Thursday, June 2, 2011

Back to the Smoke

Its been quite a hurly-burly since the last post from Antwerp -- return leg, indulgence in Canterbury, great weather and setting up shop in London ready for the cricket tomorrow and Saturday.  Where to begin?

Antwerp is jammed full of museums if you look for them, and why not?  The city is an old Roman settlement that grew and grew and is now the 3rd (I think) largest container port in the world.  They got let down a lot along the way but that seems par for the course for Belgium and the fact they are where they are is pretty impressive.

MAS museum in Antwerp

Belgium is one of the old Benelux countries that merged to form the European Coal and Steel Union back in the 50's which was a precursor to the EEC and finally the EU.  I hadn't realised it but Benelux was where it all started for these countries anyway.  Back in the 1500's and before they were part of the old Spanish Hapsburg empire that was called The Low Countries and comprised all of modern day Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland.  It was religion of course that broke things up -- Holland being Protestant while the others were rather more fence sitters.  It helped that by the time the Dutch had made their minds up to be protestant and independent, the Spanish woke up to realise they'd better be more accommodating (i.e. pay more attention) to this remote backwater of the Empire.  The Spanish lost Holland in 1648 at the end of the 30 Years War and passed on Belgium and Luxembourg to the Austrian Hapsburgs to ignore.  So having swapped one disinterested colonial master for another, the Dutch heaped even more on the Belgians by denying access to the River Scheldt (Schelder in Flemish) to anyone but Dutch ships.  Antwerp which by then was the 3rd largest city in Europe after Paris and London crashed as their entire trade stopped stone cold dead.  The traders upped sticks and left leaving less than half the former population to find their way.

It took Boney in 1797 and the revolutionary armies to stomp all over everyone and open up the Schelder again and rebuild and enlarge Antwerp considerably to re-establish Antwerp as something other than a great place to drink beer.  But after Waterloo the Dutch re-established their shipping prohibition once again (thanks a lot!) so Belgium mortgaged their future in 1830 and paid 17 million guilders as a one-off payment to Holland to enable their shipping to have free access to the Schelder.  The Dutch King Wilhelm as a gesture of thanks for this cash influx finished off another huge dock redevelopment and left Belgium alone.

You could go to the museum of Antwerp (called the MAS) and learn all about this in their futuristic 9-storey museum and take a river cruise around the docks (I like looking at man's industrial prowess.  It impresses me as it makes me realise that mankind actually really aren't the parasites some people will have you believe but are really rather creative and solution oriented) but I think that's about it in terms of the why's and wherefore's about Antwerp.

OK I forgot -- on Sundays, the Grote Markt in the old town is turned into a mountain biking course!

A small digression here.  I bought this internet on a stick thing from Vodafone called would you believe it a "dongle" for 25 quid when I arrived.  It is amazing.  You just plug it in and it works.  I confess to being impressed by technology things that have practical applications and this is a cracker.  Smart phones are just brilliant technology but other than playing or checking your precise GPS location (why not use a map?) I cannot see much real solid practical use.  Beautiful yes.  Clever absolutely.  But what on earth do you do with it?  And it costs a fortune with all that data usage.  Now a dongle, I can see that.  I only look at email and occasional websites for checking news, sports scores and the like but it really does work.  I wouldn't be able to type this blog entry without it.

The English newspapers are just fascinating.  Who buys the trashy tabloids?  Answer, for the headlines.  On Tuesday the Star's front page screamed out "Having sex with Ryan Giggs turned me into a lesbian" and had a photo of a skimpily clad young woman.  Just brilliant.  I hope the author received a promotion for probably the best headline of the year.  But if you head past scintillating journalism such as this the subtext around the country is pretty gloomy -- slowing economy; despite austerity measures government spending is more than last year; local councils firing employees to outsource to India; Greece downgraded yet again and likely to default in July; end of the Euro; 43% of a 1100 person survey in England think that the UK should pull out of the Eurozone -- Ed note: the UK is actually NOT in the Eurozone; official "green" energy policy costs more than non-green former solutions both in terms of money, usage of resources and amazingly energy; 75,000 asylum seekers applying for immigration permits cannot be found so nobody knows where they are or if they are alive or dead; 96% of London inner city students speak English as at best a second language; and on it goes.  It really is difficult to see how the UK can wiggle its way out of its current mess.  The issues are endless and their complexities are enhanced by a seemingly general unwillingness of anyone in power to take a strong stance on anything.  "Taking the views of all stakeholders" is a common phrase used.  This means of course that the powers that be are trying to shift responsibility for something to "stakeholders" whoever they are.

Even the weather is a two edged sword.  I think England is the most beautiful country in the world on the 3 days of the year when the sun shines.  However in 2011 there's been no rain in the SE for 6-7 weeks depending on who you read so farmers are squealing -- and in Europe which produces 20% of the world's wheat, its even worse.  Yet in Scotland and up north, its wet as anything.  The solution to be acted upon is create more reservoirs in the SE (where there's no land) rather than pump it in.  The good news of course is that at least 5% of all crops are being turned over to synthetic petrol production as government tax hikes have prompted the major natural gas producer, Centrica, to moth ball certain sites as the 81% super-tax makes it more profitable to ship it in from elsewhere than produce it at home.  One of the papers calculated that by doing this Centrica makes $1 billion extra in income while the government loses $4 billion in tax revenues.

Be this as it may England when its sunny is gorgeous.  I went to Sissinghurst with mother-in-law Anna and the flowers were beautiful.  And to "enhance the Sissinghurst experience" I listened in to part of the historical lecture provided on Sissinghurst's role as a French sailors' POW camp in the 7 Years War (1756-1763).  "This is a story of deprivation, degradation and abuse" began the lecture.  Being a nature loving place most of the audience wore brown or green clothes with sandals and tutted their disapproval at this "shameful blot on the nation's history".  What?  These people clearly don't get out much.  Do they not know that simple sailors in the 1750's did not have luxury suites aka Carnival Cruise Lines but ordinarily lived in squalor & filth, ate muck, caught fell diseases and died of things most of us cannot spell these days?  Have they never heard of Dachau or Auschwitz? Rwanda?  The Death Railway in Thailand/Burma? Colditz?  Do we have to apologise for everything these days?

But the flowers were gorgeous as was the cream tea!  Tomorrow's Lords and the 2nd Test against Sri Lanka.

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