• Are you social distancing?

    (Photo by Everton Vila)

    This is an emergency. Where is the urgency, Sweden? Well, the same accusation was being flung at the UK until this week, but let’s look a little more closely at the facts. 

    Slowing the curve

    So, the scientific evidence is clear. During epidemics you get ‘the surge’, and the only way to avoid an uncontainable spike in cases is to limit people’s contact with each other, or ‘social distancing’. 

    This means, essentially, avoiding large-scale organized fun, no kissing, no bear hugs, dammit no shaking hands. It involves a nod at best, or if you’re getting avant-garde, a foot rub (through sealed footwear). 

    It means keeping chat to a bare minimum, and certainly making sure to avoid animated chat on subjects liable to impassion (to minimize the spread of saliva). Since coronavirus is the only subject in town, and a passionate one at that, it means zipping it. 

    Supermarket sweep

    It means heading to the supermarket at asocial hours when you are least likely to bump into people you might have to interact with either verbally or otherwise. 

    It involves dressing soberly, betraying no emotion, and acting as if everything is entirely normal. This, despite the fact that it’s clear there has been a run on legumes and toilet roll, like some strange inversion of a midsummer BBQ weekend. 

    But remember, the greatest scientific minds in our nations have been studying the facts, not the fake news. They have observed quite clearly that social distancing measures have been rigorously enforced by Swedes and Brits for generations. 

    Put out the fire

    Clearly, drastic measures were required in Italy, where social distancing was a concept so alien as to be entirely uncommunicable. The same goes for Spain and France. Even those hot-blooded Danes (the Latins of the Nordics) had to rein it in. 

    Meanwhile, life has continued entirely undisturbed in Sweden. Policy only started to shift in Britain when it was realised that eradicating free movement of people was a central plank of government policy. Talk about win-win…

    Yes, Swedes and Brits were separated at birth, and Swedes are just Brits with good branding

  • Staying silent on Brexit

    Terrace backstreet in England with no-one around
    (Photo by Ethan Wilkinson)

    “In the Nazi era they flew the red swastika flag – but only when it became too dangerous not to.”

    This is a quote from Rowan Rheingans – interviewed in Songlines about her excellent debut solo album The Lines We Draw Together (see my Top of the World review of the album in My Latest Work), based on her stage show, Dispatches On The Red Dress

    She is talking about her German grandparents. It’s a revealing little line that rang a bell for me. We again live in turbulent times. Many people in the current Brexit debate in the UK are keen to compare their adversaries with the Nazis of 1930s Germany. 

    While the N-word is unhelpful, the atmosphere of the times has been personally revealing for me. On more than one occasion since Brexit, when confronted with close neighbours, members of my community, espousing pro-Brexit and anti-EU opinions, I’ve remained silent. 

    What price my freedom?

    I have become aware of how uncomfortable it is to contradict a prevailing view. Living in Herefordshire, where Brexit swept the boards, I felt compelled, by my own cowardice, to avoid saying I disagreed with them.

    The prospect of being ostracised in your own community, rejected by your own neighbours, cuts deep. Silently going along with their statements allows you to carry on being accepted. How far does that go?

    You may scoff

    Brexiteers aren’t Nazis, I hear you splutter. They don’t carry a threat of violence. That’s certainly true of the Brexiteers I’ve listened to. But it’s one thing to be a loud and proud Remainer from the safety of inner London.

    Out here the LEAVE billboards have only just about come down in the fields and on the side of pubs. I never saw a Remain poster in the entire referendum campaign.

    Oi, mate! Come over here and say that…

    And now I’ve mentioned the B-word, fancy some Brexit and Morality?

  • You live in the right place, right?

    Red double-decker London bus toy with an advert on the side
    No mincing of words

    France has the best wine in the world. Sweden has the best childcare in the world. Britain has the best television in the world. Brazil has the best football in the world. 

    We love to tell ourselves stories. I’ve been living in a new country now for two months, and it makes you realise just how much we’re encouraged to buy-in to the stories of a nation. 

    God’s own country

    All countries like to think they’re best – some more than others, perhaps. I do come from Great Britain, after all. Not just good, but Great. But wherever you are, a lot of effort is expended in making you sure you’re where you should be. 

    ‘British Meat’s got the lot!’

    That’s what it says on the side of a toy bus I’ve had since childhood. Now my son drives it around the carpet. It’s just one tiny, innocuous example of the recurring mantra that you’re in the right place. 

    That’s probably a good thing. The last thing we need is millions more dissatisfied subjects, clammering to cross borders. But for anyone who has placed a foot in another country, this refrain becomes a little exposed. 

    Is it really better here?

    Nationalist blasphemy, of course. Everything and everyone around you encourages you towards contentment with the way things are where you live. 

    Of course Britain has the best political system, the best drivers, the best beer – until, that is, you arrive somewhere where everyone tells you they have the best political system, the best drivers and the best beer. What then?

    A place called Sweden

    As a new arrival, Swedes have been keen to unveil their envied social system to me. They pay a lot of tax. They’re happy to, because they have the best social care in the world. That’s how it is. 

    But scratch a bit and their social care isn’t that different to British social care, yet you pay a lot more for it. But hush, don’t tell the Swedes. They’re content with living in the right place. 

