Asking Claire

Great-Aunt Claire Wallace was a pioneering figure in Canadian radio, among the first women to broadcast programs nationally on CBC, and perhaps the actual first. (It depends on what you read.) She was a skilled storyteller on the air for 30 years or so, a daring traveller who flew a plane, went deep-sea diving and hiked up a volcano, when all of this was exceedingly rare, and she was a prolific newspaper writer; she also published two popular books on manners. 

Claire stressed modesty, discipline and planning. She was formidable in person and yet, a CBC colleague of hers once told me, she trembled a bit as she fought through mic fright at the start of every broadcast.

Canadian Etiquette, which followed Mind Your Manners, was reprinted in 1967 (a number that evokes for me the hopeful charm of Centennial celebrations and echoes of political violence and serious social disinhibition Somewhere Else), when most people were tossing out or at least redefining the sort of rules that the books contained.

While it's amusing to explore entries suggesting glove length, hat dimensions and how to consume a fresh kumquat at dinner (no knife or fork, though they would be deployed instead on peach and pear), or how to address a baronet ("Sir" -- a disappointment. I was expecting something more fabulously feudal), it's a bit poignant to think of time-tested guidelines that had long smoothed social interaction simply evaporating.

Maybe this rule is timeless: When lost in the Canadian wilderness, the "stranger is free to enter an unlocked shelter, whether it be a trapper's cabin, lumber camp or prospector's shack or tent," Claire wrote.

"[I]t is permissible to force entry in an honest emergency. If there is necessity the stranger is at liberty to make use of... food and supplies."

Don't eat everything in the cupboard, she counsels, or attract animals through carelessness; do tidy up before departing and pay particular attention to fire safety. Leaving money for the unwitting host is in poor taste, she concludes, but "a hastily scribbled note of appreciation is always gratefully received."