Saturday, June 23, 2012

"How long have you been cutting your own hair?": The Boris Johnson Paradox

Boris Johnson: For England
and the Bicycle
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson: former journalist, editor of The Spectator, Tory MP for Henley and current Mayor of London (elected in 2008 and sitting in his second term).

Boris is a polarizing figure in this group. There is no middle ground. We love or hate him (his personality, politics, penchant for Latin in everyday speak). And since BoJo has graced the shores of the New World with his presence (to promote London, the Olympics & his book), I thought it'd be appropriate to take a look at what he's all about. With that said, I will step aside for @IdleHistorian -- who, let it be known, was the first to appreciate his "special poshness" long before most other people.


As my friend alluded to, I have long been rather fond of Boris Johnson, or Bo Jo as we may affectionately call him. Adjectives used to describe him fall usually along the lines of "flamboyant," "colourful," and "comedian." Where does one even start? With video clips of course, which illustrate his "bumbling buffoonery" in all its glory. There is Boris Johnson declaring that "wiff waff is coming home," for the London Olympics & Boris playing football for England, & Boris talking about the Olympic velodrome being "lovingly rubbed" by British rhubarb (embedded below), & a Boris-Jeremy Paxman circus act (worth the long viewing) & Boris unveiling the new Routemaster bus. One could go on and on, but you know how to use the YouTube machine.

Of course the bumbling buffoonery masks his evident intelligence, drive, and strong will. One does not edit magazines and become an MP and then Mayor of London – often touted as a potential candidate for future leadership of the Tory party – without these qualities. (Despite his own contention that: "Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon, there lurks a blithering buffoon.")

Those who are less enamored of Bo Jo, of course, generally object to his politics, seeing him as a privileged Old Etonian stereotype – having smashed his way through the Bullingdon Club and straight into the corridors of power like so many of his class. But it is not only his typical “tory” qualities that rankle, but his charm and easy manner. I think that many feel almost resentful of his sense of humour and bonhomie. They understand the popularity this gives him (a virtual "cult of personality"), even among many who may disagree with him politically (comment espied on the web: "I despise the Tory Party but I like Boris." etc.). His detractors cannot, in essence, forgive him for this.

I think this is a shame. Bo Jo, in my opinion, is one of the few real (not the same as perfect) politicians on either side of the pond. This quality undoubtedly contributed to his emphatic reelection as Mayor of London in May. He does not attempt to hide his knowledge of Latin (there is a classic exchange with the equally-matched Jeremy Paxman in which Johnson uses the phrase ignoratio elenchi) or his Etonian and Oxonian connections. He plays the part of the Bertie Wooster-esque toff with panache. Some commentators have pointed out that David Cameron is actually much more of a toff than Boris Johnson yet, cringingly, he so often attempts to portray himself as plain old “Dave” – and the in-authenticity shows.

In tandem with appreciating Johnson as a “character,” I think his almost child-like (as opposed to childish) enthusiasm about his pet projects provides a breath of fresh air in an era when most politicians plot their every move by focus group. His choices are often iconoclastic, not fitting into any narrowly defined ideology. He has unapologetically stood up for bankers and the British financial sector (even if one does not share this conviction, one can at least admire the boldness). At the same time he banned loathsome drinking on the Tube, and has advocated transit measures that might be (in North America at least) viewed as vaguely “socialist”: bicycle-sharing in the city and improved bus service. His single-handed scheme to design, build, and bring back a twenty-first century version of the classic Routemaster bus is nothing short of remarkable. No focus group would ever have advised such a campaign promise, but Boris believed in it and made it happen.

For all this and more I am and will remain a Bo Jo fan. I’ve never had any problem with the old Etonians and Bertie Woosters of this world. While I would never wish to rescind the measures that have been forwarded on behalf of the common good and individual welfare in the twentieth century, there is nothing amiss with a little good-natured nineteenth-century eccentricity as well. We wouldn’t want unopposed rule by the Bullingdon, but on the whole, they do comparatively little harm.

