I am the quintessential Englishman. Trapped in the inescapable web of the lower-upper middle classes – which is like being posh, but without the wealth – I am capable of angering other classes of Englishmen simply by adjusting my tone of voice. I have a strong preference for Earl Grey tea, which in an ideal scenario will be used to wash down endless rounds of [cheddar] cheese on toast. The lengths I am prepared to go to to avoid ‘causing a scene’ borders on the pathological, and I am disinclined to allow emotions to affect my judgement unless that judgement has been throughly compromised by an excessive imbibition of alcohol, at which point I become a slave to the suppressed rage and insecurity that is ever-present in our collective subconscious. My predilection for employing sarcasm is equalled only by my enthusiastic appreciation of sardonic humour. Finally, as this paragraph clearly demonstrates, I prefer not to make the most efficient use of syllables if an alternative occurs to me.
Although I could justifiably add self-deprecation to my list of stereotypical traits, I am not a self-loathing Englishman. None of my long line of ancestors, typified by farmhands, labourers, teachers and shop-keepers have ever owned slaves, colonized faraway lands or oppressed Ireland, and fuck me with a rugby ball if I’m not proud of my country’s output of bergamot-flavoured infusions, guitar-flavoured music and subversive-flavoured comedy.
Despite all this, I feel more at home in the Netherlands than I do in the UK. Whilst I can’t deny that some paradigm shifting thoughts one might happen to have in certain Amsterdam establishments are best forgotten, the benefit of a geographically altered perspective facilitates in me the realisation that as British people, we are fucked in the ass every day of our lives.
Hated by the whole world for events beyond the control of most of its inhabitants, we are subject to terrible beer, deeply corrupt and criminally incompetent governments, congested roads, a laughable rail system and (despite living under greater levels of surveillance than North Korea) a society with a distinct tendency towards violence and criminality.
Our police forces execute innocent commuters, electrocute people in comas, and eagerly suppress dissent when international arms dealers descend on our cities to peddle their instruments of organized violence. It is a stated aim of the state that our collective DNA will be organized and archived to the greatest extent possible. Ordinary people like me have so little faith in political action that they either ignore the whole spectacle or delude themeless into thinking that the British establishment have their best interests at heart – a typical view being that ‘If you haven’t done anything wrong, you haven’t got anything to worry about’. This cliche, of course, applies equally well in Saudi Arabia, with whom our foreign minister says we share values.
If, like most of us, you’re white, and you spend most of your life staggering between work and home via the pub, you probably DON’T have anything to worry about. However, should you wish to place your head above the parapet for a moment to read out the names of soldiers killed in a mendacious war of choice, you can expect to be detained, searched and interrogated by the police, followed by a large fine and the threat of imprisonment. If you are in possession of any kind of political or philosophical literature when you are stopped and searched at Westminster, then that is sufficient grounds to be held and questioned by the police under ‘Anti-Terror’ laws. I know this because I’ve been told this by some of the arrogant, authoritarian and belligerent police officers who have stopped and searched me in Westminster.
I don’t mean to bore anyone here, and I’m the first to admit that it’s easy to go overboard in claiming that Britain is a police state. It’s not just authority I have a problem with – X Factor, Heat magazine and Eastenders are all reasons I like to watch England getting smaller from the window of a plane. Even if Britain were the model of a free-thinking society, there are at least twelve reasons I will always prefer the Netherlands.
1. The police. They cycle. They smile. They protect, rather than prosecute prostitutes. They are, for the most part, friendly, helpful and articulate. In my observations, they calm rather than escalate, warn rather than detain and deter more than they punish.
2. Traffic. There ain’t none! There’s more bicycles than cars in Amsterdam. The cars that do drive around do so at a slow speed, and drivers generally behave as courteously as they would if they were not protected by walls of steel.
3. Airports. Welcoming immigration officials combined with a rational approach to security. Where else?
4. Trains & trams. Inexpensive, regular, reliable. Double deckers, what a great idea… twice the capacity for the same length of track!
5. Beer. It comes as standard in aesthetically pleasing half-litre glasses, and it tastes great. All of them. Don’t bother asking for it by brand, go into any bar in Holland, ask for a beer, pay a small amount of money and enjoy.
6. Minding your own bloody business. That’s right, if you want to smoke cannabis, or have sex for money, that’s your business. I’ll concern myself with my own affairs.
7. Language and linguistics. Dutch is becoming less alien to me every time I go. Like an English and German smoothie with a dash of Scandinavian guttural noises, it’s highly intimidating, but some perseverance means that it’s not impossible for me to say “Goedendag, mag ik drie kopjes koffie alstublieft” without conceding my dignity. I’ve probably got some way to go before the waiter stops smiling benevolently and replying in English though.
8. It’s an egalitarian society. The builder and the media aggregator sup as brethren. There’s no punch-ups outside pubs on a Friday night. The only people puking and pissing in the streets are Brits on stag weekends, who are easily avoided anyway.
9. Dutch people are known for being humble and cheery. Brits are known for being hostile and miserable.
10. Euthanasia. Had enough? If you were a dog, you’d be put down by now? Good news – in the civilized country of Holland, you can opt out of here. Having watched elderly relatives die slow, undignified, painful deaths, I guarantee right now that if I make it to old age, I am checking the fuck out of here on my own terms. There is only one country in the world where this is currently legal. Guess where?
11. A constitution – that’s right! Free speech, free press, enshrined in law. We have no constitution, no free speech, nor a free press. Most people think we do, but they don’t try to use their illusory freedoms. Write to Ian Hislop and ask him about how judiciously libel laws are applied…
12. Broadcasting. OK, I’ll concede that Holland is the nation that produced Endemol, and therefore Big Brother, but in the Netherlands, public broadcasting programs are made by a variety of groups, some reflecting political or religious currents in society, others representing interest groups. These organisations are allocated airtime on TV and radio, in line with the number of members they have. Proportional BROADCASTING representation. Clean my fucking ears out and call me Rik Van Den Warren. Let me in! Let me in! I’ll even give up my Earl Grey. Actually, I won’t. You’ll just have to tolerate it.