Magic is not age-related

Yesterday I read this interesting and topical post which, ironically, I found highly offensive. Why? Because of its implication that everybody born before 2001 is some kind of blinkered idiot simply because they don’t belong to Generation Z, and have not, therefore, been endowed with the ‘magic’ powers of that age group.

I don’t care one way or another about gender or race. I’m not interested if you’re Catholic, Muslim or atheist. I don’t give a shit if you’re upper or lower class, providing you’re not an idiot about either. I’m certainly not a rabid feminist. Because, oddly enough, even though I’m a contemporary of the author of the article, I have a really simple view of the world. I think we should all be equal.

I’ve often looked back at my childhood and marvelled at my sheltered, apolitical upbringing. I was born on the Isle of Man in 1968, which meant that as a kid I experienced a kind of Famous Five existence largely denied to my peers growing up on the mainland. Everybody I knew was, by most people’s standards, pretty well off. Now don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but for those of us whose families have come from there for generations this entails nothing positive. There was council housing and unemployment there just like everywhere else. But at the age of 11 or 12 my friends and I would spend our summer holidays travelling around the island by vintage steam train, electric tram, bicycle or foot, visiting medieval castles or scrambling on the cliffs. We could go anywhere safely, and did.

Isle of Man
The Isle of Man – not exactly a battlefield, to look at it.

I was 5 when the island had its first murder for 43 years. In many parts of the world this would have been unheard of, even then.

Aged 10, I went home from school one day and asked my mother whether we were Catholic or Protestant, because I had no idea what the distinction meant. 50 miles across the sea to the west, this would have been engraved on my brain from infancy.

In May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, I thought a female prime minister was a good thing, because I had no idea of the difference in political parties.

Whenever we travelled to the mainland, I was always shocked at the number of burglar alarms, on even the meanest grimy terraced houses. There were, of course, burglars on the Isle of Man – my father was a policeman, and he was at one time part of the Ports Unit, responsible for spotting ne’er do wells on their way on to and off the island. But burglary wasn’t so prevalent that an average homeowner needed an alarm.

I was startled at the age of 14 when I realised that the burnt out buildings and vacant plots littering Liverpool, where the Manx ferry docked, were left over from the, to me, long previous World War II, which the city had never been prosperous enough to rebuild.

But it was at about that age that my innocence came to an end.

I’d already seen through the pitiful instructions for how to survive a nuclear war in “Protect and Survive”, the UK civil defence booklet published in 1980. Living on the Isle of Man, I learned early on what nuclear power was, and what effects it could have in the hands of the unscrupulous and negligent, regardless of what shiny new name you gave the processing plant. And Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” finished off any illusions I had left on that score.

The Falklands War and the miners’ strike taught me very quickly what a Tory was, and how they would do anything to profit from and mislead their fellow humans. News coverage of these events taught me that I couldn’t trust the media, either tabloids, TV or even the ‘serious’ papers. (Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Falklands War was covered ‘in a neutral fashion’. That’s not how I remember it!)

The Toxteth riots opened my eyes to institutional racism in the police force, so I wasn’t surprised that Stephen Lawrence didn’t get any kind of justice until long afterwards.

I was pretty well acquainted with the history of World War II, so I was horrified to discover that, not only did some people deny its worst atrocities had ever happened, but some others – who really ought to know better – were still fighting over the land they’d been allocated at the end of that conflict, illegally trying to expand its borders. And that the Western world was, for some reason, turning a blind eye to this.

I learned of climate change and animal cruelty, sexism and racism. I learned of pollution and the sickness we were spreading through the natural world by our thoughtlessness.

I realised how quickly people could fall through society’s safety net, no matter how comfortable they’d been before. During my master’s degree, I also discovered how rapidly society could collapse when a country is run by a government whose only real policy is to feather the nests of the rich. When I started my course, in September 1990, I was heading for a career in museums. By September 1991, museums were closing at the rate of several a week, as a result of funding cuts stemming directly from the Conservative government’s poll tax.

