Thursday, 29 December 2016

Cornwall: Dark Coastline, Dark History.

"Dark and brooding", is how somebody once described the Cornish coast (was it Guy de Maupassant? - he took a generally miserable approach to most things).

Mariners apparently prefer the expression "bloody lethal." There are reasons why the Cornish coastline is littered with shipwrecks, many going back centuries. It is a country of pirates and smugglers, of sailors and soldiers. 

Having spent numerous snowy Christmases in Brussels (one of which infamously lasted until March, resulting in a surge in the already high suicide rate) George and I decamped to soggy Oggie land for the festive break and a long overdue catch up with family, to enjoy the beautiful landscape, and to marvel each night at the totally unfettered view of the Milky Way, which never ceases to captivate us city-dwellers. And, of course, to consume too many Oggies (Cornish Pasties).

Despite a welcome on arrival from Storm Barbara (very mild by Cornish standards) the weather has been terrific, which is not what one normally expects from Cornwall, even in the height of summer.
This particular part of Cornwall, which I have enjoyed since I first saw it in, I think, 1973, was once the scene of a tragic event in English history. The spot at which I took this photo is about 200 yards to the east of Looe harbour.

In 1625 something dreadful happened here that has been largely forgotten. Forgotten, I wonder, or airbrushed out history for reasons of political correctness?

On a July Sunday morning, as the townfolk were at prayer, a ship appeared in the small fishing port. It had sailed from the Barbary coast, and the arrival of African sailors would have been something of a cultural shock to the folk of Looe, most of whom would never before have seen a black person.
It was to be even more of a shock - these were slave traders.

Around 80 men, women and children of Looe were taken away into captivity, most never to return, their ultimate fates never to be known. Only 2 were to find their way home. All in all, more than 200 were taken from the South-West coastal towns and villages in this one raid, with 27 ships being destroyed or taken away by the African pirates.

One English captive who did escape would later describe the corsairs as "ugly onhumayne cretures" who struck the fear of God into all who saw them. "With their heads shaved and their armes almost naked, [they] did teryfie me exceedingly." They were merciless in their treatment of their victims and captives. According to one eyewitness, 60 men, women and children were dragged from the church alone and carried back to the corsairs' ships.

At the same time, a second fleet of Barbary corsairs were sighted in the waters off the north Cornish coast. These Africans captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and raised the flag of Islam. It temporarily became their  base, from which they attacked the unprotected villages of northern Cornwall. They had "seized diverse people about Padstow" and were threatening the town of Ilfracombe, on the North Devon coast.

By the end of the summer of 1625, the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1,000 villagers had been carried off to be sold into slavery in the markets of Morocco.

Even in Looe itself, with its many memorials to the fishermen of the historic town who have been lost at sea, and the grand war memorial which carries the names of the disproportionate numbers of men killed in two world wars, most who served in the Royal Navy, there is nothing to mark this atrocity.

I wonder why? I suspect I know the answer..... The slave trade, over which we British are expected to self-flagellate, was largely driven by Africans and Arabs themselves, and we were also victims. Perhaps we are not supposed to mention that.

Monday, 14 November 2016

94 Years on, Mencken has been proven right!

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

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Abellio Greater Anglia have done it again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 31 October 2016

Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, much else has changed.

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

They don't look cool to me.

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

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

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

Isn't England Beautiful?

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 October 2016

Bobby Vee: The Passing of a Legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Go, Johnny, Go!

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Hey, Bo Diddley!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 October 2016

Christian McBride Trio in Belgium

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 September 2016

British Rail Travel: Some Things Never Change

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

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

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

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

When the train eventually departed, it all began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for this we have to pay.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

These arms of mine: Otis Redding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well done, Otis!

Listen and enjoy.....

Monday, 22 August 2016

Toots Thielemans - The Passing of a Jazz Legend

All good things must come to an end.

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

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

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

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

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.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

I was really pleased to meet recently with Evgeny Afineevsky, producer and director of the Oscar nominated documentary movie Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, when he presented his work at the Ukrainian embassy in Brussels

This is an account of the events of the Euromaidan protests of 2013 -14, when student led protests called for an end to the Russian backed regime of Viktor Yanukovich, and for a Ukrainian future as part of the European family of free and democratic nations.

Evgeny filmed the resulting tragedy as it unfolded before his eyes.

This is a somewhat hard film to watch: some of the scenes are extremely harrowing, and interviews with some of the peaceful protesters are shown alongside footage of those same innocent people being taken down by snipers.

