Monthly Archives: September 2009

X marks the what?

I remember being very excited about the fact that I was about to get the vote. Admittedly I hadn’t had to chain myself to some railings, get hit by a racehorse or even burn my bra in an attempt to get it, but nonetheless I somehow felt that my eighteen years of life had given me the necessary experience to shape the future of my country.

That my first general election was a showdown between John Major and Neil Kinnock was possibly a disappointment. It was like waiting forty years to lose your virginity, only to be told that the only two living females left in the world were Margaret Thatcher and the octogenarian from across the road who would never give you your football back if you happened to kick it into her garden.*

Still, I proudly marched into the polling booth that day and placed my cross against a candidate’s name with all the solemnity of a Death Row jailer pressing a button to release poisonous gases into the chamber. A little harsh to compare some of the 1992 MPs to poisonous gases perhaps, but given that their number included Michael Portillo, John Redwood and Michael Howard, not entirely unfair.

Since then I’ve voted whenever and wherever I’ve been required to, before cruelly being robbed of my electoral franchise by emigration to the US.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bleat on yet again about taxation without representation, tempting though it is. Because the fact is, there seems to be so many elections over here that half the time I’d have no idea what I’m voting for in the first place.

For a start, you’ve got the primaries, which appear to be like the early audition rounds of The X-Factor or American Idol – mildly irrelevant to the main event, and of little interest but for the freakshow candidates. Come on, I understand that we need to exercise our democratic right, but do we really have to have semi-finals?

And then there’s some of the things that Americans seem to be asked to vote for. Right now in New York, there’s an election for the roles of comptroller and public advocate. I mean, do we really have to choose who is going to look after the finances – isn’t that why you select a governor in the first place, to make decisions about the best person for the job? And is American politics so far up its own posterior that we need somebody whose role it is to make sure that they listen to the public? Isn’t fear of being voted out at the next election enough for these people?

Next thing you know, there will be a run-off to choose who should make coffee at the Senate on a Tuesday, mark my words. With maybe a subsequent vote to determine whether they brew decaf or regular.

* Bless you, Mrs Lester. May your afterlife consist of watching on in horror as a succession of boys kick balls into your pristine garden for all eternity.

So THAT’S what you think about Britain?

Being British in America can sometimes be akin to life as a happy-go-lucky labradoodle – everybody thinks you’re very sweet, but they don’t really understand you, and they’re often shocked to find out that you really do exist.

The problem is that as soon as you tell someone that you’re British, people jump to certain assumptions. As far as some Americans are concerned, everybody has met the Queen, and quite possibly have had tea with her. I know I still miss my weekly cup of darjeeling and occasional chocolate hobnob with Her Majesty, as do most expats I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve also met Harry Potter, David Beckham, or that kid from the Twilight movies.

For clarity’s sake, fish and chips is not the only food we Brits eat, contrary to popular opinion. We also eat black pudding on Tuesdays, and tripe on the second Sunday of every month.

And yes, absolutely every single one of us is stark raving posh. Whether we’re from a dilapidated estate in Newcastle, or a country pile in the home counties, each and every one of us was born with a plum and/or silver spoon in our mouth, and is the heir to a fortune built off the exploitation of children in the (former) colonies. Quite.

Of course, my insistence that “we’re just like you, you know” generally falls on deaf ears. And mostly that’s probably down to language. A lot of that might be our own fault. After all, if – as I did this weekend – you use the phrase “I’ve been running around like a blue arsed fly,” you’ve got to expect that people are going to regard you as being a bit different.

That said, Americans (whether cosmopolitan New Yorkers or sheltered West Virginians) love to perpetuate a stereotype as much as the next man, and never more so than when it comes to the British.

Last week, Metro newspaper published an article entitled “Be prepared for a second Brit invasion” regarding a marketing accord between London and New York, to drive locals in each city to visit the other one. Helpfully, Metro offered five “terms to know” for anyone hoping to either go to London, or understand the hordes of Brits apparently about to descend on New York. For your delight and edification, I list them below:

1. “Footie: Means football, as in “I’m off to watch the footie.”
If you’re a football fan, you should know that the first rule of being a football fan is “never refer to it as footie”. It’s marginally more acceptable than soccer, but only in the way that maiming is more socially acceptable than murder.

2. “Bladdered: Means drunk. ‘I am so bladdered, I couldn’t gargle another pint.'”
Words fail me. I have never once in 35 years heard someone use the phrase “gargle a pint”. Even Dick van Dyke would have rejected it as too unbelievable. The irony, of course, is that most American beer tastes worse than mouthwash.

