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

Share

'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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform