A stranger called me a gentleman the other day. Admittedly, I’d just let her muscle past me in the queue for an ice cream van. (She had two small children. I was a single man in the queue for an ice cream van. I figured, she had seniority.) And the people behind me grumbled a bit. But, fuck it, I’ll take my compliments where I get them. Later I got to thinking about the concept of the gentleman. You know, the man of honour. It’s a very old fashioned idea now. But in the days before credit cards, penalty points or civil law, I reckon the notion of ‘honour’ performed a very useful social function.
The gentleman occupied a position of privilege. But if he was cowardly in battle, didn’t pay his debts or punched your auntie in a drunken fit, his honour was forfeit. Honour operated as the equivalent of a security deposit held against you by society to guarantee good behaviour. Without it, you were just some random gobshite.
No wonder then that gentlemen were so sensitive to any suggestion of an affront to their honour.
Personally, I’m pretty certain I’m descended from a long line of gobshites. But today I got to thinking about the notion of honour. I had lunch with my friend Mick, who insisted on repeating his latest pet theory: that I am secretly in love with the girlfriend of our mutual friend. He’s 100% wrong about that. He has absolutely no evidence. But it’s impossible to prove a negative. And he believes what he wants to believe.
He refuses to withdraw the allegation.
Now he hasn’t exactly libelled me. He hasn’t committed a crime. I don’t want to fall out because it’s not that big a deal. And I don’t want to punch him because he’d probably punch me back a lot harder and my clothes would end up torn. But my honour is offended. If it didn’t fly in the face of all known social conventions, I swear to God I’d challenge him to a duel.
Perhaps, I take these things too seriously. Last weekend, on a road trip to Mayo, the photographer Johnny Savage shared his own tale of being accused in the wrong. In 2005, Johnny was working as a bicycle courier in Perth, Western Australia. Now there aren’t too many Irish people in that part of the mirror. In fact, his landlady said he was the first Irishman she’d ever met. She seemed wary at first, but warmed to him eventually.
One evening, when she dropped by for the rent, she asked Johnny if he’d heard the big news from London. Johnny had been out all day. But he remembered hearing on the radio that morning that London had secured the 2012 Olympics. Yeah, he told her. He’d heard the news. It was fantastic news. He was delighted with the news.
Unbeknownst to Johnny, since he’d listened to the news that morning, Islamic terrorists had launched a coordinated bomb attack on London. Fifty six people were dea. The landlady gave Johnny a horrified look and exited sharply. From then on, her husband came for the rent. There was no chitchat.
Did they ever clear up the misunderstanding? He tried, Johnny admitted. But they didn’t want to hear about it. Didn’t that bother him, I asked? Sure it did, he said. He didn’t consider challenging her to a duel? Johnny laughed. She was an old lady. Come on, what are you going to do?
We were in Mayo, incidentally, working on a feature about the new Hardy Bucks series. It was good to catch up with Martin (a.k.a. Eddie Durkin.) The last time he was in Dublin, he asked me to meet him for a few pints. He reckoned he owed me a few. If he did, I’d forgotten about it. But we met on Grafton Street anyway and I asked where he fancied heading.
He was skint, Martin said. We’d have to go on the knack.It took a second for the penny to drop. On the knack? He pointed to the bulge in his rucksack. Martin was paying me back in cans.
I tried explaining that, no more than duelling, drinking alcohol on the street in Dublin isn’t really considered the thing. But Martin insisted. Where are the best spots, he asked? I told him I really didn’t know. After a bit of toing and froing, we ended up walking laps around St. Stephen’s Green. I tried to be inconspicuous. But every third or fourth young person we passed seemed to recognise Martin and shout lines from the show at him.
I told him I’d really rather go to the pub. I didn’t mind paying. No, he insisted. He owed me. He was going to pay me back and that was that. Oh dear. What could I say? The man was a gentleman.