IS THE GENTLEMAN DYING?

by Edward Wilkinson-Latham

The Toronto Standard

I was at a drinks-and-nibbles party recently when up came a conversation about the scarcity of true gentlemen. In a jovial mood, I had to query: had there ever been any gentlemen in Canada? Given my English accent, that got a few giggles, but most guests looked at me as if I had just I farted.

A young woman who claimed her name was Maude told me, with tipsy venom, that modern men are apes compared with those of her grandfather’s generation, which made me think, what did that make her father? The missing link? Full of bubbly, the small crowd thrashed through their varying ideas of the gentleman. It was like listening to an Amazonian tribe talk about Formula 1. The conversation flowed with ideas and snippets that had been absorbed from magazines, novels and films, from Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman and Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited. Being “swept off your feet” was uttered once; the word “tweed,” thrice fold.

The old-school gent that lingers in our collective memory—the type of fellow these guests were referring to—managed to enjoy over 100 years of uninterrupted glory in the pursuit of chaptitude, until the late 1960’s, when the ‘do what you will’ zeitgeist put out his pipe. Best personified on film by the likes of Cary Grant and David Niven, the real-life pedestrian gent may have been polite, self-discerning and ready to whip out a handkerchief for a tearful damsel, but the assembled seemed to forget that he wasn’t too keen on said damsels doing a better job than him. Or, hell, any job. Women weren’t even given a chance, for he was the seducer and protector in an age when the roles of the sexes were rarely interchangeable. He also wasn’t very fond on the working class, or people with skin darker than his cricket whites. For women to become nostalgically confused over such a man makes you wonder what is going on in Camp Estrogen.

What is it we really miss about gentlemen: their manners or their manors? It seems to me that many modern women have lowered their expectations for etiquette, but raised the bar on everything else. From what I gather, the 21st century damsel wants a man as seductive as a gypsy fiddler and as brave as a Foreign Legionnaire, with a silvery tongue of persuasion, both in the boardroom and the bedroom. The girls at the party seemed an unusual collection of self-imagined ladies, disenchanted with the extinction of those mythical herds of wealthy barons all hung like donkeys. And so in order to defend all those males who consider themselves to be mostly gentlemen, I became rather irritated.

I pointed out that, regardless of nature or nurture, a portion of males still aspire to be men of culture, refinement and consideration and pride themselves on their gentlemanly behaviour.

“Only when it suits them,’ growled a sultry looking redhead. Of course she was right in some ways. To many men, gentlemanly behaviour is a temporary guise, or hidden plumage that is pulled out when chasing amorous encounters, moments when aged seniors need polite feathering, or when business demands it. Most of us, however, do have a sense of decency, so to claim the gentleman is dying, is more of a testament to the types of men these women have been involved with.

“You men”, she said looking at me, “have forgotten what its like to be chivalrous.” Chivalrous? What does she want a knight with a codpiece who flings his cape over puddles and dog shits? Whoever she’s looking for, he sounds like a total Count!

Granted, modern man now operates in a post-feminist quagmire of pitfalls, doubt and befuddlement. This may be the reason that some men have dropped their formal gentlemanly guise, because they are simply unsure whether it will be noticed and appreciated, or even unattractive.

When promenading with a female friend, the aspiring gent must now use his eagle eyes to read the texture and tension of every given situation and rapidly devise a stratagem. Even then it’s a total gamble. It used to be simple, when chivalry actually existed. When a chap wished to defend a lady’s honour from crude remarks from a passing ruffian, he could slap the braggart across the jowls with some moleskin gloves and demand a duel at dawn. Now by the time you’ve mustered a suitable retort, she’s already nailed him in the plums with one of her stilettos.

Another bottle down and the conversation between Mad Maude and the Moaners had become contradictory and absurd and I departed with a mix of emotions, catapulting from irate to mildly amused. I would hate to agree that gentlemanly behaviour is dying and has become a mere function of a man who wants to get laid. If one confuses that with politeness and common decency, then maybe, yes, we are regressing. Perhaps, we have whittled the gentleman down to his bare essentials of just being a decent guy, but we should all try to pursue some sense of decency towards our fellow humans. If that doesn’t work out then maybe the gent will be put to rest, but it will be a sad day and will hark the rise of a Neanderthal generation. Maybe that’s what they mean by zombies roaming the land?

Ed Wilkinson-Latham is a Senior Editor at The Toronto Standard