Civil ServantThere is a world of difference between the English Civil Servant and the continental.
On the Continent (not speaking now of the Scandinavian countries), Civil Servants assume a certain military air. They consider themselves little generals; they use delaying tactics; they cannot withdraw armies, so they withdraw permissions; they thunder like cannons and their speech is like machine-gun fire; they cannot lose battles, they lose documents instead. They consider that the sole aim of human society is to give jobs to Civil Servants. A few wicked individuals, however (contemptible little groups of people who are not Civil Servants), conspire against them, come to them with various requests, complaints, problems, etc., with the sole purpose of making a nuisance of themselves. These people get the reception they deserve. They are kept waiting in cold and dirty ante-chambers [...]; they have to stand, often at attention, whilst they are spoken to; they are always shouted at in a rude manner and their requests are turned down with malicious pleasure. Sometimes — this is a popular cat and mouse game — they are sent to another office on the fifth floor, from there they are directed to a third office in the basement, where they are told that they should not have come there at all and sent back to the original office. In that office they are thoroughly told off in acrimonious language and dispatched to the fifth floor once again, from there to the basement and the procedure goes on endlessly until the poor fellows either get tired of the whole business and give up in despair or become raving lunatics and go to an asylum asking for admittance. If the latter case occurs they are told in the reception office that they have come to the wrong place, they should go to another office on the fifth floor, from which they are sent down to the basement, etc., etc., until they give up being lunatics.
(If you want to catch me out and ask me who are then the people who fill the continental lunatic asylums, I can give you the explanation: they are all Civil Servants who know the ways and means of dealing with officials and succeed in getting in somehow.)
If a former continental Civil Servant thought that this martial behaviour would be accepted by the British public he would be badly mistaken. The English Civil Servant considers himself no soldier but a glorified businessman. He is smooth and courteous; he smiles in a superior way; he is agreeable and obliging.
If so — you may ask — how can he achieve the supreme object of his vast and noble organization, namely, not to transact any business and be left in peace to read a good murder story undisturbed?
There are various, centuries-old, true British traditions to secure this aim.
1. All orders and directives to the public are worded in such a way that they should have no meaning whatever.
2. All official letters are written in such a language that the oracles of Delphi sound as examples of clear, outspoken, straightforward statements compared with them.
3. Civil Servants never make decisions, they only promise to ‘consider,’ — ‘consider favourably’ — or — and this is the utmost — ‘reconsider’ certain questions.
4. In principle the British Civil Servant stands always at the disposal of the public. In practice he is either in ‘conference’ or out for lunch, or in but having his tea, or just out. Some develop an admirable technique of going out for tea before coming back from lunch.
From: George Mikes, How to be an Alien (first publ. by Andre Deutsch, 1946; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).
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