Thursday, March 31, 2011

God Save The Queen, For Now

Originally published on Click2Houston.com

LONDON -- Officially, Queen Elizabeth II is in charge of this little island. In the British system of government, the monarch is the highest executive authority, in the way that the president is the highest executive authority of the United States.

But in practice, the modern British monarch has only the power of a bully pulpit. For the most part, Elizabeth II is a face to put on the money, a name to put on official documents, a nice lady to welcome foreign dignitaries.

How the queen's subjects feel about her often depends on their interpretation of the monarch's role: God-appointed power, or charming titular head of state?

The chasm between what the monarchy is today and what the monarchy was in the past lends itself to confusion even among regular Britons. Despite the royal family's omnipresence in the tabloids, everyday citizens tend not to know much about the monarchy's place and role in modern society. Ask a person about the royal family, and you'll more than likely receive an emotional response or grandiose fabrication about their eating swans or being in charge of elite assassination squads.

"When I was younger, I used to be a hard-core left winger. I adopted every 'anti' position that I could find," confesses university lecturer Dyfrig Jones. "Over time I've worked my way back to the political center, but if there is one thing that takes me back to my youth, it's the royal family."

Jones bases his contempt of the royal family on ideological grounds. Their presence, he said, shows respect to an outdated and unfair way of looking at the world.

"How deeply is servitude ingrained into our national psyche that we would give up a second of our time to think about the lives of these leeches that draw huge personal wealth from the taxes that we pay?" he asks.

The issue of tax money is one that comes up frequently in arguments about the monarchy. The royal household is allocated £7.9 million ($12.7 million) a year by the government to help cover the salaries and pensions of its more than 300 members of staff. Add in costs of police protection and so on, and the annual cost of a queen runs a little more. In the 2009-10 financial year, the monarchy cost the British public £38.2 million (roughly $61.4 million).

But some would argue that is value for money. In the same financial year, it is estimated that Elizabeth II brought in more than £100 million ($160 million) to the British public purse. That figure takes into account charity work, official functions and the land and property cared for as part of the Crown Estate. The amount of international tourism money brought in by the royal family is harder to measure, but it is generally accepted to be a factor in many people's decision to visit the country.

The Crown Estate is a collection of land and property, ancient buildings and art, owned and maintained by the royal family. These items are generally open to the public to view and visit. Business consultant Siân Dafydd said this portfolio is a reason she's content to see the royal family as a part of modern Britain.

"I wouldn't trust the government right now to have kept these works of art and architecture and heritage in the current climate," she says, referring to a recent furor over government plans to sell off sections of national forest.

"[The government] would have sold them off to the odd millionaire who'd have shut the doors or made hotels. As guardians of this property and land, I've no objections to the royals."

Ensuring that the public stays objection-free is thought to be one of the primary concerns for the royal family. With no real power over the country, the monarchy's future rests in the hands of the public mood. To that end, Prince William and Catherine Middleton have been a tremendous boost.

But in this country that is so famously resistant to change, the monarchy also has a place simply because it has always had a place. And many Britons carry a fondness toward the monarchy because it is something that helps them stand out in the world.

"It's one of the things that make Britain a little bit different. What is wrong with being old-fashioned?" said Anne, a waitress in Cardiff. "I enjoy having the queen on my money, reminding me that Britain used to be considered, and still can be, great."

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Idiot's History Of The British Monarchy

Originally published on Click2Houston.com

LONDON -- In the simplest of terms, Elizabeth Windsor is better known to the world as Queen Elizabeth II because some guy got shot in the eye with an arrow. Don't worry, she had nothing to do with that particularly gruesome act. It happened almost 900 years before she was born.

The unfortunate recipient of that arrow was a man named Harold, who was once king of much of the area now known as England. In 1066 AD, a French bloke known to his friends as William the Bastard came across the channel, crushed Harold's army and picked up the far more appealing title of William the Conqueror. And that's more or less where Britain's monarchy begins, making it one of the oldest royal institutions in Europe.

That said, the line connecting William the Conqueror to modern-day Prince William of Wales is anything but straight. In fact, things were pretty blurry right at the start, with a number of people claiming the title of sovereign. And none were able to claim to be in charge of the entire island of Britain.

The first real attempt at such a thing was made by Edward I (1272-1307): the bad guy in the film "Braveheart." He managed to conquer the notoriously contentious Welsh but spent so much money doing so he was then unable to defeat Mel Gibson. Or, well, something like that.

