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Coffee House

Why Britain is, still, the world capital of decency

16 February 2013

12:50 PM

16 February 2013

12:50 PM

In the Wall Street Journal today there is a wonderful piece by an American tourist struck by the level of friendliness and civility he found amongst the British people. He starts with our tube etiquette:

‘Three times in the space of 24 hours young men offered their subway seats to my wife, who is neither elderly nor pregnant. They seemed to do this out of a sense that giving up one’s seat to a person at least one generation older was the sort of thing gentlemen did, even though not one of them fit the narrow technical definition of a gentleman. One guy looked like a gangster.’

And then again…

‘At the Kensington High Street tube station, we had trouble figuring out the Oyster Card transit payment system. A very young Underground employee, noticing our confusion, offered to insert the coins for us. This sort of thing never happens in New York, where being perplexed is viewed as a sign of mental impairment.’

Then outside of London on the train…

‘When my wife asked a young man on the train to turn down his MP3 device because the noise coming through his dirt-cheap earphones was so loud and annoying, he did not disfigure her with a machete. Instead, he apologized for his insensitivity. So did the woman who had her cellphone on speaker. The train employees were both cordial and informative. Met anybody like that on Amtrak lately?’

And finally, post office in Stroud:

In the market town of Stroud, a clerk walked about a quarter-mile across a supermarket to show me where the sparkling water was. But the real capper was when I visited the post office In my suburban New York town there is a post-office employee so belligerent that people drive to the next town to ship their packages. That town is 5 miles away. And the employees there aren’t all that much nicer. But at the post office in beautiful downtown Stroud, the helpful staff didn’t act like I was brain-damaged because I did not know how much postage to put on a postcard to Canada. Nor did they act like the world owed them a living.

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Now, is this the rose-tinted view of an Anglophile yank that would not be repeated by anyone who actually lives here? I’ll add one final observation: from our own Charles Moore in The Spectator a fortnight ago:-

On a crowded train from the frozen north to the even more frozen south at the weekend, a party of teenage boys with a great many cans of beer sat opposite us. My heart sank as their laughs got louder and their conversation more obscene. I was trying very hard to understand a book about exchange rate policy in the 1980s, but my wife was wearing our only pair of earplugs, and concentration was impossible. The boys were all candidates for university, and sour thoughts filled my head that they could do no better than burp and make jokes about sleeping with one another’s sisters.

But then a strange thing happened. Along came a man with Down’s Syndrome. The teenagers didn’t know him, but he saw a football match playing on their computer screen, and he stayed to watch, cheer, and insult whichever side it was he didn’t like. He swore quite often himself, and then said, rather sweetly, in his indistinct voice, ‘Pardon my French.’ The yobbish boys treated him with charming courtesy. They shook hands with him, exchanged football talk, expressed polite interest when he said he had a girlfriend, and laughed at his jokes.

When, after what seemed like an hour, they came to the tacit view that he had perhaps been with them long enough, they moved him on with an ‘It’s been great to meet you’ manoeuvre that members of the royal family would have envied. Their manners to the handicapped were right in a way that those of my generation at that age certainly were not.

I’m in Stockholm right now, a beautiful city – but one where people are certainly more reserved than the Brits. I think both Charles, and our American tourist, shine a light on Britain’s most distinctive characteristic: the decency and warm-heartedness of the British people. It seldom makes the newspapers. But look around, and you can see it all the time.

It is said that, in New York, the definition of a microsecond is the time between a streetlight turning green and the car behind you tooting its horn. In London, I’d define it as the time between a woman trying to pick up a heavy bag on the underground staircase and her being offered help by a man.

God knows we have our problems in this country. But Britain’s basic levels of civility — which were famous in wartime — are still making visitors gawp. It’s a reminder why, as Andrew Marr put it, to be born in Britain is an extraordinary stroke of good luck.

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