3. “Meat and two veg: Slang for male genitalia.”
Now, I’m no expert, but I struggle to be able to think of a situation in which an American in London (or a New Yorker talking to a Brit over here) is going to need this phrase. Anyone believing that “fancy a sample of my meat and two veg” is part of the essential lexicon of love, with the ability to win the heart of a passing Brit faster than any Shakespearean sonnet, should probably think again.

4. “Trainspotter: A dork. The kind of guy who keeps a log book of train schedules. The British love their trains.”
Show me someone who believes that the British love their trains, and I will show you someone who has not been to Britain. The sad thing being that American trains make their British equivalent look world-class.

5. “Brad Pitt: rhyming slang for defecation.”
Maybe I missed a meeting, but last time I looked, rhyming slang for ‘defecation’ was Eartha Kitt. That’s showbusiness for you. And there was me thinking that Brad Pitt was rhyming slang for “actor with marginally less talent than he thinks, with a penchant for screwing leading ladies’.

So, if this Metro piece is to be believed, Brits spend all their time drinking, shagging, shitting and watching football. Or trains. Thanks for the resounding vote of confidence in our collective personality, guys!

Still, at least we don’t believe that universal healthcare means an inevitable march towards Hitler death camps, eh?

Two years and counting

I often tell people how easy it is to forget that I live in New York. I mean, when your morning consists of getting drenched by torrential rain, squeezing up into somebody’s slightly musty armpit on the subway, and getting delayed exactly seventeen minutes more than is strictly necessary, it’s difficult to believe that you’re not actually in London.

Infact, the cities are so eerily similar at times that the recent second anniversary of me being a Brit living out of water passed without comment – or without me even noticing, to be honest.

Like a petulant child that feels it is being ignored or underappreciated, New York has spent the last two weeks trying to get my attention. After all, no sprawling metropolitan area likes to be taken for granted. As a result, the city employed three agents to provide me with a vivid reminder that New York’s like no other place on earth:

1) The deathwish biker
As I think I’ve mentioned, I don’t drive. I’m also pretty environmentally conscious, although my refusal to drive is more to do with a casual unwillingness to kill people than it is with a distaste for excessive emissions. But even as a non-driving eco-warrior, people on bikes can irritate the living bejeesus out of me. Don’t get me wrong, some of my closest friends ride bikes, and I preach transportational tolerance at all times. But come on, let’s be honest, there are some people who get on bicycles and turn into idiots. That doesn’t excuse the time that I opened a car door, and accidentally twanged a speeding biker into a brick wall, but it does maybe explain it.

Cyclists in cities the world over are bound by a common code to give the v’sflip the bird to at least twenty pedestrians a day, and to use pavementssidewalks to scatter passers by in their path. Nothing unusual there. But most of them at least have a vague desire to stay alive.

Not the New York cyclist that I spotted recently though. Waiting to cross a busy avenue, I stood patiently at the junctionintersection as uptown traffic slowed to a halt, before I stepped out into the road. I casually glanced up to see a cyclist approach the head of the stopped line of cars at speed, shout something along the lines of “parp, parp”, and plunge headlong into the traffic heading across town at high speed. Screaming “wheeeeeeeeee!” as he swerved through the cars as they screeched to a halt around him. With a triumphant wave over his shoulder to stunned onlookers, he carried on with his journey.

2) Shouty Bagel Guy
The bagels in our local bagel place are without doubt the best that I’ve ever had in New York. And trust me, I’ve spent many hours and piled on many pounds to check the veracity of that assertion. As a result, I’m more than happy to queuewait on line for five or ten minutes over the weekend in order to get my hands on some.

Last weekend, loaded up with bags of fruit and vegetables, I stopped by to pick up breakfast. Ahead of me in the line stood a heavy set man with his stunningly indecisive girlfriend, who took around five minutes to decide she only wanted a small coffee. Having reminded myself that I’m not a New Yorker and can therefore have a modicum of patience, I bit my lip, waited my turn, ordered my bagels, and turned to walk to the till to pay. As I turned, my bags knocked with all the force of a particularly venomous feather into the leg of the guy ahead of me. He turned, and sneered at me using his top lip in a way that would have made Elvis look like an amateur, and turned to his girlfriend while shaking his head.

In a voice that almost certainly made me sound like a kid that was beaten up at Eton for “sounding too posh”, I looked at the guy and said “I’m sorry, but it was an accident you know.” And in a thick Brooklyn accent that could probably have been heard in New Orleans, he responded with “Yeah, well you got your bags right up my ass, haven’t you?”

