Thursday, 13 February 2014

Who took the Great from Great Britain?

Well, Qatar finished unexpectedly early.

I flew back after the New Year to a cool, overcast and (at times) very wet Doha, but at least all the stuff I had left there over the holiday period – clothes and food, mostly – was still in the apartment, and it made travelling with hand baggage a pleasant change.  Even the milk and yoghurt in the fridge was still edible.  Happy days.  Well, almost.  I carried back with me the virus Ania and the kids had battled throughout December, and felt pretty shitty when I went back to work.  I struggled through final prep for the course I was delivering, then kicked it off, only losing my voice once.

Then midway through the third session, my boss poked his head round the door for a quick word.  So a comfort break was called, and he delivered the news that we would be taking an enforced day or two off because of “project issues”.  Now given we were moving along nicely, on track for a finish on time and within budget, with no red at all on the Weekly Progress Report, this seemed a bit odd, but there you go - not our decision.  A couple of days in the hotel necking medicine seemed a good result as far as I was concerned.  On the third day, after various rumours had circulated around our motley crew via Skype, we had it confirmed that for at least six weeks, the project was on hold for audit reasons, and here’s your airline ticket home (the flight was six hours later).

And that was that.  I still don’t know the full story, nor it seems does anyone else from the on-site team.  Best guess is a combination of financial disagreements and an Acting CEO deciding to make a mark by chucking his weight around.  In theory, the thing should re-start in another couple of weeks, but in practice – well, I’m not holding my breath.  A couple of days later, I had mail confirmation that my contract had been cancelled on the basis of being on the bench……not a surprise, but a couple of months’ money going west like that is a pain, to say the least.

So I’m back on the market again – let’s see how long this time.

Spending time with the family has been an unexpected pleasure, and the sudden onset of winter in Warsaw has added to it.  While I was flying home, a large dump of snow was turning everything white, and the minus several degrees temperature made stepping out of the Terminal in only a fleece come as a bit of a shock.  Mind you it could have been worse – my flight was full of people transiting from (I think) Thailand, so many of them were dressed for the tropics – shorts and tee shirts.  Bet they had a great time leaving the airport.   So we’ve been sledging and snowballing a bit, and I’ve been doing the school run again.  And the kids have love it.

I went over to London last week.  Before Christmas I bought a new laptop online from Amazon and had it delivered to Pat, for me to collect later on, so with no work to do I took the trip.  I also managed to fit in a couple of meetings with people about potential projects – nothing definite came from either, but both held out the prospect of something happening in the next few weeks to change that, so we’ll see.

Maybe it was the weather, but I found it a depressing trip.  The UK has been in the grip of a whole series of Atlantic Depressions (so it says on the BBC Weather site) – basically for weeks there has been storm after storm after storm.  High winds and torrential rain.  There continue to be floods across great swathes of the country, with the West Country, from Somerset down to Land’s End in Cornwall, particularly hard hit.  Of course, the emergency services have been unable to cope and face daily criticism of their efforts – unfairly in my opinion: this seems to be a worse run of bad weather than any I can remember, and it shows no sign of letting up.  Torrential rain on already saturated ground means flooding, and there is sod all you can do about it.  Certainly Central London was wet, at least on my second day, just in time for my journey home. 

Things were made worse by a 48 hour strike on the Tube network over less than a thousand planned job losses spread over a two year period: basically the plan is to close ticket offices, since everyone uses the automatic machines or tops up their Oyster cards on-line.  Good idea – this is the 21st century after all, and all the major metro systems in the world do the same sort of things, even one line Warsaw.  Staff who don’t retire or take early (and generous) redundancy will be redeployed by the tube operator, providing more face to face passenger (sorry, customer) assistance.   There seemed to be little difference between what the unions wanted for the network and what the operators intend to deliver, but nevertheless the unions decided on a strike.  So I walked down to the Elephant tube station from Pat’s flat, in torrential rain and a howling gale, in hopes of finding a train.  According to the news and Transport for London website, services were running on the Bakerloo line I was taking, and Paddington (my destination) was open.  The Elephant wasn’t – the gates were closed and padlocked, and very surly Tube workers told me bugger off.  The union later stated that the strike was rock solid and stated that TfL claims of services running normally were untrue and referred to “ghost trains” with no passengers on them.  Which given that passengers were being turned away by station staff is probably true.  Personally, I have no time for either the unions or TfL management over this one, and I don’t think anyone else did either.

Anyway, my umbrella was last seen blowing across the roundabout outside the station, in tatters, so I took a cab to Paddington (twenty five quid I hadn’t budgeted for), got my train to the airport and my flight back home.

All of which brings me to the point of this epistle.

It wasn’t only the weather while I was there that depresses.  For many months I’ve noticed that Britain seems to be a desperately unhappy place these days.  Hardly a day goes by without the Mail or the Guardian or the red-tops carrying another story of Government incompetence or dishonesty, or complaining bitterly about the “flood of benefit scroungers” from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, and so on and so forth.  Rarely is there any good news.  My Facebook page is constantly spammed by posts from a whole list of websites that all share a pro-Britain and anti-Everybody Else stance that is borderline racist.  People I thought knew better and were more reasonable send stuff to me, either via Facebook or mail, that frankly make me ashamed of my home country.

