18 OCTOBER 1997, Page 16

Second opinion

MY father was unable or unwilling to distinguish etiquette from good manners, and, despising the one, he never acquired the other. Indeed, he came to regard tactlessness as a rough kind of charm, except when he was himself the victim of it. He then reacted as if it were the worst kind of injustice.

In like fashion, I used to think that appearances were unimportant: what mattered was the pure gold of personality within. Now I am not so sure. The ineradicable fact of the matter is that we all judge by appearances and — so long as the majority of our social intercourse is of necessity superficial — we shall con- tinue to do so. The clothes, the faicial expression, the bodily habits, proclaim the man, at least until deeper acquain- tance.

Take slippers: you can tell quite a lot about someone who wears this domestic footwear. As the generous-hearted sister of my ward put it when she tried to per- suade me that the patient in the third bed was really pitiable rather than nasty, `Bad men don't wear slippers.'

There is, however, a sub-class of slip- per-wearers of which I have learnt to be wary. The sub-class consists of women — it is always women — who wear slippers in the shape of furry, sky-blue rabbits or pink kittens. I have even seen badgers, pandas and tiger cubs with long tails. These women will suck a doctor's blood more ruthlessly than a vampire bat exsanguinates its prey.

I now recognise from a hundred yards the sound of furry-animal slippers shuf- fling — passive-aggressively — across the hospital floor, as a prelude to some impossible small request, such as a five- bedroom house from the council which the doctor, surely, can arrange. The voice is girlish, almost pre-pubertal, the manner ever so slightly coquettish.

'Madam,' I say sternly in my mind, 'remove those slippers forthwith.' What I actually say is, 'I'll see what I can do.' Before long, the slippers return, shuf- fling inexorably in my direction. 'Have you heard yet, doctor?'

Of course, there are worse things than slippers and passive aggression: for example, there are army boots and active aggression. Only last week, as it happens, I was consulted by a woman who complained that her husband in common law was irritable and aggressive. If his stepchild asked for something which he did not think he should have, he didn't say `no' but 1--ing no'. Strangulation of her whom I must call his significant other was one of his modes of self-expression.

The man himself had that short hair- cut which turns the scalp bristly, yet allows one to make out through the hair the contours of the scars of various bat- tles and pub brawls. His equally bristly, prognathous chin completed the salient parts of his physiognomy, which would have given anybody of normal percep- tiveness the swift impression that he was about to attack; an impression strength- ened and confirmed by the swastika tat- tooed on one hand and the cannabis leaf on the other.

'Surely,' I asked his common-law wife, having taken her aside, 'you could have predicted what he was like by his appear- ance?'

'Yes, doctor,' she replied. 'But that's the look I like in a man. You know, rough.'

Theodore Dalrymple