A Journal of the Plague Year Week 2

Sunday 22nd March 2020

The sun is out. People are on the streets, and in the parks, basking like how you’d expect in a perfectly normal day on Planet Earth in the early 21st century, and in groups too. From the older lady I spied statuesque in the carpark, soaking up her Sunny D, to the gaggles of teenagers manning street corners and park benches, impervious to care and often reason. A. who has been going for a normally lonesome walk every day due to anxiety, reported on the sudden herds. No wonder the govt has had to close down pubs and cafes, throwing heed and germs to the wind appears endemic.

In short, it looked like a quiet Sunday morning. The only difference being the distinct lessening of the traffic.

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I do think there is a libertine element still in London, a mix of Britons never ever being slaves (well, except under the Romans, and Picts, and Saxons, and Vikings, and Normans), and the anything-goes culture of a cosmopolis. On the one hand it lifted my spirits, seeing this semblance of normality, and a reminder that perhaps there is a focus beyond the infectious headlines, on another heavily gloved mit I felt uneasy about the varying options in contagion. A few of the food shops and small supermarkets operated short queues to get in (gone within 5 minutes) akin to exclusive, chichi nightspots albeit dampened by the homeless man sprawled at the entrance, sleeping it off to a sign asking for a hostel room. I’ve heard the homeless will be housed in the emptied hotels, and the Mayor will pay for it. I hope this transpires, that It Is For Real, as few people would notice, or care so much right now.

I managed to buy some face masks from a corner store, the owner having a veritable pile of them for £2.10 a pop at the till (highly suspicious, I’m never lucky). I bought 3, vowing to post them to The Fam. Along with the usual smattering of crisps, a tinned curry and packet of mystery milk, possibly camel. In the small Sainsbury’s opposite it looked normally stocked (read: amazingly stocked), I even got two packets of fresh pasta, which I may build a bidding website for.

Just outside our estate there’s an unofficial corner (read: cul-de-sac) where people leave junk to be collected by the council, or just leave junk. Tawdry closets, mangled sofas, desperately dated drawers, that kinda thing. Today’s offerings were a brand new leather and gilt armchair and a spotless new mattress, glinting in the sun. I’m wondering if anyone will grab them if ever, with the idea of contamination now imbedded as a poo stain, or murder scene. The last time this happened I moved two new chairs to sit them outside the charity shop a whole 20 yards further, but today even I was worried to touch them. I went down again to snap a pic and the chair had been taken, bless. Noticing a bargain is the last stand in functioning society.

There was suddenly something deeply inviting about the bed, in the sun.

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The air feels fresh. I made the mistake of wearing my shoes inside, twice now on the same day, when before I’d warned others about taking them off, the pavements being quite the vector for anything coming out of the human body, and absorbed when wet. I even put it as a Facebook post, like how grannies do the same on some kitten charity or the latest scam you must pass on to all otherwise it means you hate them and want them robbed.

Also sat through an online tutorial, about how the virus is covered in fat, acting a bit like an oil droplet which won’t come off with just water, but needs regular soap or handwash to break it down, and 20 seconds worth. Alongside a vid of how to wash, a short from China showing the bits you’ll likely miss using dye. I did it properly when coming home from my little sojourn, but popping out just now I halved the time. There’s a lot to be said about my enthusiasm for a cause when having relaxed just the teeniest bit, and the saddening studies on how punishment motivates people more than a prize. Or laziness, just sheer I cannot-be-arsed-right-nowness. Those people laughing in slow mo in the park, that could be me.

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I’ve not looked at the news today, though I did sink to trawling through a news forum. Once again there’s a lot of back and forth about Trump and China being in the sights for global blame. I did get involved, mentioning how China’s localised cover-up was not so much to blame (having informed the World Health Organisation -WHO – a full two weeks before ever castigating Dr Li Wenliang and his private Wechat group). What we can definitely shake a stick at China for is the fact it hadn’t quarantined the infections believing them only animal > human for nearly a month. The WHO is still haunted by a tweet on Jan 14th maintaining that no evidence had yet to be found of human to human infection. Likely from now on it’ll have to change procedure that any new disease be treated as human > human rather than waiting for a patient to turn up without any contact with wildlife, markets, handlers or farmers (about 3 or 4 new human viruses are discovered every year). Also Trump and his cronies insistence to call it a Chinese disease points towards a political tool, perhaps to dive from the spotlight accusing him of gross mismanagement, perhaps in reply to the equally idiotic Chinese General hinting it was all a US spy infection, planted during their joint Hubei exercises.

Imagine Trump diving. Like a fat dolphin, squeak-screaming under the kitchen table and toppling no end of shit.

There are other diseases out there with place names such as Spanish Flu (rather unfairly, it didn’t originate there -Spain was just the country not under media lockdown during WWI and openly spread the word about it), and West Nile Virus, itself a branch of Japanese Encephalitis. However all these were named from the 1930s backwards, or centuries before, and the practice has died out -we don’t call HIV the African disease, nor the Los Angeles Disease, where it was formally identified. To do again in this day and age is courting xenophobia, as if East Asians or anyone who looks like them don’t have enough to deal with right now in a surge of viral racism.

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This ends today’s public announcement. I’m weaning myself off the pollyticks. Really I am, promise. That was only two paragraphs; It really does help when you avoid the screaming headlines. I have no global update to post today.

Mum rang yesterday, she opted to take leave from work, the proud firm of Keeler Ltd, provider of opthalmic equipment round the world and so far protected by being in the private health sector. They’re doing the honourable thing and keeping her on the payroll till it all blows over. She joked with the HR woman’s noncommital gestures -that if they had suggested a course of action (stay away /don’t stay away) and Mum subsequently popped her clogs they’d become liable. I told her not to be mean, that the nice HR lady was doing her job, but Mum maintains the woman found it funny. I can imagine that pained, whooping laugh and beseeching niceties while they stood metres apart.

But joking aside, they are a fantastic, refreshingly humane company that consciously chose not to outsource to a sweatshop in the Global South, and I beseech the world to each buy a retinal scanner when this is over.

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At 77, with multiple health issues, she’s high risk and may have to be cocooned away for quite a sentence – 4 months to next year even according to the official hints. Enough to get cabin fever and drive herself and my sister up the tiny cramped walls of the ’60s terrace, stuffed to the eaves with things hoarders hoard. Before she seemed calm, and was going to keep working until I persuaded her otherwise (there’s a legendary 83 y.o. lady who vows to carry on on the factory floor, now laid out so worktables occupy separated rows from each other); she’s now a little more fearful, having seen the numbers in town rise from 2 to 20 almost overnight. That a doctor in the next town over was caught with the disease while treating patients. The fact there may be 20x more infected than officially tested for round the country, it all really hit home, her home.

I felt distant, in every way, and wonder when I’ll next see her.

