Day 402: Don’t Stop Believin’

06.02.10:

The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.

Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.

Here’s what really happened…

When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.

I might as well…

Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.

Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.

Sod it.

Let’s go!

I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.

I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).

Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.

I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?

No.

It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.

Grrrrrrr!!

I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.

In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.

Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.

But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?

So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.

The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!

Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!

Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..

Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.

Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.

At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.

The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.

This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!

Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!

I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.

I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…

About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..

It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!

So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.

Well, the answer was simple – I was home.

Day 403: Home Sweet Home

07.02.10:

So with the cat out of the bag in terms of my friends, it was now time to spring the surprise on my family. I got a couple of hours kip at Hugh’s gaff (Hugh of ‘Hugh Sings The Odyssey Blues’ fame) and I arrived at my family home on Honeys Green Lane at around 2pm – just in time for Sunday roast. Again, I had set up a ruse of seeing everyone via Skype and with the help of my brother Mike (who I had brought in on the deal) snuck into the house without my parents suspecting a thing. Luckily, my webcam is pretty naff so nobody recognised the background on the Skype video link was the house until I entered the room.

In typical Hughes form, my mum burst into tears, my dad was wonderfully nonplussed, my brother Alex was annoyed I didn’t let him in on the secret and my nephew Matthew claimed to have known all along. And so I sat down with my parents, brothers, cousins, nephews and (brand new) baby niece for my first roast meal since Sierra Leone back in July. And it was great.

  • Roast Lamb
  • Roast Beef
  • Roast Potatoes (fluffy on the outside, crunchy on the outside)
  • Yorkshire Puddings
  • Broccoli, Peas and Green Beans
  • Gravy
  • French Bread
  • Chocolate Profiteroles & Ice Cream
  • Cheese & Crackers

Yum.

After din-dins, the traditional Hughes Family Trivial Pursuit Fight was put on hold while my brother Mike and I started cooking up schemes for getting The Odyssey fully publicised this week ourselves, while I’m here (something that mmmmmmm promised to do and never did, the scoundrels). We’re not professionals and we’re kind of making it up as we go, but we might as well give it a try. We decided to get cracking first thing in the morningw, so I went to his house in Runcorn to sleep on his couch.

It’s good to be back.

Day 404-410: Pubs and Publicity

08.02.10-14.02.10:

So I was back and I had work to do. I spent Monday morning at my brother Mike’s house writing up a press release and, with his help, getting it out to as many people in the UK media as possible – BBC, ITV, Sky, whoever. By early afternoon the offers of TV stardom (kinda) were flooding in – first North West Tonight, then Granada Reports and then ITN down in London. Yey!!

Do people actually get paid to do this kind of stuff? Man, it’s a cinch!

The only major problem was that I didn’t have permission off the chaps who own all my footage to allow a few seconds of the 150 hours I filmed last year to be shown on telly. Ah well, what they don’t know can’t hurt ‘em. That night (after drinkies) I kipped at Grethe’s flat in the city centre as I had an interview with Radio Merseyside at the bloomin’ crack of dawn. Grethe’s in the Odyssey Pantheon, so you can’t complain.

After my early morning probing by the BBC’s Tony Snell I headed over to Leo’s gaff, our venerable webmaster’s abode, under the auspices of getting the website shipshape and Bristol-fashion. However, a trip to Manchester to be interviewed by the legend that is Gordon Burns turned the day into a frantic race to dump my YouTube vids onto DV tape in time for the courier to come pick it up.

Hell of a time for my laptop to start acting the goat, but I can’t stay mad at you for long, my lovely little lappy – you’ve survived in my bag for a year, which is more than I can stay for my bloomin’ iPod. Hear that Jobs? YOU SUCK!

Dell rock my world.

You know, everything you’ve seen or read about The Odyssey so far has been put together by me, my family and my friends. I’m not saying that out of resentment, I’m saying it out of pride, what we’ve bodged together with sticky-tape and derring-do is pretty impressive stuff. I guess with the costs of High Def camcorders and editing programmes plummeting and Twitter, Skype and Facebook connecting the world in a way nobody would have thought possible just a few short years ago, anyone can now do this kind of thing, you just have to be slightly mad, that’s all.

Dino (oh he of logistical clout) dropped by to say ahoy-hoy and after a wonderful ringing endorsement of the last fourteen months of mischief, Leo and I thanked TJ profusely and headed back to the land of all things scouse.

Now if I was in any way organised that would have been the end of it. A good night’s sleep at my mum’s and then off to London in the morning to run the visa gauntlet. But fate had different plans.

By 10am the next day (Wednesday) I was in the big smoke and doing an interview for ITN. Then I headed over to the Algerian Embassy who had kept hold of my passport for a week longer than strictly necessary. Getting it back off them wasn’t the easiest of jobs, they didn’t open until 4pm and I was a quid short of the processing fee (necessitating a quick but embarrassing trip to the cash machine), but eventually I got it and headed FULL PELT to the Arab Chamber of Commerce. Why-oh-why, I hear you ask? Because they had the power to translate my passport into Arabic (for a small, well, actually massive fee) which I needed to do in order to get my Libyan visa on the border next week. I thought it would take a few minutes, but in the event, it took 24 hours. Looks like I’ll be stuck in London then.

