By George!

I almost forgot – but today is actually the most forgotten holiday in the British Isles: St. George’s Day, the national day of the English.

Not the British, that is, for the proud nation of the United Kingdom has no national day at all, only the Queen’s official birthday (what nonsense), but the English. Which is only beginning to become known in later years (ugh, that was a nasty sentence, but I’m too tired to rewrite it).

So while the Scots wallow in haggis on Burns Night and the Irish roll in Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day (quarter irish as I am, I grumpily boycotted the latter event this year simply because my schedule on that day prevented me from joining in the said rolling), the English do not even have a Bank Holiday on their national day, which pases most people by unnoticed anyway.

I am currently reading (and much enjoying) Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People, where he points out the irony of the mainland of the former British Empire lacking such a national identity of its own. Mind you, we don’t even have an anthem of our own either, so, for example, whenever England wins the football (soccer) World Championship (ho hum), we have to borrow the national anthem of the whole of Britain, which in turn is little else than a prayer for the salvation of the Queen and has nothing to do with the rest of the country anyway.

But then again, maybe the chronic lack of football success is one of the reasons why those of us who were born in that part of the country find it so difficult to muster an English identity.

We recently discussed this at work, where the ever-present discussion on what to name the various bparts of Britain in news texts reappeared. I tried to point out that most people in, say Devon, Cornwall or Yorkshire would be perfectly happy to be called “British”, while writing “Edinburgh in Britain” would probably be enough to spark a new William Wallace uprising, even though it is technically correct.

And while there is an increasing sense of Englishness in England, the truth is that most English would refer to themselves as British rather than anything else.

Or am I wrong here? What say ye English readers of this blog? Your thoughts on this are most welcome in the Comments section.

Happy St. George’s to you while you think about what to write.

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Disgusted By The British Media

Rarely have I been so disgusted by the British media as I have today, and their betrayal is twofold.

To begin with, while the most appalling of unmentionable atrocities are being uncovered at a former orphanage in Jersey, the media chooses not to hunt down the perpeetrators still alive and do their job to investigate what exactly went on or how the authorities could let the cover-up continue FORTY YEARS. Who were the protectors in high places? Who of the highbrass were even involved? And who is going to go out and fight for the poor. poor small inocent chidren?

No, instead, the media is full of prince Harry’s days in Afghanistan.

There we have it: a Royal Life is more valuable than scores of abused ordinary children.

That would have bene enough to make me vomit as it is. But the second thing that makes my stomach turn today is the revelation that the British media has collectively agreed to a massive cover-up of the same prince’s deployments.

And they do not even have the decency to be ashamed of betraying their mission in such a way. Rather, they brag about it.

The obvious question is: What else is being covered up? What else has the media agreed to stay silent on, when its first, main, and last task is to report, disclose and reveal?

I most certainly disagree with the main argument against publishing the news that prince Harry had been sent to Afghanistan: that his life would be in danger. That may be true – but, sorry to say and putting it bluntly, that would be his own fault. Nobody is pointing a gun against his Royal Head and forcing him to go there. If the risks are too big, then by all means stay at home.

But what has happened his time is that somebody whose job it is to be in a public position, has decided to do something that he decides would not gain from media coverage, and has therefore had the media agree to his version and participate in a cover-up.

Am I the only one to see that this principle, once the line has been crossed, could easily be applied to yet another thing, and another, and another? What else wold the Royals like to do that doesn’t hold up to the daylight of publicity, that they would be able to persuade the media to stay silent about?

And why do the Holy Royals have such a privilege in today’s modern world, may I ask? Once again, is the Royal Life worth so much to my fellow Britons, that they are prepared to sell their souls for it?

Today, I feel disgusted to call myself a journalist. And a Briton.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Growing up in an Anglo-Swedish family living in Belgium at least has one advantage that my children will eventually discover: You get Christmas presents over and over again. The only problem is that you don’t quite know from whom.

