Days 949-962: 10 Things I Hate About U(K) – Part 1

07.08.11-20.08.11:

Occasionally I get messages from malcontents who find themselves offended by negative comments I’ve made about their country on this blog. It goes without saying that you can’t please all the people all of the time, but I wouldn’t want you thinking that I’m blinded by some misplaced sense of patriotism into believing that the UK is the be-all-and-end-all. It’s not. My League of Nations list is (as I admit in the pre-amble) tremendously subjective, and the fact that England comes out on top has more to do with my family and friends than it does any sense of rabid nationalism.

With that in mind, and with last week’s riots leaving a bad taste in our mouths, I thought I’d take this opportunity to give the UK a damn good dressing down.

Before I start, let me just say that the UK has many, many things going for it. However, I stand by my opinion that the British just don’t seem to get how good they have it when compared with the vast majority of other countries on the planet.

Sure, Newsweek can select Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland as the “best” countries in the world… but when it comes to literature, art and good old fashioned rock n’ roll, us little Englanders, Scotchers, Welshers and Northern Irelanders kick their arses from here to Timbuktu.

Having said that, if we could just iron out a few little niggles, the UK could be a much, much better place…

1. Public Transport

Considering we are dealing with the country that invented the steam engine, you’d think we’d have half a clue how to run an halfway decent public transportation service. But we don’t.

I would say that as far as the worst public transport service in the world is concerned, I’d have to tie the UK with the US. In short, it’s a frikkin’ embarrassment. Hell, at least in Guinea public transport is cheap. Unlike the London Underground, the trams in Manchester and what’s left of the Liverpool rail network which cost a small fortune. But that’s nothing compared with intercity travel, something that should be cheap and easy, considering most big British cities are located within walking distance (if you’re walking a marathon) from each other.

British intercity trains are horrifically overpriced – 260 quid for a return to London from Liverpool (a two-hour journey) – they rarely run on time, are often overcrowded, the toilets have a nasty tendency to fly open mid wee (and the “door-close” button is conveniently located out of reach of the toilet itself), the staff are notoriously rude and unhelpful, the companies running the trains are cowboys with a monopoly (laughing all the way to the bank no doubt) and the unprofitable part of the railway network – the maintenance of the track – is paid for by us gibbering idiots, yup: the taxpayer. Madness, utter madness.

That’s not to say the coach network provides much of an alternative.  With the exception of the no-frills Megabus (which does a decent job of WYSIWYG), most of the country’s intercity coaches are operated by a monopoly called National Express. No competition (there are no other national coach companies and the trains are too expensive for 83% of the British population to afford) means that they can deliver a piss-poor service, charge over the odds and get away with it – something they’ve been getting away with for years. When I say that only Greyhound USA is worse, that’s hardly a compliment. It once took Mand and I ELEVEN HOURS to get back from London to Liverpool on a National Express bus.

I think we could have done it faster on horseback.

The fact that it’s cheaper for five people to buy a car, tax it, insure it, fill it with petrol and drive to London and back than to take the train is testament to how bloody awful the situation is. Your car could be stolen and burnt out upon completion of the journey and you’d still be better off than the five who spent over 1000 quid between them on the train.

But driving would mean driving down Britain’s god-awful motorways. Not that the motorways are poorly maintained, I’d argue that they’re not, it’s just that motorways in the UK are more like lorryways with an occasional car problem. Thanks to the short-sighted, piss-poor and quite frankly corrupt policy decisions of the Conservative government in the early 60s, our motorways, also paid for by the taxpayer, are long flat concrete bitches of the massive haulage companies that are no doubt using their mountains of gold coins as an indoor ski slope.

The British Haulage Industry's Winter Holiday
Literally.

Ever heard of a chap called Ernest Marples? You should have. He ruined your life. Most people blame Dr Beeching for the utterly incomprehensible cannibalisation of the British railway system in the 1960s, but it was dickwit-in-chief Ernest Marples who was the puppetmaster. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Beeching had been appointed to his post as head of British Railways by Marples. Marples was not just a government minister; he also owned a construction company, Marples-Ridgway, whose main concern was constructing roads. They contributed to several motorway projects during the 1950s and 1960s and also constructed the Hammersmith flyover in London. When it was pointed out that being transport minister as well as a road builder might be construed as a conflict of interest, he agreed and divested himself of his shares in Marples-Ridgway. However, this was to his wife, with a clause to buy back the shares at the sale price when he ceased to be a minister: something not disclosed at the time.

