Rules. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re there for a reason. Rules are the smaller siblings of laws, and without laws where would we be? We’d be cast back to The Wild West, the Barbarian Hordes, the Big Brother House, and that wouldn’t be good for any of us.
Being British I’m pretty good at obeying rules, even when they don’t make sense. I always stand on the right on the escalator to allow people in more of a hurry to pass by on the left. I never park illegally (that’s not true. I no longer park illegally having learned that, if I do, I will get caught. Every time. That’s just the way it is with me). On approaching a communal checkout queue in a large store my eyes are instinctively scanning for the “Enter Here” or “Queue This Way” sign, even when there are no other customers around. That’s what happens when you’re a member of a nation that has a sense of fair play and tolerance, and is a bit rules-heavy. My German friends would claim the regulatory high ground here and tell me that the UK is a wild hippy love-in compared to their strictly-ordered, heavily regulated lives. They may be right, but that doesn’t make them funny.
The UK has more CCTV cameras than any country in the world. We sit in traffic jams looking longingly at the empty red Bus Lane to our left, terrified to trespass into it. We fill our cars with our stinking rubbish and drive it, sorted into differently-coloured boxes/bags depending on what it’s made of, to the local Recycling Centre, where we spend twenty minutes in queuing traffic then another ten dutifully posting our empty wine bottles through the little portholes on the side of a skip, then drive home with our now empty — but still stinking — boxes in the boot.
I had come to accept this life as normal until we moved to Saudi Arabia two years ago. People thought we were mad to go and live in the home of Al Qaeda and the harshest Muslim country in the world, and at the time we couldn’t argue. Saudi has its own rules, and they’re much harsher in their own way than those under which we lived in the UK, but because they were so different from ours and so few of them affected me directly, this swapping of “The British Way” for life in Riyadh had the effect on me of removing most of the rules that I had previously lived by. It was like a heavy yoke had been lifted from my shoulders. I could drive anywhere, park anywhere, push my way to the cash desk in Marks & Spencers. This was at once frightening and refreshingly liberating. Getting the family safely from A to B was once an assumed consequence of using The Transport System. As long as I obeyed the rules and didn’t do anything stupid I could be pretty sure of making any journey safe, if a bit soulless. Not so in Riyadh. There each journey was a unique and vital quest, and successful completion was more down to my own skill, observation, survival instinct and sheer nerve than to any rules of the road. I felt empowered, self-sufficient, independent.
But that was Riyadh, and now this is London. It’s amazing how quickly I lost my new-found bravado and slipped back to my reserved, uncomplaining, rule-obeying self when we returned to the UK. The only difference now — and Karen will confirm — is that I grumble a lot more when I get home.
So, there may be wild and free places left on this planet but the UK isn’t one of them, so you’d better get used to the rules coz they’re here to stay and they’re out to get you. All well and good, I can live like that, as long as everyone is treated the same and the rules are consistently applied. But: imagine for a moment what would happen if those employed to enforce the rules suddenly stopped, or worse, displayed either an ignorance or disdain for them! That happened to me twice in the last week, and although small incidents on the face of it they shook my rules-sense and got me grumbling afresh.
I was coming out of Waitrose (a supermarket) car park, checkout-validated ticket in hand. The queue of cars waiting to get through the exit barrier was longer than normal, and I saw that drivers were having to get out of their cars and talk to an unseen operator in the booth before getting the barrier to rise and let them out. After several instances of this my turn came. I wound down the window and offered my validated ticket to the person in the booth: a scruffy young man, not wearing a uniform or any kind of Waitrose insignia. He had already raised the barrier by this point so I asked him if he wanted my ticket (“Please take it! The rules don’t work if you don’t!”).
He said, “Nah nuffink to do wiv me mate.” and looked away. It seems that the official official had gone AWOL, for reasons unknown, and that this bloke was just someone off the street who had been passing and siezed this opportunity to realise his childhood Parking Attendant ambitions. But then that can’t be right can it? If he’d really cared about playing the game he’d have demanded my validated ticket, not pushed it back in my face! I drove off still not knowing what the hell was going on. I had trouble sleeping that night.
The other night Karen and I went to the theatre. The tickets said, “Mezzanine level, Row M seats 20 & 21. Enter by Door Two”. Needless to say the doors were not numbered (which gave me a hot flush), but as there were only two doors to the Mezzanine level I took the logical approach and used the one on the right.
“Is this Door Two?” I asked the bored-looking youth on Usher Detail.
“Could be.” he said. (COULD BE!?!) “But it’s not busy so doesn’t matter really.”
We went in and found our seats, close to the nearer end of the row. Clearly I had picked the correct door. I had done everything asked of me, I’d played the game by their rules, but one of their own had completely invalidated an instruction that I’d taken seriously and gotten a hot flush over. Flush #2 was considerably hotter than Flush #1.
Whatever next? We’ll all be carrying guns and looting shops if we’re not careful!