With over 45 years of jetting with the set, trotting the globe with the crowd that’s in, and living la business vida loca, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been regaled by fellow Britons on the fickleness of Frenchmen, the snootiness of Spaniards, the gruffness of Germans and the insolence of Italians; in fact, the sheer lack of polite etiquette of every other nationality under the sun from Australian to Austrian, Alaskan to Arab, Yanks to Yoruba.
Out there beyond Heathrow, went the message, the fine art of British manners was non-existent. Upon landing at a foreign airport you needed to hold your tongue and keep your temper as you encountered rudeness of a magnitude and style that didn’t exist here. Creepy Krauts, snubbing Swedes and snarling Slavs were just waiting to ignore your pleases and thank yous.
Well, as the poet Robbie Burns once wrote: “Wad some pow’r the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as ithers see us.” I’m slowly unwrapping that giftie and getting the message. Flying into British airports now, it feels as if this is the foreign land that greets you with a leer and a frown. Far from it being the land of good manners, it’s rapidly becoming an etiquette-bereft zone, with sneering apparatchiks who act like pensioned-off jobsworths from a former Soviet satellite. United States immigration used to be the byword for downright in-yer-face sullen rudeness, and the queues were always immense. How different back in Blighty as the cheery Brit in civvies waved you through with just a glimpse at the old blue-backed British passport. No longer.
I recently had an extended trip to Southern France and even the frontier policewoman at Toulouse Blagnac airport wished me, “Avez un bon sejour, m’sieu,” as she handed back my passport (something incidentally we wouldn’t even need if we’d been euro-friendly and savvy enough to sign up for the Schengen agreement). On my last trip to America the armed-to-the-teeth official scanned my super-duper stay-as-long-as-you-like visa and grinned, “Welcome home sir”.
Contrast that with my return to the sprawling hell that is now Gatwick earlier this year. Gone are the days when you walked through immigration in a minute. Now it’s the UK Border Agency – a cheap copy of America’s Homeland Security, I imagine. And if where they sit is the border and you’re crossing it, what pray, is the chunk of parquet I’m standing on before I get to the booth… no man’s land?
Almost eight minutes walk from the gate, then twelve-and-a-half in line to show my passport (and that’s fast, I’m told), channelled down corner after right-angled corner like a white rat in a lab experiment, but with no rewarding cheese at the end. Eventually the unsmiling geezer in what appears to be a 1970s Securicor uniform takes my passport and scans it. He waits. And waits. Hell, I bought a computer from Alan Sugar back in the eighties that worked faster than this. Eventually, the computer reacts. He then looks closely at my photograph, and looks at me. Back at the picture. Back at me. Puh-lease. How hard is this? Are Al-Qaeda really employing late-middle-aged men in suits now?
That ordeal over, I walk to the nearest bureau de change, whose brand name was new to me. Two female cashiers. No customers. Neither woman acknowledges me in any way. I choose one. She eventually looks up and regards me like I’m something a dog walker neglected to scoop. I hand her 135 euros. She tap-taps. “Eighty-one pounds.” Surely that’s absurdly low? She sighs deeply and shows me the screen. I say I’ll decline, thanks. Without a word or glance she pushes the money back at me. A €50 note goes fluttering to the floor; welcome to Britain. Clearly our airports have become rip-off joints too – at my local Tesco I got £105 for those euros, a difference worth a bottle of their
What the hell has gone wrong with us? Airports, as I’ve said here before, are my second home, and I’ll warrant yours too. Why have ours, the first bit of Britain any foreigner sees, become so downright unfriendly?
The opening line of the novel The Go-Between reads, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Now Britain frequently feels like a foreign country – and they do things differently there. But in the past – they didn’t. bd