Sometimes I had good days, sometimes I have bad days, sometimes I have days that are madder than Mad Jack McMad of the clan McMad. Today was one of the mad days. It all started at 2am when my bus pulled over at the side of the road and the driver’s mate gesticulated for me to get off. Are we in Beijing already? We’re four hours early…
Sleepy-eyed and completely not with it, I got off (hoping I had grabbed all my stuff) and was herded onto another bus. You see, my bus wasn’t full enough to justify going all the way to Beijing, so I was to get on another bus that was a little more full. Well, make that TOTALLY FULL. Which meant that for the next hour while all around me slept the sleep of angels in their little Chinese bunk beds, I was unhappily STANDING IN THE GODDAMN AISLE. When it became abundantly clear that there was no way out of this situation, I took the executive decision to make an arse of myself and demand my money back. So I barged my way to the front of the bus and started shouting at the driver, at which point (possibly because the Chinese HATE to ‘lose face’) the driver’s mate clambered down from his bunk and offered me his bed.
I didn’t need to be offered twice. I snapped up the bed and fell fast asleep. Then at 5.30am the driver’s mate decided that he wanted to have a conversation with somebody at the very back of the bus (or on the roof, I don’t know) and as the Chinese are blessed with the highest toleration of noise this side of a howler monkey, the ensuing racket woke me up. Convinced that there was either a fire or we had arrived, I put my socks on and got ready to disembark. Oh yeah: there’s the Beijing West train station, I know where I am.
Some people got off the bus, so I thrust my shoes onto my feet and headed for the door, at which point the driver’s mate pushed me physically back onboard. WTF? I wasn’t in the mood for this, not after last night’s shenanigans. I pushed him back and told him in no uncertain terms that I was getting off the bus. Bizarrely, the driver then told me that I had to pay to get off the bus here. How much? 10 Yuan (that’s about a quid).
I took a 10 yuan note from my wallet, threw it on the floor and marched off the bus. I was doubly pissed off because I had decided that I really liked Chinese buses as well. Now I didn’t like them so much, but until somebody else puts beds on buses then I’m afraid they’re going to remain the best, even if they suffer from occasional Greyhound syndrome.
Anyway, it was now 6am and the day was yet young. The bus to Qingdao, the coastal port from which I could get the ferry to Korea, would be leaving Beijing sometime in the evening (I hoped) and so I had a day to kill, and I had a promise to keep with an old friend…
The Great Wall of China is a masterpiece of human endeavour. Even if it never really worked (it didn’t keep Genghis out) it still stands out as an artistic and engineering triumph, winding its way in now broken sections from the Jade Gate in the far West all the way to North Korea in the East. The Lonely Planet recommended against visiting the bit of the wall in Badaling (which is where I visited) on the grounds that it’s full of tourists. Silly pretentious Lonely Planet, I AM a tourist. Lemon. What’s with people wanting places all to themselves anyway? Are all the girls in bikinis spoiling your beach? Are all the people having a good time in your living room ruining your party? If all the people in the world camped out in your back garden, would you write and tell the king?
Or would you grab a tent and join ’em?
Tell you what, though, I wish other people would learn to take a photograph. When I throw you my camera, DON’T PUT MY HEAD IN THE LOWER MIDDLE OF THE GODDAMN PICTURE!! I’m sure the sky is lovely and one day I might take a picture of it myself, but for the love of God: HEADS, UPPER THIRD OF PICTURE, PLEASE. ALWAYS.
Anyway, the crowds were an added bit of entertainment and it was nice to be around lots of people who were enjoying themselves. The wall was great, although it was a stinking hot day and with my backpack and my laptop/camcorder etc. to carry, boy it was a killer climbing up that hill.
In a bit I had to climb down, and the fact that I desperately need a new pair of shoes became painfully obvious as the shiny polished stones were like an ice rink: one that is disturbingly vertical. Anyone who has braved Dubrovnik in Croatia in high heels (and who hasn’t?!) will know exactly what I’m talking about. I slid all the way down, clinging onto the handrail for dear life.