Roughly 200 years later, the old issue of who was actually in charge boiled over to the extent that a fight broke out. That fight, known as the War of the Roses, lasted for roughly 30 years (1455-1485) and ended when Henry VIII's dad got married.

Henry VIII is easily one of the most famous kings, not only in the history of Britain but in the history of the world. During his 38-year reign (1509-1547), he went from being young, sexy and talented to being old, fat and scary. He was the Elvis of his day, but with far more torture and killing. All his foibles aside, however, Henry VIII's reign helped England, and by extension, Britain, start to develop its own unique personality.

That personality was further developed and expanded by his daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The guy who took over after her, James I (1603-1625) strengthened the concept of Britain even further by being the first king of both Scotland and England: the first sovereign of a United Kingdom.

In the following centuries, although the kings and queens of Britain could now claim reign over wider and wider areas -- famously, the sun never set on the British Empire of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) -- their actual power gradually ebbed away. By the time George VI (1936-1952) was thrust into the job, the primary role of monarch was to serve as a national figurehead. As we know from the move "The King's Speech," one of the biggest challenges George VI faced was putting words together. A monarch was now expected to be a role model, someone for Britons to look up to and aspire to be like. Thankfully, George VI had Captain Barbossa on his side. Or, well, something like that.

Since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has admirably fulfilled the nuanced responsibilities of her role. What Britain is and what it means to be British are ideas that have shifted dramatically during Elizabeth's reign. She and the royal household famously suffered a public relations embarrassment in the wake of Princess Diana's death in 1997, but she has since adapted and is now seen by many as a sort of national grandmother.

Questions abound for what sort of reign Prince Charles will experience. His sons, William and Harry, are far better at dealing with constant media and public attention than he is. Whether Charles has the savvy and patience to excel as a modern monarch remains to be seen.

The role of monarch has changed immensely since the days of William the Conqueror, but perhaps one facet of the job is still the same. In that battle in which Harold took an arrow to the eye, William's men almost lost the day because they thought their leader, too, had been killed. Things only turned in William's favor when he threw off his helmet to reveal he was still in the fight. The role of monarch, then, has always been to be lead -- whether it be with sword or with words.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wills And Kate: A Very Public Love Story

Story originally published on Click2Houston.com

LONDON -- Few moments in Prince William of Wales' life have not been recorded for posterity. Where he went to school, how he dresses, what he eats, where he goes, who he associates with, what he says and even the amount of hair on his head are a matter of public record -- noted, dissected and discussed endlessly in the tabloid newspapers of the country he will most likely reign.

It has always been this way. His birth, on June 21, 1982, was international front-page news. When his parents -- Prince Charles and Princess Diana -- divorced, it was fodder for stand-up comics all around the world. When he was 15 years old, his mother famously died in a car crash. Books were written about the event, films and television programs made. For William, the deep tragedy of losing one's mother became a historical event.

Considering this media glare, it is perhaps surprising William has maintained a sense of "normalcy." To most in Britain, it appears that William, more often than not, manages to behave in daily life as other Britons would -- visiting the local pub and even doing his own shopping.

Or, maybe William acts as Britons would like to think they would. Following his mother and father's lead, he is deeply involved in charitable organizations. He and his roguish younger brother, Harry, use their inescapable fame to draw attention to and support for a long list of good causes. William alone is patron to some 21 charities and organizations, many focusing on children's issues and support for military men and women.

By contrast, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born and raised in relative obscurity. The eldest of three children, the 29-year-old was brought up in an upper middle class home in the county of Berkshire, in southeast England. She was a popular and talented student, and captain of her school's field hockey team.

She and William first met in 2001 at University of St. Andrew's, in Scotland, where the two studied art history. Kate became a confidante of William and is credited with encouraging him to continue his studies despite doing poorly in his first year. That closeness, however, resulted in her almost instantly becoming a household name.

Naturally beautiful and charming, and now linked to the son of one of the most famous figures in royal family history, Kate found herself at the center of media frenzy. Thanks to an agreement made between the royal family and members of the press, media attention was toned down slightly during the couple's university years. But upon their graduation in 2005, tabloid speculation instantly turned to talk of when the two would marry.

Over the past years there have been a number of false alarms. In 2006, rumors of an impending royal wedding were so fevered that department store chain Woolworths commissioned a line of souvenirs to be made.

