We have chosen the theme Short Fuse for our National Courtesy Day this Friday (5th October 2001). We feel that everyone is living on a short fuse – many people do anyway, but it is heightened at the moment – and they are flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. Say the wrong thing and someone may smack you one. We want to encourage people to slow down, listen to one another and smile. These things help you to react in a more controlled way, which makes others’ lives more agreeable, is good for your love life and good for business.
I founded what was then the Polite Society – we changed the name to the Campaign For Courtesy about five years ago – in 1986, after a couple of people from the Congregational church where I am the minister, went on a two-year tour of the Far East. When they came back, they said it was striking how surly and unwilling to be of service people were in the UK compared with folk in the Far East who were not nearly so well off.
That set me thinking. I had plenty of experience, as I am sure most people have, of staff being offhand in shops, or waiters who don’t want to know you or seem to resent you. People dropping litter, or making a confounded noise all over the place, music blaring from cars. That upsets me, it seems so unnecessary.
I thought how much more pleasant it would be if people were more polite to one another and treated each other with courtesy. I was lucky enough to get a bit of coverage on the radio, and people wrote to me from all over the country. We held our first meeting in Oxford. Twenty people turned up – an opera singer, school teachers and some retired people – and I thought we were never going to get started because we were all so busy opening doors for one another. These days we have members in 24 countries – including America, the Ukraine, Japan, Norway, African countries, Italy and Argentina.
In the early days we drew up a code of courtesy but we have dropped it now because it sounded too much like a sermon. Our problem is that everyone agrees with us, but it is difficult getting our good intentions converted into practical application.
We go into schools and talk to the children about their behaviour. I say it is important not to drop litter and they say yes, terrific, and give you three cheers, and run out into the playground scattering litter all over the place. It is the same with motorists. They can agree with you endlessly, but put them behind the wheel in a confrontational situation and they almost always respond with aggression.
Once I went to Wigan to train nightclub bouncers to do their job more courteously and effectively, and they taught me more than I taught them. They were superb people – very tactful.
You have to be careful about approaching people. I would be too nervous to tick someone off for putting their feet on the seat of a train because they could bring out a knife. The rude teenage character Harry Enfield plays it vastly overdrawn but it illustrates perfectly how self-obsessed rude people are.
Our difficult is making a break-through at a higher level. When David Blunkett was Education Secretary, he said he was going to put good manners on the school curriculum. We wrote to him twice saying what a good idea and offering our help, but never had a reply.
Sometimes people are fairly rude to me. A local radio interviewer once began by being obsequious. “Now we have to be extremely polite” he said sarcastically and I walked out. He was just taking the mickey out of us.
We never organise demonstrations. I can’t think of anything worse than a rally of courteous people.