Saturday, 4 July 2015

Canal Swimming Club - No Swimming Allowed

It is one of those truly unique 'Belgian' moments.

I love Bruges. If you have never been there, I suggest that you put it on the top of your 'must see' list. As Ralph Fiennes so memorably put it in the 2008 movie In Bruges "its like a f***ing fairytale..."

Well, even Han Christian Anderson couldn't have made this up. A swimming club where no swimming is allowed.

The canals of Bruges are lovely - I am often in the town myself - but to be frank I wouldn't want to swim in them. But what is the point of a swimming club where swimming is prohibited?

To be fair, there is some small print that suggests that swimming might be allowed in certain periods of the year, but only if the water conditions are "good".

Trust me, you do not want swim in those canals, as beautiful as they appear.

Interestingly, having inspected the recently installed waterside decking that is home to the Canal Swimmers Club, a great place for sunbathing, I noticed that there is a bar. However, drinking alcohol is also prohibited by the police.

A little advice - it is worth staying overnight in Bruges, as the town empties of tourists from about 8pm onwards, and becomes very quiet. That is the time for a stroll along the canals. Just don't go for a swim.....

Thursday, 25 June 2015

An angel.....

This is a memorial dedicated to the Glorious Dead of two wars. It is between the lakes by Place Flagey, in Ixelles, Brussels.

I saw it while driving by numerous times, but following a short meeting this week in the vicinity, I decided to go and take a proper look.

It is very beautiful. It is next to the lakes, in the shade, and surrounded by flowers. There are several features, but the dying soldier being tended by an angel I found especially moving.

This is a memorial to local people who died. And as I scanned the many names on the memorial, one sent a shiver down my spine. Miss Cavell. This is, of course, Nurse Edith Cavell, who was shot by the Germans in Brussels in 1915. Her crime was to tend to the wounded on both sides, and to help displaced and injured soldiers to return to their own lines. As I schoolboy I learned about her, she is a national heroine.

At St Martin's Place, near to Charing Cross station in London, there is a fitting memorial to Nurse Cavell. I wonder, is she also the angel depicted on this memorial?

 
 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

A bloody mess...

It is very wise in Brussels to avoid making eye contact with people on the street. If you do so, they will inevitably ask for directions.

My two favourites are the lady driver who pulled over in the centre of Brussels and asked me which road she needed to take to get to Germany, and two American ladies who asked me where the Flower Carpet is. When I explained that it can be found in Grand Place for a few days every two years, and this was not one of those years, they got really upset. They had come to Brussels just to see it!

Yesterday I had the unpleasant experience of having a really heavy nose bleed whilst on my way to the local shops. It really gushed, and I found myself struggling to contain it with just a piece of tissue. There were quite a few people around, and a young couple came towards me - my hand and T-shirt were covered with blood at this point.

"Do you speak English?" the lady asked me. "Yes I do," I replied, hoping she might offer some assistance in the form of more tissue paper. "Do you know where the nearest Metro station is?" she asked.....

Possibly 20 or more people around, and so if you need directions you go to the distressed guy covered in blood.

I sometimes think that Brussels is a community of village idiots.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Putin's War....

"Russia is not a threat to NATO", President Vladimir Putin is reported as saying.

"Only an insane person and only in a dream can one imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO," the Russian president has told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Putin was correct in that Russia would never "suddenly" attack NATO. There is nothing ​unpremeditated or sudden about the hybrid war now being conducted by Russia against western Europe, and against Atlantic values ​per se.

In Moscow there has been some discussion, at high levels, of Putin's ​'Legacy War'.

The illegal annexation of Crimea might be seen as a tactical goal, but strategically it was merely a catalyst for a far grander design - the humiliation of the European Union, and a chance to undermine, and possibly even destroy, NATO. The former aim has been achieved, the latter must  now appear tantalisingly close.