Obviously I retorted with “that’s because your ass is so big that it’s practically impossible for anybody to walk into the store without hitting it.” In my head, that is. In real-life, I went red, paid for my bagels, and walked out of the shop in fury.

3) The Seat Snatcher
Nobody likes standing on the subway, but frankly it’s a fact of life in New York. I swear that some people train daily at home so that they’re able to race into a carriagecar and seize any empty seat before someone else sits in it. Even if they get in a good ten metresmeters away. Frankly there are few lengths that some commuters won’t go to in a bid to find a temporary home for their rear.

On one not-so-packed journey home, a man on the train I was on took the art of grabbing a seat to new lows. A small child vacated her seat temporarily to talk to a member of her family a yard or two away, and the lure of the bright orange plastic proved too much for the guy, who promptly sat down in it. The girl returned a few seconds later, looked the man directly in the eyes and burst into tears.

In my defence, I didn’t know she was coming back to the seat, and the tears were a slightly excessive reaction. I even offered her the seat back, but the damage had been done.

Still, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

A very public sense of loss

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never exactly been a royalist. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the queen and her mob of dubious inbreds, and I’m sure they’re a useful attraction for the theme park that is Englandland. But you’ll never catch me manning the barricades with the republican forced when the revolution comes.

That said, the presence of royalty can do funny things to you, as I’ve said before. Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid in North Wales, Princess Diana came to our tiny little town in North Wales. I’ve no idea why she was there to be honest – probably opening a small envelope somewhere, on the way to opening a slightly larger envelope elsewhere in her putative kingdom. All I know is that we somehow knew that her car was going to be driving past our friends’ house on her way through the town, and as a result we gathered alone at the side of the road to watch.

As the tiny motorcade drove by, we waved gleefully at the main car with the royal standard flying from it. We assume she waved back, but to be honest, the windows were blacked out so we couldn’t even see her. She could have been flicking v’s and mooning at us for all we knew, in a desperate attempt to get back at Charles for forcing her come to the middle of nowhere to kiss babies and smile inanely at lascivious local dignitaries.

When I woke up one morning fifteen or so years later to find out that Diana had died, it’s fair to say that while I was shocked (and saddened for her two sons), the death didn’t have any personal impact on me. I seem to remember that some friends and I spent the afternoon at a long-planned barbecue, and that while we stopped to watch the emotional return of her body to the UK, the majority of the day was spent idly talking about football, work and – let’s face it – girls.

For the rest of the week until her funeral the following Saturday, I looked on with confusion as Britain collectively seemed to lose its head. I mean, it’s one matter to mourn – as I have, and will no doubt again – the loss of people close to you, but it’s a whole different thing to wail publicly in the street at the passing of someone you never met, however much good work that person did to raise public awareness of vital issues such as land mines and Duran Duran.

The strange thing is that it’s only in the last couple of years that Americans have stopped asking me how I feel about the death of Princess Diana. I used to feel like saying “oh you know, pretty much the same way that you feel about the issues of fiscal responsibility and escalating inflation in Zambia.” Instead I say something inane about the loss that Britain felt, and let the other person waffle on about how they felt that a shining star in the galaxy flickered out that night.

Coincidentally, given that Diana’s death was twelve years ago this week, America has just lost another member of its own royal family. No, don’t worry, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are both still alive, and all the Baldwins are safe and accounted for. But the Kennedy clan continue to show the importance of investing in a good black suit at an early age, with the passing of Edward Kennedy from brain cancer at 84.

In many ways, the television coverage of Kennedy’s death and funeral was weirdly reminiscent of that of Diana – round the clock and over-the-top at times. To be fair, Kennedy did much more for the world than the People’s Princess, although he had tragically failed to dance publicly with John Travolta before his untimely passing. But I still have to ask whether we need to see live footage of the plane carrying his body from Boston to Arlington.

The fact is that the big winners from these high-profile deaths are the TV networks, who manage to deliver high-yield ad breaks as a result of the demise of such well-loved figures. In years to come, we’ll probably find out that the likes of Fox, ITV, CBS and NBC employ a crack team of international assassins to take out international icons whenever business is looking tough. Poor Michael Jackson never stood a chance when the massed powers of Television Inc decided that his time had come.

If I were Madonna, I’d be looking nervously over my shoulder the next time a guy comes to fix her cable box, I can tell you.