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Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 12:23 pm
Welcome to Britain

Britain starts 35,000 feet above Holland. The Berlin - London paddy wagon is crammed. Ryanair have me strapped into a seat and, yes, they're going to sell me snacks and duty free goods and yes, they're going to market to me. After all, the price I paid for the seat barely covers the airport tax. So in between the ads for perfume and that infuriating grammatical gaffe about how 'the use of mobile phones... cannot be used' comes an announcement that cut-price tickets for the Stansted Express are available from stewards, but that the Stansted Express has today been replaced by a coach service. I buy a ticket anyway. How the fuck else am I going to get to London? Welcome to Britain!

The marketing is slick and constant, nothing works, and it's twice the price it would be back home. And there's some sort of druggy, boozy menace hanging over the streets at night. Blame the binge drinking sprees! Have a happy smashed British Christmas!



We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. 'Spare some change, please? Spare some change?' A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. 'Look at yourself, mate, you've got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you're in, it's a fucking shame on you, man!' He's a winner, the junkie's a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It's dog eat dog.

Hisae and I are staying with friends who live off the Hackney Road. They're expecting us, but when we ring the bell there's no answer. Thank heaven for cell phones, which allow you to change your plans without telling anyone! We don't have one, but they do. So we find a phone box -- it really stinks in there, but at least the phone works -- and call our friends. Ah, they went to a pub across the road! We go in to meet them. It's ferociously loud, a kind of slick-brutal house club with bad 90s acid graphics, threatening bouncers and boom tsssk boom tsssk boom. People float around with a kind of wide-boy gait. Menace and hedonism. We take the key and tell our friends we'll see them back at the flat. Not my scene.

The lift has a sign in it that says 'Please do not use this lift as a toilet'. What do they take us for? Why not say 'You are a cunt, aren't you'? The assumption of guilt. But our hosts later tell us that the lift is used as a toilet. Often. Fuck. Welcome to Britain!



The flat is sordid; toilet paper, debris and detritus everywhere, a bunch of TVs, foul blue spotted carpet. Art students live here, but what's the aesthetic? Maybe some approximation of Corinne Day shitty junkie chic. We switch on TV. There's an awards ceremony; celebrities pay tribute to other celebrities. There's lots of Bono and lots of Robbie Williams. 'Listen to the radio, you will hear the songs you know.' Marketing, innit? Jools Holland drifts around, a bit more bloated than I remember him. There are video clips of people saying how perennially great U2 are. No dissenting opinions at all. A lot of applause.



Our friends return from the pub, extremely drunk, and sit with us, smoking heavily, demolishing a bottle of red wine. It's, like, 3am. I'm too polite to tell them I don't smoke, and they don't seem to notice. Well, it's their house. The conversation is about drugs. E can't believe I've never taken any. I say it's because drugs tend to make everyone act the same way. E illustrates my theory by alternating aggressive questioning with declarations that I'm his best mate in the entire world. Several times he shakes my hand. We're two Celts who gave substantial chunks of our life to London. Why? The girls sit on the folding bed and speak Japanese. They won't stay long now they've got their MAs. I'm tired, but this chat is something we have to do before we can sleep. I try not to cough or seem too self-righteously sober.

The next morning the taps in the bathroom don't seem to work, and neither does the flush in the toilet. Fuck! At least I'm able to shower. I don't think I could bear to be dirty in London. It already feels like a gigantic toilet. Crossed with an advertising agency. An advertising toilet? Why not? Clever marketing idea! Out on the street, I see a bus with an advert on the side that says 'More Glitz! The Brent Cross Centre, feed your addiction'. Feed your addiction? Fuck, you mean become like that junky we saw last night at the filling station? Have drugs and celebrity become metaphors for everything in Britain? Are they marketing heroin yet? Welcome! Fuck!



'Smile, you're on CCTV!' I guess it's to stop people pissing through the letterbox. They did that when I lived in Covent Garden. And not just piss. On Old Street there's blood on the pavement. I remember the sirens we kept hearing last night. I didn't feel safe walking around with my laptop in a bag. The atmosphere didn't feel benign at all, nothing like soft, safe neon nights in Tokyo. Minicab sharks, cars pulling up behind pedestrians. You're in there, protected, and I'm out here, not. I'm just going to have to hope you have a good heart. People in hip hop hooded tops looking hard in kebab shops. It all feels like one of those Streets videos where a bunch of tanked-up British guys end up with blood streaming down their faces. 'Mate, mate, I don't want any trouble, mate.'

