The sound of England

4 November, 2013 (22:31) | All articles | By: Stuart Fraser

In my 20s I spent a lot of time in France and Italy, one way or another. I remember agreeing wholeheartedly with the theory that the sound of life around the Med is loud, exuberant, full of chatter and gesture and bustle, while the sound of life in England is a sort of low-pitched, grey whine.

Brother Fiddle’s return from gigging in Spain reminded me vividly of this: he was full of the invigorating joys of the viva Espana, and its sun-kissed difference to our cautious, jealous snivels.

Then, last week. God, there was a lot of snivelling last week. Little people in little logo’d uniforms or dayglo tabards, dully fulfilling the instructions they’d been given post-focus-group, by PowerPoint, by men and women in cheap polyester suits chanting that old mantra “It’s not my fault, I’m only doing what I’ve been told”, reinforced by a thousand neatly printed rules neatly ordered by the neat accountants.


During the summer holidays, Management took the boys to visit the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. They paid for admission for the three of them and had a very nice time, so much so that the boys were keen to make use of the free return voucher given to them all.

So, at the end of half-term, we visited again – only this time, I, not Management, took the boys. I had the voucher and a utility bill in our joint names so the staff could see the link between our names.

Naturally, the staff member at reception unequivocally pointed out that the voucher was not transferable and I could not be admitted for free with my sons. When I asked for a contact point to which I should address a complaint, she said: “But what have you got to complain about? It’s not transferable, it’s quite clear!”

Once upon a time I would have made a scene, but I am really very weary of this world. So we left, and we had a pleasant stroll round Plymouth instead. The boys bought a Dr Who DVD in the market and I reluctantly didn’t buy a £5 box set of the great Bill Evans’ Riverside recordings, and we had a nice time. Listen to Peace Piece, if you can.

I have written to the Aquarium, of course, asking why the staff are not empowered to take decisions that welcome visitors. Doubtless I’ll get one of those “we value your enquiry and endeavour to answer all queries within 15 years” e-mails, which makes me want to disembowel, with the severed arms of Michael Gove, the dullards who permit them. Doubtless I’ll be told there are some very neat, precise conditions which staff must meet, and rules which must be observed, and officials who must get the right pieces of paper. I suggested: “Well, by putting people first,  you would have enthused and educated two small boys, who, regrettably, now understand a great deal more about the words ‘inflexible’, ‘joyless’ and ‘jobsworth’ than I would have wanted them to at their age.”

Anyway. Then we went to the fireworks in Callington. There, a man in a high-vis jacket ordered the crowds pointlessly around, removing my Tom from the metal barrier I’d perched him on so he could see over people’s heads, whining: “It’s only what I’ve been told….” and not pausing to think “if they can’t have people on this spot, why have they put a barrier there?” The fireworks were great. I did lose my temper a bit, this time.

Anyway. A few weeks ago I had four or five replies to various messages I’d sent out for various work reasons, so I politely answered all of them. Do you think anybody’s got back to me yet? We have mass unemployment and mass poverty because we don’t employ enough people for enough money to perform the commonest of common courtesies.

Then I wrote a letter complaining about staff cuts and cuts to the service in our local education.  A few days later I got a reply about four paragraphs long, which made it abundantly clear the recipient had barely read the original, and offered no answers or explanations to my points at all. More than 30 questions were simply not answered. As for the suggestion that we stand up and fight for services to our children to not only be maintained but improved… silence.

Then I wrote to Eric Pickles, who said he was going to stand up for hard-working families against town hall parking bullies. OK then, I said, in that case can you get me back the £35 cheated out of me by Cornwall Council’s Town Hall parking bullies? Did he keep his promise, do you think?

Of course, the right thing to do is not complain and not write and not demand answers and not stand up for people’s jobs and not fight to keep children’s services and not shout against petty rules and penny-pinching edicts because by complaining all the time you get to the point where people don’t want to listen because that’s difficult and requires conscience and it’s so very much easier just to go with the flow, to don the polyester, to do as you’re told, to follow the rules, to adopt the grey snivelling whine. You wouldn’t think for a moment, would you, that we come from a centuries-old tradition of fucking well fighting for something better?

