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What makes a gentleman?

A SEARCH is on for Britain's Gentleman of the Year.

Michael Palin, top, seems like a thoroughly decent type, according to Tom Shields, below, but he believes David Beckham, above, is too shallow to win Gentleman of the Year
Michael Palin, top, seems like a thoroughly decent type, according to Tom Shields, below, but he believes David Beckham, above, is too shallow to win Gentleman of the Year

An outdated concept, you might think, but Country Life magazine, which has invented the award, says: "Far from being an endangered species, we believe that the gentleman is alive and well and thriving in modern-day Britain." The weekly journal of rural affairs adds that: "Gentlemanliness is, without a doubt, Britain's most enduring export."

Nominations are invited and to aid this process Country Life has set out some parameters as to what makes a gentleman. He is someone who is at ease in any situation and always puts others at their ease. Essential qualities include self-deprecation, generosity, tolerance, thoughtfulness and a sense of humour.

Other traits to look out for: "A gentleman makes love on his elbows." Or as Jilly Cooper has it: "He wouldn't jump on you without asking and when he's taken you to bed, drives you home afterwards."

He is always on time. Never cancels an arrangement. Treats his boss and the most junior employee with equal courtesy. A gentleman will occasionally be drunk but never disorderly. He never drinks Malibu. He has well-trained children and dogs, but is tolerant of those whose offspring and canines are not.

A gentleman does not flash his cash and is mindful of others' financial circumstances when choosing a restaurant. He may pay the entire bill discreetly when appropriate. He will eat anything put in front of him, but prefers simple fare such as shepherd's pie or omelettes. He is more interested in finding out how you are than in talking about himself.

The most important characteristic is that he would never describe himself as gentleman. So how do we recognise one? There are some hints in the profile which has been assembled by Country Life.

He is never over-dressed or under-dressed for any occasion. He does not buy fuchsia trousers. He never sports a pre-tied bow tie. His wardrobe will include some aged pullovers for keeping warm in his unheated country home. He will have some expensive suits. Country Life suggests a bespoke pin-stripe from Anderson & Sheppard at £3936 with a £140 Hermes silk tie.

He never writes with a Biro, composing his many letters with a £620 Meisterstuck fountain pen. He does not Tweet but may keep in touch with his multitude of godchildren via Facebook.

He never plants gladioli, owns a cat, wears lycra, or walks out of a play. His car may be an ageing Land Rover, Volvo, or MG. It is only for getting from A to B. He would not own a speedboat.

One of Country Life's more bizarre examples of alleged gentlemanliness involves table etiquette: "Faced with someone baffled by an elaborate place setting, a gentleman will immediately start using the wrong knives and forks, too, so as not to embarrass them."

Before I go through some of the possible runners and riders in the Gentleman of the Year stakes, I must rule myself out of the race. This is despite the fact that I was born and brought up on a vast estate (although we called Pollok a scheme rather than an estate). I don't know how many acres there were, but it had about 70,000 people living in council houses. When my peerage eventually arrives, I will be Lord Pollok-Shields.

This humble upbringing did not stop me from becoming a member of the Scottish Landowners Federation. It was at a time when I was employed by the Glasgow Herald to go out and about pursuing light reportage. I found myself at the annual Game Fair to see how the hunting and shooting set enjoyed themselves. By far the most attractive of the hospitality venues was a tent of Xanadu proportions. I ambled in but was told access was only for members of the landowners federation. So I joined.

It only cost £11 (which I got back in my expenses). I was perfectly honest filling in the form with details about my land, except for the bit where it was a recently-purchased council house in East Kilbride. The extent of my property was 0.013 acres (or thereby, as it said in the title deeds). Was it mainly arable, dairy or hill farming, the questionnaire asked. No, it was almost entirely concrete since I had paved over the garden.

For my £11 a year, I had access not only to the fine canteen of the SLF at the Game Fair but also to the various documents and minutes of meetings, which came in handy for the aforementioned light reportage. Which proves that you can let a journalist into a gentleman's club but it won't stop him indulging in ungentlemanly behaviour.

I did buy an aristocratically-pedigreed Labrador retriever from a fellow landowner. He asked if I did much shooting. Not as much as I would have liked, I lied. I didn't mention that I was quite good at shooting the craw. Libby, my Labrador, adapted well to the suburban landscape, exhibiting great skill in retrieving half-eaten fish suppers and kebabs from hedges.

Despite living for a few years in a semi-detached castle (complete with loads of pullovers and sub-zero temperatures), despite never wearing a pair of fuchsia trousers nor owning a speedboat, I could never cut the mustard as a gentleman. Which is fine by me because I don't buy into the idea. And, anyway, I couldn't afford that £3963 pin-stripe suit unless it appears on a rack at TK Maxx costing less than £50.