The file is brutally honest, and Evgeny spoke openly about his feelings after the event. Such sights and sounds cannot help but traumatise those who witness them. I know that only too well.

The movie is available on Netflix, where it has attracted huge attention.

These things should not happen in 21st century Europe, but they do. We must not turn our eyes away.

Farage Aide Exposed As Irish Republican Sympathiser

UKIP Press Officer Hermann Kelly Exposed As Republican Sympathiser
A key aide to Nigel Farage is a hardline Irish Republican who was caught spending a boozy night in a Brussels bar as other drinkers sang pro-IRA songs, the Daily Mirror has reported.
Londonderry-born Hermann Kelly was pictured sitting among a 10-strong party in the Ketje pub just moments from the European Parliament, where he is the UKIP leader’s most senior political adviser.

During a near 45-minute rendition the group belted out openly inflammatory songs, including one written after a bid to blow up the RUC, which called on England to “take your murderers out of Ireland”.
When quizzed about the gathering by the Sunday Mirror, Kelly insisted he had been drinking with three UKIP party employees. But he finally admitted sitting at the same table as the pro-IRA group – who he described as a visiting delegation – adding: “I know two of these people. I’m sitting here having a drink”.
Kelly, UKIP ’s Director of Communications in Brussels, was introduced to a Daily Mirror reporter by a political pal who joked: “Meet Hermann, the only Irish Republican on Nigel Farage’s payroll. Now that’s a story!”
Confirming that he did hold Republican beliefs, Kelly said this stemmed from his roots in Northern Ireland’s second largest city and asked: “What else do you expect from a man from Derry?” Insisting his views represented “Irish Catholic nationalism” he likened the Irish cause to that of the Brexit campaign in next month’s EU referendum, saying: “Self-determination is what it’s all about.”
Kelly claimed that Farage was aware of his sympathies.
Like Farage, Kelly has blamed “the horrific act of terrorism” in Brussels which killed 34 people on EU migration rules.
Kelly is a former editor of The Irish Catholic, a newspaper founded by Timothy Daniel Sullivan, who was convicted and jailed for crimes relating to his Republican activities.
This article was originally published by EU Today. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Anderlecht 2 - SV Zulte Waregem 0

George is a bit crazy about Soccer... So it was with great delight that we were invited sit in a private box today and watch Anderlecht take second place in the Belgian Premier League, and thus go through to the first round of the Champions League.

It was a heck of a game.

The match was suspended after the first few minutes as flares filled the stadium with smoke and flame, and the players were taken off the field.

It was a heated game indeed, with two yellow cards, and one red.

The second Anderlecht goal was the ultimate nail-biter.... The first shot was saved, but not held. The second shot hit the left post.... the third shot went in!

The SVZW supporters were magnanimous in defeat, and stole the show. Around 100 of them drowned out all other noise in the stadium, and their noisy but good natured antics kept us well amused - well done chaps!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Meeting John Kerry...

Today is a day I looked forward to for some weeks. It is the first day of the Brussels Jazz Marathon, a 3 day spectacle that I love. The Jazz Marathon is the first of a series of Jazz festivals - every major town or city in Belgium has one - and it is always a great opening shot! They do Jazz well in Belgium.

And it started well, with a great act featuring the music of Fats Waller and others of that ilk. I like it very much.

Apparently U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also likes it, because he came and sat down a table but one away from us, and was clearly enjoying the music.

There was  incredible security around him, but I was never one to be intimidated by a bunch of dozy Yanks, so I wandered over to shake his hand and have a wee chat. And what a nice chap he is.

Kerry, of course, is a highly decorated war hero, and it was a great pleasure to exchange some private words with him.

I was impressed, and I cannot believe how young he appears. He must know a better beer than I do....

In Memory Of Heroes

This week, I took a trip out to Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, to deal with some family business.

Whilst there, I came across this stone, in the main shopping area.

It commemorates the heroes of the British 2nd Household Cavalry Division, and also the soldiers of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division who drove out the Germans and liberated the city in September 1944.

I think it is a simple but nice memorial.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Summertime, and the living is easy.........

And so.... George and I took the train out to Genval today to have lunch with our great pal William Stanbury.

And it was a great lunch indeed!

Afterwards, we decided to play Petanque (French bowls) at the local cricket club. Sadly the club was closed, but we never let a locked gate stand in our way - I won't go into too many details -  but we did indeed play 3 games of Petanque at the Cricket Club.

