Just a Wee Blether…

About Brexit viewed from America

Since I came to the United States last March I’ve been boasting – insufferably I suspect – about how certain aspects of British culture are different, and in my opinion better, than what I’ve encountered over here.

I have long crowed that we don’t have the same level of racial intolerance that is all too evident in American daily life – that Britain is a more inclusive and welcoming nation. And, at every possible opportunity, I have reminded Americans of the wonders of our National Health Service compared with the gross travesty of this country’s insurance-based system.

So what do I tell my American friends now? The aftermath of Brexit has been widely reported here. They have read that in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, printed cards containing the words ‘No More Polish Vermin’ were posted through letterboxes. How can I tell people now that Britain is not a racist country? As for the NHS, it survived the Thatcher years but there must now be serious doubts about how much longer it will last.

The sick note dropped through houses in Huntingdon, Cambs. See Masons copy MNBACKLASH: Police are investigating reports of "sick" messages calling Polish people vermin which have been distributed following the UK's decision to leave the EU. The laminated cards which read "Leave the EU, No More Polish Vermin" were discovered by members of the public on Friday morning in Huntingdon, Cambs., an area which where 54.2 per cent backed Brexit and 45.8 per cent voted to stay in the EU. A number of the laminated cards were found near St Peter's School in St Peter's Road, Huntingdon at around 8.30am by a teenager who attends the school.

The American view of Brexit has been one of sheer disbelief. For a start the whole referendum process is lost on people here. One commentator asked why politicians allowed the public to vote on an issue after the public had elected politicians to look after such matters. “What will happen at Budget time? Will the public take control of that too?” he added.

Not surprisingly the millions of Donald Trump supporters are jubilant and they expect the Brexit result to propel their man’s equally populist campaign to victory in November. The ‘take my country back’ slogan resonates with a large percentage of the American population and they have taken to social media lauding Brits for ridding their land of “Muslims…Frogs…Commies…Terrorists”.

The sober voices in the business and economic world have reacted with horror. One financial expert described the vote as “economic suicide” and ”national insanity”. It had an immediate and devastating effect on the markets here. The giant beer company Anheuser-Busch InBev, based in St Louis with European headquarters in Belgium, saw its market value plunge by $11.9 billion in one day.

Markets are volatile, of course, and the big beer execs will be fine. But the gravest threat to the British economy that is exercising the minds of the experts here is what they call “disinvestment”. The so-called special relationship and a common language means that most of the big US companies who trade in Europe have their European bases in Britain. With Britain as an EU member they enjoy free and unfettered access to all other EU markets. If and when that changes, these companies would lose that access and very possibly relocate elsewhere.

If a firm such as Caterpillar moves from the UK to France or Belgium or Poland, thousands of British jobs will go. I’ve read and listened extensively to all the reasoned arguments over here and all agree that Britain is heading for a long and difficult period of recession.

But let’s be honest, this referendum was not won or lost on the niceties of the global economy. Do you think the modern-day Chelsea Headhunters and the geezer up the Old Kent Road with his West Ham scarf and red and white Enger-lund underpants were stroking their chins and contemplating the impact on the money markets of Europe? Of course not, they wanted Britain to be British again – whatever that means nowadays.

When I saw the voxpops over the weekend from English towns and cities, I couldn’t believe the level of anti-foreigner vitriol I was hearing. Perhaps I was cocooned in Scotland but I honestly didn’t know such hatred and bitterness existed south of the border, and to such an extent.

And the Leave campaign milked their fears and xenophobia to perfection. The leaders knew their audience. And Britain is now safe in the hands of Boris Johnson, the class clown made good. I mean, seriously? It’s like having Paul Gascoigne in charge of the Football Association. As for Nigel Farage, I have always conjured up a mental picture of him as an old fashioned National Front bovver boy – dressed in a suit but with the same twisted mindset.

So how does Britain look today from a distance? Truthfully it resembles a sad, lonely, isolated, and yes racist little country, its citizens with their backs turned towards the outside world saying ‘we don’t want you here’.

Am I ashamed to be a Brit abroad? Yes, a little, even though I can in no way identify with the outpouring of hatred that Brexit has unleashed.

But the next time Donald Trump bellows about keeping out Mexican “rapists” and Muslim “terrorists”, what can I say? Shrug my shoulders and tell people the same intolerance exists back home. He wants his wall; Britain has put up its barriers.

Who knows how this will end. Scexit or Indyref2 will be interesting. Right now it’s just a desperately sad state of affairs.

Just a Wee Blether…

About surviving the deadly Arizona heat

Before I came to Arizona, everyone warned me about the same thing. Right now I’m experiencing the worst of it. Between now and the middle of this week it will have been directly responsible for upwards of 10 deaths. I’m talking about the ferocious and unforgiving Arizona heat.