To me, the countryside is dangerous territory to be approached infrequently and with suspicion. The rural gent idyll is too redolent of a southern British alien culture where Scotland is a place to be visited only in August to shoot some grouse, attend a Highland Gathering ball, and maybe visit the Edinburgh International Festival.

Times have changed since the term "gentleman" denoted a person who, while being among the lower ranks of the gentry, still had enough inherited money to avoid doing any work. Nowadays, earning a wage has become necessary. Although no true gentleman would become a banker. Or, according to Country Life, a publican or a bookmaker. Being an estate agent is possibly permissible, but only selling interesting upmarket rural properties.

I imagine it is still possible to be a gentleman, even if the idleness is imposed by lack of employment opportunity, with these lavish social security benefits we hear so much about. Judicious shopping for tweed jackets in charity shops should help keep up appearances. But enough cynicism. What is wrong with having an award which celebrates qualities such as courtesy, kindness and concern for fellow human beings regardless of wealth or rank? Before you rush off to nominate that nice bloke up your street who is a gentleman and a scholar, please be advised that Country Life is looking only for British males "in the public eye who embody the spirit of gentlemanliness". Presumably that means celebrities only.

So what kind of chap does the magazine have in mind? For some reason, no names were put forward in the publicity surrounding the launch of the award. Instead Country Life offered a list of "Top 10 fictional gentlemen". Number one is Phileas Fogg from Around The World In 80 Days - "A gentleman never backs out of a wager". Also listed are Dr Watson, "easy-going foil to Sherlock Holmes"; Jeeves, "the ultimate gentleman's gentleman"; and William Dobbin of Vanity Fair - "the only really decent person in a book full of rotters".

This top 10 also features Ratty from The Wind In The Willows ("the model of affable charm", he "puts together splendid picnics"); Paddington Bear ("unfailingly polite - addresses people by their proper titles"); and Tintin ("unflappable, even when facing a firing squad"). However, it is not immediately obvious how this list will aid in the process of nominating actual candidates for the title.

Sir David Attenborough would seem to fit the bill in every respect. David Beckham would not. He would bring an instant aura of shallowness to the title. Beckham with his sarong would fail the dress code and also face disqualification because, according to the Country Life profilers, a gentleman never uses hair products.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, is mentioned probably because of his concern for the downtrodden and poverty-stricken. But, let's face it, he also fails on sartorial grounds. Michael Middleton's name is in the frame. But even though his daughter Kate is a future queen, he runs a partyware company and gentlemen don't get involved in trade.

The world of acting is represented by Colin Firth, who appears to have the required characteristic of self-effacement despite being famous on-screen as King George VI, Mr Darcy, and Lord Wessex in Shakespeare In Love. But actors are best rewarded for their work, like Firth's Oscar for The King's Speech. We should not look to them as role models in real life.

Jilly Cooper, who is one of the judges, has tipped Alan Titchmarsh and Steven Gerrard for the title. Titchmarsh is some kind of television presenter about whom I know little. I am happy to continue in this state of ignorance. Gerrard is a talented footballer with a genuine emotional attachment to Liverpool FC and its fans. But, at the end of the day, he is just another young man vastly overpaid to kick a ball and, occasionally, other players.

Prime Minister David Cameron does not qualify as he is not a gentleman, according to Country Life editor David Hedges, who says: "He's probably tried but it is all but impossible if you are surrounded by others who are not gentlemen, as you are in Westminster." So, no nominations from the Cabinet then - especially those who were in the riotous Bullingdon Club and therefore fall foul of the rule that a gentleman may be drunk but not disorderly.

David Miliband, Labour's lost leader, is likely to be on the short list but only because he has the advantage of no longer being involved in politics.

I have thought hard about who I might nominate but came up with only one suggestion: Michael Palin. He seems a thoroughly decent type, and with his TV travelogues he is a modern Phileas Fogg. Palin also has experience of a contest which is not entirely dissimilar to the search for Gentleman of the Year 2014. I refer to the Monty Python sketch called Upper-Class Twit Of The Year Show, which older readers may recall and younger ones may catch up with on YouTube.

It is a contest for dim-witted members of the upper class. It is an obstacle race which requires completion of difficult tasks such as walking in a straight line, kicking the beggar, removing a debutante's bra, reversing a sports car into an old lady, and insulting a waiter. Palin, as Gervaise Brook-Hampster, wins by being the first to shoot himself with a pistol.

The Python sketch was cruel satire but mainly just a bit of fun. The Gentleman of the Year Award is also a bit of light entertainment. But it has one major flaw. If the winner is a proper gentleman, he will decline to accept the award.

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