Monday, 14 November 2016

94 Years on, Mencken has been proven right!


As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. - H.L. Mencken, July 1920.



Thursday, 3 November 2016

Abellio Greater Anglia have done it again!

Due to a broken down train, this morning all services on the Cambridge to London line were either delayed or cancelled.

The train broke down at 6.15 am, and as of the time that I left Bishop's Stortford station in despair at 8.15 it was still awaiting a train to come and shunt it out of the way so that services could be resumed.

I understand that services were eventually resumed, but too late for me - I had missed my connection in London and had to try to find another way of getting back to Brussels.

One has to wonder at the wisdom of running the Cambridge to London service (8 trains per hour at peak times) plus the London to Stansted express service through stations with only three tracks. On problem, and the whole network comes to a standstill for hours.

And why did it take so long to get a train to move the one that was broken out of the way? This is the line into Liverpool Street that serves the City of London.

And why was there only sketchy and inadequate information for passengers, and no staff on hand at the station to deal with the situation: the platforms become so crowded that would be passengers were at one point queueing on the footbridge to get to the platforms - a disaster waiting to happen.

Of course there are no staff, they were all made redundant to save costs and boost profits. In fact, the entire Abellio Greater Angia operation is clearly based on the idea of sucking out every penny of profit whilst providing the minimum level of service.

On most journeys passengers are forced to stand as there are not enough seats, a situation made worse by the lack of storage space for luggage, which on a line that serves a major airport is an absolute scandal.

The cause of this disgracefully inadequate service, and ticket prices are very high on this line, is of course privatisation. Reliable and safe service has been replaced by the desire for ever greater profit.

It saddens me to think that tourists and business travellers coming into the country through Stansted will have this as their first experience of the country.

I have managed to rearrange my journey, at great inconvenience and some additional expense. I have to be at Victoria Station at 2pm. It should be around one hour's journey, but in order to have any chance ofarriving on time I will allow myself three hours. It really is that bad.

Read also:

http://gary-brusselsblog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/british-rail-travel-some-things-never.html

Monday, 31 October 2016

Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be!

Yesterday, George and I did a bit of a whirlwind tour of the East End.

Sunday morning is exactly the time to do that - Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane, & Colombia Road Flower Markets - just wonderful.

George got to see where I was as a youngster. Also where my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and so many others may have spent their Sunday mornings.

He also got to experience, for the first time, a Salt Beef Beigel in Brick Lane. Being somewhat fond of his food, he rather liked this. Jewish cuisine could never be described as 'subtle', but this is something really special. About half a pound of tender beef, pickles and mustard in a Beigel that just came out of the oven - mmmm.

I showed him where Jack the Ripper disemboweled his victims, and where Flanagan & Allen were inspired to write 'Underneath the Arches'.

We strolled up Vallance Road, hung out in Vallance Garden (just yards from where the Kray Twins were born, and were to go on to run the most vicious criminal empire in the history of London), and I saw ghosts of some old pals. The demographics have now changed, and Bethnal Green is now a Muslim district. Ronnie & Reggie would not recognise it now. Actually, neither do I.

Of course, much else has changed.

Brick Lane is now full of 'street food' stalls. The traditional Costermongers are largely gone. Instead of Cockneys doing the weekly shop, there are students with dreadlocks trying to look cool whilst drinking 'double skinny de-caffe lattes to go'. 

They don't look cool to me.

There are not so many stalls there now, and there is very little that is there could be called traditional. Petticoat Lane is now just an outlet for cheap stuff knocked out in eastern sweatshops.

Half of Romania is in Brick Lane selling counterfeit Marlboro Lights, as it seems to me. The Sclater Street bird market is long gone, which might not be such a bad thing, but it was something to see at the time.

Things change. But I do miss the Cockney traditions, and I just wonder where, whilst everybody else brings their culture to the East End, I might go to find my own culture....


Isn't England Beautiful?

I am very lucky, I guess. My work has always meant that from a very young age - I joined the military at the tender age of 16 - I have traveled rather a lot. I have seen many things.

Our world is a beautiful place, although we appear to be determined to destroy it.

