Book Review: Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman

Thursday, December 10, 2009
There seems to be a surprisingly large market in guides to being 'a gentleman'. Search on Amazon and you'll see a reasonable selection, or alternatively go in to Brooks Brothers and you'll almost certainly find the headache-inducingly smug 'How to be a Gentleman' series by John Bridges, reprinted specifically for Brooks Brothers. Bridges begins every sentence with 'A Gentleman...', as in 'A Gentleman waits his turn before using the weights machine'. In this way, he manages to make what is essentially a book on very, very basic manners seem like a profound guide to a life of casual James Bond-esque sophistication. Not that Bond would wait his turn before using the weights machines, he'd probably just kill you with a dumbbell.

Anyway, my point is that it's hardly surprising that a guide to being a gentleman ended up relegated first to my loo and then to the bottom of a cupboard. The title gives it away - the book is not for gentlemen, it is for people who wish to be gentlemen, and I suppose they might benefit from the supremely trite advice that Bridges dishes out. Of course, it's unlikely such a person would ever buy the book, which certainly raises the question of who it is aimed at. Enough of Bridges, though, as this is all a preamble to the real subject of this review - Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman

Note the difference in title? This is a guide for a gentleman, and so it manages to take as granted that the average reader was probably already taught basic table-manners and common courtesy by his prep-school housemaster, and so these sorts of topics can be skipped. Instead, Debrett's Guide covers a surprisingly wide range of more difficult topics from buying a bespoke suit to going on a first date.

The advice given is bang up-to-date, while retaining classic values and style, and it's sheer breadth means that even the best-educated and most socially adept gentleman is likely to find one chapter or other useful. The pages on how to be a good country guest might be superfluous for those readers who spend their life flitting from country estate to country estate, but even they may still find the surprisingly detailed section on interior design useful. And even the most cosmopolitan of us can hardly fail to benefit from the handy table of how much to tip, and how to say thank you, in 22 different countries.

The book is laid out in an attractive and user-friendly manner, eschewing lengthy prose in favour of pages broken up in to tables, bullet points, 'top tens', trivia boxes, and so on. All accompanied by appropriate illustrations. Above all, the guidance given is useful and clear. Avoiding generalities, each section gives you exactly what you need to know, neither more nor less, and is so on-the-money in determining what will be useful to its readership that I find myself referring to it on a number of matters, be it a suggestion for a good classic movie to watch or album to listen to, or to remind myself of the pecking order of poker hands.

Perhaps more importantly than any of this, the book is an entertaining read, written with wit and style and not too much sense of its own self-importance. I highly, highly recommend it as something you should have on your bookshelf, or which would make an excellent present for any man in your life, this christmas.