Sending things back

I can’t do it. I remember the first time I was in a restaurant with someone – it was just a downmarket Chinese restaurant, in fact, pretty much a takeaway with a few tables attached, and the colleague who took me to it sent the wine back. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with it. I am pretty sure that he was flexing his supposed superiority. He enjoyed the deference, the servility, the way the wine was whipped away and replaced with a bottle of equally cheap plonk. He was smug about it. I was ashamed. If I go somewhere, even if it is to part with a stash of cash, I go as the humble inferior. If they served me a dead rat in a kebab shop, tail hanging visibly from the pitta bread, I wouldn’t complain. I might not eat the thing. But I wouldn’t send it back.

I realise this is not quite true, since I did once send a packet of biscuits back to the Co-op, on the basis that one of them had what looked like a bite-mark on it (although I am sure that there wasn’t one) – but it was a phase I was going through because I was teaching students how to write a letter of complaint (I used to teach on secretarial courses, and loved it, partly because of the contrast between me – scruffy – and the young women I taught, who were immaculate, and wanted to call me ‘Mr. Greenwell’ or ‘Sir’, and couldn’t cope with my saying ‘Call me Bill’, and wound up, after a few weeks able only to call me ‘Mr. Bill, Sir’, their other teachers being very stern about the use of the surname). So, yes, I did send a few things back to prove it could be done, and the Co-op did send me a voucher. But generally speaking, I’m a complete wimp when it comes to such things.

I think it might because I was always being taught to be polite. There were so many things to be polite about. You had to stand (I am talking about being a child of eight, or younger) when a woman, what am I saying, a lady entered the room. You had to speak when spoken to. You had to offer the nibbles – Cheeselets, another product that has gone the way of most old snacks – round to the grown-ups. You had to wear a tie if leaving the house. You had to come downstairs fully dressed, or you were sent back up (even my mother was subject to this rule – if she infringed it, my father would murmur ‘Woman In A Dressing Gown’ at her, this being the name of a film about a woman who went from bad to much worse, and I can’t recall why, although I remember liking the film, which starred Anthony Quayle. The name of the film, spoken aloud, had the desired effect. She went back upstairs).

Here’s an extract from the film (1957). It turns out that Ted Willis wrote it:

The school I went to between the ages of 13 and 17, the one I would still douse in kerosene if I had the nerve, was full of rules designed to make you polite. Quite apart from the sitting and standing ones, which were legion, and the seventeen pages in the rule-book about how to affix a hockey-stick to a bicycle, and how to boyhandle a bike with a hockey-stick attached, there were niceties to be observed in respect of all one’s elders. Your elders were not just the seriously adult ones, i.e. 22 and over, but also the ones a year older than you, to whom (it was said) you could not speak unless first addressed by them. This limited (it was a boarding-school, into which you were locked between 6 p.m. and 8.30 a.m.) your spontaneous conversation to about ten people when you first arrived. No wonder I went a little mad. There was a quadrangle in the centre of this boarding-house, which you could not cross until your tenth term, in which term, you were also allowed, bizarrely, to carry, as a sign of maturity, an umbrella. Rain or shine, all those in their tenth term carried an umbrella (the slang for which was a ‘gamp’).

You had to wear a cap. This had to be raised if a teacher (‘master’) of particular seniority passed, and if the wife of any teacher passed. A common-or-garden teacher required you to raise the right finger in a servile salute, to the edge of your eye (or thereabouts). This was called ‘ticking’. The teachers had to return the ‘tick’. Brave boys, the kind who would grow up to send bottles back because they were ‘corked’ (still no idea), would make as if to tick any nervous young teacher, and then withdraw the hand at the last minute, by which time the teacher had lost face and ticked a non-ticker, and lost enough face and bottle not to reprimand the bluffer. One sad man, whose surname was Treeby, had to endure the then just-fashionable question-and-answer jokes, loudly tested as he approached, his finger itching. ‘What sits in a tree and goes BUZZ?’ said the scoundrels, of which I wasn’t one.

I think I have solved the mystery of why I won’t send things back. Thanks for listening, doc. I’ll get off the couch now. Happy New Year.

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