My friend was planning his first visit to London. He asked my advice before travelling but my knowledge of London is fifty years out of date. The occasional visit to family has long since relegated me to the status of tourist and I had little inside information to offer. All I could tell him was that England had changed since my day, it was now a foreign country. A random glance at Sky News is enough to see that today’s England bears little resemblance to the country I left behind.
But the English are polite, my friend insisted, surely everyone knows that.
Well, Winston Churchill did say “When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.” But that was a long time ago; I don’t know if that’s still true. England is no longer my England.
The late Alistair Cooke, that’s Letter from America Cooke, not the present-day sportsperson, once spent an entire day in London bumping into people, treading on peoples’ feet and causing havoc with his umbrella. He was doing a social experiment – trying to say “sorry” before his English victim said “sorry”. He failed; everyone he pushed, kicked or jabbed said “sorry” before he could open his mouth. But that was a long time ago – England has changed.
A day or so later, I found scientific evidence for my belief that England has changed. A new study by a professor of linguistics has found that the level of politeness in British has fallen over the years. The detailed study showed that, on average, people use 16,000 words a day. Of these, only 38 are polite words such as please, thank you, sorry. In an interesting sign of our ‘equal’ times there was no difference in politeness between genders; men and women are equally polite or impolite.
Two weeks later, my friend was back home. How was it? I asked. What did you like the most; Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, perhaps the British Museum that is carefully looking after much of our archaeological treasure for us?
No, none of these famous sites had been the highlight of the tour. My eighty-year old friend could only speak about the London Underground. Most stations were old, and had only stairs, lots of stairs, he said. But, every time, a perfect stranger had firmly taken his suitcase and carried it up, or down, for him. What could have been a nightmare for an elderly person had turned into a pleasant experience. He could not praise too highly the friendliness and helpfulness of the local population.
It seems that England has not changed as much as I had feared.
And if you were wondering how I was going to slip in a mention of my novels – The Len Palmer Mysteries, available as e-books from Amazon – I couldn’t think of any way to get them in, so I won’t mention them.