On Manners, Expectations and Love

Is there a relationship between manners, our expectations of others and love?

Weaving together three articles from several years ago, I think there may be. This post is really me trying to see if this works. So you may disagree and I’m open to discussion.

First of all let’s think briefly about manners: those actions we try to instil into our children to help them survive in polite society.

According to an article in New Scientist in September 2013, “Manners maketh man: how disgust shaped human evolution” by Valerie Curtis [paywall] …

We need to better understand manners for two reasons: first, because they are a principal weapon in the war on disease, and second, because manners underpin our ability to function as a cooperative species … [M]anners are so important that they should be up there with fire and the invention of language as a prime candidate for what makes us human.
The first, and most ancient, function of manners is to solve the problem of how to be social without getting sick.

Those who master manners are set to reap the many benefits that come from living in a highly cooperative ultra-society. Manners are therefore a sort of proto-morality, a set of behaviours that we make “second nature” early in life so that we can avoid disgusting others with our parasites and our antisocial behaviour.

It’s the “cooperative society” part which interests me here as this seems to mesh with the idea (Business Insider; 25 March 2013) that

What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

This was tested on teachers and children. Teachers were told (randomly) a child was a star or a dunce; the children didn’t know how they’d been allocated. A while later when the child’s subsequent achievement was independently tested the stars had done significantly better than the dunces.

Thus we have a situation which reflects what I always say:

If you treat people as you would like them to be, you give then the space and incentive to grow and develop. If you treat them as they are, then they stay as they are.

If you expect manners, you’ll (hopefully) get manners; if you expect no manners, you’ll get no manners. And like it or not, manners oil the wheels of society.

So where does love come into all this?

Reflect on this comment from Candice Chung in an article “Why Chinese parents don’t say I love you” from the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2016.

From a sociological perspective, studies have also found that the phrase ‘I love you’ tends to be used less in a high context culture [eg. Asia] where “expectations are high and well documented”. While in the West (low context society), relationships are often managed with ‘I love you reminders’ to reassure someone of their importance [whereas], in high context culture, “intensely personal and intimate declarations can seem out of place and overly forceful”.

What this is saying seems to be that the Asian way, covert love, is thought to be less intense than the Western, more overt, way. In fact it seems to me the opposite is true and that the Asian way puts far more pressure on families and relationships than we do in the West. There seem to be far greater expectations of family connection, responsibility, loyalty etc. amongst Asians than amongst Westerners, and that the Western way appears to me to be more balanced and permissive of personal freedom.

And that amounts to essentially a difference of manners and expectations between cultures, so it is no real wonder that the cultures work differently.

Five Questions, Series 9 #1

OK, so let’s get going with the answers to this ninth round of Five Questions.


Question 1: Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and why?

Yes, very definitely. That book (or series of 12 novels to be precise) was Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve written about this, in many ways, many times, but here is (a lightly edited version of) what I wrote recently for the Anthony Powell Society Newsletter in a column headed “My First Time”.

A child of intellectually bohemian parents in the 1950s I was always encouraged to read. We went to the local library every week and I was allowed to read anything in the house: dipping into my father’s Penguin Lady Chatterley shortly after publication; reading Peyton Place (how? why?) under the bed-covers; plodding through Ulysses in my mid-teens. But being a boy and a scientist reading fell by the wayside, not helped by my reading very slowly and finding the classics taught at school tedious beyond belief.

I rediscovered reading for pleasure as a post-graduate student, when I devoured chunks of Evelyn Waugh, Clochemerle, Laurie Lee, Gormenghast, Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, plus the likes of John Gower and Piers Ploughman.

After Noreen and I married and moved into the house, Noreen’s best school friend, Jilly, was staying one weekend in early 1983. Jilly trained as a librarian; both she and Noreen read far more than me; talk naturally turned to books. Jilly, knowing I enjoyed (some) Waugh, suggested I might like AP.

Thus began my encounter with Dance, naturally at the beginning. I found A Question of Upbringing very slow; I really didn’t see the point, but I persevered. I decided to try the next book – try everything twice, to see if first impressions were right. Lo, by the end of A Buyer’s Market I was hooked.

This was the summer I had off work with glandular fever. On good days I picked our soft fruit and made jam. On bad days I read and watched cricket on TV. In between I had an affair with Jilly! (It’s OK, it was an open secret even at the time!)

So that summer I read Dance, with some gaps between volumes as the next of the (first) Marc Boxer Fontana paperbacks was sourced. The war trilogy especially captivated me; Temporary Kings was strange but powerful; the finale, weak.