Oh really?  So let me get this straight: guy owns ROAD BUILDING company, gets job as government TRANSPORT minister, avoids accusations of conflict of interest by giving his shares to his wife, takes back his shares once he’s personally destroyed TWO-THIRDS of the British Rail Network (the only viable competition to HIS F—KING ROADS) and ensured his road-building company’s position on the gravy train for life. Now give me another wheelbarrow full of taxpayer’s money, my wife needs a new fur coat.

Ernest Marples
Ernest Marples: A Thief and a Liar.

What a irredeemable bastard. Then again, you vote right-wing, you deserve everything you get: which will (invariably) mean the interests of wealthy individuals, companies and corporations trump your petty little needs every time. I can’t be the only one who notices that… Anyway, so here we are, fifty years on, our trains cost more than what most of us earn in a week, our coaches are several shades of god-awful and our motorways are gridlocked (since the freight that used to happily travel along the railways can’t travel on non-existent lines, apparently).

Oh, did I mention that even though there are very few surviving branch lines, the tax-payer STILL has to pay for the maintenance of the THOUSANDS of now unused bridges, tunnels and viaducts that criss-cross the nation?  If a single loose brick falls onto the windscreen of a car passing underneath, it’s the great British public who will pay the damages. So we have a situation were we are paying to maintain infrastructure that we have pretty much NO WAY of getting ANY money back from whatsoever! Brilliant!!

Plus, thanks to Marples, North-East Liverpool has no railway anymore – in fact, there are over FORTY closed railway stations in Liverpool: the highest number of any first-world city in the world.  This means that in some of the most deprived area of Liverpool it’s next to impossible to get to work… unless you walk (in the rain), cycle (in the rain) or get the bus filled with screaming, gobbing, swearing, fighting schoolchildren as… oh yeah, we have no school buses(!). I don’t have to paint a picture of how unpleasant these 8.30am buses are, I’m sure you’ve got a good idea and it probably doesn’t involve Moonlight Sonata and caviar on the Orient Express.

Ninety years ago, Liverpool had a better, faster, more integrated and (bizarrely) GREENER public transport system than it has today. The same can probably be said for most cities in the UK. Progress anyone?!

A little suggestion: how about a new rule that companies are responsible for paying for bus and train passes so their employees to get to work? It would see a constant, reliable income for Public Transportation systems (even if the employees choose to drive instead) and discourage companies from employing people who would need to make a three-hour commute every day – you know, local jobs for local people? Smart.

Oh, and while you’re at it, re-nationalise the bloody railways. Even America — land of gullible poltroons who believe that corporations are their friends and that the government they elect is their enemy — has a nationalised rail service. Get with the program, you dithering Limey knuckleheads.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to that rotten bastard Marples:

“In the early 70s … he tried to fight off a revaluation of his assets which would undoubtedly cost him dear … So Marples decided he had to go and hatched a plot to remove £2 million from Britain through his Liechtenstein company … there was nothing for it but to cut and run, which Marples did just before the tax year of 1975. He left by the night ferry with his belongings crammed into tea chests, leaving the floors of his home in Belgravia littered with discarded clothes and possessions … He claimed he had been asked to pay nearly 30 years’ overdue tax … The Treasury froze his assets in Britain for the next ten years. By then most of them were safely in Monaco and Liechtenstein.” (Richard Stott, ‘Dogs and Lampposts’, Metro Publishing, 2002, pages 166 – 171)

No doubt he was twirling his evil little moustache all the way.

2. The Architecture (since 1958)

I’ve written at length about the bum-scroff that passes for architecture around the world these days, but it really does boggle my mind and break my heart that Great Britain, the same country that spent a good 1000 years cooking up some of the most delicious buildings in the world should see fit to throw all that glorious heritage away and follow the nightmarish visions of that bastard crackpot Swiss pied piper of all things bleak, totalitarian and downright ugly – Le Corbusier, a man I have about as much respect for as Hitler. Which is to say, none.

Le Corbusier
A madman, yesterday.

