The Rules of Civility

One of the best books I have read in recent years is “A Gentleman in Moscow” – a book that tells the story of Alexander Rostov, a member of the aristocracy, who, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, is sentenced to life imprisonment for writing a counter-revolutionary “poem.” The good news for Count Rostov: his sentence is to be served in Moscow’s famed Hotel Metropole, where he is confined to a small attic room. In a 2016 review of “A Gentleman in Moscow” The Washington Post described Count Rostov’s Hotel Metropole as “transfixing, full of colourful characters, some transitory, others permanent: mostly fictional, some historical.” Also that the book has “some derring-do in the latter parts” (and in my opinion, a terrific ending). The Post reviewer wondered, as I did, why Hollywood “hasn’t snapped this (book) up?’’ (It has since been optioned to be produced as a mini-series).

The Post headlined the review, “A Gentleman in Moscow is a charming reminder of what it means to be classy.” That should make it mandatory reading for a number of politicians and so-called “celebrities.” Any come to mind?

The dining room of the present-day Hotel Metropole is shown in the preceding photograph. According to Trip Advisor, a one-night stay at the Hotel will set you back slightly more than 500 bucks U.S.

Amor Towles, wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Mr. Towles holds an M.A. in English from Stanford University, but spent some 20 years as an investment professional before turning to writing full time. He is pictured below – looking every bit the writer.

Mr. Towles first wrote “The Rules of Civility.” While not nearly as engrossing as “A Gentleman” it is a great read in itself. “The Rules of Civility” was described in a New York Times review as a “snappy period piece” in which Towles “resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy …”

The novel follows Katey Kontent, who in 1966 is transported back three decades to a New Year’s Eve that changed the path her life might otherwise have taken. That night Katey and her friend Eve first met Tinker Grey. Without going into further detail, I will tell you that Tinker (who names their child Tinker?) lives his life according to rules of civility laid down by George Washington. It turns out that Washington, as a 16 year old school boy, copied “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” from 12 year old Francis Hawkins, who had in 1640 translated the “Rules” from French into English. The “Rules” originated with French Jesuits in 1595.

It is remarkable that Washington took the trouble to copy into his notebook the 110 “Rules of Civility.” Not surprising that he went on to do such great things.

The “Rules” are easily sourced, so I won’t reference all 110 here, despite the fact that many of them are rules to live by even today. Here are several of my favourites:

11th – “Shift not yourself in the Sight of others, nor Gnaw your nails.” (On a cross-Atlantic flight years ago, I was seated in business class next to a man, who, as soon as the plane took off, began to chew his nails. I asked him politely if he planned to gnaw them for the next six hours. He wasn’t happy with my question, and moved to another seat to annoy someone else).

15th – “Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean without Shewing any great Concern for them.” (Yes, nails again. And speaking of teeth, Washington was not a model of oral hygiene. Contrary to the myth that he had wooden dentures, the fact is that his false teeth were a combination of gold, ivory, brass, and human and animal teeth).

44th – When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it. (I will try to remember this on the golf course).

54th – “Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.” (It is the Peacock part that attracted me to this rule, which takes on a slightly different meaning at my gym where some are determined to wear out the mirrors).

62nd – “Speak not of doleful Things in a Time of Mirth or at the Table …” (It goes on a bit longer, but I am reminded of Count Rostov’s dinner table rule that conversation be steered away from politics, religion and personal sorrows).

89th – “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” (If politics, religion and personal sorrows are (literally) off the table, and now malicious gossip; future dinner parties are going to be pretty bland).

110th – “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.”

(Nice place to end. There are 103 more gems here).


Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill has long been an historical favourite of mine. In my mind he was the most heroic figure of the 20th century. But again, in my opinion, he was far from perfect; a man who overcame his imperfections to lead his country through its “darkest hour.” If you haven’t seen the film, “Darkest Hour,” you should. Gary Oldman won his Oscar, and deservedly so. There is a long list of distinguished actors who have portrayed Churchill – Albert Finney, John Lithgow, Rod Taylor, Brendon Gleeson, and others – but none captured the essence of Churchill quite as well as Oldman.

The movie described a brief, but very critical period of time when the United Kingdom, under the inspired leadership of Sir Winston (having assumed the Prime Ministership at age 65), moved into battle against Hitler’s Germany. I thought that what I would do here is pass along some insights into Churchill, to show what a remarkable man he was.

