Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Are these people real?

Kris Peeters is the Flemish Prime Minister. I don't really know, maybe there is also a Walloonie Prime Minister, and possibly even a German one as there is apparently a German speaking part of Belgium somewhere.  Yves Leterme is the national Prime Minister, although there isn't really a functioning government in Belgium, and decisions of import are currently being made by the King, Albert, which is a bit scary if you know what I mean. Incidentally, Leterme was appointed by the King. Is there any other European Nation where the monarch still actually appoints the head of the government?

Meneer Peters just tried to climb up Mt Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. He has failed, suffering from altitude sickness.

I promise you - I am not making this next bit up.....

Peters had tried to climb the highest mountain in the Andes - with 18 asthma patients.

It gets better.... while the PM is recovering, the asthma patients are still trying at this time to reach the summit. I wish them well!

The PM has attracted some criticism at home for this stunt, as he was supposed to attend a crucial budgetary debate in one of Belgium's numerous parliaments. One would ordinarily assume that a Prime Minister would turn up for such an event, but as I have noted before, this is no ordinary capital city!

Thanks to Le Soir For This One!

I managed to get the panzer stuck in the snow for 3 nights. You wouldn't ordinarily expect that if you live in the centre of a capital city, but this, of course, is no ordinary capital city! Eventually, I took an axe to the ice to break it up and cut out a path to a clear road. It was great fun to watch, I'm sure, but not so much fun to actually do it. Still, I suppose it killed three hours, when I could have otherwise been doing.... well, anything really

There was a terrific story in Le Soir, which is a Belgian daily newspaper. It explained why the Belgian motorways were all blocked whilst France and the other Benelux superpowers managed to keep the traffic flowing.

A general decision had been taken to pull all vehicles over 7.5 tons off of the road when the snow first hit hard. The Belgian police took this to mean literally all vehicles over 7.5 tons, and promptly ordered the gritters and snow ploughs off the roads.

Is there any other country in Europe, I wonder, where such stupidity reigns supreme?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Things Go Better With Coke...

I was catching a flight from Brussels airport earlier this year, when I witnessed an altercation between a visibly anxious passenger and a member of staff. Obviously flustered herself, the staff member shouted at the passenger "We can't help you, because there are no staff working here anymore". It is true, there have been swingeing job cuts at the airport.

But it seems that some people are doing well there. It seems that the baggage handlers have gone into the drugs business, according to a recent report.

Its a good job they are sub-contracting for Colombian drug dealers and not Al Queeda. Its a bit disturbing to note that an airport official admitted to the lack of security checks on the staff...

Something You Don't Often See.....

I found myself heading, somewhat cautiously, into Brussels on the motorway from Zaventum - Brussels Airport - which is closed because they have no de-icer for the aircraft (its true).

I was emerging from a tunnel which leads onto Brussels biggest roundabout, which is called "Square" Montgomery (this is also true - you don't need to make stuff up about this place). Suddenly the traffic came to a halt, and Belgians were emerging from their cars in a state of what passes for anxiety here. So I left the warmth of my car to see what all the commotion was about.

Three cars ahead of me, a fecking great big blue skip was blocking both lanes. It had, literally, fallen off the back of a lorry. Thank God nobody was injured or worse.

It took some time for the police to organise another lorry to come and take it away.

I wonder if the total idiot responsible for this even noticed that the skip was missing when he arrived at his destination - stupidity is taken to new dimensions in this town, it really is.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Maybe They Should Stick To Goats And Donkeys...

The travelling circus that is the European Parliament decamped to Strasbourg this week.

I happen to love Strasbourg, so it is not such a problem for me, but it is a heck of a drive each month, and a bit of a problem finding hotel rooms sometimes.

The journey back was one of those nightmares we get each year, as this whole adventure involves contact with two mountain ranges - the Voges and the Ardennes. And Oh Boy can it snow there!

Driving through France is fine, and in Luxembourg, when the snow really hit on Thursday, I was impressed by the way they cleared the snow almost before it landed, and then took swift action to take all the lorries off the road. If only it were always so.

Then I crossed the border into Belgium. No snowploughs, no salting, just snowdrifts and a 20mph drive across the ice.  Every so often there would be a car crashed or abandoned - always with Belgian plates - and it was a nasty and long slog. Driving in Belgium is always an unpleasant experience, but this was one of the worst.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Did Putin order the murder of Alexander Litvinenko?

Federal Law 153-FZ appears to be the smoking gun....
Amongst the controversial issues raised as a result of recent Wikileaks activity is the matter of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen and former KGB officer, in London in November 2006. Andrei Lugovoi, himself closely linked with the KGB, is wanted by British police in connection with the murder. He currently sits as a deputy in the Russian Parliament as a member of the fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democrat Party". It should be noted that Zhirinovsky himself was apparently rehabilitated during the Putin Presidency, and was allowed to co-sponsor important legislation on gas exports in 2006.

According to information released by Wikileaks, Russian President Vladimir Putin "may have" known about the murder plot before it took place.

Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of state, has stated that he doubts that “rogue security elements” could operate in the UK “without Putin’s knowledge”.

Let us be absolutely clear about this: Russian Federal Law 153-FZ - passed in 2006 - states that "The special assignment units of the Federal Security Service may be used , by a decision of the President of the Russian Federation, against the terrorists and (or) their bases, located beyond the territory of the Russian Federation..."

153-FZ defines as "terrorists" or "extremists" any critics of the state, or of the Russian leadership.

The law is unambiguous: any operation such as that to liquidate Alexander Litvinenko could only have taken place with the prior authorisation of President Putin.

Lugovoi himself has spoken openly in the Spanish press about his comfort with the murder, actually stating that he "would have given the order himself", although the official line remains that he had no involvement.

During the past week, with elections looming in Belarus, Parliamentarians and journalists in Brussels met with activists from the democratic opposition who have been subjected to intimidation, and summary arrest - known in Belarus as "administrative arrest". We should not kid ourselves that democracy has already come to all of Europe - it clearly hasn't.

In 2012 Russians will go to the polls, and choose their president. Europe should prepare itself for the return of Vladimir Putin, and possibly for the greatest challenge to democracy since the fall of the wall.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Democracy Doesn't Come Cheap!