And then I left the Isle of Man for good and was immediately swamped by the sea of misery and hopelessness that was Britain in the early 1990s. I lived in inner city Birmingham and learned how the social services treat those in need of their aid. I learned how to make a little bit of MOT go a long way to keep an old car on the road ‘legally’, and how to survive on just a few quid a week. I saw people stealing from each other or turning to prostitution to fund their drug habits.

But I also saw people coming together and creating a new kind of society – a self-proclaimed underclass with new music and new forms of mass entertainment, where barter was self-evident and creativity rife. People living lightly in the landscape, taking their small homes with them as they moved, using minimal resources and causing no harm. That new music, those new forms of entertainment and that new way of living were deliberately targeted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

But I was still pretty well off by many standards, and I soon worked out that it was better to be poor somewhere wealthy like Malvern than somewhere impoverished like Sparkhill.

Then came the Iraq war. I remember sitting in a pub where I was a regular, scoffing at the pictures of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which so obviously showed earthmoving equipment and minor industrial buildings. The ensuing reaction from everyone in that rural pub other than the four people at my table demonstrated that – despite what they would insist today – they all thought I was naive at best and a traitor at worst.

Eventually I got a job. But I soon saw that I had no chance of ever having a decent house, or even a decent quality of life, in the UK. So I moved to France as soon as I could scratch together a few thousand pounds for a ruin in an impoverished area of the country. I think of myself as a European these days, and I’m proud to do so.

But I haven’t stopped despairing over our collapsing ecosystems or the plastic in our oceans, animals being transported long distances in hideous conditions or bankers being paid bonuses for fucking up the economy of the entire Western world. I haven’t closed my eyes to sweatshop countries producing designer labelled clothing for anorexic idiots to wear once in the pages of Hello! then discard like sweet wrappers. I firmly believe that we’re rapidly heading for man-made disaster of some type – though whether climatic, major inter-continental conflict or simply cheap-flight-induced-pandemic, I wouldn’t like to say.

I’ve done very well for myself. I have a home in Sweden and – if the renovation is ever finished – one in Normandy. I have my own business, which is doing better every year. I have friends all over the planet. I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having been able to get Swedish citizenship, thereby freeing me from the clutches of the ravening Brexiters, whose narrow-minded jingoism and sheer ignorance have the UK on a direct course back to IRA bombings and widespread rationing.

So I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. But that doesn’t make me ignorant. It doesn’t stop me protesting against injustice. It doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s suffering, or accepting of the greed and stupidity that still others wield to create and excuse it.

Just because I was born half a century ago doesn’t mean I don’t see entrenched attitudes and privilege just as clearly as the kids from Stoneman Douglas school.

So, Mr Tallon, don’t include me in your sweeping generalisations. I may not have grown up in the years since 9/11, but that’s not to say I haven’t been in the trenches. And I haven’t been alone. Maybe you’ve never had any empathy. Maybe being American gives you a different experience of life – let’s face it, everyone outside the USA, adults included, thinks that your attitude to guns is totally fucking insane.

Or maybe you’ve just never opened your eyes to what’s really going on in the world around you. Because you clearly haven’t noticed it, but many of our generation have been soldiers too.

Acid Techno and the Trousers of Time

If I’m lucky (?) enough to make it to extreme old age, I’m pretty sure that one of my last memories to fade will be the one perfect moment in my life. Not a sunset, not the birth of my (non-existent) firstborn, not even entering Sagrada Familia for the first time. Although that was pretty close.

No, my perfect moment took place in an arts centre in Cheltenham, on an ordinary weekend evening in the late 1990s.

It’s near the end of the night, and the dance floor is full, and the music is thundering out all around me, and someone’s gone absolutely mad with the dry ice machine so all I can see is white. The lights are flashing away, and I’m right in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a bunch of people I don’t know. The couple of guys I can see through the haze are very straight looking “blokes”, not a dreadlock or brightly coloured piece of clothing between them. Normally we’d not get on. They’d say something sexist or stupid or drunk, or I’d say something sarcastic or patronising or rash. But in the stuttering vision of the strobe, I can see them moved by the music as though controlled by strings, faces stretched in the same broad grin I can feel on my own.

And time…. stops. Imprints everything on my brain.