Virgin cola, Virgin property, Virgin trains! Clever marketing! Entrepreneurial Britain! They don't work too well, though, these Virgin trains. 'Due to late arrival of the incoming train, the 2.20 Virgin train to Glasgow Central is delayed. Please wait in the concourse for platform information.' I browse at WHSmiths. Subscription gift packs to FHM and Maxim hang on hooks. They look a bit like lingerie. Marketing! Slick! The girls in bikinis don't interest me at all. I must be a homosexual, or a glitz dissident of some sort. The Times and the Independent have both gone tabloid, wow! There's a photo of Tony Blair in a year-end review. He looks all leonine and smug. For the first time, I really think of Blair as Big Brother (that's Big Brother from Orwell's '1984', not Big Brother from Big Brother, 2004. You know, the TV show where the TV watches people). Blair presides over all this. The marketing, the violence. British troops in Iraq, a bouncer hired to police someone else's pub. The gap between the rich and the poor getting bigger, and the sympathy getting smaller. Questions raised in the house about Blair's free family holidays in a chateau owned by tobacco baron Alain Dominique Perrin, CEO of Richemont, which owns cigarette brands Dunhill and Cartier and has a 21% stake in British American Tobacco. Blair, unlike the Scottish government, doesn't impose a full public smoking ban.



A billboard (I don't know what it's advertising) shows Britain floating mid-Atlantic, far from Europe. The slats rotate, display another image.

M&S food snacks for the train. Not much change from a tenner. Nicely presented though. Thai this, Mexican that. Global, slick, shrink-wrapped. There's nowhere to throw the plastic wrapping after you eat the stuff because presumably terrorists would use the bins for bombs. Somebody hates us. Hates our capitalist freedom. Wants to gas us in the underground. Because of Blair backing America. What else could he do? Be Schroeder?

Ah, at last, they've assigned a platform. Better late than never. On the train, the sound system feeds back painfully. An announcement comes on. 'Due to a problem with the microwave there will be no hot food on the journey.' Later, there's another about the doors. Apparently you have to press a button to open the doors when the train's at a station, then wait a while. While you're waiting, don't pull any levers at head-level, because those set off emergency alarms.

In the toilet I squoosh thick green liquid soap onto my hands, only to find there's no water. All these slick buttons and Star Trek sliding doors, and the water doesn't work. Fuck! I wipe off the soap with a dry towel. Yuk. You could complain, but then there'd be no end of it. You'd be like that girl on the bus last night. 'That's not the principle, the principle is I paid for a service and I'm getting something worse.' Placate the consumer, strap the passenger in. 'Customers are advised that, for your comfort and security, CCTV is operating throughout the train'. Wow! Even in the toilet? Did they pick up that there was no water?



Mobile phones. They allow you to change arrangements without telling anyone, and they allow you to tell everyone about your life. 'We're on the train... is mum there?' The mother is RP, Standard English, quite posh, but her kids speak with glottal stops. Tony Blair does that too, to show he's a bit populist. It's an important life skill. Practice those glottal stops! They cover up class distinctions that do, nevertheless, still exist. The widening gulf between have and have-not, drug addict and shopaholic. The new RP has glottal stops. Even Prince William and Prince Harry speak this way. To show they're like us. In spirit, anyway. You wouldn't want them to be spiritually different from us, would you, just because they're extremely wealthy? I mean, here in Britain we're already spiritually one with the wealthy. We just don't have their money.

'Cointreau-versial' billboard. A pretty girl sips Cointreau. It's a posh drink, innit? Some Hoxton Situationist has stuck on a sticker bubble which makes the posh rich girl say 'You - are - not - us'. Subversive, or obvious? The rich are not the poor. Less and less every day. But everyone wants to pretend they're a victor, not a victim. Everyone buys into the bling bling thing.