Anyway, enough walling for one day, I headed back to Beijing to meet with Carl and pick up my gear that he had kindly let me leave at his. After a (much needed) shower I was raring to go to the Forbidden City and see Tiananmen Square for myself. Carl was up for it, so we took the metro down to the very middle – figuratively and geographically – of Beijing. Tiananmen was a little meh; too big, too surrounded by yawn and, well let’s just say it – it looked a little like a carpark.
The Forbidden City, on the other hand, was exceptionally groovy from the outside and, like St Peter’s Basilica and Samarkand, I made the executive decision to save the inside for another day: to leave some more stones unturned. Climbing the Great Wall was enough for one day. Beijing: I like you. I’ll be back.
Everybody knows that the best place to get travel information is at a backpackers. Luckily for me, Carl had been staying at a nearby hostel before he moved into his current flat. Like the Major in Fawlty Towers. So he knew the staff pretty well and we were their to pick their brains about bus times to Qingdao. Happily, there was a bus leaving at 7.30pm, which was the time I was hoping the bus would leave. Carl and I celebrated with the biggest glass of beer you have EVER seen. It was so big it had its own tap. And a tube of ice in the middle to keep it cool (the Chinese man, they think of EVERYTHING!).
Unfortunately, it was so big it took us an hour to drink the damn thing and by then it was looking a little late for me to get to the bus in time, considering I still had to go back to Carl’s, pack my bags up and head halfway across town. But we gave it a red hot go.
I said goodbye to Carl on the steps of the Dongzhimen Station (I wonder if Chinese people find ‘Dong’ and ‘Wang’ as hilarious as I do – then again, nobody thinks the ‘turd’ in Saturday is even remotely funny except for me and the less said about Scunthorpe the better). Carl’s a good egg, and if you’re ever in need of a couch in Beijing, I couldn’t recommend a more generous host. Cheers man!
So it was a heart-pounding RACE to the bus station. It would have been good to have an hour to make the journey. As it was, I had half an hour. The first metro line train came straight away, which was great, however the second train I had to transfer onto was a) miles of winding tunnels away and b) just pulling out of the station when I got there.
So I had to wait for the next one. But even when I had got to the destination station, the bus station was still a while away. It was 7.25 and things were not looking good. I needed a taxi and none were stopping. At 7.33 I arrived at the bus station, but the driver dropped me on the other side of a massive dual carriageway which meant I had to RUN up the stairs (with all my bags which are now collectively weighing a TON), cross the bridge and come down the other side. And then…
Where the HELL is the bus station?? One thing about China that’s worth worrying about: hardly anybody speaks English. Yes, hurray for the Chinese they are just as completely inept at learning other languages as I am. Which is great. If you’re Chinese.
I asked a few passers-by, but to actually get the one English professor in the whole of China who actually understands the words ‘Bus Station’ was going to be the statistical equivalent of winning the Lotto. Without actually buying a ticket.
I had two choices: left or right. I went left. Within 50 yards there was a narrow driveway. A coach was entering it. I ran after the coach down the dark and forbidden driveway of doom. And there it was: the bus station, inexplicably hidden from the outside world by a bunch of noodle shops. I ran inside. The place was empty. The lights were off.
There were two women at a small counter by coach bay door number 16 who were packing up for the night. Like the previous two nights I ran towards the women shouting the name of my destination. One women shook her head. “Tomorrow”.
Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!! I said, doing my best Vader and banging my head on the counter.
The women then started talking to her friend in Chinese. They looked at me, saw the despair, the longing, the joy they knew that only they could bring with those three magic words…
“Come with me…”
A broad smile cracked across my face. I had beaten the system. Again. Hurray for China, man, THREE CHEERS, BRAVO. These guys know something that the less mentally agile denizens of Planet Earth do not: rules are made to be bent. I was put on a bus that was leaving that very moment, but before I had even managed to sit down I was put on another bus which I assumed was the bus to Qingdao, but wasn’t – it was the bus that was taking me to the bus to Qingdao. I assume that they were taking the same route out of town and that they called ahead to ask the Qingdao bus to wait for me.
