Mary Dejevsky: There are so many reasons to be cheerful about Britain

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The Independent Online

'The revelation from my crash course in 21st century Britain is the sheer niceness of the public'

'The revelation from my crash course in 21st century Britain is the sheer niceness of the public'

Yes, I know that it has been a calamitous year for Britain, a year of plagues never-ending. The Cumbrian fells and the North York moors are bereft of their sheep, and the Brecon Beacons look sure to follow. There have been race riots in depressed mill towns so vicious that even the calm British bobby is suing for compensation. Violent crime is up, pension funds are down, and our cricketers have been humiliated anew by the Aussies.

After six years abroad, four of them (as the Independent's Washington correspondent) among people who never tire of saying how terrific they feel about themselves, I return to a land that still draws succour from feeling bad about itself. So – before the rose tint of the outsider's lens starts to dim – let me try to redress a little of the balance. In the two weeks that I have spent learning how to live in this country again, I have uncovered any number of reasons why you – sorry, we – British can feel good about ourselves.

All right, the privatised trains still do not run on time – or sometimes at all – and why is it so hard for us to keep our streets clean, when so many European cities look so washed and brushed? Look beyond the appearance, though, and if there was one revelation from my crash-course in 21st century Britain, it is the sheer niceness of the great British public.

From oldest to youngest, people are invariably attentive and frequently go out of their way to be kind. From the bus conductor who struggles to understand a foreigner's incomprehensible rendering of where he wants to go, to the supermarket cashier who painstakingly counts out the change and the clinic nurse who admits that she has no idea what is wrong but asks you to tell her what the casualty doctor diagnoses (if you have time) just because she would like to know, there is a basic humanity that shines through. Where American service staff so often parrot the formulas they have been trained in – the set smile and "have a nice day" – and elsewhere cool brusqueness may masquerade as efficiency, Britons come over more often than not as genuinely friendly and approachable.

An inquiry to a utility company in Britain can usually be answered by the first or second person to come to the phone. Front-line people have the competence, authority – and computer access – to address a question directly, with a down-to-earth approach that treats a problem not as an abstract "challenge" to be passed up the hierarchy (the US), a pretext to cite the rule book (much of continental Europe) or an opportunity for a bribe (almost everywhere else), but as something that can be solved then and there.

Whatever is said about educational standards in Britain, the vocabulary of British teenagers is much wider and the sentence structures they employ more complex than those of their American contemporaries. Young Britons may compare poorly in linguistic facility with their peers on the Continent, and they lack the self-confidence and "presentational skills" that are drilled into Americans, but listen to them talk for a few minutes, note the vitality and the variety, and you will not despair for the future of the English language.

Bridget Jones notwithstanding, Britons seem refreshingly free of personal complexes, especially compared with Americans. For better or worse, most people – men and women alike – seem cheerfully unconcerned about their weight, looks, clothes and even job prospects. You can watch television without being bombarded with slimming or medical adverts and walk into a supermarket without running a gauntlet of fat-free (but sugar-laden) sweets. The converse of this easy-going lack of vanity, of course, is that Britons tend to look a shambles and could be a sight healthier. But the air of tolerance that pervades Britain offers welcome respite from the conformism of so many other countries, the US included.

Which is surely one reason why what seems like the youth of the world is clogging the buses, trains and pavements of our cities this summer – and obviously having such a darn good time. They are not just out of the clutches of Mom and Dad, Mama and Papa, they are in a country that is prepared to turn a blind eye to the ear-ring or the tattoo, the frayed jeans and the raunchy T-shirt, and welcome them to the party.

And while the disaffection of young British Asians in Oldham and elsewhere is a warning that must be heeded, it should not obscure a different reality. In many parts of the country, people of all different races are living, working and relaxing side by side, sharing a drink and a laugh, in a way that is as close to colour-blind as I have seen anywhere in the world.

So, yes, it has been a terrible year for Britain, and will doubtless get worse. The Tube is overcrowded, the weather over-hot, and we don't believe in air-conditioning. But we have a lot else right. So let's raise a glass to that – and if we make it two, no one will mind.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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