One dinnertime at a resort lodge in the Laurentians I was seated close to a French-Canadian family. They all spoke quietly, their table manners were faultless, and their interest in and regard for one another made of their evening meal something of a serene celebration.
An elderly couple entered the dining room and paused briefly at that family's table.Instantly the father and the three children were on their feet; the children had acted automatically, with no need of instruction from either parent.
That scene zoomed back to my mind recently when, on a visit to Canada, Prince Charles volunteered a personal thought in one of his semiformal addresses: What he wanted most for his infant son, he said, was that he should have good manners. It was a simple remark, without elaboration, but it struck a chord and drew applause.
When my brother and I were very young my father used to dress us smartly and take us for walks around town. It was not our idea of fun at all. Whenever he saw a woman carrying parcels - no matter who she was, how old she was, or in which direction she was walking - he would volunteer to carry her parcels wherever she was going.
As we grew bigger and stronger, we were instructed to follow our father's example. This behavior was normal, so far as we knew; all boys everywhere in the world, we believed, were brought up to defer to adults, with special attention to women and the elderly.
During World War II in Britain the loss of lives and property - the constant threat, day after day, night after night, month after month - shaded all differences: We were one, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak; we slept in bomb shelters, ate the same rationed food, opened our homes, large and small, to servicemen from other countries, shared tiring, often boring duties, depended on one another in a multitude of ways, and for the most part trusted each other implicitly. Some peacetime formalities fell in the crisis of war; but love and courage, human kindness and understanding, flourished; and in their adversity people, it seems to me, were magnificent.
When Prince Charles spoke of his son and the importance of manners he had to be sensing, I thought, the enormous power for good of common courtesy between men and women, youth and adults. Good manners are nothing if not manifestations of reverence for those who bear life and those who weather life, and of a genuine concern for the well-being of fellow creatures, their circumstances and entitlements - their rights.