20 March 2006

Sitting Here In My Not So European Home

Yes, I am back in England, where it is unpleasantly cold and an incessant wind blows in off the North Sea to buttress that sensation. But it's not so bad; at least most buildings nowadays have central heating, quite a change from when I first came here in the 1970s and most people I knew lived in neo-Dickensian squalor, wearing multiple layers of clothing and huddling around the tea kettle and/or a three-bar fire for warmth and perpetually cadging coins for the electricity meter to keep even that meagre level of comfort alive.

Of course that was when Notting Hill was full of squats and abandoned buildings; those buildings that survived the council's wrecking ball are now mostly worth a million pounds or more, and from the looks of the Jaguars, Range Rovers, BMWs and Mercs parked out front, probably offer a considerably greater degree of comfort these days than when they were being squatted by hippies and drug dealers. Actually, some of those hippies and drug dealers who hung on to their squats persistently enough are now millionaire property owners, thanks to various quirks in British property law, and judging from the abundance of illegal drugs in these parts, may have hung on to their old professions as well.

I don't want to get started on another anti-drug polemic, and not just because people could call me for hypocrisy based on my own drug history. But I am sick of stoned idiots running around the streets and making social policy and (probably) running whole Government ministries and police departments. You think I jest; check out Commander Cannabis, aka Brian Paddick, the gay pothead cop who turned Brixton into a laboratory for his cracked theory that allowing young black men to freely sell drugs on the street would distract or dissuade them from committing more serious crimes like street robberies and assaults.

Result: Brixton now is awash in both drug dealing AND street robberies and assaults, and Paddick, after getting caught up in various dodgy bits like allowing his boyfriend to keep his dope stash at the Commander's pad, was punished by being promoted to a more responsible position, where he now keeps track of and investigates the behaviour of other commanders. He's a New Labour darling, and as a certified (or certifiable, depending who you ask) minority who also happens to be articulate and good-looking, he's just about invulnerable, even if the Conservatives win the next election, which is looking increasingly likely, because David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has embarked on a more-New-Labour-than-New-Labour electoral strategy. Very touchy-feely, full of empathetic crocodile tears for the allegedly underprivileged, and just as bent on substituting phony symbolism for substantial policies as Tony Blair ever was.

Having said that, I do exempt Blair from criticism for precisely what he's taken the most stick for: his support for US policy in the war against Islamo-fascism. That's not to say I wholly agree with the way that war has been conducted, but that Blair, who has risked his career, reputation and place in history to pursue a course which was directly counter to the wishes of a majority of the British public but which he personally seemed to believe was the right thing to do. For someone who seems to have lived the rest of his political life in slavish response to opinion polls, that's fairly remarkable. What they used to call statesmanship, in fact, when it's successful, and bloody-mindedness when it's not.

Anyway, nine years into the New Labour project and things are looking decidely creaky. Billions were poured into the National Health Service in an attempt to rescue it from incipient third world status; it's improved somewhat, but is now going broke and being required to make swingeing cutbacks that will probably leave it right back where the Tories had it in 1996. Violent crime is up a whopping 1,000 per cent since the 80s, and rapists and murderers are still being let loose after minimal sentences on the theory that returning them to "the community" will somehow be more effective than keeping them locked up. The theory behind this is that decent, law-abiding citizens will somehow exert a good influence on rapists, robbers and murderers, thus inspiring them to stop behaving so badly; this is also the theory behind comprehensive education, wherein anti-social, mentally disabled, or just plain slow students are dumped into classes with the bright, functional and well-behaved kids on the premise that the latter will uplift the former. The result is that no one learns anything, teachers have to pay more attention to defending themselves than teaching, and the whole mess is covered up by government tweaking of exam standards so that practically anyone who shows up gets a top mark. To hear the government tell it, British kids today are the smartest in history, which does cause one to wonder why so few of them can read, write, or operate a cash register that hasn't replaced numbers with pictures.

Oof. Didn't realise that I was going to get on such a rant, and actually, apart from the weather, I'm rather pleased to be home. People are still smoking in restaurants and bars, the insensate cows, but a law has finally been passed banning it starting in mid-2007, which is a long time for me to refrain from accosting people in public places and shouting, "Way to stink up the joint, you Neanderthal clown" whenever someone near me lights up. But I saw my first daffodils today - only a handful; this cold weather has delayed spring by several weeks - and sooner or later it will be warm again. Well, mild, anyway; some years it never gets warm. We're also having a "drought," something which the privatised water companies periodically go mental about because building adequate reservoirs or fixing leaking pipes would cut into their profits. Most British homes don't even have water meters, meaning that people who waste exorbitant amounts of water will still pay the same water bill as their neighbour who scrupulously conserves.

If it doesn't rain soon, they say, we might have our water shut off and have to collect buckets of it from standpipes in the street, much as they do in Africa and other parts of the third world. If past experience serves as an example, we'll be out there hauling water in the midst of a downpour which, the Met Office will assure us, hasn't broken the drought because it's "the wrong kind of rain."

Oh, and why is this my "not so European home?" Well, because no matter how feverishly Europeans and British Europhiles try to convince us that we're part of Europe, even "at the heart of Europe," it just never seems to work. I was reminded of this earlier today during a discussion with the ever-fervid Nilz Nonchalant on the Stardumb Message Board about the French riots, where the grandchildren of the soixante-huitards are rioting in the streets against the prospect of being fired from jobs they don't have and which in fact don't even exist.

Kevin Aper butted in to say, "Just what we need, Germans (Nilz) and British people (me, apparently) discussing the problems in France." Nilz responded that we were in fact talking about Europe, and my instant reaction (at least in my mind) was, "Oh no we're not, we're talking about those nutty French people." The subtext being that Europe is still "over there," and only marginally, if at all, related to Britain. I don't think this is a minority or solipsistic opinion, either; in fact, my growing scorn for Europe in general and the French in particular is one of the surest signs that I am gradually, inexorably becoming Anglicised. I think in another year I may even be sufficiently acclimated to tackle irony, class consciousness, and obsequious politeness deployed in the service of being utterly vile to people who've mistakenly come to think I'm their friend. Britannia rules, ok?

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