The revolting French habits we're picking up

'We are now copying their disruptive methods, rather as we copy the croissant habit. Clumsily'
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The Independent Online

The last thing I ever wanted to do in this life was be panicked into buying petrol, but it was clear that down here in the West we were running out of petrol; so it was very calmly on Sunday morning, and without the slightest panic, that I got up early at 7am, very casually that I drove off in my car and very relaxedly that I joined the queues at the petrol pumps to stock up on fuel. No panic buying for me. Just a logical, orderly queue at 7am on Sunday. And you could see why there were queues at the petrol pumps. The garage hadn't opened yet. But we were very laid-back, all of us, waiting there in the early-morning warmth of a late-summer day and fifty exhausts - laid-back, that is, until the staff arrived to open the place, at which we all started panic buying in a very suave sort of way.

The last thing I ever wanted to do in this life was be panicked into buying petrol, but it was clear that down here in the West we were running out of petrol; so it was very calmly on Sunday morning, and without the slightest panic, that I got up early at 7am, very casually that I drove off in my car and very relaxedly that I joined the queues at the petrol pumps to stock up on fuel. No panic buying for me. Just a logical, orderly queue at 7am on Sunday. And you could see why there were queues at the petrol pumps. The garage hadn't opened yet. But we were very laid-back, all of us, waiting there in the early-morning warmth of a late-summer day and fifty exhausts - laid-back, that is, until the staff arrived to open the place, at which we all started panic buying in a very suave sort of way.

(It reminded me of a time when I once flew to Plymouth on Brymon Airways from Heathrow. The little minibus that took us passengers out to the aircraft stopped when we got there but wouldn't let us out. After five minutes, we got restive.

"Why can't we get on to the plane?" we asked the bus driver, plaintively.

"Because it's locked," he said. "The crew haven't arrived yet. We've got there before them."

At that very moment, a saloon car came screeching along the tarmac and came to a sudden halt, at which two pilots and two stewardesses got out, smiled up at us in an embarrassed sort of way and started unlocking the aircraft's doors.)

Anyway, then we all took our turn, one by one, at the pumps and got our petrol and drove away, hoping we could get rid of it all before the pumps ran dry, and we could get back for a second helping. But the thing that was obvious from the body language of everyone waiting there - and indeed from the English oral language of everyone talking to each other - was that we weren't used to this. We didn't know how to do this. This was the sort of thing they did in France and other countries where civil resistance was common. But now, somewhere in Britain, farmers and lorry drivers were imitating the French in blockading oil depots, and because of them, we also were imitating French drivers. In other words, we were queuing for petrol, which is something that most people haven't done in living memory.

"Done this before?" the bloke in the green Peugeot said to me.

"Queued for petrol?" I said. "No. Not as such. I'm not sure what the form is."

"Are we meant to dig up cobble-stones and throw them?" he said.

"Don't think so," I said. "I think only students do that."

"Bet the French would know," he said. "They've got it in the blood."

He's right. The French know all about revolution and rioting and protest, and we don't. We have to start from scratch every time it happens, and learn as we go along. Well, of course, we did have a revolution in the 1640s, which is long before the French had a serious attempt at it, and we did cut off a king's head long before them, but we peaked too soon. Having established that we could carry out a thoroughgoing revolution, we scrapped it from the repertoire and never did it again and forgot even how to go through the motions. As a result, we are now copying French disruptive methods from a distance, rather as we copy the croissant habit or the technique for making proper coffee. Rather clumsily.

(Nor are we prepared to cheat very well. I remember, when I was in Peru in the early 1980s, at a time of oil crisis, the government had decided to control petrol consumption by ordering that you could drive your car only on alternate days and that you put a permit on your windscreen to this effect. It didn't worry families with two cars - they simply used alternate cars with alternating permits. But people with only one car had trouble, until they realised that if they stole windscreens from other cars, there would be a ready-made permit for driving on the newly acquired windscreen, so, suddenly, people started losing their windscreens, simply for the sake of the permit stuck to them. It meant that a lot of people changed windscreens on their car every morning...)

And now, the Government is getting the Queen to agree to special powers. Know what I call that? I call that panic ruling. But then the Government has no experience of being French, either.

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