25 Amazing Places You Can’t Go To

 

Okay, we’ve often seen the lists of places on the verge of being the Next Big Thing, awaiting discovery. Think idyllic Mediterranean isles, forgotten tribal valleys or overlooked, off-grid cities now spruced up. -But what about those so far removed one needs way too much organisation, money or a deathwish to reach?  Indeed some of these may be possible with titanic perseverance, a briefcase of cash, a low regard for respecting the law, or an outright disguise, just have the luck on your side. Failing that, read it and weep:

 

  1. The world’s largest annual animal migration, South Sudan.

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When scientists flew over this vast region of savannah and swamp in 2007, in the midst of war they witnessed a never before seen spectacle on Earth: a darkening convoy of animals on the horizon – nearly 50km (over 30 miles) across, yet stretching 80km (50 miles) long. In short this may well be the biggest movement of large mammals on the planet, more so than the Serengeti, and made up of countless antelope, zebra, elephants, giraffes and buffalo, with the accordant beasts that stalk them. Unfortunately the country has been a warzone for most of the past 30 years, and currently a battleground in a new civil war for the world’s newest country. It may be the last time we ever see animals on this scale.

 

  1. Battleship Island, Japan.

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So called for its brutish profile on the horizon, Hashima island was one of the world’s densest ever pieces of urbanity – a tiny islet 9 miles off the coast from Nagasaki where 5,300  miners and their families lived on barely 16 acres (which equates to a population density of about 140,000 per sq km), till its closure in 1974. Hauntingly desolate, and with a dark past as a labour camp during the war, the ruins of the mines and apartments, and the left behind belongings of their hastily evacuated residents, stand testament to a forgotten community in strong isolation. Long barred access for 35 years, a trickle of visitors can finally see the place from a newly built walkway – but 95% of the island is still walled off as too dangerous to explore for its crumbling structures. You’ll just have to make do with the scenes from James Bond in Skyfall, where it doubled as a megalomaniacal lair.

 

  1. Chateau Miranda, Belgium.

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No, it’s not a Hollywood set, this really is the most spooky looking place you’ll likely ever see. A genuinely abandoned chateau, complete with ivy choked statuary, spiralling towers, 500 darkened windows, a roof open to all elements, and a rumoured child’s graveyard. Built as a country estate for French aristocrats fleeing the guillotine it fell into financial ruin over the century, shortly before being taken over as – you’ve guessed it – an orphanage for children in WWII, a ‘holiday camp’ where the children were worked to a strict regimen by authoritarian staff. Finally abandoned in 1991, the estate is currently off limits except to unexplained fires, vandalism and violent storms that are slowly dismantling the structure. In 2013 the owners formally applied for its demolition.

 

4. Kaesong, North Korea.

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This ancient dynastic capital miraculously survived the Korean War that levelled the other capitals on the peninsula, and has been preserved in aspic ever since by the Communist state. Surrounded by royal tombs and home to several universities, it’s famed for its sumptuous cuisine, caught-in-time streetscapes and enduring cultural relics, many of which are so priceless they’ve been shipped to fallout vaults in Pyongyang. On the new side it has all the socialist statuary, architecture, banners and posturing you could wish for. In short, medieval life unchanged, moving onto regimented modernism as you progress.

Visitors to the country require a guide at all times to strictly delineated areas, with a base rate of at least $1000 for 3-4 days minimum. However the current heightened tensions have effectively sealed off this real life diorama, with various travel bans in force, and a pioneering scheme of cross border factories now closed.

 

  1. The oldest living thing, California.

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Welcome to Methuselah, measured to be 4,849 years old and long thought to be the oldest living, non-cloned organism. That is until they found another bristlecone pine nearby that was 200 years older. This starkly beautiful landscape in Eastern California is made up of otherworldly rock and shale in the northernmost reaches of the Mojave desert, peppered with stands of hundreds of disfigured trees, all reached via a visitor trail that branches off to former mining sites. Why is it so unreachable? Well the oldest specimens are in secret, unmarked locations, for fear of vandalism. Good heed for in 2008 arsonists set fire to the visitor centre and its exhibits, destroying several of these rare giants.

 

  1. Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans, Antarctica.

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Built by the ill-fated 1917 expedition to reach the South Pole, this snapshot in time is hauntingly untouched as it was when they headed off for the last time, even the local fowl on the table they had readying for a meal, and the seal meat in the larder. Tables are scattered with lamps, cutlery, papers and bottles, the bunks slung informally with clothing, and wall to wall are never used supplies, including a cache of penguin eggs. Handmade tools hang off the ceiling and pillars, even a rusted bike mounted forever on the wall, while outside the bones of loyal dogs wait an eternity. Dug out of the ice in 1956 this is one place far, far removed from the rest of the world – that you’ll need to organise your own expedition to reach.

 

  1. Coming of Age Day, Japan.

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On a brisk January Monday in Japan you may witness gaggles of kimono clad young people on the train tapping on their phones – cue priceless sneaky travel shots. This is how Japan should look you think, a world of tradition melded with ultra-modernity. But then they are fleetingly gone, in droves to ceremonies at obscure prefectural offices, the insides of which you’ll never see, while everyone else looks on with a mixture of envy and regret. Later they will reappear, staggeringly drunk by evening, then back to Western dress and hangovers the next day. Why don’t more people wear this outstanding attire, many updated with modern accessories? Why can’t every Monday be beautiful, young and kimono-clad? Well, it takes an average 2 hours to fold themselves into those layers of silk, hair and makeup – not something you could prep on the daily commute. The exclusivity? Well to get with the in crowd, you have to be of 20 years in age and Japanese to join in the fun, on the one day they say goodbye to childhood and hello to the responsibilities of the adult world. Missed the boat? Leave maturity behind and go in disguise.

 

  1. The Red Forest, Ukraine.

Bumper cars at an amusement park in the abandoned city of Pripyat in Ukraine.

North of Kiev lies an untouched landscape despite being so close to the capital, full of forest life and brimming with natural diversity little seen elsewhere on the continent. By some counts the wolf population alone –  a sign of plenty of other animals and food – is six times higher than the norm, not to mention the counts on elk, deer, lynx, boar, bears and a carpet of new growth forest. You won’t see another human for miles, nor hear any sign of habitation – other than the occasional ghost town with trees growing in its streets and eerily abandoned playgrounds. For you are in a ‘zone of alienation’, and nearby lies Chernobyl, the power station that exploded in 1986, sending a nuclear cloud across Europe. The Red Forest was so called because the trees initially died en masse, along with local insect life and small animals, and is unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years. Since 2011 radiation levels allow only a few die-hard tourists in on private tours for brief visits, provided they sign the disclaimers.

 

  1. The eternal fire, Democratic People’s Republic of Congo.

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The world’s largest lava lake lies deep in the jungles of Central Africa, in the crater of the highly active Mt Nyiragongo, and has been in existence since at least 1894 . Within human memory a lake of fire 2km wide and up to 10,660ft (3.25km) deep, it’s since shrunk to a mesmerising cone within a cone within a cone. Never mind the trekking through endless jungle nicknamed the ‘Green Hell’ by explorers, and the setting for the Heart of Darkness by Conrad (be prepared to be covered with thousands of tiny, stingless bees); never mind the fact the country is in a civil war that has claimed untold millions since 1998 – it’s the volcano you should worry about. With lava measured at a record-breaking 100 km (60 miles) p/h, and studded with pockets of odourless gases known as the deadly mazuku, this is the most dangerous volcano in the world. In 2002 several ‘spatter cones’ emerged to spread a molten stream up to a kilometre wide through the quake hit city of Goma, evacuating 400,000 people and rendering 120,000 homeless. Worse, a 1974 fracture of the crater emptied the entire lake in an hour, causing a fiery tsunami that killed 70 villagers nearby. Be warned.

 

  1. Vintgar Gorge, The Land of Rising Mist.

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So called because that’s what Slovenia is everywhere you look in winter, with this canyon in particular becoming an atmospheric vision of trees clinging to steep slopes, echoing off into the mists above an unearthly crystalline river. This woodsy, watery country bedecked with attractions in the sunnier months sees a sharp fall in numbers by December, but transforms into a landscape of purple mountains studded with castles, waterfalls and lakes, and cloaked in fairy tale forests and wooden architecture. The gorge, coming off Lake Bled is not hard to reach, where a pre-booked hostel room comes attached with a welcome note, keys taped to the front door (it’s that safe), and a suddenly emptied villa to yourself, not even a proprietor, as per course for that period. However the gorge is officially closed by then, due to the hazards of falling rocks, landslips blocking the path, and perpetual fog so close to the rapids, with no staff in low season to police the place – thus closing off one of the most romantic and ephemeral backdrops in Europe. Though local dog walkers, with helmets, are known to jump the barrier and warning signs. That’s all I’m saying.

 

  1. Middle Earth, China.

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Only ‘discovered’ in 2014 the titanic Er Wang cave is so large it has its own weather system, a cloud factory in a space that stretches 42 km into the earth, where mist rises, gets trapped and comes back down as waterfalls. The villagers even rely on the cave for their weather predictions, noticing when fog comes out, rain is expected. To reach it you’ll have to go far into rural China, finding a friendly local who will stump you up for the night (expect a pigsty toilet and a piece of ground), before rappelling the next day 820 ft into a giant sinkhole, crossing fast-flowing rivers and climbing through waterfalls to reach one of the caverns so large you won’t be able to see the sides. This geological area, the size of France and Spain combined, is made of soft karst limestone, eroded to produce the famous hump backed hills of Chinese paintings, but also honeycombed with gigantic unseen caves. Another nearby has recently been discovered with a cavern that’s the world’s largest, nearly 3km long, that a jumbo jet could fly down. And you’ll only have to reach that one by swimming up an underground river.

 

  1. The Cave of Crystals, Mexico.

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Discovered in 2000 after the groundwater was drained in Naica mine, Chihauhau, this cavern is 980ft (300m) below ground and formed by 500,000 years of optimum temperatures and chemicals to create these huge crystals, including the world’s largest nearly 40ft (12m) long and 55 tons in weight. Such is the temperature (nearly 60C), and a humidity of 99%, visitors can only last ten minutes. The fragility of the crystals’ exposure, decaying in the air, meant that the caves were only ever temporarily open; allowing just for documentation for posterity and science. Mining operations have since closed this year, meaning the pumps are off and the caverns have refilled.

 

  1. The world’s oldest city, Iraq.

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Erbil is billed as possibly the world’s oldest existing settlement, dating back 7,000 years. A diverse population following 8 major religions reflects in its history being in at least 18 different empires, now dotted with mosques, minarets, churches, shrines, steeples and temples. The Ottoman citadel at its heart is nearly the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the world’s largest palace), and about 60% larger than Hradčany in Prague (Europe’s largest castle), plus being the site of the oldest town in existence. Waves of settlement outward from there reflect the continuing history, with bazaars, cafes, restaurants, modern day squares, fountains, shopping plazas and a network of Orientalist alleyways and Arabesque streets. This is the most stable and liveable part of Iraq, but still haunted by terrorism, and now facing heightened tensions as the Kurdish area moves toward independence. All travel is now advised against.

 

  1. Portobay Hotel roof, Rio de Janeiro, New Years Eve.

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This 19 storey hotel right on Copacabana Beach sells heavily priced tickets to its rooftop, once-in-a-lifetime view of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s that or staying at the 4* for a minimum 4 nights, but at preposterous mark ups. It’s not so much the prices, but the lottery of how few tickets are available if you choose to splash out on the night. If you do get in, be sure to tread in the time honoured tradition of wearing white, watching the epic, horizon filling fireworks (in both directions), then going down to the beach to jump 7 good luck waves (and make 7 wishes). But don’t look back, as that will anger Yemanjá, the Candomblé sea goddess.

 

  1. The last oasis, Chad

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Archei Gorge, populated solely  by camel caravans and Saharan crocodiles that will likely go extinct in our lifetimes, lies in a sculpted warzone a four day drive by 4×4 through unforgiving desert. The large crocs, who learnt to bury themselves in logs, sometimes for years, were found recently to be a unique subspecies to the Nile variety, and the last remnants of a population when the Sahara was green. They were also found to have so few numbers as to be unsupportable. Meanwhile the camel herds, stone age rock carvings, and exotic tribes who still trade in salt, haunt a landscape of sandstone arches and pinnacles, drifting dunes and dried river beds that is the Eneddi Plateau. An adventure writ in stone, it’s gruelling to reach and harder to return from.

 

  1. The lost tribe of the Enriva river, Brazil.

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Close to the border of Peru, in a federally barred area lives an uncontacted tribe – one of 77 in Brazil – whose name remains unknown. The plane which photographed this scene, a target for arrows and spears two years previous, is run by Brazil’s Indian protection agency, which tries to scare them every year, in order they keep their distance. For first contact may mean exposure to our microbes and diseases, that wiped out 90% of tribes in the rubber boom of the ’70s, not to mention murder and exploitation by cocaine farmers and miners after their land. Ever since, the survivors have avoided the outside world to great lengths, almost all constantly moving, with some coming out only at night. One tribe has systematically stopped having children, while another is down to the last man, who still hides from all attempts at communication. Since this photo was taken in 2010 this tribe is on the move again, fleeing massacres and takeover of their land by cartels.

 

  1. The balancing rocks of Julianatop, Suriname.

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The country’s highest peak is no easy matter to get to. Charter a plane from the capital to a dirt airstrip deep in the interior, then canoe downstream for a couple of days, including navigating several  dangerous rapids. Apparently the inlet fork you’re looking for is easy to miss, and after that it will be machete work for three days, with time to camp in malarial swamps – make sure you’ve had every shot possible. But then you will reach one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, rife with life, much of it unexplored and new to science, plus  a view to die for, literally. The hair raising journey to this gargantuan rock and its dangerously balancing boulders was only first forged in 2006 in order to climb it, and has not been attempted since.

 

  1. The vale of flowers, Pakistani Kashmir

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This is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth – that is if it was a country. Torn between Pakistan and India, Kashmir is in a situation far more complex than appears, with a painful history of political violence, war and terrorism.

But what a stunning battleground – alpine landscapes of pinnacle peaks, rippling glaciers, thickly wooded hillsides, brilliant lakes, clear rushing streams and famous wildflower meadows, at times dominating every inch of land. Dotted with traditional villages, welcoming locals and rare animals this is a place of crystalline air and scented vessels laden with blooms, slowly journeying to floating markets. Although travel is possible, especially from the India side of the Line of Control, the Pakistani half with much of the heartstopping scenery -such as the Neelam Valley, for all appearances a version of Switzerland in ancient times – is especially restricted. Foreigners are not allowed within 10  miles of the unofficial border, with almost all foreign governments advising against any travel to the province. Plus you’d have to traverse the lawless areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, rife with banditry and curfew. Good luck.

 

  1. The fairy tale forest, Nagorno-Karabakh.

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A disputed enclave of Armenians in Azerbaijan this heavily wooded area of great oaks and birches, replete with isolated villages, hilltop churches, natural springs and ruined shrines, glowering over haunting steppe landscapes is like discovering a much older version of Europe (or is that Asia?). Where one keeps to the path in the forest for fear of wolves, bears, witches, and the odd few thousand land mines. Government advice warns against all travel to the region, due to recently heightened tensions between the powers, plus one needs clearance to visit from the Azerbaijani government – internationally recognised as the state in power – yet not in control since 1994. Effectively islanded, NK is trapped in circumstance, and time.

 

20. Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

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Welcome to an island so thick with virgin rainforest you can see the huge size of the old growth canopy and clarity of the water from the air, as it cascades off the mountain (the Luba Crater Scientific Reserve) in a series of waterfalls, finally dropping in a rare cataract straight onto the beach. Even more surprising is that this untouched forest shares its slopes with the nation’s capital. The country is (in)famous for the recent discovery of oil that has propelled its GDP per capita to surpass many European nations overnight,  yet with resultant inequality, corruption and coups, many funded by international businessmen. To even enter the country one needs a letter of invitation from a citizen, such is the precariousness  of its politics.

 

21. A seat at Paris Fashion Week

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Okay the ‘easy’ way to do it for the average mortal is to go to the https://fhcm.paris/en/ website (formerly modeaparis.com) and peruse the list of shows. Pick your party, and send an email to the organisers, stating who you are, who you’re with, and how simply fabulous it would be if your presence should grace their little get together. If you’re not a tried and tested, lean, mean and utterly clean fashion journo/ editor, A-list celeb that the French have actually heard of, or another high up industry professional, you could always try blogger extraordinaire with a following of millions, at which point you might get a stab at getting the ‘standing invitation’, rather than a seat. And don’t even think about Haute Couture, darling.

 

22. The greatest life on Earth

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At the bottom of the Antarctic lies undersea volcanic vents, brimming with life. As the ocean floor cracks open with tectonic activity, it creates fissures that dot our oceans, that may have been the original source of life on the planet. A chemical soup of startling temperature change, life has sprung about these deep sea towers, some over 300ft (100m) in height. And in such abundance they are possibly the most diverse spots of Earth, with up to 30 million lives in a square metre -these are the coral reefs of the ocean floor, populated with entirely unique species and ecosystems, and utterly dependent on whether the vents continue to spout. Wavering ‘bushes’ of 6.5ft (2 metre) long worms, encrustations of crustaceans, and armies of shrimps and weird fish dodge in and out of freezing temperatures and fiery seas in complete darkness. Inches away from being instantly cooked in pressures and chemicals that allow for water at higher temperatures than boiling and lower than freezing. For this scene you’d need to be a scientist, oceanographer or member of a film crew to traverse the roughest seas on the planet, the Southern Ocean, that spans the globe devoid of landmass to break up the winds and currents, then charter a submersible to reach the bottom of the subzero sea.

 

23. The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle

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Used exclusively by the Queen, this is one part of the royal residences that is off limit to the snapping tourists – usually the grandest State rooms used for wining and dining visiting royalty are for show. The 550ft (170m) walkway, filled with priceless treasures – rumours of lost Canalettos, portraits of famous royals through history, cabinets of Burmese jade and other pilfered artefacts from the age of empire – was designed by Jeffrey Wyatville in an 1820s remodelling of the east and south wings. It connects the private quarters of the monarch, including her entirely single bedroom, with the guests quarters (look out too for the elegant White Drawing Room and the restored Private Chapel, with it’s stained glass depiction of a fireman dousing the 1992 fire). An area so exclusive, even finding a photograph of the thing is a rarity. So make do with an 1846 painting, and depiction of what they think is the 27 year old Queen Victoria.