The temperature in Phoenix today was 118 degrees Fahrenheit – that equals 47.7 degrees Celsius. Forecasters are referring to it in the media as “deadly heat” and have warned that it could climb higher between today and Wednesday.  People have been advised to stay indoors at the hottest times of the day.

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Heat-related ailments kill an average of 120 Arizonans every year. Most are outdoor workers – construction sites open in the early mornings and close long before noon – along with many homeless people and some climbers.

Today a 28-year old woman died while mountain biking on a desert trail. Firefighters said her death was 100% heat-related.

Believe me this is serious heat, the like of which I’ve never encountered. If you’ve been to Spain or Greece or Cyprus, then you’ll know what it’s like at “siesta time”. But at least the Mediterranean resorts enjoy a cooling sea breeze, here the nearest coast is 213 miles away at Puerto Penasco, Mexico. It’s a bit like an old Spaghetti Western – the sun just beats down relentlessly.

Today we drove to my father-in-law’s house to take him out for Father’s Day. It’s a journey of approximately 30 minutes. There was barely a soul to be seen, the normally-busy golf courses were empty, so were all the play areas and parks, no-one was walking on the pavements, the place was deserted. We remarked that it resembled a ghost town.

There are laws governing dog owners who are required to have their pets on a tether of at least 10 feet and with a loose collar. At certain times of day, the dogs’ paws must be protected from the scorching pavements and it is not uncommon to see dogs wearing booties.

At one point today my wife nipped into a shop. I waited in the car without realising that, because the engine was off, the lack of air conditioning would be quite so uncomfortable.  Within less than a minute, I had to leave the car and stand in the shade because I was struggling to breathe. If your vehicle has no air-con, then you simply cannot use it in this heat.

It is the same in the house. In addition to the air conditioning system, we have ceiling fans in each room plus a tower-style fan that oscillates. If the a/c broke down it would be an emergency situation, we couldn’t live here without it.

Between now and the middle of September the temperature will rarely dip between 100F. This week is exceptionally hot and there will be a few more similar spells during the long, hot summer. The “deadly heat”, as they call it, is almost exclusively felt in Phoenix and the surrounding cities. We are in a low-lying valley, called the Valley of the Sun, it is heavily built up with a population of 3.2 million, and there is little cooling wind or rain. To the north or south the elevation is higher and the temperature can be about 25 degrees lower.

People over here describe the summer as “four months of hell”. That’s a bit over the top but you certainly have to be sensible about what you do and when. Climbing a mountain at high noon is a very bad idea. Drinking a lot of water is essential to avoid dehydration, and most people wear shorts and a t-shirt, something to cover their head and of course sunglasses and sun screen.

The beauty of Arizona is that, for eight months of the year, the weather is fantastic. Right now, the heat is extreme. I’ll be fine, but spare a thought for the poor mountain biker who died. As for the unfortunates who sleep rough on the streets, they might not be so lucky.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About nostalgia for the glory days of cars

A few months ago I was travelling in the same car as a friend of mine from the American Midwest. We turned a corner and passed by a stunningly restored old vehicle, gleaming red body, white roof, the type you see in 1960s movies – some so big they look more like boats than cars.

“62 Chevy”, he said immediately. “How do you know that?”, I replied, a bit stunned by this show of instant automotive knowledge. “How do you know it’s not a ‘61 Chevy, or a ‘63?”

“Ah, it’s the rear lights,” he chuckled. “I’d recognise them anywhere. ‘62 it is.” I’m not 100% sure to this day if he was winding me up, but I suspect not, I think he knew exactly what he was talking about. So I took his word for it, and declared myself suitably impressed.

This kind of classic or vintage vehicle recognition is not unusual over here. After all Americans have had an obsession with cars, to the exclusion of almost all other forms of transport, since the early days of the 20th century. And they had a lot to be proud of, these big old cars – Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Ford Mustangs, Ford Thunderbirds (or T-Birds), Dodges, Lincolns, Cadillacs and many more – were things of beauty.

For families all over the country the car that sat in their driveway or parked at the roadside was a status symbol. Now car buffs are buying up those same old 50s and 60s vehicles, lovingly restoring them, in some cases spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on them, and cruising round the freeways and highways of the United States.

They are classy old vehicles. One person I know is restoring a ‘little red Corvette’, another is a collector who has nine old Chevys worth many thousands of dollars. If you drive on the back roads of America, you see old banged up cars just waiting to be picked up and turned into someone’s dream car. The car pictured is a Thunderbird (year unknown) lying in a state of disrepair behind a classy wedding venue in Florence, Arizona.

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What was different about these cars – compared with the ones on the road nowadays – is that they all had individuality. Here you could tell a Chrysler Imperial from a Chevrolet Impala, a Plymouth Barracuda from a Pontiac Trans Am. Just as in the UK you could tell apart a Hillman Minx, a Riley Elf, an Austin A40, a Vauxhall Victor, and a Humber Sceptre.