Whilst I have yet to achieve my ambition of visiting a jungle (I once volunteered for a deployment to Northern Ireland in order to get out of a stint in Belize with the Harrier force on account of the fact that I heard that there were spiders the size of dinner plates out there- I hate spiders and crabs - never trust a chap who wears his skeleton on the outside!) I rather hope to do that one day. I saw a bit of a desert in North Africa once, but I am always thirsty, so that might not be the best environment for me.

I remain restless, but sometimes I see something like this and I just stand and stare, and I realise that wherever I may end up, I am lucky to have been born in the most beautiful country in the world. England.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Bobby Vee: The Passing of a Legend

I don't have precise details, but I learn that the great Bobby Vee has passed away this afternoon.

73 years old, and suffering from Alzheimer's, the last I heard he was working on a new album with his sons. Despite his difficulties, he could still play guitar and sing.

He was first picked up in February 1959, after Buddy Holly died. The organizers of the Winter Dance party tour needed to replace Buddy.

Bobby Vee was a local guy who had a similar sound, so he was hired, and the rest is Rock n Roll history.

His early recordings were similar in style to the early Crickets' sound, and to his fans it was always his ballads that caught us: but in the 1960s he developed a more contemporary style. The Night has a Thousand Eyes, and Rubber Ball sold millions of copies.


I suppose everybody has their favourite track, and for me, as always, it would have to be an epic ballad. Suzie Baby was one of the early recordings, (Bob Dylan covered the song in his early career) but as great as the original release was, I of course stumbled across an alternative take (on You Tube) which was too long and complicated for the commercial market, but so wonderful.




Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Go, Johnny, Go!

Chuck Berry is to release his first new album in more than 35 years. That is quite an achievement for a man who celebrates his 90th birthday today (Oct 18th). The album will, we are told, feature mostly original work, written by Berry, who is the sole producer.
I have seen him live so many times since I first saw him on stage at Wembley in 1972 (I was 10 years old!) that I feel that I have watched him growing old.

The last time I saw him was in 2008 at Cirque Royale in Brussels, with a great crowd including then MEP for the Eastern Region, Tom Wise, with who, coincidentally, I am having dinner tonight.
By then he had slowed down, and his set was punctuated with instrumentals and the odd joke to give him a breather. It was still a great gig though.

He never has a running order, and will not rehearse with his band before a gig. He plays what he wants to play, and the band is expected to follow. But never does an audience leave disappointed with what they have seen and heard.
That moment when the band's opening instrumental dies down, the house lights go off, and spotlights shine on the left side of the stage, and Berry duckwalks onto the stage whilst playing the opening riff of Johnny B Goode is just priceless.  I think I saw him do this live at least 20 times.
I look forward to hearing the album albeit in the almost certain knowledge that it will be his last. He has come out of retirement for this, so he clearly has something to say - one more gem to leave us.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Hey, Bo Diddley!

Now if I had a narrow boat, I think this is what I might have called it. Well, I don't, and anyway, somebody else got there first.

I spotted this whilst taking a stroll along the River Stort in Hertfordshire.

I actually saw Bo live only the once, at Camden Lock, in the 1980s. It was something of an experience, and it took some hours to regain my hearing. He was credited with influencing the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the Clash.

Having began his career in 1955 he went on to perform alongside the Grateful Dead and countless others at the very top of the music industry.

He passed away in 2008, at the age of 79.

Nice to see this old barge navigating the peaceful waters of the Stort bearing his name.


Monday, 10 October 2016

Christian McBride Trio in Belgium

I've seen some pretty good gigs in my time. But possibly one of the tightest and most inspirational sets I have ever seen came in a small jazz club close to Antwerp last night.

The Christian McBride Trio, from New York City, exceeded even my high expectations of the evening. I wonder if three more talented and charismatic musicians have ever taken the stage together.

The repertoire was superb, the performance even more so. It is not possible to single out one member of the trio for the highest praise, each was equally impressive. A two hour set flew by, we could have easily sat through many more hours. Well done, chaps, and thank you for a wonderful experience.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Sherlock Holmes is Back........