The kids in the next seat just said 'Bling bling!' The phrase is everywhere in Britain, an R&B-rap-pop fashion as widely adopted as the flash white sportsgear people wear on British streets, minus all the gold, silver and diamonds that stars like J-Lo and Britney accessorize it with. I open the Virgin Trains magazine. (Wow, marketing! Trains never used to have in flight consumer magazines! Then again, they once had basic services like running water and hot food.) There's an article about shopping in Birmingham. It begins 'Diamonds, platinum and all things bling lie ten minutes from the city centre in Birmingham's jewellery quarter...' Later in the journey, bored, I open the new tabloid Times and there it is in the financial section. 'Bling bling: fashion designer John Zhao shows off his crystal encrusted iPod'. Britain speaks fluent bling bling. Britain, from top to bottom, embraces the showy materialism, the 'I won, you lost' mindset of hip hop and R&B videos. Bling bling, I win!

Someone just farted. On the train. A Virgin customer. We're not citizens, we're customers. Virgin isn't the government. Well, not yet. 'Welcome to Britain!' hisses the foul smell as it snakes around, invisible to the CCTV cameras.

67CommentReplyFlag

dermfitz
dermfitz
Dermot
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:33 am (UTC)

Hmm. Having read that, my only advice would be that it might be wise to avoid Glasgow city centre, if you can.


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neil_scott
neil_scott
Neil Scott
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:41 am (UTC)
a glitz dissident of some sort

Excellent, like a 21st century John Self.


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d_g_m
Insert
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:43 am (UTC)

I thought it was just me.


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jimyojimbo
jimyojimbo
Dr Jim
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:55 am (UTC)

Ho ho. Fantastic. You write as if you expected something different when you return to Britain. :-)

Actually, I wonder if our Tony does speak RP, in the sense in which it is (I think) taught to drama students to develop their skills in the control of their voices, allowing easier use of regional accents. Seems like a great skill for such a crowd pleaser as Blair.


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jermynsavile
jermynsavile
jermynsavile
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 01:46 pm (UTC)

I'm sure that Blair speaks in many different accents, I'd be surprised if he even knew which one was 'real'. He tends to mimic whoever he hangs around with and, of course, there's that desperate need to impress those he sees as rich and/or powerful. I love the, possibly apocryphal, anecdote about Rupert Murdoch being asked whether he saw Blair as a danger and answering ‘No, Blair’s alright, he’s such a star-fucker.’


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andrewducker
andrewducker
Andrew Ducker
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:55 am (UTC)

That was fantastic! And also, the reason why I'm _not_ spending Hogmanay in the Edinburgh Street Party.

Did you notice how everything was aimed either at teenagers or at people who'd rather like to be teenagers?


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 12:57 pm (UTC)

Well, studies by ad agencies have shown that the aspirational age of the average consumer is 17. The consumers worth marketing at either are teenagers or consider themselves as such.


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:55 am (UTC)




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jimyojimbo
jimyojimbo
Dr Jim
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 12:00 pm (UTC)

To round that off, you'd need a photo of a scratty pub, with a sandwich board thing with the phrase "Beer is good! Three pints of Carling for £5"


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class_worrier
Class Worrier
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 11:56 am (UTC)

Depressingly spot-on but at the same time there is a danger of too much self-hate where the mother-culture is concerned.
We do have an unrivaled drinking culture in No-So-Great Britain but couldn't most if not all of the other points apply to many European cities?


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jimyojimbo
jimyojimbo
Dr Jim
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 12:03 pm (UTC)

Indeed, a German colleague of mine appears to be a member of a drinking culture of his very own.


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sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 12:37 pm (UTC)

Who got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning then? Not that I disagree with what you're saying. Shoreditch was a reasonable enough wasteland of desolation before those arty types started moving in. Had I known you were passing through, I could have offered some tatami flooring and a Japanese bath to you both. Welcome back!


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transient_poet
transient_poet
Transient Poet
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 12:51 pm (UTC)
You have achieved total Blingosity

Wonderful piece. You should come to New York and tear it a new cultural asshole, the city could use it.


