Day M319: The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel
They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I don’t necessarily believe that. I think home is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Today this ginger scoundrel is coming home. Coming home to my family and friends, to my girlfriend Mandy, my city of Liverpool and to the nation that I know and love.
You’d think spending three and a half years travelling would make me more cynical about my home. I meet ex-pats who spit vitriol on my sceptred isle, they’ll go off on one about the lack of discipline, the joke that is public transport, the fact that the country is far too left-wing/right-wing, moan about immigrants, moan about taxes, moan about windfarms/mobile phone masts/X-Factor/dogshit/speed cameras you name it. Hey, but some people like to moan, that’s their prerogative. But I don’t see it that way. Where they just see a dead end, I see light at the end of the tunnel: I see solutions, simple effective solutions to many of the problems facing the UK at the moment. I picked some of them up from travel, some from obsessing over the news, some from books on political science and some just came to me in the night while I was trying to suss out how I was going to get out of Africa and not die.
But that’s a whole new blog, one for after The Odyssey Expedition is over. Let’s just say that while I’m happy to acknowledge my homeland’s shortcomings (as I did in THIS BLOG ENTRY), I am also more than happy to give credit where credit is due.
With the Olympics successfully lifting the spirits of the nation, I feel it is entirely appropriate to dedicate this blog entry to what makes Britain pretty frikkin’ awesome. So without further ado, (and just to piss Morrissey off) here’s my list of the Ten Things I Love About U(K):
1. Our Rock n’ Roll
Quite rightly highlighted at the opening and closing of the Olympics, Britain ROCKS. Face facts, rest of the world: if it wasn’t for the UK, the US and Jamaica, the music of planet Earth would be SHOCKINGLY BAD. It’s not like the Italians are incapable of putting together a decent rock band (although they are), it’s not like every nasally putt-putt beat from India sounds the same (although it does) and it’s not like the Canadians really needed to inflict Dion, Adams, Morrissette, Laveen, Furtado and f—ing Bieber on the planet (although they did) – but this is the situation we’re in.
The French government, terrified by the lack of rock n’ roll in modern France, made it so a high percentage of songs on the radio had to be in the French language. Did this help? Did we experience a renaissance of French sign-of-the-devil rock-out awesomeness? Nah. We got to hear a bit more of Plastic Bertrand’s back catalogue AND THAT WAS IT. The only effect it had was to make less people listen to the radio.
So then TeamGB, let’s do this JUST OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD… The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, The Animals, David Bowie, T-Rex, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Queen, The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Clash, The Jam, Iron Maiden, The Smiths, Madness, The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Suede, Blur, Radiohead, Pulp, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, Tindersticks, The Prodigy, Muse, Arctic Monkeys, Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, The Guillemots, Bloc Party, Kasabian, Interpol, Florence and the Machine, Elbow*… is that enough for now?
If I had my iPod with me I could name a hundred more. But to be honest with you I could have stopped at ‘The Beatles’ – four lads from my neck of the woods who wrote more great songs in 8 years than the combined output of THE ENTIRE CONTINENT of Australia has in 225. We give them The Sex Pistols and what do we get in return? Jet! Dear God…
Now name me five great French bands from ANYTIME IN THE PAST SIXTY YEARS. Or Italian. Or Spanish. Or German. Or African. Or South American. Or Central American. Or Middle-Eastern. Indian? Chinese? Japanese??
You can’t?** What a surprise. NOW PLUG IN YOUR AIR GUITAR, CRANK IT UP TO 11, SCREW UP YOUR EYES AND SCREAM DOWN THE MIC…
*Man, if you don’t have at least one track by one of these bands and artists on your iPod, you don’t deserve ears.
**I said ‘great’. Please don’t just rattle off five bands that nobody’s heard of!!
2. Our Contribution to Science
Robert Hooke, James Clarke Maxwell, Joseph Bazelgette… these people, if they had been born anywhere else in the world, would have been lauded as national heroes. You’d see them on the banknotes, they’d be statues of them outside every train station. In Britain however, they’re kinda the also-rans, which is nuts when you consider that even the lesser-known inventors, scientists and engineers of Great Britain out-accomplish anything you, me or Steve Jobs have ever done. We’ve had way, way, way more than our fair share of utter geniuses – Halley’s Comet, The Hubble Space Telescope, the Higgs Boson: all named after Brits – and a system in place since the 1600s where their ideas and concepts are allowed to flourish (unless you happen to be gay).
Again, off the top of my head, here’s some things that the boundless boffins of British gave the world: vaccination, the laws of gravity, efficient steam power, trains, the theory of evolution, electricity, the telephone, vulcanised rubber, tanks, television, radar, the big bang theory (the theory, not that bloody awful TV show), the computer, the concept of geo-stationary satellites and – oh yes – the goddamn world wide web.
