The idea is that we all say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'how are you?' and 'after you' and 'excuse me' from eight sharp demain. So if you're wondering why you have been waiting in the queue for Tube tickets for three hours it's probably because some arsehole is saying, 'Thank you very much indeed,' while the man behind the glass says, 'Oh no, thank you,'
at which the customer comes back with four more thankyous in order to make it a round half-dozen.
The British are the only nation on earth who do not know when to stop being polite. With us, politeness has gone beyond formality.
It has got into the bloodstream by way of the language. We have very few formally agreed linguistic rules governing the politeness game. We have, for example, no word for bon appetit. My brother, when working in the former Yugoslavia was asked by a Serb what the English said to each other when they were sitting down to eat. He said, 'We say - Dig in]' with the result that the poor Serb, every time he sat down in company with a crowd of English would raise his knife and fork, grin round the table and shout to everyone, 'Deeg Een]'
We have no word for 'have a nice day' in English and I, at any rate, have not yet met the man or woman who would dare to say those four simple words out loud within hearing of another English person.
We have no way of thanking people for thanking us - as the French or the Italians or the Americans do: when you say thank you to an American waitperson, they say, 'You're welcome'. But you can't then come back with an 'Oh no, you're welcome'. They have made it clear that if you want to crawl that's fine - they want to have nothing more to do with slimey limeys trying to get their own way.
Because, for us, politeness is not simply a set of rules. The English are so hungry to do the right thing that they are unable to pay lip-service to convention - they have to swallow it whole. Just as, in love, they are never sure whether they are playing or praying, so in questions of manners they embrace etiquette (we have to use a French word to show we don't take it seriously) and swallow it whole.
Politeness, taught by Mummy or Nanny, becomes another way of trying to impose yourself on the world. Just as we had to convince ourselves that we were really invading, say Rhodesia, for the good of the local population, so our style of politesse (increasingly hollow-looking of recent years) is a way of masking our frustration, our anger and our limitless capacity for violence.
Politeness, or rather the modified form of it that the English practise, is expressed by choice of words, by the shading of tenses, and by the order and sequence of expressions. 'Could you possibly. . .' for example or 'I wonder if you could see your way clear to. . .' are all examples of how a high-status English person lets a low-status English person know that he or she better get his or her arse in gear and do whatever it is the boss wants, but that the boss is a jolly nice person as well.
We not only use politeness to mask commands. An English person thinks it rude to begin even an inquiry directly. This is probably why so many train, plane and cinema timetables are now on recorded messages. In the bad old days, when telephoning the railway station you would have to go through about half an hour of 'I wonder if. . .' and 'I was asking myself whether it would be possible to discover. . .' before you got around to, 'When's the next train to Taunton?'
The kind of people who think up things like National Courtesy Day, think that the English were once civilised, exquisitely gracious creatures. They look back to a golden age before our beaches got dirty and our football violence became legendary and conclude that all we need is more politeness.
They are wrong. We have got all the politeness we need. It's all this politeness that's getting us down and making us want to jump up and down on people's heads screaming, 'Fuck off you bastards]'
What we need is less politeness. We need a few simple rules of behaviour because, at the moment, our code is far too complex for us to be able to master it. And, before we come up with three or four mindless phrases that can be used to allow us to ask for what we really want with as little fuss as possible, we should be allowed a National Day of Rudeness.
We are running out of time. It won't be long before we all crack under the strain of crooking our fingers round teacups and saying 'sorry' to people we really want to hit. Old ladies - who can be the rudest class of people on the earth for precisely this reason - understand this very well.
I announce a National Rudeness Day, to take place somewhere between Christmas and New Year, and am proposing to kick it off myself - right now.
So here we go: 'Up yours readers of the Independent (assuming there are any of you bastards still out there) and keep your miserable heads under the bloody blankets tomorrow in case you run into some arsehole practising his fucking politeness on you]'Reuse content