By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
A consortium of one hundred and twenty Islamic Scholars have placed onto the internet an Open Letter to Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi denouncing the organization’s violent and extremist actions in the Middle East. The letter, in the form of an interactive website, provides the world with an opportunity to read a perspective of the Islamic State’s affront to civilization from an academic analysis by scholars. The letter addresses the fundamental and basis in canon for disputing the claims of Al-Baghdadi that his is the only pure and legitimate form of Islam–refuting his claims of divine assent.
The original, in the Arabic, is presently being translated into other languages. The English is presently available.
There has been unfortunately much misconception in the Western World that there lacks true dissent to the terrorist outrages in the Muslim World. This letter can…
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…and pretty much everything else. Given how close it is to Britain in terms of history, culture and time, it is interesting how unusual America has made everything when left to its own devices for a few hundred years. The differences felt starker than I have noticed in most other places that I have been to, perhaps because I was expecting things to be much more similar.
I travel to a lot of different countries, and yet it is astounding to me the number of things that are lost in translation in the same language. Here are some of them from Minneapolis that had me laughing like a child;
This was really unpleasant for me. The moment I stepped onto the plane from Amsterdam to Minnesota, it became apparent that there were people who genuinely believed in Christian religions and made no bones about talking about it openly and loudly. I am not going to devote much time to it in this particular blog, except to say this; outside of small communities in the UK that take it seriously, I come from a culture where religion is largely dismissed and ignored, with the occasional gentle pat on the head when religious types turn up and say something nice. It was really scary to be surrounded by people who treat religion like it is all real.
The ingredients for food don’t vary all that much the world over, but the way it is put together in America is quite honestly odd. Everything I saw was largely based around convenience. While they do have fresh produce, the vast majority of the shelves (in the supermarkets at any rate) were full of things that had been pre-cooked and stuffed into cans. Anything that you can think that you might possibly want to cook together (and plenty of things you frankly wouldn’t in your worst nightmares) has already been combined and packaged for you. No doubt with massive doses of high-fructose corn syrup, and usually with cheese and bacon. If it doesn’t say cheese and bacon on the front, check the ingredients on the back.
There is weird stuff all over the place;
…in the pharmacist…
…on the side of the road…
…and I have of course saved my favourite Walmart till last…
Shopping, customer service and niceness
In addition to the aforementioned oddness of the products offered when out shopping, there is a very different attitude towards you as a paying customer in the States. Everyone who walks through the front door is immediately put on a pedestal. A lot of the American service-based industry is reliant on tips to bump up frankly shoddy wages, and while this is not the case in shops, the same level of terrifying attention seems to be mandated in large corporations.
While in Target, wandering through the fresh veg looking for carrots, some guy who was replenishing stock turned around with a big smile and said,
“Are you finding everything OK?”
What, the bright orange pointy things? Umm, yeah actually. See this big sign right here? The one that says the name of the thing I am looking for? That helped…
I genuinely found it really intimidating how overly friendly everyone was, and how willing to get up in my business they were. I am used to a lifetime of aloof politeness, being allowed to get on with my day largely uninterrupted. Whenever anyone asked how I was in America, inquired whether I was having a good day, I was really taken aback, and didn’t know how to respond.
What bothered me about it was that it was plastic, forced, fake…but they were trying really hard not to let you know that. Someone has written it into their contract that they need to be seen to be helpful, friendly and interested, on pain of something awful I imagine. It’s a service model that has been now picked up by corporates outside of the States…but it’s a thing that we really aren’t very good at it in Britain. If you are eating in any chain restaurant across the country these days, you will find that halfway through a mouthful of your dinner, some bored youth will flounce over and ask “Is everything OK with your meal?” without even the vaguest pretence of giving a shit.
In Britain, we all know that work sucks, and anyone who appears to enjoy what they are doing needs to be treated with a certain level of distrust. If someone says “Y’awright?”, we all know they aren’t ACTUALLY asking if you are alright, and they do not require a response. It is simply a polite acknowledgement of your presence – the type that is used as social lubricant in a country where there are so many people trying to occupy the same space at the same time.
…I handle that way better than someone who is pretending to care because corporate policy says they should.
They don’t have a national healthcare system in America, so you find people are dealing with a lot of frankly concerning conditions with home remedies.
The pharmacy (which had a drive-through window, by the way) had a mind-boggling array of different types of plasters and bandages and lotions and potions and salts and scrapers. It really was a dark window on the life of a nation. Or at least the section of that nation that can’t afford proper healthcare.
As a driver, it all seems largely straightforward, but there are a couple of things that scared the living shit out of me in America.
Intersections. They don’t believe in roundabouts, for reasons best known to themselves. Instead, they have ‘intersections’, which are just overblown crossroads. In the States, the roads are longer, straighter and wider, and this contributes to a sense of a massive amount of space where some huge vehicle might appear out of the blue – travelling really fast – at any given time…on the wrong side of the road, no less.
