Posts Tagged With: England

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands…

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen t-shirts...is it?

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen t-shirts…is it?

In Brazil I’m known as a ‘Brit’, but I don’t know what the term means. I have a British passport, and yet I’m as English as a wet Sunday in Wakefield. If I was Welsh, Irish or Scottish, there is no way I would refer to myself as ‘British’. I would be proud of my nationality and make sure everybody knew I was not to be lumped together with the dreaded English! But, like it or not, I am not from any of those other, satellite countries, I am from England’s green and pleasant land.

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

So, if I defiantly refer to myself as English, what do I mean by that? What is special about me? How is an English person identifiable? At the risk of unearthing a Pandora’s Box of stereotypes, I would like to suggest that the English do have certain characteristics that set them apart. This week I gave a talk about ‘Englishness’ to a group of Brazilian undergraduates, so I had to make an effort to find something tangible about the English that I could explain to them.

So, here is a list of characteristics and quirks I jotted down on the back of a buff envelope on the bus last Tuesday:

'What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word - musn't let my servants see this'

‘What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word – mustn’t let Aunt Dolly see this’

Sense of Humour: anathema to the English sensibility are people who take themselves seriously. That’s because we have an acutely-developed sense of irony and human folly. Showing off is sneered at mercilessly: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Self-deprecation is the English charm. That and satire, parody and general mischief-making. You should never be able to tell when an Englishman is being serious.

Writing: this is where irony pervades, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to newspaper columnists and song lyrics. Through irony, the English reader, sitting on the Clapham omnibus, is able to smile at the intended victim and at herself. Irony is the distance we need from other people and their ridiculous behaviour; but it also mirrors our own pretentions and weaknesses.

Politics, the church, what they teach you at school...it's all bull, says John

English institutions are a joke, says John

Music: ‘quiet desperation is the English way’ sang Pink Floyd (nicked from Thoreau, I’ll have you know), but my touchstone for English rock is John Lennon’s A Day in the Life, a gloriously random, satirical swipe at English institutions which could have been spoken by a Shakespearean fool. Why are the English good at pop and rock? Because the good ones see through the bull. Take another look at the anarchic God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. A fascist regime?

Acting: former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Peter Hall, famously quipped that the English were a nation of philistines who happened to be good at the arts. Mention the words ‘theatre’ or ‘opera’ down the pub and seconds later you will be nursing your pint alone and red-faced. But the English are born actors because they need masks to hide behind. England is a stage and everybody is having you on – that way the messy, emotional baggage can stay safely in the locker.

Get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

How to get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

Sport: forget football and rugby, the true English sport is cricket. All those school beatings and repressed sexuality come surging out on the village green where sado-masochism rules: the bowler wants to maim the batsman, and the batsman has to be deranged to face a 100 mile-an-hour missile whooshing towards his unmentionables. Besides, only the English could devise a game that lasts until the middle of next week.

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Hobbies: of course the English have hobbies – what else are we going to do cooped up in the house for 9 months? Train set builders, matchstick guitar makers, beer brewers, you name it. Most of us collect and hoard stuff to pore over through those long dark nights, filling little libraries with jumble-sale LPs and Narnia books.

DIY: an Englishman is a chimpanzee with a screwdriver. Pay somebody to fix my dripping tap? – you must be joking! Rewiring, plumbing, laying floors – us blokes are too proud to let you think we can’t sort it ourselves. The result? Most English ‘homes’ are jerry-built death traps.

Politics: conservative with a small ‘c’ it’s true, though the English despise authority and have a rebellious spirit: inside every timid gill-sipper is an angry young man barking to get out. Oddly, the most popular institution in England is a pure socialist invention: the NHS.

'Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles' (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

‘Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles’ (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

Religion: the Anglican church, with all those robes and closet Catholics, is for wusses – the true English religion has always been hard-nosed nonconformism. With their wilful work-ethic, tasteless food, matronly black looks and a horror of the human body, the Puritans have spread guilt and shame far and wide in the ‘Sceptred Isle’. Many were those poor creatures who topped themselves rather than face the vicar’s wrath once their grubby copy of Fanny Hill had been discovered under the mattress.

This is where the list runs out, folks, though I cannot end this portrait without mentioning the secret that dare not speak its name: the English are obsessively tight-fisted and can spot a ‘rip-off’ a mile away. When an English person walks into a supermarket they make a beeline for the ‘Special Offers‘, even if it means eating a dinner of mini pork pies mixed with chicken korma and week-old sherry trifle.

Bearing all this in mind, you can surely forgive me for not being patriotic. But when the Three Lions sing the national anthem on the football field the hairs on the back of my neck refuse to stay down. The strangest thing is I always feel proud to see 3 or 4 black players in the England team. Why?