The Belgian tradition is for children to get their presents from Sinterklaas/St. Nicholas on December 6, and since the Sint, as he is commonly known, frequents the schools around that date, there is no way for us to try to ignore that tradition. (And it would be pretty harsh for the kids to come to school on that day and be asked by their friends “so what did you get from the Sint, then?”) So, already on December 5, our four- and six-year-olds put out a shoe each with carrots in them – for Sint’s horse – and awoke the morning after to find that the Sint had been there to put presents there in return.

Then, the Swedish Christmas starts officially on Christmas Eve, which is the day every Swedish child gets their presents – in fact, that is the main day of Christmas in Sweden. As we have that tradition firmly engraved in us, that is of course when we will have the next Christmas present flurry. More gifts.

The day after, Christmas Day, is traditionally the day when British children get presents in their stockings. Our kids have thus already put their stockings up, so it will be difficult to avoid even more presents then.

Well, if that sounds complicated, we haven’t got to the whole Santa business yet.

The Belgian Santa – the Sint – is not a merry figure from the North Pole; he is a skinny bishop arriving in a boat from Spain. The fact that he lives in sunny Spain rather than the freezing North isn’t so much the result of any modern-day timeshare condo programme, but rather a remnant from the years when Belgium was ruled by Spain and everything came from there. He is accomplished by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a jester-looking chap dressed in medieval clothing who is usually depicted as a blackface minstrel… a seriously politicaly incorrect caricature of an African man, probably in some way stemming from Moorish influences in Spain. He is the one who actually administrates the gift distribution; now there’s another interesting ground for debate over who’s the servant and who’s the master, by the way, but that’s beside the point.

However, the Swedish Santa – Jultomten – is a reformed and overgrown gnome, who lives alternatively at the North Pole or – more often – in Rovaniemi in Finland (although there have been some attempts to relocate him to Mora, Sweden). Not only does this bearded and obese character appear on Christmas Eve: he usually turns up in person, handing out Christmas presents from his sack, usually at the very moment when Dad has popped out to buy the newspaper. Jultomten has nothing in common with the Sint at all, except for being clad in red and handing out presents.

Then, the increasingly americanised version occuring in English-speaking countries, Santa Claus, of course lives at the North Pole, but sneaks down the chimney at night between Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 while the children are sleeping. to fill their stockings.

You’d think that our biggest problem is that we don’t have a chimney, but it gets worse still.

Putting all these things together means that we have to try to explain to our kids why this figure first appears in their school in full visibility, then sneaks in at home here at night, then changes clothes completely, gives Zwarte Piet a vacation in the middle of their busiest season, puts on 30-40 kilos in 18 days and relocates to the far North before turning up here again in full visibility, only to sneak in back here again the very night after to pop a few extra gifts down the kid’s socks that he could just as well have given to them the evening before.

The other day, we went to the local British store, where we buy all things English. There, the children had the chance of meeting Father Christmas, the fourth incarnation of this seasonal fiction, who is the English version of Santa (but ethnologically not entirely Santa Claus either).

“Is Zwarte Piet with him?” the Four-year-old asked expectantly.

Help.

Cowardy-Cowardy-Custard

…as we used to chant when I was a little boy in London at anyone backing down from anything scary. This time, I’d be happy to yell that abuse at the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Mr. Brown has a delicate problem. He can’t be seen signing the new EU Constitution Reform Treaty in Lisbon today together with his 26 colleagues from the other EU member states, because that would offend Eurosceptics in his party and in his country (like The Sun, endlessly campaigning against the Constitution Reform Treaty for wringing national sovereignty out of the British government’s hands). He can’t not sign, because that would be too much of a snub that would throw Britain’s position within the EU off balance, and because he has painted himself into the proverbial corner of speaking too much of the document as being just another treaty that doesn’t need to be put to a referendum in Britain, and therefore musnt’t be rejected by Britain at the signatory stage.

