Mad Dogs & Englishmen

Dave Woodhall wonders, not for the first time, if we can’t all be a bit more grown-up.

I was in Belgium last week. Flicking through the TV channels I came across a story on CNN about Syrians who’d fled to England to avoid the problems in their home country. Talking about his two sons, one man said “I used to worry about them. All they were interested in were mobile phones and computer games.” Then they got involved in demonstrating against Bassar al-Assad’s regime and had to flee the country to avoid arrest, imprisonment and worse. One of them was interviewed and said they both intend to go back to Syria and fight against the regime. They’re a worry to their parents, who think they’re feckless and ungrateful, and then they’re suddenly risking their lives for their beliefs and in the hope of building a better society. I wonder, should the unimaginable happen here, how many of our younger generations would do the same. The obvious answer is not many, particularly judging by the events of last August. Then I wondered what the reaction would have been had the same question been asked about the youth of 1913 and 1938. Probably the same.

On a similar note, one of the reasons the country is apparently going to hell on a handcart (c Daily Mail) is the upsurge in drunkenness amongst young people. As with every obvious problem there are obvious solutions according to the Mail and its cohorts, who have periodic crusades on the subject, centred around the problem being caused by alcohol easily available, too strong and too cheap. Anyone who thinks this should wander round a Belgian supermarket, where some of the strongest beer in the world is available 24 hours a day, and for comparatively bargain prices. Four cans of 12% Bush, enough to send most people unconscious, was on sale at just over the equivalent of £5. The checkouts didn’t have ludicrously draconian demands for identification aimed at most of their customers or dire warnings to would-be underage purchasers, either. Yet despite this apparently lax attitude towards alcohol I didn’t see any problems with drunks, either real or imagined. Until…

On the Eurostar back I wandered towards to the buffet car just before the train was due off. On the way down an elderly man who must have been at least in his sixties was shouting at a young family. On the way back to my seat he was being dragged off the train by five security men. He was, of course, English.

In all the times I’ve travelled by Eurostar I’ve seen four ‘incidents.’ They’ve been cases of unpleasantness rather than actual violence (the shaven-headed bloke who got on a crowded train at Lille, sat in the first free seat and stated loudly “Let’s see anybody try to f-ing move me” being one memorable occasion), a couple were drink-fuelled and the protagonists ranged from youngish to elderly. The only thing they had in common was that they were all English.

John Peel once said in an interview that his wife told him of her experiences hitch-hiking around during the sixties, when a Union Jack on your rucksack was enough to make sure you got a lift. Nowadays it would be regarded as a warning sign. I wonder if the problems with alcohol and general bad behaviour when the English (and if anyone wants to say why it’s predominantly English rather than British, feel free to write in) go abroad don’t stem from the same root cause – treat people like adults and they’ll behave likewise. Film them, keep them under constant surveillance, warn them at every step that it’s for their own good because what they’re doing might be illegal and if they aren’t breaking the law someone else probably is, and they’ll become more inclined to make such prophecies self-fulfilling then behave like kids let loose in a sweet shop when they travel outside such restrictions.