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My daily structure is becoming less regimented, but still there. Rather than me sitting rod straight on the table tapping away, I’m on the sofa with Netflix in the background. Yesterday  we made the disastrous decision to watch Leisure (pronounced Leezhur) Seeker starring Helen Mirren (Golden Globe award nominee for the part) and Donald Sutherland as an aged couple kidnapping their own camper van to enjoy a vacay to the umbrage of their kids. Was kind of expecting a delightful mix of Bad Grandpa and Dukes of Hazzard, but it was of course a timeless study on our slow and inexorable act of dying from a largely Italian arthouse team. Donald is a former arts and lit professor deteriorating with Alzheimer’s, liable to accuse his wife of polygamy as he is to burst into quote on Hemingway; Helen his long-suffering, perky Southern belle of a wife liable to chat endlessly to strangers as she is to take up shotguns. No spoilers here but she’s dying too. Oops, may have fudged that a bit.

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Like you were ever gonna see it.

At the end I felt like shooting myself in the gullet. In one scene they enter an old folks home and point an unloaded shotgun around at several members of the bedded community, then get told off about it and offered a price leaflet. If that happened here it’d be ten years just for possession, and the rest of the fucking story would just end there. Fin. And we would not have had to watch them die and pretend everything was absofuckinglutely fine behind those walls.

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The whole thing felt like a demise mere days from now, dripping slowly worries, fondness, memories and saying goodbye to a sacrament of decaying time -rather than an exercise savoured for your twilight years multiple decades in the future. I may have cried for an instant. Right now America’s Got Talent (AGT!) is playing in the background, by contrast. By very very fucking contrast. So full of cheering and trashy pizzazz I want to reach through the screen and slap everyone of the goobers with a brick. How can people be so very whoopingly supportive, so very worshipping of any given status quo? Does the studio director say jump and they fucking imbed their heads in the ceiling? While Nipplepants Cowell lords over them like an arsey, stuck up demigod, hovering from his red buttoned throne. How can people be so willing to submit to hierarchy, to appraise or condemn from their exalted, cup-holding audience seats? This series will date badly, to the point of becoming historical reference. Culture, society, economy.

I need to get out more. I think rather it was just a reminder of a simpler, freer time that pissed me off so much. History envy may be a thing now.

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What is happening out there? What is happening to my friends and family and everyone I’ve ever known, outside of re-run land where what we see is no longer there, and always Has Been? What is reality from a different lens?

A welcome respite is not really one, when that breath of fresh air is deepening a chasm. It’s not so much a list of cliches: living for the moment, putting off the inevitable and all that jazz, but that we can enjoy ourselves, the air, the sun, and others with social distancing. We need to learn now how to do it, not later, not too late. 800 people died today in Italy, and a week or two ago they too were sunning themselves on passegiata. Eight hundred.

J came home shortly after in a huff, wiping down the door handles on everything -a blindsided colleague of his had admitted his wife had the lergy, yet had come in 3x to work, plus met clients. Well I suppose, I’ll swap that guilt for the kitchen fire last night. J’s working again today, apparently before any auction the dept heads have to work an unpaid weekend, to put in the extra time and commitment. Illegal surely, but suddenly acceptable in these current climes. We wound down with two episodes of Drag Race, all bright colours to bitchiness which J is obsessed by, and is infecting us with. Sakura was kicked out last night, rather unfairly I may add, especially in comparison to that rather uninspired Emo-Minelli, who resembles a pretty slug.

A car in the lot below has a bookshelf tied to its roof, liberally balancing an assortment of heavy boxes, houseplants, coat stands, bench tools and books on top. Looks like a tenant is moving with his father, back to the country where they can hold out longer, perhaps in a castle. It can’t end well, an opener for Final Destination if ever I saw one. Plus I know how it’ll end for the survivors.

I’m bored. As fuck. I took a picture of the flowers outside, just like little old ladies on social media are wont to do. We can pleasure ourselves for hours over this: I think it’s Spring.

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Yesterday

Tomorrow

 

A Journal of the Plague Year Day 4

Saturday 21st March 2020

Last night was the swansong for pubs, bars, clubs, theatres, gyms, and leisure/ community centres, not to mention schools. Restaurants are allowed to operate only with takeaways. Going out for a final pizza (Francomanco’s) we waited patiently for nearly half an hour as the small team stacked up orders, the pizza chef sweating in the empty restaurant -business seemed solid. In a few restaurants singular couples sat, candles burning.

Witness these epic, unreachable scenes below, now worthy of National Geographic covers and coffee table books exalting the exotic. People, clumped:

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The streets were almost crowded, commuters in every bus stop, but also a deal of footfall towards the boozers, each one full. A lone man ran a treadmill from a window in the highrise gym above, spreading the last of his copious body fluids before hibernation. It was almost a snapshot of London at its norm, nowhere near as crowded but a semblance of old -a few hundred populating the streets around the station, mums with toddlers, family groups, commuters, shoppers and pals in arms.

The supermarket trawl was its usual self-defeating offering of stuff no one else wanted to buy, but you got one or two of in case. Some cigarillo-like wafers from Poland (cheap looking but amazing, creme filled), a big bar of Turkish Delight (how does that company even function, everyone hates it yet is ubiquitous in every shop -evidence of one laureate winning marketing team) and some butter, very much needed. No crispbread, pickled goods, Vitamin D or paracetamol, or anything carby, tinny or cleany, which was the original intent. Vitamin Dee is the new big thing, the It girl that not only offers that daily 5 mins of sunshine required for a good mood (in UK level climes, 5 mins equates to an hour naked in an X-shape in the middle of the road, well until mid-April), but also purports to reduce respiratory infection by up to 70%. It is of course now mythical, on par with Bigfoot sightings and right now, God. I was reminded of the timeless words of George Bush Jnr, to a painfully smiling Hispanic family: “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your kids.”

At one point, trying to wrangle my camera from a ridiculously over-engineered bag, I picked out the black-wrapped butter and put it to my face. A snapshot of society indeed.

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The new estimates for the government’s current approach of gradual infection is 250,000 dead – lower than the 800,000 if the viral spread is left unchecked but also significantly higher than the 20,000 figure if quarantine is instated. One hospital in London – Harrow, is already breaking capacity with its ICU’s and wards overrun. Everywhere on the fora, people are intoning: It Is Coming. Yet life looks as if getting back to normal for a few, or at least a last Churchillian knees up down the boozer, typical. It appears a few days of self-imposed lockdown is undoable for many Londoners. Even when the tube looks like this (photo courtesy of J, one of the last workers in the city today):

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A is off for a bike ride today, in Battersea Park, a semblance of normality and his need to get in exercise otherwise his mind will go barmy. I’ve asked him not to talk to strangers, and not to hug them. Yesterday he put the pizzas in the oven to warm them gently, complete with boxes. A few minutes later smoke was billowing and a thankfully non-existent fire alarm screaming in my head. Pizzas were saved, while I held every nerve not to castigate in a big shouty display. The whole flat still reeks of smoke and is freezing from the windows being wedged open (barely a few inches thanks to 60s modernism coupled with noughties Health & Safety); I lied to our flatmate J that there must have been olive oil on the cover that got ignited when it rested on a still-hot stove, easily done. As opposed to putting yards of paper into an oven. Alanis could easily have penned out a belter about us dying in a fire after surviving a pandemic, back when it was ironic, rather than a viable option.