Our gang did all that. And now everybody in the world sets their watch according to how far they are from London, everyone communicates using a protocol designed and given away for free(!) by a Brit and pretty much everyone in the world uses a British invention at least once a day. You’re using several now just reading this.
I don’t know if it’s because we don’t like harping on about our achievements, or maybe it’s just that we never made any money out of them, but we hardly touched upon this stuff at school, which is a shame. This is the good stuff, you know – like standing up to the Nazis – that should serve to remind us that while we should never deny how beastly the British have behaved in the past, our moral ledger in terms of the good of humanity is, overall, in the black.
In case you were wondering, Robert Hooke was the first to suss out gravity (and it was he, not Wren, who designed the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral) and Maxwell’s pioneering work on the electromagnetic spectrum paved the way for everything from radio to wi-fi to x-rays to radar to night-vision goggles to the Keplar Space Telescope. Bazalgette? If you live in a first-world country, you probably owe him your life.
3. Our NHS
Much maligned in the press and everybody’s got their own horror story about someone they knew who died in a hospital (most people do!), but after travelling to over 200 countries and territories, I have to say, the NHS is something we got dead right. To be able to see a GP for free is a privilege that hardly any people in the world enjoy. In France, you have to pay. In Australia, you have to pay up front and then if you’re epically poor, a vast and pointless bureaucratic process grinds into life and you *might* get half your money back. Don’t even get me started on American health care or we’ll be here all night.
Yes the NHS is not perfect, there are limits to what it can achieve, but we need to get over that. Democracy isn’t perfect, Scarlett Johansson isn’t perfect (almost, though, almost), the world isn’t a perfect sphere (it’s an oblate spheroid) and we don’t go around the sun in a perfect circle (hence the Southern Hemisphere summer being hotter and more skin-cancery than summer up north). We don’t need to strive for perfection, we just need to make things as good as they can possibly, realistically, be.
Dedicated doctors and nurses have, over generations, vaccinated us, treated us, medicated us, eased the pain, put us back together again and did everything in their power to keep us alive – and they’ve done it not based on how rich you are or how good your insurance cover is – they’ve done it on a wage paid by central government.
We don’t get a receipt after a spell in hospital telling us exactly how much money we’ve just cost the taxpayer, but I think we should. Not to pay it, but just to make us more aware of just how much we take for granted. I’m sure it would make people think again before complaining they had to wait six months for a minor operation, or thinking that everyone claiming the dole is a no-good degenerate freeloader. And it would make us hate gazillionaire tax dodging creeps LIKE BONO even more.
4. Our Political Institutions
Strange one, I know, but pretty much every modern parliamentary democracy in the world has its roots in the parliamentary system of the UK. But let’s go back further in time, back to the days of King John: the man who signed the Magna Carta: the first document in recorded history in which a king acknowledged an institution greater than himself: the law. If he broke that law, we could chop off his head. Brilliant!
Now when you look at tyrants all over the world, you see them acting above the law, it’s almost like they have blanket permission to do vile and gruesome things to the people they claim to represent. The sad thing is that they do. The UN should be the institution greater than the leader of a country. But no, it not only fails to act in cases of tyranny, genocide, civil war: it gives the fuckpigs who run these countries immunity from prosecution… so long as they remain president!! I often get asked by moral relativists “what gives you the right to tell other countries what to do?”, I’ll tell you who we are: we’re the good guys.
The UK is not the UN (I’d pull the UK out of the UN and take Europe and The Commonwealth with me, but then I always have had a flair for the dramatic), and our system, as flawed and nonsensical as it may seem to outsiders, does actually work. It produces strong governments, it prevents leaders ‘going off on one’, it offers weekly abrasive (and often entertaining) criticism of the government at PMQs and it offers people a chance to get involved (they must be mad, but that’s another story). We don’t suffer from a weak political system like Belgium (have they got themselves a government yet?), we don’t suffer from the corruption and cronyism inherent in presidential systems and our biggest political financial scandals involves duckponds. Not gold-plated 747s.
Of course, like with the NHS, our system isn’t perfect. I’d personally like an elected upper house, a preferential voting system and professional councillors (as in local government reps, not shrinks). There’s much more still to do, but we can do it. If there’s a political will, there’s a way. We’re not stuck in a rut like our poor cousins across the pond, growing sicker by the day as the noose that is their anachronistic constitution grows tighter around their bloated decadent necks.
And there’s something else here: Britain is a highly politicised nation – everyone has an opinion on everything. We love politics, it’s almost like a sport to us. You won’t meet a British taxi driver or a hairdresser who doesn’t have solid view of what they would do if they were in charge. They might be miles wide of the mark, but I would rather someone had an opinion, even if I venomously disagree with it, than no opinion at all.