My nervousness was not helped by the fact that you can actually turn right into traffic when you are sat at a red light, and no, I still don’t understand why that is OK.
Indicator lights. They are red on most American cars. Fucking RED. Just like the brake lights. My friend told me after picking me up from the airport, “There are no indicators here” and I thought she was simply joking that no-one bothered to use them… No, they are just completely indistinguishable from the other lights on the arse end of a car. I honestly do not know how anyone ever thought that was a good idea, but don’t expect to ever understand what other road users are about to do in America.
Trucks. All of the haulage vehicles have noses on them, unlike in the UK where the front of the cab is flat. The only time I ever normally get see trucks like this is in sinister American movies, and it made me feel really quite uncomfortable.
God bless America, its alcoholism, and its multitude of microbreweries. It is the one place that I have truly felt at home in terms of my beer consumption. I admit that everywhere I went was hand picked by my friends so this might not be true of all places, but I feel like it is fairly representative. Every bar had a good selection of beers from local breweries, and the liquor stores all had a wide variety of those local beers, the breadth of which I only ever see in the UK in the biggest supermarkets.
Also, they ID everyone, everywhere. Which is funny when you are British and they can’t figure out what your ID is even supposed to be. I never realised what a laissez-faire attitude UK establishments take towards checking legal drinking until I got out to America, where I can only assume that the fines for serving alcohol to people who shouldn’t be drinking are quite significant.
Please allow me to leave you with one of my favourite things from the Mall of America in Minneapolis;
I have never really had any desire to visit America. It has never spoken to my inner being, or interested me in the same way that a lot of other places have. Actually that is not entirely true; I would love to the see the giant redwood trees, to take in the spectacle.
In fact, I think that’s the key to why I have never been all that interested; the whole of America seems like a spectacle, a novelty (albeit a dangerous one), where the rest of the world looks on with baffled curiosity, “…what ARE you doing, America??” It’s always struck me as a place where you go and you point and look at the funny things, rather than a place to go and BE.
That said, I do have a vested interest. For the past 12 or so years, there has been a group of people that I know from Minneapolis who I met through an American Head Charge band forum. I’ve been saying for years that I should go out and visit them, but it always seemed like a prohibitively bigger step than just hopping on a plane to Europe.
Well, circumstances aligned and in typical impetuous-Bonj style, during a conversation in October with one of my friends who moved over there some years ago, I decided that I was finally going to go. Within 15 minutes I had booked a flight for 4 weeks’ time. Hurray for me and planning ahead…
Fast forward to 25th November, 04:30am, and I was getting up to get the train to the airport. I am frequently awake at that time of day anyway because I am rubbish at sleeping, but it’s a really different experience when you have things that you need to achieve. Thankfully I had teed up my coffee machine before I went to bed, which took a bit of the sting out of the morning.
The taxi showed up on time, which is never a thing you can be certain of in advance, and at 05:55am I was sat on the train to Birmingham International. I was tired and I was cold, but I had to keep reminding myself not to complain – I had no idea what temperatures I was going to be experiencing in Minneapolis, but based on some recent updates and gleefully shared comedy sketches, I was expecting it to be what I would commonly refer to as ‘Bastard Cold’.
I had invested in a proper coat for the trip. As a rule, I don’t like coats, and will stubbornly insist on wearing nothing more than a t-shirt during the day, conceding to a hoodie only when it’s absolutely necessary. However, this was likely to be cold on a scale that I had never experienced before, plus if I’m planning on moving to Norway in the next couple of years, it was going to be a worthwhile purchase. As it happens, I kinda like it. I didn’t however pay too much attention to my trousers because my legs are never normally cold… I very quickly decided to rectify that with some 100 Denier tights once I got the airport.
While I was certain I would be grateful for the extra layer provided by the tights once I hit the States, I was sweating my ever loving tits off in Birmingham, which didn’t help with the tiredness. It was like someone had draped a hot tea towel over my face and I just wanted to curl up under a table and drift off.
One thing that I had researched beforehand and been absolutely horrified about was the cost of using 3G in the States. 100MB data bundles were £10 each, and – I quote directly from the EE website here;
- If you use more than your bundle allowance, the bundle is re-applied automatically up to 20 times a day. Each time the bundle is re-applied you will be get another 100MB and be charged an additional bundle fee
- With this bundle we will never charge you more than £300 in one day
Holy shit. £300 A DAY? In what universe is that considered reasonable? Is that REALLY the cost of delivering the service? Seriously? I switched my 3G off the moment I got on the damned plane.
Speaking of phones and planes, there was a man sat next to me on the flight who was doing something that I have noticed people doing more and more recently, and it winds me the fuck up at the best of times; switching their mobile onto speakerphone and then shouting at it. If you are one of the people that does this – STOP IT. Immediately. If you are that concerned about radiation, you’d better find a way off the planet my friend – moving your phone a few inches away from your face is not going to help you. Also, he was sniffing loudly and repeatedly. Blow your fucking nose, or I will elbow you in it, and really give you a problem.