 

24. Wadi Do, Yemen

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Welcome to Yemen, a land filled with medieval cities, and horrors. One of the most beautiful and untouched destinations, this is a place of pre-modern life in all its colours, antiquity and romanticism that you could shake an incensed hookah at. But currently enduring a civil war that’s now got Saudi Arabia sending in its hi-tech troops and satellite bombs, and Islamist insurgencies that see tourist buses attacked, killing four in the very picture above in 2008. Wadi Do is an oasis traditionally reached through camel caravans across the shifting deserts, traversing the passes of the immense plateau and gorge akin to the Grand Canyon. It’s sides are studded with multi storey, stained glass mud brick architecture that was a pre-cursor to the skyscraper up to 700 years ago.

 

25. The top of the world, Mount Everest.

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Whether you climb up the Chinese side or from the Nepalese base camp, you’ll need a cool $35,000 start off fee for the 32lbs of allowable gear and the $10,000 permits, getting higher depending on the size of your party. And you’ll need to be super fit, for after a certain altitude your body starts DYING (unless you’re a Sherpa who is biologically evolved to intake more oxygen at these altitudes), and you’ll only have a short window of time to reach the top and get back down again before you succumb to the elements. The death rate is a full 10%, although it improved in recent years with better tech and safety, including ladders to traverse the worst of the ravines, some recent deadly avalanches have raised the casualty rate again. Base camp at a lowly 17,600ft (5380m), is popular with tourists, looking at the mountain which looks surprisingly smaller than its neighbours, and mingling enviously with the teams about to set off or returning with looks of war in their eyes. It’s just climbing the last 11,430ft (3470m) to really look down on the world that’s the issue.

 

 

Got to the end? Any other suggestions or experiences for hard to reach places, for the next brochure? Post below.

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Journey to the West

Supermouse has in the past, caught international coach journeys, long distance between countries. A lot can be said about the romance of land based travel, from the first hippy trails blazing with adventure, to the freedom of the open road and its neverending horizons. Big skies. In this instance – an overnight trip between London and Brussels – it was more the moth-like space, as scudding Bladerunner lights and darkened streets flew past, while Roy Orbison/ Cyndi Lauper played softly, epically into the night.

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However pattern recognition may not be Supermouse’s strongest point. You know the score: something bad happens, but you try the same thing again and again in a hope it won’t – can’t – possibly repeat itself, and suddenly become this marvellous experience it was always meant to be. The time was the early noughties, back when those giveaway scratchcards were popping up in newspapers and collecting in flurries on the street, promising exciting possibilities of raining bank notes over your bed, entire home computers, phones with inter-net, a caravan holiday with Pamela Anderson, a cruise in the South Pacific or a romantic weekend in Paris, provided you rung the Premium Rate number (not at work, no!).  Guaranteed win. Of course the cheapest and only option was the Paris overnight coach, after you gave away all your details for healthy distribution among sordid agencies for the next decade.

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It was of course an experience to be savoured, wedged at the back of the bus with sweating, just-as-delighted immigrants between the two cities, and all their masking taped, and leaking haulage. With no chance of sleep whatsoever due to immovable seats and the long process of cross channel change of transports, coupled with virulent border checks. Barking dogs, razor wire, Hugo Boss designed uniforms, that kind of thing.

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But Paree was formidablor, and indeed the City of Lights, and all was worth it for the poor, indentured labourers more willing to put up with less leg room and sleepless nights in their twenties. A much later stint on the same choice of transport was a trip to Amsterdam, but coinciding with the Paris attacks of 2016 and 137 killings that very night, unfolding on the screens of a horror-stricken ferry and numerous international phone calls, and followed up by a journey through locked down, cordoned off cities across the Benelux where the attackers had come from and rumoured to have fled to.

So more of the same on this journey, entering what is newly one of the most dangerous regions in the world for travelers and now listed alongside Syria, Iraq and the Congo as the hot new destinations not to go to by international consulates and organisations. The UK’s foreign travel advice to the country officially states from the outset that: “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Belgium.” I had to read it twice, having assumed they meant to start off with ‘Terrorists are not very likely… to attack you, your children or cat and that your stay there will be 99.9999999% unlikely to be marred by political violence, and that 11 million Belgians live there every single day untroubled with the threat”.

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The advice continues with “Attacks could happen anywhere, including on public transport and transport hubs and in other places visited by foreigners. You should be vigilant in public places.” Oh swell, a fucking bath of spiders then.

Since 2014, four terrorist attacks have killed 36 and injured 345, with another two major plots foiled – though bear in mind, one of them took the vast majority of casualties, the 2016 bombings of the airport and metro on the same day. But what makes Belgium, and more specifically, the now notorious district of Molenbeek in Brussels, such a hotbed? Well the country sits in the Schengen area of open borders, in a knot of small countries one can drive across or through within 2 hours or less, without heed or check to enter France and Germany to boot. These porous borders have allowed extremists to come and go between attacks, and hide awaiting the next one.

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The anonymity of Brussels is also a point to learn from, whose neglect of Molenbeek, a working class area of 100,000, has become the perfect profile for a terrorist breeding ground – a struggling district left entirely to its own fate and representative of a city’s social apartheid. Where those of immigrant backgrounds (40%) do not get to share the same opportunities afforded to those of the middle or upper classes, or just purely White, or just purely non-Muslim backgrounds, and who complain of facing racism every day. From hate crime to quality of housing, at work to the enforced lack of any. Despite the Islamic Molenbeek community at large being staunchly against the terrorism, sympathisers can be found more easily, who will help or hide the perpetrators.

Not just Belgium’s glaring lack of social cohesion or investment has come under scrutiny, but also it’s relative lack of security infrastructure – with only about 1,200 personnel employed by State Security or its military counterparts  in 2015, despite being the diplomatic capital of the world with its numerous EU, EEC, NATO and European organisations. Another 2,500 international agencies and 2,000 international firms call it home, as the de-facto capital of Europe precisely for its porous, terror baiting positioning, and despite its size. This lack of policing, both socially and with real officers, has allowed this small city to have easy access to black market arms also.

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But lets forget this unsavoury starter for the time being, Supermouse is not on some foray into social journalism or ghetto fabulous tour. Molenbeek, famed as it is, is not on the Grand Tourbus intinerary. Why Brussels? Well as a snap decision for a weekend in August, it’s the cheapest and only viable option for a foreign city break. Nearby Paris, Amsterdam and even Edinburgh demand hundreds from the wallet for the imposition of such short notice. The weekend will be all Tintin, waffles, beer, frites, mussels in Brussels, art nouveau, chocolate and pissing child statues. Lets just get through the A to B bit.

And what an Odyssey it turned out to be.

Part I. The Bus.

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The trip there was as expected: arse numbingly uncomfortable, hellish and awkward. Supermouse, having safely procured a place at the back (what no end seat to lie down on like last time?) discovered every seat filled, and in the nearest proximity was bizarrely almost every fellow Black or Arab person on the bus for some reason. Was this the culturally apt welcome to the divisive Belgian society to come? Are minorities more likely to turn up late? Well, turns out people with the most luggage (read: immigrants moving/ visiting between cities and laden with presents) took more time to load the luggage in the tiny, avalanche-prone hold, than the Eurotourists walking straight on with small backpacks. Thus the now luxuriantly spaced bottom deck we glimpsed before getting up here was filled with the worldly travelers of leisure, while two groups of families/ friends and all their baggage had come relatively late, to be relegated to the back of the top deck. One was a group of older Congolese men, one of whom I was sat next to and made fleetingly awkward convo with. I don’t think he liked me drumming his hat either, to wake him to the wonders of the M2. Every now and then he looked forlornly past me, at his buddies having a glass-clinking jolly two seats up.

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On the other side was a group of Bruxellois ghetto girls, one nibbling KFC (at least she wasn’t flagrant about the fragrance), as talkative and infernal as they come, with the fat one periodically waking the skinny ones throughout the journey to point something out, admonish them for dropping off or announce she just had a thought about something. If a zombie apocalypse did actually transpire during the course of our epic, as it almost did the last time, I’m sure she’d be one of the first to go. And her mates finding the rope.

They were only interrupted once, by a waif of an Italian girl, the last of the last, finding a seat among them, and who made the very worst of social faux pas from the outset – assuming someone of colour is with the other people/ group of the same colour. She offered to swap seats with the young woman next to her so they could all stay together, before the group told her, no, she’s not with us either. The waif sat behind me on the back seat that cannot adjust or lean back, so I was polite enough to keep my own seat relatively straight, on a steep incline so as not to headbutt her, or ever have to look up, dreamlike during the night, into her nostrils. My older companion however had no qualms about leaning his back as far as it would go, and stretching out langourously while the poor girl behind, the excommunicated Black non-friend, sat like a squashed fruit in quiet indignity for the following 10 hour trip, thinking about dead kittens.

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And so it progressed a purgatory of Tryingtosleep with one’s eyes closed and twitching for hours to zapping lights, listening to the coughs, farts and endless conversations that formed a cocoon of bus wanker misery all around. I forgot my blow-up neck pillow thing. The man in front had headphones on watching some shite shoot em up, and bellowing loudly and stupidly to his girlfriend to compensate.

Then it was the joys of border control, the French side unbothered and holding a convo about snail recipes or something between the desks throughout the process, whilst the British side was more terse, its walls planted with the faces of the missing (heartbreaking pic of twin toddlers, from Tahiti), and lines of stern guards. Offset though by the ciggie-and-a-gulp fuelled boisterousness of the usual Brit ‘lads’, catcalling each other across the room and having a knees up in a queue, that you want to run away from, far into the night. But then you’d probably get electrocuted or tracked down by helicopter.

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There’s a thing border control does with people of a certain background (think of the least English looking race) who claim to be British, and that’s to hold a seemingly good-natured chat while their fingers scatter alarmingly across the keyboard, checking and double checking deets, DNA and hologram lighting, and homing in on your best Home Counties accent as you chat about toast or whatever. I suppose at least it’s better than not letting you get on your flight in Moscow as they phone the consulate, bless.

But this was the first time in decades that hasn’t happened. The guy just waived me through after a simple ‘alright?’ greeting coming from me. I nearly hi-fived him.

Then it was back to The Bus of Broken Dreams. And The Ferry to Nowhere.

 

2. The Ferry To Nowhere.

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Why is everyone running? Why is everyone looking like they’re on supermarket sweep? Are we sinking – is Townsend Thoresen about to go tits up? Worst – are we missing a fireworks spectacular over the White Cliffs? No, people are desperately scanning the joint for the very few sofas, finally pinpointed high in the drinking Lounge on deck 8, so they can sprawl luxuriantly, disgustingly horizontal. Giggling occasionally in their sleep, while everyone else wiles away the witching hours slumped like the fat paraplegics they really are in tiny chairs. Lounge class armchairs for the not-so-lucky elite, while everyone else is funneled into plastic chairs in the canteen, making dinnerless conversation with their ever-present family they know and love. Those who don’t get a seat, the groundlings, hover interminably between corridor, toilet, games arcade and shop, then back again over two hours, or hole up in the corner like a homeless person. The very last of the last, confronted with the sudden freedoms of despair, tend to lie in the middle of the floor, sometimes the bottom of the stairs. Preferably face up in an x shape.

Supermouse belonged to the middle class – the cafeteria set – but without parental faces to stare into, made do with snatching two seats from a pouncing family, and making a bed in which my legs sat while my body lay. A cross class Centaurian of the highest order. My anorak became a body bag, and the chair backs were turned from the corridor creating a hidey hole of space where I could freely pick my nose under the covers or stare at my phone time, but still I can’t get no sleep. Dodo doo dedodoodooo. It’s like trying to doze off on a fairground ride: the constant footfall and football chatter, the lurid lights every time I moved the wrong way, the lurching up and down and all around.

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But soon enough it was over, and it was back to The Bus, and the last, listless miles to Brussels, where I woke after my first hour of sleeping in the crook of my shoulder, to rows of higgeldy piggledy houses and skyscrapers, each building unique, and walls of French signage. We were pulling into the northern quartier – once one of the prettiest parts of the capital but torn down to house the humongous Gare du Nord and later a new postwar Courbousien business district (of which they built, luckily, only 4 of the planned 20 tower-in-the-park monstrosities).

It was 6am in the morning, with an hour before the station’s Starbucks opened, and a good 4 hours to kill before the rest. Check in time at my hostel was at 3pm – a whopping full working day away. And supermouse is admittedly poor. And needs some sleep. I was thinking of getting off at Ghent, an hour earlier (and save me the daytripping train fare), then when realising we weren’t stopping began to look for inviting patches of grass verge in the business district.

The Gare du Nord, entering from bus level, is the empty waiting room of a de facto refugee village, many outcast from Calais’ napalmed Jungle Camp, and trying out a recently closed loophole of not needing a passport on the Brussels to Lille leg. Piles of people lined the sides sleeping surprisingly silently on flattened cardboard, a few insomniacs sat disconsolately staring off into space on a steel bench. I walked from one end of the complex to the other, feeling strangely at ease from my clothing – 90s retro all in black – made me look one and the same. It’s only a matter of time before someone launches a website called Homeless or Hipster? My torn jeans, baseball cap and puffa anorak was the perfect camouflage here, as was my lack of Whiteness in a place – unlike London – where race underhandedly corresponds with class. Supermouse could be one of the Hazara, from Afghanistan, common enough in the same social habitats of rich European train terminals: Vienna, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, Rome.

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If you’ve been homeless before (and if you haven’t please don’t be alarmed, it happens) you’ll get to know instinctively where could proffer up a safe place, even warm (in London my shining El Dorado came in the shape of a heated, street-level rooftop near the ICA, in Portsmouth it was a stairwell in the brand new quayside mall). The people here had conspicuously kept out of doorways, and access to any machinery or work station such as bank machines or security gates. I noticed a prime spot next to the ticket machines, but found it to be littered callously with broken glass, but finally bedded down outside a security gate that wouldn’t be used for the next few hours. Immediately some hoodies sidled up and began talking about the prone bodies to my left, which was unnerving, then proceeded to walk the room shouting in French and generally looking for response. Sociopaths – 1 in 25 of us – will find it irresistible to prey on those already fallen, which if you’re out of luck on the streets, will get to know well. I soon moved back further below which was more sparsely populated (worryingly so), but to another spot I’d checked out before, with a handwritten sign blaring its opening times in angry French. So I took my chances here, in the lobby, too near the front for warmth, and too distanced from safety with numbers, but infinitely more private. Three others shared the room, one of them snoring loudly and I realising his banishment from the main. A teenager, barely if at all 16, sat up and watched me occasionally from his spot just inside the doors, clocking me for what I was, a tourist.

I didn’t get no sleep, and bang on 8 the pharmacist came to open shop and I moved on, back up two floors to civilisation level. Here fellow travelers and backpackers arriving in from the street or more moneyed trains, slumped on benches, wary of or unbeknownst of those belowdecks, who were accessed by metro, then coach. Freshening up in the one public loo, queueing to wash faces and brush teeth (calm down! bottled water), my reward for the journey and teenage memories was splashing out on a mixed fruit tartelette at a cafe, run by one of those impressive Beneluxians speaking four tongues to a panoply of visitors (in this case on top of other ones – her French accented with African). In my book people clever enough to be fluent in 4 or 5 languages should be working in one of the EU HQs, not all night cafes.

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Then it was the long wandering into town, through the tunnel, past the skyscrapers and a park. Now, one of the best pieces of advice when travelling is: get safely lost, if you see something that interests you, check it out, and if you see a park, go into it (even if you have to pay). So I back tracked and took heed, entering another world from what I’d experienced so far. There is no view without a skyscraper shouldering in, but hey, what a foreground. Semi-tropical planting interspersed with exotic notes of Mediterranean and northern European, regal French patterns and English natural styles, hidden coves, courtyards, water and statuary, all in a compact area straddling either side of a busy A road, conjoined by a bridge. These are the former botanic gardens once reserved for royalty (the new ‘national’ Botanical gardens outside the city still are, being open for only a few weeks a year to the great unwashed), complete with glass conservatory the size of a small palace and a legion of early morning joggers with those small yappy dogs you ache to kick.

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All very nice, but I’m still a city boy at heart. Oh and I forgot to mention, it was raining. Slightly, but raining nonetheless. It would continue to do so for the next 24 hours. Come on, it’s Brussels.

 

3. The City of Questionable Monuments

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Okay, first off Brussels had enough to deal with before becoming the menu du jour of global terrorism, and that was in shrugging off its reputation as a faceless, slightly insipid city of bureaucrats. Its inelegant streets, lack of visitor profile and star attractions ensured it was not on a first choice basis, shadowed by nearby heavyweights such as Paris and Amsterdam – even postcard perfect Bruges. The latter of which I visited in my student years, and while sipping beer by the banks of the leafy canal, lined with unlocked bikes, and beautiful youth from across the globe, concluded this was EuroParadiso. A later stage on that trip, changing trains in Brussels, was marked only by the aggressive touting of restaurateurs on the tourist strip of mussels and frites, and memorable sex shop windows.

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But sometime in the mid noughties people began asserting that a place with a choice of 300 beers (added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in November), that invented chips, and has the best chocolate in the world couldn’t be all that boring. For a city of 1.2 million (metro 1.8 million) Brussels also usurps the adage that it has few monuments beyond a small statue of a peeing child, and the Grand Place (a stunning square with lots to see, but little to do). It has gargantuan buildings, not so obvious despite their size, by being squirreled away into various corners of the capital.

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First off the Palais de Justice, the world’s biggest building on completion in 1883, and forming part of the unholy trifecta of a rumoured Masonic pyramid, mapped out by the Royal Palace at the other end of the Rue de la Regence, and of course the pointy tip of the City Hall in the Grand Place back in town. Its large size meant the forced relocation of many of the inhabitants of the Marolles district, after which ‘skieven architek’ or ‘crooked architect’ became a grave insult in the Bruxellois tongue; and drew the attention of those worshipping totalitarian size to compensate for more human, physical disappointments – Hitler had a soft spot for the place, sending off Speer in 1940 to study the thing. It is perhaps the dark past that this building has tried to be brushed under the carpet, but by God what a huge rug that would be. The biggest building built in the 19th century is perpetually under scaffolding as they clean its vastness in a neverending cycle, a riot of statuary and pillars, bigger than St Peter’s in Rome. Its 160m wide front is 150m deep, perforated by 8 courtyards, and topped by a gleaming dome climbing to 104m, weighing in at 24,000 tonnes. It houses an impressive 253 law courts, and must function like an elegantly subdued factory line of criminals and justice. I last visited some years back, when the vast hall was filled with gigantic Chinese paintings, seemingly life sized landscapes of mountains and water hanging in huge sheets draped off the far ceiling. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.