Well, you can’t have everything, but you can have tea. And that’s exactly what I did have in the wonderful offices of WaterAid. I was met by the delightful media officer Mel Tompkins and filmed an interview with her talking about the good work that WaterAid does (I’ll be putting up on YouTube later) and boy oh boy did I enjoy me tea. Afterwards I took the light blue line all the way to Stan’s house. By that I mean the pub by Stan’s house. There I met with The Odyssey’s Anarchy In The UK video hero Matt Collins (the hairy Oirishman), Stan’s delightful little lady Helen, Dan Martin and Little Dan who we met at a music festival in Serbia back in 2007.

The next day, being Thursday, I spent the day pottering and mooching (two of my most unsavoury habits) and biting my nails waiting for this Arabic translation of my passport to materialise. When it did I realised that I had run out of time to visit the Uzbekistan embassy today so instead headed over to Universal Music to visit me auld mucker Vicki Dempsey who just happens to work there (it’s not what you know…!) Of course I took the opportunity to beg to be allowed to use Universal tunes on my wonderfully slapped together YouTube vids.

Wouldn’t THAT be cool… Morrissey, The Killers, Florence and the Machine…

Watch this space.

That night (after a slap-up feast woo!) I kipped on Vicki’s couch ready and eager to polish off the last of my visa errands in the mornick. Only….

Ha. No. I got to the Uzbek Embassy (after a quick telephone interview for Spanish Radio) and was told it would take a week for my visa to come through. A week! I don’t have that kind of time. WHY DID PHILEAS FOGG NEVER HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS BLOOMIN’ NONSENSE EH??

Ah well, thanks but no thanks, I get the visa in Baku. I think.

So one last thing to do, I met up with Oscar Sharp without the ‘e’, a fellow maker of silly but undoubtedly excellent films and grabbed some ribs for lunch. Then, after getting thrown out of the Mac Store for not being smug enough, I headed back to Stan’s house (really this time) to pick up my backpack and get the hell out of there. Only a certain hip young gun-slinger named Dan Martin of the NME had neglected to tell me and Stan that he would be out for the afternoon at a photo shoot with some drugged up floozy from the states whose name temporary escapes me.

Unfortunately for me, Dan had the only key to the flat: Stan was on his way up north. And it was raining. Bah, London, you always do this to me… you’re like real life, only slightly more awkward.

I can see the advertising billboard: LONDON: WHERE NOTHING IS EVER EASY.

Anyway, Dan was going straight from the photo shoot to Oxford so the floozy could address the Oxford Union (much in the manner of OJ Simpson) but Stan, as cunning as a fox that’s just been made Professor of Cunning in Megan Fox’s knickers, came up with a cunning plan. The landlord could let me in! Ha! I knew they were good for something!!

So I walked through the storm with my head held high and was not afraid of the lark. Or the dark. Or the bark. Or something farky malarkey. But by the time I had retrieved the magic key from the wizard in his castle of Nowletting, got my backpack and dropped the key back off to him (least he puts a hex on me and I start to lose hit points) I was well and truly later than the late great Louis Armstrong arriving late to the set of Later… with Jules Holland for the meeting that I had organised between Mike, Leo, Dino, TJ and I in Manchester that night which I possibly should have mentioned earlier.

By the time my hideously overpriced train pulled into that humdrum town, I was a whopping two and a half hours overdue. Everyone but Dino had gone home (sorry guys!) but that didn’t stop Dino and I from getting delightfully drunk and crashing out at his (might I say pretty damn hot) girlfriend’s pad.

The next day being Saturday, my (other) brother Alex picked me up from my Burnage CouchSurf and took me to Salford Quays so I could do another interview, this time for Manchester’s Rock FM. I’m sure Leo can get all these interviews linked to this blog, and yeah, I do repeat myself a lot don’t I? Sorry, I’m not quite with it these days.

Afterwards, Alex and I met up with TJ (the wonderfully helpful BBC editor chick) for some Thai noodles and a rather painful chat about how stupid I am. YES I WILL DO ANYTHING FOR A FIVER. Howdy-ho, whatchagonnado? After that I headed back to Liverpool, dropped in on some old chums (shout outs to Robyn and Yaz, Ben and Debbie), grabbed a bit to eat and charged out into Liverpool City Centre for a night on the tiles.

Woke up the next day in Lorna Brookes’ flat, which is okay because she gets me on lots of boats. Quickly headed over to Vision Express to get my glasses fixed (400 days on the road ain’t been too kind to them) and then finally went home for a roast meal and to see my sister and my nephews who couldn’t make it over last week.

Huzzah!