Being English doesn't mean being white

Being English doesn’t mean being white

I think it must be that I want the world to recognise that England has always been a country of invasion and immigration, from the Jutes and Guilherme the Conqueror to the Windrush Caribbeans and the parents of Amir Khan. England was never a land of quaint villages and polite white nobodies; all such images are, by definition, imaginary. In my experience, most English people have a dynamic, but healthy, love/hate relationship with the place. The London-based Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote a poem called Inglan is a Bitch. I think I know what he means.

 

 

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Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Football, Music, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The cheese is always greener on the dark side of the moon

I love you hate you love you hate you...having fun in Brazil

I love you hate you love you hate you…Brazil is irresistibly infuriating

It’s easy to love Brazil. The sun floods the house in the morning, filling the spaces with light and lightening the mood of the people. As mid-day approaches, gaggles of work-colleagues appear on the streets, chattering and chortling as they amble towards the nearest buffet-lunch bar. In the late afternoon, people sit in the park with their tea bowls, sucking the green liquid and gazing into the future. When the light fades, the crickets come out to sing, filling the tropical night air with an elusive mystique.

I see a message...if only those beans could speak to me!

I see a message…if only those beans could speak to me!

Some of my colleagues cannot believe I am thinking of heading back to the miserable grey skies of England, to the land of yob-culture, school bullies, boarded-up pubs, shops that shut at 5, small-minded conservative people and baked beans with everything. To a country where camping trips are ruined by the rain, where your body never throws off its clobber, where coffee is instant bilge, where town centres have been made anonymous by ugly shopping centres, where traffic wardens are repressed psychopaths and where a cheese and onion sandwich is the highlight of your day.

After all, living abroad makes you feel like a hero: what a remarkable feat you have managed, making your way in a foreign land and communicating in a foreign tongue, launched out of your cosy comfort zone like a jack-in-a-box! Surviving and prospering abroad is the sign of an intrepid adventurer, an infinitely resourceful globe-trotter, a multi-cultural maverick. When ex-pats in Brazil sit outside a trendy bar quaffing glasses of freezing beer and eyeing the talent they wish their cowardly mates back home could see them now! ‘This is the life’, they say.

Oh dear...the boom years have busted

As socialists, we promise to help…erm, ourselves?

But Brazil has hit the buffers with a dull, ominous thud. The Worker’s Party, who claim to be ‘socialists’ and have been in charge for more than a decade, have been exposed as one of the most corrupt governments in the country’s history. With mafia-like villainy, they have made Al Capone look like Homer Simpson. In the latest scandal, billions of dollars were siphoned out of Brazil’s huge state oil company, Petrobras. Now the country is financially broke and morally and spiritually broken. The local currency is up and down like Tower Bridge and the future looks, well, not exactly pear-shaped – more banana republic. Being here sometimes feels like living in the middle of an abandoned building site.

The middle classes have been revolting, huge swathes of them taking to the streets to call for the impeachment of President Dilma. They say they want a new Brazil, though I doubt many of them would be prepared to give up their servants – armies of the poor who daily spend hours in cramped buses on the way to clean house, cook and look after rich kids for a pittance. In many ways Brazil has never overcome the master-slave mentality that began when the Portuguese monarchy arrived here 500 years ago. Success, for a Brazilian, is not having to do the dirty work. Today, the professional classes may be working hard in their corporate suites, but they don’t lift a finger when they come home. The surest way to go bankrupt in Brazil is to open a DIY store.

Brazil versus England...the story of my wife (I mean LIFE!)

Brazil versus England…the story of my wife             (I mean my LIFE!)

This potent mixture of political corruption, middle-class hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor is making Brazil much less easy to love. If anything, the recent displays of public anger are symptomatic of a country riddled with self-hatred. It’s very difficult today to find a Brazilian with much love for their homeland; most have become profoundly cynical. The tragedy is that, during the recent ‘boom’ years, Brazil did little to invest in public services: schools, hospitals and transportation are woefully underfunded. In this respect, Brazil has failed to throw off its ‘third world’ stigma. The irony is that, for a third world country, the current cost of living is astronomical. In short, nothing seems to make sense in present-day Brazil.

But perhaps the single most shocking thing about life here, is the blatant lack of policing and crime control. If the English police force is considered ‘professional’, then the Brazilian equivalent is a bunch of amateur clowns, so badly paid (and drawn from the uneducated poor) that they can’t resist colluding with the criminal gangs they are supposed to be catching. Many days go by here in Porto Alegre where I don’t see a single police officer. And this in a country where crime is rife and victims are shot dead if they react. One of my friends admitted recently she is just waiting for the day when a gun is put to her head and she hands over the keys of her car. If she accidentally screams, she might not live to tell the tale. When my son announced, with only a trace of irony, that if he had to stay living in Brazil he would buy a gun, something clicked in my head. That can’t be right.

