Belgium

Polar Opposites?

I’ve noticed a complete lack of resemblance between Channel 4 news anchorman Jon Snow and the late actor John Thaw famous for his portrayal of maverick Flying Squad detective Inspector Jack “Shut it!  We’re the Sweeney and we haven’t had any dinner!” Regan in the 1970s gritty TV series The Sweeney.  And I also believe he played another detective in a rather dull Oxford-set TV drama some years later.  As their names suggest they could be polar opposites in fact. 

 

John "We're the Sweeney, etc, etc" Thaw

Channel 4 News Presenter Jon "After the break we'll have..." Snow

Memoirs – Episode 3: The School Magazine and the Great Belgian Crisps Caper…

In our final year at the school, a small group of us, the usual suspects fulfilled our long-held ambition which we’d aspired to since 1st year by joining the committee of the annual school magazine. We thought we were the dog’s bollocks, but the truth is we were a bunch of cocky wee bastards who probably deserved a good hiding . In my early years at the school I’d looked up to the older boys who ran the magazine and wanted to be like them with their clever, witty articles, sophisticated sense of humour and sarcastic quips. Several years later when school was but a dim and distant memory one of my proudest moments occurred. I was in a pub in Omagh with a bunch of old schoolmates. I got talking to a younger lad who had been a few years below me at school. To my shame I don’t even remember his name, but he said he remembered my contemporaries and me from the school magazine and the articles we’d written and told me – “I used to look up to you boys – I wanted to be like you”.

In any given year the magazine would have articles on the previous year’s school trips, the excruciatingly bad 4th form adolescent angst-ridden poetry of the “I’m so depressed and misunderstood” variety, cartoons plagiarised from Gary Larrson’s “Far Side” collections and similar such odds and sods. The quality of material wasn’t always top rate, but if nothing else it was a great ego trip to see your own handiwork in print.

We put up a publicity poster featuring a warrior from a sword-and-sorcery “Lord of the Rings”-type graphic novel, glistening sword in one hand with his other arm around a comely young wench, the wind in their hair with the legend “Many are the pleasures of writing for your school magazine”. But inevitably some “comedian” had to deface the poster and change the word “writing” to “riding”.

Hilarious.

We also tried to slip a few risqué pieces in, some of which successfully made it. The editor Pete McGrane, a tall thin red-haired chap had been on a short trip to Belgium after having won a schools essay–writing competition on the European Union. To his (and our) great delight and amusement he discovered that the leading Belgian brand of crisps, (their equivalent of Walkers or Tayto) was called Croky. He wrote a witty account of his Belgian experience for that year’s magazine. At the end of his piece he included a cheeky afterthought. I don’t recall the exact words, but it went something along the lines of:

“…and finally no trip to the low countries would be complete without a mention of Belgium’s favourite junk food – Croky crisps!”

Accompanying this paragraph was a photo of a packet of the fat-saturated potato-based snacks bearing the distinctive “CROKY” logo in large letters. It’s probably a safe bet that the crisp manufacturer’s namesake was well aware of young McGrane’s intentions here, but sensibly he chose to turn a blind eye.

Iceland’s volcanic revenge on China?

 
 

Iceland -Punching above its weight?

 There’s an old joke about how many famous Belgians you can name, alluding to the concept of the country having an image problem within Europe and being perceived as a dull, bureaucratic place with few redeeming features.   I’ve written about this before on my previous blog site, but I digress.

Well apart from Hergé, the cartoonist and creator of Tintin, Georges Simenon, creator of fictional detective Maigret, Django Reinhardt the jazz guitarist, Jean-Claude Van Damme the so-called actor, the Tour de France-winning cyclist Eddy Mercx, King Leopold who left a dubious colonial legacy in the Congo, Sandra Kim, winner of the 1986 Eurovision Song contest, Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, the Renaissance artist Ruebens, the 20th century artist René Magritte, pop musician Plastic Bertrand, Jean-Marc Bosman, the footballer who changed the transfer rules, tennis players Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin and the singing nun Jeanne Deckers – I’m afraid I can’t think of a single famous Belgian.

Another European country which suffers from a similar syndrome is Iceland.  Although a country with a tiny population of only a few hundred thousand (ie equivalent to the population of Greater Belfast) Iceland has something of a reputation for punching above its weight.  Apart from its banks’ unsuccessful attempt to buy the world, the country’s  national football team recorded a famous victory over Northern Ireland – a team which also recently lost to that other great footballing superpower Albania – but of course it’s all the fault of those nasty southerners for stealing their players – as a certain blogger would have us believe.