I was all fired up to hit the road again… well and truly fed and watered, I had done a ton of interviews, got as many visas sorted as I could (there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, believe me!)

The plan was to pick up my glasses from Vision Express in the morning, head down to London, and be in Tunisia by the weekend.

Libya here I come…!

But it wasn’t to be… I got an email off our London contact who had been working on the Libya visa – it would be two weeks before I’d be allowed in… 28th February. My damn birthday. There was no point in going anywhere.

BLUGH.

Days 411-417: Groundhog Day

15.02.10-21.02.10:

The next week passed in a kind of blur. I don’t think I got anything productive done at all. I didn’t write up my blog nor edit any more YouTube vids, I dropped into a bit of a funk. One that affects me whenever the flow of my adventure is disrupted, either by ships that refuse to leave or by visas that require the most acrobatic of bureaucratic trickery to acquire.

But wheels had been set in motion… dangerous wobbly wheels made of poo that threatened to derail The Odyssey entire. Don’t forget – it will only take ONE country out of the 58 I have left to go to ban British Passport holders from entering and that’s it, Game Over – EPIC FAIL – the mission here is to visit EVERY sovereign state.

Now a couple of months ago, the lovely nutcase what dictates Libya, you know, Colonel Sanders, was given pause for thought when one of his (many) offspring went and did something rather silly. He beat up his housemaid. Now while I’m sure that kind of thing is (occasionally) frowned upon in the delightful pluralist democracies of the Middle East, but the Colonel’s son had the misfortune to commit the act in a country where beating up another human being, especially one of the fairer sex, is actually against the law. D’oh!

The crime took place in Switzerland.

Now as we all know, the Swiss are famous for their neutrality, even in the face of the wholesale slaughter of millions of innocents. But holocausts are one thing and beating up a woman is another beast entirely, and for once, Switzerland had the courage of its convictions and BLOOMIN’ NORA! actually stood up and said that something that a mad bloke from another latitude had done was wrong.

To say this travesty of justice pissed the Colonel off somewhat would be an understatement (whatever happened to good old fashioned dictators (and their unruly offspring) doing what the hell they wanted, eh?). And so he did what any other grown man would do and chucked his toys out of the pram. Or to be more precise, took the billions that he has spent the last forty-one years stealing from his own people out of them Swizzy Banks and chucked them into the similarly See-No-Evil banks of the KY Jelly Islands instead. And then, just to be extra mean, he banned all Swiss people from his vast desert dictatorship.

He then folded his arms and blew a raspberry. I expect.

The Swiss responded by drawing up a list of 188 people that could now no longer come skiing or enjoy Toblerone in the land of the Milka Cow. And that 188 consisted pretty much of everyone in the Colonel’s family and government (one of the same, ain’t they?). Outraged, the fried-chicken magnate of North Africa today banned ALL Europeans from within the von Schlieffen Plan Zone from visiting his magical realm of his oil-rich ancien regime.

Now (off the top of my head) that’s everyone in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Malta, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Probably one or two others.

Wow. That’s a LOT of tourists that Libya neither wants nor (apparently) needs. I’m sure the hundreds of suddenly unemployed Libyan tour operators are being compensated with all the fried chicken they can eat.

Luckily for me, and the Odyssey, the UK does not lie within the von Schlieffen Plan Zone. Things could have gone from bad to worse, but having to wait two weeks to get into country 143 (a country I’ve tried to enter twice before) now seemed like the least of my worries. The only annoying thing was that I could have – should have – left my passport with the Uzbek embassy and picked up my visa on Friday. Oh well, of Mice and Men and all that jazz.

So I was going to tell you how my unexpected second week in the UK went. Hang on, let me rack my brains… well, I, er, crikey… wha the hell did I do? I’m sure I got some things sorted… I got my bags cleaned, for one. Oh, and my gorgeous girlfriend Mandy and her utterly delightful sister Tam sent me a new Kanga Hat (the old one had shrunk in the wash and was now looking more like something you’d wear at a hen party) and I reupholstered the toilet seat strapped to my backpack.

Erm… that’s about it, I’m afraid. Went out in Liverpool, got nice and drunk with my friends, saw Avatar in 3D, downloaded Lost – crikey, it was like I’d never been away. It was like I had walked through a magic door that had transported me a year into the future. Everything was as it was when I left, only slightly different. Boys had got with girls and girls had split with boys, I sighed as I noted another tree had been felled from the grove outside my parent’s house but the old haunts still smelt like the old haunts and the fly-by-night bars had thankfully flown south for the winter.

Change is not always progress. Gone were the inflation-busting £1 Stellas that had make The Jac our drinking pit of choice for the last fifteen years, replaced by Carlsbergs with a little less alcohol by volume. I love this epigram: you can’t step in the same river twice, fresh water is always running past you. I nicked it from Stephen Fry. He probably nicked it too.

