This page ain’t big enough for the both of us

(21-Nov-08)

I feel like Gary Cooper halfway into an old Western, bursting through the double doors of the saloon as the raucous, devil-may care atmosphere abruptly quiets down. The doors swing back on their hinges as suspicious faces turn in my direction. A jolly ragtime beat on the piano ends discordantly as the pianist edges away to a less conspicuous seat. The game of poker stops mid-hand, as the dealer looks over his shoulder, edgily chewing his hand-rolled cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other. The bartender quietly gathers the most valuable pieces of glassware and places them in assumed safety, somewhere out of sight.

‘Didn’t think ye’d dare shew yer heed ‘round these parts again, sheriff’, rings out a voice from a darkened corner – a voice with the texture of sandpaper and the smell of a marinated shank of lamb left to hang in a pair of socks overnight. A solitary pair of spurs can be heard jangling from somewhere behind the clouds of smoke.

A gun is whipped out of its holster: a mirror shatters, men dive for cover beneath the nearest tables, bullets fly, a chorus girl screams from an upstairs bedroom, a chandelier collapses, one patron of the bar generously knocks a fellow-drinker into the piano and a limp body falls from the second floor landing. Though not necessarily in that order.

 The gunsmoke clears to reveal the cigarette smoke. I blow nonchalantly on the barrel of my Colt .45, twirl it with consummate elegance around my index finger, pick it up off the floor and stick it back in its holster. I walk over to the dead body and solemnly down a glass of firewater. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Come to think of it, you could probably have cut the tension with a brick. Unfortunately no-one was there to try it, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

A sentence is formed in an attempt to restore the mood of hushed reverence so inappropriately broken. The crowded hall hangs on my lips as I look them over with cold indifference before turning and walking away. I stop at the double doors and say: ‘The bad times are over.’

And they are. I’m back in town; and the most effervescent of apologies to you all for the period of lawlessness I so disgracefully abandoned you with. For letting the riffraff take over the streets, control the concourses and hijack the highways, with their disregard for good syntax, good grammar, logical rigour, self-consistency, good taste, relevance, humour, generosity of spirit, imaginative thought, and minimum standards of coherence. For dragging this li’l town through sheer linguistic hell, I can never forgive myself.

And I’m sorry to all of you who let the independence get to your heads, and thought the parents were out for the night. You ain’t seen the last of me yet, boys.

There we go. A little apology, a touch of humour and we’re all right again. Aren’t apologies great? I’d say that they have to be one of my favourite inventions. Right behind bagels, the BBC iPlayer and those small buttons you press at zebra crossings to keep you occupied until the light decides it feels like changing.

Apologies are a wonderful concept: people would never have made the transition from tribal habitation to living alongside each other in cities without some tool to indicate an admission of wrongdoing. Now using an apology to express regret is all very well in theory. But that’s not how it comes out in practice. Like with everything else in this era of global recession and financial armageddon, the net worth of apologies has depreciated considerably.

An apology is more of a way to soothe one’s own conscience than anything else. A receipt that if presented often enough and loudly enough, in a sufficiently large variety of ways, will refund all grudges and exchange all potential unpleasantness for something more appealing. This cheapening of apologetic sentiments is largely the fault of the English, and their deliberate, large-scale undercutting of the excuses market. If, in a flight of Douglas Adams-ian imagery, work could be obtained from an Apology Drive, the Industrial Revolution need never have happened for Britain to lead the world in terms of energy production.

Because you really like your apologies in this country. Right behind meteorological inquisitiveness and sports-related self-deprecation, contrition is your favourite mindset. It’s not that you necessarily have a lot to be apologetic about. It’s not as though you ever have anything to be particularly thankful about either, yet supermarkets and banks, pharmacies and train stations, greengrocers’ and museums up and down the land reverberate to the sound of the English apologizing for x or thanking each other for y. My Mediterranean impatience for meaningless, automated responses passed off as politeness makes me slightly nauseous every time one of your compatriots transforms an awkward silence into a diarrhoetic splurge of mindless small talk, liberally laced with the ‘s’ word.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it passes you off as a considerate people. You just acquire a reputation for being the worst and most awkward light conversationalists in the world. 

If that seems a little harsh, I ap-hmm-hmm.

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