DSC_4456

I feel it all. The sweet smoke enters my lungs. My eyes accept the light. My booted feet are rooted to the worn wooden floor. My hands are frozen white flowers, my hair like strands of twisted driftwood. I can feel the stage in front of me, the DJ booth behind, the bar in the corner. The people sitting along the edge of the room (Sitting? How can they be sitting to this music?). Outside in the courtyard and in the main bar people are talking, laughing, flirting, telling drunken anecdotes. Beyond that, the street is damp with rain, and the tyres hiss as cars move away from the traffic lights at the corner. And further, further… people everywhere, and we are all people. We are all just people. We are all just part of one big sphere of life and love. And if you could give this feeling, right now, that we’re all experiencing here on this dance floor, to everyone in the world, everything would be fixed.

And then, of course, time starts again and it’s just a really really great night. Which later turns out to be a shit night because we discover that the DJs are leaving and going travelling around Europe, and so this was one of the last times they’ll play here.

But that’s OK, because the music continues, right? Techno is here to stay, particularly this intense dirty in your face energizing obnoxious style of techno. Acid techno.

 

But no, it doesn’t continue. Somewhere in the next couple of years it slips away. The venues that play it in my area close down or change hands or – in the case of this particular one – are sabotaged out of existence by the local Liberal Democrat council. Sad, sanitised dance music appears in its place – some of it even calling itself “acid”.

And this disappearance is something I’ve always wondered about. For me, the late 1990s was a time of hope. Things were going in the right direction. In the UK we had a Labour government with a huge majority. Organic food was on the rise. Pointless packaging was being reduced. Public services were getting the investment they needed. And – on a very personal level – music and music culture was suddenly all about a sense of community, about being part of something, about something that made you feel oneness. Because techno – real techno – was about anger. About making things happen. About finding alternative ways of doing everything – barter, green energy, minimalism, tiny houses, low impact living, permaculture, protest. Everything. Remember New Age travellers? You can’t get a home that’s much tinier or less permanent than a bus. And despite the shaved/dreadlocked/dyed hair and tattoos and piercings, you couldn’t find a nicer, more thoughtfully intelligent group of people as a whole.

Now here’s something weird. I was trying to explain the New Age traveller movement to a friend in the US the other day, and I could find precisely no photos online that show it. (Yeah, there are one or two, but they’re individual people, or individual events, not images that present the reality as I remember it.) This is probably partly a function of a lack of cameras among that particular social group, but really…? None?

So here’s a question. Have you ever felt like somehow you’ve ended up in a parallel world? Where the past is shared with your own world and yet somehow the future – even the present – is completely wrong?

This is something I’ve felt on and off throughout my life; perhaps you can’t grow up with any kind of awareness of the historical relics around you and not feel this. The weird Victorian remains of my childhood island frequently conjured up visions of worlds that were not quite this one. Steampunk hadn’t been invented in the early 1980s, but if it had perhaps I’d have  recognised these strange combinations of rusted metal and impressive feats of engineering.

I know it’s not just me that feels it – I once read an SF short story in which someone pondered on where the 1950s futurist movement was going, and discovered that the destination was in fact a parallel universe.

Car_Wash,_San_Bernardino,_CA

Then while I was studying for my Master’s degree, I discovered Gaudi. Now there was a man who was well ahead of his time. Or alternatively had been dragged through a vortex into a world that wasn’t his own.

The late, great Terry Pratchett describes this separation of two strands of a timeline as the Trousers of Time. So you can be separated from the timeline you expected to be on – were perhaps intended to be on – only by the thinnest of fabrics, and yet be completely unable to get back there, and moving further away all the time.

This chap has an interesting theory that the demise of acid techno was brought about by the influence of ketamine. Perhaps he’s right – certainly anyone I ever met who was on it was awfully dreary. He’s certainly got the description of the music absolutely spot on, describing it as “guttersnipe” and “joyously insane”. (I’m also enormously amused at his definition of the acid techno audience as “a new generation of activists, a collection of dissatisfied wasters, slumming rich kids, genuine revolutionaries, new age travellers, shameless drug buckets and total nutters”. Given that this is the music genre I most strongly identify with, and I’ve never been rich, I wonder which one I am?)