There’s an old anecdote about Oscar Wilde at a dinner party once: after somebody said something tremendously witty, Oscar mused that he wish he had said it. Lady such-and-such patted him on the hand and said ‘Don’t worry Oscar, you will.’

I have to say, my home town of Liverpool was looking rather spanking. Have you seen her lately? It’s like an ex-girlfriend who you never really had the hots for and she had kind of let herself go and that’s why you dumped her (although I’m sure you were at pains to point out that it’s not her, it’s you) and then you see her again at a party years later and she looks hot to trot and you’re like d’oh I knew that girl had potential.

Although what the hell is with that cacophony of cack down by the Pier Head? Jesus wept… did someone let little Tarquin play with his crayons on daddy’s blueprints? What goes through these people’s heads? Leave it, Graham… leave it.

Well, if Mandy has her wicked way with me (she will), I’ll be hauling up sticks and moving to Melbourne when this hootenanny is over. But, damnit, what is it about that durty auld town that keeps drawing me back? Ack, you can spread your x-wings all over the universe, but Jabba will see to it that you’ll be back to Tattooine someday.

Well, one thing led to another (as things invariably do) and soon enough it was Sunday. I said goodbye to Mum and Dad, those wonderful people who never think to say STOP THIS YOU’RE AN IDIOT, and it was therefore time to trundle down to London ready to start my rather bonkers trip down to New Zealand (via Libya, Algeria, The Seychelles and Eritrea, of course).

I met with Stan, Helen, SJM Sarah and my old flame Michelle in the pub by Finsbury Park station for one last pint, one last hurrah, before heading back to the front.

Shore leave was over.

Day 418: Paris When It Drizzles

22.02.10:

Woke up at Stan’s gaff at some monstrously early hour, but Stan was good enough to not only make me a cup of tea, but to drive me to the nearest Tube Station. I’ve had mates in London now for years, negating the need to ever stay in a hotel or backpackers. But now I’ve got mates from Buenos Aires to New York City, Nova Scotia to Brazzaville, Pretoria to Iraq, Sierra Leone to Cairo, Reunion to Antigua and Tunis to Melbourne; this is possibly the most exciting thing to come of The Odyssey – I’ve left a trail of mischief from one end of the planet to the other, and I’ve always got somewhere to stay. Hooray for CouchSurfing.org!! I might have gone a few weeks without singing its praises, but by-eck, it’s BLOOMIN’ MARVELLOUS!

The plan was simple: Get to Rome. Go to port of Civitavecchia. Get boat to Tunisia. Visit Libya and Algeria. Back to Italy. Boat to Greece. Bus to Istanbul. Continue with The Odyssey. How long is that going to take? Two weeks? Okay…you’re on.

I got a little worried that I was supposed to check in for my coach to Rome an hour before departure and in typical Odyssey style, I was checking in ten minutes before departure, but there was no problemo, and before long, we found our bus clambering onto the train (which was a little weird if you think about it) that shuttles you through the Channel Tunnel. Well beat my breeches and call me Mary, having never gone through the unfortunately-named Chunnel before in my life, here’s me going through it twice in one month. Bizarre!

Arriving in Paris, I had a couple of hours stopover and had made arrangements to meet with Michelle Hoffman, a journalist from the Associated French Press, who were interested in doing a piece on little old me. So I had to walk about with all my bags (looking quite hilariously chubb after all that damn fine home cookin’ of the past fortnight) while she filmed me…and I wittered on about African jails and visa formalities and the general flotsam and jetsam that has a tendency to drop out of my clanging manhole every time I open it.

It was a fun way to pass the time, but time, tide and buses wait for no man. Soon, I was back on a coach thundering through the night towards Italy. The lethargy of the past couple of weeks was infectious and I have to admit to sleeping pretty much all the way.

THE ODYSSEY WORLD VISA GUIDE

One of the things that holds back many people from travelling is the prospect of wasting time and effort attempting to get into countries that would quite prefer it if you didn’t bother.  However, it is a false presumption.  In more than 150 countries worldwide you can turn up without shelling out $$$ for an invitation first.

So here’s a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for British Passport Holders for every country in the world, although it may come in useful for other nationalities as well.

I’ve split the world into four main categories: No Visa Required, Visa On Arrival, Prior Visa Required and Letter of Invitation (LOI) Required.

No Visa Required: You beauties!! Note the (very) high prevalence of prosperous, confident and democratic countries in this list.

Visa on Arrival: Not quite as good as no visa at all, but much, much less hassle than:

Prior Visa/LOI required: Crikey. What a bitch. Don’t turn up without a visa to any of the countries on this (mercifully short) list of grubby and inhospitable nations.  They will fly you straight back home again at your expense because you didn’t ask their f—ing permission first.  So go queue outside their ostentatious embassies in the pouring rain for hours, pay them a bundle of fivers and then wait and wait and wait for the privilege of visiting their stupid godforsaken country.

I find the whole process quite demeaning – it’s like having to write to someone to ask if you can attend their wedding – take the hint man, take the hint – these countries are obviously not much interested in you, or tourism in general.