So damn the renaissance, the neo-gothic and the art-nouveau, there’s a new kid in town – a cool kid that’s made of Asbestos and Legionnaire’s Disease, smells of piss and looks like a nuclear fallout shelter – a nuclear fallout shelter built in a hurry after they have already dropped the bomb. It came in over budget, the roof is leaking, the windows don’t open, the people inside are being slowly cooked alive, the lift is broken, the solidified mashed potato that constitutes the interior walls is crumbling away and to top it all the damn thing is just so goddamn ugly it makes Susan Boyle look like the Venus de Milo.

Susan Boyle
If Susan Boyle was a building, she’d be every building built since 1958

I wish I was describing one single god-awful edifice, maybe tucked away in the Outer Hebrideswhere nobody will ever see it, it wouldn’t be so bad. But I’m talking about every building designed and built everywhere since 1958. Hell, you might think they’re beautiful, but then you’re presumably from Mars, were born without eyes and have wet dreams about Susan Boyle.

Hand in hand with the horror of our modern arseifaces, we have to give equal condemnation to the town planners … they should be flogged, covered in jam and fed to the wasps. Not content with scarring the very fabric of our historic towns and cities with the totalitarian horrors of the Mancunian Way, the Bullring and Leeds city centre Hotwheels circuit (not to mention the shameful demolition of the Euston Arch), they are also responsible for the god-awful shopping centres, the screwball thinking that towerblocks are a good idea, the car-centric concrete jungles of the 1960s and the disgraceful cloning of our towns… wouldn’t it be nice if every high street looked exactly the same eh? NO. NO IT WOULDN’T YOU CROWD OF MASSIVE RETARDS.

British Street
Attack of the Clones.

These vandals – this dark conspiracy of big business, lazy architects, megalomaniacal town planners and corrupt politicians – have irreparably scarred the once-beautiful cityscapes that previously graced our green and pleasant land.  You can get a whiff of what once was if you stroll around Belgravia, Rodney Street or The Royal Crescent – and get a sense of what could be if you visit the magnificently restored St. Pancras Station, but at the end of the day, it seems that The Powers The Be have better things to spend your money on – wars, probably.

Before 1958, we would build warehouses that are so good-looking they are now UNESCO world heritage sites, we would build power stations so iconic that they would go on to grace the cover of a Pink Floyd album, we built extractor towers so fabulous that they barely look out of place on a street of prestige buildings. Now, however… urgh…  I don’t want to go on with this, you get the picture.  It makes me too miserable.

3. The Depression

Talking of being miserable, crikey we Englishers are a miserable bunch, aren’t we? Sometimes it seems like we’re only happy when we’re having a jolly good moan.

Victor Meldrew
Moaning is fun, kids!

But there’s a major downside to this affliction (other than being teased by the rest of the world)… real depression is often overlooked and sadness is often misdiagnosed as something you can only cure with drugs.  Hence the somewhat depressing (that’s probably not the right word) number of Brits on anti-depressants.

Ecstasy Gurning
…and sometimes Ecstasy.

The general malaise that hangs over the good ship UK is something that has bothered me for a while, and there are two things that I think would help: a ban on building stuff out of bloody concrete (I’m serious) and a concerted effort by our politicians to end their idiotic bluster about competing economically against China(!) and instead push for laws, reforms and acts of parliament specially tailored to the explicit aim of ‘improving the happiness of the nation.’

You know what has been proven to improve the general happiness of any given nation? A small and shrinking gap between rich and poor.  Since 1997, the rich/poor divide in the UK has grown exponentially… as has our general misery. This is no coincidence.

It looks like if we want to improve the general contentment of our electorate, it would be wise to whack up the tax rate on the super-rich and yes, fine, let them leave the country if they must… but add a twist:

1) Whoa whoa whoa!!  You’re not taking that UK passport with you!  Put. It. Down.  Step away from the passport, you traitorous dog.

2) If you’ve left us for another continent and then decide you want to work in the EU in the future, you must apply for a working visa, like every other alien.

3)  The support from British Embassies (paid for by John Q. Taxpayer) will be withdrawn. Good luck getting out of that Congolese jail, ya tyrant billionaire!

Ahhhh, I feel happier already.

4. The Schools

There’s a mad system in this weird little country I visited while trotting around the world and I’d like to share it with you.

