THE British today are a phlegmatic people.
And I use the word "phlegmatic" in its original Etruscan sense of "prone to panicking and weeping openly in the streets; also, a bit thick".
This is a recent development. Even just 20 years ago you could poke a British person in the eye, twist his earlobes mercilessly and tell him his mother had just been eaten alive by goats, and the only reaction you'd get was a shrug of the shoulders and a homely aphorism about life not being all a bed or roses.
Possibly, if he was feeling particularly talkative about the matter, you might get an added allusion to worse things happening at sea. True story: a mate once phoned me, quoting the latter wisdom – just as I was getting into a boat.
Well, we're all in the same boat now, at least those of us are who rely on petrol and pasties to get us through life. My columnar colleague on this page has dealt with the political ramifications of recent British Government policy-making – or "chaos", to use the Greek term – but, here, I dwell idly on the psychological and existential aspects of panic. And, fear not, for I shall look up the word "existential" by the end of the column or, failing that, by tomorrow evening at the latest.
The latest bout of panic sweeping Britlanders concerns petrol. This has been brought on by the possibility of a strike that is two weeks away. Scenes abound of huge queues at garages, some of which have had to close after running out of petrol. Now, it would be easy to gloat at such crass behaviour, so let's get on with it. Indeed, let's drill a hole into the heid of this specimen here and enter the brain of a typical panicking person.
First, notice his Union flag just behind the eyelobes, hanging limply as a protective amulet against the awful terror of running one's own affairs. To the right, we see a door marked "Fear", inside which a host of wispy spectres – starvation, war, inability to drive to the mall – are whooshing about, holding their heads and wailing.
To the left, there's a door marked "Prudence", where sits a calm secretary with a diary opened for planning ahead sensibly. Down the corridor, we come to the main operations room of the brain, where a large map covers a table and men in military uniforms use sticks to move scale models of petrol tankers and sausage rolls.
Suddenly, a bulging eyed inmate from the Fear room bursts in, sweeps all the models off the map and announces: "We're all going to die! Oh, I'm so unhappy!" Standing at the door demurely, the secretary adds: "He may just have a point."
And so our panicker gets in his car and heads to the petrol station. As we see, such action is caused by a mixture of rational planning and irrational terror. It's easy for me to deride this, as I rarely motor out of town. The world gets by without me. But who are these movers and shakers who desperately need to be on the motorway? Salesmen mostly.
You have to spare a thought, too, for people in rural areas. And the thought is: ha-ha. People in rural areas drive everywhere, which is why they are all morbidly obese. Lack of petrol might do them some good, encouraging them to stravaig about the surrounding countryside, like slim urban visitors do. Indeed, the word panic comes from Pan, a noted bumpkin who pranced around the joint playing a kazoo.
Mind you, it isn't just petrol. We're also advised to panic buy postage stamps and pies. Soon, scenes of chaos could spread from petrol stations to post offices and bakeries. Citizens put posters on their walls with the motto: "Keep calm and carry on panicking."
Thus the British people today. No use claiming either that, under independence, everything will change. For we'll still be British. However, there could be a silver lining. According to leading Unionist intellectuals, both petrol and pasties will be unaffordable in an independent Scotland, and the dominant mode of transport will be ox-driven wagons. Brilliant – problem solved.
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