It does not bode well.

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The world of the internet is still well and truly alive, and feeding, with finger-pointing, political competition, sabre-rattling and divisiveness making up almost every comment. There is far less of the sharing of helpful information for all, the comfort, sympathy and jokes we kinda need right now -less of the support networking overall. As a great woman once said, Life is like a fucking giant sinking disaster, you’ve just got to enjoy the view while rowing.

 

But I do get it, there is quite a history of cataclysm bringing out the best and worst in people. I had a horrible dream, one of many recently where I was willing to do anything to protect my loved ones, including repeatedly punching some woman in the eye. With a chair leg. However if that were to transpire, I wouldn’t boast to all and sundry about it, rather quietly stuff the crawl space.

I do think if ever historians of the future look back on these archived comments -a rash throughout these past few decades ever since we each got an online podium and our entitled 15 years of fame -they’ll come to the conclusion we are a pretty nasty bunch. Judgmental, prejudiced, openly, knee-jerkingly racist, homophobic, fat-shaming, sexist, misogynistic, politicised, partisan and divisive. Just look at the Youtube comments from a few years back, before they got all un-toxic and started getting people to register their identities, or at least some form of societal appearance. Actually, Youtube in the noughties would be a great example of the winning human spirit, unsheathed from the shackles of social respectability and free to call Adele fat for page after page, regardless of her performance.

Japanese culture likes to distinguish between these ‘truths’, the honne ‘true sound’ of your inner, privated thoughts and the tatamae of what you present to the public. This applies to most places round the world, though the Japanese system goes one step further in debate class, whereby both teams, after their polarising exercise, actually find correlations between arguments and round on a respectable midpoint. Thus, instilling a unity of honne and tatamae -the great nexus of Buddhist and Ayurvedic teachings, whereby what you think, say and do are in line with each other, giving inner peace. It’s much more doable in Japan -cultural stalwart of politesse, yet honesty alongside. This is somewhat lacking in the rest of the world, as exposed on the Internet, where any respectability can often be a mask. Don’t get me wrong the Japanese still snigger at videos of fat people falling over and will bitch about Sandra The Bitch In HR buying Rich Tea when it was her round. So not so kawaii as they make out (cuteness being a rebellion against sararimen conformity).

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But they are perhaps less likely to spit from the balcony or get all warm and cuddly at the idea of foreigners dying -because if they do, they’ll politely mention they do and be gracefully accommodating if you disagree, as opposed to manning the barricades in Les Miz or shooting people from clocktowers until we all concur. It also helps that in Japan the kids don’t get any tests until the age of 9, because they spend the first few years largely learning how to live, rather than the usual mix of subjects interspersed with three daily lessons on where they stand in playground hierarchy.

It remains to be seen how they bow out of hosting the Olympics this year. In South Korea they set up signs and even protests forbidding Chinese, China is in turn playing the blame game, and in the US they’re already talking about recompense, and even war, rather than focusing on the job at hand.

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https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdr8nWm_lLG7QwnmqSvLe8A

I won’t even start on the utter lack of empathy, and often overt schadenfreude we have for Iranians at the mo’, now dying in their thousands under our sanctions, for a regime we put into place, back when we overthrew their democratic, secular government and reinstated their dictatory Shah (who in turn would be overthrown for a refreshing round of Wahabbism), in order to grab the oil in ’53. But then that would be gauche, me talking pollyticks after railing about getting all politicised at this no-dinner party of ours. I really have to look into it, it is perhaps a condition I suffer, a bit like Tourettes. Bring up say, popcorn flavours in conversation and I’ll then want to point out the mismanaged holes in globalised food production or the American health system, and why war is a bad thing.

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https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/03/coronavirus-has-forced-iran-to-take-a-hard-pause/

We appear to be grappling on two fronts, as a collectivised audience to the WTF situation operating across the world right now, and getting deluged under. It helps if we organise our crazy fucking grab the cat fears:

Front Number One: interpersonal

  1. How our governments are dealing with this; what is being done, what is the approach, what are the worst/best case scenarios?
  2. How many will die?
  3. Where the blame is.
  4. What the reaction is in the populace, and how that affects the spread.
  5. How long will this last – the viral peak, the global economic meltdown.
  6. What lockdown is, and what is the new normal for societal life.
  7. How will all this Thunderdome shit affect the future?

Front Number Two: personal

  1. How bad is the virus, what will it do to me or loved ones should we catch it? What can I do to survive it?
  2. Where is my income going to come from?
  3. Where is my home and shelter going to come from?
  4. Where is my food going to come from?
  5. Who will look after my dependents?
  6. How do I protect myself if shit hitteth the fan and society becomes Chavfest Zombieland? Where did I put that axe?
  7. How can I protect my old folk, from afar, for the next few months, or even year? How will I stop it spreading to them?
  8. What will happen to my investments/ are my savings safe? All £55.78 of it.
  9. How TF am I meant to keep sane and healthy and all yoga-mat blissful under lockdown?
  10. Will I get my refund?
  11. How are my friends doing? Actually fuck ’em I got enough on my plate.
  12. Shoot, I forgot to fully switch bank accounts, am I being charged? I still have that phone swap thing to do. The cat needs to be de-wormed. I think I left behind one of the kids in Asda. Rent is due. My divorce papers are missing. I think I water-boarded my i-Pod. Something’s going off in the fridge. A bird just shat on the window.

I honestly think we should divide those further into What Matters (most or what matters today), and What Can Be Shelved/ Ditched. Basically an exercise in downsizing on all fronts -imho I’d jettison almost the entirety of Front Number One.

Come on kids, we have enough on our tiny, cracked Ikea plates. Cain’t we all, y’know, just geddalawnng?

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Yesterday

Tomorrow

 

 

 

 

 

A Journal of the Plague Year Day 3

Friday 20th March 2020

 

The trains are running. It seems a morning thing. They’ll stop soon. There are reduced train services due to staff shortages, in turn due to ‘health issues’. Pray, what fucking health issues could those possibly be?

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So, so far no lockdown. I’m wondering if this is just a delay, or the status quo will be normalised from now on. I had a dream, rather tellingly of being in a train wreck where an old lady subsequently got her legs trapped by a concertina-ing row of seats (I laid her on a makeshift gurney, she was fine). -A rather obvious symbolism there -a straight trajectory into disaster for the elderly, though they’ll pull through in the end. Also, a similar scene cherry-picked from memory in the film Alive, an opus on the Andean air crash where the survivors had to eat the dead to survive. Well, we’re not there just yet.

