Sunday, December 30, 2012

The highs and lows of driving in Florida

Let’s face it, driving a car is a bit like parenting, most people like to think of themselves as pretty good at it, with all the problems in the world being caused by the other people. 

I am not “most people”, however, and must confess that I have never been a great car driver.  (Come to think of it, my parenting skills aren’t perfect either, but that’s another story!). 

Being a non-driver is not good in the US, (unless you are in one of the big northern cities), as the country has largely been built around car travel.  Public transport, such as rail and buses, is minimal and it’s almost impossible to get around without driving.

My driving history

The reasons for my poor driving are historical, to a large degree.  After I passed my test in the UK, aged 18, I hardly drove a car – I had a motorbike for a few years, then had no vehicle at all (living in a big city, there were always plenty of buses and trains to choose from, if I wanted to go somewhere). 

I don’t feel too bad being out on the highway, driving around, but I am non-to-confident with reversing and parking in an enclosed space, you just don’t have those issues with a motorbike generally.

I also found it easier to stay alert on my motorbike, where you are under no doubt how precarious your situation is - if you make one slip, then you can be dead or severely injured.  In the car, seemingly safe in my warm little metal box, I sometimes let my mind wander.

Pulled over by a cop

One time in Florida, a few months back, I approached a junction too fast.  The lights went red at the last moment and then it was too late to stop, so I went through.  There was a police car behind me.  I felt sick in my stomach.  It was such a stupid mistake.

The cop pulled me over further down the road (“What choice did he have?” he later explained).  Ironically, he turned out to be one of the nicest policemen I’ve ever met.  He could have fined me heavily and delayed me getting my Florida license (I was driving on my British one), but instead he issued me with just a warning and a friendly smile.  (Admittedly, my English accent and fawning, penitent manner may also have helped).

Crossing the bridge from Tampa to St Petersburg

Driving in Florida

My British license covered me legally for driving in Florida for a time, but I had to get a Florida one at some point.  The other problem is that the insurance costs are extortionate, if you drive on a foreign license. 

Taking the driving test

Things went well to start with.  College educated and a fan of learning generally, the written part of the test was a sail through for me.  I swatted up on the rules, regulations, road signs, procedures, and scored close to full marks.  The only question I remember was not knowing was how long the minimum legal tow bar length was.  (It seemed like a very obscure question to me, but I guess there are a lot of people towing caravans, boats, etc. in Florida!)

Next was my road test.  I really didn’t know what to expect.  The British driving test is notoriously difficult – the driving part takes place out on the highway and safety considerations are paramount.  The Florida version is on a dinky little off-road mock-up and it is generally more concerned with skill at maneuvering the car – easier for many people, but not so much me.    

The first test I took was not good.  My examiner was a grumpy bugger, which is normal by British standards, but more unusual in the US.  His spikiness didn’t do much to help my nerves.  But in the end, it was my maneuvering and reversing skills that undid me.  I have failed a driving test before, when I was eighteen, but failing at forty-seven feels a lot more embarrassing!

Anyway, I practiced my reversing and parking for a few weeks and made another attempt.  I didn’t relish meeting my grumpy examiner friend again, but was overjoyed to find that I’d been allotted a rather affable chap this time.  I passed with a virtually perfect score and the wonders of modern laser printing meant that I was given my license ID card straightaway.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bill Bryson: My Hero!

I read my first Bill Bryson book back in the 1990s.  It was his excellent book on Britain, written from an American perspective: Notes from a Small Island - a definitive classic of the expat writing genre, in my opinion. 

Being a contrarian by nature, I had resisted reading the best-seller for a number of months beforehand, despite many friends raving about it, but once I succumbed to Bryson, I was hooked.

I went on to read pretty much everything that Bill had written up to then after that, including his fascinating book about the English language: The Mother Tongue - English And How It Got That Way.

Bill Bryson
Maybe I overdosed and read too much Bill, because later, I kind of went off him a little.  Why?  I think it was mainly because I became a little weary of his humour, which although very clever and witty most of the time, can seem a little contrived occasionally.

Anyway, I was thinking about Bill Bryson a couple of weeks back and I remembered that he had moved back to the US for a time.  I couldn’t help wondering if he’d written anything about his time back in the States.  Lo and behold, I discovered there’s a book by him called: Notes from a Big Country (published in the US as: I'm a Stranger Here Myself).  As the title implies, it’s about him trying to readjust to US culture and everyday life after spending 20 years in the UK.  I forgot any previous misgivings and ordered a second hand copy of the book straightaway.