Media scrutiny became so intense that in April 2007 the couple split temporarily. Both William and his father, Prince Charles, appealed for press restraint, drawing allusions to the paparazzi scrums that are often named as a contributing factor in Princess Diana's death. Within a few months, however, William and Kate were back together, though coy about their exact status as a couple.

On Nov. 16, 2010, the couple announced they were engaged. The news was met by all-day coverage from the BBC. Within the week, half-hour television specials had been produced to air during prime time. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that William and Kate's wedding, to take place April 29, 2011, will be a national public holiday in the United Kingdom.

Since the wedding announcement, souvenirs ranging from the ridiculously expensive (such as a $700 porcelain figurine) to the outrageously tacky (royal wedding condoms, for example) have flooded main street stores and Internet shops. Tens of thousands of people are expected to turn up in London to cheer the couple on the day, and thousands more are planning street parties throughout the country. Worldwide, millions upon millions are expected to watch live coverage. One tabloid has gone so far as to suggest that 1 billion people will be glued to their TV sets.

In the meantime, William and Kate have already begun settling into their royal duties. The two have appeared together at a number of official functions and overall crowd response has been incredibly positive. Wills and Kate, as they are simply known, are a hit. As Queen Elizabeth II nears the 60th year of her reign she can take comfort that interest in the royal family is unlikely to wane any time soon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Britons Have Complex View Of Americans

Original story can be found at Click2Houston.com.

LONDON -- Britons and Americans have never been too far apart. Not long after the American Revolution, in re-establishing diplomatic ties with our former colonial master, John Adams spoke of the "the old good nature and the old good humor between our peoples."

More than two centuries later, citizens of this tiny island refer to the "special relationship," a term generally attributed to Winston Churchill. The special relationship is that wholly unique and somewhat inexplicable bond shared by British and American peoples.

It is the reason you will find far more Britons who have visited Orlando than those who have been to Belgium. The special relationship is the reason President Barack Obama is referred to simply as "President Obama" in the news, whereas geographical explanation is always necessary for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The special relationship is the reason many Britons will unwittingly use the pronoun "we" when discussing American foreign policy.

"Well, you're one of us, aren't you," states Jeff Williams, a retired mechanic from Swansea.

Williams is a fan of American football and will stay awake into the wee hours to watch NFL games, the next day rattling off play-by-play to friends in his local pub, the Beaufort Arms. He claims to be a die-hard Eagles fan, though confesses to have never been to Philadelphia.

"Or, perhaps we're one of you," he says, examining his pint. "No. You're one of us. We were here first. You just take our ideas and make them loud."

The incredible closeness shared by Britons and Americans is perhaps at the heart of any misunderstanding between the two cultures. Britons see a people so similar to themselves that they get confused upon learning of our different experiences.

"I owned guns as a kid. I never thought it was strange growing up," says Benjamin Angwin, a Texas native currently living in London. "But here, people are shocked when I tell them."

British popular culture is awash with American influence: our music fills the charts; our films and television shows are among the most watched. Britons are intelligent enough to know that fictional representations of American life are just that -- fictional -- but those slight variances in the personal experiences of Americans they meet make us difficult to comprehend. Britons struggle to know where to draw the line between fiction and reality.

"I don't think I have a negative image of Americans, I think I just have a warped one," says Jennifer Champion, an office worker from Devon. "My image of Americans before I knew any was the shiny America I see on television and in films. It doesn't seem real."

This surreality of perception mixed with geographic reality -- the fact that it takes a lot of time and money to visit the United States -- can sometimes work against Americans. In lieu of actual Americans to interact with, Britons often form their opinions based on stereotypes.

"I see them as a people of extremes: the clever ones are really clever; the stupid ones are really stupid," Champion explains. "The fat ones are really fat; the thin ones are really thin. I find it hard to imagine a middle."

A perception of extremism is a common theme in British attitudes toward Americans. They worry about the American religious right, and express frustration over the lack of liberalism in American governance. They are concerned by what they feel is a flippant attitude toward environmental issues and the rest of the world.

Perhaps, though, the criticism again rises from the incredible closeness shared by the two peoples. In finding fault with their partners in the special relationship, perhaps Britons are also finding fault within themselves.

