Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Who are you calling conservative?

Back in the days when I used to teach British studies in a language school here in Spleensville CZ, which for its own protection shall remain nameless, I used to encounter a familiar scenario every September. At the beginning of the school year, when I asked the my new students to describe British people, the first word they came out with was “conservative”. There then followed a string of imagery straight out of some Janet and John type storybook. It rains all the time in Britain (actually, fair enough, they got that one right), except for at weekends, when all the family go out in their Morris Minor for a picnic, during which there invariably at some point appears a red and white checked tablecloth.

The British are very traditional. They have institutions like the Royal family, whom everyone deeply loves and respects. The men all wear bowler hats, carry umbrellas and read The Times. The women don’t have jobs, they just stay at home because they’re all really rich and haven’t heard of women’s liberation, but they don’t know how to cook. Their food is disgusting, it consists of nothing but overboiled vegetables. Everybody drinks tea at exactly 5 o’ clock, with milk of all things (at this point the Czech makes some horrified face or incredulous gesture, accompanied by the exclamation “phooey”).

The tirade which over the years had plenty of time to form in my mind goes something like this:

When are you people going to wake up? And who fed you this propaganda? Britain is the nation that in more recent years has given the world The Rolling Stones, The Who, Monty Python, Derek Jarman, The Sex Pistols, punks, skinheads, football hooliganism, Ecstasy culture, The Prodigy, Irvine Welsh… Some good, some bad, some debatable, but hardly the epitome of conservatism. And who’s slavishly followed the radical new trends we’ve set? You have, right down to punks wearing safety pins (no punk in Britain has done this since the early 1980s, but people take things so much more literally here), kids in designer-label gear pretending to be on ecstasy, and laughable slogans in bad English, such as “Punk’s not death” sprayed on the walls on the approach to Prague castle. Czech football hooligans even used to carry Union Jacks (thanks boys).

some Greek bloke

The Royal family – never far from controversy these days – ask any British monarchist why we should keep them and the first reason you’ll get is that they bring in money from tourism. In other words, their main function is as some kind of pantomime we put on – for your benefit. The Times? Makes what, approximately 2% of national newspaper sales? Cuisine? People who actually live in Britain are probably sick of hearing that chicken tikka massala is now apparently the British national dish.

Rant over, and trying to keep some sense of perspective, I suspect Karel Čapek’s writings on English life are partly to blame for the preposterously stereotyped image many Czechs still cling to. In these writings Čapek was doubtless prone to romantic whimsy, but in his defence he was writing in the 1930s, when Britain was quite a different place. But the Czechs are pretty tenacious in their beliefs and also for the most part quite an Anglophile bunch, and over the years I’ve had to disappoint quite a few of them. This includes not only those rod-up-the-arse types who swoon in awe of our mythical stiff upper lips, fox-mutilating aristocracy and militaristic sexual repression, but also those equally starry-eyed souls who have fallen for the Great British counter-culture.

Who the fuck are they? Foreskins, apparently

As a British ex-pat in a fairly small town, who happens to be partial to a bit of underground rock, I suppose it’s almost inevitable that I’ve on occasion become the object of the curiosity of some of the local punks and skinheads here. This is something I can’t deny has now and then provided me with some amusement and helped introduce me to some very pleasant and interesting people, with the added bonus of appealing to my vanity… “ah, yes, the Specials, fine fellows, used to live just up the road from me, I remember them coming round one fine Sunday afternoon for cucumber sandwiches and playing an impromptu gig on my front lawn when I was but a budding young rude boy of 8 years old”, recalled the grand old man of the ska scene, transporting his enraptured teenage audience into another world… On the other hand, I have been forced to burst many a bubble. Fun though it was to behold the expressions of stunned admiration that followed my pronouncement that I once witnessed Johnny Thunders (OK, not British, but he at least toured Britain, unlike former Czechoslovakia) play live, I would have felt a fraud had I not followed it up with the fact that it was one of the worst gigs I’ve ever attended, the rock n roll legend clearly smacked out of his mind and at death’s door.

A wanker

Punks and skins (not including the Nazi variety, whose numbers have thankfully dwindled to a meagre fraction of what they were when I first arrived in CZ) here are united by love of Oi! Not my favourite musical genre I admit, although I dig the odd tune. The fact is though, that these young Czechs are far more informed about British Oi! bands than I have ever been or wish to be. I say informed, but with the reservation that they seem to be labouring under the illusion that Oi! had some kind of cultural impact in Britain beyond providing a launch pad for Garry Bushell’s career in bigotry. I can only presume that these poor kids have been the victims of disinformation, indirectly filtered/inflated via various media, from the Bushell himself, with the result that they naively believe that Oi! was the great prole art threat, with Bushell, naturally, as its heroic staunch defender/mentor. I suspect my own pedestal shattered the moment I told some of the local skins that the average British person of my age group, not to mention theirs, has never heard of the 4 Skins, Last Resort, Infa Riot etc., and that the vast majority of British working class youth back in 1981 were far more interested in growing floppy fringes, putting on make up and dancing to bands with names like Spandau Ballet. No wonder the Business wanted to “Smash the Discos”.

Nevertheless, mine is a lone voice and no match for the Czechs’ iron will to cling to their romanticised image of what Britain is really about. New Brit-style retro bands of various persuasions are springing up every week, whilst on the other side of the Anglophile cultural divide there is even a monarchist movement here, silly uniforms and all. Which in my mind begs the question, who’s the conservative?


Post a Comment

<< Home