When I was young I used to travel with my parents from my home in Ayrshire to visit relatives in Lochaber. In those days the roads were narrow and windy, we crossed on the Erskine and Ballachulish ferries – there were no bridges – and if the queues were long the journey could take anything up to seven hours.

I often used to pass the time with a book and kept a note of all the different car makes that passed us going in the opposite direction. I kept score, the winner was always Ford, closely followed by Austin, Morris and Vauxhall. There were a good few Volkswagens, Wolseleys, Rileys, Hillmans and Fiats. And the beauty of this little exercise was that I could tell what they were from quite a distance.

That has all changed. In the US most cars are built to three basic ‘shapes’ – SUV, sedan and hatchback. When you see an SUV coming towards you it is impossible, until you see the logo, to tell if it is a Hyundai, Nissan, Ford, Honda, Dodge or Mazda. Not that I keep a note any more – but the romance of car design is well and truly dead. Unless, of course, you can afford a high end vehicle like a Porsche, Jaguar, Lotus or Ferrari.

I reserve a certain amount of awe and wonderment for my buddy in the Midwest, and others like him, who can rattle off the make and the year of an old car when they pass by. He grew up in an age when the car was king. Fifty years from now I don’t think the youngsters of today will see an old vehicle and say “2015 Ford Focus”.

At least the car enthusiasts, on both sides of the Atlantic, keep alive the memory of these classy and stylish old vehicles with their restoration work. Let’s hope they keep up the good work.

Just a Wee Blether…

About my hero Ali – the un-American

A few months ago, I wrote in this blog about the thrill of finding out that one of my great sporting heroes, Muhammad Ali, lived only a few miles from me in Arizona. Ali, arguably the greatest sportsman of my generation, died this week in a hospital just a 15-minute drive from my home.

ali

As a sports-obsessed boy growing up in the 1960s I had a lot of idols. The great Brazilian footballer Pele was at the height of his career and, to my mind, is still the greatest player that ever lived. The stylish Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano were in decline but Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, George Best and Scotland’s own Jimmy Johnstone lit up the football fields of Europe.

Golf’s big three – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player – dominated their sport, and there was an up-and-coming youngster called Tom Watson on the horizon. Billie Jean King, Rod Laver and the classy Arthur Ashe stood out for me on the tennis court, and a West Indian called Gary Sobers was a cricketing god.

Wales seemed to have all the best rugby players, certainly in the northern hemisphere – Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Barry John spring to mind. And who can forget the exploits of the Kenyan long distance runner Kip Keino? It was a great time to be a sports fan.

There were some incredible one-off performances. I will never forget watching a certain Bob Beamon seeming to hang in the rarified air of Mexico City as he shattered the world long jump record by an incredible two feet. Beamon collapsed in shock when the board showed 29 feet, two and a half inches. And of course there was that day that a Jim Baxter-inspired Scotland became world football champions by beating England at Wembley – that’s what happened, wasn’t it?

But somehow Muhammad Ali transcended all of this. I watched his fights on my parents’ old black and white tv set. The ones that stick in my mind weren’t against Joe Frazier or George Foreman but opponents such as Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo, Brian London, Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams. It was pure entertainment, his ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ dance routine was something Fred Astaire would have been proud of, he was style personified.

Out of the ring he was equally charismatic and controversial. He converted to Islam, played a prominent role in the civil rights movement and refused to fight in Vietnam, stating in typical forthright manner that “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” only the American whites. In the 1960s that one statement alone earned him the undying hatred of half the country.

This week, hours after Ali died in a Phoenix hospital with his family round his bedside, tens of millions of Americans took to online message boards to pay tribute to a true sporting legend. Tens of millions more took to the same boards to abuse him, to spew racist venom, to call him a coward and a traitor, and to brand him un-American.

A quick scan reveals phrases such as “draft-dodging racist”…”draft-dodging coward got what he deserved by suffering”…”an un-American traitor, no hero of mine”…draft-dodging coward should be on his tombstone”… I hope Ali rots in Hell”…”changed his name to Muhammad to hide from the draft”. And millions and millions more in the same vein.

What the hell is wrong with some people in this country? Disagreeing with a person is fine, abuse of that nature about a person who lit up the lives of so many people round the world is quite frankly sick. No other nation would treat a sporting icon in such a way

Of course the American scourge of racism runs through everything. I hear racist comments here every day. Some are jokes and we should all be grown-up enough to enjoy a good non-PC joke within reason. But in 21st century America, black people are routinely called monkeys, Obama is called ‘the ape in the White House’, Oriental people are called Gooks. Everyone gets some sort of abuse – Hispanics, Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Irish, Native Americans, you name it.

As for the draft-dodging stuff, I always thought draft-dodgers ran away or squirmed out of serving, like the ‘fortunate sons’ of the wealthy. Ali, to my mind, was a conscientious objector who was prepared to face the consequences. Quite a difference.

I will remember Ali as ‘The Greatest’ and the outpouring of online hatred won’t change that one bit. It just makes me wonder even more about the whole American psyche.