"There are, of course, things I don't like: fat kids, political extremists and a vast chasm between rich and poor. But when I look at Britain, I see the same thing," Champion says. "The difference is Americans will stand up and say, 'I love America.' The British will avoid eye contact, afraid of being criticized for loving something that isn't perfect. Americans will say, 'Yeah, we aren't perfect but we are free,' and ride off into the sunset on a horse, or something American like that."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Eight things I loved about February

It's been a while since I've done an Eight Things post. Hell, it's been a while since I've done a post. There have been good things in my life these past few months but enough negative things that I allowed them too often to overshadow the positive. Winter in Britain seems to do that to me; it is like The Machine in The Princess Bride. Time gets lost.

Eventually, though, the days stretch longer and I start to feel -- slowly, slowly -- like a person again. So, I'll make that first on my list of eight things I loved about the month previous.

~8~ Later sunsets: I really should get a holiday home in Spain or some such place. It annoys me to no end that I am so susceptible to weather patterns, but I can't deny that simply having a day without blanket-thick cloud cover can make all the difference in my outlook. In British winter those days are few and far between. I have lived in places dramatically colder and places where the rain falls considerably harder but British Winter wins the war of attrition on one's soul through its lack of daylight. The days are short and grey, each blending into another. It is like a three-month-long Tuesday. Christmas breaks it up a bit. In the analogy of an endless Tuesday, Christmas and New Year's are like a nice lunch break at Wagamama. Which is pleasant, but you're still stuck in a Tuesday. February, though, takes one through to about 4:15 p.m.

~8~ Settling into my new home: I moved in with Helen in mid-January. Roughly a week later, Lidia joined us and thereafter I spent a fortnight humming the "Three's Company" theme tune. To complete the circle, the plant in my room is named Larry.
I'll admit I wasn't immensely pleased when I first moved into the House of Good Touch (I'm still trying to work out a nickname for our household). It felt like a step down. Previously I had been living off my father's money in my own house, now I was living off my father's money in the house of some woman I had never met. Obviously, my father had failed me.
I find myself now, though, genuinely enjoying my little life. If I had a women's underwear fetish I would be in heaven. But as is, I am simply quite content. In my old house I spoke quite frequently of being cold. It is never cold here. The kettle is always boiling a new mug of tea, hugs are distributed in abundance, there is always someone to talk to. In a letter home not too long ago, I named the things I love in life, among them creeks and rivers and women.
This house I share with two women is roughly 100 yards from the River Taff. On particularly quiet nights I can hear it pushing its way out toward the Severn Channel and then into the wider world. In the trees on the river's banks there is an owl that calls out and somehow makes me feel connected and not so terribly fearful that my life has gone to hell.

~8~ LTFD: In light of my awesome life, Jenn and I came up with the phrase "Living the fucking dream," which we've abbreviated simply to, "LTFD," in order to hide the offensive word. Helen, being a teacher, will sometimes say, "Living the Friday dream," which is less offensive but retains the spirit of the phrase. Either way, it's my favourite thing to say at the moment and I'm hoping to get everyone using it so I can sue for copyright violation and become rich enough to build my own Scrooge McDuck-style money swimming pool.

~8~ Visiting the thermal spa in Bath: Several thousand years ago -- before the world even existed, according to creationists -- Celtic peoples discovered hot water bubbling out of the ground in England and decided that was a pretty special thing. It was. It still is. The thermal springs in Bath are the only to be found on this island of rain and have been popular with just about everyone who has ever come across them. Just about. I'd assume the slaves the Romans put to work stoking fires for steam rooms were less than impressed. But they're gone now, replaced by languid teenagers who check their phones whilst you lounge about in a thermal pool, imagining you're Joanna Lumley.
In late February, Jenn and I went to the New Royal Bath to celebrate her birthday and I had so much fun that all the adjectives I can think to use feel cliché. It was the first time I had ever been to a spa in my life, so, of course, I kept walking around feeling I was in some sort of movie. To that end, I was somewhat upset at the distinct lack of camp-gay South American massage therapists, but my disappointment was countered by the open-air rooftop pool. With the natural thermal waters helping to battle against British chill one can sit and look out across the beauty of Bath and beyond to the surrounding English countryside. It is ridiculously awesome, stupidly great. And, actually, there may be plenty of gay Guatemalan masseuses; I didn't get any of the spa treatments. Jenn got a massage from a woman named Lucia and spent the rest of the afternoon not really being able to form complete sentences.

