rudeness of modern life is ultimately about the collapse of society. I’ve just had a big argument with the Italian publisher who wants to call the book the equivalent of “Badly Brought Up People” in Italy – and I think I’ve lost the argument, actually. But, as far as I’m concerned, Talk to the Hand is emphatically not about an us-and-them situation, or not straightforwardly. It’s about us all not knowing any more how to share space with each other, or treat each other respectfully. The red herring of class-ism really annoys me. How does it help an illiterate person that you take a non-elitist stance to a failure of education? How does it help people at the bottom of the heap that you turn a blind eye to the savage reality of everyday life, for fear of seeming un-egalitarian?
Of course, rudeness is often hilarious, which is a blessing when you come to write about it. I heard a great story in New York last year about a woman arriving under a shelter on a station platform one morning (it was raining) and then, when she answered her cell phone, saying in an affronted tone, “Can I have some privacy here?” However, my favourite anecdote concerns a neighbour of mine in Brighton who works in a shop where everything costs a pound – a job he does with considerable dignity, I have to say. One morning, as he was opening the shop, he had a very imperious customer who first ticked him off about opening three minutes late, then demanded personal service, and finally complained about the lack of range in the bathroom cleaners. My friend was not rude to this man. He said merely, “I think you’re labouring under a misapprehension, sir.” And then, when the man said, “What misapprehension?” he said, “That this is Harrods, and that you’re the effing Duke of Westminster.”