I was lucky to have the chance to attend a meeting this week with Vytautas Landsbergis, the former president of Lithuania, and now a Member of the European Parliament. Landsbergis is widely considered to be one of the key figures in the fall of communism in Europe. He won my admiration when the Parliament debated an EU-wide ban on Nazi regalia, and he insisted that the ban be extended to the Hammer & Sickle - "The Communist dictatorships no less than the Nazi ones are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people" he said at the time. The Russians were not amused, nor were the multitude of "former" communists in the Parliament!

Lithuania was the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union, and Landsbergis was lucky to escape with his life when things turned nasty.

I remember one British MEP declaring that the Baltic states - which entered the EU in 2004 - "know little about democracy". He himself apparently knew little about history - but then the oik in question never did finish his education!

Also present at the meeting was a delightful young gentleman whose name I will not reveal. A member of the Belorussian Popular Front, he has been imprisoned more than once after his "administrative arrest" for  opposing the government of Lukashenko. Such arrest means no charges, no trial, just 5 - 20 days in a filthy prison cell. As Belarus prepares for another general election he expects further harrassment. He is a very brave young man.

I took part in a peaceful picket outside a police station in Minsk myself, back in the days when my politics were a wee bit more confrontational. The level of intimidation was quite overwhelming, although I am pleased to say there was no violence. I look forward to the day - which I am convinced will come very soon - when Belarus enjoys the same freedoms that we all take for granted. Its a truly beautiful country, it deserves better.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Psssst... Wanna buy a World Cup final?

I watched the announcement of who would host the 2018 and 2022 world cups in a sports bar I tend to frequent rather too frequently. The hope was, of course, that England would get the 2018 tournament, although I picked up at the weekend the rumour that the decision had already gone Russia's way. Certainly the staff of the Russian embassy were celebrating in Brussels on Saturday night.

I noticed a Tory MEP present. This was rather odd, as the chap in question never usually deems to be seen socialising with the proletariat, preferring instead to stick to the comfort of the MEPs facilities.

Ah.... but there were TV cameras present!! This is normal....

West Midlands MEP Nikki Sinclaire was also there - she is a big soccer fan and often lunches at the establishment in question - and so she ended up getting more attention from the tv crew than our Tory friend, which left me grinning in satisfaction. The "big three" parties cannot bear it when smaller parties or independent MEPs like Nikki get media attention.

Russia and Qatar.... hmmm.... So this decision involved two cash rich states both with reputations for bribery and corruption, and FIFA, which has hardly been untouched by scandal.

So how much exactly were the winning bids, I wonder?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Is Robert Mugabwe Belgian?

Belgian elegance...
In London we have "rush hour", here in Brussels its more of a "shuffle time", especially on the Metro.

I actually like the Brussels metro - being a bit "green" I try to use public transport as much as I can, and with this city being about the size of Croydon it is easy to get about quickly. But mornings are awful, due to the overcrowding.

Belgian men smell of beer in the mornings, and the chicks smell of stale tobacco and strange perfume. Try standing in a carriage with 150 of them and see how you feel about that. But the worst thing is the depressing Belgian dress sense. Various shades of drab, set off nicely with a little tuft of hair growing from the bottom lip. And thats just the women....

If you want eye candy on the way to work in the mornings, I recommend London in springtime, Moscow in the winter, and Paris anytime. In this respect, Brussels does not work for me at all.

So I was delighted to attend a fashion show last night, hosted by the EU Belarus Business Chamber at a beautiful chateau on the outskirts of the city. I never paid attention to such things before, but this was great!

I am quite a fan of Belarus - its a terrific place, and Minsk is one of the "must see" cities. But what puzzles me is how an entire nation can be held back by one man - President Lukashenko. The moment he is gone, Belarus will be allowed to rejoin the rest of the world, but still he hangs on, like a European version of Robert Mugabwe, which brings us back to the subject of unpleasant people with dodgy facial hair.

Taken to the cleaners.....

Dry Cleaning - Belgian style!
Belgians, I was once told, can neither clean anything nor fix anything. And so it was with some trepidation that I took the panzer in for repairs to the steering lock. As I write this I have yet to find time to go and collect it - or perhaps I am just putting off the almost inevitable bad news....

I mention this because I am getting depressed about the amount of suits in my wardrobe that need dry-cleaning. This is a bit of a problem here. There appear to be two systems in Europe:

1. The UK system. Drop off suit, then later in the day pop in, pay £6, then take the nice clean suit home.

2. The Belgian syatem. Drop off suit, then 1 week later pop in, pay €18, then stare in dismay at the spots and marks that have appeared all over the once nice suit.

A couple of months ago I collected a suit from the dry-cleaners in the European Parliament. The lady took my money, then promptly dropped my suit on the floor. "Its ok" she said as she wiped dust off the jacket "it didn't hit really the floor".

I simply cannot muster the will power needed to inflict more of this on myself.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Couple of Days in London

 I don't get back to London as often as I would like, so I was pleased to pay a flying visit this week. I always stay at the Victory Services Club, which has become something of a second home to me. Shortly after I arrived I was thrilled to find myself enjoying a pint with the crew of a Nimrod. It occured to me that with the phasing out of the Nimrod due shortly, this might be the last time I see a crew of 6 out in London in uniform - an era is passing. My family has connections with Coastal and Bomber Commands, so I found the thought to be most poignant.

Yesterday was almost as fine as a birthday can be. Its always nice to  wake up in London - I was there for a press conference at which Nikki Sinclaire made some damning allegations about other British MEPs and about the UK Independence Party. I was a member of UKIP for a long time, and it is sad to see the way the party has gone. Lets hope that between them Nikki and the courts will knock some sense into them. Anyway, the press conference attracted significant coverage in the media.

We then adjourned to Westminster Palace where we were met by the deputy Sergeant-at- Arms, who is currently undergoing RAF training with Nikki. We were treated to a brief tour of both houses, and some fascinating conversation when we were joined for coffee by two other RAF officers.

Then it was back to the VSC where I was delighted to be reunited with my former boss and very good friend Tom Wise. Tom has been through the mill, but is looking good, fighting fit, and his old cheerful self. There is a story to be told here, and I look forward to it more than some others will be :)

And so finally to Southwark Park. It has always satisfied me that the nation celebrates my birthday so spectacularly each year, and Bermondsey put on a great firework display last night.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Belgian Corporate Tax - Just Make It Up!