Many of these countries hilariously require an onward ticket, some want you to write a begging letter to come in, others want a letter off your employer or even copies of your bank statements… remember this is not to LIVE THERE, this is just to VISIT FOR A FEW DAYS.

The worst of the worst require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) – I’ve cast these down into the very lowest rungs of hell.  Not only do you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to Ambassador Ratbag for the stamp, you also have to pay someone in the country to ‘vouch’ for you.

I would actually like a list of all of the illegal refugees and economic migrants pouring out of our rich democratic nations and claiming asylum in… Nigeria? Papua New Guinea? TURKMENISTAN?? Seriously? WHAT?

I hold Australia in particular contempt for this policy – it is the ONLY rich westernised power on an otherwise quite hellish list of paranoid basketcases.

Oh, and by the way, Aussie tourists are granted a SIX MONTH stay in the UK, upon arrival, for free.  So, Australia, when you ask me in your rasping nasal tones where the bloody hell am I – I guess I’m in a country that welcomes me with open arms rather than a punch in the face and a bill of sale.

But look on the bright side, there are 150 (other, better) countries which don’t make you beg for permission to pop in for a visit…

Here’s your at-a-glance VISA MAP OF THE WORLD:

World Visa Requirement Map
World Visa Requirement Map For British Passport Holders

NO VISA REQUIRED (WOO!)

AMERICAS
Antigua & Barbuda
Argentina
Bahamas
Barbados
Belize
Bolivia
Brazil
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Costa Rica
Dominica
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
El Salvador
Grenada
Guatemala
Guyana
Haiti
Honduras
Mexico
Nicaragua
Panama
Paraguay
Peru
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago
Uruguay
USA (but you do need a prior visa if you arrive on private boat or plane)
Venezuela

EUROPE
Albania
Andorra
Austria
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Croatia
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Kosovo
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Moldova
Monaco
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
San Marino
Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
UK
Ukraine
Vatican City

AFRICA
Botswana
Burkina Faso
Lesotho
Malawi
Mali
Mauritius
Namibia
Rwanda
Senegal
Seychelles
South Africa
Swaziland
The Gambia
Tunisia
Morocco

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Bahrain
Iraq (Kurdistan only, entered from Turkey)
Israel
Japan
Jordan (if you enter on the ferry from Egypt)
Kuwait
Oman
Palestine
Qatar
South Korea
Taiwan
The Maldives
UAE
Yemen

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Brunei
Fiji
Kiribati
Malaysia
Marshall Islands
Micronesia
New Zealand
Palau
Samoa
Singapore
Solomon Islands
Thailand
The Philippines
Tonga
Tuvalu
Vanuatu

VISA ON ARRIVAL

AMERICAS
Cuba (well, I got a visa on arrival, but I came on a yacht…)

EUROPE
Armenia
Turkey

AFRICA
Benin
Burundi
Cape Verde
Comoros
Egypt
Kenya
Mauritania
Mozambique
Sierra Leone
Tanzania
Togo
Uganda
Zambia
Zimbabwe

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Jordan
Lebanon
Nepal
Sri Lanka
Syria

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Burma (but only valid for border regions)
Cambodia
East Timor (though no longer available on land border with Indonesia)
Indonesia (though not available on land borders with East Timor and PNG)
Laos

That’s over 150 countries where you can get in without asking prior permission.  Now here’s the naughty list:

PRIOR VISA REQUIRED

AMERICAS
Suriname (letting the side down there somewhat)
Cuba (but I doubt they’d turn you back)

EUROPE
Belarus (no surprise there – they still have the KGB)

AFRICA
Cameroon
Central African Republic
Chad
Congo
Cote D’Ivoire
Democratic Republic of Congo
Djibouti
Eritrea (best obtained in Jeddah – next day delivery)
Ethiopia (best obtained in Nairobi – same day delivery)
Gabon
Ghana
Guinea
Guinea-Bissau
Liberia
Madagascar (but it’s free, so can’t complain)
Niger
Sao Tome & Principe
Sudan (best obtained in Cairo – same day delivery)

ASIA
Afghanistan
Bangladesh
Bhutan
Burma (for travel into interior)
China
India (AND now requires you to leave for 60 days between visits!)
Iraq (for travel beyond Kurdistan)
Kyrgyzstan
Mongolia
Tajikistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Australia*
Papua New Guinea
Vietnam*

*visa obtainable on arrival at airport with prior permission over internet

LETTER OF INVITATION (+ PRIOR VISA) REQUIRED

AMERICAS
N/A

EUROPE
Azerbaijan (no LOI required if visa bought in Georgia)
Russia

AFRICA
Algeria*
Angola*
Equatorial Guinea*
Libya (AND you must pay for a ‘guide’)
Nigeria*
Somalia*

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Iran
Kazakhstan
North Korea
Pakistan
Saudi Arabia*
Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Nauru

*To make matters worse, these visas can only be obtained in your country of origin (although it is possible to get a Nigerian visa from Ghana and an Algerian visa from Mali if you’re lucky).

