Irritations of Modern Life: 15: British Slowness

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WHY IS Britain so damned slow? The other morning I took a taxi from Heathrow to my flat in west London. The flight from New York had been gruelling. I was weary, I was sweaty, my legs felt as if they'd been twisted into a Mobius strip, my eyelids as if they'd been rubbed down with sandpaper. I wanted to go home, I really wanted to go home.

The cabbie was elderly, twinkly-eyed and sported a stubbed-out cigarette behind his right ear. A lovable old codger, I'm certain, when carving the Sunday joint for his adoring offspring, but not what I was looking for in a high-speed chauffeur.

On the motorway, he settled into his cosy, patently habitual 50-mile- an-hour rut, indifferent to the hostile vibrations emanating from the passenger's seat. Even when we arrived and, fuming with frustration, I gave him, in lieu of a tip, a piece of my mind - he still couldn't quite figure out what my complaint was. And it took him another five or six minutes after I turned the lock in my front door to rev his cab ever so gently for take-off.

Our ears are bent back with the youth and energy and mercurial vitality of Cool Britannia, yet the country insists on going about its humdrum business at an asthmatic snail's pace. It's especially perceptible whenever you return from abroad. You notice that a queue in the Post Office will take forever to meander towards the counters. You notice, when riding on top of a bus, how it lumbers along with all the pachydermal lethargy of a rajah's elephant. And you notice that most British trains tend to wheeze into motion like turn-of-the-century jalopies, whereas those of other European nations glide away as smoothly as though the rails were on a ramp.

I'm never so ashamed to be British as when travelling from Paris on Eurostar. The sleek, streamlined marvel tears across the French countryside, then tears through the tunnel, then resurfaces at Dover where it grinds to a halt in order (I suspect) for a giant Zimmer frame to be coupled to the engine. Yes, we're once again in dotty but indomitable England, or rather in Ealing - as in comedy - with Will Hay as stationmaster, Margaret Rutherford as postmistress and Stanley Holloway propping up the local bar.

In Richard Lester's Sixties movies, dear old Roy Kinnear used to be cast as the token bumbler, huffing and puffing as he struggled to catch up with the decade's larky, tinselly inconsequentiality. This time around - the Sixties II - the Roy Kinnear role would appear to have been taken by Britain itself, a country which never quite manages to keep pace with its own fabled coolness.