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Next up, the art deco Basilica of the Sacred Heart, one of the Top 10 largest Catholic churches in the world. It’s 300ft dome is often mistaken for the Palais de Justice (how many massive domes can a small city have?) – which I found to my detriment by walking an eternal avenue south, then discovering much later I was walking west out of the city centre instead. Like the Palais, it’s largely ignored, being a 20th Century concrete building and therefore not really worthy of historical attention. And like the Palais it comes with its own sorry baggage of negative connotations, built upon the bloodied backs (and sliced off hands) of the Congolese slave colony that Leopold II (aka as Leopold the Builder in Belgium, rather than Leopold the Bloody Mass Murderer) operated.

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So vast a hellhole was his personal fief over one of the worlds largest and most populous countries back in the day, the Belgian government – after much haranguing from human rights groups – was forced to take over it’s own king’s ransom, especially after the population halved (meaning a ‘loss’ of 10 million). A trade in butchered hands had become a local currency – body parts were evidence back in base of a kill of a villager, who had failed in supplying their rubber quota, so providing a bag of bloodied hands showed your officer you’d been doing God’s good work that day. Wiser villages caught on – instead of sending out all your people to desperately hunt and tap rubber from the forest on a likely futile quest, you sent them out to chop off the hands of the next village instead, then plead with the mercenaries to take that back as evidence.

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This was a world where the psychopathic governor decorated his gardens with gallows and severed heads, and ultimately inspired Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Today a neon cross glows atop this bare, hilltop heart, offering sanctuary from the rain. Well, it can’t have been all that bad – refugees fleeing Belgian Congo for French Congo returned saying it was even worse there. Thankfully for these buildings, all court records were burned before the takeover, and we’ll never know how much inconvenient blood was spilled in making them, akin in symbolism to a very fancy concentration camp in all but record.

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Yes there is another big dome – nine to be exact in the shape of the similar sized Atomium that stands testament to all things sciencey, and like all great landmarks with the verve and dare to get through the planning process (Eiffel Tower, London Eye)- intended as a temporary exhibit for the 1958 World Fair but stayed after due to its popularity. It’s nine stainless steel baubles represent the atomic structure of iron crystals, holding views over the city, a sadly non-revolving restaurant, and some spirited ideas of what on earth to fill the balls with. Exhibits concentrate on the 1958 World Fair and the companies that exhibited there, many now dead. If you’re particularly into the trials and tribulations of defunct Belgian Airline Sabena, this is your place. Sadly I had no inclination to revisit this monument to all-directions queueing, and it is a bit of a trek outside the centre. Also worthy of mention is the fact so temporary was its design that before its reinforcement in 2004 it could have blown down in an 80 kmph storm, and that it’s top three balls are unreachable, ever since they found out they were utterly unsupported (the topmost one is available as it rests in the centre).

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Other worthy sites of Brussels are of course the Grand Place, the exquisitely detailed central square accessed only by alleyways and easy to lose, surrounded by ornate almshouses and er, banks, but forming a space where the city can parade and display, for example the carpets of flowers every second year. I missed it by one weekend, though two central nodes of the design were up and running, and made of vegetables. They had fancy tents set up to give out flowery head wreaths to any passing children, which was awfully nice though discriminating:  I had no kids to participate with despite my repeated attempts at procuring them. The place is the most beautiful spot in the city, and is jawdroppingly ornate, comparable to a large extended room of garrulous carving. Unlike the rest of Brussels it more or less dates to the same period, and marries its styles, hence the many unavoidable tourist snaps. Each building comes with a crowd of art and sculpture, in ever playful, competitive forms and turrets.

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The rest of the city famously employed specific architects for specific buildings – insofar that every street is made up of a hotchpotch of differing styles and gap-toothed roof heights. This makes for an extraordinarily bespoke and intricate streetscape, but is far from grandiose. The city is undeniably early 20th Century rather than the more ornate 19th Century dominance you’ll see in central London or Paris, and has a more toned down, Mannerist style of blank walls offset by intricate corners or the odd flourish. It’s more famous art nouveau is also a must-see, though it is unfortunately as rare here as in other cities despite its stronger popularity (the movement died out as it was inordinately expensive to outfit so many bespoke carvings and organic lines against the machine age), with many of its greatest examples torn down in the last century. London thus may be less intricate but is more impressive, in scale and more blanketing style.

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Brussels also suffers from the lack of any unifying street frontage, where shops openly disfigure the architecture above with heavy signage, plate glass and afterthought add ons. Much like London in the 80s and 90s, before traditional, less garish fronts and signs came back in fashion. In short the city has a great potential to become one of the most unique urban streetscapes, but loses it to personalised (read: bad) choice, grafitti and fly posters. It would benefit from a touch of local government totalitarianism. From afar one can see the good humoured jostling of styles, much less so at street level, ensconced by neon signage for pool halls, black glass, and L’Oreal models telling us they’re worth it.

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I never did get to see the Mannekin Pis, a 60cm boy having a pee – he looks utterly doll sized from the street – and that was built as a tongue in cheek water fountain back in the day, despite the urban myths that he’s some hero child putting out an attacking army’s fuse or a castle fire, or a statue given in thanks from a merchant whose lost son was found happily in flagrante as depicted. Okay I tell a lie, having looked at pictures – and realising the thing is dressed up in several changes of clothing each week (a competition is held and the winning costumes put in what must be a pretty dire, grasping museum) – I walked past that nondescript grey fountain many times, without looking. It keeps getting stolen. In 1963 a group of students from Antwerp held it hostage and tortured him mercilessly until more money for orphanages was procured, and apparently there are several rival statues across the country, some of which vie for supremacy by claiming to be an older original. One similar statue a few streets away is Jeanneke Pis, the more ‘relaxed’ female equivalent set up in 1987 for gender balance, and a lure to paedos the world over, because Belgium isn’t enough already.

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Other Bruxellois attractions include the Royal Palace, Cathedral, large churches and museums dedicated to single artists or exhibitions, such as the excellent Magritte Museum or House of European History in the EU Quarter. They are however not as prominent as larger monuments or museums in sister cities, and don’t garner as much international attention. A new kid on the block however is Train World, easy to dismiss as the territory of transport enthusiasts, but apparently highly rated on TripAdvisor by many entirely normal, functioning people who have friends and kitchens and everything. This new museum is pretty much the Scharbeek Train station, and is an all sensory experience, described as a ‘Train Opera’ on its website, with snazzily spotlit wagons and engines from all the ages, where one can drive or sit in style, blow the whistle and even stay in the attached youth hostel made up of unchanged wagons or the swankier hotel made up of luxury carriages. You get the free run of the place, not dissimilar to London’s Transport Museum, but with bigger, updated spaces, choices and lights. This actually came to feature on my list, much to my surprise – until I watched the promotional video on its website.

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The opening feature of a middle class Belgian family skipping through the station, is wrecked by Granny as she walks into the ticket foyer. Apparently she is as impressed and jaw-dropped into heaving silence by a clean ceiling and a wooden kiosk as she would be the diamond mines of Mars – you can practically hear her thinking privately to herself ‘ Mon dieu! I thought this would be just smoky old carriages and mechanics! What a stupid, out-of-touch fool wife I am, indeed.’ She takes the prize, along with her strikingly similar twin Jon Voight in Anaconda, for the golden teacup of overacting.

Her performance can be viewed nightly here, till the end of time:

http://www.trainworld.be/en/video-train-world-an-unforgettable-adventure

As can her fleeting cameo with Hollywood

 

Anyway, enough of Snakes on a Train. I stationed myself for a bit near a gorgeous art deco cinema that provided free wifi from where I was, to lose a few hours as any despondent teen on a street corner, staring into a handheld black hole while I waited out a heavy shower. The streets were almost utterly devoid of life, but for two street sweepers having a fag I almost talked to, but hey my Inner Briton won through in the end. But then it was time for lunch, and anywhere I could recharge the phonage, leaking data into the ether. Everywhere with vaguely Belgic food charged upwards of 17 Euros for the plate of fine looking gravy laden stodge, and I just wasn’t in the mood for chips, a bit like how people can sometimes not be in the mood for sex. I settled on the cheapest option called WokUp off a pedestrianised shopping street in the centre.

4. Customer Service

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Supermouse ordered in his best broken French, and the cashier put it through on the till, then just stood there expectantly. He didn’t say a price. We planted roots looking at each other like gunslingers. I finally had to look over at the till to see, and paid over a 20 Euro note for an 8 Euro meal. He only gave me 7 Euros until I made unhappy noises in French. No apology.

-What makes me think he did this on purpose is that (regardless of me being an obvious tourist):

1. He didn’t tally up/ tell me the price, rather obviously I may add. He just stood there like a big bearded lump of Belgium.

2. He gave me change for 15 Euros. A 15 Euro bill does not exist – and even if I’d given him a tenner and a fiver (which noone would do as it was 8 Euros), he would have to have given me the same fiver back. This is the most incriminating point,as Poirot would have surmised, with a little skip of his womanly behind.

3. He kept the till open, as if expectant of the off chance that I’d notice and cause a fuss – which I did.

One of three seems suspicious, all three is downright criminal – the fat thieving fat bar steward fat fathead. As is traditional with my Great British heritage, I smiled politely, thanked him, and proceeded to plot his and his family’s downfall with a strongly worded letter to his superiors that I’ll probably burn. The meal itself was utterly uninspired and bland, forking out 8 Euros (nearly 13), which for me is a lot for a packet noodle without the sauce, but at least I did get to charge my phone. Such 21st Century joy.

By now, believe it or not (where did the time go?) it was time to check-in. I made my way to my allocated hostel, the Sleep Well north of the Bourse – one of the closest and newest to the centre, but later that I discovered (from a passing vagrant) was near a semi-sex district and its edgy ‘characters’. Well check-in was absolutely GLACIAL, an all day affair. The Italian people, kids in tow, in front of me spent a good 20 minutes asking questions, filling in forms, looking for luggage, losing children, asking about the composition of air, and generally keeping the queue healthy and long, two lines in fact by the end of their all family inter sensory experience. I’d given up by then and was retiring on a big beanbag of dullitude in the foyer. I rejoined after boring looks of hatred at the lead witch and spitting at the baby when they weren’t looking – but soon realised it wasn’t entirely their fault.

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The next guy took up 9 minutes somehow, while a second queue that had been patiently waiting for 15 minutes finally got the man to do two things at once – and hand over a key that had been sitting in front of him the whole time, after which everyone started swarming around getting their luggage out of a locked cupboard. There appeared to be a pattern developing, and I began, in my abject boredom, to turn my attentions to what was behind the desk: watching the concierge as one does a creature of rare and exotic brilliance.

Okay imagine your nan using the internet the first time, typing on the computer with one finger and constantly looking up at every move to check and double check it’s still there on screen. Imagine her searching methodically for letters on the keyboard like she’s doing a complex chess move. Now also imagine she’s blind – see her picking up any item from the desk – a card, a pen, a sheet of paper, and she feels it for a second, as if checking it’s really in her hand, before putting it to use, very slowly and carefully in case it ignites, disappears or transmogrifies into a fish. Reading something means she headbutts it and smears her head across the sheet. Okay he didn’t do this last one – but begad he was S-L-O-W. Possibly on some kind of spectrum. He was utterly incapable I realised of making a decision, or doing more than two things at once, or thinking about doing two things at once, as demanded by any service facing job. I could see his screen, and yes, it did look marginally complicated, but the rate at which he clicked the buttons was like watching a scared child pressing random buttons, one of which would unleash demons onto mankind.

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To recap, taking an average 9 minutes to process one transaction means it takes one and a half hours to do ten people. It took 45 minutes to get to and through with me (luckily most of the queue had given up), without any of the ubiquitous info on the hostel such as the free breakfast place and time, where my room actually was, check out times or services offered etc, that I had to work out after. This was not an old, blind woman from the 1910s, but a well dressed, conversant man in his thirties, looking completely capable of drinking out of a cup without a straw. When a guy rocked up asking for a towel, he gave it to him for free, asking him to pay later when checking out as it just wasn’t possible to deal with it while the phone rang. And so the rabbit tunnel opened up of when and where and how the visitor could pay as he was staying 4 days (despite the till being right there). The man evidently couldn’t even work out change ad hoc, if he was in the middle of another transaction, but would happily make it even more complex than either option should be.

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Later I looked at reviews of the place and every now and then there was someone completely unhinged with disbelief at how long it took to check in or out, or make any kind of desk interaction here. People who had had the luck of running into our resident Frankenstein. Later my room-mate told me his virginal experience took out a whole hour of his stay, and the guy in the lift I shared, clutching his freebie towel, said his last run-in was so slow, that two other employees had to come along to ‘speed things up’ (read: take over). Personally I think if he wasn’t on the spectrum, and those weren’t his carers, they should be charged with crimes against the 21st Century.

Out of Luck

 

The room proved to be clean, but darkened, with a menacing lump on my bed. Someone had already taken it – a middle aged man face down in his Y-fronts – who waved me away to another bed. Turns out the old geezer was now taking up two beds, the fat fuck. Later while he was out, a young American turned up to share our room but found the last bed already in use too. Whereby much underhand, non-confrontational fussing ensued with several trips to reception, and to cut a long story short the selfish gimp got kicked out of his previous spot and had to make up two beds in order to go to sleep ha ha haaar. Then we set his hair alight and stabbed him.

 

5. Streetlife

The city is absolutely fucking impossible to navigate, especially with Supermouse too poor to use the live phone maps, and stuck with analogue 3D paper things that fold out and flap in the wind. Every street has two names, one in French and one in Dutch – sorry  Flemish. Sometimes seemingly unrelated. Also the streets change names at every other intersection or curve – thus looking for a spot on the map means you may have to weed out 5 other foreign tongued representatives on the same patch. Or adversely the street will dodge in and out of other streets and turn corners, disappearing and reappearing at will with the same name. I would pore over the maps (one larger, one in more detail) for ages, advertising my tourist out-of-town credentials, just to find out where I was, then find out where I was going purely by recognising street layouts rather than trying to follow the name caterpillar. To boot not all streets were physically named, lacking signage on the corners, or obscured by some important public announcement for tampons or energy drinks.

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Oh and the density of thoroughfares was mindboggling with the amount of blocks (hence two varying versions of the map, one for main thoroughfares and one blizzard-like, almost unusable artist’s impression showing detailed ratruns and side streets). Some blocks were only a few houses in area, creating more and more roadage or alleyways. Add on top the layer cake of overlapping pedestrian tunnels, underground streets and overhead bridges, plus sections of town cordoned off for a festival, and the fact there are so many alleys some of them are too small to be named on the map – as in they can’t possibly fit the double barrelled monikers into fonts so tiny, so are just a blank stretch. Case in point: to walk from the Grand Place in a diagonal to the next square a few hundred metres away, the Place Fontainas one has to navigate an ‘almost’ straight path southwest:

Grand Place de Bruxelles/ Grote Markt > Rue de La Tête d’Or/ Gulden Copstraat > Rue de Marché au Charbon/ Kolenmarkt > cross Rue du Midi/ Zuidstraat > turn right and reenter Rue de Marche au Charbon/ Kolenmarkt > cross Rue du Lombard/ Lombardstraat > turn left and reenter  Rue de Marche au Charbon/ Kolenmarkt  > cross the triangle of streets (Rue du Jardin des Olives/ Oliveteenhof/ unnamed on either side, so take the second exit) and follow it to Place Fontainas/ Fontainasplein.

Don’t worry you’ll get used to it. Like one gets used to prison, or pteranodon attacks. For the first time in my life as a geographer, I see the startling relevance of grid plans and postwar bulldozers.

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So Brussels is one of those places you grow to love and hate, and it’s meant to be endearing for it, and not schizophrenia inducing in any way. This is a place so close to beautiful, so close to unique, so close to worldly. Its panoply of jumbled styles, streets and character is however offset with a large amount of emptied, can kicking spaces and districts, and a dose of boredom. It’s wealth of architecture disfigured and hidden by shop frontage, or plains of concrete and bureaucracy. Its culture and history obscured by modernity, and globalisation, while its globalised inhabitants enshadowed by loss of opportunities and ghettoisation. Its creativity, so evident on so many corners is still lost in the reduced size of the market, fitting for so capital a region but also so small a city.

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One thing that did stand out a mile was the street art – and not just any of the ubiquitous stenciling, urban portraits or playful landscapes – but edgy, as in EDGY. A child being brutalised by knife-wielding, forceful hands above the shops, a headless, handless torso bleeding down the side of a tower block, a giant, puckering arse hole on an old factory. This is the kind of amazing shit that exposes the rest as merely illustrative, pacifying and pretty – by dint of its public nature – as any Hallmark greeting card. So what if a homeless drunk is holding a cute little robin on his finger, or war child a heart balloon? How very twee madam. Now look at that great big mural of a prostitute, legs askew, masturbating from a rooftop, like a giant fucking spider. That Marjorie, is street art.

Belgium Shocking Street Art

It’s also a telling sign at the progressiveness and tolerance of the local councils that none have been removed despite the artist’s anonymity and resident’s complaints. Some long suffering Bruxelloises in Saint-Gilles (including the Catholic Institute opposite) fling open their curtains each morning to an 18ft cock, though must be said its’ charm grows on you as a talking point at dinner parties and family get-togethers.

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My huge zigzagging walk through the city passed a festival of sorts, with some atmospheric crooning despite the bass, in the typical dark, sensuous tones the French like to sing in a way they think is infatuating. I could see perfectly from a vantage point surprisingly close to the stage, much closer than the paying audience, despite our little crowd being on a hilly pavement just outside the closed off area. A whole district had been cut off, which led me to fumble some more with the maps, like a barge in full sail/ pteranodon attack, climbing sudden hills, steps, and overpasses and into tunnels, roundabouts, market places (food from every corner, another crooner belting it out to a small crowd beneath the overhanging stalls), skirting palace gardens (hushed, dusky atmosphere, and yet another far off crooner, this time mega sized and booming through the trees not unlike an unseen God, who maybe got a bit tipsy at the picnic), empty squares and urban meridians, and culminating in the southern district of Matonge as the sun set. – So-named after its Kinshasan counterpart, and almost as lively and mixed. Brussels, when the sun is up, must be a seriously summery place, buzzing with song on every corner, peppered with languid city gardens, fountains, markets, boom boxes and epic street loitering.

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African businesses dominate in Matonge  -though residentially not so – it’s an ethnic collection of high streets that lure their community clientele to shop and work, rather than to sleep there, and one of those ‘up n coming’ areas pioneered by the creative crew and estate agents for areas with evident poverty or a history of rioting. Crossing from the important elegance of the Avenue Louise, one enters a crowded district of neon shopfronts, corner stores, independent eateries (both boutique level swanky and more down at heel ‘family run’), art nouveaux stand-outs, night shoppers, hustlers, diners, hipsters and solicitous dealers that cater to the steady footfall, spreading out in arterial waves from the busy main street that leads from the metro station.