5. Our (Completely Nutso) Sense of Adventure
I don’t doubt that thousands of other people could do what I’ve done, given enough motivation, sheer bloody-mindedness and delusions of grandeur. However, I do suspect that my Britishness has something to do with my compulsion to do this in the first place. Why would French writer Jules Verne make Phileas Fogg an Englishman? Why was it Stanley, a Brit, who first chartered the interior of Africa? What drove so many of our great adventurers – Raleigh, Drake, Cook, Scott, Shackleton, Sir Ranulph Fiennes – into the wild blue yonder? There is a restlessness of the British, a restlessness that often gets us into trouble, but when we do it well, we inspire the world.
When I was travelling around Africa I met people who were incredulous at what I was doing. If you had the money, why wouldn’t you spend it on a TV? Or a nice comfy sofa? As opposed to travelling through some of the least fun places on Earth, on your own, covered in dust and sleeping on concrete floors.
I have to say, they had a good point, but you can’t help what makes you happy. And couches and TVs and routine do not make me happy. I like something new every day, to learn something I didn’t know before, to met a stranger who becomes a friend, to stumble around this crazy world spreading happiness and learning wisdom while having the time of my life. This is why I do what I do, this is why I will continue to do it until the day I die and I thank my lucky stars that I have family and friends back in the UK who just get it and who support me every step of the way.
6. Our Lit and Lang
Again, where do I start? The three most successful Hollywood franchises of all time: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, James Bond. All British books.
Let’s rush head-first through some of the most beloved (or loathed) heroes and villains in the world: Sherlock, Moriarty, Heathcliff, Ben Gunn, Gulliver, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Malaprop, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr Jeykell (and Mr Hyde), Oliver Twist, Colonel Kurtz, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Mary Poppins, Leopold Bloom, Biggles, Sam Spade, Harry Lime, The Jackal, Harry Palmer, George Smiley, Alex De Large, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Lyra Belacqua, Voldemort and Christian friggin’ Grey.
Don’t even get me started on Shakespeare.
Which makes it even more potty that we often overlook the English language when considering the UK’s contribution to the world. While I completely agree that living languages should be protected and a world in which everybody only spoke English would be a thoroughly undesirable one, the fact remains that English is the Lingua Franca of Planet Earth. It achieved this not only through British dominance of the 19th century and American dominance of the 20th, but also by being a language that is malleable, fluid and completely undaunted by the addition of foreign words into our vocabulary. And what a vocabulary! In English there are (according to The Google) over 1,000,000 words. To put that into perspective, In Danish there are between 40,000 and 120,000. We have stackfuls of synonyms for everything, so many that it’s considered bad writing etiquette to just the same noun, verb or adjective twice in the same paragraph.
We enjoy a dizzying array of options of how to express a concept in words, something shown by our love of alliteration, puns and verse. We also have the most phenomenal swearwords. Compare the sounds-like-a-make-of-car ‘Cabron!’ with the wonderfully unequivocal ‘Motherf—–!’, ‘Merde!’ to the terrible satisfaction of screaming ‘SHIT!!’ or take the mild-sounding ‘figa’ to the splendidly face-slapping vulgarity of ‘c–t’. The English language offers such perfect darts of verbal venom, it’s no surprise that (according to rumour) the only English words that Richard The Lionheart knew were swear words. Use them well, my fellow Earthicans.
7. Our General Lack of Faith
I make no bones about it: I hate religion. Everything about it disgusts me. I’m not just talking about the usual common-or-garden child rape, suicide bombing, disease-enabling or subjugation of women that are part and parcel of modern faith cults: I’m taking about the very concept, the arrogance that of the billions and billion and billions of planets in the universe, we’re so special that we can talk to the guy what made it all. The supreme egotism of minds all over the world who honestly believe they will survive their own deaths and the greed implicit in the mindset that this incredible universe, this beautiful, majestic, endlessly fascinating world is not enough. What are you? James Bond? Get over yourself! You aren’t that special and listen up fact fans! the world is quite enough, thank you very much.
You’ll get 80 years here if you’re lucky then you will go back to not existing, just like you didn’t exist for 13.7 billion years before you were born. I can understand that for a toothless goat-herder in Helmand the wish for a better (after)life is a powerful one, but does it really help? Surely with no concept of heaven he would be more inclined to make his situation better now, instead of giving up and just waiting to die… because, let’s face it, waiting to die is a damn sight easier than fighting to build a better world in the here-and-now.
Imagine. Billions of people all over the world, all striving to make their situations – and the situations of those around them – better. All of us, working together to alleviate poverty, want and hunger. This will only happen once – to paraphrase Emile Zola – ‘the last stone falls from the last church onto the last priest’.