…I am a misanthrope at the best of times, but tiredness was clearly making me extra grumpy.
I wasn’t on a direct flight to Minneapolis; we were headed into Amsterdam where I had a layover before flying on to MSP. It was a KLM flight, and I have to say that the Dutch flight crew were amazing. They seemed to be entirely populated by camp, mischievous scamps who coyly sashayed up and down the aisles in an elaborate pantomime – and relentlessly targetted the biggest and most alpha of males for merciless flirting, which absolutely made my day.
It was my first time in Schiphol airport and I was struck by how clean and quiet it was. They were in the process of renovating the airport and you wouldn’t know anything about it if it wasn’t for the notices all around telling you that it was happening. Damn, they are only installing new lifts at work, the howling of angle grinders and drills echoing around the building on a daily basis sounds like the tortured wailing of eternally trapped souls.
I had a bit of a wander around to familiarise myself with the layout, and spotted some nice shiny Heineken cans in a chiller cabinet. I managed to resist their charms for a good 7 minutes. It was €3.98 for a 500ml can, which equates to about £3.54 a pint. It’s reasonable I guess – it’s only slightly more than I pay in Northampton. I also had a bag of organic, fair trade, dried mango. Apparently it was helping to reduce environmental impact…by travelling all the way from Burkina Faso… Uh huh.
It struck me while I was sat passing time and people-watching that I was the only person there with a beer. I was however sat next to a group of young adults and a ridiculous amount of McDonalds takeaway food. I couldn’t decide out of the two of us, who represented the worst example.
I headed down to the departure gate a little bit earlier than I normally would – and I was glad for it, because they were already open for boarding, and I got the absolute 3rd degree before being allowed on board the flight. Just within the departure gate, they had their own special scanners and separate security staff. They wanted to know where I was going, what I was going to be doing there, and every question was delivered with such absolute deadpan calm and coldness, I genuinely started to worry. It was also then that I first realised that what is normal life for me, may not be all that normal to other people.
The primary objectives of my trip were:
- Catch up with an old friend who moved out there
- Get some new tattoos done that she had designed for me
- Finally get to meet my Headcharge friends
Now, I have spent at least the last 10 years of my life merrily chipping off around the world to meet friends that I have made via the internet, and it’s something I don’t even stop to consider anymore. However, trying to justify myself to this imposing, stoney faced security guy was really quite difficult. I ended out desperately bringing up this blog on my phone and showing him the pictures of the carvings I was getting tattooed. He wandered off with my passport to have a chat to some other security staff stood at another table, and then came back and waved me through without a second glance, almost like he had never really given a shit in the first place. I suspect there might be something in that. On the way down the tunnel to the plane, there were two couples behind me; two young Canadians and two elderly Americans, and they both said that the checks they had just been through were far more extreme than anything they had experienced before.
I finally got onto the plane, and settled in. It was the same seating arrangement as on the Father Ted ‘Flight into Terror’ episode; 2 seats, aisle, 3 seats, aisle, 2 seats. I was sat next to the window to the left as you face the front of the plane. That would normally be awesome, but on an 8+ hour flight it’s a pain in the arse if you want to get up and walk around. I was however looking right at the front of the wing and WOW, that was a big-arse engine. Seriously.
The next thing I noticed after gawping at the sheer expanse of metal through the window was two guys sat in the row behind me, talking in thick American accents, in a very matter-of-fact way, about different denominations of the Christian faith. Then one of them said, “The Reformation was necessary, but it went too far…”
Shit. They meant it. They were actually seriously discussing it like it was a real and important thing. I was worried, for the second time in 30 minutes, and wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. I know religion exists, and a lot of people in the UK probably still kind of believe in there being a God when push comes to shove, but I have never in my life heard anyone seriously talking about religion like a living and breathing thing. It was genuinely unnerving.
The flight from Schiphol to Minneapolis-Saint Paul was with Delta airlines, and I was thoroughly impressed with their staff, their choice of TV and film entertainment in the seat mounted screens, but most of all I was impressed with their safety video. I laughed out loud more than once – I was definitely not expecting the tribbles!
I was delighted to find that there was free beer all through the flight – there are very few quicker ways to my heart, if I am honest. If only the Wifi had been free, I would have been delirious.
I am notorious for being late to the party when it comes to new music, film or cartoons, and my latest discovery was no exception – Adventure Time. They had a massive array of films, music and TV shows available to watch, and I spotted Adventure Time in the kids section, and thought I would give it a go since I had heard good things. I was absolutely blown away, it was hilarious. I am not convinced for a minute that it is a kid’s show; it’s post-apocalytpic, straight-faced mental, and runs at a 90 degree angle to reality. I love it. The first 20 seconds on the clip I have linked below made me giggle like an idiot;
Sadly, I ran out of Adventure Time with 3 1/2 hours of the flight left. I had properly had enough of being on a plane by that point. I think it worked out to being around 9pm GMT and I was done. Really done. There was, however, precisely nothing I could do about it, which was an odd situation for me – I was so used to having easy local access to the world of the internet, and being free to design my life around me, for the first time in a long time I was utterly powerless to influence my situation. It was as much humbling as it was frustrating.