The only famous Albanians I can think of are King Zog, the fomer communist-era premier Enver Hoxha and the nun Mother Teresa, who was actually born in what is now the Fomer Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, so techically may not count.  Neverthless the Albanian authorities still saw fit to name their main airport after her.  Rather ironic that a former atheist state, now nominally Muslim should hold a Christian figurehead in such high regard.  One of Belfast’s two airports is named after an alcoholic wife-beater, so follow that as they say.

A famous Albanian?

Iceland however despite its small population has produced many celebrated sons and daughters including the late former Mastermind presenter Magnus “I’ve started so I’ll finish” Magnusson, the pop musician Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the band Sigur Rós, the odd “Miss World”, Erik the Red, discoverer of Greenland,  Eggert Magnússon the businessman and former chairman of West Ham and the Tottenham footballer Eiður Guðjohnsen.

Anyway, getting to the point of this blog – Iceland has been in the news twice during the last 12 months following two unforeseen disasters – the collapse of its banks (and by extension the whole national economy) and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano which has sent a cloud of volcanic dust into the air over Europe resulting in chaos at the airports.  However one wonders whether the eruption was purely natural or might if have been man-made? 

Iceland was of course engaged in an obscure trade war with its not-so-near neighbour China in 1902, an event which still causes some resentment between the two countries.

There is speculation among world intelligence sources that the eruption was deliberately engineered by Icelandic geologists as an act of revenge for the Sino-Icelandic war, in the hope that the cloud of ash would eventually find its way to China.

Stranger things have happened (but not in Iceland).

Sherlock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

The new film - will it be a case of Downey and out or a Holme run? Or Watson the other side? Will Holmes' sidekick be a Law unto himself?

According to The Dreaming Arm the Holy Trinity of iconic characters in popular fiction (at least in the English-speaking world anyway) consists of James Bond, Doctor Who (and if any pedantic anoraks are reading this – before you write in to complain, yes I know his name is actually “The Doctor” and not “Dr Who” – so please self-copulate), and Sherlock Holmes. I can’t speak for the French-speaking world, but their Holy Trinity could be something like Tintin, Maigret and Asterix – ironically the former two are not of France, but of its trilingual neighbour to the north-east, whose other contributions to civilisation include fine chocolates, several hundred varieties of beer of multitudinous colours and flavours, quality lace, a dubious colonial legacy in the Congo, whose effects are still being felt today – and a statue of a urinating boy.
But as a certain diminutive bespectacled golf-playing entertainer and former star of a long-forgotten 1980s sitcom which gave the catchphrase “Language Timothy!” to a dysfunctional generation used to say – “I digress”. Anyway I’ve already written about Who and Bond in this blog, so to coincide with the imminent cinematic release of a new eponymously-titled motion picture this is The Dreaming Arm’s take on Sherlock Holmes.

The Great Triumvirate: Definitive Who?

I  remember having an argument when aged 8 or 9 with a schoolfriend by the name of Paul McGrade over whether Sherlock Holmes had been a real life character. I contended that he was purely a work of fiction, but young McGrade insisted that there had been a real Holmes at some point in time. In an attempt to settle the argument he advised me to pop down to the local police station and ask them to verify the past existence or otherwise of the great detective. I was confident in my assertion, so didn’t bother to take him up on this. But over a quarter of a century later I often wonder what the duty sergeants at the heavily fortified Omagh RUC station would have made of a 9-year old making such an enquiry. The image of a tall ruddy-faced moustached man sternly dismissing me with words to the effect of “Fuck away off, son and don’t be wasting my time!” provides many an amusing moment on these cold dark lonely winter nights.  In fact it’s becoming a rather tiresome running joke – as certain nameless individuals will be able to testify.

The Great Triumvirate: Premium Bond?

However to his credit some 5 or 6 years later the redoubtable Mr McGrade was to pen an excellent parody of a Holmes short story which captured the essence of Conan Doyle’s writing, yet sent it in up brilliant satirical style. To this day I think he could have been a great comedy writer (he also scripted an excellent monologue featuring the Hary Enfield character “Loadsamoney” for a 5th year school assembly, in which the cash-flashing tradesman was played by the present author), but I believe he’s now based in Westminster and doing rather well in the civil service.

I first became seriously interested in Sherlock Holmes at the age of 14 or 15 in 1988 or 1989 I think when the centenary of Conan Doyle’s character was being celebrated through various TV and radio documentaries, newspaper articles and the like. My unhealthy anorak-like obsession with Doctor Who was coming to a natural end (after all this was during the era of Sylvester McCoy when the show was at all-time low point) and the more mature and rational Holmes became the natural replacement. I devoured Silver Blaze, The Yellow Face, The Solitary Cyclist, The Engineer’s Thumb and The Hound of the Baskervilles with relish.

