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Ten reasons why England is great

It’s a tricky thing to say, because the English flag, St George’s Day and patriotism generally has long been hijacked by moron right-wingers, but isn’t England great?

  • Shakespeare

    Fittingly, his birthday is the same day as St George’s day, as he contributed so much to the richness of the English language – as well as doing his propaganda bit for unity under the Tudors by blackening the name of the last Plantagenet monarch and promoting feelings of English patriotism.

  • London

    Ah, London. Galleries. Theatres. Ethnic enclaves. Parliament and Big Ben, tourist traps, and carnivals; the Tube; Black taxis and red buses; medieval streets and hideous 1960s brutalist developments. Finest city in the World (if you don’t have to live there!)

  • the English countryside

    The English countryside is gorgeous. Across the Vale of Evesham in the spring, the beauty of the Yorkshire Moors, the Lake District, the Cornish coast, the Severn Valley in autumn, we don’t have towering mountains, glaciers, or rift valleys. The English countryside is varied, but moderate and dependable. Just like English people are.

    Even the animals that populate our countryside are the same. You don’t get malaria from our bugs. We have no poisonous spiders, and no large animals which can eat you. Our single venomous snake – the Adder – is only as nasty as a wasp sting (and I’ve never seen one, ever).

  • The Beatles, Stones, Sex Pistols and The Clash

    For a small country, we’ve produced a lot of world-changing music. We rock. Nothing more to say.

  • Broadway, Henley

    They’re chocolate box-perfect English towns. They’re a bugger to live in, as you can’t put a nail in the wall without someone from the local Council making sure you’re not damaging the character of the area, but they’re damn gorgeous. There are houses in Henley that are older than many countries.

  • Pubs and proper beer

    Pubs – not bars. They don’t need to be all thatched roof or horsebrasses. They don’t need to be picturesque, but do need to be authentic rather than brewery-mandated “English Pub Experience”. They need a sense of community, a character behind the bar, some grumpy regular drinkers, proper beer and probably a resident dog.

  • Food

    People think English food is just fish and chips or curry – and there’s nothing wrong with either of those. But real English food can’t be beaten, and is rarely encountered by visitors. Take great cuts of meat, fresh vegetables like parsnips, sprouts, roast them all and lightly season, serve with a rich gravy and a pint of proper beer and you’ve got the best Sunday family meal in the world.

  • World War 2

    We English bang on about the war a bit, it’s true – but it’s because it’s deeply embedded in our psyche. OK, it was sixty years ago, but the reason it stays there is because, for a couple of years until the yanks could be arsed to help out, England and our Gaelic cousins Scotland, Ireland, Wales stood alone: we mobilised our entire workforce, turned civilian factories to making armaments, ploughed up parks to grow food on, and tore down metal railings as raw material to make guns.

    We evacuated our children, split up our families and sacrificed our men, while the rest of the world sat on their hands or laid down their arms, because fascism so repelled us. And why shouldn’t we be proud of that?

    Jan 2 2007: It’s been pointed out to me that I may not know my history, and the UK may not have stood alone in quite the way I wrote. So don’t listen to what I say…

  • The National Health Service

    I’m always astonished when I read that in other, allegedly civilised countries, health care is based on ability to pay. God knows, our NHS isn’t perfect, but get this: if you fall sick in the UK you will get treatment of the highest possible quality that the NHS can provide, free at the point of delivery, regardless of whether you’re a millionaire or a vagrant. Now that’s a civilised idea.

  • Jane Austen and George Orwell

    Both used the English language perfectly to celebrate and satirise the England that they loved. Orwell, in particular, is a hero of mine with his fierce promotion of clarity of language, his love of fairness and his defence of the weak. I reckon he should be the eponymous St George today.

  • English people

    I’ve a mix of Scottish and English extraction with a dash of Italian too. My wife is a naturalised Brit, from Thailand, so my kids are utter mongrels, which is itself quintessentially English. Everybody is mixed race here.

    We live next door to Naz, a British-born muslim of Pakistani background, and our other neighbours are the Murphys, of Irish descent. Across the road are the Singhs and the Cohens and the Smiths. It’s a crappy grubby urban English proper street, full of proper English people.

Hurray for England. Have a good St George’s day.

(This week’s) best things since sliced bread

Been busy busy busy this week, but still enjoyed:

  • Veerle’s redesigned blog

    Fucking brilliant. And should probably be illegal to have that much design talent. So carefully designed, yet looks spontaneous and unfussy.