I loved the book and my admiration for Bill was reborn!  Having been writing an expat blog for a year and a half now, it really makes me appreciate the challenges of the genre and I have enormous respect how Bryson tackles them.  He has a knack of hitting on some of the main issues for the ‘foreigner abroad’ and condensing them into a few very readable pages, with some great insights and humour mixed in – and he makes it all seem effortless (though I’m sure that it’s not).

His chapter on the differences between attitudes to humour in the US and UK was excellent, for instance.  It’s a topic that I’ve tackled myself and found difficult to encapsulate it all in a few hundred words.  Bill seemed to take the entire range of essentials and boil it down to few pages, something I might have deemed impossible if I’d not seen it done.  There are insights, witticisms, quotes, cultural context, personal anecdotes - all put together in a flowing, easy style.

There are other great writers out there, of course, but my big respect for Bill Bryson has been reborn!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Michelle Obama, Mitt Romney, and lots of parking trouble!

One of the advantages of living in Florida in election season is that the Romneys and the Obamas are always coming around, trying to woo everyone into voting for them! 

This is because Florida is a swing state (George W Bush won it by just 543 votes in 2000!) and has a very varied population, even for the United States.  In Florida you’ll find Cuban exiles, retired Jewish Americans, Mexican immigrants, traditional "cracker" types, African Americans, Scientologists, and there are even some British expats, I’ve heard!  It’s like a US Noah’s Ark, with two of every type of American (and others) crammed into a hot, steamy, swampy flat peninsula.  Okay, maybe I am going too far now.  But you get the message.

The bottom line is that the first lady, Michelle Obama came to town this Monday and my wife managed to get some tickets for us to go and see her talk at a rally!

It was all rather exciting and took a bit of organizing, as my wife had to leave work early, and we had a tennis practice straight after.  A further annoying complication was that it was a very popular event and so we couldn’t find anywhere to park on the day within a mile of the university venue.

Eventually, after driving around for about twenty five minutes and getting more and more desperate, we managed to find a metered parking space that allowed us 2 hours grace in return for a wallet full of dimes and quarters.

Consequently, we arrived at the venue later than we’d planned.  After negotiating the airport-style security, we gained entrance - but having arrived late, we were shunted into seats at the rear end of the indoor stadium.  It meant that for the most part we were viewing Michelle from the rear and had to view the big screens to see her face when she spoke.
But she is a good speaker with charisma, who projects and induces a lot of warmth.  Her talk wasn’t so much about trying to convert the unconvinced, but more of a rallying cry to the troops.  Michelle has wide appeal, but she is also a particular heroine of African-American womanhood and they were out in force.

The indoor stadium was packed!

Not the best view of Michelle - but at least there were large screens to watch!

After the talk, we headed back to the car.  We were well within the 2 hour parking period and feeling rather buoyed up by the talk until we reached the car and discovered that we had a parking citation stuffed under the windscreen wiper.  We’d been booked for facing the car against the stream of traffic, a petty offence for sure, and ordered to pay a 30 dollar fine!

Trying not to let it spoil our evening, we tried to forget the fine and went to practice our tennis.  It wasn’t until we arrived home that I switched on my computer and discovered the news about the secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney, where at a private fundraiser, he seemed to imply that 47% of Americans were dependent on government handouts and that they would vote for Barak Obama regardless of what Mitt said or did, so Mitt didn’t care about them.

The Romney scandal seemed big.  It was like he’d self-destructed.  It almost felt like the election was over before it had even really begun.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The GOP and Democratic National Conventions

This is my first presidential election since I moved to the US.  I have followed previous ones from the UK, but in some ways the perspective is a little different being here.  I generally voted for the Lib Dems (Centrist) or the Labour party (Centre-left) back in the UK, so my sympathies tend towards the Democrats here, but I will try to be as objective as I can (which is impossible, I know!).

The candidates

I think it’s fair to say that neither of the main candidates is super-popular with their own party.  For many Democrats, Obama has been a big disappointment after all the hope and optimism generated during his 2008 campaign.  For the Republicans, Romney is essentially a compromise candidate, the least offensive option for the various factions that make up the GOP, and one that few in the party particularly seem to love.

The general atmosphere of the political campaigns is less positive than 2008.  Their approach seems to reflect the above, in some ways, with each candidate putting forward a message to the voters, which often seems to imply: “You think I’m bad?  Take a look at the other guy!”