Tiredness, boredom, alcohol, and the weird isolating face-pressure you get on planes managed to combine and overwhelm me, and I drifted off to sleep. Sadly, this lasted for a grand total of 4 minutes. At that point, my brain remembered that I was sat upright, moving, and surrounded by people and I shook myself awake again. I honestly could have cried when I saw how little time had passed.
Eventually, I found a couple of Louis CK stand-up shows and entertained myself all the way into MSP. Anyone familiar with the “Of course…but maybe…” brain interplay that he talks about in his Oh My God comedy special will understand a lot of what happens in my head on a daily basis;
We eventually came in to land after what felt like an eternity. The closer we descended to the ground, the brighter and more awake I felt.
I shouldered my bag and marched off to passport control…where I was grilled a further two times by airport security staff. I had to again explain why I was here, what I was doing, where I was staying… They took my fingerprints and a photo of my face ( I don’t THINK it was close enough for a retinal scan but I wouldn’t swear to it). I then had to explain why I only had hand luggage; it never occurred to me that it might be suspicious.
One thing I will say for both of the guys that I had to talk to on the way through, they both loosened up and started responding to my jokes by the time I finished talking to them – that’s either a testament to my British charm, or the fact that they are just dudes doing a job. I’ll let you decide.
The last hurdle before I was finally through was a pair of stern-looking guys in security uniforms, stood on rostrums on either side of the last door out of the baggage reclaim area. They reminded me of the pair of sphinx statues in The Neverending Story.
I walked up and asked if either of them needed to see to the customs card that I had already had checked – twice. The man on the right – bless him, one of the tiniest men I have ever seen – grunted a little bit and held out his hand. I gave him the card, expecting another grilling. He simply looked at it, handed it back, puffed up his shoulders and said “Welcome to Amurrica” in the gruffest, deepest voice I have ever heard outside of action-movie trailers. I think he had been practising it, and if I wasn’t so afraid of getting shot, I’d have fallen over laughing.
My friend was literally pulling up outside as I stepped out of Arrivals, in an act of genius timing. I can’t describe the joy at seeing her again after so many years. She drove us back to her place out in Fridley, and after a very small amount of debate, a trip to the liquor store was in order – I love it when people are on my wavelength.
One of the first things that I discovered that I liked about America was having dedicated shops for beer. I’m so used to being tucked away in the back corner of a supermarket like a cousin with questionable genetics that it was really refreshing to have a whole store there to celebrate alcohol.
My friend explained to me that you will get ID’d for alcohol literally everywhere you go – age restrictions aside (minimum age 21, which is mental to me, but that’s another story) apparently they need to check your ID – normally a driving licence – for other restrictions. It made perfect sense at the time she was explaining it, but thinking about it now, I can’t remember what restrictions might be on your licence that meant you weren’t allowed to purchase alcohol… Just because you’re buying beer doesn’t mean you are going to drink-drive, surely? I don’t know, someone thought it was a good idea. At any rate, I cheerfully presented my passport at every bar and store from that point in, and gleefully watched as everyone wondered what the actual fuck they were looking at;
Also, you can pay by card everywhere, but most places still take signatures instead of PIN numbers – my card isn’t even signed, and no-one ever checked. If you’re looking for a place to commit card fraud, that would be it folks.
I bought myself some more Heineken, because I was not in any kind of position to make any complex decisions that evening. I drank a few, and then utterly crashed.
Or, The Cluster-fuck That Has Been My Public Transport Experience Recently.
During the last year, I have traveled quite extensively. Over the Summer, I had three separate trips to Scandinavia, and spread quite evenly over the last 12 months has been a series of gigs, largely in and around London. This has meant regular use of the network of public transport services in the Midlands and South-East of England. While buses and trains tend to be a little bit shabby as a rule, it’s nothing especially awful, and the odd delay here and there is nothing more than a bit of a nuisance.
Recently however, my experience of public transport has escalated rapidly from being ‘a bit of a nuisance’ to being ‘fucking shocking’ laced with a healthy dose of ‘complete incompetence and failure to give a shit that this is a service that people are paying for’.
While the local buses come with their own very special, smelly and noisy set of problems, I am pointing my finger very firmly in the direction of London Midland trains. Since the end of September, I have been traveling on a weekly basis into London for Norwegian language lessons, since there are no classroom based lessons more local to me. Adding this into the existing schedule of gigs and other activities, it has meant that I have been traveling into the capital on average twice a week for the last 3 months. I have had my eyes well and truly opened to the problems that exist within public transport.
I would like to state for the record that I bloody love the London Tube system. I have found over the years that underground trains and metros really appeal to me in a way that I don’t quite understand; I find them really comfortable environments, and I especially love the hot mechanical smell of the air…don’t judge me. The London Underground system is fast, efficient, reliable, and will get you wherever you need to be. Once you are in London, traveling is no kind of hardship. It’s getting TO London in the first place that is the issue.
