So sorry, I live here now

IF anyone else tells me they’re sorry, they’ll be sorry.

What is with the Poms that makes them so keen to apologise?

I’ve watched two of them negotiating a door and they turned it into a competition in humility.

“Oh, I’m so sorry… after you.”

“No, no. It’s I who should apologise, after you.”

I’m surprised they don’t fight about it, except that if they did they’d have to apologise for that, too.

It’s not as if they apologise about anything worthwhile. A door, for heaven’s sake!

If you step on their feet they apologise, and if you jump their queue they apologise (“Oh I’m so sorry, was I in your way?”). I mean, it has a certain attractiveness about it, if you’re in to self-effacement and a kind of grovelling modesty.

But how did they ever get to conquer half the known world!

You don’t just walk into somewhere the size of America and say, “Oh I’m so sorry, but I live here now.”

Or perhaps you do. Perhaps that’s the secret. If you grab it with one hand and apologise with the other I guess it would leave the indigenous population feeling slightly bewildered. And by the time they’d worked it out the Poms would have the fire alight and the kettle on.

There can’t be many nations that have turned politeness into an art form, even if it is something of a myth. Not all sections of British society are inflicted. There are blokes down dark alleys in Stepney who would tread on your head for a laugh. I don’t think they’d apologise for it either. Indeed, I’m not even sure they’d bother about dark alleys. Broad daylight in the main street would probably do, at a pinch.

But the general impression of Britain is still one of a kind of tea-time gentility. I used to be one — a Pom, that is — and now I’m in England for a month it’s amazing how different it all seems.

There was a time when I’d go through a door with the usual five-minute ritual of: “After you… no after you… no, I insist… so sorry,” until some ignorant Australian just walked through the middle and out into the street, handing you a tip as he went.

Now I’m the ignorant Australian – and it’s great!

Apart from the freedom from the straitjacket of cultural convention, I’m saving a lot of time. These little niceties take up more of it than a Japanese tea ceremony.

I have already worked out that when you’re standing at the bar and someone says “Oh, do let me get this one,” then the correct and polite response is to say, “No, no, let me, I insist,” while generally shuffling your hand around inside your pocket. In a group of Poms this little ritual can go on for five minutes (allowing the beer to get dangerously cold).

But introduce an Australian to the equation and it all goes pear-shaped.

Someone says, “Oh, do let me get this one,”; the Australian says, “right!”, drains his tankard , bangs it down in front of the barmaid and the first party is left fumbling in his pocket for the means to pay.

What’s more, while he’s doing it he’ll be saying, “Oh sorry… won’t keep you a minute… er, I do apologise.”

John Howard, take note.