[M]ustn’t grumble, which of course is what we Londoners are always doing – roadworks, litter, Boris – you name it we can moan for England. While maintaining an air of cheerful, if somewhat deferential, stoicism we go through life apologizing while at the same time keeping a stiff upper lip.
This air of permanent regret can seem bewildering and perverse to tourists. We apologize when bumping into you “Sorry old chap, didn’t see you there”. When you bump into us “So sorry” meaning do that again at your peril.
When we hold open a door for another with the greeting “Don’t mention it” which of course is shorthand for “Please continue to thank me”.
When we might seem to be having a perfectly amiable conversation while in fact disagreeing with every word you have uttered the appropriate interjection is “I’m not being funny, but . . . ” which is a prelude to a socially unacceptable remark.
Punctuality was once the trademark of an Englishman, but with transport in London slowly grinding to a halt you are more likely to get the apology “I’m running 10 minutes late . . .” roughly translated this means “Boris hasn’t fixed the delays yet and I will be there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after we agreed to meet”.
And watch out if at a social gathering you hear “I have half a mind to say something . . . ” that indicates
“I am adding to years’ worth of unspoken resentment that you can silence with a very dry white wine”.
Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word as Elton John opined: When we walk into doors, when dropping anything, when we want to butt into a conversation, when flustered or when brushing past you in a pub, when we cannot hear or when hearing all too well as a reflex “Sorry” suffices for what we cannot think of what else to say.
But by no means does saying “sorry” mean the speaker is in fact, well, sorry.
“Probably my fault . . . ” is about as deferential as we get. Take that to mean “This is your fault.”
Frequent apology is one of an arsenal of clever tricks Londoners employ to obscure their true feelings. If the words “Mustn’t complain . . . ” are directed at you take notice, their true meaning is “I have just complained and if you don’t sort it out I will take the matter further”.
Eastenders greet one another with “Alright?” don’t enter into a conversation about your woes, it’s the law of the jungle to show that you are one of them and a friend.
And London cabbies are not immune to this verbal gymnastics, our greeting to another cab driver of “Be Lucky” roughly translates to “I hope you don’t get a job before me”.