  • The film “Downfall”

    On TV this week. Gripping, and the guy who played Hitler was amazing. Regardless of the central subject matter, should be shown to anyone who advocates armed conflict as a solution to anything.

  • Serena Maneesh‘s debut album

    Noise. Breathy vocals mixed low. Mellow tunes almost submerged by chainsaw guitars. They’ve picked up the torch from My Bloody Valentine and taken it somewhere else – round to Cindytalk and Loops’ houses. It’s on almost continual repeat on my Zen mp3 player. And – staggeringly – they’re from Norway, the dullest place in the Universe.

The best things about “The Yes Men”

I thoroughly enjoyed my DVD of “The Yes Men” yesterday, because:

  • It is a perfect example of detournement in situationist thinking: exposing the society of the spectacle via an even greater, more ridiculous spectacle
  • It did so using poo and willy gags
  • The activists could only have met, worked together and set up their pranks because of the Internet
  • It reminded me that most Americans are not bible-thumping money-worshipping solipsistic buffoons (it’s been three years and the re-election of George Dubya since I’ve been to the U.S., so I needed reminding)
  • Much of what they were saying is absolutely correct.

Best bands with unintelligible vocals

  1. My Bloody Valentine

    My Bloody Valentine were the undisputed Kings of Noisy shoe-gazing rock. They fucked up the 1990s for me by releasing the best album of that decade, Loveless, in 1991 – thus making the rest of the decade a bit of a disappointment.

    The vocals were always buried in the mix, and were an interplay between Kevin Shields’ weedy whine and Belinda Butcher’s breathy “oohs” and “aahs”. I saw them live twice, and they were great both times – although one had to be in the “right frame of mind” for it. Ahem.

  2. The Cocteau Twins

    Fey musical collages with Elizabeth Fraser’s deliberately non-language vocals multi-tracked. There were times when you could almost make out what she was singing – and times when there were unfortunate errors of comprehension. For example, my mate Nick ruined my enjoyment of one of the tracks on “Heaven Or Las Vegas” by insisting she sings “Sit on my face”. Check it out for yourself (290K mp3).

  3. REM

    Once upon a time, REM were good, despite -or because of?- the fact that singer Stipe sang lyrics like “She’s a sad tomato” and “Singer, sing me a gibbon”. (Pippa saw them last month, and said they still kick ass, however.) Often, he was intelligble but meaningless, and thus got the reputation for surrealism and sagacity rather than someone who spouts nonsense instead of writing proper words. Yes, that is a note of envy you detect.

  4. Loop

    I saw Loop live several times in the 80s. They were buttockclenchingly loud, and stood completely still, backlit, playing and layering riffs for sometimes up to 10 minutes, occasionally breathing something incomprehensible but menacing into a microphone, before all magically stopping at exactly the same time. Criminally under-rated to this day. (And if anyone has the album “the World In Your Eyes” they could send me, I’ll love you forever; some fucker stole mine, and even Kazaa can’t help me.)

  5. Extreme Noise Terror

    Possibly, I’m cheating here, as E.N.T. didn’t really go for lyrics – more grunts and shrieks into a mic over furious grinding heavy rock. When I was a kid, there was a subterranean club in Birmingham (The Kaleidoscope?) which would host a 12 hour gig on bank holiday mondays, where I’d regularly see Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower, S.O.B., Genital Deformities and other luminaries play live.

    I recall waiting outside to go in, in a line of crusties, punks and hippies, when some yuppie in a big car drove past, shouting “Get a proper job!”. As I was a pissed-off systems analyst for AT&T at the time, I took his advice and resigned to go travelling for 7 years. So, if you were a fuckwit yuppie in 1989 with a penchant for haranguing strangers, I offer my sincere thanks to you.

Disagree with this list? Leave a comment!

Top ten punk albums

  1. "Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols"

    Indisputably number one. The lurid, ransom note logo and album cover by Jamie Ried (cf my own at the top of this page). The sheer fucking excitement of the opening of "God Save The Queen" or "Pretty Vacant" makes this a fantastic album. The opening of "Bodies" still sends a shiver up my spine.

  2. "London Calling" – The Clash

    I’ll never forget buying this double album in 1979 for £3.50 (the same price as a single album) and the first time I played it. It was the first time I’d heard political music. It was my first exposure to reggae; I know it was from white boys, but until then I’d only heard sanitised pop reggae. The Clash just melted down loads of influences into something amazing. The cover is great – and the Elvis reference is genius.