Subsequently we met up with Chris White, former Fleet Street journalist and all round good guy.

Some days are just perfect!

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Meeting Olexandr Suraikin - A true hero

A pleasure, and indeed an honour, to shake hands last night with Lieutenant Colonel Olexandr Suraikin, commander of the Helicopter Squadron of Ukraine's 10th Maritime Aviation Brigade.

Following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, he managed to fly out, under Russian guns, an anti-submarine helicopter that had just been upgraded to the highest level. It was very important that this machine did not fall into Russian hands.

For this incredible feat, Colonel Suraikin is recognised as one of the true heroes of Ukraine.

Last night we met with him at the Ukrainian embassy in Brussels, having seen a screening of the movie  “Crimea: How it was”, created by the Ukrainian film studio Babylon’13, and directed by Konstantin Kljatzkin, who was also present. The film featured Colonel Surakin, and many others who on land, sea, and in the air have resisted the Russian aggression.

Colonel Suraikin is a quiet, modest, and very focussed man, who explains his feats by saying that he is simply doing his duty as an officer of the Ukrainian military.

Having myself served with 23 & 56 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force, both amongst the most highly regarded fighter squadrons in the history of the RAF, I would say that the 10th Maritime Aviation Brigade have a top class C.O. in Olexandr Suraikin.

We wish him, and those under his command, safe passage, and ultimate victory!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Dreadful days.....

It has certainly been a difficult couple of days for Brussels.

I saw the news about the airport bombings on Tuesday morning, and decided to walk the couple of miles or so to the Press Club, as I do on most days.

It became apparent that this was something major when I saw the stream of emergency vehicles heading out of the city in the direction of Zaventum. There were also a lot of unmarked cars with flashing lights buzzing around.

Only when I arrived did I learn of the carnage at Maelbeek metro station.

Maelbeek is very busy in the mornings, and it is the station used by European Parliament staff as they make their way to work. Its also the station that I used for many years to take my son to school - I lived virtually next door to the station for 9 years.

I am relieved to learn that those of my friends who use the metro are all accounted for, but I am dreading seeing the list of the casualties - the Brussels bubble is actually quite small, and it is inevitable that we will all know somebody involved. There are problems with identifying many of the victims, such was the ferocity of the blast.

The Brussels Press Club is just a minute or so from Maelbeek, and so I was able to talk to a number of police officers throughout the day. It was a nightmare inside the station I was told, and a lot of the emergency workers were clearly distressed.

I walked again yesterday, and took time along the route to talk to people I know, and one or two strangers as well. Everybody is traumatised, and everything looks different now. Its the attack we were waiting for, but I didn't think it would be this close to home.

Following a high profile arrest of a wanted terrorist in the city on Friday, police officers have been abused and attacked in the street by members of the Muslim community, who regard him as a "hero".

Equally sickening was a statement by a UKIP MEP to the effect that the bombings were "the EU's fault."

And so we have yet another 'emergency summit' at the Council. The rule is that there must be one Council meeting each year, with provision for a second if deemed necessary. However, such is the state of affairs that we have an emergency summit almost every week now.

As I write this there are sirens in the background, and another of the unmarked cars has just passed by at speed.

I think we may have a problem....

Monday, 21 March 2016

Ethnic Cleansing in Europe, 2016

A very poignant moment.

My son is simply mad about soccer. He knows every statistic, every name, and he loves every team (except Chelsea).

And so I passed by this expo at Place St Gery in Brussels - which I visited for the first time earlier this week - with him. It is about Ukrainians who have been displaced following the Russian invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea.

Some 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been made to leave their homeland, and many others are forced to take Russian citizenship against their will. Those who were outside the region at the time of annexation are forbidden to return home to their families.

Their mosques are being closed, politicians are persecuted, and the only Tatar language TV station has been closed down on the orders of the Kremlin.

This is ethnic cleansing - not yet on the scale of what the Nazis did, but it is still early days, and the signs are pointing in that direction.

The gentleman featured in this picture, Roman Podenezhny, is a teacher, and like George, is clearly a football fan.

George would even be able to speak with him in his own tongue (George has better language skills than I do, but you might say that about anybody).

We had talked about the invasion, about war, and what it means to the people who have been caught up in it.

George looked at the picture of this chap and said "He's just like me."