So what does he do – choose one opinion and be damned? Nope. He is sending his Foreign Secretary David Milliband to participate in the signatory ceremony, staying at home with the worst excuse in British political history: a schedule conflict has regrettably prohibited him from attending; he will be in Parliament answering questions instead. But, after that, he will fly out to Lisbon to join the rest of the gang for a few drinks – oh, what a coincidence, just after they’ve signed the document – and put his name on it in private. In secret, almost, or at least well away from all the drums and trumpets of the main event.

So acts a spineless amoeba who will avoid taking a stand even at the cost of making an utter, utter fool of hiself.

And to think that this person is to lead Britain instead of having custard pies rightl thrown at him.

Clock Wise

Great Britain – emphasis, as always, on Great – is an island floating around about half way across the Atlantic. Indeed, if you look realy close, it’s probably not too far from Martha’s Vineyard. At least if you believe some Britons, the kind who seriously believe that Britain should leave the European Union and join the NAFTA.

I was reminded about this wackiness when reading some of the comments to this interesting column by Anatole Kaletsky in today’s The Times:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/anatole_kaletsky/article2780647.ece

Why should Britain be one hour after the European continent, he asks, when this only leads to unnecessary problems? Companies can’t communicate with each other because they work different hours, especially when it comes to the question of when to have lunch.

At first, it seemed as if he had made a point. After all, a truthful map will reveal the horrible truth that my dear home country is not only that great in size after all, but that it is in fact – oh, perish the thought – more north than west of much of Europe. It is in fact east of Spain, which is one hour ahead.

Bah! sneer the commentators. Why should we adapt to that stupid European Union? Our ties with America are far more important; let’s not make the time difference with the US larger than it is already, they howl, instantly forgetting that the overwhelming majority of Britain’s business is done with other EU countries.

But then, as it dawned on me as I continued to read the comments, why do we mess with this shifting of clocks back and forth at all?

Twice a year, we all engage in this quite ridiculous event of all pretending that it’s A o’clock instead of B o’clock. In order to save daylight time, we are old, only to find ourselves quitting Daylight Saving Time during the part of the year when daylight is at its scarcest.

The question is simple: Why don’t we just change our active hours instead?

It’s such a sign of the arrogance of mankind that our immediate response is to decide to force reality to follow our lifestyles instead of the other way round.

Let the time follow the time zones that the Earth’s rotation dictates, even if it does mean that we have to accept the painful truth that we live across a globe, not a flat map where you could shine daylight on everyone a the same time. If you do need to do business with Seattle or Tokyo, adjust your working hours accordingly. And if you cherish daylight, make the effort of actually rolling out of bed a little earlier in the morning.

And as for the lunch thing, well, like I’ve said before, the real time difference across the EU is not between East and West but between North and South, and no clock-shifting could ever change that.

Told You So!

Well, it’s Friday evening at 10pm, and the EU Summit is still going on. Judging from the latest reports, they’ll be haggling long into Saturday as well, and if you were planning to have a European Prime Minister for dinner on Sunday, don’t be too surprised if s/he doesn’t turn up.

They’re slowly being roasted elsewhere, a few storeys up in the Justus Lipsius Building on Rue de la Loi, Brussels.

I thought this summit would be lengthy, but I must say I am surprised at how long it seems that it will be. Apparently, Britain’s and Poland’s objections have tunred out to be harder to overcome than expected, and now France has thrown another spanner in the works – or should I say “wooden clog”, sabot in French, the throwing of which into machines during early Industrialism coined the term sabotage – by seemingly tried to delete the EU’s focus on free competition.

This is seriously outrageous. If there’s anything the EU has got right – apart from  being able to prevent war in pour part of the world – then it is to fight for good competition for the benefit of European consumers. Just look at how they’ve take on Microsoft, noone else has done that! And if there’s something France is god at, it’s state-aid, protectionism, and anything else that distorts free competition. And now Monsieur Sarkozy wants that to become EU policy?

