Belgium

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).

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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.