The most memorable parts of the two conventions

This will probably seem shallow to some, but the thing that I will probably remember most about the Republican convention was the Clint Eastwood speech, where he addressed an empty chair, with the conceit being that an imaginary Obama was sitting in it.  Although the idea may not have appeared to be a bad one on paper, the reality of Eastwood’s speech delivered a level of absurdity that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Monty Python sketch.  It was a gift to American satirists too, of course.

The actual serious political speeches at the RNC were on the whole, very competent, but the atmosphere generally seemed a little flat, probably for the reasons I outlined earlier – Romney is respected but not loved by his party.

The most memorable thing about the Democratic convention for me was the Bill Clinton speech.  It was gripping, and quite simply a master class in political oration - Clinton has without doubt, a slippery and sleazy side to his character, but wow, what a speaker!

The downside to the Bill Clinton speech, of course, was that it reminded you what a genius Clinton was and is, when it comes to the Dark Arts of political strategy, tactics and delivery, and by implication, what a mediocre figure that Obama can seem in comparison sometimes.

Other thoughts

One thing that made a big impact on me was the very different make-up of the audiences at the two conventions.  I have to say that the RNC crowd seemed to be drawn from a narrower demographic – they were older, whiter, and more male generally, whereas the DNC audience appeared younger and much more diverse in their makeup and backgrounds.  (One could say something similar about the Conservative and Labour conference audiences in the UK, of course, but in the US, the difference seemed much starker). 

The other thing that seemed a little odd was that apart from Condoleezza Rice, there seemed to be no representatives of the last Republican government at the RNC.

The most memorable problem for the Democrats, of course, was the messy turnaround over them not including “God” and “Jerusalem” in their platform, which caught the media and then public attention.

General summary

I must admit that for an old cynic like me, political conferences can often fall a little short of the mark.  I almost always find myself wanting less gloss and more substance.  Before the party conventions, I naively hoped that I might find out a little more about what Obama and Romney might actually do if they won the presidency - there was lots of rhetoric, but precious little in terms of practical policies coming from either of them.

One background factor that can also be somewhat disconcerting is the overall atmosphere of rancor and acrimony that possesses US politics at the moment.  Modern British politics can often be somewhat dull and flat (certainly since the turmoil of the 1980s), because the three main UK parties tend to squabble over the same piece of centre ground nowadays (things seem to have heated up a little in the UK with the austerity cuts and a fracturing coalition government, but it still seems mild compared to the situation across the Atlantic).  In the US, however, the Republicans and Democrats are polar opposites politically and passions can sometimes spill over into a real sense of sourness. 

Having said all that, one refreshing thing about US politicians is their willingness to roll up their sleeves and get down and with ‘the people’.  British politicians can sometimes appear stiff and aloof by comparison.  The US presidential elections are also unique and special to Americans as it’s the only election they have where the entire nation participates.  There is no real equivalent in a constitutional monarchy/parliamentary democracy like the UK, where the head of state is hereditary and the political leader is chosen by their own political party.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hit the road Jack: Getting my Florida driving license

There comes a time in every expat’s life when he needs to stop driving around on his British driving license and get a Florida one.  Technically, I think I should have done this much earlier, but hey… 

Basically, you can drive here for a time on your British license, but the insurance is ridiculously high.  Plus a Florida driving license is used a lot for ID purposes.


I have also been cycling around quite a bit too.  We live way out on the edge of town and since the public transport here is virtually non-existent and my wife often has the car, there aren’t really any other options.  It takes me about 25 minutes there and back by bike to the gas station for basics like milk, and 40 minutes to the off-license/liquor store and back for booze!  It isn’t much fun cycling on a main road (what would be called a “dual carriageway” in the UK) with cars and trucks racing past at 60 mph. 

There are also other hazards too, such as the dead animals by the side of the road – armadillos, raccoons, even deer...  My main concern is encountering a living snake while cycling, however, which hasn’t happened so far, though there have been dead ones – see pic (extra kudos if you can identify the type of snake!).

I am told that as Gainesville is a liberal, college town, the cycle lanes/paths are particularly good, by American standards.  They are fairly similar to UK facilities, I’d say – which in some ways is a disappointment, as there is generally lots of space here, so it wouldn't be so difficult to build a separate cycle lane here which is physically separated from the car traffic, rather than just a white line painted near the edge.  I tend to want everywhere to be like Holland, however, as far as cycling facilities go.