I parked myself in the the famous Soleil d’Afrique, a popular Congolese spot run by a bevy of the local teenage beauties and a battleaxe of an older Belgian proprietress. Shared tables (horror of horrors) pub bench style, but inside, by the window I got my own little space – well, being the only person inside how could I not – while the great and beautiful lorded it out on the pavement cafe. The proprietress hovered around the order desk to my right, barking at her feline minions like a prison guard, then switching every now and then to say something exceedingly polite to me in a wispy voice tinged with throat cancer. Although my French accent is great, my grasp of the language is not, especially when they talk back. Thus, I’m often mistaken as a fluent speaker, and I try and go along with it as far as possible before the whole charade collapses. I just nod, smile, occasionally curtsy, say merci madame, (entering proffered cars if I have to), as I did every time her great shining eye of Sauron came my way, a reply which would make her occasionally freeze and toddle off to the kitchen. Probably asking if I wanted more chilli, or sex, or cat milk.

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It came to a toss up between Senegalese Yassa (lemon chicken) or peanut sauced wings on a mixed plate with Rwandan samosas (as far as I could tell the same as the Indian version but less spice), a mound of rice, sweet and sticky fried banana plus fried plantain. I chose the latter, and it was lovely and moreish, though not exactly fine dining, more Mama’s Own. The street was alive, constantly flowing with people from all walks, despite the late hour, and my eerie was perfect for spying creepily and judgmentally on passing strangers, aka  people watching. A manicured, middle aged couple who looked like visiting Eurocrats sat right outside my window, oblivious, the woman nibbling at her chicken legs with knife and fork, and her partner eviscerating it with oily hands and chomping teeth. At some point a fat drunk came asking for change, causing them to shake their heads and apologise profusely in the way nice middle class people do to mark themselves out as willing victims, and who finally allowed him to grab one of their legs before lurching off to the next table. Grabbing the chicken legs to go munching on that is, not to cop a feel of the good lady wife, though I’m sure that would have been on the cards any minute longer.

Then it was time to retire, make my lonesome way back to the hostel on the other side of town using the metro filled with partygoers and nighthawks, and wishing I had some nice Belgian friends to hang with, possibly snort lines off their calf leather dashboards and a fireworks tour of their family estate in Schlossburgerijken. But alas, it was to bed, and I was out like a light. Tomorrow would be a daytrip. You can exhaust Brussels in a day as much as it can you.

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6. Ghent

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Ghent. Pronounced Hhhhhhhhhent or sommat like that. Fell asleep on the train (loads of room, classy like), and woke up in Bruges, which is like on the other side of the country, a whole 15 minutes away. Panicked I managed to inveigle my way back onto another train going the other way (beware the difference between Ghent and Genk, two towns on polar sides, millions of miles from Brussels), calming myself from the situation of being lost on a foreign train network and somehow being trapped on a one way to say, Belarus or something, without your passport or proof of Britishness. Or being fined a thousand euros for not having a valid ticket, and the tradition of being prosecuted naked in the local law courts, with criminals eyeing your purty mouth. The usual Brit-abroad scenarios conjured up in sleepless nights and tentative pauses before stepping off the plane.

Note to self: Belgium has the same conniving set-up as the UK with half the trains devoted to empty, bowling alley aisles, designer seating, open champagne bars, pet creches and mini golf playgrounds to entice people into setting up mortgages for First Class, while the other half’s crammed with the baggage, stains, screaming kids and neck tattoos of the non-Ladies and Gentlemen sitting on the bottom deck of the Titanic like doomed sardines. It also eats hats, left forlornly behind on warm seats. It was heartbreaking.

Ghent is lovely. But almost too idyllic. Straight out of the main train station (designed by the local taxi boss and conveniently located a good few km from the centre) I began to walk into town, following a strip of neverending shops in the glorious morning sun, baking already by 11, and gradually getting more and more historic and beautiful in architecture. What was disconcerting however was the utter lack of streetlife, cars or open businesses. Sunday must be a major deal here, and I’ve heard rumour how on the continent everything shuts down, even the electricity and pigeons. This was it, the great State of non-Emergency, by law.

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I was looking for food, getting a pastry from the only open shop (probably Black market trading), a sweet little bakery near the station. Okay truth be told there was a speakeasy 7-11, too, surreptitiously selling me elderflower fizz. But beyond that, and for the next 2 hours I was alone like a Chernobyl tourist, but with better buildings.

They were gorgeous, one street approaching the canal/ river filled with  houses with their dates painted on, from the late 17th/ early 18th Century – their styles morphing in line with the change of century, and their ground floors normal run-of-the-mill shops. In London that rarity of age would have preserved it rather than being handed over to a cooking supplies store or a branch of WH Smith. But then in London it would have also probably been gutted into a home for the super rich, and entirely taken out of the public sphere forever. There were loads of cool looking independent shops and eateries, with enticing menus and interiors glimpsed from behind the glass – and entirely closed. But I’m sure would be buzzing on any other day, making the town more of a city.ge

 

On reaching the first square, a few pedestrians turned up, with some posh people sunning themselves at palatial cafes. We all stopped to watch an entertaining argument between a teenage, wrong-side-of-the-trailer-park yoof, low on his bike and studded with tattoos, buzzcuts, clinking gold, oozing ethnic minority and piercings, who had stopped to reply back to one of those old, slightly tragic widowers who have nothing better to do but check things are being adhered to in the neighbourhood, such as keeping to correct lanes or stopping at lights, or tying ones laces together. The young man had challenged the older, who huffed himself to full height in tailored suit, and dawdled shakily forward – a bit sad as we could see he was scared and about 103. But when it became clear the yoof was not going to do anything but argue, the old geezer started to rant, safe in the knowledge of his public self righteousness, and I ended up feeling sorry for the chav being told off repetitively in front of all. We clapped at the end and threw stones at the kid, until he drew out a machete and chased us.

I reached the city centre, now full of sudden crowds of tourists, snapping a legion of medieval, baroque, Gothic and Leopoldian monsters of towers, turrets, gargoyles and lacy intricacy. One scene I snapped, lined up from the bridge, took in a vista of three – no four, towers aligned in a row, and one of the few places in the world to allow such a picture postcard without a zoom. One remarkable building leading up to a grand cathedral, was much more recent – probably in the last few years, and looking much like a wonky roofed barn. It stood on stilts and created an empty, cavernous space as an approach to the Gothic finery. I wan’t sure what the use for it was other than a gargantuan bus shelter but it looked fab and dynamic (rather than fighting with the surrounding historicism it complimented it, albeit a little outlandishly), and was probably used as a community gathering spot or marketplace. The streets were full, the sun was out and the crowd chattering – yet still not an affordable eatery in sight. I mistakenly sat at one great looking outdoorsy place only to realise my intended meal was a child’s one, hence only 15 Euros.  In the end, after much embarrassed apologies, backtracking and forays down emptying streets I had to answer my growling stomach and settled for a goddamn kebab, the only thing I could afford. Though the Moroccan Merguez sausages were nice, it’s not what I had in mind, which was more on the Moules et frites, or Great Big Belgian Stew a la Ghent which, by all offers I had passed, came attached with the Queen of Belgium as your waitress and some diamond plates.

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Promising start, not so promising end. I almost missed Brussels. Everywhere was history, art and bon vivante, just not so accessible on a Sunday. I walked back to the main square, and lo and behold, another much larger square opened up, studded with cheap, good looking Belgian food in Bavarian bierhaus structures, staffed by winking models. Stew a la Ghent was everywhere.

FFS Tintinland. I scuffled my way across the bridge, getting tired already of the tourist pizzazz and dearth of local life… only to come across local life. In spades. Turns out every fucker in town is at a big fuck off street party, held this very weekend in summer, with a veritable labyrinth of alleyways and backstreets holding a neverending bric-a-brac fest (known as the Patershol market), interspersed with song and dance, freely flowing beer and wine, kids amok, books stalls and art galleries. Ohmisweetwaffleygod. I have to say, having traveled the world, this was a snapshot of society at its best – community everywhere you looked, welcoming outsiders as well as family, safe, vibrant, child friendly despite the alcohol, cheap despite the classiness, inhabited despite the city centre location, livable despite the history. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and I made a friend for a few seconds, being approached by a sozzled old lady in a crammed church courtyard, who gave me her drink – spiked I’m sure. She was leaving a local choir (an indy band in competition round the corner), with freebie food and endless communal tables, trying to chat to me in garbled Flemish before her husband came along and bundled her into the boot.

pat

Buffalo! Buffalo!

This Watchtower scene of social nirvana I realise is where all those infamous Belgian taxes end up, and strive for. The country has the highest income tax in the world at 42% – going toward the creation of a safe, laissez fair society (despite all the state support), open to all if not exactly mollycoddling them. Leaving people more or less to their own devices, albeit given a helpful hand in social security, almost-free healthcare and education, including university. This is when Belgian society can go awry however – its openness can, for example, be exploited by crime or terrorism, it’s live-and-let-live attitudes can lead to the political neglect of entire communities of the less well off and vulnerable, despite the contribution. It seems it just needs better planning. And yet through all this, the country, in contrast to its size, still manages to punch well above its political weight – having secured itself as a capital of a whole continent for starters, and enjoying an enviably high standard of life in education, culture, healthcare and economic diversity. This is the kind of country that can struggle to fill a central city street or club on a weekend, but holds the largest music festivals in the world, where it’s local cuisine can be summed up by a handful of dishes, but is studded with more Michelin stars per head than any other Western country. It is a dichotomy. And it seems this stems from the fact the last step of the process often appears missing: historic buildings protected through the ages, but let go to graffiti, fly postering, advertising and plate glass in the last instance. Poor communities propped up with funds but with little end direction, and little to face for the future except more state dependence. Where an exciting panoply of events, movements, sights and institutions is not garnered by a single vision or plan. A remarkable society sullied (as in all societies) by those who fall through the net; a proud history distinguished only by a dictatorship or two, a society as equally riven as united – or united by its divides.

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It works the other way too. Belgium, for a small country lacking in a global profile other than infamous bureaucracy, famous dishes people think are French, and slightly un-PC but adorable comic characters, is very, very diverse, as unique and independent as its architecture, each home different from the next. Myriad art movements, cuisines, peoples, languages, music, old and new institutions, architecture and history in the making, on every street corner yet mostly unknown beyond these narrow borders, all in a tight-knit ball of a country, sedate on the outside, riddled with rabbit holes on closer inspection.

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https://cementeclipses.com/

To sum it up Belgium is a bit like a large operation downsized. It does indeed have its pool of talent, but with limitations from sheer lack of size, yet finding itself the capital of something much larger. It’s a bit like your family suddenly finding out they’ve inherited Apple, and in management also. Your mum, who’s normally in charge of the household strings and does a lot of the shopping at Tesco becomes Director, while Dad, who’s the main breadwinner having worked in office admin for 30 years, and is an amateur gardener to boot, becomes CEO to direct where the company grows. Your sister Laura who got a B+ in her AS Level Art, gets to be the Creative Director Designer of Everything, and Auntie Julie who works in Boots is Head of Sales And China And Stuff. You really like Radiohead (never missed a gig), so that sensitivity puts you in charge of HR, communications and all the staffing, while your 12 year old nephew Axel, who’s pretty good at Streetfighter gets to manage, design and make the tech.

And they more or less make a good job at it to boot. Okay Laura did have a meltdown or two, your emails had to be sent twice each time to different OS’s, and Axel spent a bit too much time ‘researching’ Tekken with his mates. And the workers occasionally went on strike, especially after you forgot the holiday pay to the cleaners, many of whom come from the previous company you took over. -But more or less the firm stayed afloat and the employees stayed loyal (though mum and dad are fighting again and have split the brand in two). Apple still progresses forward, spawning myriad products old and new, and still a great place to work.

I sometimes wonder how all this multitudinous life and culture is quietly being lived in one place – and missed by everyone else in the world. It may have its workplace battles, but Belgium is quietly glorious; it grows on you.

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It was time to head back. I’d developed a migraine and was missing a bed in a dark hole. Alker / Alkie Seltzer XS btw, does the trick like no other, coupled with a smooth, almost too speedy train ride to snooze in.  Back in Brussels I picked up my baggage from the locker station, then proceeded to loiter my way toward the night time pick up. I headed back to the hostel, and dozed in their snazzy common room despite having checked out a day ago. There’s nothing like the luxury of boredom sometimes, when everything has been go-go-go for a while.

I made my way out to find somewhere to eat – having forgotten it was Sunday night and thus a cardinal rule to break curfew. I might as well have gone out looking for Sasquatch. I’d left it too late, past ten – and the only place that was open in the dense web of streets outside was a posh looking hotel dining room on the pedestrian shopping strip. Which of course was merely pretending to be open, with all its menus, candles and tables laid out, and me sitting there like a lemon before the waitress informed me it was a work of fiction. Learning a culture, or getting to know a place can be an infuriating process – you learn through mistakes most of the time, and you can’t slap people. I hunted down a few neon signs, only to find they were bars, a sex shop (do places still have those?) – or worse an utterly empty reception, and immaculate red tables in rows, with a single proprietor slumped lazily in the corner. Not a menu in sight this time. No drinks behind the bar, no computer or stationery at the desk. It was of course a front for a brothel, the cheap rooms upstairs frequented by the genuinely poor and transient, as well as the workers of the night (and day again). I was told because one of those immensely dodgy looking people in faded sportswear and red rimmed eyes approached yelling if I wanted something? What was it I was looking for? And in English – which of course means you simply MUST admit to being able to understand if you do. FOOD I said – no drugs, no women, and he told me what was what, and where to go, bless him. Not the next street, but the street after that. He punched his chest: ‘I’m one of the good ones’.

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No gang or accomplice or nest of vampires lay in wait round that corner, but there was indeed a fast food Mexican wrap place. Very swanky looking, whose clientele were made up of a few young tourists from the hostels, and the multi-ethnic yoof of the city having a quiet chat and a phone charge in the free portals. The sofas though were cordoned off in case we all got frisky suddenly and started dancing on them. I put my order through to a direct and speedy young woman – and as mentioned before, my French is quite convincing – but I have trouble understanding the blur of words they stream back. I switched to English and her demeanour softened, she even managed a smile. Brussels is one of those rare, rare places where tourists aren’t quite subhuman yet. The wrap was good, but nothing to wri…

It was time. The hour. The bit I was dreading, but now welcome to just get over and done with.

 

The Oddyssey Part VII

 

Homer, The Odyssey.   Ulysses (Odysseus) killing the Suitors of his wife Penelope on the island of Ithaca

 

The bus was gonna be late. The company kept sending an automated text to tell us – first 10 mins, then 30 mins, then radio silence, to ratchet up the tension. The crowd waited restlessly behind the huge looming bulk of the darkened Gare du Nord, seatless and apprehensive. Every time a coach turned up a hundred heads would swivel as one in the dark, like creepy meerkats, and follow its route down the street. One turned out to be a false flag, parking itself round the corner and getting everyone to chase it futilely before the driver, fending us off with a pitchfork, started shouting it was for Rome or Taipei or somewhere. Not London, doyenne of the civilised world.

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The bus finally turned up in a bad mood from the start, the drivers shouting at the people too busy trying to get their luggage in the hold to form a proper queue (two lines were needed, one for luggage, one to check the papers before getting on). It was each against everyone else, you versus the world. One woman walked to the front of the door queue from the side, and noone challenged her because she looked like someone who would want you to. Satisfyingly the driver wouldn’t let her on as she had two tickets and her husband was trying to put a small boat in the hold, so couldn’t be present – only those physically with their tickets would be allowed to board. She tried no less than three times the same trick, as if he’d magically forgotten what she looked like after 15 seconds, before she started shouting what was his problem and that she had been at the front of the queue the whole time, and he was letting people on in front of her. He shouted back just as vigourously. I sensed this was gonna be the general theme for the rest of the night: shouting, tired people, frayed nerves, stress, loneliness, regimentation, suspicion and darkness. The demon of border crossings was well and truly with us again.

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The theme continued inside. A posh looking mother and her two small boys had managed to claim the best seat in the house, surrounding one of the front tables, when someone asked if he could occupy the last seat. She shook her head obstinately – obviously a ghost had taken residence there, and would continue to enjoy the last comfy space for the entire journey. I stared delicate evils at her and could see her going defensive, her face becoming a mask of mother bear intent and hidden weapons at the ready. But it gradually lessened, then faded into fatigue and humanity as the bus started up, then began the drive to the distant ferry port. Sometime in the night I dozed off on some empty highway.

Sometime at about 2am some Mancunian decided to make a braying call about his extension to every friend he could find on his phone, about six of them. One of those people who are so loud, and so overtly confident about how very wrong they are you hesitate to react, and thus forever miss your window to shut the fucker up. Every person on the bus awoke, and listened intently to the wonders of his new conservatory, then some gossip about some saggy arsed work colleague who was ill, and the weather, in that order. Who the fuck is up at this time to listen to this shit? Us, evidently. At some stage I think he got strangled and it was back to the streets with no name.

We awakened with a bump, onto an almost identical ship, with the identical set up as last time – splayed bodies, wandering souls, excited kids, desperate parents – except this time the thoughtful, heedful staff had closed off the entire cafe’s seating area with a line of chairs, leaving 80%  of the passengers to wander like mall rats without a mall – I mean, who want’s to straighten up a few hundred plastic chairs every 2 hrs eh? I managed to bag a two-seater round a minuscule table in a row that lined the corridor, along with the lucky few, that fell into deep, ponderous sleep to the constant sound of people walking past. Ah, back to my teenage years again.

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A change in ante woke me to find a huge queue all around – the ferry was nearing Dover, just in time for the sunrise. As the black windows lightened to reveal the endless ocean, numerous African families became entranced, many of the kids – and adults, as if seeing the sea for the first time. They watched, crowding round the windows, the kids running back and forth, and creating breaks in the Berlin Wall of chairs that the adults tentatively but satisfyingly swarmed through, lulling into occasional silence as the undeniable beauty of the white cliffs hove into view. I wondered romantically if it was the first glimpse of Blighty for some, and what future generations would stem from this moment. I know for some, it would be through the gap in the door of a truck belowdecks. Some people were clamped in private cocoons of silence to the far windows, staying until even the queue had walked off to rejoin our vehicles.