It is really difficult for me to understand why traveling has been such a problem recently. London is one direct train journey from Northampton, between 57 and 87 minutes away, depending on your level of planning and/or blind luck. Simple, non? Actually, non. For the first 5 weeks of my evening course, every single train that I took to get home was delayed, and frequently the train going in was also subject to problems. After that initial period, on the infrequent occasions that my train wasn’t delayed, the ones before it were, so I ended out being stood nose to nose with the great unwashed for the majority of the journey home.
There is nothing more confusing and frustrating, when you have somewhere that you need to be, than standing on the train platform, looking back along the tracks at the train you need to be on, which is sat stationary, just looking at you blankly and scratching itself. Or the week after, when you get on the train and it simply doesn’t move for 25 minutes. Granted, they have gotten much better recently at keeping the commuter informed, but somehow knowing that they have cancelled your train because someone didn’t turn up for work isn’t a great comfort. Presumably, the only person without whom the train cannot operate would be the driver, and I would like to think they had a fucking contingency plan in place for something happening to the person who makes the train move.
All of these things are irritating, but being British we just accept that our public transport systems are shit in the same way that we accept it’s likely to rain at some point on any given day of the year. However, on the 10th November 2014 something happened that tipped me over the edge from British Disappointment, into a pit of abject, howling fury.
It was a Monday, and I had headed into London to go and see Rise Against at Brixton Academy (or the 02 Academy Brixton, whatever the kids are calling it these days). It was an absolutely blinding gig [literally, in fact; the lighting guy there has a serious hard-on for bursts of white spotlights aimed right into the crowd], and genuinely one of the best concerts I have ever been to. Afterwards, I skipped happily back to the tube station, and jumped on the Victoria line back up to Euston. As you come out of the tube station into the Euston overground rail station proper, you come up the escalator and turn to the right, where you are met with the warm, loving glow of the departure boards…
…which on this occasion were mostly black. To say that was unsettling is an understatement. I panicked and double checked the time in case somehow I had screwed up and it was much later than I had thought. It wasn’t, but there were only a couple of boards lit up on the left-hand side, and none of the trains went back to Northampton. There should have been at least three more trains due that evening. Shit. How the fuck am I supposed to get home? Why the hell are there no trains back to Northampton?? What’s happened?
Well, that was a question I continued to ask myself for quite a while because there were no announcements. I went over the the Virgin trains desk (since I couldn’t see where the London Midland desk even was, and the main information booth was closed). I figured if something had happened then someone would have mentioned it to the other train operator, since Virgin trains go through Northampton too…but he had no idea what was happening either. In a bit of a frenzy, I ended out getting on the first train to Milton Keynes, since that’s as close as I could get to home.
While I was on the train, there were no announcements explaining what had happened. I put a somewhat miffed post on Facebook, and my friends kindly did some research on my behalf. Apparently the London Midland website stated that there were planned works taking place that meant no trains would be traveling past Milton Keynes after 20:30 that evening…
So, when I bought my SAME DAY RETURN ticket from NORTHAMPTON at 18:30 that evening, would it not have been fucking pertinent to mention I couldn’t ACTUALLY return to Northampton? How long would it have taken to get someone to even write on a bit of sodding paper and stick it to the ticket machine? Would it not have also been a good idea to perhaps use one of the departure boards in Euston maybe to explain? I know they’re really pleased with themselves over all of the ongoing line upgrades and how wonderful the service will be in the future, but how about thinking just a little bit about the people who are actually traveling right now?
Apparently, the website also stated there was a replacement bus service from Milton Keynes to Northampton, although there was no mention of this at Euston… or on the train… or in Milton Keynes station itself when I eventually got there. I went outside the front of the station and there was no sign of a bus. I ended out getting a taxi home, and while £25 is pretty reasonable in terms of a fare of that distance, it was £25 I really shouldn’t have had to pay.
If I had been given the information that I couldn’t get back past Milton Keynes, I could have driven there and parked where the train finished instead of leaving my car in Northampton. Or I could have gone to Wellingborough and got the train into St Pancras station. Or I could have decided simply not go to to London in the first place. I would have had options. Yes, not having a train home is a ballache, but the very worst thing was the lack of information and the utter disregard for passengers, a.k.a. their paying customers.
I am generally a calm and rational person but I was absolutely livid. I was the most annoyed I had been in a very long time, so much so that I was being totally obnoxious in the hope that someone on the train would start a fight with me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have been more worried about getting home than I cared to admit to. And that was me, good at dealing with stressful situations. What if I had been a less confident person? What if I had suffered from some anxiety disorder? What if I didn’t have the money to get a taxi home? Regardless of how capable I am of dealing with stressful situations, leaving a lone female passenger with no way to get home at night is a bit fucking shitty to say the least.
