“Oh, Mr Durie, you really ought to know when to shut up “

That is how The Australian’s Cut and Paste ( 23 May, 2008) introduced an extract from a comment by Tim Walker, in the London  Daily Telegraph on 22 May, 2008.

Cut and Paste said Mr Walker was explaining “the etiquette of small talk to crashing bore, Jamie Durie.”

Although Mr. Durie seems a very pleasant courteous young man, Mr. Walker has a point.

When asked “How are you?”  the expected response in English speaking countries is:

“Very well, thank you and how are you? “

My sense is that if the inquirer really wants to know how you are, the question is phrased differently, or there is an emphasis on the word “ you” and some explanation is added.

Different cultures have different etiquettes. In Thailand those with limited English often say: “Where you go now?”

 I have assumed it is a translation of the talk you engage in when you greet someone you know, and that they don’t really want to know where you are going.  Perhaps I am mistaken.

…Jamie Durie’s “lecture:… 

Anyway Tim Walker explains what happened at the Chelsea Flower Show. We wouldn’t have taken any notice of this, except for the fact that the world’s media went into near melt down over it.

There may be wars, threats of war, coups, earthquakes and other disasters,  but almost all the media reported this as if it were a major event.  

Such is the magic, I suppose of monarchy. Unlike republicanism, as Malcolm Turnbull lamented in 1999, everyone is interested in royalty, especially republicans – at least Sydney’s.

Mr Walker retold the earth shattering story this way:

“When the Australian garden designer and former stripper was presented to him at the Chelsea Flower Show this week, The Duke said: ‘I like your tree fern.’

This was a classic example of British small talk: a brief burst of soothing conversational Muzak. The normal response would have been a smile and a ‘Thank you, sir,’ and, that being that, the Duke would then have been at liberty to move on.

"But Durie committed the unforgivable solecism of responding to small talk with long talk. Worse, he also took it upon himself to put the Duke right, which seemed in all the circumstances to be the height of impertinence.

"’Actually,’ he said, ‘it's not a tree fern. It's a member of the Cycad family. It's a Macrozamia moorei…’

 As he continued to drone on, his distinguished interlocutor walked off and, in my opinion, quite rightly so. The Duke was heard muttering under his breath: ‘I don't want a bloody lecture.’


“And who on earth would? Only a complete chump would have seriously thought that anyone – let alone the Duke of Edinburgh, who has always had, at the best of times, the attention span of a very busy gnat – would give a fig if the wretched thing were a fern or not.

“Certainly, he didn't need all the technical lingo. In terms of the top most stimulating subjects for conversation, tree ferns – or tree fern lookalikes – must come somewhere close to 1,789,087th on the list.”

…Mr. Walker’s assessment: Jamie Durie doesn’t understand British small talk….

“I spend a large proportion of my life going to parties for this newspaper's Mandrake diary and I feel more qualified than most to tell this Australian the rules of modern British small talk.

“Think of the exchanges as nothing more than primal grunts: one life form simply acknowledging the presence of another life form.

“ It isn't that we are rude, or that we don't care: it is just that we are a people who prefer understatement to overstatement, and, frankly, we just don't have the time for long conversations with complete strangers, certainly not a herbert like him.

“Britain would, after all, come to a grinding halt if, every time someone alluded to the "nice weather we are having", we should feel the need to give the full seven-day forecast, complete with year-on-year comparisons and the usual boring commentary about global warming.

 “Crushing bores of Mr Durie's calibre should be aware of the warning signals we British give out when we feel cornered. A "lovely to have met you", said with finality, means "actually, it has been perfectly vile to have had to make your acquaintance and now will you please shut up and let me go before I sink into a deep coma?"

 “When someone walks away from you, as you are still warming to your tedious theme, then it means that you are frankly beyond the pale and have forced – in the case of the Duke – a decent, kindly old man, into the nuclear option.

“I hope I have made my point, Mr Durie. Least said, soonest mended and all that. The last thing I want to do is to go on about it.”

I think we shall stop there too.