 

I felt the need once back on the coach, and waited patiently outside the loo door as people got on. After about 10 minutes I suspected noone was in, and asked the driver’s assistant, who went apopleptic with disgust that I had chosen now to go, and not on the ferry, and that the loo was blocked, and how my psychic abilities were frankly disappointing. But yeah, I’d spent that precious time bagging a seat I couldn’t leave, and queueing up after mister,  and so what, I shouldn’t have to explain myself, and I have every damn right to go looking for monkeys after leaving the monkey market if I wanted to. But I just went, ‘okay, thanks’. He stopped then to look at me through his specs with the kind of silent hate reserved for people who just ran over your cat, an especially creepy few seconds. Then followed me as I turned and walked back to my seat, remonstrating to my back, and all passengers around how he couldn’t be-lieve I had had all that time. At that point I turned and told him, you know what, he didn’t need to tell me off about it. He then went to the front, venting to the driver like a spoilt child, and one that must have had many, many years of being bullied for his specky, whiney ways. The driver sighed resignedly, then went to make a tired announcement that the loo was blocked, and to tell the passengers they had had ample time on the ferry. The woman on the other side of the aisle, then went: ‘what the fuck is his problem?’

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Indeed. Where to start, other than to say, this is a microcosm of the West, of capitalism, of Brexit. Those who can only afford to globe-trot in bus style will be treated accordingly, all you huddled masses, where we can get away with servicing you in ways we wouldn’t dare with the middle classes, on our coaches, our ships, our tannoy systems and cordoned off eating establishments. I wouldn’t dream of tarnishing the good name of the carrier that so exemplifies the sliding scale of customer care to money parting, to remind us of our social contracts in life. But FLIXBUS, booked through the Megabus website, happens to be a Europe-wide transportation fitting specialising in either humans or livestock – I can’t quite remember – and that made the most of native German deregulation in 2013. It is slowly, inexorably taking over as a monopoly over 80% of the national market already, and just bought Megafuss, with a shining face turned toward the rest of the continent. Its drivers, so attentive and projecting to their customers, work long hours for low pay in the magic scale of subcontracting services that cannot reasonably be fulfilled. They also have to clean the buses or sell snacks during what is deemed “free time” to avoid exceeding limits for time at the wheel.

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I look at the coal dead eyes of the Megabusman, hand picked as the brand model from the bleak Northern townships of England, and see in him, his perpetually smug smile, his back-of-the-bus stature, all that is writhing and unkempt beneath the skin of our so-called communities, pulled across like a yellow balloon. As Megabusman wends his way through the dense history, thousand faces and mineral tongues of the exceptional continent, its teeming cities, echoing antiquity, efficient institutions, and modern largesse like so many crowded layers to wade through, that beaming potato smile will forever enshrine itself as an unchanging icon of the place, this great reef in a panoply of style and friction.

May Megabusman forever be remembered, if not long may he live. May his little cap float innocently over the riverine multitudes clammering below the grate, like a feather on the Kent tide. May his beatific smile haunt our marbled dreams like a glowing jellybaby of rumination. May his blue-black eyes always grace our collective memory, penetrate our perceptions, like the ever seeing, ever knowing face of stone idols impervious to our struggle. Oh Europe, you, temptress of the West with your unlimited autobahns and chocolate fountains, I do like your style. At times edgy, at times shit, at times glorious, at times deeply consoling, but always beautiful and strange. Europe, you absolute slag you.

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Got to the end? What do you think? Is Brussels a microcosm of the West? What other place would be an epitome of Occidentalism?

And do like if you liked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise of the Right

So what happened? Across the West we are seeing a wave of xenophobia and politicking that is fast becoming a ‘hyper-norm’ for hundreds of millions who remember a less volatile and divisive upbringing. Entire countries lurching towards the right after years of complicit media campaigns, with a resultant lurch to the left for its opposition parties. From Greece’s dalliance with Golden Dawn to Brexit, France’s Marine Le Pen to America’s Trump, the Netherlands’ tellingly named Party for Freedom to Hungary’s correctional Jobbik. Even Turkey, bastion of secularism in a sea of religiosity on either side of its continental spans, is undergoing transition back to its purported roots under Erdogan. There are of course the countries that have swerved against the momentum – Portugal, Romania and a trend-bucking Greece with their new left wing governments, and a Russia playing all sides from staging neo-Nazi rallies to funding anti-Nazi leagues with the self same sword. But overall the story is one of a steady quickstep to the right, in the manifold glow of patriotism, rhetoric and righteousness, offset by virulent pleas and increasingly angered remonstrations of a once apolitical youth. Indeed, what did happen to put us in this spin?

gib

To sum it up: regional destabilisation. If we were to try and pinpoint one episode that set it off we can look to Cheney’s puppeteered invasion of Iraq in 2003, that the CIA warned would unbalance the entire region. We could look further back to what led to that invasion – 911, Amerika’s final decade of oil independence, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, WWII, colonialism – but the latest boot up the arse that we can say pushed us off the collective edge would be Gulf War 2.0.

gw

Let’s try and put it in a sentence: Gulf War = legitimisation of Sunni/Shia conflict = destabilisation of the Middle East = Arab Spring = destabilisation of North Africa also = ISIS-Daesh = terrorism = more refugees = increasing destabilisation of Europe = destabilisation of the US. All to a backdrop of a media agenda in which the waves of right wing populism support the status quo of the global elite, notably a certain media baron that is the de-facto Head of State of several powerful nations.

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No it’s not all conspiracy theories, but we will have to wait a good few decades before it becomes textbook history, in which we’ll look back from afar and think: Gawd what fools, that could never happen in this day and age. But look at history; we never seem to learn. Give it approximately 75 years- in short the lifespan of the last possible survivors – and we repeat the same mistakes. Amber Rudd’s fiery 2016 speech in the Conservative Party Conference following Brexit (a year after the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII), calling on companies to submit lists of their foreign workers in a name-and-shame campaign, was highlighted as enacting chapter II of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Some went on to suggest she should garner a task force called the Greater Europe Search, Transfer, And Prevent Operation, or GESTAPO.

amber

The similar rise of hate-speech and media portrayal of entire peoples following the grisly terrorist acts across Europe this year mirrored those following Zionist bombings and the burning down of the Reichstag in the 1930s. Not to mention the turning away of thousands of refugees, closing down of borders and an utter lack of empathy for the dispossessed finding parallels to the forgotten flotillas of Jews fleeing continental Europe, only to be turned back to a certain fate. Yet all these past lessons flow under a generalised, collective blinkerdom, behind an epic assault of the here and now with a swipe of the phone.

jewish

It’s enough to make writers and journos turn to their window and think of writing a lovely misty piece on autumnal colours instead. That is of course the head-burying stance of  much of today’s youth, enamoured by social media and Kim Kardashian’s abusive, powder keg relationships with diamonds and make up. There are infinitely more hits and cultural change attributed to shouty, always-late pop idols, or cool places to travel to, or American pranking on camera, or Russian dash-cam amazingness than any kind of socio-political legacy and their cronyist, bickering leaders of a certain vintage.

kim

Yawn, what were we talking about again? It’s the end of the West, the end of now, the end of thinking, as we scroll through memes and kitten gifs and blockbuster trailers, but can you blame us? Disillusionment is the name of the day, propelling the voting as well as the lack of. It’s so much more enticing being cozy and nosy, and loved and funny than wrestling with socio-political discourse each and every damn day. Yes, there are indeed the battalions of celebs and kittens decrying the fall of America or Europe to suburban fencing (and the lone, haunting tweets of Clint Eastwood and er, Kirsty Alley who celebrate it), but overall it’s gonna be a  long while before their PR teams realise the potential in actually getting arrested, and spray painting those picket fences with allegiant colours.

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Only a little more than a quarter of eligible voters were needed to see in the triumphant Trump to power, with 90 million abstaining or busy watching teevee, or just tired after the endless rounds of voting in the average US year, with more not having registered ,and the complications involved. Even in higher voter turn-outs, such as the Brexit referendum it still only took 26% of the population to win and direct the outcome for the remaining 74%. To add another layer of murkiness, voters have differing powers depending on where they live, and by default, even how even much they earn, their age or their ethnic (read: ‘native’ or ‘non-native’) background. Hillary even won the ‘popular’ vote, with 2.9 million more voting for her than the questionable hair piece (more than the win for Kennedy), but by dint of regional representation in which seats are allocated to jurisdictional areas rather than equalised population catchments, rural, sparsely populated plots can have more voting power than teeming cities. If you read between the lines this is not democracy. This is another dimension to what fuels the disillusionment: the utter complexity, seriousness, and draining task ahead in taking on the rot in the system.

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It’s becoming increasingly evident democracy needs safeguards. On the one hand it needs to ensure it is a democracy in the first place, and not the kind of regional representation that leads to one or two party states, with an elitist slant to power of certain moneyed demographics as the UK and US are now experiencing. On the other hand, even if it is a bona fide democracy it needs to ensure it doesn’t vote to you know, kill the Jews or the Tutsis or the Gypsies. Or lock up the Syrians or the gays or the women, or the poor. Humans can’t really be trusted not to wreck each others lives, turn a blind eye and grab the money, even with the lessons of history. That’s why we have constitutions, and differing lines of political thought. To manage our base instincts of battling over the remaining resources, mammoth carcasses and available females, while instating hierarchies, power, control, and economic pyramid schemes.

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So let’s make this as snappy and invigorating as a giant herd of kittens taking over Kim and Justin’s bathtime. It’s like a reaallly cool story bro.

Back in 1950s time (think Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and milkshakes and lynching) Paris was the place to be for the coolcats. The youth were like, always asking questions after that really bad world war, and seeing in the commies on one side and coca cola on the other. So basically there were two sides: free to be free (coke), or forced to be free (commies), coz like people wouldn’t know otherwise ya know.

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On the one side there was coke and water skiing and bikinis and the American dream of a pin-up housewife, giant car, meatloaf and a retro pad with perfect lawn and no Black folk to bother ya’ll. You were free to be free. To buy all these cool things and one day, one day… get a whole fucking hoover and even a tele-vision, that would make all universities obsolete within the decade as we’d all be learning from it and going to the moon and shit and not shooting each other. After you know, an initial period of gross inequality, crime, corruption, and greed depending on your looks or race or class or gender. Individualism would be something to nurture and flower, like a selfie with 10 million hits of fame, and anyone could be anything if you wanted it enough. This we can dub Negative Freedom.

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On the other side you were forced made to be free, where everyone agreed to share the goodness of the earth and their work and the profits, and bask in this playground of light and industry and light industry, after you know, an initial period of killing off reeducating the old elite into equally likeable, free spirits working for a greater good, no matter your background, gender, race and class – I mean, what’s class again? People can’t be trusted you know, they need to be guided, at least until one day when they can be free from the stricture of law and prejudice and even governing. With all this collectivised effort we’d be going to the moon and shit and not shooting each other. The meaning of your life was not to merely buy crap, but to go all worker’s paradise in family, friends, children, and forwarding the arts, society and culture for the progression of all, so everyone could be everything if you worked for it together. This we can dub Positive Freedom.

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So some of these students coming out of Parisian universities at the time took these ideas of positive freedom to the holiday homes that Europe had set up around the world, those places like Algeria. This extension block of France had the pesky problem called Algerians, who lived there, and didn’t much like not having you know, a vote, and getting rule and divide, generations of mis-education and their resources stripped. How annoying right!?

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Anyhoo these students believed they had to force people to be free, so they started a civil war, but a really efficient one where they could plant a single bomb on some trendy cafe in Algiers and kill only a few people yet getting loads of attention and fear (almost as bad as accidentally clicking the Facebook Like button on porn). Plus undo the economy and stuff that would make things more expensive to police and fix than keep, a bit like iPhones. Rather than launch a badly thought out battle like you see in Zulu or cowboy movies, where loads and loads of savage darkies get mown down by the gazillion and quite a handful of handsome whities too, you could do the one selfie blow up and get a million hits overnight. No staging of overnight coups, picking battlefields or recalibrating satellites nosiree.

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This was a really good way to win. They used hardly any arguing and resources compared to you know, Game of Thrones, although the killing turned out pretty bad when France went all Call of Duty on them. But they still won, and the European holiday homes and farmsteads and mining operations and slave colonies around the world fell one by one following the same inordinately successful technique, in which some of the world’s poorest nations usurped many of the world’s richest, although at a cost of millions of lives. Most of these places switched after the initial war from positive freedom (forced to be free) straight into negative freedom (free to be free), as democratic, capitalist states (which means you watch teevee all day and buy stuff off TVC).

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However the European nations they had freed themselves from would have charged them for the years and years of ‘looking after them’, for every brick built, rail laid and bullet shot in that time, as terms of independence, but kind of forgetting you know, the years of er, human and cultural genocide, plus nabbing the oil and gold and labour and crown jewels.

But hey, a few years of debt and astronomical interest rates on the mastercard is priceless for that sweet freedom right? We’ll have everything up and running again in no time – no matter the generations of miseducation, rule and divide and the fact we’re really made up of several countries and several hundred ethnic groups that won’t bicker a-Tall. Not once democracy sets in and the majority (group) get the final say. They won’t behave like the colonial powers they just booted out, no.

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So the result is these nations become instantly chavvy and start fighting among themselves. Places like Sudan, speaking 200 languages, launching into 6 simultaneous civil wars from day one that it’s still fighting today, and mirrored across much of Africa and all those places where the world holds its resources… but strangely also most of its poverty and wars. And those European powers? Well we can call them ‘multinationals’ now coz everyone rich from everywhere has jumped in on it too. For every $1 billion given in aid $8 billion is taken back in interest payments (not even debt repayment, which has already been paid back several times over), and most of the resources (like water, land) bought up again and sold back to the darkies at a million percent profit. But as we said, we can’t be trusted. Places like Philippines became one big shoe shop for the queenie there, while America went on funding baddies and wars all over the place to keep itself rich and pretending to be a goody. The negative freedom (coke) in these cases resulted in so much corruption, division and inequality we can see humans were free to be free, but also free to step all over each other into total fails, aka ‘Failed States’.

Mogadishu Tense As Islamists Reinforce Southern Positions

Meanwhile other places continued their revolutions even after winning, and becoming positive democracies, like Eye-Ran. The country, inspired by Harry Truman’s promise to defend and free the oppressed peoples of the world, had originally elected a president, Mohammed Mossadegh, who promised no religious or royalty crap and instead democracy and taking the oil out of the hands of the Brits, that even won him Time Magazine Man of the Year back in the 50s. But then the Yanks got a new president, and in league with the Brits ousted Mossie-Dig from power, reinstating the King, and taking control AGAIN of all the oil with half now going to the USAians. So in the end the Eye-Ranians rose up AGAIN, this time opting for the positive freedom package. Like SO predictable yeah.

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Where people were forced to be free, the new leader, Mr Ayatollah Khomeini (pronounced Iyatoller Hominee) had a masterstroke of combining religion with politics (usually one cancelled the other), a bit like finally setting up Ant with Dec as a duo, after Ant kept shitting over Dec for years. Mr Hominy said that religion had all these sayings which supported positive freedom, bits like where women were free from inequality, fear, attack, rape and upskirt phone-cams by dressing them up in black picnic blankets and taking them out of dangerous situations, such as rooms with men in them.

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When the big war with Eye-Rack next door finally loomed, backed by Western guns, Eye-Ran got surrounded with nowhere to turn. It was seemingly Game Over. But once again there was that masterstroke of having religion be the back up buddy when they ferried legions of voluntary teenagers into becoming martyrs, by marching them into minefields to form an escape route for the rest. So Eye-Ran was no longer running, but winning, in thanks to the fact it’s Shia Muslim, which kinda, possibly maybe, means you could sacrifice yourself in the name of your faith, like that adorable nutterdad in Independence Day who first zaps the alien destructo-laser. Shia Muslims have this thing they do like in their version of Christmas or something where instead of giving presents they beat themselves with chains and whips and fire walk in respect of the sacrifice someone or other made sometime in the Book, and they’re not meant to enjoy it or pay anyone to do it by the hour either.

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This shocked the rest of the Sunni Muslim world, where suicide was considered a totally uncool thing to do, as only the Big Guy, peace be upon him, could decide where and when you popped your Nike-Airs. But it was a pretty rad idea and this cleric on the other side in Sunny-land Arabia said it was all a-okay and there was suddenly stuff about 72 virgins and all-you-can-eat ice cream thrown in, and everyone was like STILL NO, but some of them were like okaaaaay, lets see. So they did, and Ham Ass from Palestine went and started bombing Israelis, officially targeting citizens for the first time, in buses and cafes and beaches, much like in Algeria not so long ago, but all kamikaze style and justified, and starting a hero-worship culture.

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Meanwhile there was this place nearby called Syria, led by this ruthless dude called Hafez al-Assad (pronouced Ass Ad), who looked a bit like Frankenstein but a bit nerdier. Even though he was a scary mutherhumper he had some great visions for the Arab (pronounced Ay-rab)  world, which could extricate itself from the predatory West, like some vast horrible octopus sitting on its left, starting wars and overturning ships and planes and nations with its sucking tentacles, covered in oil and blood over 500 million people. Ass Ad was given all these promises, and played by the West, only to be betrayed in the war against Israel. So he went all gloomy and hellbent on revenge, and started to fund suicide bombing against the Israelis and Americans in Lebanon (killing 270 in one barracks). Which shortly after led to the Americans pulling out, humiliated. Re-sult!

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However the U.S of A had found a different fall guy, in the richest guy in the world, drum roll please… Mr Colonel Gaddafi. A bit of a weirdo who had been stationed in the UK, near a delightful little model village called Beaconskot, and who endured racist bullying from ex-colonial officers. As leader of his country he was mad as a bag of snakes, always going on about his ‘Third Way’ which was the dangerously upsetting alternative to negative and positive freedom, as bolstered by contemporaries such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Gaddafi’s version of the Third Way united right wing economics with left wing socialism, but this time from out of the yoke of Western imperialism and its motherfucking legolands.

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Except he wasn’t all that batshit crazy, what with setting up a state safety net giving out free education, healthcare, electricity, unemployment benefit equal to their professions, starter homes, starter cars, and child funds, and ensuring each person shared in the profits made from the voluminous amount of state oil. Anyhoo, they blamed the Lockerbie plane bombing on him (despite the CIA saying it had come from Eye-Ran, in retaliation for a similar jumbo jet lost to a US missile), and a Berlin nightclub bombing that killed three including American servicemen (most likely Syrian). They said he had weapons of mass destruction, then bombed the capital, and his gaudy palace, and reportedly his adopted 3 year old daughter, if she existed.