This world is AMAZING, and – even better – we humans are IN CHARGE of it, custodians of a tiny spinning oasis of life in a bleak barren deadly vacuum of death. Make no mistake: space is instant dead for millions and millions of miles in all directions. Why do you think I find it so annoying that people don’t take climate change seriously? In short: we really need to start taking better care of our planet, because if we don’t… it’ll kill us.
One of the first things that must be done in order to save the world is to end the special privilege we give to religions: tax-free status, political power, the right to spread bigotry, homophobia and misogyny, the right to sodomise our children etc. Happily, according to the latest YouGov poll, and for the first time in history, people in the UK who claim no religion are in the majority. HELL. YES.
Oooh I can see Satan dance with delight as we legalise gay marriage, we send hate-priests off to jail and we force church groups to allow same-sex parents to adopt. With church attendance dropping on a weekly basis, we the people will be able to buy back the beautiful churches that dot the land and turn them into health-care centres, offices, nightclubs, abortion clinics or gay saunas (preferably whichever option annoys the religious the most :-D).
Thanks to the strenuous efforts of bullshit-blasting folks like Prof Richard Dawkins and the late great Christopher Hitchens, us atheists are finally out of the closet and are making one hell of a racket. We’re as mad as hell, and we ain’t going to take it anymore. It’s time to put religion back in its place – the Bronze Age. Give it another ten years and we might finally, FINALLY free our country from the irrational and barbaric whims, prejudices and foibles formulated by some desert tribe 3000 years ago. I can’t wait.
8. Our BBC
The more I see of what poor foreigners in third-world countries (such as France) have to put up with on TV, the more my heart soars at the notion of going home and watching TV without adverts, TV news that is as impartial as its possible to be, TV that actually teaches you something about the world: QI, Horizon, Panorama or anything even mildly Sir David Attenborough. Quite frankly, The Beeb (or Auntie) is the best broadcaster in the world – it’s who we have to thank for Monty Python, The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Office and Monkey Dust. Yes HBO and AMC have been cranking out some incredibly good shows over the last few years, but they don’t have the same long history as the Beeb or the same place in people’s hearts.
I was given a ton of documentaries by the captain of the Southern Pearl: enough to fill a hard disk, and nearly all of them were BBC. The few that were American “WHEN BUILDINGS COLLAPSE!” were, quite frankly, unwatchable. And as I video-director myself, I can’t help but admire the technical quality of BBC programmes, it not just about the incredible shots you see on the natural history shows, it’s the polish that makes the BBC a cut above the rest – just check out the snazzy idents. ITV, its (commercial) competitor, chooses yellow and blue for their livery. Of course they would, they have the taste of the people who designed Ukraine’s flag. Or the Olympic logo, typeface and mascots (no they have NOT grown on me). The Beeb, on the other hand, go for stately maroon and a splendid sans serif font reminiscent of Johnson Sans (my favourite font, everyone should have a favourite font).
ITV haven’t made a decent TV show since Cracker back in 1994, almost 20 years ago. And while some aspects of the BBC piss me off (EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing, BBC3), overall I can’t wait to get back, put my feet up and enjoy an evening with Auntie.
Plus, come on, they gave us the Amy Pond Show!!
9. Our Contribution to World Sport
Football, rugby, cricket, golf, boxing, tennis, badminton, squash, snooker, croquet, lawn green bowls, bungee jumping, curling, the hammer, sailing, ping-pong, darts, tiddly-winks, the Modern Olympics: you name it, there’s a good chance it was invented or codified in the UK. And when we see people from all cultures, all backgrounds, all countries coming together for the World Cup or the Olympics you just have to marvel at the rather incredible contribution us Britishers gave the world. We gave it away for free (only for the French to form the corrupt and vile criminal cartel we call Fifa) because that’s just what we do. Okay, so we usually don’t do so well in the sports we invented*, but what the hell would the world be playing without us? I’ll tell ya: kibaddi, boules and buzkashi. You could imagine the love, respect and mutual understanding that would be generated by a group of young man on horseback battling over a dead goat.
10. Our Queen (and Lamb Chops)
There are loads more things I love about the UK I can write about: our food, our nightlife, our countryside, our social mobility, our Union Jack, our pubs, our festivals, our hedonism, our dark sense of humour, our self-deprecation, our David Attenborough, our biscuits, our breakfasts… not to mention our splendid obsession with tea. But I did say this piece was written to piss off Morrissey, so I thought I’d add our Queen to the list. Gawd Bless Ya, Ma’am. Now can you pass me the mint sauce, this tasty sizzling lamb chop ain’t gonna eat itself.
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