I have in front of me a fascinating little booklet from the Belgian Federal Finance Office. It is all about a new and innovative tax initiative from the Belgian authorities, and it might give us an insight into why the Belgian economy is so totally screwed up.

I quote from page 4:

"... a new, innovative and powerful measure in international tax law enabling all companies subject to Belgian corporate tax to deduct from their taxable income a fictitious interest..."

The morning when I discovered this little gem was just perfect, because I later found myself seated at lunch next to a really nice chap who turned out be a big wheel in the Finance Office. I expressed my delight at the institutionalisation of the concept of entering fictitious figures on tax returns (although I myself am subject only to fixed local taxes, and am not a Belgian taxpayer myself, I hasten to add!)

It transpires, as with so many things in Belgium, that this does not actually mean what it says. It means something else a bit different, but we couldn't really get to the bottom of it.

I quite like the Belgian flag - nice bold colours - but what it is really missing is an image of Kafka in the centre!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Happy Halloween, Everybody!

Tonight it is Holloween... and I must confess to a fondness for these Pagan festivals.

For those of us who live in the "European Quarter" of Etterbeek, one of the central communes of Brussels (and it was called that long before the EU appeared on the scene), that means we get a parade. And it is a heck of a parade! Imagine 500 Orangemen strolling down the Shankhill Road, accompanied by flutes and drums, but all dressed as ghosts and witches, and you are pretty close.

It seems to be more of a Flemish thing than French, which may support the Orange analogy a wee bit, but it is always a lovely evening. Strolling along whilst being showered from the windows and balconies with goodies is great fun, and it is so funny to watch the Belgian kids ransacking the sweets whilst young George examines the offerings before taking just one carefully selected sweet and announcing "Thank you very much!" - he is so English!

But that last remark should not take anything away from the fact that in some parts of Brussels we can still find a sense of community that seems to have vanished at home - even in the east end of London, although it pains me to say that.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Caucasian Chamber Orchestra

There are three words that send chills of panic through my body - "contemporary classical music". I have another name for it, of course.

But this week we were treated to another of those occasional concerts in the parliament that cheer us up so much.

We were treated to a performance by the Caucasian Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble of mostly Georgian and Armenian musicians conducted by a hugely talented German, Uwe Berkemer.

The first piece did fall into the dreaded contemporary genre, and I felt the will to live begin to sap a little, but it was short. The rest of the concert could only be described as superb. One can always tell when the musicians are enjoying themselves, and that was very much the case here. The works were all totally unknown to me, as were the names of their composers, which added to the pleasure.

Berkemer turned out to be not only a talented composer and conductor, but also an impressive baritone.

If you ever get the chance to see this orchestra, I strongly recommend that you do so.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A humbling experience.....

I devoted a lot of my life to campaigning for the UK Independence Party. However, not being a dogmatic and closed-minded yes-man, I subsequently fell out with the then leader of the party and so found myself the subject of some pretty vile attacks and accusations. He really is a dreadful little oik, and he surrounds himself with even worse specimens.

But it amused me when one of his acolytes suggested, via a blog that seems to specialise in attacking me and my boss - a lovely lady, with more commitment and drive in her little finger than the oik has in his whole apology for a body - that I earn my living as a "Shakin' Stevens lookalike".I am a big fan of Shakey, so I took that as a compliment. But these days I am a bit more "Gene Vincent" than "Shakey", as I have picked up a gammy left leg, just like the Black Leather Rebel himself.

After 7 weeks of limping, I eventually went into one of those nuclear/magnetic things that produces images of the inside of one's body. It was a brilliant experience, somewhat akin to being on the set of a 1950s Sci-Fi movie.

It turns out that I have been limping around with a broken knee-cap these last 7 weeks! Of course, being a rough, tough Bermondsey Boy I laugh in the face of pain, so it never really bothered me so much.

And so now I have a brace on my left leg. When the surgeon produced that brace, that was a hell of a wake-up call for me, I can tell you. I was always blessed with good health, and I never guessed I would be living through such a moment.

I guess I am lucky, I will have this for 4 weeks, and then it will be over. Some folks are not so lucky, and have to spend their lives coping with disability. And so I will take this as a humbling experience, and will try to take on board and remember these somewhat awkward times. One thing is for sure - I will never take good health for granted again.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

National Self-Determination - Not Just The Kashmiris Who Are Struggling

I was very lucky this week. On Tuesday I dined - for the second time this year - with Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry. He is a lovely gentleman, who amongst his many accomplishments is a former Prime Minister of Kashmir. He is now a leading light in the Kashmiri fight for national self-determination.

The Kashmiri people were promised a referendum on self-determination way back in the 1940s - and they are still waiting. That  sounds familiar to we Brits, who of course have been promised referenda on the Constitution & the Lisbon Treaty. I don't want to make light of this in any way, as I am aware that the Kashmiris are suffering massacres at the hands of the Indian occupiers, which somewhat puts our plight into perspective.

The point is, however, that national self-determination should be a basic human right, and here at the beginning of the 21st century not all of our fellow human beings are enjoying this right.

It makes me ponder on the long-term implications of surrendering our own sovereignty to the EU.

It also makes me realise how imortant is the campaign for a referendum on our continued EU membership is. I urge you to support it. Elsewhere in the world people are dying in the struggle to have their voices heard. We don't have to do that - yet - but if we allow ourselves to become complacent, who knows what the future may bring.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Belgacom: The Pain Continues...

Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, Belgacom has excelled itself!

Belgacom, as you may know if you read this blog, is not my favourite provider of TV services. Actually, I consider Belgacom to give crap a bad name. They cut back on the few channels that may have been of passing interest to me, replacing them with Al Jazeera and others of that ilk, without even consulting me, the person who has to pay for it. But then customer service was never high on the Belgian agenda.

Now they developed a new trick.

Now we have "Belgacom previews". Channels that were once filled with dubious content have now been replaced with new ones that simply advertise what is on other (pay per view) channels. So I have 3 channels telling me about the crap on the 4th, that I wouldn't want to watch anyway, even if it was covered by the 100 euros a month I already pay for this state-controlled shite.