Right.  That’s it.  If there are any mistakes/updates/excuses you’d like to make (this is pretty much all off the top of my head), please comment below.

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…

Days 963-973: 10 Things I Hate About U(K) – Part 2

21.08.11-31.08.11:

Here’s the rest of my jolly list of ten things that make me pull my hair and scream about silly old Blighty…

6. The Daily Mail

For the non-Brits reading this, I’ll let Uncyclopedia explain what The Daily Mail means to us lot in the UK:

Often referred to as “Fascism with Oven Gloves on” The Daily Wail, also known variously as The Daily Hate, The Daily Heil, The Daily Bile, The Daily Hate Mail and The Daily Fail is a hugely popular British comic for those who believe themselves (usually mistakenly) to be members of the middle classes.

While I have nothing but quiet distain for comic-book newspapers like The Sun and The Star, at least everybody knows they’re comics. The Mail is different, it tries to fob itself off as a serious newspaper while obsessing over celebrities, immigration and Princess Diana like some demented old lady whose sole understanding of the massive cultural shifts of the last 100 years mean that “you can’t even call it a blackboard no more.”

Blackboard
A Blackboard, Yesterday.
Blackbird
A Blackbird.
Black Pudding
Black Pudding
The Black Country
The Black Country
Blackadder Goes Forth
Blackadder Goes Forth

And like that same batty old lady, The Daily Mail supported the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. After over half a million British and Commonwealth citizens lost their lives in the ensuing fight against the forces of fascism, you would think the Mail would show some contrition, some kind of humility, some kind of…

The Daily Fail

…I don’t know… tact? But I suppose that doesn’t sell too many papers.

But what really gets my goat about the Daily Mail is its — quite frankly — piss-poor science reporting. As may of you know, I’m very much an armchair cheerleader of the sciences, and while it is not my personal forte (I’m much better at roaming the world in search of beer), I do have an ongoing interest in all things science-y. But while my ignorance of the mechanics of the universe is something I actively try to combat, The Mail doesn’t even try. For The Mail, there are no incremental peer-reviewed advances in medicine, only MIRACLE CURES!! There are no interesting asteroids passing within 0.1 AU of the Earth, only DEADLY ASTEROIDS ON COLLISION COURSE!! There are no harmless chemicals in The Mail’s periodic table, only EVIL CHEMICALS THAT WILL EAT YOUR FACE OFF AND SLEEP WITH YOUR WIFE!!

In the world of The Daily Mail, there is no such thing as climate change, scientists are ‘boffins’ and the paper is engaged in a baffling quest to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.

The Beano has better science reporting.

I will concede that the Mail did something noble once…

Stephen Lawrence's Killers

But the emphasis must be placed squarely on the word “once.” The fact that The Daily Mail is the second best-selling newspaper in the UK is just one more reason for me to add it to the list of 10 things I hate about the UK.  For a daily update of the incredible lies, half-truths, distortions of reality and painfully uncritical press-release journalism, check out http://www.mailwatch.co.uk/

7. Prince Charles

I’m by no means a republican.  I don’t envy the political systems of France or Italy (interestingly listed as ‘flawed democracies’ by the Democracy Index) and I believe that the American system of government is fundamentally flawed and unfixable.

My support for the institution of the British monarchy stems from three things:

1) there’s nothing socially, morally or politically wrong with having a constitutional monarchy (as evidenced by it being the preferred system of 7 of the 10 most democratic nations on the planet).

2) The Queen routinely receives a whopping 80% approval rating.  Take THAT, Sarkozy!

3) Cultural identity is important (not important enough to kill for, but I’ll come to that later) and we’ve had these posh twits sitting on the throne for so long that it has become part of what makes Britain, well, Britain. Like Peperami and Doctor Who.

As our head of state (and head of the Commonwealth) the Queen’s job is to smile and nod and keep her gob shut. I like that. I don’t want my country represented around the world by some career politician – one that would no doubt blab his mouth off, own 70% of the nation’s media and slap ladies on the bottom like some kind of 1930s cartoon wolf.

Silvio Berlusconi
Much in the Manner of Silvio Berlusconi (pictured left)

In short, so long as they keep their sticky beaks out of politics, I’m more than happy to have a monarch.

Having said that, I just can’t bring myself to support the concept of a King Charles III. The guy is an idiot, he cheated on his wife (and got caught), he is an active supporter of woo medicine and (most importantly) he can’t just keep his bloody gob shut. So I’m sorry Charlie-boy, you suck. If you cannot muster the same high level of approval as your mum, then that thing wot makes you King has to skip a generation – just bear in mind what happened to Charles I…

The Execution of King Charles I
“Just a little off the back there please, Mr. Barber man.”