Anyway, one way or the other, I was soon curled up on my amazing Chinese bus bed dreaming my way to Qingdao and beyond.
In answer to the question I posed at the end of the last blog: VERY EASILY. Yup, just like the globe (thanks to oil companies and climate changer deniers), relations between China and Taiwan are warming. In fact, they’re becoming positively cosy. Just last year it would have been impossible for me, as a Johnny Foreigner, to travel directly from China to Taiwan and back. I may have been able to do it on a cargo ship to Hong Kong, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t holding my breath.
Hurrah then for THE MAN IN SEAT 61 (http://www.seat61.com) one of the best websites in the world for overlanders such as myself, and one I do not hesitate to recommend. When I was in India, I set Odyssey fan Alex Zelenjak in Sydney the task of finding me a route to Taiwan. It didn’t take him too long to find one on the seat61 website: amazingly, there is a ferry that runs direct from the Chinese city for Fuzhou to the Taiwanese island of Matsu. Better still, the trip only takes a couple of hours, if that.
Now, technically speaking, I don’t have to go to Taiwan and it will make no difference to my Guinness World Record. Why is that? Because it’s not a member of the UN. It used to be; but in 1971 Nixon wanted to chummy up to Chairman Mao, and it got ousted by mainland China. Nevertheless, Taiwan (which calls itself The Republic of China in official circles) is a completely autonomous state and unlike Greenland, Galapagos and Bermuda, it doesn’t have another country’s name in brackets after it. Hence why I’ve included it in my journey, along with Vatican City, Kosovo, Western Sahara and Palestine.
So the stage was set, all I needed to do was get my arse on a bus and head down to Matsu, which I promptly did today, leaving Chris and Debbie’s flat key with their friend Matt and waving Shanghai goodbye. I clambered on board the nighty-night bus down and raced south.
On Sunday I arrived at Fuzhou a massive SEVEN hours earlier than it said in the Lonely Planet (not their fault: China is developing so fast it’s hard for anyone to keep up). This was wonderful news for me, as it meant that I could saunter down to the port at my own pace and take the morning ferry to Matsu, returning the same day and therefore winning me an extra day of travel more than I deserve. The ferry was tiny but utterly sufficient, and on the way over I watched the first half of The Ghost Writer on the communal television.
Now Matsu isn’t the island of Taiwan itself, and visiting it and saying I’ve been to Taiwan is a little like going to Jersey (just off the coast of France) and saying you’ve been to the UK. Well, technically you have. You’d get a UK passport stamp if you went to Jersey, just like I got a Republic of China (ROC) stamp by going to Matsu. This is important as I want to set a precedent for when I get to the South Pacific: I may not visit the capital island of each nation, but as long as I step foot on one of the islands within the contiguous boundary of the country, it counts.
The wonderful thing about Matsu is that, unlike Taiwan (a good 12 hours away), it takes less than an hour and a half to get there, and when you’re on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget, things like this are a godsend.
Arriving under slate-grey skies, I had to pinch myself to remember I hadn’t just arrived in the Isle of Wight. The island I was on is called Nangan, one of several islands that make up the Matsu chain. I took a stroll along the waterfront, spying a nice big illuminated sign that advised the mainlanders to ‘sleep on their spears’, a reference to the fact that plucky little Taiwan still has designs to take the whole of China back for itself.
Taiwan used to be part of China, that was until the Communist revolution which took place just after World War II. In a fit of that’s-what-I-would-do, the ousted government, the Kuomintang, nicked all of China’s gold and buggered off to Taiwan, battened down the hatches and stuck a mighty big finger up at Chairman Mao and his daffy regime. Lucky for Taiwan that they did, for although the Kuomintang were a mile away from what any sensible commentator would call a reasonable government, the people of Taiwan were spared the worst of that idiot Mao’s phenomenally stupid policies: mainly the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in which 45,000,000 of his countrymen needlessly died over a period of four years: yes, FORTY FIVE MILLION.