The next day, I had to go into London again for language lessons. I checked the website before I left, and I had to dig about to even find where the notifications about changes to service were. When I was at the station, I discovered that there was one board that displayed the notifications, on the platform (…after the point that you have already bought your ticket…), tucked away up in the corner behind your left shoulder where you wouldn’t even see it unless you were specifically looking for it, or were taking an intense interest in the courtship activities of the pigeons in the roofspace. Even then, it was mostly scrolling notifications where London Midland was sucking itself off over how wonderful the improvements it was making to the infrastructure were.
Fuck you, London Midland. Fuck you for all the hours of my life I will never get back. Fuck you for the years that your stress has taken off of my lifespan. Fuck you most of all for being my only option.
It’s that time again. The last few grinding hours before I finally go home. The time when I drink as much beer as I can pour down my neck in order to stave off the sense of impending doom, and the guttural rejection of going back to the UK.
Monday morning, and the weather was bright and sunny. The skies were clear and blue, the air was crisp and cold, but the sun reached through it to lay a warm and gentle hand on my upturned face and closed eyelids.
Enough of the poetry, it was time to clear up the shit-tip of a hotel room. I threw out the leftover Krispbreads, 4 day old un-refridgerated spreadable cheese, blended chicken & mayonnaise filling, and a ridiculous number of coffee cups. Honestly, sometimes I look at the detritus from my existence and wonder how I am still alive.
Checking out of the hotel was not what could be described as a complex process; drop the key card in a glass jar and fuck off. Winner. I like it when things are that simple.
When I had jumped off of the flybussen on the way in to Oslo, I had quite accidentally gotten off at the closest stop to my hotel, so despite my ticket being from the actual bussterminalen (a stop further along the line) I thought I would take a chance and try getting on the bus at the same place I got off; Prof. Aschehougs plass. It was a short, bright and lovely walk from the hotel down to the bus stop, and my timing was impeccable – the bus pulled up just as I was crossing the road.
The driver looked at the ticket and waved me on board without question. I settled myself in, and as soon as I stopped moving or having something to think about, the crushing reality of going home set in. I spent the 40 minute journey to Gardermoen airport sighing wistfully, doing mental comparisons between what I could see outside the window and what I knew I was going home to.
Incidentally, have I shown you the front of my new notepad yet? I don’t think I have…
Security was just as fast and straightforward as it was through Gatwick… if a little bit uncomfortable. There was a guy in a wheelchair directly in front of me, and the staff were being helpful and friendly as his friend/carer was helping to prepare him to go through scanning. Where it got awkward as an observer was when they started detaching false limbs…
On the way through the airport, I had noticed some of the staff zipping past on scooters with what looked like big baskets on the front. I was thoroughly impressed, since I cannot imagine anyone in the UK getting that past a Health & Safety assessment.
I headed straight for the bar once I had established where my gate was; going home always requires at least one pint before I get on the plane.
It’s always interesting to do beer price comparisons, and on this occasion I paid 104NOK for 60cl, which calculates back to approximately £9.48 a pint. By no means the most expensive beer I have bought in Scandinavia, but neither was it the nicest. Also, it speaks volumes that I no longer wince when I work out the prices…
I’d like to take a moment, brothers and sisters, to talk to you about Wifi. Norwegian airlines have free wifi on their planes (or at least some of them), the flybussen has free wifi, as does Gardermoen airport. It pleases me to see how much better they understand the important things here.
It was just before 11am and I had settled myself in for a round of people watching, and thinking about how the rest of the day was going to pan out. I was fairly confident that I was going to drink enough beer to keep me content, while enjoying the process of getting from one country to another…
However, after I landed back in Gatwick, I needed to take a 2 hour train back to Bedford, followed by a 1 hour bus journey back to Northampton. Factoring in time standing around waiting for public transport, I expected to arrive back in the town centre around 6pm. I strongly suspected that once I got there, I would be so demoralised that I would end out going to the pub for a few before being able to consider heading home.
Thinking about it, my one complaint about traveling to Norway is that no carrier flies from Luton Airport anymore. Luton Airport is a couple of junctions down the M1 motorway, and takes roughly 40 minutes from my front door to drive. The first time I travelled på Norge in 2009, Ryanair operated a flight from Luton to Oslo Torp [‘Oslo Torp’, also known as ‘Not Really Oslo At All’] but these days the options are pretty much limited to one of the three main London airports.
The net result of that is either 1) a dismally long, circuitous trip there and back on public transport, 2) asking someone else to take 3-4 hours out of their day to drop me off and then the same again to pick me up, or 3) driving directly and paying extra to park at the airport. I am sure there must be an easier or quicker way, but I am yet to find it.
The time came to get on the plane and it was somewhat chaotic to say the least. It was packed full of people with lots of luggage, lots of children, and absolutely zero fucks to give. I did make an observation which I may pass on to the airline; people might have a greater sense of urgency if the cabin crew changed “Could we please ask customers, once they have found their seats, to please stand out of the aisle in order to allow other passengers to pass” to “Sit. The Fuck. DOWN.”
