After you, by all means

A soothing South African has recently written an article for one of our weekly newspapers in which he says the English have no idea how nice they are. We are always denigrating ourselves, it seems, but this delightful man insists that we are wrong to do so, since in comparison with the rest of the civilized world we are extraordinarily pleasant to live with.

In particular this approbatory journalist mentions our good manners (it is evident he has not been mixing with our football fans, whose behavior defied description), and he finds it quite ravishing the way we actually allow cars that are trying to get out of side roads onto main ones to do so. We stop, and then courteously wave them on, he says, an action so globally rare as to be almost extinct; and after a week or two over here he found it infectious. He simply couldn't resist being gracious to other motorists, waving them in and on and past in a sort of orgy of civility. It was a glowing experience, apparently.

Although not wishing to minimize the charm of good manners, I have to warn our South African friend that there is a limit, or should be, to politeness. The other day, inspired by his words, and wishing to glow as he did, I smilingly beckoned in cars from every side street as I made my way along the main London thoroughfares. Apart from the fact that most of the recipeints of my favor obviously thought I was crazy (though nice, of course), I could see in my back mirror that the traffic behind me was gradually accumulating into a jam. It stretched, patient and panting, for miles.

As I progress in tiny spurts, making my chivalrous gestures, I had visions of Mrs. Thatcher hung up somewhere on her way to the House of Commons, or even the Queen irrevocably stuck in the Mall. Fire engines and ambulances were no doubt likewise at a standstill, and the police immobilized (for the smallest holdup in London has a concertina effect).

Manners are all very well, but they must be used in moderation. You cannot, for instance, walk through the swing door of Harrods and then hold it open for everybodym who is following you. You would be there for hours. You cannot allow more than a fewm old ladies to get onto a bus before you, as otherwise you would neverm get home. By the same token you cannot say to toom many people in the supermarket, "I see you're only buying a banana so do go ahead."

As an attitude of mind, thoughtfulness for others is attractive, of course, but for convenience sake it should only be sparingly practised.

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