So I now have a choice between adverts, Al-Jazeera, and pure shite. Of course, if I am really unlucky, I may get a back episode of Eastenders, or possibly even Inspector Morse dubbed into Flemish - oh what joy!

You Think That Paying Money Gets You Off The Hook? Think Again!

This was a very important day, although it was barely mentioned by the media. It was the day on which Germany finally discharged its obligations under the Versailles Treaty, by making its final reparation payment.

That is that, then. Its over. Millions dead - and for what? - debts paid, and so I guess we can forget all about it. Well, I won't forget about my Great-Grandfather who perished on the Somme in 1916. And I won't let my children forget him either. So don't feel you are let off that easy, Frau Merkel, or your war-mongering nation.

I am often aware of how sensitive the Germans are about World War 2. They cannot stop being sensitive about it, and for a very good reason - THEY LOST!  They hate this fact, and they particularly hate the fact that they were beaten twice by us Brits! If they could turn back time and start again, I think they would. They might change a few details, but I suspect the bit about exterminating folks they don't like would not be such a problem for them. Maybe they would keep that one in the plan.

And if you think, by the way, that such obscenities are now consigned to history, then look at Sarkozy's forced deportations of Gypsies (pre-empted by the Belgians, by the way) Look at Belgian and Dutch laws on euthanasia of "undesirable" children. This is all happening now.

We are often told that WW2 was nothing to do with the Germans - it was the "Nazis" that did it. Where did the "Nazis" come from? Mars?

Well, f*ck you Kaiser Wilhelm, f*ck you Adolf Hitler and f*ck all your mates too.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Battle of Britain - 70 Years On.

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was marked in the European Parliament this week. I took it upon myself to invite a group of colleagues from the Royal British Legion and the RAF Association, and was truly rewarded by such auspicious company.

The highlight of a lovely afternoon was an anecdote from a 96 year old gentleman who had once shot down his own Commanding Officer with a 3 1/2 inch anti-aircraft gun. "He had a few holes in his respirator case" he explained, "but otherwise nothing for him to complain about".

I spend a lot of my time with older veterans, and I know that such comments are usually accompanied by a wink, a chuckle, and a tear in the corner of the eye.

Our elderly friend often sits quietly in O'Farrels bar, outside the European Parliament, whilst MEPs and apparatchiks, bursting with self-importance, bustle around spending freely and laughing at their own jokes. They may impress themselves - and possibly (although not very likely) they may even impress one another. They rarely impress me, unlike our friend, who impresses me greatly.

When he finished causing havoc with his own side - his CO had chosen to fly into RAF Wattisham whilst an air raid was in progress, so only had himself to blame - our friend then took part in the liberation of Belgium.

Last month, his Belgian wife, who he married after the war, passed away, leaving him completely alone.

There are thousands of such men, with thousands of such wonderful stories to tell. So if you want to enrich two lives in one go, next time you see an elderly man sitting alone with his thoughts in a pub, go and say "Hello", but most importantly, remember to say "Thank You!"

Friday, 17 September 2010

Place Jean Rey - No More Eruptions

Jean Rey was the second President of the European Commission, and there is a small and rather odd square named after him near my home. It has 12 underground fountains that are supposed to erupt in the glare of coloured lights, but neither fountains or lights have worked for about two years now, so the whole thing looks a little sad.

On the edge of the square a new hotel has sprung up, and so I decided to take a seat and spend some time looking at it in order to find something to complain about. Actually, it is not an unattractive building as hotels go, although it does rather look as if it belongs on a Spanish seafront.

Then I saw something really ghastly: to my left was a seriously ugly building I simply never noticed before in the six years I lived in the neighbourhood. Seven stories high, very long, and almost as ugly as Brixton Town Hall, which is one of my least favourite eyesores, it is a harrendous looking edifice.

Then I realised I was looking at the European Council. How the hell do you not notice the Council? I now wonder how possible it is to block out that which we do not like - does this explain why I never heard rap music for years? Have I simply blocked it out?

Actually, this week there has been a summit at the Council. I dislike these events as the police block off lots of roads, and always park their massive water cannon vehicles at the end of my street. What really disturbs me most, however, is the way that road  lanes are cordoned off and reserved for the elite. Whilst mere mortals sit and fume in the Brussels traffic jams, the Second Junior Deputy Minister for Paperclips from the Grand Duchy of Fenwick is thus able to speed through the city with his motorcycle escort.

Friday, 10 September 2010

My Second Childhood, by Gary Cartwright, aged 48 and a big bit.

At the age of 42, the good Lord blessed me with a son. Thanks to George I am now reliving my own childhood, and do you know what? Its even better second time around.

We recently built our first model aircraft together - a Spitfire of course - and I was reminded of sitting at the table with my own father way back in the mid-60s, making our first model kit together. I am also getting to know, somewhat late in life, rather a lot about Thomas the Tank Engine. Its nice to sit here and think that I can look forward to rediscovering skateboarding and air rifles. My levels of optimism and enthusiasm have soared thanks to George. (And I get to play with train sets and nobody laughs).

Brussels is proving to be a good place to bring up children. As a school governor in a pretty rough part of East London, I remember being told "Think of them as younger citizens, not just as children". that is, of course, complete nonsense.

A tragic lack of social cohesion in Britain has led to a certain amount of confusion amongst families as to exactly what the heirarchy should be. Belgians, particularly the Flemish ones, seem to be far more comfortable with traditional family roles than we are. The result is that children understand their place in the family, and in society. Everybody is happier for it.

Scouting is still a big thing here, and it is normal to see large groups of youngsters in uniform touring the city, heading for the mountains, or just sitting and talking together. It is also normal that during holidays youngsters undertake activities ranging from working on farms, residential language courses, and sports training. In British cities it is different, of course. They "slob out" in front of the TV, or they hang about the streets spitting on the pavements or, very often, on passers by. You don't have to be a doctor to notice the difference in physical build between continental and British teenagers.

I helped organise an event some years ago at a youth project in SE London. We arranged a couple of 4x4s loaded with mountain bikes, with a view to taking some youngsters up into the Chilterns for an afternoon. They turned up in their hooded sweat shirts, gobbed on the floor and said "innit" a lot, and then dispersed. I think 3 kids took up the offer; the rest knew they would be unable to cope, and were afraid of failure. So they simply rolled a joint and retreated to their comfort zones.