~8~ Getting a bit of work: I have not held a full-time job in almost five years. I sometimes wonder-worry whether I am even capable of being a full-time employee anymore, whether I have the mental acumen to work that hard. There is some truth to what right-wing types say when arguing against welfare: not working makes you lazy. Of course, in my case, the word "lazy" could quite easily be replaced by the word, "content," or the phrase, "less inclined to break into sudden fits of hysterical screaming," but the financial result is the same. Not working makes you poor.
I have thus far been unsuccessful in finding a full-time job. Partially the economy is to blame, partially my desire to stay in Cardiff is to blame, partially my desire to have my Welsh degree be something other than a hilariously expensive joke is to blame. One of the things I have not loved about the past several months, and, indeed, one of the root causes of my falling out of habit of noting things that make me happy has been coming to terms with the terrible reality of Welsh as a skill. It is not useful.
We tell learners that speaking Welsh will lead to a good, high-paying job. This is a lie. A lie created by people who are desperate for you to sign up for their Welsh courses because they got a degree in Welsh and then discovered there wasn't anything one could actually do with the language other than teach it. Take a look at this website. Take note of how many jobs are available. These are all the full-time Welsh-speaking jobs in the whole of Wales. In a nation of almost 3 million people, there are seven advertised jobs -- two of which are temporary positions, filling in for people on maternity leave.
As with my Irish ancestors some 150 years ago, the answer to employment woe has come from across the Atlantic. I have been signed on to write a series of articles for a U.S. news syndicate. But unlike my great-great grandfather, I need not be on American soil to benefit from her bounty. As a matter of fact, my present location is what got me the gig. The articles I've been hired to write are about Wills and Kate. I'm a royal correspondent, bitches.
Oh, the places you'll go.

~8~ Hiss Golden Messenger: Jenn and I went to see Hiss Golden Messenger, aka Mike Taylor, when he played a show in Cardiff, supported by Jenn's friend and all-around lovely Welshy Cate Le Bon. The North Carolina native sings the kind of roots folk that is perfect for slipping into an easy three-beer nap in the late afternoon. Or perhaps it is music to listen to in the wee hours of the morning as your campfire is dying out and the cold starts to seep through your summer sweater. When everything is quiet and the warmth of the fire comes more from the sound of cracks and pops of dying embers than from the heat they produce. If you don't like Hiss Golden Messenger, you don't like freedom.

~8~ Wales Shark: A few weeks ago, randomly, I found myself putting together a stand-up routine that I will never deliver, because I don't do stand-up. One of my jokes was this: "I have a master's degree in Welsh. I don't really have any jokes about that. Primarily because I have a master's degree in Welsh. That's not funny, it's tragic."
Humour about the Welsh language is a bit like Civil War humour. It tends not to work very well. Welsh speakers have spent so long, and spent so much energy, defending their language that it is difficult for them to allow humour (which is always an attack on something, no matter how mildly) in or around the language. Being funny about Welsh people is easy, but being funny about their indigenous language is really, really hard. In fact, before the Wales Shark videos, a series of sketches-cum-Welsh-lessons on YouTube, I had never seen it done successfully. The humour is perceptive, well above the usual "I'm Welsh, me," stuff one too often has to suffer from comics in Wales. And sometimes it's simply brilliant, such as the observation that the dragon on the Wales flag faces backward, and this pretty much encapsulates Wales as a nation. It is a place that too often looks back on its past than forward to what it could be.

~8~ The Shaytards: The Shaytards are an internet phenomenon. Two years ago, a guy from Idaho decided it would be a good idea to film scenes from every day of his life and post it to YouTube. Now, roughly 800,000 people a day check into see what he and his family are up to. The answer is: not much. The Shaytards are simply a quintessentially Mormon (and very Americana) family in Boise, Idaho. If TV executives were sitting around brainstorming ideas for programmes people would want to watch every single day, it's likely this sort of thing would come pretty low on the list. But, effectively, that is why it works. Shay (real name Shane) and his family are very much like people every American knows. They are not super cool or super beautiful (though, Mommytard isn't exactly hard to look at), they are just people living their lives. It is a somewhat extraordinary life because the success of their daily video blogs have meant they receive enough money from YouTube that Shay has no other job. But they maintain a sense of the genuine; they are like actual people. And there is something addictive about them.
I have been so enamoured by the Shaytards that I was inspired to mimic them: in December I started up my own daily video blog, which I do in Welsh. Considerably fewer people watch my videos.