When she then produced a bank card and demanded to be given cash-back on #50, the woman on the till demurred. The visitor’s response was to snap back: ”You didn’t tell me that.” And then: ”Just do it.” The tone was dismissive and contemptuous, implying she was dealing with native insolence and stupidity.
Now the staff in our local supermarket are not perfect. They sometimes are sparing with their courtesies. But they are rarely actively rude, and my silent sympathy went to the woman on the till. There was a resounding silence as she counted to 10. But she mastered her natural anger and completed the transaction with cold politeness.
With some difficulty I remained silent. A thousand rebukes were on the tip of my tongue. In Glasgow we do not speak to each other like that, or Can’t you read? were among the milder sentiments that came to mind and I am pretty sure my feelings were shared by some of those in the queue that began to lengthen as the express till slowed down.
On Monday, Alistair Campsie wrote in The Herald of an unpleasant campaign against ”white settlers” in
Angus and down the years behaviour of the kind I observed this week has done little to reconcile the Scots and the English to each other.
I recall my father, many years ago, being similarly incensed by an Englishwoman, on a perfect May morning in Edinburgh, announcing beneath a gloriously blooming horse-chestnut tree that she wished she were in the Cotswolds. Like those of us in queue at the checkout this week, he bit his tongue, but told me afterwards that he felt like saying, Why don’t you just push off then?
But there are many reasons for swallowing such irritation. For a start, English people who behave like this annoy most of their fellow countrymen just as much as they annoy us. Secondly, Scots are also capable of behaving unpleasantly inmEngland: the loutishness of our football supporters in the late seventies eventually led to the end of the biennial pilgrimage to Wembley.
Our tourist market — and like it or not, tourism is now one of our chief industries — depends on the English mass market. And how different from our lady of the till are those decent, chatty, friendly folk from the English counties who come by the busload.
The classic white settler is to be found not just in Scotland, not just in France, not just in New England, but in England itself where he is quite likely to be dismissed by the locals as a Surreyite. John Mortimer’s novel Paradise Postponed and its sequel deal with this theme in an entirely English context. The other week, at the Test match at Headingley, I was amused to hear a Mancunian spectator advise one of the dismissed batsmen to ”go back to Surrey” — the word Surrey spoken with contempt and loathing.
Above all, hundreds of thousands of Scots have been welcomed in England. Professor Rosalind Mitchison has remarked on the ease with which they have assimilated into English society. The same is true of the many ordinary English people who have come to live and work in Scotland.
It is much harder for the white settler to be assimilated in a small or remote community. For a start he may be relatively rich. He may seek a role of leadership. In the classic Mortimer pattern, he will tell the locals what colour to paint their front doors and not to leave rusting cars in the back garden in which to keep the hens. He may oppose some desired economic development because it will spoil his idyll. And if he has the manners of the lady of the till, he can expect only a cold welcome anyway.
Yet without all the Englishmen and women who have come to our remoter places, bringing their capital and their energies, we would have few decent pubs, shops or hotels. We should have the grace to acknowledge that they have planted lilies in the kailyard.
And we have needed the lilies badly enough. Dr Johnson and Boswell had one of their rare quarrels the night they stayed in a wretched inn in Glenelg, where they were served inedible mutton chops — as Frank Delaney reminds us in his new account
of their journey, an account freshened by the eye of an interested Irishman trying to come to terms with a man generally reviled in Ireland. And many of our hotels are still too clearly true to this tradition.
Small countries, like small men, tend to be over-sensitive. An eloquent rebuke of those who girn about white settlers is to be found in Alasdair Maclean’s absorbing book Night Falls on Ardnamurchan (King Penguin). Those who sold them their houses, he points out, did not disdain their money. And so, lady of the till, I forgive you.