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.





Saturday, 20 August 2016

Another UKIP MEP being set-up?

History would appear to be repeating itself the the UKIP camp in Brussels.

Welsh MEP Nathan Gill is being investigated for abusing European Parliamentary funds. He was unaware of the investigation into him.

We have seen this at least twice before. Fall foul of the party leadership, and allegations will be made. It happened to Tom Wise, and it happened to Nikki Sinclaire.

Tom Wise unexpectedly changed his plea in court to guilty, thus sparing Nigel Farage from taking the stand and having to answer questions on oath about investigations into his own affairs, something he very much wanted to avoid. To shut down the case completely it was vital that somebody was found guilty.

The official who had investigated Tom's case told me afterwards in Brussels that he, and his superior, were astonished that this had even gone to court, but that he realised when he was called to give evidence that this was a 'stitch-up'.

Nikki Sinclaire had challenged Farage for the party leadership, exposed far-right elements in Farage's political group in Brussels, and most importantly had tabled the petition calling for a referendum on membership of the EU. In order for Farage to take back the political space he had lost, Nikki Sinclaire had to be taken out. And so the police raids and the arrests began.

Nikki was cleared of all charges, after an astonishingly long 'investigation', but the damage to her political career was done.

Now it is Gill's turn.

Why I am not sure, but he has clearly been perceived as a threat to somebody, and we can only speculate as to who that might be. His fellow MEPs will tut tut and say how they support him, but not one of them will actually extend a hand to help him. They will be too scared.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Russians Kicked Out Of Crimea By The British

Of course, history in Russia is presented selectively, and the truth can change depending upon who is in charge, and what his agenda is.

I have been told, often, by those blinded by their love of Putin, that Crimea belongs to Russia because, well, they always thought it did. International law be damned.

On that basis, Crimea belongs to Great Britain and her allies, because in 1856 we ( the British) kicked the Russian army out of the Crimean peninsula.


Of course, this humiliating defeat is airbrushed out of Russian history. This defeat was a precursor to Russia's humiliation in the First World War, and their subsequent disgraceful collaboration with Nazi Germany in the early months of the Second World War.

Some photos here of the memorial in Pall Mall, London, to the British victory over the Russian armies in Crimea.

You won't read about this in any Russian history book, of course. Russian history books contain mostly lies.

Monday, 11 July 2016

When Ducks Behave Badly....

I am not entirely sure what is going on here. I didn't see this before.

Its either a mating ritual or attempted murder. Ducks can be surprising brutal - if one of the flock offends, for example by having any physical contact with another species - they can pay a high price.

This occurred today in Parc Leopold, in the European Quarter of Brussels.

Make of it what you will.





Nikki Sinclaire Cleared Of All Charges

Former MEP Nikki Sinclaire has finally been found 'Not Guilty' of fraud.

This follows a four year investigation, which may have cost the taxpayer some £1.5 million. 

The allegations made against her, by a disgruntled former employee, one John Ison, involve travel claims amounting to around £3000.

Having been present with Nikki at meetings in the European Parliament's finance offices, I can confirm that senior officials told her that there appeared to be some errors, but that they would balance out at the end of the year.

So why did this need a four year investigation, culminating in a failed prosecution? 

West Midlands Plod are, of course, trying to defend the decision to prosecute, but the stories about their incompetence I will leave it for Nikki to decide whether to tell them or not.

But most satisfying for me personally was the exposure of John Ison himself.

Having met him a few times, I have to say that I took an immediate dislike to him. A Walter Mitty type character possesed of neither social skills or political nous was my first impression. This court case has not been his finest hour, and friends who have heard my opinions of him in private have read about his cross-examination, and are saying to me "wow, you weren't kidding!"

But best of all, and I quote from the Express & Star newspaper;

"The jury at Birmingham Crown Court heard there had been an atmosphere of "hostility" between Ms Sinclaire and Ukip leader Nigel Farage, and that Mr Ison had passed information about her to the senior party figure."


"Under cross examination from Sinclaire's barrister Sean Hammond, Mr Ison accepted being a "spy or a mole" in her office, and admitted passing information about the MEP to Nigel Farage in 2009-10.
Mr Ison also accepted making 30-40 hours of covert recordings of Sinclaire, and sending a message to another Ukip colleague claiming he had hacked her laptop."

What is not mentioned is that at around the time that computer files were stolen, and I have seen the evidence personally, Ison was being employed by UKIP Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall. I think this story shows us what a sordid little gang the party became under the leadership of Nigel Farage.

The fact that Ison had himself appeared in court some years ago accused of strangling his wife is irrelevant to the case, but just tells us a little more about the man. 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Goodnight Sweetheart to make a return

I was delighted to learn that Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran - often known as 'Lo and Mo' - are reprising their classic comedy 'Goodnight Sweetheart', if only for one episode.

It is a masterpiece of the imagination, combined with a warm nostalgia, created to appeal to viewers of different generations.

