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Sunday, 16 June 2013

If you're happy, and you know it...






Did I mention that I'm on a cruise at the time of writing?  It may have cropped up, I'm sure.  Sitting in the buffet restaurant today, I was struck by the difference in attitude of the various nationalities.

This is an American-owned ship, and I have always held the view that our transatlantic cousins really know a thing or two about the concept of customer service.  All of the staff, of whatever nationality (and they are many and varied) are unfailingly polite, cheerful and helpful.  I know various U.S. companies have tried to transfer this mindset to their U.K. outlets, with predictably mixed results.  As far as the British are concerned, customer service means finding new and imaginative ways of saying 'sorry' for not delivering the expected service, without actually doing anything about it.

In this restaurant, hordes of Brits (and it is mostly Brits on this trip) were, I noticed, marching morosely around the various buffet bars.  Here they were, surrounded by a mind-boggling variety of high quality foods, with no restriction on how much or how many they could have, and yet, from their expressions, you would have thought they were queuing for ECT without the aid of anaesthesia.

All of this led me to consider whether happiness really suits the British people.  It seems to me that we do everything we can to avoid it.  We certainly won't admit to it.  Even that meaningless but now ubiquitous phrase 'have a nice weekend' is likely to evince a host of reasons, including jobs, duties or dutiful visits, that the recipient has lined up to ensure that he/she does nothing of the sort.  If we own up to going on holiday, we tend to say "We're only going for a week" as if to admit to anything more would be the equivalent of being addicted to selfish pleasures.  Ask people about any, supposedly, pleasurable experience and they will first tell you about everything that went wrong.

"Our holiday?  Well, yes, pretty good really.  Of course you heard about us losing half the luggage from the roof rack on the M6?  Closed two carriageways and had traffic backed up to Wilmslow at one point, apparently.  Good job it wasn't raining then, well certainly not as hard as it did for our first week.  Not that we bother about a bit of rain, well you've got to expect it in our country haven't you?  We always take a few games to play.  It was a pity that little Saffron hurt her eye in that freak dominoes accident and we had to spend 12 hours in the local A&E, not that I'll hear a word said against the NHS, even if we did have a hard time to make ourselves understood to the on-duty doctor…"

Take unsolicited sales phone calls, for instance.  It's standard practice to moan about these, and with good reason.  They always strike at the most inconvenient time (although I'm not sure there ever would be a convenient time to talk about double glazing or cavity wall insulation).  For some years now there has been the option of barring these calls by registering with the Telephone Preference Service.  It's a very effective method of stopping this particular nuisance at source and has left us free to eat our tea in peace.  However, mention this to anyone in mid-complaint and I guarantee that the reaction you won't get is "Oh really?  No, I didn't know that.  I'll get on to that tomorrow".  They are far more likely to come up with a string of reasons why they shouldn't do it.  "Well, they'll get round it some way, won't they?" (No), "It doesn't stop them from calling from overseas, does it?" (No, but these are so few in number, it really doesn't matter)  If pressed, they might admit to "not wanting to block something that might be useful"   However, the fact is that they don't want a solution, they want to be keep moaning about the problem.

Our transatlantic cousins actually have 'the pursuit of happiness' enshrined in their Constitution.  Not the achievement of it, you note, just the pursuit.  Still, I can't see that working in the U.K., we don't so much pursue happiness as pretend we're out when it calls.

Look at our newspaper headlines.  Every report of some positive development will be quickly followed by some example of why it will bring misery and suffering to countless others.  We don't celebrate with lottery winners, we wait for the inevitable tales of family strife, marital breakdown and bankruptcy that we have come to expect will follow this good news.

If you really don't believe that we enjoy misery, then just take a look at our popular soap operas.  Even the previously innocuous ones like Emmerdale, and even The Archers for goodness sake, have storylines containing adultery, murder, rape and every sin that flesh is heir to.  This, remember, is supposed to be early evening family entertainment.

The difference between us and the Americans is that they aspire to happiness, even if they don't actually achieve it, whereas we're just about prepared to tolerate happiness if we must, but would ideally like to stamp it out.  Anyway, any country that is prepared to admit being responsible for Simon Cowell deserves everything it gets.

P.S.  There are times when I wonder if my quest for comic effect sometimes leads me to be a little unfair on my fellow countrymen.  "Whiteland" I scold myself (I tend to address myself like a recalcitrant 1950s public schoolboy)"you are too harsh", and then something like this happens.
 

We were having breakfast (on our cruise, remember?)  It was a buffet arrangement, and I've mentioned before my weakness for buffets.  Two ladies of a certain age came and sat next to us, each with a small bowl of fruit.  One looked as if she sucked lemons for a pastime, the other as if she nursed a secret sorrow.  I feared that the bowl of fruit indicated that a 'healthy breakfast' was to be had, so, imagine my surprise when one said to the other "Well, shall we go and see what is on offer in the cooked breakfast items?"  My heart leapt (despite all of the cholesterol it was undoubtedly having to contend with).  Clearly I had misjudged them, they were trencherwomen after all.  Reason regained its throne, however, when they returned.  The 'secret sorrow' had a plate on which rested three slices of cucumber and two of tomato, accompanied by a small spoonful of scrambled egg.  "Well", she explained to her friend, "we have to make the most of it, this is the last of our big breakfasts" When the other let it be known that she loved water in the morning, but usually took it hot with a slice of lemon, it only confirmed my worst fears.

A version of this post appears in the new compilation of stories "A Kick at the Pantry Door".  If you want to read the rest of the 'nostalgedy' series before then, take a look at Steady Past Your Granny's and Crutches for Ducks