LONDON — In the town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, the Rev. Ian Gregory has founded the Polite Society, dedicated to teaching the British good manners.
The mission sounds a bit like teaching the French how to cook or Gary Kasparov to play chess.
Bad manners in Britain? Where form letters are still addressed to John Doe Esquire, where they "beg your pardon," stop their cars for pedestrians, apologize when you step on their toes and say "with the greatest respect" when they mean to insult you?
But Gregory isn't joking.
Indeed, the 53-year-old clergyman sounds positively apocalyptic as he rails against littered streets, vandalized pay phones, cheeky teen-agers, riotous soccer fans, drunken punks, men who don't offer their seats to women and women who would regard such courtesies as sexist.
In the introduction to the inaugural newsletter of the Polite Society last year, he wrote that Britain has stood off "some of the most vicious tyrants in history"--Philip of Spain and his Armada in 1588, Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805 and Adolf Hitler in 1940. But, he added:
"In 1986, the British people face national defeat at the hands of a sinister foe: our ignorant and ill-mannered selves."
British courtesy, Gregory said in a recent interview, "is a myth. It's based on foreigners' reading of romantic fiction. The reality, especially in our inner cities, is that we are heading back to the Stone Age. It's simply appalling, the way people treat each other."
Gregory's initiative has won a resounding response--admiring editorials, congratulatory messages from around the country and 250 dues-paying members after just one month.
Some commentators see Gregory's complaint as symptomatic of a deeper anxiety in British society, not just about vanishing pleasantries, but about youth unemployment, juvenile crime, drug addiction and random violence.
"We have suddenly taken a fierce dislike to ourselves," wrote Ferdinand Mount, a former adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the conservative weekly Spectator.
On the liberal side, Neal Ascherson wrote in the weekly Observer that his countrymen "have become bad-tempered and unsociable and mistrustful."
Mount said that the horror of the Heysel Stadium soccer riot in Belgium in 1985 "embodied everything that we have come to fear in England--civil disorder, social boorishness, economic decline." Thirty-nine people died in the riot when British soccer fans went on a rampage.
Foreigners, at least until recent times, had always marveled at British manners.
"To Americans," wrote the critic Randall Jarrell, "English manners are far more frightening than none at all."
The English abroad, before the days of charter flights to overseas soccer matches, were paragons of correctness to be slavishly copied. Luigi Barzini, the late Italian writer, once recalled his grandfather, a tailor, putting an extra crease in his trousers because that's what English visitors seemed to prefer. He never realized that the creases were simply caused by the trousers being folded into suitcases.
Peter Jenkins, a British journalist, said he once heard a voice from a French hotel room shout at revelers on the street outside: "Would you please be quiet! There are English people up here trying to sleep."
British manners evolved over centuries of social stratification, reaching their apotheosis in the Victorian Age with a code that provided for every conceivable situation, from leaving a calling card to crooking the little finger while sipping tea.
Now, government minister Chris Patten warns that "we risk the creation of a yob society and an impoverished culture," yob being Cockney slang for a lout. The newspaper Today, meanwhile, laments the passing of "the British reputation for good manners and civilized behavior."
But a foreigner arriving here today, encountering the cheerful cab drivers, the orderly lines at bus stops, the self-effacing smiles, might wonder what the latest fuss is all about.
In reading The Times of London, a visitor will find a discussion in the letters column on whether "Dear Sir or Madam" is still the correct form in official correspondence.
And the British really do apologize when you step on their toes.
"I certainly do," said Charles Kidd, who works for Debrett's, the authority on royal and noble lineages. "It always strikes me afterward that it's a bit ridiculous. But it's something you're brought up with from childhood."
Elsie Burch Donald, the American-born editor of Debrett's Etiquette and Modern Manners, said that British manners are "becoming more informal, which I think is great for Britain."
Donald, whose expertise ranges from comportment on the golf course to writing to the queen, said in an interview: "The British are more polite than Americans and less friendly. But they have less time for a lot of the old kind of manners. They're using less formal modes of address, writing more informally, dropping the Esquires and the Right Honorables.
"It's a matter of getting the balance right. The English have been too formal and the Americans too informal, and now they're perhaps drawing together."