Sunday, August 16, 2009

As usual this summer I’ve made my regular pilgrimage back to the UK, this time on a tour of some of England’s apparent swine flu blackspots, and as usual it left a bittersweet taste, so as expected my love-hate relationship with my home country continues. In fact when I actually left Britain to come and live out here there wasn’t much love-hate about it, it was more or less pure hate I felt for the place. Maybe it’s true when they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe I’ve just grown up a bit, whatever the case these days I can say there are a number of things about the country, aside from Stilton, that I value and miss.

On the surface my home town of Coventry has little to offer. Even if, rather surprisingly, the city centre didn’t seem to be quite as desperately ravaged by the recession as it did when I was back last Christmas, the place is still an ugly shit hole that has never really recovered from the war, when it was bombed to bits. Shopping trips to the central precinct never fail to leave me feeling depressed, whilst in the evening I never go there, largely because for years the place has had a reputation of being one of the most violent towns in Europe. Even Coventry has redeeming features though; as well as family and friends living there it has one or two more pleasant and lively residential areas outside of the centre as well as a fine park, and the approach to the town from the south must be one of the most impressive in the country, which admittedly makes the centre all the more disappointing.

As for London, it often seems that weather-wise the town simply cannot win. In the cold or rain it’s grey and miserable, in the hot weather it’s stifling and oppressive. Furthermore the noise and air pollution are appalling, the transport situation is dire, and of course everything’s extremely expensive. Still, it does have the advantage of being vibrant and highly ethnically diverse, which is something I miss living in the anaemically white Czech Republic. In addition it has what every great city should probably have: a river.

Aside from the parks, the Thames provides some of the few environments in London where it’s possible to get comparatively fresh air, and gave me a great deal of pleasure this time around. During my stay I spent a relaxing evening sitting outside my favourite London pub, the Trafalgar in Greenwich, which has a superb view over the river. It’s no doubt thoroughly unsound and hypocritical of me to admire the view of Canary Wharf, which is meant to embody all the vicious Thatcherite/Blairite values (see below) that I’m supposed to hate and granted, close up I think it’s vile, but for whatever politically incorrect reason, from across the river on a summer evening I find it all rather beautiful.

Another evening I spent at a cosy little gig on a boat just opposite the South Bank Centre, which surpassed my expectations in almost every way. One bonus was that in between sets, or during less interesting ones, it was possible to sit out on deck and enjoy the view of London at night. As for the gig itself, I’d gone along to see a couple of mates who were playing and until I got there wasn’t aware that Viv Albertine, formerly of the Slits, also had a brief set. Unfortunately through my own ignorance I missed the first half of it and only caught about four songs, and so it didn’t quite reach the heights of my TV Smith epiphany here in Olomouc a couple of years back, nevertheless it was almost overwhelmingly uplifting. Viv was on top form, displaying generous doses of panache and humour, as well as which she still looks quite phenomenally good, finishing off rather appropriately with a tune called “confessions of a milf”. Afterwards she was extremely charming when I (slightly drunkenly) introduced myself, and even … gulp … gave me a kiss on the cheek. Aaahh! That plus the atmosphere, the balmy breeze on deck etc., as well as the excitement and sheer relief of a punk heroine not disappointing all made me think … I love this country.

And in many ways I do, it’s just that I feel dejected about the course it’s on. The swine flu hysteria that was sweeping the nation was one thing that seems indicative of a malaise that seems to be engulfing Britain, i.e. media frenzy combined with the antiseptic cult of eternal life and health. This is obviously not a new thing, and I don’t want to take the lazy route and add my voice to those of common sense peddlers (i.e. cunts) like Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Littlejohn by whining about EU directives, meddling socialists yawn fucking yawn. I’m quite in favour of such laws as the smoking ban in pubs, or of more speed humps in built-up areas to prevent children getting killed by fans of Clarkson and readers of Littlejohn, neither do I long for a return to the days (which I remember bitterly) when schoolboys were forced to wear short trousers all fucking winter and take cold showers after PE lessons, but there are instances where the purported solution is either worse than the problem, or is itself the problem. This was quite obviously the case with swine flu, which reportedly in most cases is nothing more than a glorified cold and kills far less people than ordinary flu. But this didn’t stop the government liberally showering children with drugs, the effects of which were dubious in terms of actually preventing the bloody plague, but which themselves could cause nausea and vomiting. What’s wrong with catching a bit of flu, for fuck’s sake?

Another example is transport, particularly in the capital. It seems to me that Ken Livingstone made a major PR fuck-up as Mayor of London – he could so easily have gone down in history as the man who had the balls to introduce the congestion charge, which, though desperately inadequate, was obviously a good idea, but many will instead revile him for decades to come for being the man who, after promising not to, scrapped the Routemaster buses. A huge advantage of these was that when traffic was crawling at several times less than walking pace, or at a complete standstill, it was possible to simply hop off the bus at any point. No more. On sweltering hot days we now have to wait, for reasons of Health and Safety, until we get to the next stop, which given London’s present gridlock could take long enough to induce heart attacks in those of a less robust physical or nervous constitution. At times I was almost reduced to tears of frustration, impotent rage and even panic by some of my transport experiences, whether it was gasping for breath in traffic jams, all the passengers being kicked off the bus “because it was running late” or half the tube lines being closed for engineering works. If the situation has actually improved thanks to Livingstone I find it hard to imagine how bad it must have been before.

All this is old hat for anybody from the UK who’s reading this, so apologies to you, but this particular rant isn’t really meant for your eyes. The phrase “clone towns” is similarly something everyone in the UK will be familiar with, and the cloning process of totalitarian monopoly capitalism is a little more advanced and sinister every time I go back, with more elements of the national culture erased by giant corporations in collusion with corrupt or browbeaten councils, as the entire country is turned into a vacuous, squeaky-clean Blairite theme park. It’s obviously a process that’s not only happening in the UK and is already well established here also, which makes me fear and loathe it all the more, but so far its evil blandness can be felt more acutely back in Britain.

In connection with this I’ve sometimes found it ironic when some people in CZ, probably due to naivety rather than malicious intent, have asked me whether I don’t feel worried about Britain losing its identity amongst the waves of immigrants allegedly flocking to our shores. The answer to that is a categorical no, because it’s quite evidently not immigrants who are threatening our culture but rather this increasing global standardisation. Indeed it seems as if, whilst the indigenous population roll over meekly before the might of the chainstores, sometimes grumbling but still spending a large proportion of their income in them, it’s the immigrant communities with their own network of shops and businesses who are keeping Britain, or at least urban Britain alive. No doubt Tesco are already planning on getting their claws into the awkward “ethnic minority” segment of the market.

So having spent years out here idly slagging off my homeland it seems I’ve now become a Little Englander lamenting the loss of our national treasures, all with the luxury of living abroad. When all’s said and done how much do I really give a shit about any of this? After all… I GOT A KISS OFF VIV ALBERTINE!!!


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