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So now we have quite a complicated picture, a bit like Bieber’s tour dates, causing grief and demonstrations across the globe. This vast squid thing has its tips inserted in pies so far in: Algeria, Eye-Ran, Eye-Rack, Libya, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria (oh and Egypt, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen and Jordan too). Fast forward a few decades and through 11 Western backed wars and the suicidal/ positive freedom, once unleashed by Syria is now biting it on its own arse. This malignant beast we can now call Eye-Sis. A certain Monsieur Gaddaffi is suddenly of use again. In a screeching u-turn the world leaders announce he’s one of the good guys all of a sudden. They shake hands in a blizzard of flashes, sign glitzy new trade deals, take in his family into their glittering celeb elites, and eye up the $200 billion the guy has in his South African bank accounts. He does of course, have to admit he will destroy his non-existent weapons of mass destruction, own up to the Lockerbie bombing and promise not to do anything batshit crazy again in order to get this rehabilitation, and a platform for his Third Way. Despite the European and American intelligence agencies agreeing he did / owned none of these.

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But then came the Arab Spring. Like the Paris Spring of 1968, when all those positive freedom students finally took to the streets of the French capital protesting the old skool bling, it would come full circle again. A poor Tunisian dude called Mohamed Bouazizi (sod it, if you can’t pronounce it just try and remember that name), was publicly humiliated and left destitute one day at the start of 2011 by a police officer who took away his livelihood when she confiscated his unlicensed market stall, and slapped him in the face too, the fat bitch. This was not the first time. The poor guy went and stood outside the police station, and in his final act, set himself on fire, and straight into a culture changing force.

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Like FUCK! He really went up like a candle into history. The publicity started protests, already blazed up by a WikiLeaks special a coupla months earlier exposing the corruption of the Tunisian state, with its high inflation, unemployment and corruption, and the demos getting bigger and bigger and setting off copycat movements across the Arab world. Powered by social media that could organise and reorganise people power with an instant tweet or status update, government after government fell, including Libya.

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It was all quite embarrassing really, here was people-power in action, long upheld by other democracies as the way to be and go. But these people were protesting the Western-backed regimes, that had so long kept them in the shitter. And they were demanding what the Arabs had wanted for so long – not religious righteousness, or historical rightings of wrongs, or land or resources or power. They wanted jobs, they wanted equal opportunities, they wanted an end to poverty and corruption and having to hustle up sex and drugs but no rock n roll for a living. But in the end, the absence of any viable alternative saw religion step into the void to unite the  disparate voices. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Ever more AWKWARD. Even the journos found it hard to report on the unsavoury aspects of people power, and what they fought against – notably us, the tyrannical ‘we’ in the West – despite it being the biggest wobbling of the world seen for generations to come. Here were heartfelt images of people uniting for a common cause, for freedom, after years of subjugation and that would change the world forever – but one against the regimes that we had kept propped in power, against the globalised culture we tried to sow.

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This was highly fucked, like a selfie on your loo uploaded everywhere ever. Batshit Crazy Gaddafi had only just joined the cool kids at the table, now he was exposed as a tyrant and a dictator that they were all sharing lunch with, and everyone suddenly wanted to leave. And maybe chuck a grenade or three behind them, to pretend none of this ever happened, and that they weren’t just having a jolly with his handsome sons and daughters after inviting them out at prom. Gadaffi’s end came when a US drone bombed his convoy, then a beating and a shot fired by a rebel group as he hid in a service tunnel.

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So there we have it: one vast tentacle eating its way through several nations, then biting back on itself, and clawing a way out again. This happened again, on a much larger scale, involving several wandering, bloodthirsty limbs.

When the Americans invaded Eye-Rack a second time, it planned for the war, but not the ‘peace’. As seen in Africa, the onset of democracy meant the competition of those straining for representation, especially the minorities that would lose votes by dint of lower numbers, and thus their bling. Democracy in this case kind of means if you’re all sassy and hawt – but there’s only you – the bigger guys get to take your iphone and selfie stick and pearls to share. This means fight fight fight!

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Eye-Rack soon broke up into squabbles and bombings and massacres when the Americans instated a corrupt government that would  have automatically put the majority (70%) Shias in power, leading in turn to an insurgency that led to the real extreme kid on the block to rise, Eye-Sis, or Eye-Sill, or Daesh for short. Of the myriad fighting groups in neighbouring Syria, now stricken by its much bloodier version of the Arab Spring and a new helmsman at the fore in the more-flattering-but-just-as-vicious, Basher al Ass Ad, Daesh proved to be the longest lasting kingpin to sway his power.

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This guy Dish was bad, real bad. And savvy. He knew the inherent weaknesses of every bully in the playground let alone every kid. He used their own social media against them to highlight their failings, and to bully them too – setting up horrific websites selling ransomed prisoners, shock scenes in their captured cities, mass executions – plus different websites, targeting schizos and those smelly people on buses that talk to themselves to blow people up, or run them over. Haunting things designed to disturb the comfy echelons that ruled from afar, as yet relatively divided from the horrors on the ground. So this of course leads to millions and millions of refugees, in turn fleeing a society gone mad and a war with an estimated 700 sides.

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The story so far: two tentacles have embarked on a path to positive freedom, war, and suicide bombing and see their return by bombing and terrorising their own body back in Syria and Europe. Now other arms are sending refugees by the million, across treacherous waters, through minefields, deserts, soldiers, bombs and predatory gangs. Organised crime spots the opportunity to recruit a wealth of sex workers, kidnap children and exploit the desperate dispossessed, while innocents drown in their thousands off Trip Advisor highlights.

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Aylan Kurdi.

So the European population is 750 million, they can absorb a million or three more surely? Plus its ageing population and slowing economies are calling out for precisely this kind of youthful, independent boost that will be a demographic dividend for generations to come. Not likely. A wave of revulsion from the right wing press, the terrorised and the patriotic has made it a destabilising issue, as a path is forged to the voting booths across the region to keep them out, and any others. Europe, the late 20th Century and 21st Century destination of choice for the worlds’ migrants, is full they say. Many of its states, once the world’s most popular tourist destinations, are now finding themselves on the list of most dangerous places in the world to visit, due to a wave of horrific suicide attacks, and a traumatised public dealing with the fall out. Never mind that out of the 2,984 terrorist attacks in Europe over the last 7 years,  only 18 were Islamist (that’s 99.3% being committed by other nutters for other politics – mostly independence movements), the coverage was global, bloody and penetrating.

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And look again at the stats. Of the world’s largest refugee hosting nations they are dominated by the Developing World, not the Developed, the poor guys not the rich, many of whom suffer their own internal conflicts and refugee movements.

  1. Jordan >4.5 million (70% of the population)
  2. Turkey, 3.1 million
  3. Lebanon 2 million ( a jump from the 69th largest refugee population in only 3 years, and now making up 45% of the population)
  4. Saudi Arabia 1.7million (not part of the UN agreement on refugees, but accepting them in all but name)
  5. Pakistan 1.6 million
  6. Iran >1 million
  7. Germany 1 million
  8. Ethiopia 700,000
  9. Uganda 700,000
  10. Kenya 600,000
  11. Chad 500,000
  12. Sudan 330,000 (likely to double this year).

For comparison the US comes in at 17th (267,000), less than China (300,000) or even those fleeing TO Iraq (300,000), a country already struggling with 4 million internally displaced refugees. UK is 30th with 117,000.

(Btw Iraq, despite, and perhaps because of its troubles, happens to be the worlds most charitable nation, with 70% of the population having helped out a stranger in the last week.)

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So there you have it, it’s a big fuss over nothing, a drop in the ocean, but a big big something in the background. Never mind the million+ dead, the faces of the survivors, or the fates of those to await, now is a time as Adam Curtis puts it, to give up the complexities of the real world and indulge in the comforts of the fake one. The Hypernormalisation of the craziness, blood lust and intricacies of all that is around, but photo bombed by what we want, not what we need.

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If there is a lesson in all of this, we perhaps need to wrest the reins from the propaganda merchants for at least one last leg of the journey to the cliff, and not to lie willingly while our world and our judgments go the way of shit hitteth the fan. History has taught us, like a stuck record, skipping CD  corrupted download, to ignore it is to see it worsen, until it becomes that huge glowering thing of nightmares behind the bed nothing can swipe away. That the seeds our elected leaders sow do have consequences, no matter how much we brush it under the carpet, like a giant quivering mound of triffid smelling of wee and death.

And even if it really, really is just about us, it’s gonna take a chump out of our future, and in terms of self preservation, that’s not good. We can still try and feel safe, and loved with a future that beckons, where we will grow up to do great things and discover a life, but to ignore it is to tempt fate.

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And our journos may do well to respect the tradition of truth, even in a post-Truth world, where controversy and exposé do little to dent popularity based on our inbuilt chauvinism – even powers it, through the orators du jour that cater to what we want to hear not what we need to. Patriotism makes us feel warm, righteous and gives us meaning. It rekindles and celebrates our culture under the onslaught of constant change, it defends our proud history. It nurtures the kind of heroism reserved for fighting for others, and legitimised by a complicit media and millions of our kin. But beware what you bring into the room, it needs feeding.

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Anyhoo, enough doom and gloom, in the great new journalistic tradition – less of Robot Wars and more of Strictly, so lets end on a high note. No article can be complete without a cat in it somewhere. We know this. May we all live long and prosper. Choose Life. Or something profound like that.

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http://www.warrenphotographic.co.uk/

The Olympicked Chalice

Who wants to win the Olympics?

That moment when your host city beams to the world its assertions of civilisation, finds its cultural identity out of a globalised melting pot, celebrates its diversity, reminds us of its historical achievements, and wheels out its mystery celebs. All in a lovely package of inclusiveness, modern thinking, and children. Lots of children – alone, in groups, singing, dancing, being disabled; smiling for months till their cute little faces wrinkle preternaturally for the rest of their lives.

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www.dailyrepublic.com

But squint again and behind those dazzling teeth and choreographed lightshows is a helluva lot of worry. Will that vast stage behold an architectural and community legacy? Or be a money sucking, windblown embarrassment for decades to come? Will the computers work the show faultlessly, or mechanical breakdown create an epic, global case of schadenfreude? Will we spend too much, drawing negative criticism by the tax indentured populace, or too little, drawing the dubbing of an ‘austerity Olympics’? Or worse – spending loads but having nothing to wow with despite.

Will terrorism raise its underlying head, or freak accidents mar the history? Will corruption claim millions, or worse, be publicly found out to have claimed millions? Will the Olympic spirit die beneath the spotlights?

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^Helen Sharman and the Olympic flame, World Universiade 1991. Helen is from Slough.

In short the Olympics is like sitting a difficult exam or a lesson in complex public speaking, but with the world watching (and all of history), where every fault is indelible, will cost millions, and draw waves of unabashed laughter and criticism, with people paid to heckle. A merciless stage. Even beforehand the vast roving interest of the world, not unlike the Great Eye of Sauron, will beam down at your preparations, go through your friends list (and ex-friends) launching investigations, reading your old diary and spending a good few hours chortling at your fat photos, or sharing the bit where you admitted to stealing a Boyzone mag off Chantelle Norris.

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It is in short a poisoned chalice, your chance to shine, and fall, all over youtube. And it’ll cost you in crippling loans, cancelled holidays, stress, and psychiatrists for the foreseeable future no matter the outcome.

The turning point can be attributed to Athens 2004. Beforehand the huge burning eye of the world’s press was more or less politely unbecoming, or too bored to really pay attention until the big day, with a flurry of activity  before everyone sodded off again. But their own chance to shine came with the increasing spotlight on the delayed construction of the Olympic venues as the big day came ever closer. Olympic Committees arrived to study the progress, or lack of, and came away tutting with some stern words on taking it all away, and never investing in olive oil again.

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www.rediff.com

Like a countdown, the papers could get more and more clicks with every update, wallowing in the Greek mess of infrastructure woes, bureaucratic red tape, lazy work ethic and employment rights (the much frowned upon opportunity to strike). Ignoring the fact Greeks work the longest hours in the West, were one of the poorest members of the EU, and have a damned right to have rights (what with the birth of democracy and all that), it was all too sordid and sardonic not to shake ones head or roll our cultural eyes. Even after they completed on time, launched a highly artistic, emotive and epic opening ceremony that’s the template for every one after, and went more or less without global incident or stage blooper (except the bit where the marathon runner from Brazil got rugby tackled by a mad Irish priest, and lost his lead). Still the effortlessly gorgeous conversion of the national stadium by Santiago Calatrava has been the most beautiful yet devised and a testament for decades to come- a lesson in geometry, natural lines and low cost.

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www.greece.com

Yet we cannot bring ourselves to ignore the perceived ruination of a nation. The Olympic legacy, costing 10,000 Euros of upkeep a week for some buildings to lie vacant, sun-stunned and overgrown. The Handball Arena is now littered with UNHCR tents as use for a refugee camp, while the iconic diving pools lie empty. Or rather we prefer to look at that and ignore the other legacies (such as a highway network, a sparkling new metro and airport etc). Also to look at Greece’s current debt crisis, and put the blame on the elaborate staging, rather than the cook-the-books routine that we all partook in pre-Crisis. To this day news still report on the weed grown facilities looking much like the Classical ruins a metro ride away, despite that countdown long having finished. They will also report unfailingly on libertine passengers not paying on that new metro route.

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www.dailymail.co.uk

Then came Beijing 2008, China’s much heralded coming out party with all the fanfare and billions to invest on her make up. And if you thought Greece went through a PR disaster before her debut, China went through a real test of fire, complete with flamethrowers and paparazzi fast on her Jimmy Choo heels. The year according to Chinese astrology would not be a good one from the outset, despite 8 being the number of choice for luck. The Olympic mascots – the Fuwa, or good luck dolls symbolising the ancient Chinese elements of Water, Earth, Fire, Wood and Air- rather became sinister, cursed symbols of disaster that year. The Five Horsemen:

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Jingjing the Earth panda, native to Sichuan province, was quickly associated with the devastating earthquake that Spring that wiped out 90,000 lives there. Nini the Air swallow, who looks like a kite, was portent of doom to a highly embarrassing train crash, that killed 40 on the country’s much lauded new HSR (High Speed Rail) network – in Weifang, the ‘kite city’. Yingying the Tibetan Wood antelope saw in the biggest wave of protest and race riots in Tibet since occupation, while Watery Beibei the South Chinese sturgeon, saw in flooding in South China that killed 150 and displaced a whopping 1.5 million. All that remained was Huanhuan the Olympic Fire torch cutey and the protests that dogged him throughout the world, so much so they effectively banned foreign flame routes from thereon. China was literally introducing herself to each member state with a round of publicity to her (in)human rights record; and the Fuwa would forever be known as ‘wuwa’ or witch-dolls after.

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As for PR, Beijing did indeed wow the world with a glorious, elaborately staged opening ceremony that gave a soft touch to totalitarian synchronisation, and became the benchmark for all that followed. But even that soon drew criticism. ‘Live’ footage of the fireworks marking out 29 huge footprints across the city to the stadium was widely reported as being faked, thanks to the noticeable onscreen graphics (in reality the fireworks did go off but couldn’t be filmed from above due to danger to the choppers). The insectoid little girl singing the national anthem was found not only to have been miming, but mouthing along to another not-as-sweetie’s voice after a politburo member deemed the vocals substandard (though the girl in Sydney’s previous ceremony, and the norm for all the others, would have been guilty of the same).

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Video Grab/Kent News & Pictures Ltd

They did go off, capitalist dogs:

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Further controversy followed when it was revealed some members of China’s 56 minority groups showing off national dress were Han Chinese, and not the stated ethnicity (though bear in mind ‘colour-blind casting’ was employed in every ceremony since, from London’s Victorian opening theme to Rio’s historical journey of race). For all China’s trump and glory, it became obvious her  detractors would not be missing a beat from the get go.

The Olympics was indeed an overall success: the capital cleaned up and laced herself with state of the art infrastructure, the weather held off, and a memorable Games as could possibly be was beamed to the largest ever global audience of 5 billion. But it also heralded the officialisation of an anti-Chinese rhetoric in the world’s media that continued after the poppers ended. After that mixed year Beijing’s leading Google association became tied to ‘pollution’, rather than being an ancient capital of the world’s biggest population or richest country. Beijing was smog, China was totalitarianism, and its economic rise one to fear, or belittle; its culture aping, uncivilised and enchained. That looked funny and talked funny. It wasn’t the ‘lifting of the sky’ of a billion people on some far off horizon, more a inviting your bling-bedecked Auntie Shazza to a Tuscan wedding.

torch

When London’s turn was up, envisaged protests to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War to its extensive colonial er, legacy saw its Olympic torch route kept strictly within the host nation for the first time. It was initially dubbed the Austerity Olympics to be held during the global financial crisis  -London would be the first city to hold it a third time, but both times before were after the world wars and had effectively defaulted there for minimalised costs. The original plans were billed far lower, despite increasing realisation this would be a last once-in-a-lifetime chance to hold a fully fledged Olympic thingy, rather than yet another bare bones offering involving a big pie to go round and some spirited bunting.

worst-party-5

Luckily, it appears the politicians ‘forgot’ to include tax, inflation, infrastructure or contingency funds in their public bid. Nevertheless local protest to the increasing cost of the Games began to garner as the plans began to balloon. Then someone went out and bought a really big bell. In the end it worked out as the second most expensive after Beijing, climbing from initial budgets of under $4 billion to a $15 billion whopper (not including infrastructure).

lon

In the run up to the opening, more criticism – and laughs – came, thicker, leaner, faster. The beds to gangly athletes in the Olympic Village were found to be too short. Northern drivers, bussed in by private firms and refusing to use newfangled technologies such as er, satnav, were lost for hours trying to transport athletes from the airport, as their captives launched their ordeal on social media.

