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Country Gentleman: The importance of good manners

New Japanese dog's tooth violets are seen in Nagano Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

If I ask a Japanese woman, "what is a gentleman?" they will usually answer that they think a gentleman is strong, with good manners, and a sense of justice. (It also seems to help if the man is tall, dignified, and preferably handsome.)

Endeavoring to be a gentleman has been one of the ultimate goals of my life, and I confess, it hasn't always been easy. I was born in Wales in 1940, very early in World War II. My father went off to war and I never saw him again, so obviously, he could not be my role model. I never knew my paternal grandparents, but my maternal grandfather, who had a great influence on my life, was a wonderful but very stern old man who had volunteered and fought in World War I. He was the one who told me stories and passed on a philosophy for life.

Grandpa left school and went to work in the coalmines at the age of 12. He was a well-read, well-spoken man, but never graduated from high school nor did he go to university. He taught himself Italian because he loved opera. He spoke Welsh, English, and a little French. People used to say that grandpa was a "self-made gentleman."

From a very early age he urged me to grow up and be a gentleman and to always look after my mother.

The Germans were constantly bombing South Wales, so my young mother took me to live in Suffolk, in the east of neighboring England. Until mother remarried (when I was 10 years old) it was just the two of us living together. Mother had a strict upbringing and went to work as a nanny for aristocratic children, so she was also a stickler for good manners. For instance, when I left for school in the morning, she always insisted that I left by the front door, where she would wait until I reached the front garden gate. There I was expected to turn around, doff my cap and say, "Goodbye mother." No other boy on our street had to do that.

My stepfather, or "dad" as I always called him, was a Royal Navy man and one of the greatest heroes of my life. In 1962, having just finished a long arctic expedition I wrote home to say that I intended to go to Japan and study martial arts. Dad wrote me a very rare letter in which he said: "The Japanese are a very polite people, so watch your manners."

I would not call a judo or a karate dojo a place of exquisite Japanese etiquette, but one certainly has to learn to be polite to your teachers and seniors and to follow strict rules. That is surely one of the most important lessons in self-defense.

When, at the age of 27 I went into the mountains of Ethiopia to create a national park, the combination of British and Japanese manners stood me in good stead with the fiercely proud and independent mountain Amhara people, who, among other things, were impressed that a young, armed white man would always doff his hat and bow to village elders or women met along the mountain trails, and that I always shared food with the rangers who served with me. My Ethiopian sergeant, who fought in the Korean War and spoke some English, once told me that the local mountain folk considered me to be "a gentleman." I often look back and think that being so might have stopped some of them from shooting me. (By C.W. Nicol, author)

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This is the second installment of a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol.

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