My Florida Driving License

Each state has their own rules, procedures and laws for driving vehicles.  After spending ages trying to work out the procedure for getting my Florida driving license and spending 45 minutes on the telephone to an advisor (40 minutes waiting in the queue, 5 minutes talking to the advisor), I arrived at the driving place to find that the procedure was actually different to what the website implied and the advisor told me.

Anyway, there’s two parts to the test I’ve got to take – a written element and a “road test”.  I took the written test on the spot which was split into General Knowledge and Road Signs.  I needed at least 15/20 and scored 18/20 and 19/20 respectively, so that was good.  I’ve not booked the road test yet, as our car has a dodgy rear light, which needs fixing.  But I’m looking forward to it.

(I will write up a full account of my driving tests on my visa site: My K1 Fiance Visa Experience, when I eventually get my license.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

The London Olympics, Mitt Romney, and the world’s opinion on the games

I must admit, I was one of the cynics beforehand, but from the moment that Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony of the Olympics began, I have been enthralled by the whole sporting event.  As a expat Brit in Florida, I have been experiencing things from across the Atlantic in the USA, of course – but judging by the mixed, but overall favourable viewpoints expressed in the BBC’s article that I read on world opinion, it has been a great success.  It hasn’t all been plain sailing though, of course, though.

The Mitt Romney faux pas

Before the Olympics even began, there was the Mitt Romney faux pas on his trip to the UK.  My wife told me Romney committed the sin of not recognizing the fact that the Brits can criticize the Olympics but foreigners should stay out of it.  I can see her point, but I think that there are also other factors at play.

Yes, there were definitely problems with security and travel strikes in the run up to the start of the Olympics, but I think there was a cultural misunderstanding at the heart of the Romney faux pas.  Brits love to moan about things, we know that we are an organized country, but playing up problems into virtual epic calamities is almost a sport in itself and is seen as a strange sort of fun on some level – at least when expressed as a talking point: “Isn’t it terrible, you’ll never guess what’s happened now…” type of way.  The British media, politicians, and general public all collaborate. 

In the upbeat and optimistic US, the Olympic security and strike problems, rather than being played up, would’ve been handled as a “We’ve got it covered, it’s all going to be awesome,” situation.  Romney’s problem was that he interpreted the British moaning literally and then was shocked by the response he got.  Moaning can often be a casual thing in the UK, like talking about the weather and people will even invent stuff just to moan about – it’s a totally different mentality.  In the US, a positive attitude is de rigueur and every problem is there to be solved.

Then again, Mitt made his remarks in an NBC interview, maybe he just didn’t expect them to be reported by the British media…

The opening ceremony

It was just amazing.  I couldn’t believe the Queen’s parachute act.  I was worried that the ceremony might be too traditional or pompous, but if anything it was the other way - modern and full of humour.  I keep meaning to watch the whole thing again as there was just so much in there.  Some of it was pretty obscure unless you are British – the first lesbian kiss on Brookside, Ken Loach’s “Kes”, other classic quotes and clips from film, books, TV and radio through the decades.  It is incredible how much culture, be it pop music, Shakespeare, or Mr Bean(!?!) we have brought to the world!

World opinion on the Olympics

As I mentioned, it was interesting to read some of the feedback from other countries in the BBC article.

The criticism from the Russian reporter that "The average Londoner doesn't make a big deal about food - feeding the kids chips, pizza, toast and sandwiches…  cannot even begin to imagine what would happen to Londoners and city visitors if it wasn't for Chinese and Indian takeaways," is true in my estimation. 

There is lots of good food to be eaten in Britain, but the British public generally has no passion for good food and tends to prefer crap.  Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much different in the US – but they do know how to do customer service, at least.  Plus the US has the advantage of not having France next door, reminding them of their inadequacy.

Some of the other criticisms though, I take with a pinch of salt – biased refs (sour grapes!) and people not being interested in the games outside the Olympic Village - I mean you have to respect the fact that a lot of people just aren’t interested in sport, whether it’s the Olympics, the football World Cup, or the Wimbledon Finals.

There aren’t that many complaints though, it seems.  I know that the London Olympics have gone down well in America from noting the reaction of the media and my friends. 

