Sankha Guha: Man About World
The unwelcome hordes? Can they mean us?
Sunday 02 May 2004
This weekend, Little England and its Daily Mail-reading cheerleaders are bracing themselves for an invasion from the EU accession countries of the east. If you believe the xenophobic blather, the former eastern bloc will be dumping its unskilled and benefit-hungry hordes on this green and pleasant land.
The truth is likely to be different. The Slovaks, Hungarians, Estonians et al are getting a rotten deal from us in at least one respect. The typical immigrant from the accession states, according to a recent EC report, is likely to be a 24-year-old single female educated to degree level. What does the east get in return? In a transaction which is perhaps symbolic of the unequal nature of the new partnership, we are sending them a rabble of foul-mouthed drunks on stag weekends.
Prague has long since fallen to the British Visigoths. Sporting silly T-shirts and even more stupid hats, they stumble around the most exquisite medieval city in Europe throwing up on its cobbles and filling the narrow alleys with tribal chants of "show us yer tits". Spared by both the Third Reich and the Red Army, the centre of Prague has seen no mercy from the massed battalions of stag. The police hold Brits responsible for 20 per cent of weekend violence in Prague. Come the summer, our bladdered blokes will reduce a thousand years of culture and history to Gomorrah on the Vltava.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is next in their sights. It's another medieval gem with cheap beer and pretty girls - this seems to be the destination formula favoured by modern lads seeking a "last night of freedom".
Their worst instincts are egged on by execrable web sites such as that one that promises Kalashnikov shooting, "medieval lesbian strip shows" and a "Tottie [sic] Tour". As far as the taciturn locals are concerned, all this goes down like a lead balloon filled with concrete.
"We used to think you English were nice and polite," says Alje, 26, "but no longer." Lilith, 22, a sales assistant, is also revising her notion of the archetypal Englishman. "They are not interested in our country, our history or what we think," she says. "They just want to party, party, party." Maria, a model-pretty student, recalls trying to have a quiet drink with a friend which was interrupted by a bunch of English knobheads who became abusive when their advances were politely rejected. Alje, Lilith and Maria are the "totty" that one website would love to parade to us on its "tour". Anyone considering booking on the promise of an easy pull should think again - the girls don't like us any more.
Mart Thomson, who manages the millennially chic Pegasus bar in Tallinn, says the stag phenomenon is a specifically British disease. "Italian men are different. They want to get girls by looking cool or making beautiful compliments. But the English, they tend to make barbarian comments like 'Phwoar. You've got a nice arse.'" Mart has banned British men in groups of five or more from his bar, "These people are absolutely nothing in England. But they come here with a few pounds in their pocket and they have purchasing power. Suddenly they've turned into millionaires overnight."
After this weekend, more tuppeny millionaires will be heading east. Until now, bureaucratic hurdles prevented budget airlines from gaining easy access to east European destinations. So flights were relatively expensive. Now we have a free market and easyJet is in like flint. "As the European Union expands and 10 new countries join the EU, easyJet believes there are a number of opportunities for growth," announces its web site. It is launching two new routes to start with - to Budapest and Ljubljana, with prices starting at £31 return (including taxes). There goes the neighbourhood.
You don't have to be a killjoy to see the damage we are doing - not just to the destination but to our reputations. The stag party is a long established custom in the UK and here men are afforded a licence to behave badly on such occasions. Loud, aggressive, boozed-up gangs of men wandering around our city centres are part of our culture. They do not translate well to small countries a thousand miles away which have no such tradition, and are frankly aghast at our antics.
As a benign dictator I would confiscate the passports of all travelling stags. My writ would run thus: have your stag fun, but do it at home. Passports will be restored only on swearing an oath to show due respect to the lovely and fragile places you can now visit so cheaply.
Sadly, in the absence of such a sensible initiative, if I were an easterner I would be scouring the scrapyards of Ljubljana and Vilnius for every bit of metal I could lay my hands on to rebuild the Iron Curtain.
Back to the future
The opening words in the soon to be launched Directions guide to London are prophetic, "London is a very big city". They should add, "so big that any attempt to try to compress it into a pocket guide is fraught with elephant traps".
To its credit, the series, which comes from the Rough Guide (Penguin) stable, finds its way around Europe's largest city with a fair degree of nous. It covers most bases - from Camden Market to the Ritz - while warning new visitors "not to try to do everything in one visit".
Quite right too. But why is it always my manor, south London, that gets short shrift? No mention of Clapham or Blackheath here. Brixton only merits a couple of lines (as a market) and Battersea with its lovely riverside park and landmark power station is ignored. This is galling to any sarf London chauvinist, but overall the series is a worthy effort. Directions is well designed, with generous colour pictures and loads of maps, and at £6.99 it is a bargain. Especially as it includes what seems a real bonus - a mini-CD rom which promises the whole book in e-form.
But don't try this at home if you have an Apple iBook. My attempt to load the mini-CD ended with my having to surgically remove the fiddly thing from the slot drive with a pair of pliers. The small print says that it works with "tray-operating CD Rom" drives. As any iBook owner will smugly confirm - trays went out with the ark. In e-terms, Directions is pointing back to the future - or maybe back to the drawing board.
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