Sunday, August 26, 2007

The travelog continues…

Yeah, I’ve been a lazy fucker this summer right enough, doing very little work and spending most of my time (and recently an inordinate amount of money) travelling. This time back to my homeland, which feels somewhat less exotic and less like a holiday, although considerably more draining on the wallet. This is actually one thing that still strikes me after twelve years away, quite painfully for someone on Czech wages – Britain is a fucking ripoff. Of course I have to discount a number of factors, naturally wages are higher in the UK, living standards are in some, maybe rather superficial sense, higher, which means that in relative terms many things are in fact cheaper than over here – particularly consumer goods such as TVs, cars (neither of which I own), technological goods as well as toiletries etc., I could go on. Nevertheless, though I am able to prepare and budget for my twice-yearly UK extravaganzas, I am usually left with a resentful feeling that I’ve been robbed.

One of the most obvious examples is public transport, the price of which is way out of proportion, taking into account wages, with the prices I pay out here. Another is accommodation. The same goes for most entertainment, food and drink (in social settings such as pubs or restaurants, rather than from some cheap but mind-bogglingly evil hypermarket). Which means that when it comes to the essentials of life, or at least any kind of socially integrated life, many people living in Britain still get shafted. A consequence of this is that Britain, even if not solely for this reason, seems a more culturally divided and less happy society. Here in CZ, even for the worse off, going to the pub is not usually something to get people counting their cash. Likewise a trip to the theatre, or on the other side of the high/mass culture divide, a game of football. Granted, there are no superstars, with almost all of the Czech internationals playing abroad, but thanks to this fact, at approximately £1.50 a ticket it can at least still be said to be the “people’s game”, and whilst I acknowledge that Britain is overall a hugely wealthy (and also appallingly wasteful) country, where many ordinary people can and do pay through the nose for such occasions, there are large ranks of those who are socially excluded. Am I going to risk controversy here… ah yes of course I am, it is in all probability largely thanks to the foundations that communism laid in place that this country not only has comparatively excellent, affordable public transport, but also remains more culturally democratic, accessible to all. Unlike the UK, there are no housing estates here where one look at them would be enough to tell you it’s unlikely anyone growing up there will ever get the opportunity to go to university, no attacks of locals on students, no huge, economically generated lifestyle chasms in the population extending to such areas as diet - if such differences do exist the causes are generally more generational than economic. There is barely even such thing as a “class” accent, only regional ones. Not yet, anyway, although sharp differences in wealth have clearly opened up since the revolution, in addition to which the EU is banging at the door, demanding various austerity measures to “improve” our standard of living, so it’s probably only a matter of time.


On the positive side, despite not wanting to live there, there are many things I still love about the UK, and one area that impressed me this time round, and for which it can genuinely be said to be “more advanced” than the Czech Republic is the new ban on smoking in pubs. I can only pray that this surely now unstoppable tide reaches here soon, with or without the help of the EU, at least partly so I don’t have to get into arguments about whether it should be banned almost every time I go down the bloody pub. I don’t want to go into all the reasons why I am so hugely in favour of this ban – to me they seem embarrassingly obvious, although the amount of people who fail, due to whatever ulterior motive, to understand them continues to astound me – but surely one simple reason, which neatly circumvents the knee-jerk right-wing libertarian response of “I suppose you’re going to try and ban (insert ridiculous idea) next” is that unlike bungling, doomed attempts at prohibition, this law is so damn easy to implement. Look! (Smell!) It works!


Anyway, while I was back I managed to spend some of my time and money on a stag weekend. I had to admit I was curious and a little apprehensive beforehand – despite knowing most of those in attendance fairly well, under the circumstances, i.e. in a party of approximately 25 mostly thirtysomething males, there were fears that it might degenerate into boorishness, since I was well aware that plenty of alcohol would be consumed. On the other hand a part of me was looking forward to it immensely, and after all why should I turn my nose up at such supposedly lowbrow events? Can I really only allow myself to enjoy these things by assuming a detached, amused, “ironic” posture? Luckily the jocular optimist in me kept the snooty sociology graduate in check and I felt thoroughly rewarded for getting stuck in. I don’t want to come on like an advocate of Loaded culture, but slightly juvenile, macho or populist activities like quad biking, deep sea fishing, karaoke and even mildly competitive drinking can, in the right crowd, be a lot of fun. After all, male bonding is a far more multi-layered, sophisticated thing than many people realise, man. Yeah, I think it’s about time I started reading some Mailer again.

Imagine this bloke as a goth

In fact I should probably do so whilst I’m still at least relatively fit and not too far past my prime. A trip back to my homeland is inevitably always a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, naturally the reason I go back is almost entirely to see family and friends, many of them from way back, and somehow this time round the general atmosphere of nostalgia led me more than usual to contemplate my own ageing and mortality. Perhaps one of these reasons was that my dad, being an intensely rational sort of fellow, had my brother and me sign an enduring power of attorney with regard to his and my mother’s affairs – essentially planning for their senility, thus reminding me that he can barely be considered middle aged any more and is now entering old age, which in turn means that I myself can no longer be considered young but am entering middle age. Another was finding some photographs from university days in my parents’ house, feeling a slight tinge of dismay at how much younger and frankly better looking we all were in comparison with all the greyness (mostly my own), baldness and beer guts which present themselves at these reunions. One old friend (whose name I shall protect, despite the fact that he’s described me as a “bonsai silverback” on his blog!), having lost the flowing goth locks of his youth and grown an unkempt beard, has even ended up looking like an absurdly stretched version of “Bullet” Baxter, the PE teacher from Grange Hill. Ah well, lucky him I suppose, I can only presume that he doesn’t suffer the same vanity-induced life crises as I do.

Right, I’m off out to buy some Just for Men and then to the park to work on me tan. That’s another good thing about this place, unlike my parents back in Coventry I don’t have to turn the bloody central heating on in August. Home sweet home.


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