It always strikes me that the people on planes headed to the UK are more obnoxious, less interested in co-operating with the staff, and much much louder. I am assuming that’s because the percentage of British people is higher, and they are probably just as pleased as I am about going home.
The flight landed in Gatwick without incident, and I scuttled through the terminal and down to the train platforms as quickly as I could. I managed to get there just before the next train out to Bedford, and by 3pm I was heading home. The view out of my window was precisely as inviting as I had been expecting it to be.
The award for my favourite passenger of the trip so far goes to the incredibly well-spoken but utterly fraught woman in her mid-40’s, who was despairingly trying to negotiate better behaviour from her disdainful 9 year old daughter, whom she insisted on referring to as ‘darling’. I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to strangle more, but in the end I decided it was definitely the mother.
We arrived in Bedford with me successfully avoiding assaulting anyone, almost solely thanks to this Buzzfeed article;
The bus was 20 minutes late, but that is nothing to be surprised about. I was grateful that there weren’t many people on it, but I did end out spending the last 10 minutes of the journey on High Alert.
There was an old man in a strange hat who was repeatedly leaning across the aisle to talk to a young girl who was traveling on her own, and had spent most of the trip dozing. Every time he got close to her, she physically shied away from him, and she did not look happy at all. I sat coiled, ready to pounce at the slightest indication he was about to do anything untoward. He ended out getting off the bus a couple of stops before her, and I was able to relax again. He had probably only just been being friendly, and wanting to pass the time chatting with a pretty girl, but I know too much about the dark side of life to not be cautious as a default response.
I ended out getting back to Northampton for 6:30PM, and as expected a wave of dejection washed over me. Pub time, suspend reality for a little while longer. There are two main pubs I choose to spend time in while I am in town, the King Billy and the Racehorse. Since the Billy was closest, I wandered down there.
What’s become apparent over the years is that while the Billy is great if you’re out with people or if there is a band on, it’s a bit of an odd place to be if you’re on your own, and its also bloody uncomfortable – especially if you’ve been traveling all day. I had a pint and decided to head up the Racehorse, where there was a cushioned corner that pretty much has my name nailed above it.
The Racehorse changed ownership a while ago – possibly getting on for a year even – and it is clearly steered by very different hands these days. Most significantly, it doesn’t smell like piss and manky dogs any more, which is a thing to be very pleased about. However, on a slight downside (for me at least) it’s not as alternative as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a nice place to go, as long as you are prepared to be hassled by a variety of strange old men. It’s just…different…these days.
As I was sat there, the new flat screen TV was playing some ‘retro’ music channel. It started off as being ironically funny, but got progressively more painful as time passed; Right Said Fred, Charles & Eddie, Boyz II Men, and ending out with Emmylou Harris, Glenn Campbell and Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson. I had no idea what the actual fuck was going on, but no-one else seemed concerned and the chances of anyone changing the channel any time soon were getting more and more remote.
Just when I was starting to think that I was going to have to abandon the Racehorse too, I remembered that I had my tablet with me. Whenever I feel frustrated with life, or angry, or just low, there has always been one thing and one thing alone that will boost me out of a bad place; the Prodigy.
Some people like to feel soothed when they are upset, comforted, reassured, looked after. That doesn’t work for me. I need to feel energised, snarling, primal, battered by obnoxious basslines. The Prodigy have a mystical power over me, and can fix me when nothing else can.
Leeroy bouncing around the stage like a happy deckchair. Maxim howling, with a kilt and a gauntlet. Keith KILLING IT, wearing what looks like it might have been his Nan’s sofa in a previous life. Liam decked out in Fresian-cow-print trousers doing, well, everything else quite frankly. The tension and irritation of the day just bled out of me – I owe a good deal of my sanity over the last 22 years to this band.
Now that I am home, I have choices to make. While I fill my daily life with things that make me happy, as soon as I consider my existence in a larger context or a longer time period, I am dissatisfied with where I am. Northampton has long since gone past being a place I enjoyed living in; the things that made it good have been eroded away over time. The places I loved simply do not exist anymore. My friendship circle has moved on, grown up, left. Also, I am a different person these days and need different things out of my world. There are other places on the planet that are not only achingly beautiful, but that make me feel an inner peace that I have never experienced anywhere else.
My choices are quite straightforward, and I instinctively know the answer before I have even asked myself the question; do I wait and see how things evolve, because I am safe, and comfortable both physically and financially at the moment…or do I drive as hard as I can towards the thing I actually want, despite the discomforts it may bring?
It’s a no brainer really. I am too old to be doing the things I don’t want to do, and I am also no longer the kind of person who is prepared to just put up with things because that’s easier.
Watch this space, because shit is about to get REAL.
Sunday commenced with a conversation about Norse mythology and a decision to go and see some Viking ships. We took the number 30 bus from Nationaltheatret towards Bygdøy, jumping off at Vikingskipene.
