There’s been a book out recently called, Sorry, I’m British” by Ben Crystal and Adam Russ

Being in the afternoon tea business (if you can call eating cake for a living “business”) we’re always interested to hear what people say about British traditions and customs, and we’ve spoken at length before about books like Jeremy Paxman’s “The English: a portrait of a people” and Kate Fox’s “Watching the English”.

Needless to say, the subject of food often crops up – whether it’s fish and chips, Gloucestershire cheese-rolling, the Full English Breakfast, or (of course) the English afternoon tea ritual. But Crystal and Russ elude to another aspect of Britishness which is altogether more sinister: the Jobsworth Employee.

The word ‘Jobsworth’ comes from an abbreviation of the phrase, “more than my job is worth” and refers to an official – usually a minor one – being unhelpful or downright obstructive at the expense of common sense, like the case of Mr Smith (his real name) who was fined £50 by policemen in Scotland for ‘littering’ after he accidentally dropped a £10 note (reported in the Daily Mail).

We got our own taste of jobsworthness on a ‘Southern’ train the other day. It transpired that one of our railcards had expired the day before. Although the mistake was a genuine one, the inspector took it upon himself to be judge, jury and executioner, and not only charged us the full price of the ticket (rather than a £3-4 upgrade) but also fined us £20. When we pointed out that this was slightly unreasonable he threatened to see the matter our in court. The crowning moment was his parting shot, when he put his nasty face very close to mine:

“Do you have a job?” he sneered.

I replied that I did.

“Well I take it you have RULES then?”

With hindsight a hundred and one clever replies spring to mind, but I was silent just long enough for him to conclude:
“Well so do I!” with which he turned his back on us and marched triumphantly off to terrorise some other poor traveller.

This is of course the very definition of jobsworthness. (Incidentally, it transpired that he had overcharged us but because he had taken the original ticket and we had not made a record of his name, the train company were unwilling to pursue the matter further.) Obviously it was extremely unpleasant and something which has rankled ever since, not because of the money at stake, but because it represented a victory for some unpleasant little bully against decency and common sense. 

When I was younger my mother told me that bullies are all cowards, and I must confess that at the time I didn’t understand. But of course, it is a truism based on sound psychological reasoning. Insecurity born out of a sense of inadequacy drives them to exploit other people with what little powers they have. It’s most often what I call the ‘petty uniform brigade’, although of course there’s some degree of chicken and egg : do bullies and rule-lovers become parking inspectors and health and safety officials, or do their jobs make them rule-lovers and bullies? 

Unfortunately, these people are a product of an ever more litigious society and its a problem I anticipate will only get worse. So what should we do? How to deal with these situations can be very tricky indeed and I would welcome any suggestions. In the meantime I will do some research of my own and report back with my findings. 


What sums up Britain to you? Afternoon tea, The Queen, or over-zealous parking inspectors?







#1 Prepare for public transport: Choose a bus which is 80-90% occupied and position yourself near the back. Arrange for about 60 friends (or preferably strangers) to rush on and join you at the last minute.

Men travelling by open topped truck through the streets of india

#2 Prepare for the frustration: Write a list of about 10 important jobs which you might hope to achieve in the average day. Include things like posting letters, buying everyday household items, arranging trains/taxis, meeting friends, paying bills &c. Pick one from the list at random. With a lot of pushing and shouting and queuing and hassle this will be the one job you get done today. Now cross off half the remaining list. However important they may seem, and no matter how hard you try,  accept they will never get done. The remaining ones will get done eventually but establish a time frame of between 5-10 times longer and more stressful than you would anticipate.

#3 Preparing for the head-bobble: This is one to try with people in trains/buses/supermarkets/at work &c. Whenever anyone asks a question give NO indication whether you have heard, understood, or know the answer. Instead wobble your head from side to side as if trying to touch your ears to your shoulders. Observe their reaction. The more frustrated they get, and the more they repeat the question, the more insouciant you should attempt to make the gesture.

#4 Prepare for the stray dogs: Run naked through a rubbish tip covered in Pedigree Chum.

Old Indian ambulance crashed and burned out by the side of the road

#5 Prepare for the laundry: Substitute your regular washing powder for a handful of dirt and one or two small rocks. Lay your clothes out on the ground to dry, preferable in a spot where cats/dogs/humans are known to defecate.