For instance: a recent forward on my Facebook account showed a picture of a storm lashed harbour somewhere in the West Country, with a caption along the lines of “Why are we sending sixty million quid to help Arabs in Syria when our people are being flooded?  Charity begins at home.”  Now I sympathise with anyone whose home has been flood damaged lately – I remember my own home in Edenbridge being under three feet of water in the front room (even though we were nearly a quarter of a mile from the river) back in 1967, and my mum and dad’s anguish at ruined carpets and furniture.  But we got through it, the community pulled together and helped each other, there was local council assistance and of course household insurance covered the rest.  So flood victims now will get through it too.  But to compare their situation with people in, say, Homs, who have been living in the ruins of their city for nearly three years, without fresh water, little food and no medicines, while continuing to be shelled by their own government’s forces – yes, and opposition fighters – is frankly obscene.  Sixty million pounds to help those poor Arabs (Christian as well as Muslim) seems to me a drop in the ocean of what’s needed.  I commented as such……and was the only person who felt that way.  All I can say is, I hope the people who Liked that one and forwarded it are ashamed of themselves as they watch the continuing bloodshed and deprivation on the tv news – but they probably don’t.

That’s not even an extreme example.  I’ve seen many far worse than that over the past couple of years, many of them little more than an incitement to hatred based on complete ignorance about other societies and religious beliefs, a fear and loathing of “abroad”, and a totally misguided and foolish belief that British Is Best and British People are the Best In The World.  I find it all depressing and very very sad.

Of course it wasn’t always like that.  Colonialism nowadays may have a (perhaps deserved) bad name, but in the days of Empire, it provided a means of travel and wealth accumulation to anyone prepared to give it a shot.  The British Empire – and those of France and Belgium and Germany and all the rest – was built and secured by ordinary people, serving soldiers, accountants, solicitors and above all traders, who were happy to travel to far flung parts of the world and carve out a future for themselves that would not have been possible in a Britain still controlled by the class system.  It also opened the minds of the families left behind to other cultures, as letters from their travelling kin came back with their wealth of traveler’s tales (not all of which were exaggerations).  By the end of the 19th century, with huge swathes of pink on the maps and globes in homes and schoolrooms and offices the length and breadth of the country denoting clearly the extent of the British Empire, for a brief time the term “Great Britain” was accurate. 

We were a world power, perhaps the first such.  Our people led technological advances through the industrial revolution, in the building of bigger and better and faster ships to transport the goods on which the economy thrived.  We invented the steam locomotive and the railway, and exported them to the world, where it was promptly improved upon by the Americans – just the first of many innovations that successive, complacent governments allowed others to take up and develop to the cost of its own exchequer.  It still happens today – after the telephone, radio, television and photography can be added computers and even the internet (to mention nothing of jet propulsion and supersonic flight).  We invented and exported football (the proper game, not the bastardized American rugby copy the Yanks play), and for a while at least were the best in the world.  That is no longer the case, and probably never will be again.  Likewise rugby, and cricket.  I firmly believe the only thing in which Britain truly rules the world, still, is complaining.   We do it all the time – and yes, I know, I’m doing it now.


Wars put an end to all that, of course – both the Empire and the power fell from Great Britain as a result of various conflicts in which we became embroiled - and bankrupted to country to boot.  The Boer War at the turn of the century cost us South Africa.  The World War (both parts, the beginning from 1914 to 1918, and the calamitous second instalment between 1939 and 1945) cost us ultimately the Indian Territories (split in 1947 into India and Pakistan, itself subsequently split into Pakistan and Bangladesh), various African colonies and much of the West Indies.  Even Australia and New Zealand have been debating for years whether to drop allegiance to the Crown and become Republics, as has Canada.  The British Commonwealth, of which all these breakaway independents still belong, is not much more than a talking shop and weakish trading bloc now, a sorry reminder of what once was and never will be again.

Britain, and the British people, have without doubt turned very inward-looking and isolationist – the phrase Little Englander springs to mind.   In part that is understandable, as a degree of soul-searching never does anyone any harm, individual or nation, and given my country’s record over the past hundred years or so I’m not sure there is too much to be proud of.  As well as the inventions I listed above, we also came up with the concentration camp and the labour camp, both used against our “enemy” in the Boer War, and taken on to perhaps the ultimate obscenity by Messrs Hitler and Stalin (and for that matter every subsequent Russian leader up to and including Putin).  We also came up with the wheeze of mass migration of populations, used against Palestine in 1949 to create the state of Israel, thus sowing the seeds of discontent that cause death and bloodshed and, frankly, genocide in the region to this day – and this is repeating something I railed against in previous posts – see Israel from 2010 and The Rage of Islam and Hamas: Terrorists or resistance group?, both from 2012).  The wheeze is of course still being used today – think the Central African Republic and Syria right now – and there are plenty of other examples.