We don't need to show these kids "respect". What we need to do is to find ways to give them back their childhood. I know what I am talking about - I got mine back!

Me and the Champ! Meeting Winston McKenzie

Party conferences can be depressing, and I stopped inflicting that particular pain on myself some years ago. This year is different, however, as Nikki Sinclaire is holding a number of fringe meetings to promote her petition for a parliamentary debate on Britain's membership of the EU.

So I found myself in Torquay last week, which is always a pleasure, not least because I have some family connections there, helping out with what proved to be a hugely successful meeting. More successful, I understand, than the main UKIP meeting which took place across the road.

An unexpected pleasure was the chance to meet and chat with former middleweight boxing champion, Winston McKenzie. Winston is a terrific guy, and is very politically aware. His stance on immigration challenges all the left-wing dogma on the issue, and he is probably better placed to speak about inner city youth issues than most politicians.

He appears to have thrown his hat in the ring for the UKIP leadership, following the resignation of the utterly ineffectual Lord Pearson.

Pearson is the kind of politician you could only find in UKIP - he calls EU subsidies "a vast swindle", and yet he claims heaps of them for himself. He was (de jure) leader of UKIP, and yet in the last general election he urged people to vote for the Conservatives.

Some UKIP members wonder why the party bombed in the election....

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Autumn leaves....

We are coming up to my favourite time of the year. I was lucky to live close to some spectacular parks in London. In Bayswater Kensington Gardens were just 1 minute from my front door, and when I lived in Connaught Square (before Blair moved in 4 doors away, I hasten to add) I was almost on top of Hyde Park. But as with most things, Bermondsey outshines the rest of London, and Southwark Park comes second only to St James Park as far as I am concerned. Autumn is the time to walk in the park - the reds and browns of the trees are even more spectacular than the blooming flowers.

And now I am going to say something positive about Brussels, for a change.

It is a city with many hidden features, one of which is a little ecological park - the Jean Felix Hap Park. It is on Chausee de Wavre, behind the white wall opposite the Brussels International Catholic School. Not a lot of people know about it, which is what makes it so perfect. This morning I was pleased to see the leaves turning red.

I'm very fond of this park. A few years ago I decided to add to my cv by taking a diploma in environmental policy. It was one of the most enjoyable subjects I ever studied, and Jean Felix Hap Park is where I tucked myself away with my textbooks during the summer months.

What particularly impresses me is the absolutely pristine condition of the park. If a plant wilts, the staff know about it instantly. It also boasts the source of Etterbeek's original freshwater source, and the small lake that still remains is superbly looked after.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Who said nostalgia ain't what it used to be?

There are a great many things I miss about London. One of these is the museum of childhood at Bethnal Green. If you were never there, then you must go, although for the sake of appearances it is best to take a child along. It is an outpost of the V&A, so you can imagine the standards. There is a good cafe, and the park & Bethnal Green library are just behind. If you cross the road to Paradise Row, you can see the home of Dan Mendoza, probably the greatest boxer of the 18th century. The benches in the little garden in Paradise Row are a great place to sit and watch the East End go by. I should be a tour guide...

There is a toy museum in Brussels, which is also worth a visit. I don't think it ever had a curator as such, as everything is just sort of spread out in a chaotic fashion. But then, maybe, thats the way a child would do it... 

It does of course have some typical Belgian touches, the first of which I discovered on the museum website, which announces that "We are open 366 days a year..."

This one is a wee bit off the tourist trail, but is located close to the city centre, near Metro Botanique, and is well worth a visit. A bit of advice - take a cold drink and a snack, as there is no cafe, although you can leave and go out for it and they will let you back in. Also, it has a shop which is the place to go for retro-style childrens toys. 

If anybody else has some tips on good toy museums elsewhere in Europe, please feel free to leave a comment :)

Bethnal Green:

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Spiders Are Coming!

A number of US Army trucks have been stranded at the docks in Antwerp since August 14th. This is because they have been found to be infested with Black Widow spiders.

The Black Widow is unlikely to survive the Belgian climate, according to experts, but this is still alarming news indeed. They say all men have a feminine side to their character, and mine manifests itself in a complete terror of spiders. You can't trust anything that has its skeleton on the outside, as far as I am concerned.

So we are all in agreement. Me, the Yanks, and the dock workers all agree that these little bastards must be ruthlessly exterminated.

There is, however, a problem. A problem that could surely only arise in Belgium. The local authorities want to kill the spiders, but they cannot act until the Health Department produces the documents enabling them to do so. At the time of writing, they have been waiting for 2 weeks.

Waiting for a Belgian government department to produce documents. Hmmmm.... now there is a recurring experience.

Belgian road junctions...

Driving in Brussels, as anybody who has ever met me in a bar will know, is one of my pet hates.

I recently had another of those moments that can only happen in this city. It was at a road junction that only a Belgian urban planning commitee could come up with. 4 roads, 2 tramlines, and numerous hidden bus lanes all converge on one junction - and it is worth remembering that Belgians also place their pedestrian crossings on road junctions. It is hairy to say the least.

I had a green light, and so it was my turn to inch forward, head frantically turning from side to side  like a fighter pilot scanning the skies for enemy trolley-buses. Then the lady in front of me, riding a pushbike, stopped in the middle of the road. She then, to my astonishment, dismounted and proceeded to pull up her stockings. I yelled, politely, for her move her bleeding jacksy. She ignored me completely, taking her own sweet time adjusting her attire. In the meantime, the lights had changed, and the floodgates opened, with me stuck in the epicentre of the junction. From every direction all manner of vehicles, public and private, hurtled towards me hooting, flashing, and wildly gesticulating at me.

Belgium's answer to Nora Batty calmly got back on her bike and rode to the pavement as if nothing had happened. It was not a nice experience.

Spot the flaw in Belgium's new public health strategy.

Belgium's Federal Public Health Ministry has announced a cunning new plan to improve public health. They are going to sterilise all the cats. They plan to have "most cats" sterilised by 2016, according to the newspaper "Flanders today", (which rather sensibly is printed in English).