  3. "Inflammable Material" – Stiff Little Fingers

    As I’ve said in my S.L.F. gig review, you can’t doubt SLF’s sincerity.This album is almost live, it’s so raw; "Suspect Device" as a single backed with "Wasted Life" is a double-A side that is Punk’s equivalent of "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever". Other favourites are "Barbed Wire Love" and a shapeless Bob Marley cover/ reworking: "Johnny Was". My only quibbles are "Closed Groove" which is pretty wank, and the production of "Alternative Ulster": what’s going on with the vocals? Quintuple tracking through a comprehensibility-removing device?

  4. "The Undertones" – The Undertones

    I’ve got the original, but the reissue is better, as that contains the first two singles, "Teenage Kicks" and "Get Over You". The reissue occurred when the song "Jimmy Jimmy" hit the charts unexpectedly, and gave the record company a jolt. My Grandad Jim had given me £5, and I decided to buy an album: I was wavering between Abba’s "Voulez-vous" and this album. Thank god I made the right choice. "Jump Boys", "Male Model" and "Family Entertainment" kick ass.

  5. "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" – Dead Kennedys

    Conclusive evidence, when I was 15 or so, that America wasn’t only Ronald Reagan and mad Christians. Dead Kennedys: humour; intelligence, and an appreciation of world events ("Holiday in Cambodia") that isn’t generally associated with Uncle Sam. And "Kill The Poor" is a great song, even when Tim accidentally twisted his his cassette into reverse and played us "Lik lik lik the roop".

  6. "Parallel Lines" – Blondie
  7. "Going Steady" – The Buzzcocks (cheating, cos it’s a compilation; also, "Boredom" and "Breakdown" are great and not on that album.)
  8. "Best before 1984" – Crass

    Another cheating compilation. Crass were angry and often unlistenable, but when punk was degenerating and loads of Nazi skins showed up, it was great to have a left-wing band who were hard bastards. Their album covers were great, too.

  9. "Best of .. " – The Jam

    Pick your random best of, cos they were always a singles band. I loved "A Bomb In Wardour Street", "Strange Town", "Going Underground", even "Beat Surrender" – and (of course) "In the City".

    Talking of which, they must’ve been livid when they heard the Sex Pistols’ "Holidays In The Sun".

  10. Aggghh .. where to start? Motorhead? Ian Dury’s "Hit me with your rhythm stick"? Some Joy Division? The Psychedelic Furs? The B52s debut album? The Ramones? MC5? I choose them all. (It’s my list and I’ll cheat if I want to).

On the other hand, Pippa’s just written to me berating me for forgetting The Stranglers, even though I’ve seen them live! So number 10 is Rattus Norvegicus, ‘cos I love "Hanging Around" and "Go Buddy Go".

Top five Elizabethan / Jacobean plays not by Shakespeare

This era of verse was what got me to university to do an English degree. I still love and read my 1911 copy of thirty of these plays, which was given to me by Bob Brush, an English teacher of mine.

  1. The Alchemist – Ben Jonson

    "The Alchemist" is a great comedy – a cross between a heist movie and a farce (lots of people hiding, dressing up, almost getting caught). It opens with two of the gang fighting, and one taunting the other to do “thy worst! I fart at thee”. One character berates another character, "Thou look’st like the Anti-christ in that lewd hat" – something I’m always dying to say when I see people in headgear.

  2. Dr Fautus – Christopher Marlowe

    A great tragedy of the over-reacher, Faustus is a man who wants more knowledge than his station as mere mortal allows. The play is patchy (the comic scenes are almost certainly a hack job), but when Marlowe is on form, the poetry is fantastic. Here’s Faustus on kissing Helen of Troy:

    “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss! / Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! / Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. /
    Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,/
    And all is dross that is not Helena.

    The irony is that it’s not really Helen, but a demon dressed up: its kiss really does suck his soul away and damn him. His speech while waiting for the devils to take him finally into hell is a masterpiece.

  3. Volpone – Ben Jonson

    Another vicious comedy from Jonson, with Volpone (The Fox), Mosca (the Fly), Voltore (the Vulture) and other, almost medieval-style allegorical characters, with the same comedy of misfits that was found in The Alchemist.

  4. The Changeling – Middleton

    Beatrice-Joanna teams with sinister servant De Flores to murder the man her father has chosen for her husband. As a reward, de Flores deflowers her (geddit?), and implies she is a changeling – no longer belonging to her father or good family name:

    .. fly not to your birth, but settle you/ In what the act has made you; you are no more now./ You must forget your parentage to me;/ You are the deed’s creature.

    There’s a cool bit at the end when her father doesn’t know whether to call her Beatrice or Joanna, and alternates the names – as if to imply that the two names indicate two different people in one.

