We apologise, but we don't feel sorry

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The spectacle of the Japanese trying to apologise without actually saying sorry is, in some ways, very sad. In other ways, it is very funny. Either way, it is very piquant. It is especially piquant to the British, because we are very like the Japanese in this respect. We, too, would have exactly the same difficulty in forcing ourselves to apologise sincerely.

What we are good at is not uttering sincere apologies but in muttering "Sorry" automatically. There was even once a television advertisement which was entirely based on the fact. Do you remember that excellent TV commercial for a kind of gin (Gilbey's, I think) in which we saw a young man trying to get a drink at a crowded theatre bar? He kept bumping into people, and trying to attract people's attention, and trying to get past people, and all he ever said was: "Sorry ... sorry ... sorry ..." And you suddenly realised just how many different things the single word could mean to the English. The slogan of the commercial, when it finally came, was: "Gilbey's. So English it's embarrassing".

(There is something very English about that approach to an advertisement. Can you imagine any other nation using such a formula? "It's so American you want to knock its hat off"; "It's so German you long for it to make a mistake"; "It's so Australian it wants to own the world".)

But when we have to say "sorry" and also mean it, we have difficulties - exactly the same as the Japanese. I am sorry, but we do.

When did you last catch the British saying sorry about anything? We are very good at wanting other people to apologise (the Japanese, the Germans, Diego Maradona, Pakistani cricket umpires) but the idea of the British ever apologising for anything, or even admitting we have anything to apologise for, is almost unimaginable.

Yes, I can remember us expressing remorse. We are quite good at beating our breasts and putting ashes on our heads and saying what awful chaps we used to be when we ran an empire and shot lots of people to keep them in order, and how dreadful it was to bomb Dresden, and how unforgivable it was to put Lord Mountbatten in charge of India and let him kill a few million Indians at partition.

What I cannot remember is our saying it to anyone else. We are very good at being sort of regretful, but very bad at saying sorry. It is another version of what Enzo Apicella said about the English as restaurant customers: that we are very good at grumbling but very bad at complaining - that is, we will grouse about things among ourselves but never mention it to the management.

I will give you an example of our double standards. I once watched the wonderful Leni Riefenstahl film about the 1936 Olympics, The Triumph of the Will, and I seem to remember that one of the few races not won by either a European or an American was the marathon, which was won by a Japanese runner. I cannot remember his name but I think it was something like Nan.

Many years later, I learnt to my astonishment that he was not Japanese, he was Korean. But he had been forced to enter the Japanese team because the Koreans were virtual serfs of the Japanese at the time and he was better than any of their runners, so by winning he would bring glory to Japan. (Which throws a little cold water on the theory that Olympic athletes are inspired to win for their country - on the contrary, it suggests that they still want to win for themselves even when running for a foreign country.)

I found this Japanese act a little distasteful. So I was upset to find that the British can do the same sort of thing. When I was in Burma I met a man whose father had been an Olympic weightlifter at the 1936 Olympics.

"He was in the Burmese team in 1936?" I asked. "How amazing!"

"Not in the Burmese team," he said. "He was not allowed to go into the Burmese team. There was no Burmese team. My father was always so sad about that. The British classified Burma as Upper India, and would not let the Burmese have their own team. And they made all Burmese qualify for the Indian team or not go at all. If you were Burmese, you had to be Indian officially, which is a thing that no Burmese wants to be."

"On behalf of the British government," I told him, "I offer a full and remorseful apology."

"It is very nice of you," he said, "but I would rather have it from the British government."

"That'll be the day," I told him.

I believe he is still waiting.