He was amazingly productive. His capacity for work was without comparison, especially his writing. Sir Winston wrote first as a journalist, covering among other events, The Cuban war for independence, the war in the Sudan and the Boer War. In the 1920s he wrote a six volume history of the Great War; in the 1930s he completed his first autobiography and a four volume biography of the first Duke of Marlborough. Following the defeat of Germany and his own political defeat as Prime Minister, Churchill wrote a six volume history of World War II. Then, in his early 80s, he completed the four volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” Sir Winston was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1953. One historian estimated that over his lifetime Churchill wrote some 8 to 10 million words in various media.

Sir Winston was an accomplished painter of mainly landscapes. Painting may have helped him deal with his ‘Black Dog” – episodic bouts of depression that occurred throughout his adult life. Again, he was remarkably productive, having finished more than 500 paintings over a 50 year span. A painting by Churchill of his goldfish pond at Chartwell (his home) sold in 2014 for 1.8 million pounds.

Churchill was renowned for his oratory, which was underpinned by his skill at putting pen to paper. Of the airmen of the Royal Air Force he wrote and spoke “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Or in his first speech as the new Prime Minister, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Compare that to the eloquence of our young Canadian Prime Minster, who finds it difficult to complete a sentence. Or to Donald Trump who can only complete a sentence with two or more “very, verys.”

Churchill could be brutal in his assessment of people. Of Neville Chamberlain, who sought peace with Hitler, Churchill stated, “He (Chamberlain) was given the choice between war and dishonour. He choose dishonour and he will have war anyway.”

Of Charles De Gaulle, “He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath.”
Of Lawrence of Arabia, “He was not in complete harmony with the normal.”

And of the Earl of Halifax (portrayed in “Darkest Hour”), “Halifax’s virtues have done more harm than the vices of hundreds of other people.”

But never lacking for ego he said, “We are all worms, but I am a glow- worm.”
He did have a lot of nice things to say about others, but one gets the impression that Sir Winston did not suffer fools. Often, over dinner, and after a number of libations, we ask the question of our guests, “Who would most like to join your dinner table?” My diplomatic answer, after making sure to include those currently sitting at the dinner table, is “my father, and certainly Winston Churchill.” Churchill, of course, would dominate the conversation, but my father would break in and want to know (having spent a number of years in the U.K. during World War II) why all they had to eat at dinner was mutton. That was my Dad. Never one for politics.

There are scores of books written by or about Sir Winston. Biographies by Manchester, Jenkins, and Sir Martin Gilbert, are must reads. So is “The Gathering Storm” (predicting the rise of Nazi Germany) by Churchill himself.

I leave you with this. Learn what you can about Sir Winston. I did, but only later in life. He is an inspiration for all of us, and the young need to understand that, as he did, one should never give up.

The photo above was taken by the Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, and is the most famous image of Churchill. The photo seemed to capture much of the Churchill personality – his imperiousness, his resolve, and his tenacity.

But a few words now about Gary Oldman. This is Gary (below) as Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”
A pretty good likeness that Oldman brought to life with his ability to adopt Churchill’s mannerisms; his impatience, his temper, and Sir Winston’s speaking voice (complete with lisp). Oldman won the Oscar of course, and the BAFTA (British Academy of Film Awards) for best actor. His third BAFTA, by the way.

I regard Oldman as a chameleon. He may be unrecognizable from one role to the next. Do you remember him in “JFK” (as Lee Harvey Oswald)? In “Air Force One” trying to bring down Harrison Ford’s plane? As Dracula in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula?” As Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” series? Or try “The Professional” as one of film’s greatest villains.

Here he is, in the image following, looking dapper in black tie. Quite a stretch from his portrayal of Sir Winston.

Gary Oldman is without question a great actor. But he is also something of a legend as a husband, having been married five times. These unions lasted 2,3,4 and 7 years respectively. The most recent wedding took place in 2017 (wish her luck!). Oldman was once married to Uma Thurman (good on him) and apparently, in between marriages, counted Isabella Rossellini as a “partner.” Good on him again, as Isabella is the beautiful daughter of the beautiful Ingrid Bergman.