8. Cultural Relativism

Oo-eck, Graham, one minute you’re slagging off the Daily Mail, and then the next you’re jumping on one of their pernicious bandwagons. Before you accuse me of being some kind of double-agent, let me explain. The Daily Mail is anti-immigration. I am not. All that cultural relativism does is help confirm all the daft prejudices that Daily Mail readers have about immigration. “If we hadn’t let them in in the first place this never would have happened” etc. This is because cultural relativism has never, will never and can never work.

When I talk about preserving the monarchy for cultural reasons, it is only because it is harmless. Any culture that causes physical harm or mental anguish is not one that the human race needs to preserve. The Solomon Islanders are much better off now than when they were running about eating each other. The Chinese practice of foot binding has (thankfully) been swept away with the passage of time, as has the fine old game of throw-the-widow-on-the-funeral-pyre that proved popular in medieval India.

It follows that we should not be falling over ourselves to protect the rights of people to do horrible, stupid, misguided and morally bankrupt things to each other in the name of ‘culture’.

Sharia Law is the most blatant example of this, but what about the Northern Irish and their idiotic marches? What about the Jewish woman forced to sell her home in to pay for the ‘Get’ that will allow her to divorce her husband in the eyes of Goddy? What about the gay kid disowned by his or her parents for making baby Jesus cry (presumably)?  What about the unfortunate child of Jehovah’s Witnesses who would rather let them die than give them a blood transfusion?  What about the young girl of North East African descent who is taken home by her parents in the summer holidays to have her genitalia mutilated with a septic blade?

Honour killings, forced marriage, animal cruelty, sexism, racism, homophobia, sadism, slavery: they have all been justified by saying ‘it’s my culture’. This is when culture stops being about delicious food, amazing architecture and fancy dance moves, and becomes something a lot more sinister.

So it follows that attempting to set up a system in which people are told that everybody’s ‘culture’ (however you choose to define that word) is equally valid is obviously never going to work. We’ve got to stop using ‘culture’ as a trump-card that renders all argument moot and brands any dissenters as insensitive, or even more fallaciously, racists.

Just as the British flag has been hijacked by extremists to mean something it shouldn’t, so the word ‘culture’ has been hijacked by every yahoo who wants to defend something that is otherwise pretty damn indefensible. The upshot of which is that now (say) ‘spicy food’ is seen as part of a given culture, but so is some bafflingly cruel custom that nobody in the UK wants or needs. The word ‘culture’ is being used to trump human rights and human dignity.

The basic concept of multiculturalism is that you lump the rough with the smooth and it’ll all work its way out in the wash. The reality is very different. In making my argument, it would be helpful for me to split the word ‘culture’ in two. So let’s say ‘noble culture’, which we can group under headings such as ‘art’ and ‘science’ and let’s have ‘rotten culture’ which we can group under the headings ‘cruelty’ and ‘stupidity’.

There is a fine balance to be struck here, but it’s not that hard to achieve: Welcome to Britain, leave your unwanted baggage at the door, thanks. Of course you can bring your beautiful calligraphy, your ancient texts and your fabulous music, but the bigotry, misogyny and homophobia… well, I’m afraid they’re not welcome here, despite what Richard Littlejohn thinks.

So while I am a massive supporter of ‘noble culture’, I see no intrinsic good coming from ‘rotten culture’. All I see is misery, despair and isolation. And it is these facets that make cultural relativity so divisive and so problematic. By positively encouraging people to make little effort to integrate into the wider community we are doing nothing but contributing to the increasing ghettoisation of the UK.

This cuts both ways: British ex-pats who live their lives in foreign climes for years on end and never bother to learn the local lingo should be just as irksome to people as Pakistanis in Bradford who don’t learn English. If anything, it shows a basic lack of respect for the community in the place you have chosen to live. It doesn’t matter whether the natives are I-Kiribati, Aboriginal or Glaswegian, there can be no cross-community cohesion while we have this Balkanisation of communities… something that is achieved through the exploitation of cultural fault-lines: ie. the rotten stuff.

Kipling was wrong when he said that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. We can all agree that Lamb Rogan Josh is a good thing, that the Taj Mahal is beautiful and that Bollywood films are a bloody good larf. In these cases, East meets West and everyone has a great time.

But when it comes to the Indian caste system, we are faced with a situation in which one community is wrongfully stratified from birth and people are openly discriminated against by other members of their community for obscure and nefarious reasons.  We can’t somehow incorporate that into our moral framework, our laws or our society. And the same goes for Sharia: we can’t have a community in the UK which runs itself on laws which ignore the last 200 years of social progress.   A two-tier system system of justice and morality is most definitely not what the doctor ordered.

When David Cameron said a few months ago that ‘multiculturalism has failed’, there was hardly a mumble of dissent. He’s wrong, of course, multiculturalism has made the UK better than ever (think how dreadful food was in the 1970s), but I can see how for many, multiculturalism in the UK has been a massive failure: it has led to misery, bitterness, hate crimes, the regrowth of the British Nazi movement.