Whatever its downsides (dirty, overcrowded, expensive, grumpiness, etc.) London is a world city and an iconic one.  Things generally seem to have run very smoothly and the staffing has been cheerful (which is an achievement).  Even the weather has been good by British standards and Team GB have won a few medals (Yorkshire did so well they would have made it into the top 10 if they were an independent country). The BBC also have impressed me with their coverage - every sport shown live on the internet!

I can’t wait for the closing ceremony now.  Apparently the Spice Girls are going to perform…

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Atheism in the USA (British and American differences)

If you didn’t know it already, I am an atheist.  Non-belief is more common in England where I am from, and the culture is generally a more skeptical one.  So it was definitely a culture shock coming to the US where Christianity is still going strong and being religious is to some degree very much part the norm.


This post was partly prompted by a survey recently done by Gallup in the US (June 7-10 2012), where they asked people if they would be prepared to vote for a politician who was Catholic, or Jewish etc. and as you can see from the figures below, atheists ended up down at the bottom of the pile below Muslims, with just under half of Americans saying that they’d not be prepared to vote for someone who was an atheist.

The poll asked Americans if they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate who was black (96% would), a woman (95% would), a Catholic (94%), Hispanic (92%), Jewish (91%), Mormon (80%), gay/lesbian (68%), Muslim (58%), or atheist (54%).

Several of my American friends actually expressed surprise that 50% of Americans trusted atheists – they thought that the number would be much lower!

Back in the UK, religion has been in steady decline for 200 years, but the process accelerated somewhat in the latter half of the twentieth century and by the time it got to the post-1960s generations most people stopped going to church altogether.  Here, where I am in Gainesville, North Florida, such are the numbers of church goers that there is actually a  rush hour when church ends on a Sunday morning and the congregations turn out.

American atheists

The core of atheism in the US, as you would expect, is probably in academia and the scientific community.  I think the American scientist, Carl Sagan, has often summed up best for me why I put my faith in science and reason and believe that God and religion are man-made phenomena. 

There are also quite a few atheists on the political left in the US, although nowhere near as many as you’d find in the UK, or Northern Europe generally.  Rightwing American atheists tend to be rarer in my experience. 

Probably one of the most famous atheists in American popular culture is Bill Maher, although there have been plenty of non-believing US comics in the past – W C Fields being maybe the most notable one.  My favorite US satire of American Christians is probably the Ned Flanders character in The Simpsons.

Religion and politics

Although the post-revolutionary founders of the US wanted to keep religion separate from politics and the state, fearing a single religion becoming established like in England, where the Church of England was and is still the official religion (at least nominally), they were only partially successful, in my opinion.  Issues of how much religion should feature in political life and what its role should be are very much a hot topic of debate in the US.

Whatever the debate over the relationship of religion and the American state, the involvement of religion in everyday party politics is without doubt huge compared to the UK.  American politicians on the left and right will often claim divine inspiration, but it is probably fair to say that it is those on the conservative right who mix religion and politics the most.

In the UK, religion is generally seen as a private matter of personal conscience for politicians, as well as the general public, but Americans wear their faith on their sleeve and will often define themselves by it.  It never occurred to me not to vote for Tony Blair because he was a Catholic, but Americans take religious belief (or the absence of) into account much more.  I think it’s also fair to say that for many Americans, being a Christian is associated with being a respectable, upstanding, ethical person – whereas the image of Christians in the UK is far more mixed.

The Practicalities of being an atheist

Just as the politics of the US is skewed very much to the rightwing from a British perspective, the secular/religious attitudes are very much skewed towards religion (especially so where I am in the South).  Although I’d say that without doubt most Americans are tolerant, there is also a devout minority of Americans who see Christianity as being completely tied up with US values and culture and by extension, all non-belief and non-Christian religions are therefore “otherly” and a  threat.

Just being an atheist can be perceived by some as being quite extreme here where I am (rather than being fairly mundane, like in the UK) – atheists are not uncommonly portrayed as being unreasonable absolutists, with agnosticism seen as a more moderate and acceptable form of non-belief.

(I should add that although I would describe myself as an “atheist”, my assessment is that God [or gods] *very probably* don’t exist, but it can never be fully ruled out.  I therefore see religious people who claim that their belief system is definitely the one true faith and their holy book is *the only* one that is divinely inspired as being far more absolutist than myself).


On a personal note, one thing that is strangely liberating about being an atheist in the US for a mischief maker like myself is that I feel able to be critical and satirical without experiencing much guilt about it.  Back in the UK, religious belief can seem so beleaguered at times that poking fun at it can seem like kicking a person in a wheelchair.  In the US (certainly down here in North Florida) you definitely have the sense that you are the one who is part of an underdog minority as an atheist.