The worst fiasco came when the world’s largest private security firm, G4S, completely failed to deliver for such a sensitive, highly scaled event, with the army stepping in at the 11th hour to cover the shortfalls. The firm had seen its personnel requirements doubled to 23,000- and subsequently demanded a payrise from £7.3 million to £60 million, half of which it spent on its gold leafed, water-walking management and only £2.8 million on the extra recruitment, to utter ineffect.

loo

http://www.theguardian.com

A further show of unbridled commercialisation at the expense of Olympic spirit came when viewers noticed the legions of empty seats at many events, despite all tickets having sold out. They were of course the large amount given over to sponsors and associated members, who never bothered to attend, or spent their time at the bar watching footie or dancing like fat twats in suits.

swi

 

A final pluck at the strings came with another instance of breakdown. A clock froze during the fencing at the start of the Games, which lead to Shin A Lam unfairly losing a medal, made worse by the decision to uphold the result despite the cause being mechanical failure. It not only exposed the Olympic flaws, but its embarrassing propriety when they muttered painfully to the South Koreans that one has to pay to have an appeal considered. The view of a lone player sitting on an emptied stage, to half an hour of a visibly slow-clapping crowd (to leave the arena means you accept the decision), leaves an imprint.

shin a lam

All in all London did manage to pull off an inordinately successful campaign – the Opening Ceremony – the first section especially- was one of the most memorable of all time, the Games went off without further hitch, and the PR armies of gurning volunteers, an array of citywide cultural events and fun facilities meant it was one of the most enjoyable ever. The legacy of mixed use buildings, and a deprived district now becoming a polished hub ensured no international follow-ups. They even turned a marginal profit thanks to £1 billion of the contingency fund not being needed, and the following year London became the world’s most visited city. As a sign of its confidence, even in the closing ceremony, they included a poignant shot of Shin A Lam sitting in silence as her world burned. Like the Opening Ceremony, it showed not just the rosy image of revision, but the blood, sweat and tears also.

lond

In reality the legacy  was a mixed one. For all the much lauded intentions, much of which won London the Games in the first place, they have not been the complete success as widely reported. The route to the Olympic Park remains from day one, as through the city’s largest shopping mall, a festival of money parting and commercialisation; as apt today as it has ever been. The stadium itself was intended to be downscaled and kept for athletics, but the unjustified cost to keep it running led to a complete renege on that idea. And at further cost – adversely dismantling the permanent features while keeping the temporary ones, to the tune of $1 billion, to change it into a football arena as first proposed. FFS.

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The legacy of turning a nation to sports – the ‘Singapore Promise’ to “Inspire a generation” was neither fulfilled. The heartrendingly humble video they played at the bidding, of children from all over Britain and the world seeing the Games and one day becoming Olympians, thus underlying the importance of investment in public sport, does not seem to have transpired. Public facilities across the country have closed, school budgets have been axed and sports participation is dramatically down (people playing sport once a week, shrinking by over 200,000 every six months), despite £325 million invested in getting their dimpled arses off the sofa each year by the state quango.

sprts

At the end of the day London was a success and an English apple of the eye, but behind closed doors not as amazing as trumpeted. The city does have a legacy, just not so much the one it promised about you know, not staring at the fridge, and changing society n crap. More about lining the pockets of investors and landlords, and fulfilling that raison d’etre of sticking two fingers up at the French.

Neither do the Winter Olympics escape, especially if it’s a non-Western country. Although Western countries do get noticeable concessions. Vancouver 2010 garnered its fair share of critique even before it started  following the tragic death of 21 year old Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia a few days into practice. Following  driver error he hit a steel support pole that should have been protected, on a luge track that was 12% faster than its intended limit. Also marring preparations was opposition from certain First Nations members, advocates to the colonial record of one of the major sponsors – the Hudson Bay Company, the repeated vandalism of the Olympic flame, and the plight of the low-income families displaced by the building projects, none of which were beautiful thanks to budget. These were little reported outside national papers, though the British press did castigate the games as overly nationalistic, in a purported attempt at embellishing London’s follow up.

nomar

Vancouver’s opening ceremony heavily featured mechanical failure in a rather sketchy opening show – overall beautiful, alluding to the virginal nature of the First Nations plus a mesmeric song by KD Lang, but also involving an er, stand up comedy sketch, Donald Sutherland as the be-all and end-all of Canadian fame, and a malfunctioning arm of the Olympic flame that denied the opportunity for LeMay Doan to light it. But never mind that, and don’t worry too much about the Georgian unpronounceable either – they gave his family $10,000 to renovate their house in a ‘goodwill gesture’, and Canada’s a nice, civilised Western country anyway, like Britain or Australia. Sydney was great, that was the bestest games ever before all this controversy began (just don’t mention the bribes during the bidding process).

vancouver2

However, Sochi 2014 in Russia truly marked the shining benchmark of public(ised) criticism, the El Dorado for reporters from rival trade blocs the world over. The world’s most exorbitantly spent-on Olympics, costing $51 billion (tick), in a non-Western (tick) populace that can ill afford it (tick), under a charmless dictator-in-all-but-name (tick), with problems with democracy (tick), a lack of gay rights (tick), garnering accordant social media campaign (tick), in a place more famed for its palm trees and the warmest location yet devised (tick). And an unimaginable amount of graft with billions siphoned off to fellow cronies and friends of Putin (tick). Oh and unfinished buildings in the run-up (tick). And of course, a questionable legacy, with which the story can still be milked for decades to come (tick). Let’s just entirely ignore how great, artistic and well organised the show actually was in the end…

sochi

Oh Russia, you glorious summit for cultural disdain, you embellished standard of socio-economic disaster, you God’s gift to dash-cam Youtube, you. Oh mystical horizon of fur-lined intrigue and chemical factories, how we have missed you. When one of your Olympic rings failed to bloom in the Opening ceremony our collective hearts swilled with drunken love, and bloomed with laughter. Oh the mirth, uniting peoples the world over, in Olympic based spirit. Add to that the cherry on top of the current doping scandal banning much of the team, and replacing medals all the way back to 2014 – and you’ve got the best ever tally won by a single country, now being taken down by a rung or three. Thank you so much. We feel so much better for ourselves.

soch

Now Rio, you seductress of the south. With your teeming, drug fueled favelas, high profile kidnappings and police shootings. Where to turn the world’s eye – the blinding inequality? Racial politics? High homicide rate and petty crime? The nationwide protests at rising costs and price hikes? The indentured former terrorist / torture victim/ President being impeached? The deepening recession, crumbling the dreams of much of the Developing World? The bacterial gardens of the Guanabara Bay? The unfinished construction? And full circle to Olympic Committee threats to take the Games elsewhere (and never to hold it in a Developing country again)? So much to choose from, so little airtime.

oly

Okay, the ceremony went without a hitch – though there was that little girl, now summarily executed, talking the whole time behind the first Oympic Laureate making his speech. It was evocative, emotive, fun and held its message for a Green Games, plus it’s amazing, eco-friendly Olympic cauldron shining like a gorgeous, mirrored beacon. And the marathon man who got rugby tackled by that Irish priest in Athens 2004, and who lost his winning medal as a result, got to light the flame. Heart warming. Classy like.

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brazi

But then one of the Olympic pools just turned fart-smelling GREEN, inexplicably so, so wa-hey! We’re back on.

rioo

What can we expect from Tokyo 2020? The Japanese are a nice bunch, they’re the sweetest, most polite of peoples, eminently civilised and welcoming, economically great, with a winning allure (food, arts, media) and defining popular culture. Low inequality, high social justice, low crime, high environmentalism. Bullet trains, geishas, anime, Michelin stars, forest cover, zen, bamboo, shrines, cherry blossom, sushi, cat cafes, bunny islands. What could possibly go wrong?

jap

Well the whales, the war, the yakuza, the comfort women, the weirdness. The suicide rate, the groping, the live food, the history textbooks, the depopulation, the porn, the radiation, the homogeneity, the ageing, the Senkaku Islands. Actually this is gonna be fantastic! It may be a time to put down arms, but to take up more civilised, cultured weaponry instead, from social media to trade wars, hacking to drones.

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It’s a telling sign their inital logo already got sued by Belgian designer Olivier Debie, forcing a later redrawing:

olovie

 

As we all know the Olympics has traditionally been the time when we all lay down arms and the world stops fighting for the duration of the Games (except in er, WWI, and er, II, and er, every war after that). But anyhoo it’s the thought that counts. The Games are apolitical, yeah. No, I mean no. It’s not a forum to bring up injustice, failure, a few billion dollars, prejudice or scorn. Nosiree.

It’s just our media are increasingly finding the Olympics as a useful tool to promote our  own rhetoric, and the superiority of whatever is the regional demagogue du jour. Start off with a good kilo of global audience, add 100g of competition, 100g of emotion, a generous sprinkling of national pride (hell just throw the damn box in), and feed it through a tight nozzle of media interpretation. In hindsight Hitler’s attempt at making the 1936 Olympics a [failed] promotion of his political ideals was a masterstroke so to speak. We’re just here for the mutherfucking cake.

1936

So just think, one day… one day… America just might get it again. Another misty, headline grabbing land  ripe with opportunity, hegemony and questionable choices. And what a seasoned gift to the world that would be, inspiring generations of tabloid stories, internet forums and culture bloggers, long in the running. We, as a global community, can once again, dare to dream.

eofw

 

Got to the end? Do comment.

What would you think would happen if your country were picked to host the Olympics? What would your city do well or not so well?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The World’s Most Highrise City

Lets look at the raw stats. According to Emporis, a website that employs data from skyline fanatics the world over, Hong Kong has traditionally been the worlds most highrise city. Not only did it have the most highrise buildings (anything 35m-100m tall, or anything 12 floors or higher) with 7,931  -nearly 1,800 more than NYC – it also has the most skyscrapers (150m or over) with 315 monoliths compared to New York’s 242.

Let’s stop there for a minute. 8,000 highrises, incuding 315 skyscrapers. Imagine what this looks like. Imagine yourself on a Hong Kong style street. Highrises block out the sky along the whole thoroughfare, not completely unremarkable, but not completely remarkable either to a city dweller – from your angle midrises and highrises present the same bulk. You can’t see either end, or past that wall to see how many other highrises there are. Even going up in a chopper you’d get the awesome scale, but not completely due to perspective.

hong-kong-street-photography-1

www.shootingfilm.net

Now lets imagine some atomic cloud comes over all fluffy and transmogrifies you into a traffic stopping, stampede inducing giant 300 ft tall. Bummer. Your lower arm would be bigger than a Blue Whale or the largest museum dino; you could sit King Kong in the palm of your hand, or a tiny car between your thumb and forefinger if you weren’t particularly nice. In reality you’d be so big you’d catastrophically collapse/ implode, anything bigger than your lower arm would start melting down to gravity, and lifting a finger so weighty would likely break it.

grn.png

www.greengiantcanada.ca

Now lets imagine you’re breaking the laws of physics and can now see the top of many of the heads of these highrises, also transmogrifying into human like shapes. You are now in a crowd of 8,000, spiked by hundreds of people twice as tall as you, and a handful of goons three times bigger who REALLY look like freaks even to the giant you. Imagine your middle or high school assembly of similarly gargantuan people standing to attention, but the crowd 10 to 20x bigger. Then look at that tiny toy car balanced on your fingertip, and the tiny worried looking people inside, in comparison to that giant milling mass of flesh. That huge auditorium full of building shaped giants would be Hong Kong. And the fly on the floor of that arena would be you.

crowd

www.pond5.com

As for supertalls (those freaks of 300m or over, scooping up ships and walking into bridges)  Hong Kong’s well pipped by Dubai, which has 22 to New York’s 12 or Hong Kong’s measly 6 (Shenzhen is second place though with 14, and Kuala Lumpur with 13). Dubai and KL though have far fewer highrises overall, despite their impressive forests of skyscrapers, so are out of the running.

However in 2015 a new top-spot came into light, when Moscow shouldered in with 11,676 documented highrises (the majority just making the threshold) to Hong Kong’s 7,931, thanks to some very devoted online fans.

mos

imgur.com

However Hong Kong still leads if you stacked all the tall buildings together it comes to a teetering 333,836m, with NYC in second place – but a third the combined total – at 109,720m. So thus it’s official: chattering, blazing, odiferous Hong Kong is the reigning champion, and three times more ‘built up’ than a ripped NYC. It’s urban areas cover almost the exact size of 59 km² Manhattan, but have triple the built density.

hk2

hk

https://500px.com/alfredkhc

hon

https://www.flickr.com/photos/coolbiere

But criticism of Emporis shows it is not the authority in any way. The website rather imperiously only accepts data in English and German (where it is based), and refuses nominations from places like China, where Shanghai’s occasional contributions surmount to less than gentrified old London’s, or Kiev’s for that matter.

Most notably some bright spark noticed on the Shanghai Council’s dizzyingly complex open data website that number of floors had been included on an annual survey of housing and class, which contradicted Emporis’ presentations of factuality a tad:

shanghai council 2013

Basically the column on the left is the number of floors, the one on far right is the amount of buildings. Shanghai had an eye-popping total 14,479 buildings over 16 storeys in 2013, almost ten times more than Emporis claimed.

This compares with buildings over 12 storeys (note the lower threshold despite):

Moscow (2015) 11, 676

HK (2014) 7,931

Sao Paulo (2015) 6,332

NYC (2015) 6,154

Further back-up comes from aerial photos at the same scale.

Hong Kong:

hkae

Shanghai:

shae.jpg

But for all these inconsistencies, Sao Paulo may hint at a potential unrecognised rival, like a vast, unnamed termite colony of Brazilianess teeming in the south, being all sultry and knifey and sexy:

spSaoPaulo2

Sao Paulo however has only 7 skyscrapers, and 0 supertalls thanks to the relatively close proximity of the airport.

Also there’s the large question mark over other Chinese cities, notably Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which are actually contiguous now. If there’s anywhere in the world that’s building up at the moment, it’s Shenzhen, currently going through a construction boom that makes pre-Crisis Dubai look like it was making a few sand castles on holiday. It currently has 60 buildings over 200m, and a whopping 135 under construction, which is basically more than doubling New York’s strutting skyline. An additional 50 supertalls are under construction or approved, and all that is not even considering Guangzhou, the even larger beast in competition at the other end of the city.

Shenzhen 1986, an unremarkable border town of 30,000:

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2016, population and its 15 million hawking, squawking inhabitants (urban population conjoined with Guangzhou, 41 million):

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szzz

But let’s for now, consider Shanghai, Pearl of the Orient / Whore of the East, the current reigning champ. We’ll end on more skyscraper porn from that city:

shap.jpg

https://blackstation.tuchong.com

shap2

In 2003 the city began sinking from the weight of so many buildings, with a moratorium declared on highrises for a whole year.

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

The city council now dictates that x amount of people must live within y vicinity of z amount of green space (yep, good luck with that). To overcome the ruling the newer areas such as Pudong, enact a Courbousien tower-in-the-park idea, though much more lush and grandly utilised than the dystopian bleakscapes in postwar Europe.

shap3.jpg

https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

The Puxi side of the river is far denser, where the traditional fabric of the city is still extant, and people actually socialise:

shap5

https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07

But take a telescope between the highrises and you’ll spot the city’s Sino-Anglo terraces and courtyard homes  known as shikumen or longtang lane housing.

shap8

https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

shap9

https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

Large tracts of this historic housing remain, though highly endangered after years of fatheaded destruction. The old stock (most of which is 80-160 years old) covered an area almost equivalent to the City of Paris, saved from WWII destruction by a ground war (that incidentally took out 300,000 lives in ‘China’s Stalingrad’) rather than an aerial one. Then kept in aspic during the postwar years by a Communist govt intent on keeping a lid on the notoriously renegade, soul-selling city (this is where China was at its  most shockingly Capitalist, and where its Communism was born as a result).

pux

shik

Despite the countless losses, and the much more visible skylines, from satellite it’s more obvious that the russet coloured roofs are still about – even dominant, and after 30 years of dancing with a wrecking ball are finally being saved after the bigwigs realised they were quite profitable, with gentrification into chichi shopping or entertainment districts. Although this often rendered the residents just as homeless (though compensated), with some ‘misguided’ opportunity areas involving bulldozing the history and rebuilding it with mod cons for millionaires. A more favourable wave of protection has finally arrived as culturally restorative -beautifying the buildings but sodding the lattes, and keeping the damn residents, finally.

shh

It is poetic to end on a city that is in short the world’s largest skyline grafted on onto one of the world’s largest old cities. Both coexist, both are hidden to a large extent, at ground level, in global profile, and psychologically. It seems the most obvious of contenders appears to be also one of the least.

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The World’s Most Built Up City

So we’ve dallied enough in terms of scale and size, in hard numbers. That was all based on population. So what of the built environment? Which city is most impressive in terms of the size you actually see and experience? For example, let’s forego the fact Karachi has 25 million people and Chicago only 9 million – which city feels and looks bigger? And let’s conveniently  forget every street in Karachi looks like a stadium just emptied next to Camden Market. With cars. -Well otherwise Chicago would be more impressive from it’s dense stacks of skyscrapers as you wander round it’s centre (and not its unending lowrise suburbs). The city has 116 skyscrapers -defined as a building 150m or over in height – whilst Karachi only has one. 341 highrises over 100m, while Karachi has 12 (though watch this space – Karachi has 7 skyscrapers, and 7 highrises under construction). Karachi  may actually feel more built up only if you travel interminably across it’s horizons, but Chicago far outweighs in its centre, which would be the more common experience for the average visitor without a bi-plane.

karachwww.dawn.com

chicahttp://www.justinlagace.com

Globally there’s an obvious contender for the top spot here. New York, New York. Built on a narrow granite island it’s natural line of development was upward, spiking ever highward on a sturdy piece of rock that could take the weight and foundations of a ballooning population and economy. Its sheer density of building is almost unimaginable, famously creating ‘canyon’ streets sided by overarching walls of concrete and glass. The city is astoundingly built up, feels astoundingly huge, and has done for a century. It is the city of the mind when people think of cities.

new.jpg

neww.jpghttp://www.hdtimelapse.net/

NYC has a whopping 794 highrises, of which 247 are skyscrapers. It’s also going through a building boom as developers rush to get a portfolio of tall buildings into plan before a new zoning law gets called in. The island is so packed already a new phenomenon is rising – small plots but exorbitantly high and profitable buildings rising like slivers, some so tall and thin they look liable to totter the next time a periodic Hollywood tsunami/ meteor strike/ giant monster revisits. By 2030 the city will resemble a glittering porcupine:

nyccccwww.popularmechanics.com

Once again it may be dwarfed by other cities populations (it’s barely if at all in the top 10), but off paper its skyscrapers look and count more impressively. NYC has such a density of tall buildings, little seen elsewhere, it’s streets resemble canyons. Even Dubai with its greater catchment of supertalls had to artificially create it’s one concrete gorge on the Sheikh Zayed Road, whilst all around is lowrise and desert.

Broadway, http://www.cepolina.com:

New-York-street-skyscrapers-Broadway

Dubaitravelisfree.com:

duba

New York on the other hand had to build up due to its islanded constraints – and more interestingly – it could. There are of course other islanded city centres (Montreal, pre-Columbian Mexico City, Vancouver, Malé), but they didn’t build upward to the same extent due to the lower population or business demand, and notably, greater difficulty.