As a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and his many rivals - Conan Doyle was not the only writer of detective short stories in late Victorian England - I was interested to pick up a copy of Cavan Scotts' The Patchwork Devil (Titan Books, London (2014) isbn: 9781783297146.)

This is a full length novel, set in the aftermath of the Great War, which sees Holmes having left Baker Street, and enjoying semi-retirement as a bee keeper on the South Downs.

Of course,  during a brief stay in London with his companion Dr Watson, now living in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, with his second wife, the pair get quickly drawn into yet another seemingly unfathomable mystery.

Following the discovery of a severed hand on the banks of the River Thames, the two find themselves up against a government conspiracy, involving Holmes' brother, Mycroft, that leads them to the most horrific of discoveries.

This is clearly not the pen of Conan Doyle, but a cracking story it surely is. I simply could not put the book down.

One of the joys of Conan Doyle's stories for me is the descriptions he gave us of individual buildings, streets, and districts in London. He placed Holmes and Watson perfectly in what was the actual London landscape of the day, and as one with a passion for the history of late-Victorian/Edwardian London that always added a great deal for me.

Scott of course would not have seen those sights with his own eyes, unlike Conan Doyle. Although some of the places mentioned in the original stories can easily be found and recognised, Scott's descriptions of some of the better known areas suffice.

The dialogue between Holmes and Watson is absolutely spot on. Of the course the two men are now a little older, and both a little grumpier, but the humour remains and this is one of the strongest points of the book.

The story itself is first rate. As the plot develops, we see the influence of another great writer of the period, Mary Shelley, enter into the storyline. I will say no more about the plot - read it yourself!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

British Rail Travel: Some Things Never Change

I know that I have been quite critical of Belgian public transport in the past, but there is nothing that quite matches the experience of a train journey in England, especially if the train company concerned is Abellio Greater Anglia.

Yesterday George and I took the train from Bishops Stortford to London, a journey that should take 40 minutes or so. We arrived at that station and, after the inevitable sharp intake of breath when I saw the cost (Belgian train fares are very low, and I so have been somewhat spoiled over the years), we headed for the platform. We had to cross to another platform, where the 10.09 was waiting - it was 10.08, and I figured we had no chance - but the train departed a few minutes late, and so we made it.

This was fortunate, as I noted during our dash that the following train had been cancelled. This should have set alarm bells ringing.

Boarding the train was problematic as it was totally packed with irritable people and their suitcases (for which there is virtually no storage space). It was standing room only, and a shoulder to shoulder crush.

When the train eventually departed, it all began.

The driver informed us that due to a broken down train ahead of us, our journey would be slow. He wasn't kidding. In fact, our train made an unscheduled stop at the next station, Sawbridgeworth, just some minutes down the line. After a little time the driver opened the doors to allow us to alight onto the platform and get some air.

As well as the broken down train, we now had another problem. Apparently the barriers on the level crossing ahead of us had not come down, and so it would be unsafe to proceed. George and I fished our paperbacks out of our bag, and we settled down to pass the time reading.

Shortly, the driver informed us that the barriers were down, but he was not sure they were for us. So we carried on reading.

Eventually, we were told that the train ahead of us was moving, albeit slowly, but we still could not proceed as the barriers had been raised again. A young hockey player who was due at a tournament in Poland, and so had a flight to catch, was getting very worried at this point.

As the problems did eventually resolve themselves, a new one, somewhat inevitably, arose. It transpired that there was some plastic sheeting on the line outside Harlow, and we would have to wait for engineers to arrive to clear the line. And wait we did.

We were eventually told that the engineers had arrived at the scene, but had to wait until the appropriate moment to switch off all overhead power cables before they could do anything.

After 4 or 5 chapters of an admittedly absorbing detective novel, we were on the move. Hurrah!

However, there would be a further delay, we were told, due to an unscheduled stop to collect passengers whose train had been cancelled. When you make an unscheduled stop, nobody gets off; they only get on. Lots of them in this case.