Related blog posts by Brits in the USA

Iota Quota writes about how refreshing she finds attitudes, as a British Christian in the US. 

Eve, a non-believer, posts about her frustrations with religion in the US.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mosquito Plague

The big news here in Gainesville, Florida is that in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby, we’ve been hit by a mosquito plague and I am covered in uncomfortable and itchy bites.  They kept me awake for most of one night, such was the discomfort.

The joy of mosquito bites!
The reason for the mosquito plague is the massive amount of water that Tropical Storm Debby rained down on us not long ago.  Mosquitoes like standing water as a venue for their egg laying.  Even if it’s dry, the mosquito eggs can sit around for months, then spring into life when the rain comes.

By the way, for the linguists out there, the shortened name for mosquitoes in England tends to be “mozzies”, but in the USA they are more commonly referred to as “skeeters”.

Anyway, I am bitten to hell. 

A range of cures and reliefs have been offered to me for mozzie bites, ranging from dabbing the bites with gin, to tea tree oil.  The alcoholic cure maybe sounds the slightly more appealing, but I am using Cortizone at present.

I am spraying myself with “Off!”, when I go out, a DEET spray, which the skeeters don’t like (at least in theory!).


The mosquitoes are worst in the morning and at sunset.  Unfortunately, at the end of the last week, when I put the trash/rubbish out, the cat decided to make a dash for freedom and explore the neighbourhood.  Pets aren’t supposed to roam around where we live, so normally the cat spends its time shut inside, or out on the (mosquito-netted) porch.  Anyway, I went after the cat and eventually managed to retrieve it, but got bitten about a zillion times in the process.

We have mosquitoes in the UK, but there aren’t a lot of them.  There are midges up in Scotland which are maybe just as bad, or worse in some respects, although they don’t give you any tropical diseases!

Friday, June 22, 2012

President or prime minister and a head on a stick

There was controversy over here in the USA recently regarding the Game of Thrones TV show, when it was revealed that a latex head raised on the end of a stick used during a battle scene was in the likeness of the former president, George W Bush.  I found it difficult to understand the outcry, given that the show is just a silly fantasy and there didn’t seem to be anyone actually seriously advocating the beheading of GWB.

I tend to forget, however, that in the US, the president is not just a political leader, but also the head of state – so in that sense, in UK terms, he is more like the prime minister and queen combined(!)  That is why the US president gets far more reverence than any UK PM (at least face to face).

Barak Obama - The current President of the United States
I’ve been trying to get my head around the US political system ever since I got here, which isn’t all that easy as the US system is pretty much unique and generally unlike any other.  I find it difficult to think of any other democracy in the modern age that combines the head of state and political leader role.  More often it’s only done in autocratic dictatorships like North Korea, or Nazi Germany(!).  Modern democracies typically have a ceremonial president, or a monarch to perform symbolic duties – there are exceptions, such as France, where the president has real political power, but nothing quite like the US.

My wife tells me that she thinks that at the time of American Independence, they were so concerned about monarchy, or an alternative power base appearing against the elected president, that they avoided having a separate head of state altogether and combined the roles, which would make sense, I guess, given the historical circumstances.

I guess there are two elements to think about when it comes to whether a country has a president or prime minister: do you have a presidential or parliamentary system? and do you have a separate head of state as well as a political leader?

Presidential or parliamentary?

The US system is designed to be more consensual than a parliamentary system.  The president generally has less political power than a PM and the system relies on a large amount of cross party co-operation.  There are far more checks and balances than in somewhere like the UK, which tend to slow things down, but are meant to stop extreme, or rushed laws etc. being passed.

A parliamentary system, such as the UK’s, has confrontation built into it.  The government is meant to pursue its own agenda and everyone else does what they can to oppose it.  In most circumstances, however, the PM leads the largest amount of elected members of parliament, so he can push through pretty much anything he likes in a vote – all he needs usually is the backing of his own political party.  There are also less checks and balances than in the US system.

The US system has been getting a lot of criticism recently.  The problem is that there is deep political polarization between the main parties and so the old consensual politics has been breaking down, bringing the whole system into disrepute and even crisis at times.  Americans tend to blame their politicians, or the opposing political party to the one that they support, for not working together.  If you are used to a parliamentary system where confrontation and polarization are built into the system, however, like myself, you can sometimes wonder about the sustainability of the US system itself, however, in the modern age. 