The central character is Gary Sparrow, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst (Rodney Trotter in 'Only Fools & Horses')

Sparrow finds himself able to travel back in time to the East End of London during the Blitz. Soon he finds himself with a wife in the 1990s, Yvonne, and a wartime bride, Phoebe, played by Dervla Kirwan, who was to go onto to greater things.

He also has a friend in the 90s, Ron, who is a printer, and who supplies him with forged ration books and wartime currency.

Sparrow charms his friends in the 40s by entertaining them with 'his compositions', all of course Beatles classics, and other oddities familiar to anyone who grew up in post-war Britain.

He fathers children in both eras, and befriends Noel Coward. He meets King George VI, Clement Atlee, even Jack the Ripper gets into one story line. In a bank in 40's London he meets inept staff members who we recognise straight away as the characters from 'Dad's Army'.

As I say, a masterpiece of the imagination.

Lo and Mo have been responsible for some of the most popular sitcoms on British TV, including the superb 'Shine on Harvey Moon', and 'Birds of a Feather', the latter being one of the most successful of all sitcoms, running to 110 episodes.

Interestingly, they also wrote 'Mosley', a four episode drama. This was a brave decision, which raised a lot of eyebrows at the time.

Mosley, once described by Micheal Foot as the 'the brightest star in British politics', and one of the earliest advocates of a unified Europe, was a fascist, and Lo and Mo are Jewish.

That they could produce a historically accurate account of the events that shaped Mosley's political direction was considered unacceptable by many. It was, however, enlightening, disturbing, and challenging.




Saturday, 9 July 2016

Pétanque in the park. Just perfect!

And so, if there were one thing that the French have given us (apart from great wine, cheese, cider, countryside, etc) then that would be Pétanque. It is French bowls - or 'Boules'. Its great.

One of the pleasures of Brussels is that I get to play this wonderful game against members of the Indian ex-pat community (and we English know how good Indians are at bowling), as well as occasionally going up against elderly Belgian chaps who are just brilliant. Especially after half a bottle of Pastis.

George and I play together sometimes - he loves all sports. But we have now reached that point in our respective lives where he always beats me. He is, simply, overtaking me. 

Today, it was 2 games to 1. Having won the first 2 with ease, he relaxed a bit towards the end and was more focussed on lunch than he was on winning an unnecessary third round. 

Pétanque is the most relaxing way of spending some hours in the sunshine, and I strongly recommend it. 


Friday, 10 June 2016

A Chance Encounter With A Moggie......

What a delight to see this absolutely pristine Morris Minor, a 'Moggie', as we used to call them, parked just a few yards from my home.

This model, with the wooden trim, was actually known as a 'Traveler'.

My uncle had one, I remember it well. In the early 70's my father had a dark blue Moggie van, which he fitted out with two London bus benches in the rear. I have fond memories of driving to the seaside at the weekend with my brother and cousins, it was before my sister was even born, in the back of that classic old car. I loved it, and I used to clean it every Saturday morning.

After all these years I can even remember the registration number - 219 HLE. This  dates the car as being originally registered before 1963.

The Moggie was designed by Alex Issigonis, who also designed the Mini. The car was conceived in 1941, when Morris were concerned with war production. However, thinking ahead and knowing that they had massive production capacity due to military requirements, they wanted a 'ready to go' design for a civilian vehicle to go into production as soon as the war ended. And so Issigonis, who was a junior designer, was given the job of designing a car that could be built without requiring too much retooling of the existing production lines.

This particular car, which has Belgian plates, is a Minor 1000, which entered into production in 1956. It is so perfect that it looks like it has just come out of the factory. Even in my childhood I didn't such a perfect example as this, and it sent a shiver up my spine just to touch it. It brought back many memories.

The interior of the car is as perfect as is the exterior, and the tyres are the original crossplies. Somebody has invested a huge amount of time, money, and love into this car. Note the British tax disc on the windscreen - the car was clearly registered in the UK until at least 2014.


George was very impressed, it was the first time he had seen one of these in real life. The tiny chrome windscreen wipers he was particularly impressed with.

The Moggie was never the safest of vehicles. It had a rigid construction, and did not absorb impact well. It was only in the mid-60s that modifications were made to the design to allow for the fitting of seat belts.

More than 1.3 million Moggies were produced as far as we know, but there was also some production in India, and total production there is somewhat uncertain.

Fings ain't wot they used to be.........



Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Global Warming Spoils My Plans For The Weekend

Climate change brings with it an increase in extreme weather events. The recent flooding in Paris attracted a great deal of media attention, but how many people are aware of the flooding of homes in the provincial areas of Holland just one week earlier?

But now it has become really serious.

Climate change has landed on my doorstep. My local Petanque pitch is flooded.

I must admit that the reflection of the moon and the trees in the water at 9.30 this morning was rather pleasing, but my son and I were planning on a few games at the weekend. This is a ritual that involves the odd tipple, some snacks, and a small wager (which I always seem to lose).

I appreciate that the increased precipitation in Belgium as a direct result of increased temperatures is nothing compared to a Tsunami, or a hurricane, but it does illustrate how changing weather patterns are now affecting even the little details of our everyday lives.