Olympic Rhubarb Rubbing, in honour of the upcoming London 2012 Olympics:


I think that the @IdleHistorian will be getting a cheque from the BoJo camp after this post :D A "Back Boris" mug for the home office would also suffice. Stopping in Canada, Boris chatted with Amanda Lang (CBC) on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange . London's greatest cheerleader! Note: I received a text from @IdleHistorian that day notifying me that Boris was in TO and that I had to track him down!

Overall, I think he came off quite well on his tour of American late night talk shows. Both David Letterman and Jon Stewart couldn't get over his messy coif. And, a coup for any politician, he made both late night hosts laugh: he told David Letterman that the Jubilee flotilla was described as "one of the greatest aquatic triumphs since Trafalgar," and on the Great Soda Debate, "we, as a city, are not quite as fat." On The Daily Show, (Canada only) he assured Jon that refugees of the Mayor Bloomberg's soda tyranny in New York would have sanctuary in London. Extra large Mountain Dews for the "huddled masses"!! I don't think Dave or Jon expected such candor. If BoJo doesn't run for PM in Britain, he could stir things up in America.


Short on time this week I will simply add: Boris Johnson is the worst.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Weather, Madness, and Seeking Moderation: The "summer breeze makes me feel fine..."

"It is, of course, a British tradition to moan about the weather as a conversational gambit" 
-- Comment is Free (Ian Vince, 24 May 2012, The Guardian)

Summer Smog in the city
Yes, the summer season has arrived and, this year, without much of a transition period from spring (in Toronto, at least). Summer weather in south-western Ontario in recent memory has meant at least 2-3 months of heat & humidity. It is the latter that I cannot bear. Like Mr. Vince, I cannot abide by hot weather: my fair skin burns in the sun (but this means I have permission to wear an obnoxiously wide brimmed hat); if you're a woman and you wear make-up, it melts; and the weather seems to encourage everyone to wear open-toed shoes (i refuse to believe that flip-flops are comfortable!) and, as Mr. Vince remarks, to eat/ drink outside. In my region of Canada, there is usually at least one week during which UV levels are dangerously high (don't leave home without your SPF 1000 ("factor" for the Brits) if you don't want to burst into flames) and the air is as thick as cheese ... except it's not cheese. It's smog. This latest Perrier commercial seems to get it right. That's right, for all of our beautiful white crisp winters there are parts of Canada that can be rather unpleasant from June - August. This year, we've already had 2 days in June where smog warnings were issued! I can't wait for August. And, when we've had rain, they've been downpours.

So, why is complaining about the weather seen as uniquely a "British tradition." I had never come across this notion that the Brits had any monopoly over complaining about the weather. What exactly about British summers conjures these expressions of dissatisfaction? Or, is this about complaining as a characteristic of British culture more generally. "Wahhh! I don't care about the Royal Wedding!" "Ugh, who cares about the Olympics!" "Hmph. Is David Cameron STILL PM?!" Perhaps @IdleHistorian, living on a more temperate side of the continent, could shed some light on the matter. 


Jonas Hanway (The First Englishman Who
Ever Carried an Umbrella)

As I write this, Vancouver is on track for the coldest June on record, and one hears tales that England (after the early spring threat of drought and attendant hosepipe bans) may experience its wettest recorded June.  In both locales the press joins eagerly in the hand-wringing, the longing for patio lunches and days at the beach which are just not to be. (I have written before on how one should not force the issue of al fresco dining.) Instead of thrilling to the prospect of mild days and tea-drinking weather (as does the Idle Historian and my colleague SloaneScholar1 in hot, humid Ontario), they seem more intent to whinge about what is lacking.

I well understand the hankering for the temperate since, as alluded to already, I reside on the "wet Coast" of British Columbia. The "British" in our name is quite appropriate, as our weather tends to approximate the weather in the UK more so than in any other part of Canada (with slightly colder winters, more rainfall by a factor around 4X, and a more predictably dry and mild July-September). Like the Brits we moan constantly about the rain (though resolutely dress for it, fashion notwithstanding) but exult in the mildness. We also suffer greatly if the temperature drops below 5C or wilt like delicate orchids if it rises much above 25C (the average daytime summer temperature where I live). Such weather, I believe, produces a particular way of being. A desperate love of the temperate (the "reasonable," as it were), informs our entire approach to life.

Racegoers in York (UK), clearly unwilling to be deterred by
the forecast for perhaps a once-in50-years June rainstorm.
Story from the Daily Mail.

Talking about the weather is a particularly British trait, which Canadians certainly have inherited. It provides an easy topic of conversation, but underlying it is perhaps an innate sense of dissatisfaction that impels us to strive and seek change. For example, Vancouver is one of the most beautiful and livable cities within a most appealing and world-respected country, but our local media is always full of complaints about how things have gone wrong and how they could be better. We want things to be perfect -- to have perpetual sun-dappled, warm and happy days. If we cannot bring ourselves to truly accept something as inevitable as the weather, it is certainly the sign of a people unresigned to fate. If things are not this way we wish to carry on regardless. I think this trait is reflected throughout the history of Anglo-Saxon nations. We do not wish to give up our decided course of action or our ideals, no matter how unpropitious the weather omens. This stubbornness applies in most circumstances -- whether at home or abroad (i.e. the famous dictum "Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun"). So it has been since the days of the British Empire and so, it appears, shall it continue.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Diamond Jubilee

H. recently forwarded an article to me by Tristram Hunt *swoon* on the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the legacy of the second Elizabethan era. In it, he quoted a 15 year old Virginia Woolfe remarking that she thought that Queen Victoria must have been tired nodding at the troops parading past her. I don't think that this blog is so important, articulate, and funny that in 115 years time historians will be using it to understand British/ Canadian identity. However, it would be quite wrong if we didn't say a few words on this moment in history given our backgrounds and this blog's raison d'etre.

How will I be celebrating? There was talk of tea and scones with a friend. She's brought back Union Jack napkins and muffin tin liners from her recent research trip to the UK. But, that's it. I appreciate (perhaps more than most) the history of the monarchy and its symbolic significance. I like all the pomp. I do not, however, think that God has anything to do with their privilege or inherited wealth. Afterall, my scholarly training has taught me to curl my lip/ roll my eyes in disdain at the mere mention of monarchy. I was beginning to wonder when the ardent republicans would start their anti-monarchy barrage in the media and then Polly Toynbee published this piece in which she calls these celebratory spectacles a product of "majestic delusion." Banksy also released this print. PT's position is in the minority. She's articulating views shared by the same sections of society that fled the capital during the Royal Wedding. But, there is a strong voice attacking this archaic institution in Britain.

The Queen in techni-colour
Canada's federal government started preparing for these celebrations back in 2007! According to a CBC report, the federal government earmarked $7.5 million towards the whole of the celebrations with $2 million set aside for local celebrations. We've minted new coins, created a special set of stamps, and commissioned portraits as well as stained glass windows to commemorate the event. Two weeks ago, Charles & Camilla even made a blitz of a tour for the occasion. It included a day in Toronto where Charles rode the TTC and learned to DJ. Who says he's not "with it"? But, aside from marking the 60th year of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, why are we doing all of this for a Sovereign that reigns from the other side of the Atlantic ocean?

All of this is part of the PM's efforts to recreate Canadian identity: one that emphasizes a traditional "Queen & country" trope rather than that of diversity. Queen's historian Ian McKay has given several interesting talks on how the New Right has reappropriated Canadian history/ reconceptualized citizenship in order to peddle an ideological agenda. Why aren't Canadians reacting to this very narrow view of Canadian identity? It's also true that I don't see evidence of many people holding hand on heart and pledging allegiance to the Queen. There's no bunting to be seen in these parts. But, the government has set aside $2 million for local parties - this seems excessive. Are we talking about community street parties?! I have an inkling that only members of the Monarchist League of Canada will be making any applications for funds from this program. And, if that's the case, they should feel free to order that case of Krug.