Yesterday I slunk out to forage some more – the fridge’s been so overstuffed the door fails to close half the time, and the UFO light stays on inside, like a raygun heating up the perishables for hours, to the aroma of gently heated cream and fish. The supermarkets were everything they promised to be from the media, disparate shoppers pottering around acres of empty shelving  -all animal and plant life clear cut, cleaning products swiped, dairy and carbs burned. Alcohol was stacked fine, as were cakes and thankfully, the Greek yoghurt aisle – I grabbed the last two tubs that were actually Greek. Along with a large container of mystery seasoning; I think it’s Bosnian, whose people enjoy the world’s largest spice intake thanks to an optimised stock mix from the 70s, that overnight got smeared onto everything, ever. I figured that shit’s got to be good. Oh and herring, turns out no one likes herring.

Outside the lights were on, but everyone’s home.

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J is worried about his workplace, the owner increasingly unhinged, threatening and enjoying his power, laying off workers and oozing job insecurity from every pore; they got an email today demanding all heads of dept account for their actions of the past week. A has had no structure to his day, having spent a large part of it surfing the newsfeeds in his PJs, as I’m sure a great many people have been. I do wonder what industries are actually being bulked up by this crisis – the internet at large, streaming TV, video servers, news agencies, supermarkets, food producers, big pharma, cleaning products, telecommunications, social media, funeral directors. I’d hazard booksellers would normally be enjoying a bumper season, but there aren’t enough shops to sell them. Oh and porn apparently is doing reams of trade, at server crashing levels. All else is failing, and the banks must be absolutely shitting themselves. I see adverts now, harking back to a different time -holidays, beauty products, bosomly ladies in your area desperate to come round, sanding tools, when really we should be algorithmically targetted right now with face masks, Vileda supermops, guns, chainsaws.

I bought hair dye, my little treat to check out what I’d look like blonde but without the embarrassment should it go tits up, though likely it’ll turn ginger. It did make me question the large chunk of my life that is ultimately spent on others, on courting what others think. Fashion and hair products have been too long a large chunk of my raison d’être, I’ve parted with them now like Kate saying goodbye to Leo. Oh and eating out, that’s something I’m going cold turkey on, stodgy AF.

The movie for the night was Last Christmas. And oh, how London looked so familiar yet such a foreign country. Shot in 2017 during -you guessed it -Christmas, it was all fairy lights, crowded streets and atmospheric tinsel, a place I’ve been missing for a while now. She even sat down at a market (loads of real punters in the background gaping at that lass from Game of Thrones having a coffee with Emma Thompson), and I witnessed a jawdropping shot of people actually in close contact with each other, a bit like how people smoking indoors in films pre-Millennium makes you think they gotta have CGI’d that.

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The film was actually quite enjoyable, portraying a London where race, class and role was interchangeable (accurate to real life), where love interest, comedic effect, support cast and background noise had no set mould (accurate), and unlike Hollywood offerings, made no such fuss about it (partially accurate, it’s still a statement in London to date beyond your class). Though they did appear to tick off reprazent for literally every stratum of society, like helpful porn categories: queer, trans, every race, interracial, religious, atheist, disabled, homeless, rich, poor, left, right, age gap, worldly, bigoted. Shots of the Brexit marches, and anti-EU tirades firmly wedged it into its time, but the storyline was endearingly classic too, though I’m aware many film reviewers baulked at the big reveal, which I blurted out beforehand, thinking it so unfeasible it was fine as a joke. But hey, it was a welcome respite to lose yourself into, albeit as a bittersweet, nostalgic piece of Brollywood to reminisce again and again, back when we touched each other.

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The schools closed today, a grudging first step as children are low risk (there’s never been a death so far, anywhere in the world below 15 years old) – yet super carriers in the adorable way they openly spread bodily fluids, wiping their snotty noses along guard rails, coughing at door handles and sneezing into cash drawers.  The government has been worried about the toll it would take on half the population having their kids actually live with them during daylight hours too, unable to WFH effectively and looking to throw themselves off a balcony within days. The ruling has exempted those whose parents are currently working on the frontline in healthcare and emergencies, which must make for some very awkward schooling, ranging in ages and lessons in a very empty room, with one-on-one teaching. I’ve read online about how a full-time job it is to keep the darlings entertained, fed and schooled on a daily roster, while working on the laptop, or worst, worrying about not working at all.

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There’s a lot being said about people spending so much time with each other, about the spike in divorces every post-holiday season (Last Christmas indeed), and recently seen in China. We need to give each other space, a new reality of being alone in the same room, alone in a crowded society, a single flat in a vast and multitudinous city of 9-25 million depending on where you stop counting. Social distancing might have to be socially distant in this case, for a time. Though saying that, to quote that bible of workplace posterage, there is no I in us.

In other news, Spring Breakers Stateside are launching full throttle regardless, California is in lockdown, Italy has now surpassed China in deaths and we’ve globally passed the 10,000 mark on that. Venice’s canals are becoming crystal clear, and populated by thousands of fish due to the refreshing lack of human activity:

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Day three.

Yesterday

Tomorrow

 

 

 

 

 

A Journal of the Plague Year Day 2

Thursday 19th March 2020

Today was to be the new routine I’d set out for myself to structure the day. The alternative being where you wake, spend untold hours in thrall of the internet, then drop out of bed log-like, and rustle something up in your underwear (who needs PJ’s?), perhaps staring at a microwave woodenly or eating jam back under the covers, to more internet, hours irrelevant, each day or night merging and drifting like clouds. To start smelling, hair/ beard/ armpits a nest, clothes a memory, monosyllabic, perhaps drooling.

Against this scenario I aim to wake, and:

  • check the situation online -the ubiquitous news sites and chat fora, an hour tops.
  • Then lug myself to wash, do my hair, choose some proper attire (avoid ‘comfortable’ attire), perhaps a hat why ever not.
  • No breakfast, I’m never hungry in the mornings and it’ll save on the food. Instead write, work on the book, the diary, creative stuff like starting a photo essay.
  • Tidy, the little odds and ends. To music.
  • Make lunch, sit down to eat, communally if plausible.
  • Learn a language – carry on with online French lessons, start Mandarin.
  • Exercise. Make use of all our gym stuff I salvaged from the communal one.
  • Watch an episode of something, hour tops. Take a very privated walk, if in lockdown just the gated area (the postwar Estate was fenced off in the Eighties due to crime, a process now illegalised in London but done so before the law came into force).
  • Write on the book
  • No tea, dinner.
  • Check in on the craziness online.
  • Movie
  • Wash, cuddle, sleep.

Well one out of two ain’t bad. Will try harder.

Yesterday it had gone swimmingly, I genuinely felt better for having done all of that. Today I spent hours online in bed, fell out to brush my teeth then fell asleep again for 4 hours. Not the best start, tapping away in my dressing gown, but onwards.