By then AP had become one of my “heroes”. In the early 90s, I wrote my first webpages and it was natural to include a little about my “heroes”. Whereupon I realised there was almost nothing about AP on the internet: my AP page expanded and become a separate website.

In 1997, at the time of the Channel 4 films of Dance, I started getting emails from around the world; this stimulated me to set up the APLIST [the Anthony Powell related email discussion list on Yahoo Groups]. Then when, in March 2000, AP died Julian Allason rang me: “We must celebrate the man,” he said, “we must have a conference”. Recovering my composure we arranged for half a dozen of us to meet in Julian’s Chelsea rooms, when it became evident we needed an organisation on which to hang the conference. Thus was the Anthony Powell Society born. The rest is history; I’ve been the Society’s Hon. Secretary ever since.

Since that first reading I’ve reread Dance in sequence only once; however I dip into it continually – so continually that I’m not sure I could now read it straight through again. But I’m keeping that option for next time I’m laid up for a while.

So yes, reading Dance caused a huge change in my life, nearly 35 years ago, and that change is still happening; the Anthony Powell Society is always throwing up something new; it has me places, and introduced be to people, I could never have imagined.

Five Questions, Series 9

Yet again it is around a year since I started my last round of Five Questions.

So here is this new series of five questions, ranging from the interesting to the downright crazy and even morbid.


The five questions for Series 9 are:

  1. Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and why?
  2. How do we guarantee “this” (whatever it is) never happens again?
  3. If you had to be executed but could choose the method, what method would you choose?
  4. How many even prime numbers are there?
  5. If you had to marry your “significant other” where you met, where would the wedding be?

Like the last series, I will post answers on a regular basis, because I’ve decided to write the answers up front, possibly before this post even goes live!

As always you’re all invited to sing along and join the karaoke – I’d like it if you all joined in! You can either answer the questions, as I answer them, by posting in the comments or by posting your answers on your own blog (in which case just leave a comment here so we can find your words of wisdom).

The answer to Question 1 should appear in a few of days time and then they’ll be at roughly weekly intervals.


Ten Things

It’s just over 500 years since Sir Thomas More first described what he called Utopia in 1516. So this month’s Ten Things celebrates More’s fabled island nation.

Ten Essential Elements of My Utopia

  1. Always a perfectly sunny warm early summer weather
  2. No death or life-threatening illness; all illness cured by love
  3. A perfect ethical code that everyone follows, hence a world without greed, hunger, thirst, violence or war
  4. No rat race and no oppressive employment
  5. No fossil fuels and hence no polluting transport or power generation
  6. Magic carpets for transport
  7. Good, free education for all; higher education which everyone wants to attend for the sake of learning
  8. No religion or politics; no political parties
  9. A universal respect for Nature and the environment, hence a green and pleasant land
  10. Everyone is open-minded with a universal acceptance of nudity, sex & sexuality, freedom of speech.

Unfortunately we all know that Utopia is, by definition, unattainable, for if we ever got there there’d be another Utopia just beyond reach. The grass is always greener, and all that!

Notes to My Younger Self

Inspired, as so often, by my friend Katy I wanted to write down some of the useful things I would have liked my younger self (I’m thinking teenager, student) to know and which I could now impart – but of course can’t until such time as someone perfects time travel. In fact some of these things I still have to learn properly.