My own feeling is that the death knell of proper acid techno was sounded by 9/11 and the excuse it gave governments all around the world to hype the terrorist threat and restrict our personal freedom as a result. So now we’re liable to be searched when we go to IKEA to buy a new bookcase, and expected to put up with it, because if you don’t then you must by definition be some kind of terrorist, right?

You’d almost think that it was a deliberate attempt to put a lid on what was perceived as a dangerous social movement that was leading far too many people to appreciate the value of self-determination on an individual level and try to simply make the world a better place for us all to live in. Or is that just me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 years later

23.06.2026

Dear Leave voter,

Well, it’s been ten years since you voted to take Britain out of the EU, and I wonder: how do you feel about that choice now?

Because I remember watching the results come in on the night and hearing how “traditional Labour voters just aren’t feeling like the current system is working for them”. And thinking, every time, that that was about the saddest thing I’d ever heard. To me it beggared belief that someone in Sunderland could imagine that their ills had been visited upon them by the EU rather than the consistent and cynical asset stripping of the country by the Conservative party. That people in South Wales – the biggest recipient of EU spending per head in the country – could believe that they’d be better off without that funding was something I simply couldn’t understand. But you presumably could, because you voted to leave.

So, what was it that you understood? Because I pictured a number of pretty dire things happening, and as I watched those results come in I simply felt utter, utter despair.

going2

But presumably you foresaw the unprecedented run on the pound that happened during the first two weeks after the Leave result. And you were sanguine about that because you’d also predicted the apparent economic upturn that then lasted for the remainder of that first year. During that period there was much talk about how much more cash the UK would have for things like the NHS, and that resulted in a small consumer-led boom.

And then the things that all of us on the Remain side could quite clearly see coming did indeed start to become manifest. Negative economic news began to be the norm. Nissan and the other car manufacturers withdrew from the UK. Why would they stay when there was no longer any market advantage to being in the country?

The City of London, which was, after all, a major driver of the UK economy, lost its position as the most important financial market in the world when the Brexit negotiations failed to secure the “passporting” rights it had previously had under the EU, and after about five years Frankfurt had completely taken over, with a concomitant nosedive in the financial sector.

Food became more expensive as EU subsidies were lost and some of the labour to cheaply pick the crops disappeared back across the Channel. Many farmers even went bankrupt in that horrible period before those hideously expensive internal subsidies were set up.

The EU did – as it had made clear it would – penalise the UK in every possible way during those leave negotiations. The single market became a thing of the past, and the markets that had previously been available to small and medium-sized businesses were no longer there. So yet more companies went to the wall, with yet more jobs lost. And yes, some companies managed to negotiate new markets in places like China. But even the Chinese preferred to deal with a larger economic bloc.

Overall, you see, I’d say that things became much worse for the ordinary Brit. The manufacturing industry disappeared completely; the removal of EU labour laws meant still more zero hour contracts and pitifully-remunerated jobs; housing became still more of a luxury, and even today, the UK has higher food prices than anywhere on mainland Europe. And the NHS that you were so worried about? Smashed up and sold off to Tory chums of the Tory government. Now you need expensive private health insurance to give you even minimal cover for hospital visits, and with wages being lower in real terms than they were before the referendum many people simply can’t afford that.

But you couldn’t see that coming, could you?

And one more thing that you apparently couldn’t see coming… the number of refugees and immigrants changed not at all. The immigrants already in the country had to be allowed to stay, and the UK continued to be a Mecca for ill-educated, low-paid foreigners to fill those jobs that no British person could afford to do. The only thing that changed was the ethnic make up of the immigrants; now they’re more likely to come from Thailand than from Poland. Consequently there are far more non-Christian, non-white faces behind hotel reception counters and serving in shops. Of course first there were what became known as the Refugee Wars, in which the French took a very gleeful attitude to simply waving refugees across the Channel – after all, why would they bother to stop them in France, inside the borders of the EU? But I’m not sure I believe that story that the French set up special trains from Nice and Marseille straight to Calais. Or that canny Frogs were doing a roaring trade in leaving old but well-insured boats handily positioned along the north French coast.

But then I’m out here, looking in. Just like I was before the referendum. I thought that the EU was the way to go, and I’ve done what I needed to do to make sure I stayed out here. And from here, the UK looks like even more of a sinkhole of exploitative employment practices and unbelievable gaps between rich and poor.