    As for the British, they have the best political system in the world. But hush, don’t… oh. 

    If you want to cross a border, Is It Your Right To Migrate?

  • What is Hong Kong?

    Hong Kong Island skyline with Kowloon in the background
    A city or a state? (Photo by Ryan McManimie)

    Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997. Now it’s Chinese. Looking from the UK, that’s pretty much how things appear. It’s only as you get closer that you find it’s not so simple as that. 

    Sort of sovereign

    In light of the current protests against extraditing Hong Kongers to Mainland China, I was reminded of my surprise – on crossing the land border – at the extent to which Hong Kong still feels like a separate state.

    I first visited Hong Kong in the 2000s. At the time, I regarded it as my first visit to China. After all, it’s officially Chinese territory. On top of that, it’s quite clearly a Chinese city in ethnic and cultural terms. 

    When I took the boat to Kowloon, I was even surer I was in China. The district felt a little less Western, a little less British than Hong Kong Island. What’s more, Kowloon is on the mainland – in purely geographical terms. 

    Where does the mainland start?

    I made my second visit to Hong Kong in January 2019. That time, I crossed the border between Hong Kong and what everyone calls ‘The Mainland’. I visited the Chinese city of Shenzhen – and this was no EU-style border. 

    The majority of Hong Kong’s land is actually a peninsula of the mainland, not islands. Along its 30km land border with ‘The Mainland’, there are several border crossings. 

    Whereas borders between sovereign states within the European Union can be crossed without even realizing it, you know all about moving from Hong Kong into Mainland China. 

    Passports and visas please!

    You must pass Hong Kong border guards. Then you’re driven across no man’s land. Finally, you must pass Chinese border guards. All that can come as a shock to someone who thought it was all one country. 

    And officially it is. One country, two systems, and all that. Just don’t forget your passport. 

    Read more about my visit to Shenzhen in my blog: When Baldrick met a QR Code in China

  • Imagine your vote counted

    Person voting at a ballot box
    They all count (Photo by Element5 Digital)

    I voted last week. Local elections. Just local people with local issues. Nothing exciting for the outside world. But something unexpected and previously unknown happened… The candidate I voted for won. 

    Guess what, my vote counts

    My candidate didn’t just win – she won by a landslide. In that moment, it dawned on me. All my life, I had walked into polling stations with reverence. I knew how lucky I was to be able to vote. But I never actually thought my vote counted. 

    I have always voted in rural England, a place where politics barely exists. I realised in that moment that to vote in rural England is a bit like voting in Egypt. Yes, you can have a vote. Choose whomever you like. It makes no difference. 

    The Tory will always win

    Because the Tory will always win, I realised that even at the age of 40, I still hold that slightly disgruntled, apathetically accepting peasant’s attitude that someone else will always serve.

    I can get all the education I like. I can be as well-informed about the world as possible. But I will never enact decisions. The Tories do that for me. Them, and occasionally Labour. I’m merely a passenger. 

    What will you do with your power? 

    When the candidate I chose – The Green Party’s Diana Toynbee – won with 531 votes, taking 52.9% of the vote, I had a new sensation. I felt like the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution Egypt. Wow. We won? Now what do we do? 

    The act of responsibility, of actually being given the opportunity to make decisions, is a heady one, even by the proxy of representative democracy. When it happened, I realised how much potential is wasted when people like me spend most of their lives assuming they are voiceless. 

    Democracy is a great idea

    I could paraphrase Gandhi here. In England, democracy would be a great idea. If we could move on from the notion that the Tories simply run things – outside a few urban Labour areas – we might stop grumbling about them. 

    More importantly, we might learn the lesson the Muslim Brothers briefly learnt in Egypt. That running things is hard. Much harder than living in eternal, angry, impotent opposition to power. 

    Talking of votes, fancy another one on Brexit?

  • Swedes are Brits with good branding

    Blonde woman with large daisy flowers in her hair standing with back to camera against a flowery bush
    The darling buds of May, June, July… (Photo by Christian Widell)

    The Swedes have branding sown up. It’s like they ingest it from birth. Sweden just rings so true as an idea for the rest of the world. Happy, blonde people living fairly with each other and in harmony with nature – and no matter what the weather, doing everything well. 

    What’s so Swedish about a maypole? 

    Think Sweden. Think fish as a national dish. Think dancing around a pole in Midsummer. Think lagom – not too little, not too much. It all seems so quintessentially Swedish. But hang on…

    A British national fish dish? Fish’n’chips, anyone? Dancing around a pole. That’ll be why we call it a maypole. Brits may not have done it since before the Industrial Revolution, but we still call it a maypole. Lagom – not too little, not too much? Pure Presbyterian self-moderation. 

    Not only that, but listen to a Swedish – or indeed Danish – voiceover on TV, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to a very drunk Geordie. We’re practically national siblings. But boy, oh boy, Swedes have sold themselves so much better. 

    Maybe it’s that Industrial Revolution? Maybe it’s the Imperial twitch? Maybe Britain’s problem is that there are just too many strands to pick? A good brand needs focus, a single narrative. Is it Cool Britannia? Is it Brexit Britain? Is it Global Britain? Form an orderly queue…