Ben's Record Shop in Guildford...a haven for vinyl junkies

Ben’s Record Shop in Guildford…I miss it like I miss being 12

And yet, despite all this angst, my reasons for being lured back to Blighty are mostly mundane. You see, I miss a lot of daft stuff – ebay, for example. The second-hand Johnny that I am has been starved to the bone. I dream of charity shops, used book and record shops, jumble sales, flea markets. I ache to buy a decent second-hand motor at a reasonable price (impossible in Brazil). I miss supermarkets with their half-price offers and vast range of imported foods. I fantasize about Wetherspoons pubs – in fact, any pub. I long to see clean water in the rivers, hear the smack of leather on willow and enjoy the light of those long summer nights.

Plonk me in Wetherspoons with a pile of newspapers and I'm 'appy

Plonk me in Wetherspoons with a pile of newspapers and I’m as right as rain

There is nothing like a jumble sale to make you feel patriotic

There is nothing quite like a jumble sale to make you feel patriotic

Of course, there are a few serious reasons, too. Like free healthcare, for example – here in Brazil, like the USA, if you don’t have costly health insurance you take your place at the back of the queue and risk being forgotten. And being a rich country, there is at least some spending on public services in England and a modicum of respect for the environment. And, though I never thought I would ever say this, I want to live in a place with at least the odd copper knocking about; a place where criminals pay for their crimes if they are caught, which rarely seems to happen here. When I first heard gunshots in the middle of the night, I felt proud of myself for braving life in lawless, ‘wild west’ Brazil. But now I’m too old for Cowboys and Indians.

If I do set sail and leave these distant shores, it will not be without sadness, but with a heavy heart. If I do feel the odd twinge of hate for Brazil just now, it’s only because deep down I love it. Just play me a Djavan song and I’ll be in tears in no time. What makes Brazil warm is not the tropical climate, but the big-hearted Brazilians with their zest for life, despite all the struggle and strife.

The view from my ideal apartment, without binoculars

The view from my ideal apartment…yeah, right!

In fact, if I had a sea-view flat in Copacabana, with armed guards on the door and a shotgun under the mattress, a constant supply of untaxed imported goods, a few dodgy friends, an English pub round the corner and a pair of binoculars I would probably stick around. But somehow I think that’s unlikely.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

For once I am lost for words…

Looking older, certainly, but any wiser? Hmm...

Yours truly…looking older, certainly, but any wiser? Hmm…

One of my favourite song titles is, I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me. I love the sentiment of the writer, who doesn’t think himself worthy enough to be on the receiving end of such adoration. He is a humble chap – just can’t believe his luck. “That this beautiful creature should choose silly ME to love is just amazing!”, he says to himself.

Well dear followers, that feeling is not a million miles away from how I feel about you. Yes, YOU, dear readers! You see I have just discovered that I now have 100 followers. How wonderful – that 100 people could be interested in the things I write!

I suppose many bloggers have thousands of followers, but I don’t care about that. I am very proud of my very own 100. Thank you for reading. You all inspire me and make me want to write better things.

CHEERS!

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Oh, to be in England…

England's green and pleasant land...

England’s green and pleasant land…

When you live abroad the past keeps coming back to haunt you. The old country – the place where you were born and grew up – is brushed with a sentimental tint. Sometimes you miss home so badly it hurts. When I lived in Brazil in the 1990s, I was so desperate to go back to England that I made a list of things I felt I couldn’t live without. Now I’m back living in Brazil, I wonder if they have the same magnetic pull they once had? Let me see…

"Two pints of your best bitter, please!"

“Two pints of your best bitter, please!”

Pubs: there is nothing quite like an English pub – that dark, bitter ale served by a freckled gawky barmaid, the quaint atmosphere, the smell of vinegar, the bonhomie, the English language being shouted and mumbled and, up in the corner, cricket on the telly.

Libraries: those quiet, cosy caves filled to the ceiling with books begging to be taken out for free, the shy grey assistants with their dowdy clothes and packed lunches, the sofa by the window where you can plonk down and drift into a delicious snooze.

Fish and Chips: the haddock, the cod, the batter, the salt and vinegar, the sticky-sweet mushy peas, the hot glass counter…But hang on, it’s not just fish and chips I miss, it’s British bangers and English cheeses, lamb chops, marmite, mint sauce and poppadoms…the list is endless.

Grub made in heaven: fish 'n' chips and mushy peas

Grub made in heaven: fish ‘n’ chips and mushy peas

Newspapers: English newspapers are utterly compelling and irresistible. Thoughtful journalism with a good measure of English irony is the perfect fodder for those like me who want to be enlightened but don’t always have time for a weighty tome. It would be so easy to waste one’s life trawling through them every day while London burns – or while the landlord tries to break the door down in a fruitless search for all that back rent you owe him.

Charity shops: Those Pandora’s boxes of broken toys, grubby clothes, thrice-read paperbacks and Phil Collins records litter the high streets of every town; the wealthier the area, the better quality of junk you find within. It would be no exaggeration to say that my cultural identity was formed by the dog-eared LPs and discarded books I discovered at Oxfam and Cancer Research.

You do come across some funny things in charity shops...

“Now that is a big one! I don’t think it’ll fit through my back door”.

Yes it hurts to remember all these things and makes me want to pack up and go home. But surely there must be a few things I don’t miss. Erm, well, yes…

The weather: Oh dear, what a shower! The weather in England is, well, diabolical mostly. As I write, the UK is enjoying a steaming heatwave, but it won’t last; come late September, the old grey army blanket will descend once again to cover the country for another eight months. Nice.

Angry young men prowl the streets of England looking for a hapless victim

Angry young men prowl the streets of England looking for a hapless victim

Yob culture: England suffers from an acute disease called anti-intellectualism. It begins in school where anyone who actually studies is instantly labelled a “swot” and bullied mercilessly. This “proud to be thick” attitude permeates the whole of society, but is most pernicious in the underclass, where young vandals form gangs with the sole purpose of kicking senseless anyone who crosses their path. Delightful.

Town centres: the town centres of England have had all their character bulldozed away to be replaced by soulless shopping centres and baffling traffic systems. It’s as if they have been specially designed by, and for, morons. Lovely.

Just another town centre in 'Greyland'

Just another town centre in ‘Greyland’

You see, England isn’t London. England is Swindon and Scunthorpe: dull and decaying provincial towns where the pubs are boarded up and the people walk around like zombies with cheese-and-onion breath. The British have become cultureless and cynical after years of cheap consumerism. Forget Shakespeare – think Coronation Street.

My adopted home – Porto Alegre – is no paradise, mind you. But I have my compensations. Sometimes I have to remind myself what they are. Let me see…

The people: Brazilians are easy to get to know. It’s a cliché, but the people here are warm and friendly and everything is done with a smile. Unless you get mugged, of course.

Sunshine: When the sun shines the smiles widen and everything seems more bearable. Humans were never meant to live in cold climates. In England bodies are funny white things that stay covered up until it gets dark and you are under a blanket. In Brazil they are bronzed sensuous things that strut about in the open without anyone giggling.

The sun is always shining in Brazil...well, nearly always

The sun is always shining in Brazil…well, nearly always

Respect: As an Englishman I am treated like royalty, a superior being, a prince among the hoi polloi. And in Brazil, learning is respected – everyone seems to be doing a course or studying for a qualification.

Buzz: At 5.30 on a wet Tuesday when the shops close England is as lifeless as a tramp’s vest. On Sundays the gloom stays all day. In Brazil when you go out and about you feel a buzz. It’s partly the sunshine and the happy disposition of the people. Brazilians are noisy and demonstrative and don’t want to go to bed, so everything stays open.

And yet, no matter how much my heart beats for Brazil, my soul lies somewhere at the bottom of a quarry in Yorkshire. So, should I stay in Brazil or boomerang back to England? If I was a millionaire I would split my time between the two, but for now I will have to remain a split personality.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Oh my world, where am I?

Suddenly it hits me; comes down on me like a ton of bricks. I’ve woken up in a foreign land. I can’t hear England outside. The sounds are strange, the light is brighter, the air is warmer. Then I remember the truth – England, my old life, everyone I used to know, is a million miles away. This is Brazil and I’m stuck here. I live here. I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien – I’m an Englishman in Porto Alegre.

As I face another day, I reflect on the things I miss. Pubs with real ale in them, charity shops, Radio 4, endless cups of tea, sausages, libraries, newspapers, gardens, record shops, the English sense of humour, Bradford City FC. When you add it all together, it hurts sometimes.

Then I consider my good fortune. Sunshine, Portuguese, papaya for breakfast, mango for lunch, sitting outside bars with a freezing glass of beer, ex-pat parties, daft soap operas on the telly, mental football fans jumping up and down, kissing women on the cheeks, being respected as a teacher, no mortgage, no tax, no yobs.

It’s a delicate balance and the scales can tip to one side or the other. Unless, of course, it’s a sunny day.

Categories: Brazil | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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