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14 November 2014

The place for rudeness is not in an anonymous letter but the queue in Waitrose

Nicholas Lezard’s weekly column, Down and Out. 

By Nicholas Lezard

As I mentioned last week, I was recently the subject of a nasty letter in this magazine. I would have preferred not to dwell on it but the mind has a habit of clinging to its misery, so when a reader of this magazine said I wasn’t funny, I took it to heart more than I should. I have spent the past week more or less completely in the foetal position, waiting for the pain to go away. After all, we columnists live for our readers; without them, we are nothing, ghosts that squeak on the wind and are gone.

That is, until someone showed me an issue of the magazine from about a month ago and directed my attention to the “Subscriber of the Week” box. As I said when this feature started, yet another terror has been added to a writer’s existence, for each of us who does not appear as a subscriber’s favourite writer suffers one of those small hammer blows to the soul, the kind that do not cripple at once but accumulate, like dust in the lungs, or ice in the freezer, until at one point it all – life, everything, the fish fingers – seems no longer worth continuing with.

But on that week, one Lois Whitehead went the extra mile and said that not only was I her favourite writer but she’d put me on the cover and, for all I know (I do not have a copy of the issue to hand), get stuck in a lift with me. Although, sadly, Things Can Never Be with Ms Whitehead (our contracts here explicitly forbid exploiting or traducing the sacred nature of the relationship between writer and reader), she may rest assured that there will forever be a place in my heart for her, for she softened the bitter winds of autumn (figuratively speaking; it’s been lovely lately, hasn’t it?) and with her kind words dried the very tears from my eyes. And a tip of the hat to Gajendra Singh in the last issue, who also had a nice word to say about me. Don’t worry. I know how these things go. For the next few weeks, it’ll be back to the usual invective, just to keep me honest.

But you really have to worry about some people. There are those who blame the rise of the internet and the below-the-line anonymous comment for the general decline in civility but, as far as I’m concerned, there have always been people whose first instinct in any given situation is to play the tosser.

As it happens, I will always respect the person who insults me but does not hide behind a pseudonym to do so; and there is something about being told your prose style and/or the general drift of your argument sucks by someone hiding behind the name Bumblecat84 (or whatever) that makes such criticism lose some of its force and grip.

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My greatest respect, when it comes to rudeness, is for those who turn it into a public spectacle for the rest of us to delight in. Reader, this happened in my local Waitrose a few weeks ago: a man in the checkout queue was trying to reach one of the sustainable hemp bags but he was too far away to achieve any purchase. You could tell at least two things about him already: he means well and is prone to act on benign impulse, even if the best moment has passed. So he asked the woman standing by the bags if she could possibly pass him one. His words were delivered, as you can imagine, with all the self-deprecating embarrassment that the English middle-class male of A Certain Age (I’d say he was on the young side of middle age) can muster, which is quite a lot.

The woman, herself of A Certain Age, turned to him with an expression of contemptuous disdain. Also a certain weariness. “Excuse me, do I work for you?” she said.

Sometimes things happen that make you suspect they have been arranged simply for one’s amusement, or that of an invisible audience. This was one of them. For a start, the woman possessed a North American accent. This made it all the more exquisite. There was the frisson of genteel xenophobia that it occasioned (anti-Americanism, which I find not only offensive but personally offensive, is the last prejudice standing tall among the bien pensants); the added weight to the words (hearing the “R” in “work” there really gave her remark some punch); and, above all, the refusal to give a damn about the custom of the country – or even the willingness to tell the mild customs of the country that they can go screw themselves.

There was an awed silence in the Waitrose queue. The man and I locked eyes and raised our brows in a “What can you do?” fashion. But let’s be honest. Rude North American Woman really made our day. 

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