Today’s chart:

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Roylab Stats, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDGiCfCZIV5phsoGiPwIcyQ

Yesterday I got news from a Civil Servant that they’d been told not to enter London from today, and that the M25 was about to become a new non-porous border. Then frantic messaging to all I knew on the coming lockdown. It even got leaked to some of the papers within the hour, not just in the UK but in Italy, who printed that London was falling. Coupled with that was footage of soldiers marching down our local High Street, that set Twitter aflame with rumour of the impending sanction.

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However we’ve all woken up, spied people on the street (shopping as per norm) and realised this has not come to pass. The soldiers snapped in Clapham were cadets, off to a local training centre, and apparently they do that every week. Well, now I feel a bit of a plum, having told everyone that’s dear to me (and discovering only then that some of them had fled to their native France and Australia), but assuaged by the fact they then probably did the same. The papers are now hinting it will come in force tomorrow, Friday. Luckily we’ve done our hoarding already, and will miss out on the shopping circus every supermarket must now be in, their shelves emptied and customers only allowed 3-5 purchases a pop.

I saw a video today of East Asian women in a supermarket being harrassed about wearing face masks, and why they were covering up they were sick. The accuser then summoned the staff, after which the group were thrown out by the security guards. I can’t describe how palpitating a mix of rage and sadness I felt watching that, especially with a bit of a familiar past to draw on.

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East Asians are the most likely to be racially harassed, to have racial violence upon the person, and the least likely to be promoted despite having the best grades, performance, and education levels (aka the Bamboo Ceiling). East Asians come shackled to the idea they are meek and thus an easy target, and living as one is a minefield, that directly affects your life plan no matter how hard you try and ignore it. Their ancestral culture an automatic mockery from the sound of the language to the food they eat to the way they look, to the regimes they entertain, to the usual alienness of blood libel – in short no matter how laurel-lying they are, they will always be lesser -in emotional intelligence, or EQ, in culture, in viability. Any intelligence is the semi-autistic variety, those world-beating grades or IQ scores passed off as rote learning, a stark lack of higher job prospects is excused by a bundle of ‘studies’ projecting it’s their Confucian upbringing and cultural cues to blame (despite the fact there exist managers across Asia, and they function just as well) and not the usual workplace bias as suffered by women, other races, LGBTQIA, the disabled, the overweight, the accented, and pretty much anything that’s not the Tall Heterosexual White Male. Sorry if you happen to be that, but you get a privilege that’s not in your control -to be treated more as human, the rest more as sub. Not your fault, but ours, we treat you better, all you 5%’ers of the world.

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And don’t even get me started on relationship prospects, where the swipe is the last great bastion (and indicator) of socially acceptable racism. How EA men fall short, so to speak, tarred by the same tiny brush that refuses to entertain the thought it might not always be the case for every er, member of a 2 billion strong people. I’d get it out, but that would be positively louche. -While women are rocketed way higher, in the objectification kind of way, you’re either a gogo girl or geisha, just don’t take your make up off. And never, ever burp or fart or nowadays, COUGH.

I could go on for days about this, thanks to an upbringing on a skinhead /army estate in the metro’s most racially divided wards, in their glory years of Thatcherism. The kind where, like missiles of a bygone age, bricks, sticks and stones came over the wall, 6 year old sisters got beaten up, shit got smeared,  words got sprayed, cars got leaned out of and flob got thrown. Where walking past any playground was to be avoided, and every street heads swivelled to wherever you were GPS located, meerkat style. Then your schools and oh-so-open-minded art college accusing you of plagiarising books because your essays too accomplished, while your mate who hastily copied your notes last minute would get the grade. Even after I left I’ve come across it in almost every workplace I’ve had, sometimes overt, most often insititutionalised. And no one fucking talks about it, how it’s acceptable to say and do certain things to one race but not the others. A facade I sometimes feel only I see.

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Says it all really, you not only have to battle the damn street, but the establishment, and a complicit society. That was the Eighties and Nineties, when people were less ‘woke’, yet now I see it re-emerging again in the Twenties, in light of this first globalised disaster. I see how this spread from a culture that apparently tortures animals as per norm (that evidence of low EQ, inhumane), eating them in disgusting ways (alien, blood libel, civilisational war, dirty, laughable), then spreading it through complicit government cover ups (not to be trusted, inscrutable, indoctrinated). Not that most people go around thinking all those things, but it does reinforce the assumptions they make when coming across it.

When I tell people the things I’ve seen over the years they’re appalled, and all this build-up over the past few months is bringing it to a crux. The Taiwanese girl at work who a customer was ‘disgusted’ with, and dropped her money on the till in a show of non-contact, the unremitting stares I get on the street, Benny Hill style seat-swapping on the bus, then reading the stories of the randomised people assaulted (often women), the humiliation of public tirades, avoidance and harassment on PT (to the point many changed their commute), the pupils being sent out for coughing or getting their jaws broken in the playground, people turned away from every hotel and now more, of complicit businesses backing up the racism.

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A bitter note in the fear. It doesn’t help, these divisions, those attempts at blame. I do see that people can’t hack it and have to take it out on another -a show of weakness rather than strength that’ll always manifest our societies, on all sides. From the idioted Chinese generals hinting the disease was left by the US Army during their recent training exercises in the area (with reminders the U.S. spread Mexican Swine Fever that killed 1.4 million), to the insistence it’s a ‘Chinese’ disease by POTUS and his inner circle. All alongside the usual calls in the press for who to crucify even as we wallow with greater priorities right now. My friend who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is finding things harder, his fear of germs ratcheting to a peak on top of everything else. This is similar for East Asians, myself included, the layers of fear on top of fear.

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Ok, breathe (through face mask I’m too scared to wear).

I suddenly feel now I’ve written too much on this. A Pandora’s box I always look back on and get embarrassed, if ever I pique on the subject. It’s a bit like name dropping Dinosaurs in earshot of Richard Hammond from Jurassic Park. But let’s not talk politics, despite it being so Right Now. I even castigated finger-pointing only what? a whole 24 hours ago in the last post. Some notes:

  • The tenancy agency rang back (sound of numerous phones going off in the background), sounding annoyed and terse -I cut to the chase and got him to say basically nothing had changed for anyone who couldn’t pay, as if coronovirus wasn’t on, and that we’d contact him from there if we couldn’t. The government announced shortly after there would be some provisions of people like ourselves, private renters without income/ new dependents, which we await the deets with bated breath, excuse the pun.
  • The streets were yesterday moderately populated (although nowhere near as London normally is, which has nothing but crowds all day and night), of the usual hoarder hordes but also quite a few trying to make the best of their new time off, with the parks and cafes full and the pub to boot, a group of men carrying packs of lager somewhere. The sun had come out. Today is grey, the train station that faces our window silent, when usually it’s a constant bevy of noise and announcements – it’s the world’s busiest with a train on average every 30 seconds, a vast interchange rather than a main terminus, of which London has nine. It’s obsolete now, along with 40 tube stations closed.

