Friday, June 08, 2012

Panic Buying Of Bunting And A Rant About The Jubilee

After 17 months in Asia, I have finally returned to the UK and it’s been quite a culture shock as I suppose I always knew it would be. “How are you going to cope with being back here?” concerned friends and relatives asked. They answered the question themselves before I could. “You’re not. Are you?”

Well, I have no idea, if the truth be told. I arrived just in time for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Festivities would be too strong a word. I went to my parents’ village fete, which was opened by actor David Jason, who lives down the road, and watched the egg and spoon races and drank the awful summer bitter supplied by Chiltern Brewery.

Then I watched the military parades put on by the Army, RAF and sea cadets, and took a couple of pictures of Del Boy posing with the Royal British Legion Riders Branch, hoping the snaps might get into one or two of the papers. I could see the headline already “Lovely Jub-i-lee” - and wrote how the Only Fools And Horses star had swapped his grubby three wheeler for a shiny Harley Davidson.

But what struck me most was the massive difference between Asian culture, particularly in Cambodia, where I spent most of my months in SE Asia, and the floral-knitted lifestyle enjoyed in Britain. It seems far more tediously pedestrian than when I went away, not that it has probably changed that much however badly the country’s been run by Dave and his pasty-eating chums.

Of course, there are many things wrong with Cambodia - abject poverty, corruption, the complete lack of free education and healthcare, not to mention the impunity of officials able to gun down protesters who have the temerity to ask for little more than a slight improvement in their atrocious living standards. By comparison, the pasty tax is a tiny cold sore on the moon’s face.

But there are many things the country does much better than Britain, and perhaps the most noticeable of these is having fun. I think people here have forgotten how to do it. It isn’t just the terrible weather and the obsession with it - newspapers banging on about the Blitz spirit and how a million people lined the Thames, braving life and limb in monsoon conditions to cheer on the Queen  - it’s something far more depressing and mundane. You can’t blame it all on sodden spirits and the icy grips on umbrellas, it’s what passes for having a good time these days.

Just how did people celebrate this historic, patriotic occasion - and more importantly an extra day off from the soul-destroying office? They waved flags and held garden parties, and got local celebrities they never see for the rest of the year, to open village fetes. Some even held jam competitions and rode ponies. But nowhere, from what I could gather from idiot TV presenters interviewing people around the country about what the Queen means to them, did anyone seem to be having any fun. Nothing even close to it.

After Del Boy had done his stuff and tottered back to his mansion in his huge wellies, people gathered outside the village hall for a pig roast. And how did they enjoy this porky feast? They formed a huge queue, as only the British can. Few people spoke, no-one mingled, they just looked at the queue snaking away in front of them and wondered whether there would still be some meat by the time it was their turn to bung some apple sauce in a floury bap.

I’ve seen street beggars in Phnom Penh having more fun with a flat can of coke. It was sad to see. And for me, it largely comes down to community spirit. Or the complete absence of it. Here, villagers live a few yards from each other, just like Cambodia - and yet no-one knows who anyone is. It’s all about the fact they get in little boxes to drive to work, then work in bigger boxes, and then return in their little boxes for an evening in front of an even smaller box, which is why so many pubs are closing. And the only interaction they have is when a planning application is submitted and they get hot under their NIMBY collars and worry about how the extra homes or high speed rail link will affect property prices.

There’s tangible fear everywhere. Fear of breaking tedious bylaws and being seen to do wrong. Fear of being themselves. Fear of actually enjoying themselves. You might disagree. You might think what does this idiot know. We had a tug of war in our village, a cow pat-throwing family fun day, and a nettle eating competition. It was great fun.

But it really struck it home to me after the pig roast when everyone drove up the hill to light the beacon and listen to a jazz band in the icy rain. After frets about where you’d park and warnings from the local cadets about if you left your car on the road “it was at your own risk”, people tramped over the hill to watch 25lb cannons being fired, and silently prayed one of them might hit that terrible eye-sore of a garage their neighbour had built (we’re sure without the relevant fire certificate and building regulations). Then it was time for the fire to be lit.

You could see where it was despite the darkness and horizontal rain because there was a huge fire engine and a dozen firefighters ready to jump in should the burning crates get out of hand and somehow set fire to the sodden hillside. Or perhaps they were worried some Royalist madness might take over and people would start burning suspected witches? Not that you could really get much of a view of the fire engine because you had to stand well behind a safety cordon at least 100 yards from the action and imagine the warmth of the flames from there, and how wonderful it would be to chuck in a couple of foil-wrapped, ambient spuds.

One of my last memories of Cambodia was a three-day village party - this time not in celebration of a Royal anniversary, with the ensuing panic buying of bunting, but because they wanted to - with a spit-roast calf and a fire in a nearby field. There was no safety cordon or fire crew ordering you where to stand, or little sergeant majors telling you to cover your ears when the cannons went off, or ‘safe areas’ for the fireworks. Or even any queues for that matter.

There was just the chaotic enjoyment of the good things in life, and bottles of Mekong whisky being passed around until people got into such a state of happy oblivion they’d not so much forgotten to worry about whether the Volvo with its tucked-in wing mirrors would be safe on the grassy verge, but that they had one at all.

I remember a four-year-old boy clutching a handful of fireworks as his father lit them. Proper ones too. Bang, they went, and lit up the sky. No-one died, no-one got injured, but everyone had a good time. As I say, there are many things wrong with Cambodia, and there are many laws needed there that would desperately improve people’s lives, but we’ve gone far too far the other way until the very essence of life has been throttled out of us in perfectly-trimmed suburbia.

Yes, you can still find places in this ridiculous nanny state where people still enjoy themselves, but it’s a shame what this country has become and how any sense of community spirit has long vanished.

Anyway this rant is over. As I slowly get used to the appalling summer weather here again, I’ve been cheering myself up by cooking all the dishes I’ve missed living in hotels for the past 17 months, with only a kettle to cook in, which I’m going to post here over the next few days. Who said life isn’t fun?

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE


@R_McCormack said...

It's not as bad as that in Scotland in the villages. I think village Southern England is particularly joyless.

Nicky said...

I'd say welcome back, but it doesn't sound like you're very happy to be here! We had a fun time: local village bar rammed to the gunwhales, much laughter and silliness, nothing (that mattered) set on fire :) Anyway, truly, welcome home: have a Sunday dinner and a bacon sarnie and you'll feel wonderful!

Karl said...

Aha! There you are. Pop over here if you fancy it. I've got four months left I reckon before returning to Italy. I can't promise you sun but I can promise fire and danger and potatoes. And lots of wine. (Wherein lies the danger.) Drop me a line, go on. Anon.