This is indeed an historical event. The last time a Sovereign celebrated a Diamond Jubilee was in 1857. And, judging from who's next in line it's not likely that Charles will reach this feat himself. The tall ships sailing down the Thames will be a sight to see! I'm still baffled as to how the wider Canadian population is receiving these events. Is the Kate & Wills effect - do we love the Windsors more now that we can see Diana's son and his shiny new bride on the horizon of succession? Or do Canadians actually get quite sentimental about those days of Upper & Lower Canada? Are they even teaching this in Grade 9 History classes anymore? Do Canadians care about the royals as more than just figures in the celebrity world?
As you toast EIIR with a Dubonnet and gin (30% gin, 70% Dubonnet with a slice of lemon under the ice) this weekend, consider the following:

I certainly feel ill-prepared for the Jubilee compared to my friend @SloaneScholar1. The occasion has snuck up on one, I dare say. My Englishness quotient for the week was somewhat filled by the "Last Night of the Proms" here in Vancouver.

I do plan to attend a Festal Evensong in Vancouver to mark the occasion -- even so far removed from Blighty the Anglican tradition manages to convey the continuity of tradition as much as it does religious heritage. I shall also, of course, watch the coverage on the telly, including the grand Thames River Pageant - which is billed as a once in 300 year event or something equally illustrious. CBC has dispatched Peter Mansbridge to London, which is when you know the occasion is serious. And for Canadians, yes, anything Royal is bound to receive a great deal of attention.

This question of the extent to which we are truly a "Royalist" country is an interesting one and I do think that recent domestic politics have played a role. For many people (in English Canada I should note), it is more a question of being "not non-Royalist." There simply is no solidly organized Republican movement which exists in Australia or, for that matter, the UK itself. Our peculiarly Canadian attitude is a combination of several factors: the most obvious of which must have something to do with our stereotypical niceness. This, combined with our deep-seated desire to be liked, probably best accounts for the type of reception the Royals receive during visits to Canada. While this is rooted in insecurity, there is a flip-side which also somehow makes us less prone to sneer.

The voyageur canoe representing Canada
While, as we have noted before those who wish to be taken seriously as critical British historians must at least feign disdain of all things Royal, there is no such requirement to be regarded as a member of the progressive educated class. In other words, we have no critical mass of Guardian-reader types to turn up our nose at the proceedings, or demand Royal Wedding-free buttons on news websites. The force that this class exerts in Britain is well-expressed by a tweet I espied by comedian and writer Simon Blackwell: "Police advising people at street parties to check regularly on left-leaning middle class neighbours in case they tut themselves to death." Quite.

I was quite chuffed by the fact that a canoe, paddled by Canadians, will be part of the river pageant. In the end I believe this one small element of the Jubilee may best represent our attitude to the monarchy. Eager but modest, enthusiastic but downsized, proud of our heritage but unwilling (dare I make the pun? Dare I?) to rock the boat too much.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Why do Canadians love Coronation Street so much?

Those of you reading from outside of Canada may not be aware that millions of us are obsessed with Coronation Street. It is a nightly viewing ritual that is paramount in our homes, an invaluable source of things to talk about with relatives. It has been imported from ITV and aired on the CBC for over 40 years, its' run only interrupted by the obtrusive and needlessly lengthy hockey playoffs season every spring. The "Ceeb" estimates that one in five Canadians watch an episode of Corrie every year, and 775, 000 of us watch nightly.

**Pardon the interruption, but @SloaneScholar will be invading this post via green italics.

The obvious question I have been batting around is WHY IS THIS SHOW SO POPULAR HERE?! It isn't just ex-pats longing for any measly bit of home they can get (i.e. my family) or proud anglophiles obsessed with British pop culture (i.e. @SloaneScholar) who are tuning in, the show also sits well with regular Canadian folks who think Britain is quite nice but don't really think about it too much because HOLY SHIT WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO LEANNE AND PETER! 