And yet that’s not quite what you wanted, is it?

If I remember correctly, you kept wittering on about taking the country back.

About making Britain great again.

About a return to the days of the Empire.

Only, after ten years, I’m wondering exactly when you’re going to start on that?

Because at the moment you seem to be struggling just to survive.

gone

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why David Cameron is a fool

…other than for the obvious reasons, that is. And it’s not just him. I hadn’t seen this coming either. I’d always thought that if the UK was given a referendum on EU membership they’d vote to stay. Because I knew that big business would want to remain, and I thought that would be enough.

Sadly I miscalculated.

So did David Cameron.

And yet, he ought to have known better. Because he’s going to be in the unenviable position of being the Prime Minister who took Britain out of the EU. And the reason for that is the disgusting tactics that he and his friends and cronies on the right wing have been using for years to get and keep themselves in power: jingoism, racism, fear and lies.

And the problem with this kind of tactic – as politicians in 1930s Germany learned only too well – is that there’s always some vile being who’s willing to go even deeper into the filth at the heart of the human psyche. There’s always someone who will say the unthinkable – and believe it at least to the extent that they won’t back down in the face of minor public revulsion, until eventually it becomes normal to express such thoughts. There’s always someone who will tell a bigger, more extreme lie.

So when conservative with a small C meets UKIP with a large helping of ugly, in a question relating to nationalism, there’s only one way it’s going to go.

Badly.

But it’s not even as straightforward as that. If we assume that David Cameron really does want the UK to remain in the EU (and he’s a Tory, after all, which means that you really can’t believe a word he says), then he’s been viciously stabbed in the back, presumably by the modern equivalent of Sir Humphrey. Because it was Cameron who announced the date of the referendum, almost certainly following consultation with his advisors. He probably thought “23 June, yes, that’s fine, then we can pop off and have a jolly good holiday afterwards and come back and get on with being part of Europe”.

Only if you look at the polls, they’ve lurched towards Leave since early June. Since 2 June in fact. Since the 90th birthday of Her Majesty. Giving us yet another chance to wave the flag as we sink slowly beneath the waves.

mmm

 

On the importance of realism

Isn’t it about time we stopped kidding ourselves?

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling this year, and I’m beginning to wonder how many more times I’m going to be able to take a plane without becoming one of those people who gets dragged off by security staff, shrieking and in handcuffs, before it’s even left the tarmac.

It’s not that I have a fear of flying. It’s that I have a very strong aversion to bullshit. In this case, the fake sense of security provided by the safety briefing.

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I blame Norwegian Air. Their ridiculous animated version takes the whole thing to the ultimate pinnacle of farce. The happy smiles of the mother and child as they go calmly through the evacuation procedure make the whole thing seem like just another fun ride at Disneyland. This is so clearly not an emergency. Let’s face it, in the real world the two of them would most likely be screaming while other passengers trampled over them in their eagerness to escape.

But it’s not just Norwegian who are at fault.

ryanair

This is a Ryanair safety card. The three pictograms centre left, showing things prohibited during an emergency landing, represent:

  • false teeth and glasses
  • high heels
  • earrings

Srsly? The plane’s coming down at an insane angle, the alarms are shrieking, the passengers are hysterical and you expect me to remember to take my earrings out?

And then there’s my favourite bit, when the stewardess says “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water…” and then proceeds to tell you how to put a life jacket on while you think about the emails you forgot to send before you turned your phone off. No. Let’s have the truth. Let’s have her saying “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water, we’re all going to die horribly”. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily pay more for my ticket just to hear that in a safety briefing.

Of course there is a possibility that this honesty might put people off flying. Which would be an excellent outcome, given that we need to be reducing the number of flights we take. In any case, flying is actually an incredibly safe means of transport. We don’t need safety briefings when we’re flying. Do we have a safety briefing when we get in a car, stressed and tired and distracted, and drive ourselves down a crowded motorway at 130 kph, surrounded by people who aren’t very good drivers even when they are sober, in vehicles that last saw a mechanic six months or more ago? And yet in the really quite likely event of the car bouncing off the crash barriers and spinning across three lanes of traffic, would you know what to do? Well, die, obviously.