They will start with cats in shelters, and then roll the plan out. This is where, in true Belgian fashion, they introduce a major flaw into the strategy.

Cat breeders are going to have to sterilise their cats.

I guess this means that after 2016, cats breeders will have to retrain, and Belgium will become a net importer of kittens.

On the other hand, if the cats are sterile, then the breeders won't have to do much work - which is just the way that Belgians like it!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Spaced Out

Its an old adage that if one walks across Grand Place at 4am, when it is totally deserted, and then stands still, a Belgian will walk into you within a second. Belgians have absolutely no concept of personal space at all.

This afternoon, I decided to have a bar of chocolate from a vending machine in the parliament. The place is pretty empty right now, so as I approached along the shopping mall like ground floor, with its banks, hardresser, dry cleaner, newsagent and permanently closed post office, there was just me and a Belgian. I knew he was Belgian, because of the funny tuft of hair growing from just under his lower lip. Its very popular over here. The 3-piece cordrouy suit was also a bit of a giveaway. I sensed that he would walk behind me, and then want to use the same vending machine as me, at the same time. I was right!

I stood back to let him go first. Instantly, 2 more appeared, like characters from Shaun of the Dead, and a pantomime began. Together, they all tried to work out how to use the machine. I sat down to watch, sensing that this might be entertaining. How many different ways, I wondered, can they fail to put 60 cents into a slot to by a mars bar?

After 5 minutes, and much jangling of coins and banging on the glass, they all left, shrugging at each other. I decided to try my luck. The vending machine that worked perfectly well yesterday is now well and truly bolloxed.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A truly Belgian experience!

Belgium has its own chain of fast food restaurants, rather oddly named "Quick".

"Slow" might be more appropriate. "Incompetant and gungy" might be even better, although perhaps simply "Belgian" might give the customer an indication of what to expect.

I visited, for the third (and certainly last) time today their store at 329 Route de Phillippevile, Couillet. Its just outside Charleroi, where the airport is.

It opens at 10am. The first time I visited (at 10:05) a couple of years ago, the staff where all having a smoke in the kitchen, and would not speak to me. After 5 minutes I gave up and left. The second time I visited, I got served but  my fries were cold, and the box contained the wrong burger. Today, The fries were, as expected, cold, and I was told to wait 5 minutes for my burger. After 10 minutes, and after barging past a queue, I eventually got my burger. I didn't enjoy it very much. This is absolutely normal, and the biggest queue of people in any Belgian burger bar is the one of people holding a tray of fries and soft drink, waiting for their burgers

I was stranded in Thionville in France once, because of snow. Leaving my "motel" I tried to find food. I found a Quick. The sign on the door advised me of the opening time,  but 10 minutes later the doors were still locked. They opened 15 minutes after my arrival - 25 minutes after the stated opening time. They were not, however, selling any food at all, and in fact the girl who was taking my order was unable to explain what they did actually have to offer.

Another Belgian burger anecdote: A teenager of my aquaintance ordered some food at a McDonalds outlet, and of course the burger was not ready. "It will be 5 minutes", he was told.

After 10 minutes, and in the Belge tradition, he went in search of his burger, and the following conversation took place...

Teenager "Can I have my burger now, please?"

Staff  "Its not my problem, I didn't take your order. Who did?" 

Teenager "I can't see her"

Staff  "What was her name?"

Teenager "I don't know..." 

Staff  "Then you are stupid, aren't you?"

Teenager "You call me stupid, but its you that ended up working in a burger bar!"

I will end with another Quick story. It was a Sunday afternoon another Quick store in Brussels. Someone had spilled a trail of soft drink across the width of the restaurant. A staff member spent about 10 minutes folding tissues and laying them in a long line along the length of the spill. I wondered why she didn't use the mop standing in a bucket behind the till...

Burger King deserve a mention too, of course!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Lunchtime with Andrea Bocelli

Today was special.

This lunchtime, in the European Parliament, we had a presentation by the office of the Mayor of Rome. It was no ordinary presentation.... after a screening of a short film by Franco Zaferreli, we were honoured with a recital by Andrea Bocelli. Really - Bocelli, in the flesh, and as brilliant as you could ever imagine.

I even forgot about my anger at having my pocket picked by scumbags (4th time - same scumbags) yesterday.

I saw some impressive performances in my time - I was personally honoured to be able to arrange a concert in the Parliament myself last year, by the superb Ukrainian pianist Dmytro Sukhovienko (  ) - but this was the first time I saw Bocelli. Absolutely superb!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

WW1 project - a worthy endeavour from VRT

I had dinner with a Belgian policeman a little while ago - he is a nice guy, and it was very interesting. The Belgian plod are generally very good, and they do concentrate on dealing with crime, unlike the British police who seem to exist for the sole purposes of policing bus lanes, and harrassing drivers on motorways. (Having said that, I was actually threatened with arrest for jaywalking in Brussels a couple of months ago. The fact that I could not stop laughing at being chastised by a policeman clutching 2 bags of groceries, and the stupidity of having to wait for a green man at a time when there was no traffic on the road, probably did not weigh in my favour. But I got away with a warning.)

My policeman chum was bit cynical about my knowledge of Flanders, and was trying to wind me up, albeit in a friendly way. "I bet you never heard of Flanders until you came here.." he suggested. I assured him that I had, but he didn't really believe me. "I know about England, but what do you know about Flanders?" he asked with a sneer.

The British resolve slipped a tad at this point...

"My Great-Grandfather is buried in Flanders" I told him. "Unlike some I could mention, he fought and died for Belgium, and it wasn't even his country"

It was the ultimate  shut the f*ck up moment.

Although they didn't really take part in it themselves, the Belgians are very respectful about the victims of the Great War - probably more so than younger generations of Brits are. The Belgian broadcaster VRT is running an interesting project, and I think it might be worth bookmarking and following, as it provides the opportunity for folk with first-hand experiences to post thier thoughts. There will be sadly few of those, but I suspect they will be fascinating, and worth preserving.

Find it here....

Hail to Global Warming!

It hit 37 degrees in Brussels yesterday. Then in the evening we were treated to a truly spectacular event.... rain so heavy that it looked like fog - visibility was about 6 feet, and that is no exaggeration. Then the hail storm began, accompanied by thunder and lightning - it was marvellous!