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  • I am thinking of cutting my hair. Maybe dyeing it, my one chance to go all K-Pop and crazy without work to worry about. But then I want it long on top for my trip to New York, a holiday planned pretty much all my life and set for May, though likely it’ll be canceled. Such a distant perception these days, almost surreal when you scroll back and see images of people outside enjoying themselves, even just vague figures in the streets doing their day to day without such a specific care in the world.
  • Some leading members of government over the other side of the pond are calling it now the end of America. The effect of that on the populace, dealing with no end of shit right now, is not heartening, at a time we need it most.
  • China has announced zero new cases, for the past few days its handful have been coming off the planes. The web is alive with disbelief and recrimination in light of this, rather than hope.

Oops, there I go again. Politicising thingies.

On a smaller scale, got some tidying to do. J will likely want to polish his silver, a thing he does for his work which I see in a sense of calm, and the appreciation of detail, and beauty. We need this right now.

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I will get changed. I will do my hair. I will cook lunch. I will write some of The Book. I will not look at the news. I will read a book. About a house in the forest.

It’s only fucking Day 2.

Yesterday

Tomorrow

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020

Wednesday 18th March

Today I woke to the same routine these past few weeks, increasingly set every time I opened my eyes and reached for my laptop or phone. Then to scroll bleary-eyed through the news of ratcheting tension, emblazoned in headlines of school closures, lockdowns, crashing markets, panic buying and ghastly figures updated every hour. They say the higher a death toll goes the less people can conceive it, the scale of destruction getting more abstracted the worse it is. I don’t think it applies here, in this instance where we’ve tracked the gradual rise into exponential reaches that double every three days. The lists of countries multiplying alongside, the imagined scenarios fueling a sense of doom, global doom.

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https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html?fbclid=IwAR0p3Bk2zOBydl0Zyo2OYAnuEXCIB-aqOyI4brLYy4ophiIXahNqT2riXMw#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

At one point last night, after watching a mindless action movie on Netflix (Pacific Rim II, lurid, banal, unlikely to have a third) I stopped and my ebullience suddenly ebbed. Was this the end of times, was I unlucky enough to be living now? A once in a lifetime experience they say. But then we should remember that millions have had this same clouded prospect, not just clouded but tornadic – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, DPR Congo, Libya, South Sudan as society was whipped away around them. These conflicts prove just as abstracted to this day, when we are a mere spa break in comparison of worry and anguish, and the uncontrolled, unhelped death of your loved ones.

sLIS2017003D | Aleppo After the Fall

 

My partner A lost his job yesterday, my flatmate J is awaiting his fate in an announcement today, where he works as head of silverware in a West London auction house. We drafted a letter to the agency about our situation and their avenues of support available for us not being able to pay the rent in these trying times (yes we used that phrase, at John’s historicist suggestion). They must be inundated. Then it was the phone call home, that phone call home I’d been dreading all day, to find out the situation with The Family. My mother, 78 and still working in a factory, in part to support my sister (long story, do ask) may be quarantined as high risk for up to 4 months according to the government advice, or should I say, hint of what is soon to be imposed. My other sister in the process of moving back to the UK from the Netherlands, and possibly also out of work. Well, that escalated quickly. Almost overnight I was faced with the prospect of now having four grown dependents and myself on my one wage.

Thankfully, although the Natural History Museum closed its doors yesterday for the foreseeable next two months, I will still be paid. Turns out so will Mum, and my sister in the Netherlands, with her own company in science writing (I’ll just namedrop Atria Communications here) is working with the disease experts and is mobile, where the acronym WFH has become suddenly relevant and widespread (though commonly misread as WTF, it correctly shares the same impact of the word). So down from a possible four to just a plus one. I should be very, very thankful, I’m lucky enough to be waged with the government, and my mother and sister are in the science sector.

Most people I know are not so lucky, living from wage to wage, often abroad from their homelands and familial support network to boot. It’s stark how very quickly the gig economy has been so exposed to economic ruin, not to mention the fragility of property bubbles and rental market, notably in London where no one working, middle or even upper-middle class can realistically afford to own a property unless you like converting a walk-in closet in Clapham, complete with a shower under your bunk bed that dribbles onto a toilet. Or a bed-in-shed in Slough, one of a rash on tens of thousands now hidden throughout London’s leafy suburbia, of illegally built, money-making favelas. Thus a vast proportion rent their abode, and a vast proportion are now looking at homelessness. How did it come to this?

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I saw four homeless people today, three I suspected of being the variety who beg but find sheltered accommodation at night (appearing well fed, dressed, clean, I know a roster of them), but one who was genuinely sleeping in a streetside alcove, wreathed in soiled camping gear. I have no idea what will happen to these people. I also saw the very old, frail, and the heavily disabled, all of them on their own, clutching empty shopping bags on the way to the shops, and the circus that awaited them. Yesterday a woman in a wheelchair blocked everyone from getting baskets as she tried to get her goods into one of them (she was buying a large houseplant, I have no idea what for), but I almost caved right there and cried. I helped her out, but later heard others asking her if she was okay. Thankfully there’s still that. The mood was tense, every face deeply serious from staff to shoppers alike, but no one busting out into arguments, slappy fights or racing down the aisles, nor complaining about the epic queuing or emptied shelves.

The people are panic buying -game theory really, if one person does it everyone else has to, or they’ll lose out. Then we complain about everyone else, like how we moan about the traffic while sitting in it ourselves, or how the lovely tourist sites are overrun with tourists these days, as if we have a privilege to experience it over any given member of that yappy, sportswear-laden tour group. These days is a potion of concern, for ourselves, our families and the disadvantaged, in an uneasy mix of conflicting priorities, as we go for that last toilet roll, as we see the old lady standing destitute behind us.

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The UK government, to much fanfare, had recently announced it was following an experimental policy of mitigation rather than extending the containment stage. Hence why, in contrast to our European neighbours, there has been no lockdown, not of schools, of pubs, of gatherings, of farming festivals and horse racing stadia, of incoming visitors, or people in general when it could have made a difference. Despite that China already provided an MO in the form of Hubei Province, roughly the same size and population of the UK, that has proven to work, where we can learn from their open-sourced mistakes and successes. However one of these scenarios also happens to be cheaper on the economy – for all the talk on  ‘sombrero flattening’ no measures have been taken to effectively do so, as yet:

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The proven path so far is lockdown, infrastructure to feed that lockdown, ICU’s, and draft hospitals, with strict quarantining (where the staff get suited up 2 or 3x over, and no object entering those wards can ever leave again, hence why many healthcare workers had to buy new phones to discard later). It saved China, but took out two months of its economy. Britain seems to have tried to have its cake and eat it in contrast to the rest -to let the infection move through the populace while the elderly would be housed away, thus saving the bedspace. However, the Imperial College yesterday released its models on what this would result in, to both the UK and US govts it advises, alongside publishing it to the press. Over 200,000 dead and a healthcare system overrun to the scale of 8x over, and possibly 10x that for the States. This is why the government is about-facing to change tack once again, and why a lockdown is likely to be imminent.

