Thursday, 17 September 2009

Queueing - an obituary.

Britain is a small island, one in which the population has exploded by some 50% in as many years. Politeness is not only the code word for the repression of rage, violence and selfish impulses of all hues, it is also one of the key national traits. The old joke that runs ‘how do you tell an Englishman in a crowd? When you step on his foot he apologises to you,’ once spoke volumes about a nation that was brought up to mind its p’s and q’s of which it is the queues that have given me cause for misery of late.

In 1941(the year that is, not a hitherto unknown precursor novel to 1984) George Orwell wrote that ‘the English are not gifted artistically’ and that they are ‘… not intellectual. They have no gift for abstract thought.’ I believe him to have been wrong on both counts. But he might have added that we do have a practical facility for happily rubbing along on this crowded island and on this issue I would have agreed with him. For nowhere is this facility more visible, nowhere can there be a more startlingly simple application of this concept than in the British ability to form an orderly queue. At bus stops, for trains and in the post office this idiot-proof form of social respect, of British sense of fair play and decorum acted out. I realise that I write this as a keen but amateur observer of the human condition as it pertains to a London, metropolitan perspective. But what happens in the capital, unlike Las Vegas, tends not to stay in the capital but leaks out to the nation as a whole.

Daily I see a half-hearted attempt at what might be considered to be a form of queuing, as if some vestigial national memory of correct behaviour exists to pull on our conscience. Someone will stand by a bus stop for example and in time people will join from behind in the traditional manner. But not in any ordered sense as I used to understand it. Smokers will stand to one side as if nodding to other queue members’ right to not breathe their exhaust gases. Someone’s mobile phone will ring and in the course of the conversation they will wander off and then, too embarrassed to rejoin their place directly, will hover somewhere around the region of the queue that they once claimed as their own. It doesn’t quite adhere to the ‘form an orderly queue’ ethos, but it’s pretty close.

Until the bus arrives that is and then everything breaks down. Mothers with children will assume that they have priority, as will the more elderly or those less able. They will fight and struggle between themselves, vying for comparative concession and in the chaos those younger and more able will seize the opportunity for themselves and leap on board. In the melee rudeness occurs, resentments are created, something gets lost and a little piece of Britain dies.

The Englishman in the joke is now as likely to reach for a vulgarity as he is for a phone with which to call his lawyer. It is thus my onerous duty to mark the passing of the queue.

So farewell then, dear queue, your life was long and noble. But it has passed and with the passing a part of all of us who claim Britishness has gone with it. You will be missed greatly and remembered fondly.

If you have been, thanks for reading.



Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Da Vinci Code

In conversation recently I was asked why I only recommend books that I like. It slightly stumped me at the time as I thought that was the whole point of recommendation, to impart to someone else one’s own love or enthusiasm for something in the hope that it will also bring them joy or pleasure. Rarely if ever do holiday guides say “oooh don’t come here, it’s horrible” or restaurant guides say “this restaurant serves the most appalling filth I’ve ever eaten.” There are of course exceptions. Shock columnists out to make a name for themselves or occasions when something is so truly appalling that it becomes comment worthy. But the general aim, as I understand it, is to empower, to inform and to enthuse.

Some time later I then wondered how such recommendations speak of what we consider to be good. How do we decide “good” from “bad?” All the books that I recommend to you I do so because I have read them and enjoyed them. I have thought about why they were “good” and tried to convey that in the reviews you see opposite. But it is personal taste. It is subjective. You, of course, may disagree with me vehemently and consider that I’ve made you waste your time reading a book you loathed. It happens. Someone once recommended The Da Vinci Code to me saying that it was the “most amazing book I’ve ever read.” I couldn’t even finish the first chapter without wanting to throw the appallingly written, clumsily plotted pile of ordure to the wall before taking it outside, setting fire to it, scattering the ashes to the four winds and then washing my hands in sulphuric acid to remove the soiling effect it had had on my skin. In short I loathed something that a friend loved. It was to my mind a “bad” book. Of course my argument was somewhat shaken when said book became a huge international bestseller read by countless millions and spawning rather a decent film. But it doesn’t change what I thought and indeed still think of that book. It simply means that the millions of people that read it and “loved” it are just plain wrong!

There are of course lots of books I haven’t enjoyed. Some just don’t grab me but I know are highly regarded by others. Some I didn’t understand. Some are just badly written or ill thought out and I don’t see why I should recommend that you invest your time and effort in something that the author couldn’t be bothered to fully invest their time and effort in.

I feel that there’s little point in telling someone that they won’t enjoy something, because they just might. Better surely to explain what you have enjoyed in the hope that they enjoy it too. But then I was brought up to believe that ‘if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.’ Except where The Da Vinci Code is concerned. Of course.

If you have been, thanks for reading.