Because we do stupid, dangerous things every day. And yet in the modern world we somehow think that we’re protected from them just because we’ve got ABS and animated smiling mothers and children and a safety briefing that wouldn’t help us even if we did listen to it because people panic and explosive decompression doesn’t leave you much time to pass the straps twice around your waist.

And let’s not forget that we’re only on the plane because we’ve tacitly agreed to the paper-thin illusion that security scans actually prevent terrorism. Yet I can think of a handful of ways that I could cause chaos in an airport or on a plane, even with much stricter security procedures.

If people accepted the possible consequences of their actions, then the world would be a much better place.

On 23 June, the jingoism constantly hosed over the British population by the likes of the Sun newspaper will finally have its inevitable result and the UK will vote to leave the EU. A dose of realism right now might save us all.

 

The problem with capitalism, in one easy lesson

“Capitalism affords economic freedom, consumer choice, and economic growth”, apparently.

Let me prove that this is wrong.

For several months now I’ve been trying to buy a white shirt, to replace one that I bought in 2009 and which has now seen much better days.

It has to fit the following criteria:

  • White
  • Long-sleeved
  • Longer than waist length, and with a curved hem
  • Buttons all down the front
  • Cotton or linen
  • Thinnish (this is to wear over a vest top or something in the summer, largely)
  • With a collar

In other words, a very simple plain white thin long shirt.

“Easy!” I hear you cry. “I could get you a handful from one trip to the shops.”

Oh yeah? Just try it. At least in Sweden, what is on offer are shirts with the following features:

  • Patterned/coloured
  • Short sleeves
  • Short and/or with a straight hem
  • Only three or four buttons
  • Nasty artificial fabrics
  • Material so thick you could use it as a duvet
  • No collar, a plunge neckline, or a bow (a bow! Who am I, Thatcher?)

And to respond to your other suggestions,

  1. No, I’ve not looked at men’s shirts as my days of wearing blokes’ clothing because I can afford nothing else are over. I want something that complements my shape, not something that drowns it in a tent.
  2. Buy clothes off the Internet? Not likely. I’m not a particularly standard size, and given the price charged by the Swedish Post Office for the inevitable returns, it would be cheaper to clothe myself in material made from diamonds.

So my point is this – if I can’t even buy a really simple basic garment like this, despite several months of looking, then what of consumer choice? This consumer wants something slightly different to the latest fashions. It’s not like I’m asking for an adult sized pink bustier with My Little Pony on it.

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Why are we continuing with the capitalist system, using up the world’s resources, forcing people to work – and in some cases die – in sweat shops, filling our roads with lorries and our seas with oil and plastic… if we aren’t actually fulfilling the promise of capitalism?

The problem with Swedes

In many ways, Swedish people are lovely. They’re generally well educated and pleasant. The odd time I’ve ever run into trouble with Swedes (drunks, for example) they’ve backed down immediately as soon as they’ve realised that I’m British, too keen to practice their English to cause any problems.

But they do have their issues. For all their self-professed egalitarianism, there’s a – to me – shocking level of passive -isms among Swedes. Sexism, racism… and aggression. Wow, the agression.

As a race, they have passive-aggressivity down to a fine art – indeed, it’s a cultural trait that they don’t even recognise. Here’s the latest example that I’ve encountered.

About 3 weeks ago I last met my friend – I’ll call her Anna – in the flesh. We don’t live near each other so we meet quite rarely. When we met, she did something that hurt me deeply, and, as it was far from the first time she’d done this – and promised never to do it again – I made a sarcastic remark. But over the last week I’ve been noticing that her emails have been full of passive aggression. Today, in an effort to find out what I’d done to offend her, I’ve looked back and realised that in fact this all dates back to when she was in the wrong and I had the temerity to call her on it.

So now what? If I mention it, she’ll imply that I’m imagining it. If I ignore it, I’ll keep getting more and more annoyed. I love her dearly, but maybe it’s just time to give up on her? Then again, any other Swedish friend would almost certainly exhibit the same behaviour – and I live in Sweden. Sigh.