In order to get your kid into a good school – thereby setting him or her with the best possible chance in life – you have to pick a football team. Yeah, that’s right, a football team. Even if you can’t stand football! You then have to attend every single match that team plays for a year. If you’ve pretended to be a really big fan and not looked too bored or criticise the owner of the club (who may or may not be a known facilitator of paedophilic activity), little Johnny will be allowed to go to this school.

Fail in this charade, and little Johnny goes to the shitty comprehensive five miles away and proceeds to get his head flushed down the toilet every day for the following five years, since little Johnny is either fat, gay, ginger or clever… all capital crimes, according to the law of the playground.

The schools in question, one should point out, are not paid for by the football teams and they’re not private either. These are publicly-funded schools, paid for by the tax-payer. What’s even more ridiculous is that these schools are under no obligation to employ any teachers that don’t support the correct football team, something that’s quite a whacked-out arbitrary requirement… and one that would be deeply illegal in any civilised country.

Accrington Stanley Fan
Accrington Stanley Fans Need Not Apply.

But then the UK is obviously not that civilised, since, yes, that is the ‘weird little country’ to which I referred. Just replace “football team” with “religion” and “match” for “service” and “owner” for, well… “owner”. How it is a good idea to separate our children into tribes based on what Bronze Age creation myth their parents (through an accident of birth) find themselves subscribed??

I’d love to be a gay teenager going to a Catholic school: it would make my day to hear how un-natural I was, that I’d be burning in hell once I died and that the bullies are right to bully me (I need fixin’!). I’d love to have no teacher I could confide in because I’m 14 years old and pregnant and thinking of having an abortion. I’d totally love it if I was told, in SCHOOL, that Aids was bad… but not as bad as condoms.

Although these real-world dilemmas are rendered moot by the horrors that play themselves out on the streets of Northern Ireland every night. Enforced segregation in ANY OTHER WALK OF LIFE is ILLEGAL – WITH GOOD REASON, with the exception of our schools. Take a deep breath and analyse those words… with the exception of our schools. Yes, a school in the UK has the right to deny me a job even as a caretaker if I don’t partake the ‘right’ religion.

Change “religion” for “skin colour” and you MIGHT JUST SEE why this system is so utterly abhorrent. Make no mistake about it: it is Apartheid. Apartheid blessed by the system, paid for by John Q. Taxpayer and legally free to discriminate in a way that not even the BNP is allowed to discriminate. Against children.

Martin Luther King
“I have a dream in which apartheid is illegal… except in schools!”

This post is entitled “Ten Things I Hate About U(K)”, but the cruel, inhumane, idiotic, openly discriminatory nature of the British School System alone could be “Things” 1 to  10.

5. Chav Culture (Innit)

From a country that exported its language and culture all over the world (not always forcibly!), chavs are nothing short of an abhorrent stain on the fabric of British society. I mean, what’s the use of a chav? At least troublemakers like the punks, mods and rockers had good music. These chavs dress like morons, talk like morons, act like morons… and embarrass the hell out of the 99% of the British population that are decidedly chav-nots.

To the uninitiated, a chav is a young British citizen who dresses in hooded tracksuits, wears a Burberry cap and sports tacky gold jewellery from catalogue shops that wouldn’t look out of place on a pantomime dame. Dressing like a clown is a rite of passage for all young people, but I can’t help but feel like all the good ideas (bike leathers, zoot suits, mohawks) have been done. So here we are: an entire generation that’s run out of ideas and is (understandably) bored with their lot. It’s amazing what utter bobbins can pass for being ‘cool’ in any given generation.

Chav
A Chav, yesterday.

This boredom manifests itself in myriad ways – causing a nuisance outside the corner shop, hocking up and gobbing on the pavement, listening to repetitive generic crap on their iPhones (and forcing everyone else in a 3 mile radius listen to it too) and just being generally anti-social spoddy little toe-rags.

But I’m not just knocking the young here – chavic behaviour have been around since I was a kid. My real problem is with chav culture. That bolshie, anti-education thinking which brags its stupidity and attempts to make a virtue of ignorance. I can’t stand it. Being a dickhead is one thing, but being proud of being a dickhead is just… pathetic. And what has chav culture contributed to society? I really can’t think of a single positive, except perhaps to give us chav-nots something to make fun of.