That is the whole point. The dispossessed, the refugees, the dead and the wounded victims of war are just like us. The victims of war are us.

A Glimpse Into The Past......

This is an archaeological dig in the centre of Brussels.

We don't know exactly what this is, it was  recently discovered whilst the ground was being prepared for some hideous development which, whatever it is, will certainly offend my eyes.

I spoke at the site today with an expert on medieval masonry who is certain that what we are looking at is a 15th or 16th century brewery. The location is perfect - very close to the river (now the canal) that runs through the city. Also, there were a number of monasteries in the area, and as we all know, monks liked a tipple. It is exactly where the brewing industry on what was then the outskirts of Brussels developed into what it is today.

The brickwork is superbly preserved. It looks as if these bricks were laid yesterday.

George and I were delighted to see what was clearly a toilet, made out of stone, complete with even a drainage pipe. This predates the inginuity of Thomas Crapper by some 400 years.

Sadly, there may only be another week to explore the site, although representations are being made to the City council to grant an extension until May.

But either way, soon this view of the past will be lost forever.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

More hypocrisy from Farage

STAY OUT OF IT: Ukip leader Farage warns Obama NOT to wade into EU debate - so the Daily Express reports today (Mar 17).
This is yet another example of Farage's hypocrisy.
Where will Farage be on April 4th?
He will be in Amsterdam, sharing a platform with far-right (and allegedly Kremlin backed) minor politicians, telling the Dutch that they should vote against ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine.
Does this man have no shame?
Or is he merely so self-obsessed that he say anything to get himself into the newspapers?
Or is there something more to this than meets the eye?
The chap in the photo alongside Farage is a certain Alexander Yakovenko, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia. The two had appeared together on Russian TV.
Farage has regularly appeared on RT, the Kremlin funded Russian propaganda channel, and questions have been asked about his relationships with Russia's media.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

As others see us

There is an air of panic amongst many of the British staff members and assistants in the EU institutions at the moment, as they prepare themselves for what the press here have dubbed "Brexodus".

There is also a certain amount of hostility from staffers from other EU member states who realise that without UK money, there own lucrative 'jobs for life' may not be as secure as they had assumed.

One Hungarian friend recently (he was well into the 3rd hour of his lunchbreak, and was somewhat the worse for it) told me that they want us to go. They are fed up with us Brits spoiling everything.

The French are also less than happy with us. How many times we are expected to go to Europe to get the French out of trouble I don't know?

It's vital that we have this debate, and that it is settled once and for all by public referendum. I strongly suspect that the vote will be to leave the EU.

The Eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, and the rise of populism almost certainly herald the end of the EU as we currently know it. It has proven itself to be fractured, inconsistent, lost, and downright inept in the face of challenge.

If one example throws light onto the level of incompetence in the EU, it is the formation of the External Action Service.

When work on the new lavish headquarters began, and staff were being recruited, it emerged that there was no budget line to cover it. It simply never occurred to them that it had to be paid for.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Boris Mikhailov in Antwerp

Boris Mikhailov, from Kharkiv in Ukraine, is regarded as the most important fine art photographer to have emerged from the Soviet era.

He began exhibiting in the 1960, and quickly fell foul of the KGB, losing his job as an engineer when it was found that he had taken nude photographs of his wife.

Subsequent series of his works are considered as criticisms of the Soviet system through the sheer
frankness with which he shows life as it really was.

He is currently being exhibited at FOMU, the photographic museum in Antwerp.

His early work in the 60s involved layering colour transparencies, and many of these are shown by means of a slide show, lasting several minutes, to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd. 

When these images were first shown, it had to be done secretly in private homes.

But to see how far Eastern Europe has come since the collapse of the evil empire, it is his Red Series and Salt Lake that show life as it really was. It is hard now for us to imagine that Europeans really lived like that, although in many parts of Russia, and possibly Moldova, little, if anything, has changed. 

The Red series portrays the social system that emerged out of the October Revolution, whilst the somewhat grim Case History shows the homeless and dispossessed who were left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I found the latter to be somewhat 'staged', and so for me as an attempt at social documentary it didn't really work. 

We were very lucky to attend a Vernissage in advance of the official opening. Mikhailov himself was present at what was a superb event. 

The Ukrainian community in Antwerp is very lively, and the turn out at such cultural events is always high.

The exhibition far exceeded my expectations, and is well worth visiting.

The exhibition runs until June 5th, details can be found here: