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Olympic Pride

Like many around the world, I have been taking in the Olympics in recent days. There is an added interest for us expats this time around, with London as the host city. I have to confess to a swelling of pride as I took in the opening ceremony – a swelling that worked its way right up to my throat and was so uncomfortable that it brought a tear to my eye.

A Britain I know was presented in an excellent opening ceremony.
Photography by Matt Lancashire, via Wikipedia.org

The first Olympics I can remember watching is Los Angeles 1984, and every two years since I’ve tuned in to the opening ceremony (I also make sure to take in the winter version). I have always enjoyed the grandeur and pomposity of the show and the parade of nations. But I can’t really recall any of those ceremonies. Opening ceremonies don’t stick in your mind like Daley Thompson pole vaulting, or Linford Christie winning the 100 metres, or Sir Steve Redgrave taking Gold again.

I think this one will stay with me though. The reason is that the narrative was recognizable. It conjured images and sounds of British history and culture that I am very familiar with. From working men in an industrial setting to the comedy of Mr. Bean. From the Eastenders theme tune to the Arctic Monkeys and Hey Jude. James Bond, the NHS, Chelsea Pensioners, Shakespeare, Chariots of Fire, Cricket and Her Majesty herself. I thought the World Wide Web was an American thing, but no, that was born in Britain too.

Yes, watching the opening ceremony gave a real sense of pride. It will live with me for a long time.  Good job Danny Boyle.

The BBC has a pretty good photo gallery of the opening ceremony, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-19020830

My Take On The England Riots

150-year-old furniture store on fire in London. Photo source: BBC News (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-14526432)

The rioting in England was appalling.

I watched the video of the young man, who had had his jaw broken, being pulled from the ground by helpful youths – only to calmly unzip his backpack and help themselves to the contents. I saw the furniture shop that had stood through two World Wars burn to the ground. And I heard the young people who spoke about looting as if it was a game – no thought given to the consequences of their actions. Although deeply disturbing, it was compelling viewing and listening.

As if people losing their homes, their possessions, their memories and their livelihoods were not enough, people – innocent people – died. Tragic. And unnecessary. A French colleague shook my hand, looked at me in empathy, and said “sorry for what’s happening in England”. I felt deeply ashamed.

What was almost as distasteful was the media pulling all sorts of ‘experts’ out of the wilderness to tell us why it had happened. One psychologist on Canadian radio seemed to suggest that the riots were the result of the excess of one parent families without father figures. Other, more direct reasoning included anger over government cuts, police incompetence, the shooting of a teenager by authorities, the economy, etc. etc.

The fact is, it was a few bad apples leading an army of brain-dead and easily manipulated kids into committing awful crime. It has nothing to do with any of the above. Neither does it have anything to do with these kids being poor – they were running around in Adidas hoodies and Nike shoes while texting on iPhones and Blackberry’s. The poor youth of England have never been so wealthy.

I was once a disaffected youth myself. Many of the family and friends I grew up with too. My parents (one a part-time domestic help… that’s a cleaner to you and me, and one on disability after working for over 40 years in a manual job) could not afford to buy me designer labels. I never went abroad; in fact we rarely took a vacation. When we did, it was bed and breakfast in Blackpool for a few days. Neither I, nor any of the friends that surrounded me ever left our council houses to embark upon a riotous frenzy that would terrorize our neighbours and local hard working people. Number of windows broken, zero; number of shops looted, zero; number of buildings burned down, zero; number of people killed, zero. Instead I grew my hair into a god-awful mess, and wore ripped jeans – my rebellion.

I don’t say this to take the ‘holier than thou’ high ground, or to paint the nostalgic picture of a better past. In fact, I grew up in an era of football violence. That had as much to do with football as these latest riots had to do with poverty, politics, the economy, a shooting, or any of the other excuses offered… including the abundance of one parent families. These were mindless kids being led by thugs for their own entertainment and gain.

I now hear that some in the UK are saying that the sentences handed down to these thugs are too harsh. Nonesense. The amount of damage these imbeciles have caused to property, to people, to the country and it’s perception abroad, will affect for years to come. Throw the book at them. And, if they’re under 16, throw the book at their parents too. (I can imagine that if I had ever been involved in criminality of this kind as a young man, the only thought that would have scared me more than prison would have been my mom finding out).

In stark contrast I read that virtually no-one has been charged two months after the Vancouver riots. I’ll take the British approach to dealing with rioters, please.

A Gruesome Kid’s Song

Alouette. I sung it as a child. I’m sure you did too. It’s a familiar and catchy little tune; Alouette, gentille Alouette… All these years though, and I’ve never actually known what I’ve been singing about. In fact, I confess, I always thought it was Alouette, jonty Alouette. I had no clue what ‘jonty’ meant. But then I didn’t know what an Alouette was either.

Then, many years later, I found myself on an intensive French language course. I really disliked that course. 6 months of studying a language I find so difficult – it would have helped to have supportive teachers, instead of ones that made you feel 3 inches tall when you couldn’t remember a verb. As testimony to the quality of the course, I offer the fact that, despite progressing to – and passing – level 3 (which they term ‘intermediate’), I still didn’t know how to say “sorry, I can’t speak French”, in French! I digress. Back to the Alouette song…

As part of this course, we sung. Yes, I felt a little embarrassed, but a least I was in the corner at the back, so I could sing quietly and not be noticed. One of these songs, of course, was Alouette. We attacked it with gusto. A song that we could all handle. The words were there on the song sheet, so we read, we sung. We didn’t understand.

After a few renditions, it was time to actually discover what the words meant.

HORRIFIED.

An Alouette, or Lark, taking a last ruffle of its feathers before a French kid plucks them.

For those still in the dark, the song is about plucking a bird (an Alouette is a bird. Actually, it’s French for Lark. I know that now). Each verse details the progressive mutilation of this innocent little creature. Depending upon the version, you pluck the feathers on it’s head, then the wings, and and the back, even the poor little bugger’s beak gets tugged out! And no mention of the bird being deceased before the commencement of this torture either. Disturbing.

Naturally, I did what all self-respecting, sane, relatively new parents would do. I found a version on YouTube, and played it to my 10 month old son. He loved it. Couldn’t get enough. Wanted me to replay it over and over. It rivaled Beyonce’s Single Ladies as his all time favourite (what is it with that Beyonce video mesmerizing babies?).

My son’s favourite version of Alouette:

Of course, the French are not the only ones to impose songs and rhymes of dubious content on the next generation. It got me thinking of a few other little ditties we used to sing. It’s no wonder we all grew up to need therapy:

– Rock-a-bye, baby in the treetop… When the bough breaks, The cradle will fall, And down will come baby, Cradle and all – what kind of whack-job would hang a baby in a treetop? Especially on a windy day.

Humpty Dumpty, a giant EGG with arms and legs fell off a wall and smashed his head into pieces. (“Daddy, what have you been smoking?”) The King’s Men, couldn’t save him, and presumably with that level of head trauma, the paramedics wouldn’t have fared any better.

Jack and Jill fell down the hill. Jack broke his crown. No word on whether he’s going to survive, or on Jill’s condition.

– Oh, and in other news London Bridge is falling down.

It’s worse than the six o’clock news.

Any more unsettling kids tunes spring to mind?

The Comforting Sound of British Sitcoms

Birds of a Feather

Do you ever find old British sitcoms on Canadian TV, and leave them on despite the fact you think they’re crud and you never used to watch them in the UK? I do.

I’m currently writing this with Birds of a Feather going on in the background. A bad 1990’s sitcom about two working class women living in a posh suburb off the back of their imprisoned husband’s loot. I never watched it in the UK, but I find it somehow soothing to have it’s familiarity playing away as the backdrop to a cold Canadian evening. Next up is One Foot in the Grave, which, in my humble opinion is much better.

Keeping Up Appearances is another that gets left on, despite me never having watched it 20 years ago in Britain, and in spite of the fact I don’t like it at all. Coronation Street on a Sunday morning has become a ritual in our house (I know, it’s not a sitcom, but it may as well be). I never actually watch it, it’s just on. When in Britain, it gets switched off.

It must be the security that familiarity brings. I long for the day that Del Boy, Rodders and Grandad (or Uncle) turn up on my Canadian TV screen. Now there will be a Britcom that will get my full attention.

The Royal Wedding

April 28, 2011 2 comments

The Monarchy is a polarizing institution on both sides of the Atlantic.

I’ve never been a royalist. The idea of a group of well-to-do people being idolized and lauded through the good fortune of birth never quite sat well with me. It could be my working class roots. It’s pretty difficult to sit there in your council house, wondering if your Dad’s ever going to get off disability, and wishing you had the money to go on a school trip, while ‘your’ Royal Familyare off swanning around all parts of the globe, playing polo, and talking all posh. It definitely always felt like a ‘them and us’ situation. And they seemed to do alright out of our tax dollars… I mean, pounds.

I have mellowed over the years. I think there are a number of reasons for this: I’m now definitely in the middle classes – money is less of an issue; I’ve met some of those well-to-do, posh speaking folk, and a lot of them are actually ok; and I’ve seen the impact the British Monarchy has on the rest of the world.

I’m still not a royalist, but I appreciate the history, and I do feel a little sense of pride when I see the whole world obsessed with my country of birth and it’s traditions.

Hmmm... classy. Image source: http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/

It has been truly fascinating to see the American and Canadian media covering the pending wedding of our future King Billy and Queen Kate. What other event could possibly stir so much interest, and throw so much attention on the UK? British tin tray, key ring, and mug manufacturers must be boosting their retirement funds as well.

And, then there is the realization that these people are human beings. I simply cannot imagine having to go through this very personal process under the glare of the whole world. I get tetchy when people look over my shoulder at lunch time and ask me what I’m eating. As for Wills – he seems ok really, not a bad apple.

So, I wish them well. I hope the world enjoys the show. But there is no way on Earth that I’m getting up at 4am to see it.

Hockey Hooliganism

The ‘Habs’ are the Montreal Canadiens. To be fair to the Habs, they are pretty much universally recognized as the lifeblood of ice hockey. Montreal is hockey mad, unlike any other city on Earth. And, Habs fans are acknowledged as being some of the most passionate and knowledgeable of all. And, just like British football fans, they can get a little feisty. It has been known for violence to erupt on the streets of Montreal after a big game from time to time.

Having experienced both big football occasions in the UK, and important hockey games in Canada, I am of the opinion that the level of intensity at football exceeds that of hockey by some way. And, (I say this with no particular pride) hockey ‘hooliganism’ is not at parity with even the much reduced British version of recent times.

I have an old school friend in England who has visited me on this side of the Atlantic on a few occasions.We’ll call him Adam, because, well, that’s his name. On his first visit, I sold him on going to a hockey game. I told him he would see a lot of goals, and a few fights. Exciting stuff. In those days the Bell Centre was called the Molson Centre. If you sat in the cheap seats, right at the back (where locating the puck is impossible), you would see a giant Habs shirt hanging from the scoreboard in front of your section. The shirt would be adorned with a player’s name and number. If your guy scored, everyone in the section got a free beer. I have no idea if they still do this, but it was the pitch that sealed the deal for Adam. We were off to watch the Habs play the Florida Panthers.

I haven’t seen enough hockey to be able to claim this with any authority, but it was possibly the dullest game of hockey ever played. Florida won 1-0. There was one half-hearted scuffle. It seemed to go on forever. Adam looked at me as if it was my fault.

A couple of years later, Adam returned. The Toronto Maple Leafs were in town. For the uneducated (Brits), this is like Liverpool vs Man. Utd. Probably the most significant rivalry in hockey. I suggested we take in the game. I got a look. We ended up in a bar instead.

Habs vs. Leafs. Image Source: http://www.entertainment.ezinemark.com

The game was on the big screen. We ate, we drank, we chatted. The game was intense. All the things I said that hockey was: heated, passionate, fast, action packed. And we could see the puck. There were goals, lots of them (I think the Habs won 4-3, but don’t quote me on that). There were fights – blood was drawn. The patrons in the bar were obviously excited. It drew us in. Very enjoyable.

We left the bar a considerable time later, and walked along St. Catherine Street (the main thoroughfare in downtown Montreal). There were not many people around. It was late, it was March, it was cold. We ambled along behind a small group of young men draped in Habs shirts. Across the almost deserted street, a similar group of 4 or 5 came into focus. They were wearing blue and white. Leafs fans.

You could see the agitation, an increase in excitement, as each group spotted the other. Nudging and pointing ensued as the two groups slowly followed a trajectory that would see them pass.

Adam, being English, had experienced situations like this before. Rival supporters, after the big game, and no doubt a few alcoholic beverages, coming face to face in the city centre. It was bound to get ugly. At times like this adrenalin kicks in, your senses go into overdrive, the blood rushes through your veins. It’s the danger. Anything could happen, and you’re right there.

The two groups were now almost parallel to each other, on opposite sides of the street – separated only by a few yards of tarmac.

Pretty much as bad as it gets. Image source: unknown

The Leafs fans started first: “You Suck!” was the cry – repeated several times by each of the individuals in blue and white as they pointed across the street. Well, you have to understand, that is quite the insult in Canada. The Habs fans had no choice. They volleyed back with “You Suck!” in an equally animated fashion.

The two groups passed and continued in opposite directions.

Adam stood in silence. He looked back over his shoulder at a disappearing rabble of blue and white as they walked down the street. And then back at the red group, who were likewise going on their way. “That’s it?”, my friend enquired. “Yup. That’s it”, I replied with a chuckle.

British Apathy?

March 26, 2011 2 comments

Have you ever noticed that whenever you get Italian or Chinese migrants coming together, a community evolves? You get a China Town or a Little Italy. We have both here in Montreal. They’re usually small hives of activity brimming with cultural trinkets, cafes and restaurants, shops and places of worship.

Chinatown Montreal

The China Town gate in Montreal

But what happens when the Brits become ex-pats? Well, they usually seek out a British pub, to drink a British pint, watch British sport, and moan to other Brits about… well, Britain.

Other than that, we seem a pretty apathetic bunch. Not exactly over-enthusiastic about coming together to support each other’s causes are we? Don’t get me wrong, to call all British ex-pats apathetic would be a broad and unfair generalization, but barring important sporting occasions, we don’t seem to quite unite as other nationalities resident in this foreign land seem to.

Maybe it’s a security thing. Maybe we don’t HAVE to stick together to get on and be successful in Canada. In the majority of of the country, we can get along just fine in our mother tongue, and our Canuck cousins are not all that dissimilar, culturally speaking. Hell, we even have our Queen on their money. We shouldn’t exactly feel insecure should we?

I can’t help feeling that we’re just a little bit lazy when supporting each other.

During a conversation a couple of years ago, one, not so young English fellow (name withheld because I can’t remember it) told me that he moved over here to “get away from that lot”, and questioned why he would seek out in Canada the very people he was trying to get away from in the UK. You could question his choice of immigration destination if the objective was to avoid his compatriots, I suppose.

So why do we not see the same sense of ex-pat community among the Brits as we appear to with other nationalities here in Canada? Is it apathy? Is it that we don’t feel the need for that type of security? Do we just not like each other very much? Or, have I got it completely wrong, and we’re as connected as any other community? I would love to hear other Brit perspectives.

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