Why that c— is still on China’s money I have no idea.
I know it’s hard to generate empathy for that kind of seemingly improbable figure, I mean forty thousand thousands is a lot to take in; so think of it this way: just imagine for a moment that you woke up tomorrow and EVERYONE IN LONDON WAS DEAD.
Everyone: the Queen, the Prime Minister, all your mates and your family that live down there. All those celebrities you hate (and some that you love), every single cab-driver, every newspaper seller, every hawker in Camden Market, every Aussie pub worker, every Beefeater, every punk on Westminster bridge, the mad Christer on Oxford Street, all the people who used to cram into the tube every day: office workers, policemen, window-cleaners, politicians, actors, ad-men, writers, journalists, musicians, teachers, doctors, plumbers, architects, lawyers, junkies, winos and whores. Every single one. Dead, dead, dead and dead.
Lifeless corpses, twisted and contorted in the last few moments of thrashing pain, scattered bloody and quashed all over the ground. And you have to step over the bodies to get out and the bodies lie on every square of pavement, every blade of grass, every step. You walk for eight hours and you’re still stepping over bodies, your hand over your mouth trying not to vomit from the stench, other people’s blood soaking your socks inside your sodden shoes and the dead in every direction, as far as the eye can see.
That would be less than half of the number who starved to death under Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, the true figure suppressed until this very week, making Mao (yes) the greatest mass murderer of ALL TIME, beating long-time favourites Hitler and Stalin.
Sorry to get all morbid on you, but as Stalin himself said: One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. And I hate statistics. Two million people died of Aids last year. Over two thousand kids are going to die TODAY from diarrhoea (something that you can help prevent by clicking here:http://www.justgiving.com/theodysseyexpedition) and it’s just so damn hard to be as upset and indignant about these faceless masses as everyone seemed to be when Princess Diana’s drunken chauffeur smacked into a wall.
Anyway: Taiwan. Yes. Was part of China, maybe will be again one day, but not today. I had tremendous difficulty finding a cash machine that took my card (as I did in Korea and Japan, for that matter), but at least (unlike Korea and Japan) my phone worked here. I ended up walking from one side of the island to the other (TINY island), but the cash machines there didn’t care that I had just climbed up and down massive hill to get there: they still wouldn’t accept my cards, although the cash machines did have a (somewhat pointless) English text option so at least you knew what was going on. Lucky a lady taxi driver was willing to exchange a ten dollar bill for some local cash so I could buy some food before I fainted.
Over half the island’s population is the Taiwanese army, understandable considering how damn close this place is to China, but they’re friendly enough, although so damn young; it was like when I went to Israel and I was grilled on the border by a IDF chick who was barely out of nappies.
I don’t like it when people in authority are younger than me. Stop it.
With a little more time, I could have done a nice trek around the entire island (why did nobody do that in Lost?), but before I knew what was what I was back on the ferry heading back to China and watching the second half of The Ghost Writer (which was, in the end, crap). Arriving back in Fuzhou, this is where the Chinese visa I procured in Korea came in handy.
I took the local bus back from the port to the main bus station. There was a bus leaving for Guangzhou (south, near Hong Kong) in a couple of hours and the lovely girl from the station accompanied me on a trek to four different cash machines before we found one that worked (could you imagine Greyhound doing that?!). Snapping up the last ticket (just!) I thanked her profusely and headed down the road for some grub. Found a Chinese restaurant that did ‘Western Cuisine’ (no octopus today, I’m afraid) and tucked into a smashing sizzling steak (served with a fried egg, of course) before hopping on the bus for my second overnighter in a row: it was time to head to Country 173: Vietnam.
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—?
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.
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.