In no particular order …

  • You are right, ballroom dancing is the work of the Devil and you do well to scorn it. Likewise ballet, opera theatre, film and mainstream classical music, while not works of the Devil, are best avoided if one is to retain any sanity.
  • No, you never will be able to do practical things like drawing, woodwork and plumbing. Just be glad you can pay someone to do it for you.
  • You will rediscover books and reading.
  • Yes, cats are magic.
  • Bucking the usual trend you become more socialist as you get older.
  • Your parents were right: sugar really is bad for you. But they were wrong in asserting that chocolate and cheese cause acne.
  • No, you still won’t have a clue what you’re doing, where you’re headed, or why. You will drift along.
  • You never will be fashionable, cool or handsome. And you don’t care if people think you’re either stupid or eccentric. Those that matter, don’t mind; those that mind, don’t matter.
  • Your father was right: God is bunk.
  • Being kind and compassionate is good. But no-one said it was always easy.
  • You will never regret eating (good) chips. But they do need salt, and vinegar, tomato ketchup or mayonnaise. In fact you’ll never regret eating good food.
  • Yes, you can believe six impossible (and contradictory) things before breakfast.
  • However hard you try, and however much you enjoy playing, you will never be good at ball games. It’s a matter of basic lack of athleticism and poor hand-eye co-ordination.
  • Try anything twice, the second time to be sure your first impressions were correct. Regrettably this means no one-night stands.
  • Yes, beer will be your downfall.
  • You’ll remain a dull, introverted, frightened, small boy who needs recognition and to be in control. This is not failure, it is what you are – or rather what your dysfunctional father made you. You do not need to be like this; life is hard enough already. You’re in the top few percent intellectually and could go far if you develop some more self-confidence.
  • Learn not to be so perfectionist. Yes it is what a research scientist needs, but in other spheres “good enough” is usually good enough.
  • Anger is destructive; excitement, panic and worry are all overrated entertainments. Learn to let stuff wash over you sooner rather than later. And don’t worry about things you have no control over. Measured calmness is prescribed.
  • You’ll never do enough, or the right things, to satisfy your father. Ignore him. Be confident enough to call his bluff. If he doesn’t like it, that’s his problem, not yours. It’s your life, not his.
  • You never will make friends easily and throughout life you’ll have very few. But those friends you do have will be influential and formative.
  • Do not be in awe of people “above” you. They’re human too – just as fallible but able to talk a better game.
  • Treat other people as you would like them to treat you, with respect and courtesy. If you treat people as you’d like them to be, you give them the space (and incentive) to grow; treat them as they are and they’ll stay that way.
  • You don’t have to believe in any god(s) to be moral. Morality comes from within and knowing what is just and compassionate.
  • Things happen when they happen, and for a reason. You don’t have to be a fatalist, but maybe you shouldn’t push back too hard either – although you should stand up for what you believe to be right.
  • You will change you mind, ideas and beliefs over time. This is good; it means you’re thinking about things.
  • It does get better.


It is that time of year when we start seeing black and yellow flying insects about. Yes, summer is wasp season.

There are essentially three wasp species in the UK. The two we see most often are the ones most people despise: the small ones the Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris, and German Wasp, Vespula germanica. Both are definitely yellow and black. To all intents and purposes they look identical (if you really want to see the difference you’ll need to get up close and personal with them – most of you won’t want to).

(L) Common Wasp and (R) German Wasp

The queens (which are quite large) are out at the moment, starting their nests. In a few weeks time there will be the smaller workers around; these are the ones which are the pest of picnics and alfresco fun. Come September their job is done: they’ve raised new queens, who will mate and hibernate to repeat the cycle next year. So now the workers are at a loose end, and go hunting anything sugary. They’ll die off with the first very cold nights and frosts.

I understand just how annoying wasps can be, especially if you have a nest nearby. But please leave them alone! They are wonderful predators of other insects, which they need to feed their grubs. Without them we would be knee deep in creepy-crawlies – an average nest can consume several tons of insects in a single summer! They also have a minor role in pollinating plants.

By August/September a mature nest can have anything between 5000 and 25000 wasps in residence. This not something you want to go poking at even with a barge pole! Having said that the nests are amazing structures, built essentially from paper.

Wasp nest

Destroying a wasp nest is rarely worth the effort. The nests, once dormant, have low humidity and are essentially just paper. Removal of the wasp nest will not prevent future queens nesting in the same area. If pesticides are used on the nest then you may contaminate other areas to no purpose, and dust based pesticides tend to remain active for years, so might knock down future queen wasps, or indeed other insects that you’d want to keep.

The main thing that worries people about wasps is their sting. A wasp uses its sting for killing prey, but it can also use it very effectively for defending itself. An ordinary uncomplicated sting contains an absolutely tiny quantity of venom (a pinhead less than the size of the full stops on this page!) which is injected deep into the skin. So treating the skin surface with almost anything is going to have very little effect (except maybe psychologically). Probably the best course is to use an antihistamine ointment and/or an oral antihistamine tablet. But … if the victim becomes pale and feels unwell with giddiness and nausea, get medical advice immediately as a very few people can suffer anaphylactic shock which can be fatal.

The third wasp species you might encounter is the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, although these are very much less common that the two wasps mentioned above (despite years of nature watching, I have never knowingly seen one in the wild). And they are roughly twice the size of a a “normal” wasp and very definitely yellow and brown.

European Hornets

(If it is yellow and black, it’s a wasp. If it’s yellow and brown and large it is a hornet – and you’re very lucky to see it! If it is furry, it’s a bee of some kind.)

Hornets follow the same life cycle as wasps, but are generally more docile and less likely to sting (though you’ll know about it if they do get you). They are relatively uncommon, especially in cities, preferring wooded environments. The only thing against hornets is that they can predate honey bee colonies.

