Friday, 26 April 2013

The Importance of Protecting Our Linguistic Traditions.

I was honoured this week to be invited to address the congress of the European Alliance of Tatars here in Brussels. Widely spread across Europe and the rest of the world, the Tartars are trying to ensure that their rich culture and ancient traditions, some of which date back to the days of the Golden Horde, are not lost.

Globalisation has its downsides, and as a result there are many peoples trying to protect their cultural identies and their languages. And it is not just smaller groups that are in this position. In the context of the EU institutions even the French are becoming concerned about the rapid decline in the use of their language. In Flanders, English has now replaced Dutch as the 2nd most widely spoken language. Arabic is now the 4th language in the region, although it is a long way behind Dutch. Interestingly, whilst use of English is rising dramatically and Dutch has slipped to 3rd place, there has actually been a slight rise in the use of Dutch due to more emphasis on the language at primary school level. It is, again, French that is seeing its primacy challenged. The official 3rd language of Belgium is German, but that is largely confined to a smallish area around Liége, and is not often heard on the streets of Brussels.

Hardly anybody even remembers Backslang, which I used to hear as a boy, mostly from elderly male cockneys. I have a few words and colouful expressions, but it is rarely heard now as the demographics change in London, and cultural influences are more global, (although I have a Welsh friend here in Brussels who lived in London in the late 1930s, and who, much to my pleasure, picked up and retains some words and phrases). Rhyming slang has been integrated to a degree in mainstream English, although to a very limited degree. It also evolves continually, which I hope will ensure that at least some of it will stay with us. It is tragic to realise that a whole culture, within our capital city, could be on the verge of vanishing completely within a couple of generations.

This lunchtime, we can mourn the demise of Backslang with a Top a' Reeb which I am sure will cost me a Vos r'owt!

Friday, 19 April 2013

For Whom The Bell Tolls....

You have to wonder how some people get through their day.

Driving from Strasbourg to Brussels yesterday I arrived at one of the Péage stations (toll booths) en route. As always, I opted for one of the lanes clearly marked 'Credit Cards' as its always quicker to go through those. In front of me was a Renault with German number plates. I reckon it takes about 30 seconds at most to put in your card, take it and a receipt from the machine, then drive through.

So after about 2 minutes, I realised there was a problem with the Renault, and started to develop an interest in proceedings. The driver was a lady of, I would guess, around 60. I watched in amazement as she was repeatedly trying to insert a €20 note into the slot clearly marked as being for cards. Actually, in frustration, she was trying to stuff it in.

I wondered if I should get out and have a chat with her, but her companion obviously twigged, and handed her a card.

Should such people be allowed to drive?

I have always thought that there should be more restrictions on who gets a driving licence. When we apply there are certain questions. Are you epileptic? Are you blind? I reckon we should also be asking "Are you a f**king idiot"?

To me, it is blindingly obvious that anybody we might class as a f**king idiot should not be allowed on the roads. But the question is, how do we identify them? And so, I have come up with a few questions that might help us.

1. Do you wear a baseball cap the wrong way around?

2. Do you have a pitbull named 'Tyson'?

3. Do you confuse sportswear with casual clothing?

4. When alighting from a train, or passing through a shop doorway, do you ever have an uncontrollable urge to stand still and rummage through your handbag?

5. Have you ever watched the X factor for more than 10 minutes?

6. Do you think it is a good idea to give your children Pot Noodle for dinner?

7. Do you think that life in Britain was better before the war?

Of course, Can you tell the difference between a credit card and a banknote? might also be a good one to ask.

I could go on.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Silent Spring.

After a false start - there was a sunny day two weeks ago - Spring seems no nearer than it was three months ago. This has been the longest, dullest, and coldest winter I can remember. The most worrying thing of all is that we are in the middle of April, and there is no dawn chorus as such. A few birds are chirping, but nothing like what we would usually hear. Something is very wrong this year, and as I have speculated previously, I think we are seeing the effects of localised climate change.

There are two categories of species: r & k.

The former, which includes rodents and insects, are highly adaptable. They have relatively short life-spans, short gestation periods, and produce lots of offspring very quickly. Insects are particularly adaptable, and can produce sub-species to cope with major environmental change in just a few generations. When the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs hit Earth, lice would have had no long term worries.

The dinosaurs, however, being k species stood no chance. k species evolve strictly to cope with their environment. Population levels are always at or very close to carrying capacity. Environmental change poses a major threat to them. They reproduce relatively late in life, have long gestation periods, and have few offspring. They simply have not evolved to cope with environmental change.

Birds are k species. Perhaps this explains what happened to the dawn chorus.

We are also k species by the way. Think about it......

Monday, 8 April 2013

Maggie Thatcher RIP

Much will be written about the passing of Maggie Thatcher. More than any other contemporary political figure she polarised public opinion, and we all have our own strong opinions of her.