The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was rather predictable. After all, Moscow had learned from the western non-response to the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 on September 1st 1983. The west is afraid of conflict. Russia wants conflict.

Article 5 of NATO's Washington Treaty states that "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area".

​When an Estonian intelligence officer was seized from Estonian territory on September 5th 2014 by Russian special forces, the Russians did not need to make excuses. NATO did that for them. Article 5 was not invoked. In fact, the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was after the attacks on the USA on September 11th 2001. Russia now understands that Article 5 has little meaning beyond the protection of direct US interests. Neither the US, nor western European states, will go to war with Russia over the Baltic nations.

And so, when Putin declares that Russia is no threat to NATO, those of us who might understand the Russian mind-set will assume that this means that the ammunition is being issued....

Saturday, 16 May 2015

London Disappeared (2)... China Walk

China Walk is adjacent to Lambeth Walk, but by London standards it is a relatively new development, with work having begun in the late 1920s. It is just across the Kennington Road from the Imperial War Museum.

I actually have personal memories of China Walk going back to the late 1960s. An old school friend of my father lived there, and we visited on a weekend now and then. I remember playing outside football with the local lads, in exactly the place where I took this photo yesterday. In those days, people actually socialised with their neighbours, and would sit outside chatting endlessly. I remember the shouts of "Oi, keep that bloody ball away from my windows or I'll 'ave yer..!"  But I especially remember the corner shop where the lady who ran it made delicious ice lollies from fresh orange juice - the shop is gone, it is now the 'Latinos Help Centre'.


The China Walk Estate is a style of architecture that is very common in South London, especially the in the boroughs that lay on the south bank of the Thames, Lambeth and Southwark especially. In the latter case, much of what was 'Jacob's Island', as immortalised by Charles Dickens in 'Oliver' looks pretty much like this. (Its true - Jacob's Island really did exist. In fact, my daughter's first primary school was on George Row, the easternmost border of Jacob's Island - Now she studies law in the Netherlands).

Yesterday I passed through China Walk and took time to reflect, and to take a few photos. Its not the same now.

To be frank, I only saw a handful of people that I could identify as being indigenous Londoners. They were all very old, and looked stressed and in ill health. Interestingly, I think that all but one that I saw were using walking sticks.

Demographics change, its a fact, and that is not always a negative thing. Much of the old community has done well, and moved on. They simply left the old days behind.

Karel Reisz's classic documentary 'We Are The Lambeth Boys' (1958) was largely filmed in this neighbourhood, and a little to the south heading down to the Oval cricket ground. The follow-up 'We Were The Lambeth Boys' (1985) is of more interest to those who want to see the story of the changes in the community put into a fuller perspective. It also includes most of the more interesting and entertaining content of Reisz's original.

London Disappeared..... Lambeth Walk

The sign is most poignant. The Lambeth Walk is an iconic symbol of London culture - albeit one totally unknown and unappreciated by the majority of Londoners today.

The fact that the Lambeth Walk pub, which has guarded the entry to the Walk since 1951 is now closed and up for sale really reflects what has happened to the Walk itself. There are a lot of empty properties and hardly any economic activities whatsoever.

Over recent years I have passed through a number of times, and it always strikes me how few people there are on the street. For those unfamiliar with the geography, from parts of the Walk you can actually see the Houses of Parliament across the Thames. Its that central, albeit on the South of the river, an area that has always been neglected.

The street market that flourished since the 1860s is long gone. The shopping precinct that was built in the 1960s to service the local community was largely boarded up and derelict by the mid - 90s.


The old Pelham Mission Hall, pictured right, looks like its seen better days, but at least it is still standing. I doubt that it will ever be used again for its original purpose, but I understand that Morley college has a sculpture studio on the premises.

It was always a poor working class area, but it had a thriving and colourful community.

Now it has nothing.



And of course, I couldn't resist adding the video.....















Sunday, 22 March 2015

Fings ain't wot they used to be!

Returning to Brussels from a week long school trip on Friday, his 10th birthday, George had expressed a particular wish. He wanted to go to a French restaurant and have snails.

And so we did.

Lots of children are a bit fussy about their food at this age, but this is not a problem I have ever had with George.

Today was his birthday party - no girls invited - he just wanted to go bowling with the lads, and then to go and try out the laser shooting thing. I think that they were a bit disappointed that these lasers don't actually cause people to explode, a la Star Wars, etc., but a great time was had by all.

We never had lasers when I was 10, but I knew how to make my own bow and arrows by then - and I could never have imagined that people would actually eat snails!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Gone but not forgotten....

Homelessness is a big issue in Brussels. In fact, for a European capital city, in social terms Brussels is a disgrace. Levels of poverty match the poorest regions of the former Soviet space, such as those in what was until quite recently known as East Germany.

I never spoke to Dumitru, but I saw him around often. He was one of the great characters that Brussels throws up so often. For at least the last 6 or 7 years he lived in what was once a tent, close to St Katherine, in the city centre.

He could often be seen feeding the pigeons with copious amounts of bread - in Brussels it is absolutely normal for shopkeepers to give unsold food to homeless people at the end of the day.

Now he is gone, and on the spot where he lived something of a shrine has appeared.

Yesterday I passed by and I noticed how this was attracting the attention of a number of people who walked over to take a look. I wonder if any of them would have even acknowledged him when he was alive.

It is very touching to see how the community he belonged to has built this little memorial, with flowers and other small tokens. There are a lot of sea shells there - I do not know if this is a reference to his earlier life, or if it has some cultural significance - I believe he was one of the many Roma who live in that district.

There are some fascinating characters around us, it is a shame that so often they are not even spared a glance.




Sunday, 22 February 2015

On the terraces...

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise 1 - Hasselt 0

Which means that USG will be promoted to the second division of the Belgian league.

To be frank, the first half is unlikely to go viral, but the second half was much better. The USG goal looked set to be followed by a quick second, but it was not to happen. Hasselt mounted a spirited last minute attack, with even their goalkeeper in the USG box.

Great game, great atmosphere - well done USG, and well done Hasselt!

Many thank to Brussels journos Andy and Cillian for the invite. George and I will be back......

Monday, 16 February 2015

One Bela or another......

Quite close to Brussels Central Station, in Place d'Espagne, there stands this statue of Béla Bartok, the Hungarian composer. Its a little sinister, but I like it. It was given as a gift by the Hungarian government to mark the 50th anniversary of Bartok's death. I cannot pass it without smiling, however, as it always brings back a priceless memory.

I think it was in 2006. I was walking through Place d'Espagne with a British MEP, a nice chap who is sadly no longer with us, and a group of visitors from Devon. We were all on our way to dinner near Grand Place.

As we passed, he declared to our small group "And over here is a statue of Bela Lugosi..."

Nice one, Graham!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Birth of a Nation

It is nice to have a favourite statue in the local park, but this is something really special. Make your way to Square Marie Louise, just a few minutes walk away from the European Parliament, and you will find this.

This statue won gold at the Paris exhibition of 1937. The LIFE magazine of August 9 headlined: "US art was represented by this old theme The birth of a nation, by an obscure U.S. sculptor named Marius Vos”

It is superb, and I can walk past it most days.....

When my son was 3, he was caught climbing on it.... There was a bit of a scandal....

Friday, 30 January 2015

There is a Corner of Brussels....


 
 

I find this very touching...

It is on the corner of what is now a school in Chaussee St Pierre in Etterbeek.

It commemorates the men of the neighbourhood who fell during the First World War. It is quite an impressive memorial given that it appears to have been a local initiative, but then there are rather a lot of names there.

I walk past this little glimpse into history several times a week, as it is on my route to the European Parliament. There are often fresh flowers laying alongside, and I cannot help but wonder if any of the families of those names appear on the plaque still live in the area.