  5. The Duchess of Malfi – John Webster

    Death, murder, despair and unremitting gloom: the quintessential Jacobean tragedy. A sort of video nasty of the early 17th century.

Bubbling under were Ford’s "Tis Pity She’s A Whore", Tourneur(?)’s "Revenger’s Tragedy" (blood and black comedy – like a 400 year old "Evil Dead"), Dekker’s social comedy "The Shoemaker’s Holiday" , Peele’s pantomime-like "The Old Wives’ Tale" and Beaumont and Fletchers’ play-within-a-play "The Knight of the Burning Pestle."

Everlasting thanks to Robert Brush for firing and nurturing my enthusiasm for this era.

On birthdays past and present

It’s my thirty-eighth birthday, and I’m in Holland without the family, though had a really great time. You’d think that being of such advanced years, I’d recall many past birthdays, but only a few stick in my mind. Most notably, these were:

  • 13/11/82: my sixteenth: I got laid. By a red-head.
  • 13/11/84: my eighteenth: likewise, by Helen, of the fabulous figure.
  • 13/11/87: my twenty-first, at university in Hull, when my brother and best mate Matt came to visit and we tried to drink 21 beers that day. I believe we succeeded, although were not pretty sights. I certainly recall proposing marriage in a crowded bar to a gorgeous Indian woman named Dhillum with the best breasts I had ever seen. She declined with a good deal more politeness than I deserved, give that we’d never spoken before, and I was slurring my words so much it took three attempts before any degree of coherence could be achieved.
  • 13/11/91: my twenty-fifth when I woke up next to the barmaid from my local pub, and the listened to one of my presents: a CD of My Bloody Valentine’s "Loveless", one of my all-time top 5 albums.
  • 13/11/93: in Istanbul, with Lucy, Yeşim and other colleagues. That night, I met Zeynab, my first muslim girlfriend, who was so gorgeous and intelligent she was breathtaking.
  • 13/11/94: (See photo) In India, on the roof of a hostel in Sudder Street, Calcutta, smoking giggly weed and drinking Rosy Pelican beer. (I always swore I’d call a daughter of mine Rosy Pelican Lawson, but Nongyow vetoed that.)
  • 13/11/95: in London: seduced by The Big Boss’s secretary, 10 years older than me and a busty Mauritian hindu. Hurrah!
  • 13/11/96: in Bangkok; my first birthday with Nongyow and having recently had my diagnosis of a brain tumour retracted (though the next year revised to MS). Nongyow, me, Stephanie and Richie went to an enormous restaurant where the waiters came round on roller skates, and we gorged ourselves on seafood and Thai curry.

This birthday, on a trip round the Twente district of Holland with cool people, beer and some weed has proved pretty cool, too.

On top of a Calcutta hostel, stoned, on my 28th birthday

The Three People I Don’t Like

A reader wrote to ask about the only three people I don’t like that I mention in the list of unfascinating facts about me.

Now I don’t mean that I’ve loved everyone I’ve ever met, and want to garland them with homemade daisy-chains while hugging them and crooning "Imagine", but generally the people I meet are flawed but decent – as I hope I am. Here’s the three people whom I genuinely felt were a waste of oxygen, having no redeeming qualities at all:

  • A guy who went out with an ex-girlfriend of mine, and beat her up regularly. This guy’s answer to anything was violence; look at him wrong – punch. Remain friendly with your ex – punch. He was nicknamed "Captain Caveman" because of his retarded evolution. Staggeringly, women loved him. Sylvia Plath, anyone?
  • A woman I worked with in Thailand, who lied about everything, no matter how trivial. Her boyfriend told me that, a couple of years before, she’d told him that her brother had died of cancer and took him to see the grave. Afterwards, he discovered there had never been a brother – the surname on the grave was co-incidental. She’d lie about things she was bound to be discovered on; why? Desire to be centre of attention? Just plain deceitful? Schizophrenically oblivious to the difference between fact and fiction? I’d be fascinated to know, as long as I never had to meet the woman again.
  • A guy who worked at an infant’s school in Bangkok who suddenly died of "pneumonia", which is Thai code for AIDs. I felt really bad about it – even thought I’d only met him twice. Then, one of his ex-colleagues told me that, after having been diagnosed, the guy would weekend in Pattaya (a famous bargirl beach resort near Bangkok) and pay unsuspecting bargirls extra for unprotected anal sex. He’d come back to Bangkok and tell his disgusted colleagues "Got another two of the bitches this weekend". No-one from the school attended the funeral.

Let’s hope this list doesn’t get added to in my next 37 years.