As a young serviceman I was a beneficiary of her drive to improve pay and conditions for members of the armed forces. Her tough stance on the IRA, and the way in which she handled the Falklands crisis make her a great leader in my personal opinion. There were social aspects of her policy that I do have problems with, but she was certainly the leader we needed in 1979.

Whatever we may think, nobody can ever take away from her the achievement of becoming our country's first woman prime minister. Today marks the end of an era, and hearing the news with a group of friends over a lunchtime pint in a Brussels bar, I noted how the mood became very sombre. Maggie Thatcher, the Iron Lady, touched all our lives. As we all went on our seperate ways, we all agreed that we would always remember where we were and who we were with when we heard the news.

Policing: Stupid Initiative Of The Year!

On the spot fines for traffic violations in Belgium have gone up by 10%.

Of course this story has a classic Belgian ingredient: the rise was delayed because the police hadn't updated something or another on their computers.

These fines are issued for stuff like failing to indicate, parking in a disabled bay, crossing the white line, etc (all of which I thought were actually compulsory in Brussels). I got stopped once by a copper in Cornwall for crossing the white line. I hadn't actually done so, but I suppose for a rural plod based in the back of beyond the sight of a youngish guy at the wheel of a Chevy Camaro is too much to resist and so he pulled me over anyway. He must have been really disappointed to discover that all my papers were in order, but I still got points on my licence and a fine anyway. I didn't bother to contest it in court, because you can never win.

And the police wonder why the public have a negative view of them!

On the subject of policing, I turned the news on yesterday to see some sobbing 17 year old girl apologising for offensive tweeting. She is, apparently, a 'youth police commissioner'. My first thought was that this was some sort of late April Fool's joke, but it is actually true.

Are they mad?

What the bloody hell goes on in the minds of those people tasked with running our police forces? She is a 17 year old girl, not a bloody police commissioner. What next? Perhaps we should have a dog in charge. Chief Superintendent Rover, or something. Or perhaps they could take a leaf out the Athenian's book, and let everybody be in charge for one day.

To answer my own question, yes. Those who the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. If anybody seriously thinks that taking a child out of school and pretending that she can be a police commissioner is a good idea, then they should be retired on health grounds.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Changing World....

I used to love the snow - until this year. This has been the most grindingly depressing of winters with endless months of grey skies punctuated by the odd hour of sunshine, albeit accompanied by icy winds and icy pavements. In Strasbourg snow in February is the norm, located as it is at the foot of the Voges mountains, but we don't expect it in Brussels in the final days of March. Leaving my office last Thursday evening it was snowing yet again, and I could not have been more miserable.

But yesterday it all changed. Now, when you are 8 years old and you wake up and look out of your bedroom window and see sunshine, what is the first thing you think of? Cricket, apparently, and it doesn't matter if dad is still sleeping, wake him up and let's get going!

Actually, it was a beautiful morning, and there was a certain amount of pleasure in being the first to play cricket in the local park this year. To George's delight a couple of young Indian guys stopped off to cheer for some minutes. You don't see much cricket in Belgium.

Then there was a wonderful 'Belgian' moment. We took a bit of a drinks break, and retired to a nearby park bench. A family strolled past, and took a huge interest in our stumps, which were about 10 yards away from our seat, and seemingly unattended. The husband and wife walked around the stumps a few times before producing a camera and photographing the children in front of them. Perhaps they had Japanese blood in them, I don't know....

But there is a serious aspect to this bizarre weather pattern. About a week ago in Parc du Cinquantenaire, after a dusting of snow, I came across a dead Bumblebee. These should still be incubating at this point, as it is about this time of the year that the queens should be establishing their colonies and laying eggs. This wasn't a dead queen that I found, but would certainly have been one of a queen's offspring, as her eggs are laid first.

The explanation for this is climate change. In fact, even the ducklings in Parc Leopold and Square Marie Louise came early this year.

With increasing temperatures comes increased precipitation. Whilst the warming is global, the climate change can be local, as in our case. In Brussels it rains pretty much the same as it does in south east England, but it snows far more. The first male Bumblebees, when forced out of the colony, are not equipped to cope with icy winds and snow. On Saturday George and I watched a Canada Goose trying to cover her two chicks with her body as they shivered on the snowy bank. They, of course, are very well suited for this weather, but the indiginous species are not. The new arrivals could, quite reasonably, replace the established species fairly quickly given the current speed of change that we are witnessing.

No bees equals no pollination of flowers. Loss of biodiversity has knock-on effects that are often unpredictable, and can be irreversible.

Whilst nobody knows what is the 'background rate' of species extinction, it is clear that extinctions are above the norm at present.

I wonder if any generation has ever witnessed such a rapid change in the natural world.