So these are the reasons I think Coronation Street is so popular on this side of the Atlantic, north of the 49th parallel. 

1. The storylines are as addictive as crack and move quickly. 

Remember when Tracy killed Charlie Stubbs? Yes! Or when Frankie started an illicit relationship with her stepson Jamie? Oh my, yes! Or when Todd loved Sarah but also loved penises? Heartbreaking. But, the writing was on the wall for that relationship. Sarah was a cow. Or when Mike Baldwin died? Or when Cilla and Les put a hot tub in their living room? Was that before or after they adopted "Schmichael"? Or when the Tram collapsed? Or, when Leanne worked as an escort! The writers have mastered the slow burn in their story telling (The recent Tracy/Becky/ Steve fiasco was especially drawn out. All the more glorious for Becky in the end!) -- they set out a long chain of events that develop inch by inch until reaching a cataclysm you absolutely cannot tear your tear filled eyes away from.

The pace of the show is how @SloaneScholar1 became hooked onto Corrie St (and Emmerdale Farm for a brief period of time). I was home sick one week during highschool (this was when Corrie was on in the afternoons) and learned everyone's names and back-story in 3 days! There was no looking back.

2. The characters are extremely relatable and identifiable

Unlike American soaps, Coronation street is firmly rooted in the mundane. There are no aristocrats, secret identities, amnesiacs or trust funds. The street is populated by mechanics, hair dressers, shop workers, and machinists. The way the characters are written and performed is so dynamic and three-dimensional that you begin to feel like you are just eavesdropping on an actual community, full of busy bodies and high functioning alcoholics. This is, I suppose, because American housewives enjoy aspirational television, while Canadians like peering into their neighbours windows. It's easy to read people we know and love into the characters on the street. 
The nightlife in Weatherfield
3. The setting is a real place humans live. 

No American style soft lighting here! Just small homes with drab wall paper.  

4. Community is community is community.

Even though the cobblestones and Mancunian accents aren't familiar to Canadians, the dynamics of a small community are universally relatable.

5. The men are handsome in an everyday way.

Or, as someone recently put it to us, the men are regular handsome. They all have a "touch of ugly." And some more than others. Can someone explain the appeal of Peter Barlow or ex-Boyzone member Ciaran McCarthy. They aren't moving greek sculptures with mouths that flap open and closed. Except Liam *drool* There is nary a six pack in sight! Except for Tina's new flame: Tommy Duckworth.

6. It mixes the sensational with the mundane 

Some of the storylines are outlandish (Q: how many people have died in the factory? A: *SPOILER* Frank just bit the dust tonight at Underworld HQ), but they are interspersed with the most amazingly mundane plots. There's a satellite dish on the pub and people don't like it! Betteh-luv isn't in to fix the hot pot today! Anything involving Norris!!!!

Speaking of outlandish: how many times has Gail been married? Didn't her fourth hubby, Richard Hillman, try to kill the family? And, poor girl was on trial for her life when her fifth husband died of mysterious circumstances! Of course, her cellmate during this period was the evil incarnate Tracy Barlow.
Inside 'Underworld'

7. It's tradition. 

It's a show you grow up with, your parents or friends telling you the back story of characters they remember watching years ago. It's no surprise that a fictional program unfolding at the pace of our own lives then finds a way to become intertwined in our own memories and experiences.  It's a shared collective cultural experience. We feel we can look back and remember those joys and tragedies as palpably as if they happened to our actual friends and neighbours.

I was once in line at the British Isles Show to meet Kevin Webster and struck up convos with every 40+ housewife near me. Corrie St. fans are super friendly!

8. The soundtrack is Adele on repeat. 

Has anyone else noticed this lately? I loves me some Adele, but maybe we can branch into the rest of the Top-40, Corrie producers. I think it's the only think that plays on the Rovers jukebox. 

Any others to add? I hope it has at least been made clear that anyone not watching Corrie should be immediately. It's adopted Canadian tradition. 
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