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I cashed in an electronics voucher today, £100 worth, to buy an upgraded phone I didn’t really need, but in order to save my purchase should that company tank during the lockdown. Everyone in there was doing the same. The three workers were gloved up to the max, and wiping down everything passing over the counter, while thrash metal played apocalyptically. A young Spanish guy bought the phone I wanted, his old phone recently kaput and having little choice but to buy a new one before his replacement could be sent (if ever it would reach him), in a time when he could contact family, and where communication would be the last link that cannot, should not fail, no matter what.

Trying times indeed. I often think of what is important to me in life, often. Everyone is saying it’s like a film. Yet this is not so much a Hollywood disaster with gung ho renegades, rousing speeches and wavering flags in the background, to fistpumping and flowering explosions  -rather it’s more a surrealist study in existentialism. The world is increasingly looking black and white, and poignant. I’m not looking forward to an increase in pace, though admittedly holding out for a Deus ex Machina (my First World privilege right there) to throw some contrived lifeline. We can but hope, to Keep Calm And Carry On.

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Just try not to remember that the phrase was dreamt up by a wartime government facing imminent invasion and, unknown to them, the planned execution of the entire adult male population. Thankfully that never transpired, and if we keep our heads level and remember we’re not facing Mad Max or alien armies here -and at worse 3% mostly will succumb at or beyond their given life expectancy anyway -we can get through this together. Game theory once again applies: help out your neighbour or stranger, and the same will likely happen to you or your loved ones wherever they may be. But know this, we’re in this together whether we like it or not. There will be forces, currently garish in the press pointing fingers between countries, races, candidates, exacerbating desperation in desperate times, but we need to collectively fight from the same ground against a common enemy. Hand washing, WFH, WTF, losing support networks, social distancing yet looking after those in need have all already united us in a collective experience, we just don’t need more rule and divide. And neither should we enable the pathologically inclined who do so -those on the sociopathic spectrum in power or with a podium, cannot help it, bless em. We however can. Don’t feed those clicks.

In short, we have enough on our plate for going political or divided right now (if we must, we can enjoy all that later). By all means, exert your pressure, demand, let your voices be heard when things are found wanting, but do the finger-pointing later. Let’s just get through the damn day.

 

Tomorrow

 

 

 

Europe’s Greatest Weakness and Greatest Strengths

In short: it’s the borders, but not as you know it.

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A continent loosely summed up as 750 million people in the more northern climes of the world, famous for its history, heritage and export of culture (and peoples).

But let’s look closer at the geography: the world’s sole ‘landmass’ delineated from the rest by physical barrier – mountain ranges and seas (do ignore the Indian ‘subcontinent’, China or Eastern Africa that could easily do the same) – with the Caucasus forming an adjunct against the Middle East at one end, and the more spurious boundary of the Urals at the other. Never mind that this range peters out uncharitably 600km from the Caspian coast, and is low and heavily gap-toothed anyway – infinitely porous for the peoples of the Steppe, and to which White Russia has long suffered and capitalised on, this is the boundary that claims itself a stopper against the rest of the Asian multitudes. That declares itself more than just a peninsular of Asia.

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The idea that all continents are defined by their physicality demonstrates European exceptionalism – insofar that the idea of Europe is in reality more based on ethnicity, thinly veiled. That what defined this continent has long been the triptych of pale skin, Caucasian race and Christian culture, all but glossed over in textbooks to this day and accepted as an unsaid, unquestioned norm. With this idea comes the attachments of history, a richly influential vein that runs through collective peoples who went on to annexe 3.5 continents other than their own (the two Americas, Australasia and Asia thanks to Russia/ Kazakhstan) as the greatest source of immigration the world has ever known and likely ever will. In short Europe is a sanctum alluding to the ‘old country’ for many hundreds of millions outside it still, and an idealistic narrative on governance  to even more – a cultural source code for successful nations if one may, yet often reduced to a sum of parts. Europe frequently gets boiled down to a list of these parts.

Ethnic map of the world by Haplogroup:

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This veneration is both the winning laurel and Damoclean sword. On one hand its historic urbanity, iconic motifs and exportable cuisines, languages, style and arts continue to draw visitors and investment by the billion, yet its exceptional storytelling can also jar with the demands of a globalised world, and demographic paths toward a more mutually reliant populace on the big spinner. As the per capita incomes of the Developed World and the Developing World (once known as the Third World) begin to converge the eyeliner so long denoting Europe as belle of the ball is increasingly consequential: attracting ever more suitors but also a more fragile sanctimoniousness.

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For example, Europe’s plinth-like status brings in 671 million visitors (2017, accounting for 57% of international travel), with $767 billion investment to local economies – by far the largest destination for tourism, immigration and FDI. New housing, continents removed, still delusionally aspire to Tuscan villas, Norfolk farmhouses and Berlin apartments whether they be in the sprawl of the Texan interior, embattled Israeli outposts or upmarket estates in China’s third tier cities. The English language/ suit has become the uniform for global professionals, and Greek democracy, Italian art, French enlightenment, English industrialisation, British and Russian economics, and Swiss modernism have been adopted as worldly norms – sold as templates for governance and modern culture. Looking back on this weight of far-reaching achievement pride becomes an easy reaction, despite cultural piggy-backing, technology transfer strictly limited between brothers-in-arms, and disparate achievements conveniently united by one race (a redrawing of boundaries as and when needed), cultivated under the umbrella term of Westernism – but subtly or not so subtly redolent of supremacism too. Not to mention a more painful eyeballing from history on an inheritance built on colonialism, slavery, incessant power struggles, foreign invasion and hierarchical inequality no different (or perhaps a little more avid) from the rest.

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But Europe today is also a region most angst-ridden about outside influence and historic navel-gazing (or utter lack of, via rose-tinted media portrayals), susceptible to modern day demagogues, where every major economy is now, for the first time in a century, either right wing or in coalition with the far right.

To start, one cannot possibly quantify 750 million people, 130 languages, 50 countries, 87 ethnic groups and myriad cultures and histories as one. Witness the past attempts to do so, whether through bloody world war or cultural hand-wringing when pacts such as NATO or the EU sacrificed imagined sovereignty for greater geopolitical win-win. The continent is still a disparate collection behind the flawless face, with infighting commonplace between countries, and regions within – not to mention many societal pitchforks readied for the stream of newcomers, whether they be from the continent or outside (and despite the welcome also laid out).

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Separatism within Europe:

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Yet should Europe give up on its institutionalised veneration on what it thinks it is to be European – rather than by dint of pure geography – it would find it can marry contemporary progressiveness with a rich past and continuation of traditions. Look at the record of the Nordic, Alpine and Benelux nations, world leaders in education, quality of life, social justice, economic performance and environmentalism coupled with a rich heritage of culture, architecture and the arts, all within the same breathless sentiment.