This is where it got serious. As we tried to squeeze into nooks and crannies to allow families and their luggage onboard, a lady of rather advanced years, and in some distress,  entered into the equation. She needed help standing, and there were no seats. A young lady offered her own seat, but to get there the elderly lady had to get past several dozens of people crammed in like sardines and with nowhere to go. Then the train started moving. It was not pleasant, and no elderly and disabled person should ever be put into such a position. But of course there were no staff to help her. There are seemingly no staff other than ticket inspectors at all.

We did, eventually, arrive in London. Our journey on the underground took much longer than anticipated because - yes, you've guessed it - several lines were out of operation. Quelle surprise!

I appreciate the fact that sometimes things do go awry, but the fact is that it is like this seemingly every time I use the train.

Over the last 4 weeks (or thereabouts) I have had a row with passengers who put their suitcases on seats meaning other passengers have nowhere to sit. (Admittedly they have nowhere else to put them as there is precious little space for luggage, and this on a line that runs from Stansted Airport to London. You would have thought it might have occurred to somebody that such a train would require space for luggage, but no, apparently not!) Customer complaint form number one from me.

Then, a week or so later, due to non-functioning ticket machines at Tottenham Hale I was forced to queue for ages to buy a ticket at the counter. 3 windows, only one staff member working, so it was a long queue. I explained that our party would be travelling out together, but returning on different days. He sold me 3 return tickets. On the way back, travelling alone, I had my ticket seized by an inspector as it transpired that the idiot at Tottenham Hale had sold me the wrong ticket, and it was only valid if everybody traveled together. I was told to pay a fine, which I resolutely refused to do. Customer complaint form number two from me.

Form number three I will fill in tomorrow. That's three complaints from one customer from just six journeys.

And for this we have to pay.




Sunday, 4 September 2016

These arms of mine: Otis Redding

"And if you would let them hold you, oh how grateful I would be..."

I can actually remember the day, during the Summer holidays of 1976, the hottest Summer in England since records began,when I started to look beyond Rock n Roll, and cast my net towards Soul.

I had heard Otis Redding's 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay', and I knew that this was something very special indeed.

As a young Teddy Boy I was aware of the fact that our mortal enemies, the Mods, adored Otis, but I wanted to hear more. And so I bought, from the record shop Sounds Around in Borehamwood, a compilation album of Soul music,  purely on the strength of the fact that there were a couple of Otis' tracks that I hadn't heard before.

I can even remember that the album cost me 49p, the equivalent of 2 hours pay for my part-time job filleting Cod at the Leeming Road Fish Bar (3x2 hour shifts per week - probably illegal today under child labour laws - but I loved it!)

And so, in August 1976, at the age of 14, sitting alone in my bedroom I heard Otis sing 'These Arms Of Mine' for the very first time.

When I heard it, I was instantly mesmerized, and I probably played the track 20 or 30 times in succession on that afternoon.

Otis tore his own heart out in every song he gave to us, but I had never before heard any man express himself verbally like this. I hoped so much that I would be able to explain my own emotions like this when the time came - but who could possibly do so? Otis was unique. The Byron of Soul music, maybe....

40 years later, after much joy, much tragedy, and even a couple of wars, of course I see the world in a different way from when I was 14 years old, but this performance still takes my breath away. In my opinion it is Otis' masterpiece, far superior to Dock of the Bay both musically, and lyrically. This is pure poetry.

I listen to it often, and it still catches me every time exactly as it did during the Summer heat wave of 1976.

Well done, Otis!

Listen and enjoy.....



Monday, 22 August 2016

Toots Thielemans - The Passing of a Jazz Legend

All good things must come to an end.

And so, Belgium is mourning the passing of one of the greatest of Jazz legends, Toots Thielemans.

Toots died in his sleep last night. He wasn't ill, he had just played his heart out, day after day, year after year, and at the age of 94 he just got too tired.

I last heard him play live outside the European Parliament. I don't like crowds, so I wasn't actually there, but I lived virtually next door. I watched it live on TV with the sound off, and opened my terrace doors so I could hear it for real.

As in the USA there is country music, so in Belgium there is Jazz. Toots Thielemans will be much missed here.