The soul searching seems to have given rise to an intolerance in society that simply did not exist when I was a kid.  We had influxes of people then, largely from Empire nations like India and the Caribbean and Uganda that were gaining their independence in ways that, not unnaturally, did not please all of their populations.  They were perhaps not welcomed with open arms, but were tolerated and assimilated into British society, and in the vast majority of cases became (and continue to be) valuable members of society.  At times, there were disputes, and people who should have known better – like Enoch “Rivers of Blood” Powell – did more harm than good with their public actions and statements, but generally things settled down again. 

But I cannot for the life of me remember a reaction quite like that in recent years against Eastern Europeans who have come to Britain, after their countries joined the EU and thus obtained freedom of labour movement – a benefit that applies equally to Britons, although is used by them far less.   The press was full of stories ten years or so ago about how millions of Poles were going to flood into Britain, “taking all our jobs and benefits”.  In the event many Poles did come to Britain, but in thousands not millions, and the vast majority of them took no benefits but worked hard, often in lower paid jobs that Brits preferred not to take (either because they were menial jobs like cleaning or paid less than unemployment and housing benefit did) and thus contributed to the economy in taxation and spending.  Most of them stayed a few years, learned the language, learned new skills and went home again, and are now contributing to a flourishing economy in their homeland.  In the past few months, similar scare stories have circulated about Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants – but I’ve seen no evidence that any of them are cheating or stealing their way around the country – the press is strangely silent on that one.  Can anybody explain to me, please, why so few Britons take a similar route?  

There has also been outcry about the numbers of refugees that are arriving in Britain (even though other EU countries take many more) from conflict zones in Africa and, particularly, the Middle East – Syria again springs to mind, as do Egypt and Libya.  Here the vitriol has been increased by a morbid and irrational fear, stoked by ignorant commentators, journalists and politicians of all parties, that to be a Muslim automatically means you’re a terrorist here to blow up innocent people and overthrow our democracy to create an Islamic fundamentalist state.  What a load of old bollocks!  The majority of those people have, quite literally, nothing except the recent memories of carnage and brutality and torture and death, that has left them penniless and homeless, and often grieving for parents or children who went out one day for a loaf of bread and never came back.  Granted, there may be some fundamentalists and budding terrorists amongst them but that, surely, is no reason to turn them all away – it’s the job of education and government and especially their own families to provide the guidance to turn those few away from the wrong path.  And, yes, I know that will be hard.  Most things are.

I’ve seen calls again today to stop foreign aid to countries like Syria and elsewhere – conflict and famine and disaster zones – in favour of “looking after our own”.   Here we need to make clear the distinction between government foreign aid – taken from taxation and forming part of government policy (and obligations) – and charitable donation – what you and I pledge to Comic Relief or Sport Aid or any of the other good causes and charitable foundations.   Which part exactly is to be stopped is far from clear in any of the Facebook postings I’ve seen.

I come back again to my earlier comments about my own flood experience way back when.  Meals On Wheels (is that charity still going?) set up kitchens in the village hall and the local church hall, to keep us fed.  The local council provided practical assistance in clearing up the mess, including industrial blowers to dry everything out and increased refuse collection services to get rid of the detritus.  Most people had insurance policies, some small some large, and the insurance companies accelerated the claims process to help.  And we helped each other – most people have stuff in their homes they don’t need, so we borrowed pots and pans and toasters and rugs and picnic tables and chairs, until we were able to replace the lost stuff.  From memory, apart from Meals On Wheels we received no charitable aid at all – but we managed quite happily, thanks very much.

Fast forward nearly 50 years to the current situation.  Are the British people so mean spirited now, so insular and selfish, that similar self-aid won’t be considered by flood victims?  If that is the case, then that is truly sad. 

The thing about charity is that it should always, but always, be voluntary – voluntarily given and voluntarily received.  It is not, and never should be considered, an absolute “right” when something goes wrong.   My mum and dad, I know, would have been embarrassed if someone had started a “charity begins at home” campaign back in ’67, but they were from a generation that knew the sort of deprivation and suffering that people in war zones go through – during WW2 my dad was away fighting in North Africa and Burma while my mum was raising a couple of kids alone on rations, as were hundreds of thousands like her.   They would have empathised, I’m sure, with the people in Homs and Gaza and the CAR and the Philippines who are struggling to make a life now with far less than any British flood victim.

It seems to me that Britain is no longer Great, and hasn’t been so for years.  It seems to be increasingly a selfish and prejudiced society, that carries a chip on its shoulder from its long lost glory days.  Certainly that is how, in my experience, it is perceived in many parts of the world, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to make an alternative case.   

I am British, and glad to be so, but it saddens me to see and hear some of the trash that comes from my fellow British.  It saddens me more that a country once a held up as a fine example of a tolerant, caring and giving society is reduced to a constant litany of complaint, usually unwarranted and ill-informed.  And it saddens me most that it seems to be getting worse by the day.

And there is not a damned thing I can do to change it.