There are many other species of wasps around the UK. Most are solitary rather than social, often parasitic predators and they don’t sting. The other social wasps are generally uncommon, although the Norwegian wasp, Dolichovespula norvegica, is more prevalent in the north of the UK. There are also a couple of very uncommon non-native hornet species in the UK and there are scare stories about “killer wasps” in the media from time to time – generally these can be ignored (although this could change over time).

So unless you are one of the very few, unlucky, people who are allergic to their stings (when you do need to worry) the moral is: please leave wasps alone! If you have a wasps’ nest, treasure it! Wasps are wonderful predators, superb engineers and they’re mostly harmless unless you start threatening them.


Michele Hanson in yesterday’s Guardian bemoans the fact that “prudish Brits” don’t have a bidet in their bathroom, and most (especially the blokes) wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

I agree. We don’t have bidets. And most Brits wouldn’t be seen dead using one. Why not?

I’ll tell Hanson why not. Because most of us have pathetically small bathrooms that you struggle to get a bath, loo and handbasin in. That’s why.

When we had our bathroom rebuilt a few years ago we struggled for a long time with how best to use the tiny space. Out went the bath and in went a shower cubicle. The handbasin was moved and a towel rail installed. Loo and radiator stayed in position. This made a tiny extra amount of space, but not enough room for a bidet. Despite trying hard there just is no way, short of removing a wall, to accommodate a bidet. And there is still almost no room as the space is about half the size of the average box room – cats cannot be swung.

To the majority of Brits, a bidet is like Europe: it’s either for the poncey well-to-do or its foreign. And God forfend we have either of those! Thank you, we’ll remain insular and isolated in out tiny little island/bathroom space.

The solution? Maybe these all-singing-all-washing-all-drying Japanese-style toilets are the way to go, but at the moment they’re way, way too expensive.

But that raises the question of whether a quick wash and dry is more environmentally friendly than 8-10-12 sheets of bog paper. Interesting one that.

Your Interesting Links

As usual our monthly list of links to interesting items you may have missed the first time around. There’s a lot in this month’s edition, so let’s get going …

Science & Medicine

Here are 101 ridiculous science “facts” which are mostly myth and need to die.

Researchers have worked out the genealogy of our dog breeds, and it isn’t as simple as you might think.

Meanwhile scientists have discovered the world’s largest canary on an isolated island of giants and dwarfs off west Africa.

Changing tack, it turns out the new £5 note isn’t so indestructible – if you’re a determined enough mad scientist.

Wow! A photographer has used black light (ie. UV) to photograph the luminescence emitted by plants. And it is amazing!

Another sort of discovery has led to the finding of lost research notes which undermine dietary advice we’ve been given for the last several decades.

Looking at even older “research” it seems that some of the medical recipes in medieval books may actually work and point the way to new antibiotics.


I wasn’t sure whether to put this here or under “science” but it turns out that unprotected sex may disrupt the microbiome of the vagina. Now there’s a surprise!

A Victorian ivory dildo, with an interesting story, has generated a lot of excitement at an auction in Ireland.


Max Hooper, the man who worked out how to date old hedgerows, has died at the age of 82.


Here’s another which could easily have gone in the science section … Scientists have now worked out how to extract the DNA of ancient hominids from the surrounding dirt.

Turns out we aren’t the first people to be scared of zombies; it seems the mediaevals were too and they did some barbaric things as a result.

It’s well known that the Tudors bathed only about once a year and were very smelly the rest of the time. Turns out that may be another myth as it is possible to go months without bathing and not be smelly. Yes, an intrepid researcher has tried it!

They’ve found, quite by chance, the remains of five lost Archbishops of Canterbury in a small London church. Harry Mount, new editor of The Oldie, was first on the scene.


Are you a devotee of nail polish? If so here’s a piece on some of the chemistry which makes them work.

Food & Drink

Cheese. That microbial concoction of from milk. Well here’s a guide to the natural microbiology of cheese rind.

Why is ultra-heat-treated (UHT) milk so stable that it is a shelf staple, especially in tropical climes where milk easily spoils?
[Incidentally, UHT milk is always known in our house as “UFO milk” but I have no idea how you might milk a UFO!]

So what really does give beer its bitterness and flavour? While some of it is down to the malt, most seems to originate with the hops.

Why are we masochists? Why is it we love chilli so much when it burns like it does? And how does the burn work?

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally … someone thought it was a good idea to teach a computer to write cookbooks and invent cocktails. Its recipe ideas are hilariously brilliant. Chocolate pickle sauce anyone?