But I would much rather it be the case that what we do make fun of is not so chinge-worthy for the rest of us.  When I was younger I remember watching Jerry Springer and thinking “Ha! That’s hilarious! Stupid Yanks”. I will discuss how patently NOT stupid the Americans are later (when I talk about the British Film “Industry”), but at the time it did seem like that kind of trailer trash television was a peculiar cultural facet of our cousins on the other side of the pond. Of course, since the advent of Jeremy Kyle, we know that not to be the case.

And when chavs go abroad on holiday, their ‘culture’ ends up representing Britain to the world… and it’s not a pretty sight. When you’re talking to a foreigner or you’re a stranger in a strange land, you wind up representing your country by default.

The last thing any country needs are a bunch of boozed-up England shirt-wearing troublemakers running rampage through the streets. Chav culture ends up tarring all us Brits as dribbling guttersnipes who dress like Floridian retirees, are barely comprehensible, are usually drunk on Bacardi Breezers, have a tendency to fight in the streets, indulge in casual racism and are full of snarls and nastiness.

What a terrible advert for my otherwise green and pleasant land. It’s like every personality trait I find repulsive and irritating rolled into one massive ugly fungal infection – a fungal infection that’s running around telling everyone it’s British.

I would rather be stereotyped as a blustering buffoon in a bowler hat, a sexually repressed misanthrope always moaning about the weather or a uptight Fawlty hitting my car with a branch. When your only boast in life is that you could have been good at something, anything… but chose not to be, you’re not going to get any sympathy from me. Society might fail you… but don’t fail yourself.

Talking of Scroobius:

DING DONG! Reasons 6-10 are delayed due to leaves on the line. Gimme a couple of days…

The Ten Saddest Songs in the World

As every Morrissey fan knows, there’s nothing more fun than a good old bit of navel gazing to make the universe seem even more cruel and indifferent than it actually is.

So kick back, relax and wallow in the happy misery of feeling blue as I take you through ten of the the best songs about love, loneliness and lunacy you’ll ever stuff into your brain.

1. Untitled (Hidden Track) – The Aliens

Hidden away at the end of ‘Astronomy For Dogs’ and running for just over a minute, played with nothing more than the upper scales of a piano accompanied by a violin, this ghostly melody is a riff from ‘Honest Again’, just the words ‘how long will it be till I see you again?’ repeated over and over… it KILLS ME. After travelling around the world for three and a half years alone and unaided, it’s the question I ask myself every day – The Aliens seem to know this and have made this track just to taunt me. Bastards!

Unfortunately nobody’s uploaded it to YouTube, so here’s ‘Honest Again’, just listen to the first minute or so and you’ll get the idea.

2. If The World Ends – The Guillemots

The Guillemots are renowned for making love sound like a mental health disorder, but this one goes beyond everything they’ve done before or since, we’re talking THE END OF THE WORLD here! Apparently it wouldn’t be so bad if you were by my side. Hell, “I think we could laugh enough to not die in pain” (that’s an actual lyric!). This is seriously bleak stuff, so epic, so tragic, so fucking miserable – Christ I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

I don’t think I ever heard you speaking, because I was too wrapped up in the dream I was dreaming…

3. Me Ne Quitte Pas – Nina Simone

You could really do with knowing a little French to get the full impact of this song, as the English-ised cover by Dusty Springfield really doesn’t do it justice. DO NOT LEAVE ME sung in plaintive tones, the sadness of this song goes beyond common sense and descends into stalker-like insanity… I’ll be the SHADOW OF YOUR DOG if it meant I could stay by your side. THE SHADOW OF YOUR DOG! Pure tragedy – the longing, the humility, the tragic depths you’d stoop to in order to keep that person in your life – this is a song about crawling naked on broken glass, reaching out for deliverance and being slapped in the face instead.

4. Exit Music – Radiohead

You could probably pick any Radiohead song and put it on this list, and to be honest Exit Music was neck and neck with Fake Plastic Trees and No Surprises, but this Romeo and Juliet-inspired masterpiece has the edge, something that can chime with teenagers in mad angry sexy love everywhere in the world… TODAY WE ESCAPE, WE ESCAPE. Thom Yorke on the altar, about to be sacrificed to the music Gods, building up to that final defiant cry WE HOPE THAT YOU CHOKE. A song that says KILLING YOURSELF is the only way you and the love of your life can be together, sung by RADIOHEAD!! Damn if your heart wasn’t ripped in two by this song the first time you heard it, you should possibly check for a pulse.

