The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Britain still has the charm of quirky contrariness

When the British-Asian woman at Heathrow airport’s value added tax refund desk gave me a tongue-lashing some years ago for not having my purchases on ready display before departure, an Australian friend chuckled that she was getting her own back for generations of caste and class discrimination. Perhaps there is an element of that in a Britain whose contradictions prompted Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew to return last week to the heartache of his complex love affair with the country.

Asked in an 80th birthday interview whether he resented Singapore being called a nanny state, Lee asked in return, “Have we failed or succeeded'” Then, “Look at the British: When I was in England as a student, they were the most courteous and civilized of peoples. Drivers waved to each other at road junctions and people were polite on buses and the tube. But today they are the football hooligans of Europe.”

True enough, but not the whole truth. One reason why I like Britain above all other foreign countries, even spick and span Singapore, is a quirky contrariness that finds many forms of expression, including a readiness among the natives — not necessarily immigrants — to admit their faults. It’s a government report after all that tells us that Britons are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe: alcohol abuse costs an annual £20 billion. And where else, with Christmas approaching, would the traditional cake be in jeopardy because eggs are in short supply' A dietician’s best-selling book on protein, endorsed by a couple of fashionable woman columnists, has sent consumption soaring to 28 million eggs.

But the gloomy cattle shed that is Heathrow’s Terminal 3 arrival hall is vintage Third World after glittering Singapore. A newspaper headline confirms that the authors of India’s Constitution were wide of the mark in imagining that forced schooling could eradicate illiteracy. The revelation that Tony Blair’s government spent £50 million— or more than 71,000 pounds per pupil — last year on just trying to persuade children not to bunk school vindicated Lee’s original decision not to make education compulsory in the earthly paradise he was shaping but, instead, to create the social conditions that make it necessary and feasible for all Singaporean parents to send their children to school.

British Gas demanded a whole week to reconnect my line, something that would have been done in minutes in Singapore. Even then, no gasman turned up on the appointed day. Instead, one P. Singh demanded documents and details that no one ever travels with. The empire has struck back with a vengeance. Mr Singh, Mrs Shah and Miss Patel have brought some efficiency to banks, post offices and shops; they are also reintroducing the red tape that the natives exported to the colonies and then forgot all about.

Perhaps these new British have an agenda. The old gag was “Give us back Golders Green and we’ll give you Palestine”, Golders Green being north London’s Jewish enclave. I heard its variant in Singapore when an Indian woman lost some cassettes that a Pakistanifriend had lent her. “Keep the cassettes,” the Pakistani said — so goes the apocryphal tale — “but return Kashmir.” Is Mr Singh angling perhaps to swap telephones for Khalistan'

I poured all this in an e-mail to a friend in Hendon from a grubby internet café plastered with warnings against wallet and mobile thieves. She passed on my black humour to another friend in Chiswick. He was born a Scouse, the colloquial for Liverpuddlian, but spent many years heading a chamber of commerce in Hongkong. We were all young together nearly half a century ago.

“Sorry to discover you are phoneless: welcome to third-world Britain,” he wrote by snail mail. “If it is any consolation — which it isn’t — there is not a utility or similar service supplier with whom I have not had one or more blazing rows since returning here (from Hong Kong). I now expect indifference in a land where the apology — one might say the lie — has become a way of life.

“And I, of course, am a dinosaur. I am defined in today’s world by what I lack — mobile phone, automobile, Sky or digital television, massive debts, a criminal conviction and to get to the point, an e-mail facility.”

The letter reached me only because, disproving the view that going on strike is Britain’s national pastime, 48,038 members of the Communication Workers’ Union rejected the leadership’s recommendation, supported by 46,391 votes, to stop work. The Royal Mail might be bankrupt but it limps on. The strike vote explained the number of postal workers in uniform I saw sauntering about Kensington.

Then there’s the cartoon in the Daily Telegraph showing a woman lying all trussed up across the rail track. “Foiled!” she gloats at her murderous spouse hovering over her. “Jarvis has forgotten to lay the rails.” The reference is to the disclosure that a London-Glasgow express was derailed even as Blair was launching the Eurostar line along which trains to Paris and Brussels will whiz at 186 miles per hour because Jarvis, the contractor, had forgotten to lay five feet of track after overnight repairs. No doubt my Scouse friend pounced on Jarvis’s response that “occasionally accidents will happen, though we do everything we can to minimise the risk” as proof of the apologies and lies that are becoming a way of life.

Skipping school is part of that bleak picture. Idealism uncontaminated by Lee’s hard logic, Clement Attlee’s welfare state generated uncooperative parents, errant boys and girls, armies of municipal education inspectors and innumerable court prosecutions even during my reporting days in Fifties Britain. Absenteeism does not surprise me therefore. What is surprising is the scale, and the recklessness, of official spending.

New Labour has spent nearly £600 million on anti-truancy and behaviour improvement measures since it came to power in 1997 but barely scratched the surface of the problem. About 50,000 British schoolchildren play truant every day. Last year — the first of a new £470-million programme aimed at making the young more mindful of the benefit of free education — brought the figure down by a paltry 700. Even Blair’s ministers dismiss it as a “modest improvement.”

Such tales make Britain sound hopeless. But obviously not to the long queues of people in suits, salwar-kameez, saris, djellabas, turbans and fezes patiently awaiting their turn in Terminal 3. Nor to me, as my son managed things so that we avoided immigration desks manned by blacks or Asians. Remembering the Sixties when white immigration officials marched through the West End chanting “Six, Seven, Eight. We shall not integrate!” that wouldn’t have been my choice. But Deep is closer to contemporary reality. He remembered the time when some passengers with aching arms and backs had plonked down their heavy hand baggage at the head of the queue as they awaited their turn at the immigration desk when up strode a plump woman in smart navy blue shrieking that she would have it all collected and destroyed unless removed at once, that very instant. The next moment she was giggling in Punjabi with an elderly Sardarji.

Deep was right. The official wanted to know how long I was staying. “And the reason'” My son was starting a new course, I explained, and I had things to do. What course' What things' He wasn’t interested. “You’ve studied here before'” he said in an aside to Deep. And that was that. No course details, no questions about funding.

I discovered later that he hadn’t stamped our passports either. Nor asked where we had boarded the plane or our flight number. He cannot have completed the landing card’s official section.

No wonder David Blunkett, the home secretary, “hasn’t a clue” about the number of illegal immigrants. But a bureaucracy that is confident enough to be so casual also commands my confidence.

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