Posted by: J M | May 3, 2011

S is for service

It’s not often I feel sorry for tourists who come to London. They’re quite willing to pay extortionate amounts to stay in hotels I wouldn’t be seen dead in, and to buy overpriced tat from those stalls which line the capital’s streets, all for a glimpse of our faded grandeur. They get in the way on escalators, talk loudly on the tube and ask you how to get to Trafalgar Square while standing in the middle of it. They smoke incessantly, send their children over here for the entire summer holiday to learn English and have no concept of queueing. Yes, yes, yes they’re good for the economy – I know that. But still.

But I’ve started to come round to the tourists. I’m on their side. I never thought it would happen, but after experiencing London’s idea of customer service over the last two bank holiday weekends, I feel like I should stand at the departure gates at Heathrow, handing out rosettes or small trophies to any tourist who has made it back to the airport without wanting to kill one of us.

London’s been busy, what with Easter and the Royal Wedding. It’s like the world had a good grope down the back of the sofa to find inhabitants it didn’t even know it had, just to send them onto us here in London. Eateries and shops in the West End have been rubbing their hands in glee at this, knowing full well that most tightfisted, miserable Londoners will avoid town like the plague during this period, meaning that their patrons will be the poor hapless tourists – wallets on legs, with leaky pockets and a high tolerance for being treated like shit.

Over the first bank holiday weekend, I found myself in town with a friend, buying stuff for a holiday I’m about to go on. Town was less horrible than it usually is every Saturday, as the weather was baking hot and most people had stayed at home, save for the aforementioned tourists who were taking pictures of Niketown wit such enthusiasm that I had to check Princess Diana hadn’t been resurrected and plonked atop the store. Shop assistants are a funny old breed at the best of times, but it’s during the summer when they excel themselves, becoming a new race altogether. I know; I was one, once. Come the first rays of sunshine and all a shop assistant can think about is what time they finish work, how long it will take them to do their hair and how many drinks or wraps of drug it’s going to take before they’re grinding flesh with another shop assistant/DJ/promoter (all fairly interchangeable roles). They they’re working in a shop with a view to serving customers is an inconvenience, something they barely give a second thought. When you do approach them and ask them for help, their head tilts involuntarily to one side, as if observing a mouse being ripped to shreds by a cat, and with their slackened jaw they’ll start to tell you that “all stock is out” or that “this fitting room is closed” or they’ll just hold their hand out for your card or cash without telling you how much your purchase costs. But at least as a Londoner you can call them out on their rudeness and threaten to complain. They still won’t care whether you live or die, but at least for the rest of your transaction, they’ll drop the attitude. For tourists, however, with the language barrier and lack of confidence which goes with it, there is no mercy. If the shop assistant is feeling particularly sadistic, they’ll get the hapless tourist to repeat what he’s trying to say over and over and over, like a Rosetta Stone language tape, until the tourist gives up and finds and ‘authentic London pub’ to drown his sorrows in, whereupon he’ll get charged a ludicrous amount for a pie which probably dates from Nell Gwynne’s era.

Waiting staff are also similarly gripped by “don’t give a fuck” fever in high season. While in town with my friend, I ‘enjoyed’ an excruciating bite to eat in a well-known bar chain behind Regent Street. The place was empty inside, as everyone else in the pub had thought “skin cancer be damned!” and was sitting outside, cooking much faster than our pitiful meal eventually would.It’s always great to walk into a place, ready to spend money, and to be met with what I would call indifference, but that seems too nice a word for it. Perhaps contempt would be better. After being served flat prosecco, a cold meal and being charged a service levy for going up to the bar and ordering ourselves, we weren’t having a good time. Then, as if by magic, the waiting staff started having a huge, sweary argument with each other about a missing tip. We complained and got part of the meal refunded, but the manager didn’t seem to care that we had had a dreadful experience and was more concerned with ignoring all the tourists desperately trying to catch here eye so they could pay the bill. She was, of course, hoping they’d give up waiting and just leave some kind of cash sum that would be way over what was necessary. Given that the tip being argued over by the staff was £40, it’s clearly a great racket.

And so pity the poor tourists. Ripped off, spoken to like they are shit, given hopeless directions by Londoners who can’t be arsed explaining the difference between The Mall and Pall Mall.

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