The UK Houses of Parliament
Apart from struggling to cope with polarization, another downside of the US system is that it can be very slow moving because of all the checks and balances.  Things like financial crises, for example, can happen very quickly in the modern age and governments need the ability to react quickly.   

Critics argue that the opposite is true for the UK parliamentary system - although the system is capable of moving very quickly, there is more danger of a radical agenda, or ill thought out laws being pushed through.

Americans tend to be very protective and proud of their system.  It was set up at the birth of the US and is very much tied up with the whole sense of national identity.  The UK (or maybe I mean specifically England in this case?) has been through various systems, including absolute monarchy, republican dictatorship and parliamentary (not to mention tribalism and foreign rule) in its long history, although it’s true to say that there has been some form of monarchy for much of that time, certainly since the Norman invasion.

It has to be said that the US was a much smaller country at the time of its setup, however, both in terms of physical size and population.  Plus it was far less diverse.  I get the feeling that relying on a degree of consensus and co-operation between the political factions was much easier back then.  Having said that, the US political system has largely functioned well enough throughout most of its history (the Civil War being the big noticable exception).

(What is also a matter of concern is that the modern political polarization seems to be splitting along similar geographical lines to the old Civil War divide, with the old Confederate States generally going one way politically and the old Northern States going the other – but that’s another story!)

President or monarch?

Queen Elizabeth II
I am pretty much out of step with most of my fellow British countrymen in that I am a republican and not a monarchist.  About 20% of Brits are republican, according to the latest surveys.  About 30% were republican when I was a kid back in the 70s, so I think we can safely say that the popularity of the monarchy has gradually been growing – probably in part due to the personal popularity of Elizabeth II, the current queen (the recent jubilee celebrations being a reminder).  I think a lot of Brits also enjoy having the monarchy as a quirky British thing, plus they see it as a source of continuity.

I can understand some of the monarchist arguments against republicanism in the UK.  What would you replace it with? is the question most often asked.  Who would you end up with as the new, elected, republican elected ceremonial president?  Some ancient and dull politician?  Some frivolous celebrity like a popstar, or TV chef?   

All in all, though, I just find the monarchy system more than a little archaic and I don’t particularly like being reminded of a time when we were ruled by kings and queens, even if nowadays they are essentially toothless.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jacksonville Jazz, Tennis, and Beryl

I had an interesting and varied Memorial Day weekend.  I am a big fan of jazz and have managed to find another aficionado who lives in Orlando, so we decided that we would meet up at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, which is in the northeast of Florida, along with our wives, who are also online buddies.

There was some discussion over which day we should meet – should it be Friday (Sonny Rollins headlining) or Sunday (Chick Corea)?  Saturday was out of the question as I had my final tennis match of the season (see below).  Anyway, we eventually settled for a Friday meet up.

The Jacksonville event is actually one of the biggest jazz festivals in the US.  It takes place outdoors and the events are free.  The city is actually pretty attractive with the centre blocked off to motor traffic (unlike in Europe where pedestrians have gradually gained the upper hand, US city centres still seem generally to be very much dominated by cars).

Me fraternising with a local!

My friend and fellow jazz fan, Chris drinking cider in the Irish bar.  Somewhat surreally we were surrounded by Scottish football fans who were there to watch the game against the USA the following evening.  The Scots went on to lose 5-1!  As an Englishman, I am neutral when it comes to such a match, although I have to add that the Scots wouldn’t spare the mirth were England get thrashed by the US in a similar fashion!

The Just Jazz Quartet – Probably the best jazz quartet that I’ve ever seen with 5 players in it!


The following day (Saturday) my tennis team played our final round of matches of the Spring league.  It was calculated that we only needed to win one out of the three final contests to win the league on points.  Alas, despite two of the contests being decided by tie-breakers (including my own), we lost all three and so had to settle for second place.  So we won’t be going to the special USTA tournament weekend at Daytona Beach now, it seems! 

Me serving

My tennis partner: Bobby
Our opponents (boo! hiss!)


After all the excitement of Friday and Saturday, Sunday and Monday ended up being relatively quiet days for us, as Tropical Storm Beryl swept in and dumped bucketfuls of rain across northeast Florida (the deluge is still going on as I write).

The final day of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival had to be cancelled because of the weather – so choosing Friday to meet up now seems like it was a very good decision.