When, last week, I wrote about Canadians and their view of Brits being not a little influenced by Mary Poppins, I urged us to beef up our PR. Little did I imagine that the country would take this so literally. Britain's image, as seen from over the Atlantic, has changed dramatically.
The riots have been observed here in Canada with a sense of disbelief and stupefaction. Everybody I meet keeps asking me what it is that the rioters are protesting about. I admit that I'm pretty cut off, but it seems to me that, if there was some sort of "message" the rioters were trying to get across, it got rather lost in the melee. The main purpose, it seemed to me watching the news footage, was to "liberate" as many mobile phones as possible and to screw up David Cameron's Tuscan holiday.
Both of these goals were achieved, as well as making Canadians scratch the UK off their holiday destination list for a while. On talk radio in Toronto, the overwhelming view seemed to be that Britons have a dangerous sense of entitlement, a "want it all and want it now" culture that was partly to blame.
There is far less of an envy culture here. People who are successful or rich are not vilified but used as examples of what can be achieved if you go for it. The Canadians probably have good reason to feel smug at the moment, as they are in fairly good economic shape compared to the rest of the world, having resisted the urge to deregulate everything when it was in vogue – and this is paying dividends now.
But not too smug, however, as Canadians are reminded that they have their own riot history – in June, a mob went crazy in the streets of Vancouver after their ice hockey team lost the Stanley Cup four-nil to Boston. Canada was shocked by this, and soon rumours went about that the whole thing had been organised by "anarchists". There were claims that the riot had been pre-planned using social networking sites – as was supposedly the case in the UK.
I have only ever been involved in one riot and that was accidental. In 1990, I was a student at the School of Oriental and African Politics, University of London. To say that I was a lazy student would be an understatement. It was very rare for me to visit the place at all. But as luck would have it, I chose the day of the poll tax riot to head into town to pick up some notes.
To cut a long story short, I found myself in a splinter section of the main demo off Charing Cross Road. All I wanted to do was get out, but this was not as easy as it would seem. I was coshed for my trouble and pushed back, so I tried to sound as "street" as possible. I eventually did manage to run away, adopting as dignified a manner as I could muster. I definitely felt an incredible energy in the mob, but I managed to avoid the urge to break a McDonald's window or daub the words "fascist pigs" on some symbol of authority like a traffic cone.
Anyway, from now on can we please return to Mary Poppins Britain? In hindsight, it's a much better look.