Sure, he has all kinds of explanations why this isn’t really the case, and so on. But I get the creeps when the first effort of the new French President is to overthrow the good work the EU is doing and plunge it down into the mire of oligarchy.

Not to mention that the EU has problems already with this summit.

Disinventing Service, The Belgian Way

Belgian people are usually very friendly and nice when you meet them privately. We have many good friends here whom we appreciate very much, and who have been great blessings to know. So it is therefore extra tragic that as soon as you put a Belgian behind a counter or in any other service function, s/he turns into Basil Fawlty.

These last few week, I have had cascades of bad experiences of that kind, each of which is a story on its own. I have had to call, call, call, call, shout, yell, rant and rave at a car glass company to come and fix my car’s broken window as they had agreed to do (they finally turned up in the middle of the night), I have been scorned by checkout staff at my local supermarket for being a paying customer, I have been rudely told off by waiting staff for complaining that we didn’t get what we ordered at a restaurant – and had another argument when trying to explain that I wasn’t going to pay for food that I didn’t receive – and to round it off nicely, today, I had someone at the call centre of the famous Belgian rail company slam the phone down on me (after him being rude and generally disinterested) when I called and asked why their Internet booking system didn’t seem to accept any Visa cards (yes, there was enough money on them, yes, we did try several different cards).

Previous experiences include being yelled at by a toilet lady because my brother-in-law from Sweden, who only wanted to use the public lavatory, did not speak French; and the whole story about when it took Belgacom five visits and numerous calls to do such a simple thing as connecting a phone – at one point, they managed to hardwire us with our neighbour’s phone – is a story in itself that I hope to share some day.

My friend‘s tale of having to threaten a local appliances chain with legal action in order for them to hand her computer back to her after repairing it – her own computer – is a story she’ll have to tell herself.

I just can’t fathom this. More often than not, people in such functions act as if their jobs were so below them that their customers are, too. They take an attitude of being some sort of Government officials, before whom you’d better take your hat off and bow down in humility, for them to lower themselves to even hearing your request.

In fact, I have even found that it works better if you play Opposite World with them: if you as a customer constantly apologise to them, things work better.

The idea that we as paying customers pay their salary just doesn’t seem to enter their heads. Rather, they seem cross with us for keeping them at work, rather than sitting at the local pub drinking Hoegaarden on the taxpayers’ expense.

I know that this is a harsh way to say things. But during my total of about five years in this country, I have been so rudely treated so many times by so many different people who were supposed to be customer-friendly that I most certainly see a pattern. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. And I feel that it is time to speak up.

I do not want to be treated like a piece of dirt just because I’m getting my groceries. All I want is my groceries. You don’t even have to smile or say hi, like many don’t here, just check my stuff out and let me pay and I won’t bother you any more. But as soon as they make a mistake or mess up, they get angry with me.

In other countries, the customer is always right. In Belgium, the customer is always wrong.

There are some fine examples of the opposite, and I hope to one day be able to publish my own Good Brussels Guide of companies and shops who treat you well. But far to often to be acceptable in any way, you get the opposite. And that’s just not good enough.

Some 30 years ago, it was all the same in Britain. We British treated our customers like garbage, to our everlasting shame. We used to handle complaints by shrugging our shoulders and say “Sorry, I don’t know”; “sorry” here generally being used in this context meaning “I don’t know and I don’t care“.

But then came Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch, and we saw ourselves and how awful we behaved. We moved on.

You’d hope that there would some day be some Fawltieckxe Toren/Tour des Fawltieckx on Belgian TV, but frankly I doubt that it would do the trick. Basil Fawlty is quite an ordinary figure in Belgian everyday life, and I doubt very much that people would get the jokes at all… because his behaviour seems to be considered quite normal here.

(click to play)