There is located a museum, Vikingskipshuset, that contains three Viking burial ships that were uncovered from different burial mounds between 1867 and 1903. There is the Oseberg ship, the Gokstad ship and the Tune ship. The three ships were built between 820AD and 900AD, and standing in their presence was awe-inspiring. They were all initially built as sea-faring vessels, which were later decommisioned and drawn out of the water to serve as burial ships for the important folks whose remains were placed inside, along with a number of different things that they would need to see them through in the afterlife.
My photos are complete gash, so you’d be better off Googling the ships quite frankly.
These ships SAILED. They actually sailed the seas around Norway, and quite possibly abroad. My brain took off and ran with that. Did one of these ships carry Viking warriors across the North Sea to the shores of England?
The hulls of the ships were shallow and broad, with graceful sweeping curves that drew my eye across them, and immediately had me imagining the prows slicing their way through turbulent waters. The bulk of the ships was imposing and majestic, and utterly beautiful. The detail and the intricacy imparted the sense that these weren’t just functional vehicles for transporting people and goods from one place to another. These ships were statements. Each boat gave me the feeling that it was designed and built by craftsmen with love in their hearts for what they were creating.
The museum had little staircases built into the corners of each room that allowed you to look at the ships from an elevated position.
They had cases at one end of the museum that contained the remains of the people who had been found in the boats, and a list of all of the things that had been buried with them. One case contained the bones of two tiny women who were discovered in the Oseberg ship, and the other case was for the warrior who was buried in the Gokstad ship. He was somewhere between 181-183cm (that’s between 5’11” and 6′, to those of us who count properly). His legs had been hacked and cut in his final battle, and the sheer amount of horses and dogs and spare boats and shields buried with him were testament to his regard. The two women were buried with similar riches, and my brain was completely caught up with filling in the gaps about who these three people were, what they looked like, what roles they played in the world around them…
In another section of the museum there were loads of glass cases which contained the things that had been found inside the ships alongside the people. There were scraps of silk cloth, tools, weapons, game pieces, sledges, a wagon, and lots of carved animal heads. I think it’s fair to say that I was besotted.
The detail and the craftsmanship that went into each and every piece was astonishing. Granted, when it came to the animal heads, I am not sure that the person carving them had actually seen the creature that was being represented, but that’s beside the point.
I left the Vikingskipshuset with a head full of wonder, and a heart full of wanting to run around being a Viking. That was very soon to be brought crashing down around me.
Since we were already there, we also visited Holocaustsenteret, The Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Norway. It was brutal, and mindblowing. It was an exhibition about the Nazi party in Norway, the persecution of Norwegian Jews and other minorities, and the gradual proliferation of exclusion and hatred. I had no idea before I went in there the part that Norway played in the holocaust, but I most certainly will never forget about it.
While you might not think it to look at me, and while I choose to ignore it a lot of the time, I have quite a decent amount of empathy, and I feel things that really have nothing to do with me very deeply. This exhibition was incredibly grueling for me and it will stay with me for a very long time. The writing and information was 99% in Norwegian, and while I can read basic sentences and get the jist of what is being talked about, I mostly couldn’t understand the text. That is something I am quite grateful for, because I was only just holding it together over the pictures.
The whole of the way around the exhibition, my heart felt too big for my chest, and grief and frustration were clawing at my throat. I kept finding myself standing there, staring into the sepia tinted eyes of men and women who knew their fate, and could do nothing about it. Men and women who had been judged as less than human, by men with no fucking authority beyond that which they claimed.
Propaganda is an astonishing tool. It was unbelievable looking at the hate-filled, arse-backwards leaflets and pictures that were drip-fed into the population to sow the seeds of disgust, mistrust and superiority. You think that the police in the States are bad for racial profiling? Not even close. There were written guidelines, pictures and measurements for people’s facial features, to establish which were the ‘correct’ characteristics. It was exactly the same way the American Kennel Club issued guidelines about different breeds of dog in a book I had as a child. They had charts indicating the threat levels posed by different groups of people, and how much damage these people could inflict on decent society.
It was genuinely chilling. There were texts and studies and papers outlining the calm and reasoned arguments for why Jews were evil. Madness and mania masqueraded as science and fact. It was truly dark, and it was so frustrating being there and knowing that people honestly believed this shit. Some people kept saying a thing until they had said it so often that it came to be accepted amongst others as the truth. Many people died, many people committed atrocious acts, and all in the name of something that was never real. A fabrication. A lie. IT WAS NEVER REAL.
What finally broke me was the room with the names, and the dates of birth and death of all of the Norwegian Jews who were killed.
Do you want to know the thing that struck me the most about the whole thing? Although all these events happened in the past, they aren’t History. This propagation of hatred and dehumanisation and victimisation and humiliation and murder is still happening now, every day.
I left what I now know to be the old home of Norwegian collaborator and Nazi-leader, Vidkun Quisling, feeling raw, wrung out, frustrated and impotent.
I would highly recommend that anyone who can, go.