My work brings me into contact with about half the world's climate change deniers. These are largely poorly informed people who collectively regurgitate the same few dodgy interpretations of "evidence" over and over again. "Global warming must be a lie - this chart I found on the internet shows clearly that Chipping Norton had its coldest afternoon ever on April 5th 2008" is the sort of nonsense we get to hear. Again, and again, and again...

I never once met a denier who had any kind of academic background in the subject. Funny that...

Environmentalism is not my main subject, although I did go back to Uni not so long ago to study international environmental policy. I found that every committee in the European Parliament has to factor environmental concerns into its policy-making processes, and I needed to gain a greater understanding of the subject. I also discovered very quickly that it is a fascinating and rewarding subject to study. One of the basics of environmental science is that rising temperatures lead to increased precipitation. Its a fact that is almost as absolute as the existence of gravity, and it explains why we are experiencing so many extreme weather events at the moment.

It also explains last night's mid-July hailstorm. Armageddon, it seems, will be spectacular!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Belgium: you have to love it (or the police will be round).

For almost 2 weeks there has been some construction work taking place outside the European Parliament. A stage is being constructed for a concert tonight, which will celebrate the start of the Belgian Presidency of the EU.

!.2 million euros is being spent on this. About 3 miles away, Boulevard General Jaques, a main arterial route, is closed off. The road, you see, has collapsed into the sewers. This is not uncommon in Brussels. The roads are pot-holed and inadequate, but Belgium is teetering on the verge of national bankruptcy with its defecit now approaching 100% of GDP. But there is always money available for the state to tell the people how good everything is, and so that is why we have a concert.

The local businesses are not best pleased about this.

Place de Luxembourg, outside the Parliament, is the centre of social life in the district. It is particularly busy at this time because of the World Cup, which draws customers to the bars.

On Wednesday, the 10 bar owners in "The Square", as it is known, received instructions to clear their terraces of tables and chairs for the day. This is a mammoth task, as most tables are outside. They are also under orders not to have any television screens visible from the street, lest they distract the revellers at this expensive "Isn't Belgium Great" spectacle.

One owner told me that he will have to lay off 6 waiting staff tonight - all students who probably need the money. Non-compliance with this order will result in "police action".

There will be trapeze artists, a light show, dancers, and fireworks.

Amusingly, it is pouring in Brussels as I write, and the forecast is for more of the same.

Such a pity!

Monday, 28 June 2010

The 9:15 to Bedlam

What is it about being in Brussels that makes people act so stupidly? Almost every day I see something that amazes me, and today is no exception. I note that a sign has appeared on the front door of the European Parliament effectively explaining to people that it is not a train station. Is that an easy mistake to make? I don't think so.

I can't imagine anybody entering central lobby at Westminster and asking where they can get a train to Ipswich, for example. Here is a picture of the European Parliament - does it like like a train station?

Apparently the mistake is made often enough here for the apparatchiks to feel the need to put up a sign about it.

There must be something in the water, I guess.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Told you so!

 Maybe I should become a football pundit... my predictions about England's chances in the World Cup were pretty accurate! But then I guess it doesn't take an expert to work out what will happen - poor performance and lame excuses.

What really annoys me is that millions of young English kids look on these guys as role models. And what do they get? Talentless and whinging overpaid no-hopers.

England's World Cup bid, let us remember, started with a goalkeeper who dropped the ball, conceding a goal. Now I can accept that even professional goalies make mistakes - maybe they dive the wrong way, or they misjudge the curve of the ball. They are not, however, at this level, supposed to drop the f*****g football!

Wayne Rooney, who we are told is a good footballer, played like a crumpet, and had the gall to criticise the England fans, who had paid a lot of money to go and see him play, for booing his appalling performance. Perhaps he should take early retirement like the rest of his dysfunctional family who effectively retired the day they left school.

That was below pathetic. 3 goals in 4 games? This was the World Cup finals, chaps. Less than minimum effort won't cut it. Thats why you are all going home in disgrace.

It is telling that the pundits are even getting nostalgic for the days of David Beckham. Ah yes... David Beckham, who tripped over whilst running up to take a vital penalty in a key match.

As for Fabrice Acappela or whatever his name is, he resembles a cross between Freddie Garrity and a Thunderbirds puppet. He has reassured us, apparently, that he will not be resigning. Well that's a bloody shame.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The highlight of the World Cup so far was sitting in the middle of a huge group of German fans, cheering for Serbia. I suspect that one may come back to bite me on the ar*e on Sunday.

I tried to explain to a Spanish friend after the game the very special relationship we English enjoy with the Germans. It may be something to do with working in the EU institutions, but I really do get the impression that we Brits are the only people in Europe to have any accurate recollection of the 20th century whatsoever. I find those old UKIP myths about Europe tediously dull, but it is absolutely true that in the European Parliament WW2 has been referred to as the "European Civil War". It is also the case that there were, apparently, no Germans involved at all. It was the Nazis, you see!

But surely my favourite moment was during a meeting of the EP Security and Defence sub-committee back in 2004. The Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" was in full swing, and there were real concerns that Russia might invade in order to partition the country. A rather fat German MEP stood up and called for the EU to send troops to act as a "blocking force".

There was a flaw in this plan... the EU did not actually have an army.

I was reminded of another mad German politician, 60 years before, who wanted to send non-existent troops to stop the Russians.

Politics: only the faces change!

The photo, incidentally, has nothing to do with the story, but aren't they great :)

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Perks of the job.

My job is not without its perks, I have to admit. The main one is that I get to share my days with some of the most highly educated and well-connected people in Europe, something that makes even living in Belgium worthwhile.

And so it was that I got to watch the opening game of the World Cup with the ambassadors of South Africa, Namibia, and the Congo. This was followed by a fascinating conversation with a charming poet from Sierra Leone, and then dinner with my closest friends. Not even a night out in the Old Kent Road can beat that.

As I write, England have yet to play their first game, so I suppose we can look forward to a few days of broken feet, yellow cards, and missed penalties. This will inevitibly be followed by the usual agonising "If Alaska lose by more than 8 goals to Peru, and if Germany draw against Hawaii, and if we can beat Tongo, we can still qualify for the quarter finals on goal difference..."

