Clem Sunter

Manners Makyth Man

2010-10-13 12:05

I went to a school in England called Winchester College. It is situated in Hampshire and has the motto “Manners makyth man”. It was founded in 1382, and is considered to have the finest academic record of any school in the UK. It is not as snooty as Eton or Harrow. Anybody who goes to the school is called a Wykehamist because the founder was William of Wykeham. He was a bishop.

While I was at the school, I thought the motto was absurd. Why on earth should the manner in which you hold your knife and fork and your willingness to give up your seat to a girl on the bus define whether you are a man? Surely it should be whether you got a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge or played cricket or soccer for the school. Achievements and success defined you as a man.

Since leaving the school in 1963, I have over time revised my opinion for two reasons. Firstly, I realised that the word “manners” has a much wider meaning than behaviour at the dinner table and general politeness. It covers your basic moral code and the way you conduct yourself in relation to your fellow human beings on all matters.

Secondly - and more importantly - a consequence of growing older is that I have begun to understand how the people who know you judge you. It is much more about generosity of spirit, honesty, good will and humour than anything you have accomplished. As one of my friends said to me once: “Nobody has written on his tombstone that he made his first million before he was 30.” A wonderful South African expression with the same sentiment is that no hearse ever has a Venter trailer behind it.

Even heroes and heroines must have demonstrated greatness of heart and personal sacrifice. Values played a role in our judgement of them too and that, in the broader sense of the term, means manners. For example, the greatest golfer who has ever lived is Bobby Jones not because he won the Grand Slam but because he called a two-stroke penalty on himself which lost him the 1925 US Open. When praised for the deed, he is reputed to have replied: “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

My favourite story concerns Jimmy Carter, the ex-American President, who came to South Africa some years ago to open a housing project in Durban that had been initiated by Habitat for Humanity. My wife and I were sitting on a stand on Durban beach watching the World Amateur Surfing Championship. Jimmy and his wife Rosalyn accompanied by two bodyguards plonked themselves on the bench one row down – a little to the left of us.

A man with a passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden was sitting directly behind Jimmy and recognised him. He tapped Jimmy on the shoulder who turned around to the utter consternation of the two guards and spoke to him in a very amicable manner for five minutes, finally shaking his hand. The incident showed me what a gentleman Jimmy was or, I should rather say, what a gentle man.

Manners really do make the man – ancient and modern. More often than not, you can tell the true character of people by the manner in which they react to defeat rather than victory. Adversity is a much better test.

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