Service with a smile?

Attempts to foster a service culture in Britain are a waste of time and money.

Somehow, word has got out – I don’t know quite how, but it was probably the work of the perfidious French – that we British are bad at service. This is a calumny. It is not that we are bad at service, rather that we do it differently.

Even so, some people have taken this misguided criticism to heart and are mistakenly and vainly attempting to respond to it. The London Development Agency, for instance, has set aside &£3.5m to fund a “charm offensive” aimed at attracting “more sophisticated” visitors to this country.

The money will be spent on attempting to train waiters and hotel staff in “everything from manners and champagne pouring to how to use the correct language”. If that is successful, the plan is to extend the scheme to cover other sectors such as museum staff, tour guides and, rather mysteriously, gym instructors.

(My guess is that the keep-fit industry can go about its business in its own way with nothing to fear, since once the &£3.5m has been blown on the unavailing exercise, it will all be forgotten.)

The plain fact is that you cannot change something as deeply rooted as national character, no matter how much you spend on courses nor how long you devote to the task. We British are what we are, it has taken centuries to make us so, and therefore to attempt to mould us anew is as pointless as it is ridiculous.

To understand why the exercise is futile, one must appreciate the purpose of tourism, which is to permit foreigners to examine at close quarters a corner of the human zoo that they have not explored before.

The curious visitor wants to see for himself the natives in their natural habitat, to observe their customs, note their quirks, visit the places and buildings that have shaped their history, and to take photographs of them to show the folks back home.

It follows that we would perpetrate a fraud and give less than value for money were we to act unnaturally or feign to be something we are not. Just as a visitor to, say, East Africa would be disappointed to find Masai tribesmen seated at computers responding to directory inquiries from Wigan and Worksop (though, alas, that day will doubtless come) rather than watching over their womenfolk as they tend the cattle, a visitor to London would be deceived were the waiters and waitresses to be found waiting tables rather than standing in small groups chatting among themselves and smoking.

The charm of the British is a lack of charm. We were never much good at service – always surly and resentful – and undertook it only when there was no alternative employment. After the First World War came the Age of the Common Man. Death duties impoverished the aristocracy, which had formerly employed domestic servants, and no one wanted to work for the middle classes. Once liberated from cleaning pots and pans, polishing shoes and making beds, the servant class had no intention of going back.

So even though employment in the hospitality trade might involve tasks closely resembling domestic service, they were undertaken and performed in a new spirit of democratic defiance. The British custom of service with a grimace was born, and so famous has it become that people travel the world to experience it at first hand. How could we possibly let them down?

Imagine the disappointment on the faces of Elmer and Myrtle should their breakfast waitress exclaim, “Have a nice day, now!” It would be just like being back home in Wisconsin. It’s the thin-lipped greeting, the studied indifference, and, on special days, the cup of cold tea in the lap that makes a visit to Old England something that is never forgotten.

As one who hopes that London’s bid to host the Olympic Games in 2012 fails – we already have quite enough drug addicts and noisy exhibitionists in the capital without inviting hundreds more of the running, jumping and standing-still variety – I was disheartened to see our bid team in action in Athens because each of them, in their own way, reinforces our reputation overseas and therefore enhances our prospects.

Where else would you find a more grisly trio than Lord Coe, who has always struck me as a rather creepy sort of fellow, sports minister Richard Caborn, a bearded ignoramus if ever there was one, and London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who alone of the three is genuine in the sense that he not only talks out of his backside but has a voice to match.

Faced with this triumvirate, how could any foreigner fail to have confirmed his expectations of what the United Kingdom has to offer? Our transport system may be primitive, our facilities for beach volleyball lamentable, our organisational skills negligible, but when it comes to offering a concept of service that is unique to these islands, we never disappoint.

That is why our tourism is booming and why, I fear, we will host the Olympics in eight years’ time. Just like the Taj Mahal and Pyramids of Egypt, what we have to offer has to be seen to be believed, and once seen, is never forgotten.


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