A Question of Convenience
When you phone someone and they say it’s not convenient to speak to you right now, what do they mean? Is it that they’ve just slashed an artery while chopping onions, a pan is boiling over, and the toddler is about to probe an open socket with a fork? Or have you just phoned in the middle of The Archers?
There can be no more pathetic and archetypally English (and I mean as opposed to Scottish, Welsh or Irish) word than ‘convenient’ and its derivatives. It is itself a convenience, made to serve for phenomena both good and bad.
For a start, much of the time its negative version is deployed as the most outrageous euphemism: ‘We apologise for any inconvenience caused,’ parrots the PA system as yet another train cancellation consigns the passenger to a fresh hell of waiting in a claustrophobic throng, sprinting to another platform, or a circuitous detour via the station of a hundred steps. ‘Dérangement’ is the French word for inconvenience, and sure enough any number of ‘D’ words would prove more accurate in situations that would drive you to madness: ‘We apologise for any distress/despair/doom this may have caused.’ Who knows how many lost jobs, broken engagements and wrecked holidays these disruptions may have brought?
The sight of a Public Convenience may bring welcome relief, but it’s hard to imagine a word more divorced from the bodily functions to which it refers. Think of the time and money that could have been saved in signwriting alone if we’d just called them loos. Again we must look to our cousins across the Channel, who take a more robust approach, naming their (male only) facilities ‘pissoirs’.
Then there is the decidedly dodgy aspect of ‘convenience’: the marriage of convenience as a mechanism for exchanging vows based on money, status, nationality, or – less so now – for conferring a cloak of respectability to conceal homosexuality. Similarly, the flag of convenience enables a ship’s owners to register it in a country where the safety standards and employment legislation do not provide the same degree of protection as in their own.
I suppose I have a particular loathing for the concept of inconveniencing people as it was dinned into me as a child that this was an unforgivable thing to do, whether it was Great Aunt Elsie, or a complete stranger you happened to be sitting opposite on the train. I can tell you that this is not a good preparation for life. You will end up with exquisite manners and little else. You will not be a good manager if you’re not prepared to inconvenience people, and you will never complain about shoddy goods or services. I know whereof I speak…
Perhaps only convenience stores can claim to be an unalloyed good, but the gulf between the best and the worst is immense. The worst are dingy health hazards, but the best will indeed be open all hours, clean, bright, and with a kind owner willing to save your paper for you, pop next door to pick up your dry cleaning for you and hang on to it until you get back from work, and generally provide an all-round social service for the elderly and impaired (please come back, Mr Patel – we miss you terribly).
Now most of the public conveniences have been closed and converted into nightclubs or vintage shops, it’s time to retire this Victorian bourgeois word in all its manifestations too. Come on, rail companies, start apologising for the desperation you cause, and as we already have little steaming turd pictograms exhorting dog owners to pick up after their pets, we could certainly having bracing signage saying ‘Bogs’.