But this isn’t the fault of multiculturalism per se, it’s more the fault of having a ‘one size fits all’ policy when it comes to cultural matters. Branding something ‘cultural’ does not automatically make it worthwhile, necessary or good.

Overcoming our inherent tribalism while still retaining the ‘noble culture’ of our tribe (and learning from the ‘noble culture’ of others) is something that all of us should strive to achieve: whether we’re a native or an immigrant. After all, it’s a lot more difficult to say you hate any given minority when your best friends come from that very minority.

I’m very much a believer in the ‘melting pot’ society: schools that are separated by individual strengths, not by race, religion or creed. Communities that are encouraged to work together, not tear each other apart. Politicians that represent the aspirations of the country, not just their own narrow agenda. A UK where being intolerant, impolite and thuggish is seen as an affront to all our ‘noble culture’: a place where if I see a bunch of angry skinheads marching along the street shouting racist obscenities and I can gather my friends from all over the world and say “oh dear, how desperately un-British.”

9. The Film “Industry”

This deserves a post all of its own, but I’ll try and keep this brief: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein… if we were to put the money that these BRITISH creations have made for HOLLYWOOD together, we would enough wonga to buy the moon.

Of the top 20 box office hits of all time, 10 were British inventions (I’m including the Titanic in that!), and 13 feature a British main character – sometimes even a Yank pretending to be British.

All eight Harry Potter films were filmed in the UK, with a British cast, British crew, British producer, and based on the books by a British writer. The last five films were all directed by Brits.

Deathly Hallows Parts I and II have (so far) taken a whopping $2,300,000,000 worldwide – just at the box-office. That’s not taking into account DVDs, downloads, spin-offs, merchandise, the World of Harry Potter or the fact Dumbledore is now the gay icon of the age. Put the entire series together and we are talking MEGAbucks, more than the annual GDP of some countries.

And where does all this money go?

Warner Bros
Ah, yeah.

Why? Because British people are stupid. Oh yeah, look at us producing a decent sit-com at a rate of about one per decade – aren’t we great? Occasionally we get enough money together to make a feature film, but instead of setting the box-office alight with our tried-and-tested intellectual property, we decide what the world REALLY NEEDS is another dreary period drama set in a swamp. Or a gangster film.

We’re useless, aren’t we? Too busy watching soap-operas instead of spinning our best ideas into box-office gold. Would it really have made ANY difference AT ALL if a British studio had paid to make the Harry Potter films? No. We had the tools, we had the talent. All we are missing is ANY LIVING BRITISH ENTREPRENEUR with a brain and a pair of balls. Somebody willing to invest 100 million quid, not on some god-awful building that they’ll demolish in 30 years, but on a safe bet that they will make over a BILLION POUNDS OF PURE PROFIT at the box-office.

EIGHT TIMES OVER!!

Do me a favour, the next time you’re at a party and some pretentious Brit says that “all Americas are thick”, punch them in the cock and scream “Tell that to Harry Potter!!”

10. The Weather

Ah yes. The weather. This is what the British do when the sun comes out:

Day M209: The View From The Bridge

Mon 23.04.12:

One of the more interesting things about travelling to every country in the world is it allows you to make comparisons. Sweeping sweeping generalisations aside for one moment, there are certain trends and nuances that are hard to pick up on unless you’ve been to the country in question. Of course what I think of a place is tremendously subjective, but through personal discourse with locals and a healthy obsession with world events, I feel I’m at least a little bit more informed than most – well, I know where the country in question is, what borders it, what colonial powers once stole it and whether it’s a free and fair democracy or not. In any case, it’s handy having some first-hand experience to be able to fit the jigsaw of life on Planet Earth into a some kind of geopolitical context.

Today the Mell Sembawang arrived in Guam, the largest of the Micronesian islands (Micronesia is the region, The Federated States of Micronesia is the country). Unlike every other island in the Pacific Ocean, but like the Northern Mariana Islands and Hawaii, UK citizens now need to waste $100 on a visa (although they insist on calling it a ‘visa waver’) even if you’re just visiting for a few hours. This is because Guam has the misfortune of being part of the US’s crappy little empire.

I love the idea that the US Navy-types based here on Guam are so scared of one ginger Britisher that I’d face a fine for even walking down the gangway (although, f— ’em, I did). There’s no paranoia like American paranoia. Well, actually that’s a lie: there are other places on Earth which, in my experience, are just as proficient at jumping at shadows: the former USSR republics for example, as well as North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Talking of North Korea, consider this: I was permitted to venture further onto North Korean soil without a visa than I was allowed to step on the US overseas territories of Guam or Saipan. When I arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on the CMA-CGM Turquoise without a visa back in December 2009 I was at least allowed to walk down the goddamn gangplank.

There are a lot of Americans who read this blog and I’d just like to ask one simple question: SERIOUSLY MAN, WHAT THE F—?