In Britain, complaining is patriotic
It really is, you know. It’s how we show our love. Sarcasm, grumbling, and saying everything with one eyebrow raised is basically how we get our jollies in this country. Well, that, and eating chips – although not Macdonalds fries, because they, whilst largely considered to be perfectly tasty, are not what any self-respecting Brit would consider a chip. Fries are what Americans eat with their cheeseburgers. Chips are big chunky yummy things you eat in the pub with a pint while you’re sheltering from the rain because your umbrella turned inside out in the wind and hit you in the eye while you were waiting for a bus.
If cynical moaning offends you, then you’re living in the wrong country.
Even so, our esteemed Mayor of London Boris has joined the growing list of voices insisting that we must, we must, we absolutely bloody well must on all accounts have a good time during the Olympics, and if we don’t like it we can belt up and stop our “whingeing.”
Does he know what country he’s in? This is not America. They do enthusiasm on tap extremely well. Neither is this France or Italy. We don’t get passionate, we don’t show our emotions. Well, unless we’re drunk and someone cuts ahead of us in the queue for a kebab and chips. (If you’re coming for the Olympics, by the way, you might like to note, that fries, rather than proper chunky chips, are acceptable under these debauched desperate circumstances. They have a greater surface area and therefore a greater potential for oil and grease, which is how we make up for the fact that we don’t really ever put any seasoning or flavouring besides salt on any of our foods. That’s right! There’s method in the madness!)
Ed West wrote in the Daily Telegraph today about the Olympics, calling for us to give the whole thing a “big British welcome.” West is something of an expert on American culture but we are British, and, well, what does he think we’re doing? This is how we welcome people in Britain. We sneer, mock, deride and complain. At ourselves, of course, not at the people coming here; they are all absolutely welcome. We’re just a bit baffled about why they’re bothering, and, because we’re actually a rather considerate nation (despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise to ourselves and the rest of the world), we think it’s fair to make sure everyone has reasonable expectations of what Britain is like before they experience their first rail replacement service. So, tourists: it will rain. The tube will break at least once. You won’t meet the Queen. You won’t meet Prince Harry. You won’t see any bowler hats. We don’t talk like Hugh Grant. Most of us talk in sounds rather than clear words, usually with our mouths full of beer-battered cod, as well. But we’re nice, and we are, in spite of all appearances, genuinely rather flattered that you’re coming.
In fact, as whingeing goes, we’ve been remarkably low level about it, considering that there are a lot of things to whinge about, and how much we love to do it.
I mean, corporate sponsorship isn’t exactly the decline of moral civilisation as we know it but when we read that Adidas are allowed to place subliminal advertising in primary schools, presented to look like an official instruction, for a state event, while at the same time reading about a local butchers which is facing legal action after depicting sausages shaped like Olympic rings on a poster, we can’t help but smell the foul scent of killjoy corporatism.
And when LOCOG basically demand that no-one links them online if they’re saying anything negative, they can’t be surprised if people get riled up and irritated. It’s like the episode of The Office where David Brent demands that the staff come and “have a laugh” in the pub with him then gets upset when he finds out that no-one likes him. Brits are not all grumpy, we’re not miserable, we’re not joyless. Look how well we coped with the riots. (By we, I mean the hundreds of Londoners who cleaned up London and made tea for the coppers, obviously; I don’t mean our elected leaders, several of whom were off on their holidays and loathe to come back.) In fact most of us are perfectly cheerful and perfectly humorous. We just don’t like being told when to be cheerful, or which powerful figures we’re allowed to make fun of.
But it’s not just a matter of being treated like children by the Olympic authorities. Being treated like a child is annoying and a bit humiliating, but we can live with it. On the other hand, being treated like a potential criminal every time you walk through London Bridge station is actually a little tiny bit frightening. It’s not something we’re used to in Britain, having these armed police with enormous machine guns standing around, giving us suspicious glances if we curse, cry or blink at the wrong time during our daily commute. (Commutes are stressful. I’m a fairly peaceful person but I can’t account for the numbers that would be slain in my wake by now if I’d had a gun at my fingertips during every tube journey at rush hour.)
It doesn’t help to see the results of the Ian Tomlinson case in the news this week, either. If that’s what is considered acceptable policing in the middle of a rather standard, reasonably peaceful, protest, what will be considered acceptable levels of force during an event like the Olympics? What will happen if some hapless man is wandering around in the wrong place at the wrong time again? This is not America. They trust guns in America. They shoot terrorists, they shoot animals, and they shoot each other. But this is Britain. We have riots where looters stand in queues to steal bottles of water. Guns are alien to us.
Some people would say that all this is astonishingly unBritish. Some people would say that there is another word for using the powers of the state to promote corporate interests and vice versa. It’s an ugly word, and it begins with F.
Obviously fascism is a ridiculously hyperbolic and silly word to use in conjunction with Britain in any context and all things considered I’m still actually quite excited about the Olympics; the new faces around London, the inspirational role models for young people, the boost for human aspiration, the tourism revenues, the whole caboodle. Buckle me up, I’m ready and buzzing. But when I see state sponsored corporate advertising, and corporations telling children what to wear in order to attend a state event that politicians tell you not to criticise, when I see local butchers being told how to arrange their sausage posters and soldiers being brought in to do the work of security services after police jobs have been cut and a heap of public money has been spent on outsourcing that work to the private sector which fumbled it like a bad penalty, well, sorry to disappoint Boris but I’m afraid that if I feel like “whingeing” about any or all of that, then you know what? I bloody well will do.
Perhaps this is why Len McLuskey called upon everyone to engage in mass civil disobedience to disrupt the event. Is it really British to use primary schools for subliminal advertising? Is it British to attempt a ban on authentic English chips? Is it British to draft professional soldiers in to protect the Olympic park and then make them pay £1 for a shower? Is it British to tell local butchers how to arrange their sausages? I don’t think so. Brits understand fair play, queuing, irreverence and irony. We mock things to show that we embrace them as ours.
It’s not just the Olympics. We mock the Royal Family. We mock our sports stars, even when they do brilliantly. We even mock fish and chips. If we mock the games, it’s a compliment. You’re up there with fish and chips in our hearts. Global companies with special tax exemptions, and detached, wealthy politicians who enjoy a decidedly different lifestyle from most of the rest of us, well, perhaps they don’t get this, but the reason people are disappointed by the handling of the Olympics is because it’s actually become a thoroughly unBritish affair. It’s not just a matter of being po-faced about the games. On the contrary, people are sad because something that hundreds and hundreds of Brits have been genuinely excited about for a really long time is turning into an oppressive, killjoy, taxpayer-funded binge of corporate advertising, with diktats, and an authoritarian instruction to Have Fun on Command by the State.
Frankly, Boris is the one who should stop whingeing. In fact, he should count himself lucky that all we’re bothering to complain about, in the midst of all this, is the weather and the transport. But then, that’s what you’d expect from us. After all, we’re British.