Malé, Maldives

maldives

New York is lucky enough to sit on granite, strong enough for all that weight and without the need for hundred foot foundations, as in clay-based, alluvial London or Shanghai, the latter of which began sinking from all the concrete, and a highrise moratorium declared in 2003. Ever wondered why European metropolises aren’t especially highrise savvy, especially after the wartime clearances? Well they’re further lumped with restrictive zoning laws in the form of historic protection, and ‘viewing corridors’ that forbid any impinging structures on celebrated views.

London has no less than 14 of these hallowed visions stretching across vast swathes of the capital to its 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites, plus one cathedral, so that you can see the small bump of St Paul’s dome on the horizon from a bush 16km away, whose existence controls the world’s premier business district. When one surly pensioner (the kind with a lot of time on his hands) hacked a hole in said bush to restore the 18th Century viewing point, he single handedly laid waste to 4 planned skyscrapers in the 1980s.

lonvie

Only two other major cities share New York’s perfect storm of constraints, freedoms, demand and bedrock. The granite island of Hong Kong, and the granite peninsular of Yujiapu in Chongqing, both of which require high rises stacked closely, and the canyons they create.

Chongqing:

yujia

Hong Kong

A bird's eye view of residential and com

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images .

blogs.ft.com

Singapore is another contender in the making, especially as its population balloons, but the presence of its nearby airport keeps the height limit at 280m or lower – pretty much a Hong Kong highrise-fest but with fewer really tall buildings. On the horizon though is Mumbai, a 233 sq mile peninsular of 12.5 million (metro 21 million) that gets smaller the busier it gets, until it dwindles uncharitably into the sea:

bombay_L7_lrg

The city now has over 70 skyscrapers topped out, with another 33 over 250m to come. And a helluva lot of profitable land reclamation for the future.

mumbai

https://www.flickr.com/photos/illumination-photography

For decades many Tokyoites believed their rival city in the States to be bigger due to the famed skyscraper thicket there, when in truth Tokyo was the world’s largest just before WWII destruction, and again by the 1960’s, a title it’s held till last year. Tokyo’s skyline is still impressive but dampened considerably by being in a notorious earthquake zone, with strict height limits enforced. It’s still deceptively big in terms of highrises (coming in at 139 skyscrapers and 556 highrises), but they form disparate nodes or lone towers (and one REALLY big one), compared to Manhattan’s forest of centrality.

toky

Tokyo still has multiple winding lanes, midrises and even one storey townhouses throughout it’s centre, interspersed with the usual roaring pedestrian streets and skyscraper districts. It’s not for nothing that Monocle awarded it ‘the World’s Best City’ title in its 2015 rankings, for its dichotomous ability for peaceful ambiance combined with jaw-dropping size; how very Japanese.

shinkpingmag.tumblr.com

tokyohttp://worldneighborhoods.com

But look again at Tokyo’s highrises. The modus operandi of many Japanese based multinationals favour large trading floors. Add on the height limits of say 150m-250m (or 500ft-750ft) and you create a market for titanic sized buildings. Huge floors and sheer walls, squat and overbearing in bulk. In any other city – for example NYC, Shanghai or Hong Kong – they would be twice as narrow and twice as tall.

Tokyo’s monsters:

tok3

Many are unapologetically wide and overbearing, creating a certain monolithic grandeur to the city that could almost be described as beautiful; thoroughly in keeping with age old Japanese functionalism, while others more diplomatically disguise their bulk by splitting into (or pretending to be) multiple towers and setbacks. They are the fat ambassadors wives gracing the charity ball circuit:

Tokyo_Skyscrapers.jpgacecombat.wikia.com

Look at the Mori tower, a snippet of modesty at 238m (780ft), yet holding almost the same floorspace as the Willis Tower in Chicago – the world’s tallest building for nearly 25 years, at 442m (1,450ft), nearly double the height and imposition.

Mori:

tokmoritokyo.grand.hyatt.com

Willis:

searswww.getyourguide.com

Likewise the even bigger Tokyo Midtown tower, with twice the floorspace of One World Trade Center (formerly the Freedom Tower) in NYC though half the height. This is one deceptive power dresser. Note the backing for her – the thin off-gold strip at left, glimpsed from street level:

midtown02bartman905.wordpress.com

In reality the ‘thin’ strip, made of green glass doubles the floorspace, though hidden from street angle. From the air one can see better the bulk of the place; a perfect expression of Japanese culture where the public face of tatamae hides – even compliments – the personal truth of honne.  The gargantuan building debuts with the ultimate socially acceptable accolade: that from whichever angle you see her, she looks half her weight :

midt.jpg

In short Tokyo has the biggest buildings of any city, not measured in terms of height, but on average floorspace. Not just that they’re lower or deceptive in format, but the city itself is so large (with a centre that’s arguably the world’s largest) that its massive buildings don’t need to pack it in to create a Manhattanesque thicket. Rather they are interspersed with lowrises and midrises that form the majority of the urban landscape of the region. However, travel the city seeing in the vastness of its infrastructure, its verdant crowds or taking a flight above it all, and the seething vastness reveals itself.

tokyos

https://www.flickr.com/photos/phakorns/with/27509876881/

tokyos2

https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbisaro/with/24327171882/

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Tokyo was of course the biggest city that ever was (multiple times over), for a good 50 years. Its breakneck growth saw in one of the biggest construction booms in history, best measured by population growth. Before the war it had just usurped NYC as the world’s largest city with 12.6 million, but of course plummeted during the war (the bit where it became the world’s most destroyed piece of urbanity ever). It then climbed spectacularly again as a phoenix – between 1960 and 1970 it went from 17.5 million to 24 million, or 650,000 newcomers a year.

Only a few other cities compare. Between 2000 and 2010 Beijing grew by 605,000 a year, Shanghai by 626,000. However… we have a winner: Seoul between 1970 and 1980 added 700,000 a year.

Visitors mention that Tokyo may not feel immediately larger than New York due to its greater preponderance of smaller buildings, but Seoul delivers in spades. A city of 24.5 million Seoul has traditionally been the world’s second largest city, yet one of it’s most obscure, with a surprisingly low global profile for much of the 20th Century – though things have now changed due to the Korean Wave of music, movies, tech and trends (and a certain catchy dance video about a certain highrise district).

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Seoul is perhaps the world’s densest of the highrise megacities if you’re just counting the urban areas. The country has the densest urbanity in general (not taking into account the countryside, or the 70% forest cover of the nation). Much more so than its rival across the sea, it houses the majority of its population in dense tracts of highrise housing, coursing over or around the local topography like a studded sea.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/136566837@N06/

It does however have far fewer skyscrapers, deemed a handicap if they were used as landmarks for bombers flying in from the North. Only recently has it thrown heed to the wind and built a swanky new supertall that’s over half a km high and as subtle as the burning eye of Sauron.

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www.a-news.co.kr

To rival Seoul, there’s The Pearl River  Metropolis made up of the conjoined cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen as mentioned previously (not to be confused with the much wider Pearl River Megalopolis). Like Tokyo it combines massively built scale and population, but is much more high rise. It has 278 skyscrapers (buildings 150m or over) – less than Hong Kong’s 315 but more than New York’s 242, or Tokyo’s 139, plus an almost incalculable amount of highrises to compliment.

Guangzhou’s centre…

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…is a mind-numbing 140 km from Shenzhen’s centre, though both are part of a single contiguous urban area. This definitely takes on the northern twins of Seoul and Tokyo for built size:

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It does however, like Seoul, swirl around the many hills or are broken by remaining patches of farmland here and there, so not as blanketing as Tokyo. Best appreciated hovering from the air or a fine green hilltop which the city has many, but not flying for miles across an unbroken sea of buildings.

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Final answer, the most built up city is of course the one with most built living space. I would take that as New York with its skyscraper centre and vast tracts of large single/double storeyed suburbs, covering the biggest land area, but bear in mind the majority of that would resemble a green, sparsely populated forest. Like Milton Keynes, that forgot to stop.

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If you’re talking building up, well that would be the Pearl River Delta (or Shanghai/ Sao Paulo, but that’s on the next post). If you’re flying a plane, that would be Tokyo’s vast picnic sea of urbanity from horizon to horizon.

If you’re talking feel – 24 hr, highrise happy, neon drenched, slightly totalitarian Seoul. The future – Mumbai? Dubai? Chongqing?

And if you’re talking city centre, imo that’s back to the Big Apple baby.

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hqwallbase.online

No, wait…

-isn’t Tokyo twice the size of NYC?

More? The World’s Most Highrise City

The World’s Biggest City

One thing that does seem to pervade insidiously in terms of ‘greatness’ is size. Whether on its merit alone or backing up any other spurious claim, a good bolstering on size – especially if it’s First World to boot (and thus filled with plenty of money, the arts and opportunistic fads) – tends to silence most hecklers. It is if you like, the vast, hinted-at base to the argument. The penis measuring contest behind the thumbpot war. For all London’s claims to fame (easily ignoring that Paris is richer or LA more powerful, or Moscow more highrise), the New York camp like to point out it has many aspects we enjoy, just that it’s bigger. And that does piss on our parade a bit.

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-Or is it bigger?

Size as relating to city population is the most accepted measure by geographers. A city’s ‘size’ judged purely on the area it covers can easily mislead due to different densities of buildings and inhabitants. For example New York City may cover the largest area, but most of that is made up of lowrise sprawl with generous plots, at population densities lower than most rural areas. And multiple times larger than Manhattan or the 5 boroughs that people normally envision the city in scale. The reality is NYC may have a  famously dense centre but the majority of it is actually lowrise and low density, where the majority live. More obvious examples see places such as San Juan, Puerto Rico (pop 2.2 million) covering areas almost 50% larger than Greater London (pop 8.9 million), yet no one would accord San Juan – great that it is – the bigger moniker over London (or Seoul, at 25 million a pop for that matter).

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So back to population, and by golly, does it get complicated once more. Where does one stop counting? That is the biggest source of bickering as only nerdy online geographers can know, as multiple institutions use multiple ways to measure. By the official city boundaries (aka City Proper) places like Los Angeles shrink to 4 million, and lose a good 10 million urbanites . Almost all cities lose inhabitants that way if they go by the official – but outdated – city boundaries. Paris shrinks to 2.2 million, The City of London to, my goodness, only 14,000 rather lonely, albeit gilded, individuals due to these boundaries having been dreamt up when herding cows were the traffic jam of choice. Though not all cities. Some would actually gain. ‘Difficult’ places such as the eponymously named er, Ningbo, that we do not speak about among geographer circles, and the rumoured status of Shanghai to boot. All in all, urban legislation at its best.

Another spanner in the works was the adoption of Statistical Areas (Municipal or Consolidated depending on the fine print) in the US that takes in vast swathes of countryside, any adjacent towns, villages and entire counties, cows and all, based on commuting habits. The idea is that those who work in the city but live in ‘dormitory suburbs’ are still part of the city’s functioning contributors, never mind they equally contribute, if not more, to their hometown where they actually live, shop, school, wifeswap, pay taxes and make babies.

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Also on closer inspection, the threshold for inclusion gets increasingly lax each year, with as few as 10% of people in one county (that commutes into the next rural county along- not even to the general city) still getting the rest of the 90% of their neighbours suddenly counted as citydwellers. One area of Pike County even gets included due to ‘receiving the New York TV signal’ (thank you small print).

In the end this sees central nodes like LA, NYC, Boston or Atlanta commanding mostly rural, low density areas the size of small countries, such as NYC covering more than Wales & Northern Ireland combined. Confusingly they are dubbed ‘metropolitan areas’, despite the rest of the world considering that term merely the city and its conjoined suburbs, and will often show their inflated figures in the self same league.

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nyc2www.fhwa.dot.gov

The rest of the world is cottoning on though – China now operates a similar stratagem, with Chongqing, at over 30 million, claimed as the world’s biggest city for a short time before someone pointed out it was a municipality involving several cities in an area the size of Belgium, plus a few million farmers, ducks and geese.

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Okay, so far so complicated. Let’s just try and count the number of people in the continuous urban sprawl without large breaks of countryside. But given the differing ways governments have urbanised this is also contentious. London – thanks to its protected Green Belt – sees its natural old growth suburbia confined into myriad high density dormitories surrounded by countryside, rather than the usual blanketing sprawl. In other words its suburbs are broken up into thousands, by law. It’s a surprise to learn from satellite views that there is no real ‘belt’ or expanse of greenery, merely a dense peppering of thousands of commuter towns and new villages, connected by a dense web of roads and train tracks. The jury’s out on whether they created a protected environment, or merely upped the scale on a monstrous semi-urban, semi-rural monster.

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The Alps is a similar contender, both urban regions being part of Western Europe known as the ‘Blue Banana’ megalopolis, the world’s largest – scientifically named as that’s the shape and hue it takes on satellite imagery. This form of forcibly disparate -yet unified- urbanity stretches in a vast swathe of highly peppered development from Leeds to Milan.

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Thus London ultimately weighs in at slightly larger than the NYC ‘metro’ if these artifices are taken into account, but significantly less if not – 14 to 23.6 million ‘Londoners’ and 17 – 20.5 million ‘New Yorkers’ depending on where you stop. Still, the latest inflation from over the pond sees the NYC area nearly doubled to take in another 3 million in a strongly rural, little-commuting landscape.

But let’s forge ahead and do it anyway; sorry London. Let’s count the city contiguous, and omit large stretches of pasture, cows and forest. For years Tokyo was head and shoulders above the rest, a city with a vast, dense centre, as well as blanketing sprawl – but in such significant densities they could easily be included without fuss.  Even with all the differing ways of counting, Tokyo was conveniently well ahead – at a whopping 29-39 million. Second spot (Seoul –Incheon at 24.5 million) was still a good 5-10 million off, and at any projection Tokyo looked to hold on for two decades or more, before finally losing ground to Delhi in maybe 2030.

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But then along came Jakarta, a vastly under-measured region of cities and suburbs that had begun melding together, not as neatly as Tokyo, but putting on the heat nevertheless. ‘Jabotabek’ was made up of Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerrang and Bekasi, a term used since the late 1980s, but soon became the even snazzier ‘Jabodetabek’ to include Depok. When faced with more lyrically challenging towns such as Karawang, Sukabuni, and Puwakarta about to join they decided suddenly on ’Greater Jakarta’ rather than breaking into scat rap each time.  It currently counts over 30 million, and is slowly knitting together townships and suburbs towards Bandung, a city of 2.4 million, with another 6 million urbanites in its environs.

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Then suddenly the jump. It was announced this year there was a new biggest city in the world, contiguously linked, appearing seemingly out of nowhere in China, and leapfrogging both Tokyo and Greater Jakarta in one fell swoop. Something that had been glowering in the background, growing deceptively.

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http://www.landsd.gov.hk

The new kid on the block was Guangzhou, an ancient city of 14 million, whose breakneck growth as China’s manufacturing backbone had coursed west into adjacent cities, and more notably downriver into two huge cities doing the same. One was Dongguan, a manufacturing city of 8 million most famous for having the world’s largest shopping mall, and having it empty also. In turn Dongguan had merged in eddies and swirls around the local hilly topography to connect up with a wandering finger of Shenzhen, the golden child of the China Rise. Once a village of 30,000 Shenzhen had grown to be the richest city in the country, with 12 million inhabitants, within 30 years. All in all 42 million call the ‘Pearl River Metropolis’ home, with 55 million in its ‘metro’ region. It lies on the doorstep of Hong Kong, glimpsed across a border that stands ground on a no-man’s-land of rice paddies right below the skyscrapers of Shenzhen’s CBD.

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But Hong Kong is not counted – the border, however porous, is not enough to justify its inclusion into the greater fold, and moreover there are a good few miles before one reaches the cityscapes of Kowloon. In other words, just behind the mountainous curtain of one of the most popular, and famous cities in the world, lies an unseen giant, of glittering skyscrapers, dingy alleys, vast avenues, cutting edge galleries, manicured parkland, teeming markets, dirty tenements, and hidden history rich in street life, wealth and endless highrises, all connected by the world’s largest infrastructure and state of the art transportation systems. (Don’t get too excited though, it’s no longer as pedestrian friendly, and despite being millennia old, 95% of its built history is under 30). Go though (Zhujiang New City, the latest CBD), if you like Bladerunner, or fantastic dim sum, or the sheer vastness of the place.

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In terms of scale this little known metropolis is indeed the world’s ‘greatest’ city. It is large in area (though not the largest), but in such high densities of population and highrise building it even beats Tokyo in sheer unending scale. It takes a high speed train hours to reach between the city’s multiple central nodes, and all you see are concrete highrises.

Guangzhou anchors one end:

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Shenzhen the other, at 140 km distant. You can even fly commercially from one end to another:

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深南向上

In a similar vein  is Shanghai (25 million), already connected to Suzhou (4.5 million) and Wuxi (3.5 million) via Kunshan (1.7 million), and about to thread along (if not already at the rate Chinese cities terraform) to Changzhou (3.5 million), to bring a total of 38.3 million urbanites busily being busy. Close, but not the biggest, and still behind Tokyo too.

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shngbreathe city by Black station, on Flickr

But what is interesting about Shanghai’s metropolis is the  immediate area – the potential to knit up even more in a metro that is the worlds biggest collection of adjacent cities, that form the Yangtze River Delta, 120 million strong, many of whom live in thousands of sq km of highrises and midrises whether urban or rural (farmer’s apartments that look like a vast city for hundreds of km). This will likely be the new title holder in the years to come.

The ‘countryside’ for over 200km, classed as rural. It takes a bullet train, with stops only for the city centres, 3 hrs to cross it:

chhWayne Cheng Photography

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-So is this it?

A sea of middle class highrises that is the be all and end all of the world’s ‘greatest’ city? Surely people are individual enough, can decide for themselves, or well, don’t really care and can happily live their lives regardless of monikers? People who are loving Kettering or Venice, so be it, and not being upstaged by a mass of glorified tower blocks?

The short answer is yes, of course it is. Don’t be silly thinking otherwise. This is a penis measuring contest and begad someone’s got to win it.

For all the talk about size – and what a wormhole that was – surely there is a city that ticks off the size bracket, but holds much more than the PRD can offer? -In short yes, the all-rounders. Size: yes, yes and yes again. But also economy (tick), business (tick), culture (tick),  creativity (tick), beauty (tick), history (tick, tick, tick), the arts (tick),  food (er, tick), nightlife (tick), cosmopolitanism (tick, tick, tick), social mix (tick), global influence (tick), an army of visitors (tick), digital opportunity (tick), and an ever-changing contemporary society (tick).

So yes, London has it.

But I might be biased there. By living in the world’s greatest city. There’s nothing to argue about at all. The prices are completely fine, the weather’s brilliant, and I love living in a shoe box. Brexit won’t change a thing, no.

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Up next: SCALE. The World’s Most Built Up City