I've got a great strategy for the rebirth of English football. Score goals, win games. Its surely that simple.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

I wish I hadn't signed a contract with Belgacom

Think back to the 1970s, when telephone services in the UK were run by the GPO. It was pretty dire, right?

Fast forward to the 21st century, and in Belgium we have something called "Belgacom". Now imagine the GPO, but without any desire to help their customers at all, and you might get an idea of what it is like trying to get anything to work.

Belgacom controls everything in my home - TV, telephone, internet access, the lot. I consider it to be a bit too expensive, but what really irritates me are all the little boxes and the miles of wiring that fill my home to service all this technology.

If anything goes down, it is a nightmare to get it fixed. We had to call an engineer out recently - the call out was free, "but you 'ave to pay 70 euros because 'ee was zere..." Their box was broken, but I had to pay.

Tonight I wanted to watch the news. I have about 100 channels - all pure garbage - except for BBC1, which is the only channel I look at. Tonight the service is "temporairement indisponible", which is French for "It don't work". None of it works, the whole service is off the air. Nearly 100 euros a month, and it doesn't bloody work.

I used to get TCM as part of the package, which meant I could at least watch an old, half-decent movie from time to time.  Without any reference to me, the customer, it was withdrawn, and now I have Al Jazeera, and some other Arabic channel that I have no interest in whatsoever. I suppose this reflects the changing demographics in Belgium. I would complain, but that would make me a racist, of course.

Every expat, of whatever nationality, has their own story about wasted days waiting for a Belgacom engineer, call-out charges, hostile customer services, etc. 

I only wanted to watch the bloody news, I can't even do that in this dump.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Taking to the streets!

Some years ago I took part in a protest outside a police station in Minsk. This was probably one of the hairiest of political activities I have ever engaged in, but I have to admit it was all rather good fun. Certainly more fun than getting one's head cracked open on the streets of St Petersburg for being gay, or for exercising the right to protest in public, as guaranteed under Article 31 of the constitution.

On Monday, the Green Party organised a small protest outside the Russian mission to the EU, to show solidarity with the Russian protesters, who were at that very moment being beaten about the head, and having their extremities fed to large police dogs.

The Belgian police showed up, and of course would not allow us near the mission. When I say "us", actually I have to admit that they had no problem with me, as I was wearing a suit. The Greens were wearing what Greens usually wear, and so the police moved them away from the mission. And so it was, in true Belgian style, we demonstrated against human rights abuses in Russia outside a Metro station.

Monday, 31 May 2010

The EU takes the credit for Vitamin C !

This is not quite as good as "Comrade Stalin invented the internal combustion engine", which is my all time favourite piece of political bullshit, but its not so far off. Today in the European Parliament, an exhibition about famous Hungarians has gone up, on the ground floor, near the sandwich bar and the statue of an anorexic horse with a star on its back.

Its not a particularly big exhibition, and it misses out my pal from the parliament press room who once played a camp guard in Escape to Victory, but it is interesting enough.

But I think that claiming to have "invented vitamin C" is pushing it a bit far. Maybe it is a mistake - maybe it is not.

The European Commission claims that the EU has maintained peace in Europe since 1945, which another total piece of bullshit, although lots of people in the EU institutions do actually buy into this. Just like lots of Soviet kids grew up believing that Comrade Stalin invented the internal combustion engine....

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Drinking with murderers

There I was, enjoying a beer in the sunshine with a few good friends in Place de Luxembourg, when the child-murderers arrived.

I get fed up with the way that normally sensible people defend these vermin - maybe it is done out of fear - I don't know. One otherwise sensible journalist actually said to me, "I don't think that there is really a link between Sinn Fein and the IRA".

I once asked Lord Tebbit how he would feel if he saw Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness in central lobby. He replied "I can only hope that there is a particularly hot corner of Hell reserved for them".

I thought this picture might serve as a reminder, as it appears that one is needed, of how Sinn Fein / IRA carry out their political campaigns. It shows the body of a baby being carried away from the scene of one of their bombings.

Those who like to make themselves feel good by believing that there is no link between Sinn Fein and the IRA might find the following of interest

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

I try to avoid driving in Brussels, especially in the mornings. The inadequate roads are overcrowded, and it is quicker to walk. I am a bit of a green, so I do avoid using the car out of principle, and I also prefer to actually spend time chatting to Junior about our world, as opposed to merely ferrying him from A to B in a metal box.

This week, however, its darn cold, and the roads are less congested. The only significant employers in Belgium, the EU institutions, are still enjoying their long, taxpayer-funded Christmas holidays. They will (sort of) drift back towards their offices on January 11th.

So this morning I did indeed take the young boss to school in the car. Coming home, I approached the junction twixt rue de Treves and rue Jaques deLaing. There are traffic lights there.

There was very little traffic on the road, and as I approached the junction I indicated to turn left. It was all a bit laid back in the old Panzer... the Everly Brothers on the stereo, Stetson hat perched jauntily to one side, and half a mind on an article I wanted to write about salmon farming in the Kamchatka peninsula. A fascinating subject, by the way....

Suddenly, an bird in a blue get up leapt in front of my car. A bird with a gun - a Brussels police-chick.

She was frantically blowing a whistle and pointing and waving at me in a way that suggested "Its a natural disaster - get out quick or die..." She obviously did not want me to do a left turn, so I went straight ahead and moved out quick, as I did not want to inhibit her disaster relief operations.

I live at the epicentre of a one-way system. I eventually drove home, in ever-decreasing circles, and passed the heroine again about 5 minutes later. It transpired there was no reason for panic; but she was still leaping out in front of traffic and pedestrians with her whistle. I pulled over for a moment to watch this spectacle. But nothing was wrong... it was just a set of traffic lights, on a quiet morning, no road closures, no problems at all. It was just a set of properly functioning traffic lights, an a very quiet morning. At one point she had to wait a full minute for someone to drive along so she could jump out into the road uneccessarily and wave her arms about. I wondered if she was one one of those lunatics that dresses up as a cop, or a vicar, or whatever, in order to live out a fantasy. But no... she was genuine. Genuinely Belgian.

Belgium... you wouldn't want to make it up...!