When I heard that the ex-Mr Madonna Guy Ritchie, he of the East End gangster film was making a new version of Holmes I was somewhat skeptical. I haven’t seen any of Ritichie’s previous works as the mockney hard bastard genre of film doesn’t generally butter my bread. Plus anyone who marries Madonna needs their head examined.. Although having said that it hasn’t done Sean Penn’s career any harm.
On hearing that Holmes was to be played by the high profile Hollywood actor and rehabilitated hell-raising former jailbird and ex-junkie Robert Downey Jr I had my concerns. Although Jude Law as Dr Watson seems like a safe choice, Downey marks a notable break in tradition considering that Holmes has traditionally been played by old school English character actors from the theatrical tradition. The most memorable is arguably Jeremy Brett who played the great detective in the Granada TV series during the 1980s and early ’90s. The Dreaming Arm’s occasional contributor Phil “the Austro-Hungarian empre got all the best cities” Larkin has described him as the definitive Holmes. I can see his point here as Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a brooding misanthropic, asexual character with a brilliant mind, suggesting he’s autistic is remarkably close to the perfection of Doyle’s creation. Brett as the genuine article could thus be to Holmes what Sean Connery is to James Bond and what Tom Baker is to Dr Who – although the chances are that anyone 25 reading this will argue that the latter accolade should go to David Tennant. Nah – Tennant’s a great actor, but his Who couldn’t hold a candle to Baker’s Who.

The Great Triumvirate: Ideal Holmes?

Other fine thespians who have darkened the doorstep of 221B Baker Street include Ian Richardson (probably best known for his role as machievellian politician Urquart in the BBC drama House of Cards), Hammer Horror veterans Peter “Dr Frankenstein/Prof Van Helsing” Cushing and Christopher “Dracula/Lord Summerisle” Lee and even a certain curly-haired, goggle-eyed toothy-grinned, long scarf-wearing, rich mellow chocolatey-voiced former Time Lord and occasional voiceover artist known as Tom Baker.

Nevertheless I’m prepared to make the trip to my local picture house at some point over the Christmas/New Year period with an open mind and give “Sherlock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” a chance.
So watch this space for the verdict!

On Extinct Tropical-themed confectionery products

It was while driving to work one morning last week when it occurred to me for some bizarre inexplicable reason that the canned fizzy drink Lilt was no longer on the market.   Or at least not in cans anyway.  If I remember correctly it was a mixture of pineapple, grapefruit and various other tropical fruit flavours, topped up wiht citirc acid, tartrazine and assorted crap that would now probably be banned by the EU. The TV ad featured shots of an idyllic tropical island with thejingle sung in a strong Caribbean accent “Lilt – with a totally tropical tee-yast”.

Around about the same time (ie early ‘80s) I recall there was a coconut and cherry flavoured chocolate bar called Cabana, which disappeared without a trace soon afterwards. Then not so long after this came out a disgusting bright red drink purporting to be a mixture of various tropical fruit juices called Um Bongo. The song featured in the TV ad (sung – I believe, but can’t be 100% sure – by the comedian Lenny Henry) was along the lines of an African tribal chant accompanied by a jungle drum beat with the chorus line “Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo”. It’s unlikely that this sort of thing would be broadcast nowadays in the age of rampant political correctness. But it’s probably purely coincidental that roughly around the same time the Tory MP Alan Clarke called for black immigrants to be sent back to BongoBongoland.

It’s not so much the politically incorrect nature of the ad, nor its stereotyping, but more the gross factual inaccuracy that bothers me. I’m sure if you were to ask Fergal Keane or Orla Guerin fresh from a reporting assignment in the corrupt, war-ravaged, mineral-rich central African state (that’s assuming the song refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo rather than Congo-Brazzaville, although the former was at the time still known as Zaire (but before that the Belgian Congo at the time when waffle-eating Sprouts had an empire), so it’s debatable) if they saw anyone sipping Um Bongo out of a straw from a garishly-coloured cardboard carton, I’m sure the answer would be an emphatic “no”.

A cursory glance at Wikipedia proves my point:

It is particularly famous for its long running (sung) slogan of “They Drink It In The Congo“, used with the accompanying animated television advert since the 1980s. However, Um Bongo is not marketed in either the Republic of the Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And just to be clear I don’t miss Lilt, Um Bongo, Cabana or any other e-number, artificial-flavouring-infested tropical-themed confectionery product of the 1980s (nor for that matter do I miss that particular decade), but I do toss and turn in bed at night wondering whatever became of them. I assume they went the way of the yuppy, the spangly flecked suit, black slip-ons and white socks, the bubble perm and matching moustache as sported by stock stage Liverpudlians in period comedy sketches, the wafer thin leather tie, the skintight pair of bleached jeans and the mullet haircut. And good riddance to them all.

Nostalgia’s just not what it used to be.