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But contrast that with worrying support for Le Pen, Jobbik, the Freedom Party or Brexit, coupled with instances of hate crime, terrorism, media-fuelled xenophobia and a stout lack of charity for the current refugee crises (the vast majority of the worlds 68 million refugees fleeing to neighbours within the already embattled Middle East and Africa – some of which have become refugee-majority populations within the last decade – with ‘only’ 1 million of the richest affording the crossings to Europe).

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Also note how Austria and Denmark straddles both these perceptions – open progressiveness with reactionary populism, which lends to the fact no part can be summarised despite all intent. Should Eurocentrism take down its artificial borders both in mind and physicality it can limit the damage wrought by a generalised decline in birth rates and productivity, both demographically and culturally. When the ‘old country’ no longer negates the idea that all societies are new, and that they have always had to be in order to survive.

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Europe is in short a wondrous, rich tapestry of histories and cultures; it does well to build on it. But it also does well to remember how porous its borders were in the age of empires, whether being invaded and influenced from outside (Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Turkics, Huns, the Silk Routes, Moors, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans) or doing the invading and influencing of the outside (Greek -Macedonian, Roman, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Russian, German), that has so lent it the multitudinal aspects to build and importantly, trade on.

Les trentes glorieuses:

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This is not to overlook the genius of democracy, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, but they were not entirely standalone as we have come to assume, and with often fore runners abroad, from China’s equivalent scaled Industrial Revolution in the Dark Ages (that was destroyed by Mongol politicking and climate change), to Mughal manufacturing that took a quarter of global GDP and Ming Dynasty navies that operated history’s largest pre-industrial ships, industries, and explorations. On an interesting sidenote these were also scuppered by Mongol threat when funds went into defence instead, with the fleet burned and a capital offence made of going to sea, plus an edict for SE Asians to reduce their vassal envoys to every 3 years.

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Oops, where was I in my breathless account? The first shoots of democracy in Iraq and India, alongside the worlds first cities, or the first modern warfare. Another sidenote: they were  fired up by the Mongol-Chinese who operated the first guns (‘fire-lances’), cannons, mines, sea mines, grenades and automated rapid-fire crossbows in the attempted invasions of Japan employing vast armadas of 5,200 ships – but who ultimately opted to bury the tech when society started going all Call of Duty among themselves. Japan, replete with developing the worlds most advances weaponry (and had just invaded and colonised Korea with their prototype arquebuses) even dumped the lot and went back to 300 years of strict isolationism and the beauty of the blade via a Samurai-Shogunate society. It’s a myth that the Chinese used gunpowder just for fireworks, and that the Europeans turned them into weapons.

 

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A lot has been said about the vast rape of the continents by the Mongols (who killed so many Chinese, Arabs, Indians, SE Asians and Eastern Europeans the carbon in the atmosphere fell, who destroyed over the centuries the world’s largest million+ cities of Baghdad, Gurganj, Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and who would attack countries with navies made up of up to 7,000 ships), but they were also a big buffer against historical domination if not a global one. A kill switch or at least barrier to further ambitions whenever an empire started getting too big for its boots such as the Song, the Burmese, the Japanese, the Delhi Sultanate, the Song Chinese, the Persians and Islamic Caliphates.

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Plus much iconography we think of as intrinsically European come from beyond, from the adoption of a Middle Eastern religion that is Christianity, to the International Style of modernism (clue’s in the name) sourced from medieval Morocco and Japan, that the early modernists such as Le Courbousier studied – the white wedding dress of the Ottomans, the Romanesque arch of Arabia, the Mongol onion dome, the Chinese naval tech, the Japonisme of impressionism and modern art, the African beat, the SE Asian spices, the Americas coffee, Chinese tea, the Himalayan gardens, the Indian manufacturing, the modern American/Japanese business frame, the knife and fork, the apple, the tulip, we could go on, and still do. The idea of Europe breaking down its barriers to speed into motion its coming extinction, as had been done in the continents it itself overran in the past, only ever happened when coupled with genocide, including viral. The way we see the world today should, in a very European tradition, be encompassing, outward-looking, clear -yet holding a subtle richness of history and nuance beyond the everyday.

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Do you agree? Comment below:

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, bless.

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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. Those who complain of facing racism every day from hate crime to quality of housing, while 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 thus allowed this small city to have easy access to black market arms also – like in America but with nicer backdrops.

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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 person  of colour 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. Don’t think he liked me drumming his hat either to wake him to the wonders of the M2. Every now and then he’d look forlornly past 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 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 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 the 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 Marmite or summat. Suppose it’s better than not letting you get on your flight in Moscow as they phone the damn consulate.

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, like a cross class Centaurian. 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, blending in – 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, in droves 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 you’ll get to know instinctively where could proffer up a safe place, even warm (back in my youth 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 throughout 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 no, despite the fact it looks glorious. 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 not just in Belgium but across the world – 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 giant, 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 49 mph 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). However it does look fantastic and instantly instagrammable if you’re of that age and ilk. And that they’ve since replaced the exhibits with snazzier stuff like techno monkeys or something.

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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 fancy 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 despite the uniformity of plot and theme. They say creativity flowers under restriction.

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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. But there is a whole world of charm in potential with Brussels; they just need more tweeness and window pots.

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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 can easily 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. But hey, that is its true face and a reflection of its cosmopolitan attitudes and people.

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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.

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Her full 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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I 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. Ohmigod I’m even blogging about this in a bullet pointed tirade that’s going a bit too long.

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. These are the kinds of judgements that one fixates on when sleep deprived, cold and down. Give me some good tummy bacteria and the place’ll transform I’m sure into history riddled architecture old and new, vibrant, complex society and each facade telling a tale.

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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. Apparently the same artist tried it in NYC and was painted out within hours. Brussels is quietly amazeballs.

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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 realise now James Blunt singing to a stadium of crying people, eyes closed, shivering over the mike as he recalls some elegant ex on a tube train, looks absurd if you don’t understand the lingo. 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, but taking me into new directions – 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 à la Londres 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 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 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’ve 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 Belgians 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 Belarus or something, without your passport or proof of Britishness. Or being fined a thousand euros for not having a valid ticket. Prison, showers, soap, that kind of thing. 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.

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), 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 wasn’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 somehow), 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 studded 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. Then I walked back to the main square, and lo and behold, another much larger space opened up, studded with cheap, good looking Belgian food in Bavarian bierhaus structures, staffed by winking models. Stew a la Ghent was everywhere.

Oh 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 tipsy Flemish before her husband came along and bundled her into the boot.

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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, 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 complexity 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. 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 worked 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, after endless talks involving lawyers and votes over their languages and political backgrounds). 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 quietly missed by everyone else in the world. It may have its workplace battles, but Belgium is 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 girl 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 all 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 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’d 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 again.

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The theme continued inside. A posh looking Chinese 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 home extension to every contact he could find on his phone, all 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 wants 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, those 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 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 – 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?

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