I remember, fondly, that Latin approach to the rules typified, in cliché, in the driving of the Italians and the loving of the French. Rules? To hell with that!

I remember taking a wrong turn up somebody’s long drive in the hills above Florence, and arriving at the palatial entrance to a country home amid a small crowd of fashionable dinner guests. I turned my little Fiat 500 to make a hasty exit, but the hosts, laughing, virtually threw themselves in front of the car and invited us in for a drink. We left, helplessly pissed, at one in the morning, waved cheerily but drunkenly on our way by the hosts and the wife’s brother, the local chief of police, in uniform. In England, in a crappy old Fiat 500, we’d have been shot for being foreign or poor before we got to the top of the drive.

We did have some great fun during half term. At the National Trust’s Lanhydrock, the staff and volunteers are so pleasant and helpful. Granny bought us family membership of the NT last year, and it’s been a really brilliant present.

I took the two boys to do some Hallowe’en trails last week. One steward told the boys and I a story about how the estate’s son and heir Tommy Agar-Robartes, 100 years ago, incurred his father’s wrath by carving his initials with a penknife in some precious oak panelling.

This lovely lady sent us off to find another volunteer, who went out of her way, and over and under some of the rope cordons, to show the boys the very spot where the initials were still visible. The boys left Lanhydrock bursting with enthusiasm, having been welcomed and valued.

Later – and I’m not proud of this – we lunched at Burger King, at Jamie’s request. He, my oldest, had a child’s meal which came with a free gift. My youngest didn’t want a whole meal; he just wanted some fries. Though he had not bought the required child’s meal, the cheerful young assistant took it upon herself to put his fries in a child’s meal bag like his brother’s, and enclosed the free gift (a Simpsons sticker book) for which he did not actually qualify. This, and the accompanying service, were absolutely first class and very much appreciated and it all told me right off for turning my snooty nose up at the place.

So it can be done, even in a corporate world, even amid the low moan of don’t-let-the-foreigners-in-they’ll-steal-my-granny-and-rape-my-car England. It just takes what it always took: people with a smattering of courage and an ounce of conscience and a smidgeon of concern for the world around them and a bit of independent thought and some humour and a sense of fun and the tiniest hint of a feeling that what we really all ought to want to do is leave the world just infinitesimally better than we found it.  That’s what it takes.

Not lickspittles, forelock-tuggers, dullards, arse-lickers, target-meeters, target-setters the bastards, grey whining snivelling keep-up-with-the-Joneses tug-the-net-curtains look-at-my-new-company-car yes sir I’ll do exactly as you say sir only please let me still work for you sir I’ll kick that cripple if you want sir cowards. Cowards.

Facts. That’s f-a-c-t-s

A year’s Jobseeker’s Allowance: £3,692. Heating bills claimed on expenses by a Tory MP: £5,822. Remind me: who are the scroungers ripping off the honest taxpayer?

Hilariously, The Sun has apologised for its screaming headline about 600,000 benefit tourists scrounging off the British state, in a tiny box hidden on an inside page, with the words: “(It) was not accurate. There is no evidence of 600,000 benefit tourists in the UK.” I haven’t yet seen the apologies from the Telegraph, the Express or the vile Mail.

However, the Daily Mail, to its credit, has been exposing some untruth. It reported the facts – that’s f-a-c-t-s folks – about the energy firms. You know how they blame spiralling wholesale prices for putting up their bills? Well, don’t be too surprised, but they were lying. That’s l-y-i-n-g. Wholesale prices have been stable since 2012. You know how they moan about their tiny profits and the difficulty of turning an honest buck in the face of the evil government’s evil green levies? Well, don’t be too surprised, but they were lying. That’s l-y-i-n-g. Again. Profits of the big six have doubled in the last 12 months.

Talk of lying liars brings us to Iain Duncan Smith’s colleague Michael Gove.  Visit to see how the little monster has been selling his hate-filled programme.

Let the good times roll

Back to where we started, and let the good times roll. That’s what dear Brother Fiddle did on Friday night at his big birthday gig – it was nice to see the landmark recorded in the national newspaper birthday columns. I really couldn’t get there, to my shame, but everybody’s saying what a great evening they had. Many happy returns, Brother. May you live long and loud!


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