In Bad Taste

As I’ve mentioned before, Belgium has always had image problems associated with not being one of the more exciting countries in Europe.  Presumably Martin McDonagh, the plastic paddy writer-director had this idea in mind when he chose to set his eponymous film in Bruges.  With its network of canals and fine buildings Bruges is often described as “the Venice of the north”, but Amsterdam and Stockholm also lay claim to this title.  There is certainly no shortage of references to this, in particular the concept of Bruges, a fairytale city of perfectly preserved medieval design with its canals and narrow cobbled streets, being in such an unglamorous country.  Having read the rave reviews and seen two of McDonagh’s highly acclaimed plays, two impressive amateur dramatics productions (in two quite different places) of The Cripple of Inishman (in Dromore, Co. Tyrone) and The Beauty Queen of Leenane (in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire), I was quite looking forward to this film.  Although I wouldn’t call it a bad film as such, I found large chunks of it unpleasant to watch and left the cinema feeling it should never have been made.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are Ken and Ray, two gangsters sent to Bruges to lie low by their boss following a botched robbery which has resulted in the accidental killing of a young boy.  The comic double act, with its surreal incongruous conversations resembles that of Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.  Also the contrast between Gleeson’s older, wiser and more cultured father figure and Farrell’s naïve, young fool is not unlike the interplay between Ted and Dougal in Father Ted.  However the juxtaposition of Tarantinoesque black humour and moralistic pathos just doesn’t work.  Farrell is constantly haunted by the guilt of being a child-killer, a theme which runs through the film, interspersed with comic moments, two contrasting styles which make uncomfortable bedfellows.  It’s as if McDonagh couldn’t decide whether he was writing a straight gangster film or a screwball comedy.  In fact the mixing of comedy with bloody violence and serious themes of death, guilt and morality is in very bad taste.  By the end of film I was disgusted by the way in which life and death decisions were being used as a vehicle for humour.  Scorsese gangster flicks are not lacking in humour of course, but this is usually a diversion from the killing and violence rather than inextricably linked to it.  Similarly, Tarantino films employ very black humour linked to violence, but  unlike In Bruges, they, make no attempt at didactic moralising.  There were in fact times during the film, when I was the only viewer in the cinema not laughing, as I just couldn’t bring myself to see the funny side of what was a very unfunny situation.

It could have worked perfectly well as an out-and-out comedy – if the comic scenes had occurred in the appropriate context.  Unfortunately the overplaying of the moralistic bullshit, the underlying themes of religion, guilt and suicide, not to mention the unpleasant scenes which accompany the humour tend to get in the way of laughs.  On the other hand, it wouldn’t have worked as a straight gangster film.  The cartoonish nature of the characters, totally implausible situations and string of unlikely coincidences would have made this impossible.  The film ends up as a confused mish-mash of Get Carter/Lock Stock and two smoking barrels and various other British gangster movies, Tarantino, and Father Ted with a sprinkling of David Lynch thrown in for good measure, a combination which simply doesn’t work.

What’s also intensely irritating is Farrell’s character, who borders on the stereotypical Irish charm-filled natural born bullshitter- loveable rogue-with-the-gift-of-the-gab-type who indulges in some rather elaborate eyebrow acrobatics, although is far from loveable.  Ralph Fiennes is the cockney godfather who sends his “employees”, Ken and Ray to Bruges, while they await his instructions.  His character is something of a Michael Caine wannabe who succeeds in sounding like Caine, but physically bears a passing resemblance to a tall, thin Graeme Souness.

There is a strong supporting cast of colourful characters, who form a microscosm of life’s rich paegant within the unlikely setting of Bruges – Jimmy, an American dwarf film actor, addicted to horse tranquilisers, Chloe, a young Belgian woman who has a romantic fling with Ray, her psychotic skinhead ex-boyfriend, Yuri, an eccentric arms dealer and Marie, a pregnant hotel owner who ends up acting as a symbolic link with Ray’s guilty conscience.
 
On the plus side there are some interesting plot twists and some good camerawork.  Shots of a solitary swan on the canal at night, silhouetted ducks flying overhead amidst the ornate bridges and gothic spires capture the spirit of Bruges in winter.  There is also a memorable comic scene early on involving Farrell and some overweight American tourists.  It’s actually not a bad advert for the Bruges tourist industry.  There is one scene in which Farrell and Gleeson are in a  cosy bar sipping fine Belgian beers with mellow jazz playing in the background, safe from the winter chill and leaden skies outside which almost makes you want to go there for a pre-Christmas weekend break.

Overall though, it’s just not my glass of Hoegaarden.  “In fucking Bruges!” Farrell’s character, unimpressed by his employer’s choice of hideout blurts out at one point. 

In fucking bad taste more like.