5. Bless His Ever Loving Heart – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

If I ever write a top ten funeral songs list, this Nick Cave B-Side would have to be number one. It’s probably the only track on this top ten that’s a straight love song (no death or tragedy in this one), but there’s something so tragic about it, something that exposes love as the mad, exhausting, pathetic calamity it is.

It’s sung by the one who got away, that dangerous crazy drug-taking motorbike-riding rocknroller that your father never approved of, meeting you for the first time in decades and imploring you to stay with your boring old husband because the rocknroller knows he’ll just break your heart again – it’s his nature. Brief Encounter through the medium of song. Epic.

6. The Desperate Kingdom of Love – Giant Sand

A cover of the PJ Harvey song, there’s something in Howe Gelb’s voice that floors me every time. Love as a terminal illness for which there is no cure, the bluesy piano solo – this is the sound of the old man with the white beard sitting at the end of a whiskey bar lamenting his life: the ones that got away, the trials and tribulations, the agony and the ecstasy. Wishing, praying, hoping for another shot – a second youth that he knows he’s never going to get.

7. Hope There’s Somebody – Antony and The Johnsons

It’s the middle of the night in the local mental asylum. One of the inmates has broken out of his room, his straight jacket torn to shreds. The nurses set off the alarm, but it doesn’t take long to find him: he’s hammering away on the piano and singing to himself in the dark, empty activity room.

Whereas most sad songs are about love and loss, this one is about your own death, specially the fear of dying alone and unloved. It would be tragic enough, but have you seen Antony? He looks like a Gorg from Fraggle Rock. It’s a bit like a a horrible monster raising up from the salty brine and singing you a song about nobody loving him in the most beautiful voice imaginable.

It all builds to an epic crescendo in a desperate bid to shoo away the ghosts and demons tormenting him. But it doesn’t work, and as the orderlies drag him back to his padded cell he knows he’ll be left to walk that final tragic journey alone.

8. Mad World – Michael Andrews feat. Gary Jules

Well, you can’t have a top ten miserable song list without a Christmas No 1 to really bum everybody out. The musical equivalent of Arthur Fowler crying himself to death in a jail cell, if you didn’t well up during the Donnie Darko Mad World Montage, you really should go and ask for your soul back.

But what’s really mad about Mad World is the weirdly upbeat original version by Tears For Fears. It’s quite frankly bizarre – these are some of the most depressing lyrics of all time: THE DREAMS IN WHICH I’M DYING ARE THE BEST I EVER HAD and Curt Smith is prancing around like Drunken Master on crack.

9. Slow Show – The National

Songs about loneliness and distance are always hit a certain resonance with me and Slow Show by The National is no exception. I WANT TO HURRY HOME TO YOU but I’m too busy getting drunk at a wanky party and trying to have sex with hollow people who don’t care if I live or die.

I MADE A MISTAKE IN MY LIFE TODAY – there’s no man in the world who can’t relate to this song. There’s someone in your life, maybe now or maybe from your past who you just want to return to, make them laugh and hold each other through the night.

But it’s the end when the epic tragedy of the song really kicks in – YOU KNOW I DREAMED ABOUT YOU FOR 29 YEARS BEFORE I SAW YOU? He’s waited 29 years for her to come along and now she’s gone, he’s alone in a room full of people, lying in the gutter screaming at the stars. EPIC.

10. Tiny Tears – The Tindersticks

Along with Radiohead, pretty much everything by The Tindersticks is guaranteed to make you quit your job, down a bottle of pills and go fling yourself at the sky, but Tiny Tears occupies a special place – this isn’t about tragic epic unrealised love, this about the everyday end of a relationship, the little things left unsaid and undone, the interstellar distance between two people only inches away.

All these small things have been building up over the years. YOU WERE TOO BUSY LOOKING INTO YOURSELF TO SEE THOSE TINY TEARS IN HER EYES – she’s going. She’s leaving. She’s signing the divorce papers and taking the dog and IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.

Honourable Mentions: Fairytale of New York, Another No-One, No Distance Left To Run, Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me, Hurt (Johnny Cash version), Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley version), Song To The Siren (This Mortal Coil version).

Day M319: The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

Sat 11.08.12:

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.

*no longer true!!

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.

Right, that’s it. We can get back to grumbling about the weather now.