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 01:25 pm (UTC)

I recently moved to London (from Melbourne, Australia), and one of the things I've noticed is how branded everything is here. Everything to do with live music, for one, is owned by Carling (the Carling (Brixton/Islington) Academy, the NME Carling Awards). And even venues which aren't have advertising billboards on the sides of the band room, pimping the latest Robbie Williams album or blinged-out lifestyle accessory the marketers believe people who see music will buy. Mind you, a lot of the music is a lot more safe and commercial too; being right at the centre of attention from magazine fashion gurus, cool hunters and major-label A&R people, everybody is trying to be the next Darkness/Interpol/Franz Ferdinand, or to stake a claim to some classic sound and be the first to revive it.


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jermynsavile
jermynsavile
jermynsavile
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 01:27 pm (UTC)

Everything you say rings true, but there are other narratives too. The alternative Britains that exist were probably hiding in a corner, afraid of getting yet another kicking from culturally bereft politicians, slash-and-burn property developers, pissed-up neo-skinheads, up-tight officer workers bleating on-and-on about 'retail therapy' as if it's a reason for existence and, conspiracy theorists please note, at the back of it all, the hugely influential Murdoch-minded media.

I would suggest for the duration of your visit that you do your best to avoid any boozers that feel they have need for a bouncer at the door. My last sojourn in such an establishment - dragged there during a cousin's stag night - witnessed fisticuffs and harsh words (all right, a bottling or two and lots of 'I'll fuckin-ave yew, yew c-a-a-nt')


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andypop
andypop
rigid codes of hierarchical binarism
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 10:27 pm (UTC)

When in Hackney, the best place for drink & conversation is the Prince George in Parkholme Road, off Dalston Lane. You can sit outside (even at this time of year, with their heaters) and, currently, have a nice glass of mulled wine. Or sit inside and admire the ancient La Dolce Vita poster. Highly civilised.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 01:27 pm (UTC)
Hubble Bubble

Why, on cyberdating sites, do British girls feel the need to stress how ‘bubbly’ they are? An Italian and a French friend couldn’t understand it either. It’s not an appealing trait for me personally, I associate it with talking rubbish, but it is as if Brits feel they have to be ‘full of fizz’ and ‘mad for it’ or utterly depressed, and there’s no alternative, like cool, relaxed, mature, intriguing, whatever. I’m sure the guys have similar issues but I haven’t checked.


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mattcallow
mattcallow
Noircrème-Anglaise
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 01:49 pm (UTC)

Biggest shock for this ex-pat is to hear that the Independent is now a tabloid. Not surprised by the Times though...


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jinty
jinty
jinty
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 05:48 pm (UTC)

the Guardian is going to go 'Berliner' size, too, apparently. A bit larger than tabloid size, allowing for greater design flexibility.


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xbrokenx
xbrokenx
this is not me..
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 01:54 pm (UTC)

you dont miss it, eh. :)


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 02:14 pm (UTC)
Burigaki

There's always been a lot wrong with Britain, mostly to do with class hang-ups, but recently it's become very bad indeed. I went away in the year two thousand, came back in two thousand and three, and things had changed drastically. It makes me think that Blair is actually worse than Thatcher ever was, though I suppose he can't be blamed for everything. Having said that, though I hate the 'culture', I seem to have found enough of a niche not to be planning a new move.

One of the things that really distresses me is how business values seem to have permeated everywhere. It really is Britain PLC. You can see this in the new management changes in universities which have led to the recent spate of departments being closed down. This has affected me personally in as much as my old department (of East Asian studies) at Durham University is to be closed down. I visited the department recently and the mood was bleak. There were lecturers in exodus from other departments, too, because of the bullying management. They just want the universities to pump out accountants and so on.

Well, the dark forces have taken over, but there are still a handful of actual human beings left here, and I'm lucky enough to know some of them.

I hate the word 'bling'. I tried to resist learing its meaning for as long as possible, but it seems I now hve the concept by sheer osmosis.


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qualities
debt peonage
Tue, Dec. 28th, 2004 03:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Burigaki

I hate the word 'bling'. I tried to resist learing its meaning for as long as possible, but it seems I now hve the concept by sheer osmosis.

this basically sums up the whole of my cultural pallette for the year 2004. i sort of winced and made this uncomfortable laughing sound as i read this line. brilliant!


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