what i did on my holidays

Alp! Alp!

I went to Italy on my holidays. By train, at high speed through France and then much more slowly through the bit of the Alps that form the border between the two. Here’s a video made by poking my iPhone at the window and pressing ‘record’. Crap quality video, beautiful scenery.

Pride and prejudice


Ah, the joys of modern technology. I’m actually blogging on an iPhone from the tiny Virgin-branded deep vein thrombosis generator that is a Pendolino while the story in question is still warm (if not actually hot).

I’m on my way back from Pride London, where me, the ball-and-chain and my mum had marched, shouted, chanted and sworn across three miles of busy streets cleared for us and a quarter of a million people of similar persuasions.

I’ve marched in Pride almost every year for ten years and have found that it had got less and less political and more and more partying over that time. That’s not a bad thing per se, as it reflects the advances in liberation and acceptance we’ve had over that time. But I’m a very political animal and I like a good demo. Anything else is just a walk with strangers and I always feel I should’ve pressured coworkers and friends to sponsor me first. However, this year politics seems to have leapt back onto the gay agenda – yay! – and the march was more political than I’ve ever seen it. Thanks, ‘Dave’ and Nick, for putting the lead back into the gay pencil after years of queers marching in a kind of guilty silence with only Kylie booming out to cover it.

This year, the brothers and sisters and everything in-between were angry. Nobody outside of the Tory and Liberal right are happy about the cuts. Few in our newly cosmopolitan country are happy with the veiled threats to our gay liberty to be heard from the Tories. Fewer still – perhaps people with psychological problems – are happy to hear words of almost-prejudice, hints of curtails of freedom, coming from supposed Liberals. But the crowd had heard them and were annoyed. The painful cuts in services to the worst off, coupled with tax rises on the poorest only, had made them – us – angry. It was a good anger, with a good twisted gay humour behind it. As we marched down Oxford Street, surround by shops owned and run by men who don’t pay tax and don’t pay their staff a living wage, the chants and cat-calls were positively 1970s. I loved it. The march went past groups of spectators with their expensive beers and designer clothes – gay and straight – and broke out into a chant, led in our part by the officials from the National Union of Teachers, of “We’re here, we’re queer, we can’t afford the beer!” which was fun and true but strange.

We weren’t allowed to march past Downing Street this year, so the delicate little flowers who ‘work’ for ‘us’ there didn’t have to hear our complaints. We were, however, required to walk past a group of narrow-minded wife-beating kiddy-fiddlers – I think they think they’re Christians – who were shouting for us to be stoned and burned and other words of wise, kind forgiveness that their messiah asked them to say to their neighbours. Usually the marchers at Pride ignore them, or take the opportunity to snog their partners at that point, or to do the Stonewall Riot showgirl kicking thing that would cripple me. Not this time. From the top of Piccadilly Circus we could see the small band of weirdos. Someone asked “who’s that?”. A dull rumble of replies – Christians, evangelicals, extremists – one word cut through. Bigots. My mum was shocked, but not surprised, that anyone could care enough about what strangers did in bed to come out and shout abuse at them. It’d be like her making a special trip to stop people coming out of Homebase and insulting them for buying beige wallpaper.

The mood of the crowd changed as each party rounded the corner and saw the bigots. In front of us, they started the brilliantly satirical chant “Recruit! Recruit! One in ten is not enough!”, which didn’t scan but was very fun to shout. The crowd all did something as they drew level with the bigots, but when we did, my mum took things a step further. My mum is brilliant. I love her to bits and you would too. She’s the life and soul of any party, but also a good shoulder to cry on. She’ll make a cup of tea before you realise yourself you want one. She’s undaunted by vomit, which was very useful in my teenage drinking years. And she’s almost always smiling even as life hurls crap at her. With that word picture in mind, let us return to the march.

We drew level with the bigots and the march, as marches randomly do, briefly stopped for reasons we couldn’t see (usually something to do with a float half a mile ahead). The crowd started to boo the bigots. Then my mum raised her hand in the air and, with grace and aplomb, stuck two fingers up at Chief Bigot (possibly Reverend Bigot, his nametag wasn’t visible) and yelled “fuck you!”.

There was a moment of silence, then all the boys and girls around us, me included, all raised our hands in the air, started giving them the finger, and all bellowed “fuck you!” at them too. It was like a spontaneous new gay chant for ill-bred homos everywhere. And the true joy was to come: Chief Bigot and his thieving child-murdering environment polluting assistant bigots looked shocked. Yes, shocked. It was the best thing that ever happened ever: my mum incited a crowd to shock a bigot. She should be given an award. Or at least consider sewing it into the pattern of her next piece of embroidery.

With that, the march petered out – there’s never a good way to end a march, but the decision to end it 5 minutes walk away from the accompanying festival is quixotic – and we had to decide whether to go to Trafalgar Square with everyone else or walk over the bridge to the South Bank where the Terrace Bar sold Pimm’s in pitchers.

Over our glass of Pimm’s – well, what would you do? – we talked about how much fun we’d had and our plans for a theatre trip that night. We were exhausted but very happy and, yes, proud.

Their glory shall not be blotted out

As I’ve previously mentioned, my weird hobby when in Belgium is to visit and photograph Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries.

If you’ve never seen one, this must seem very odd indeed, so here’s a short video of Railway Dugouts (Transport Farm) cemetery, just outside Ieper/Ypres, so you can see what they generally look like and why they hold such fascination.

It’s been around 18 years since I last handled professional video cameras, so it’s no surprise that the videoed parts of the film are rubbish: inexperienced operator using a stills camera to take video pictures without a tripod == crappy film. Still, it’s no worse than most YouTube videos, especially as I shoved in lots of stills with too much Ken Burns effect on them. The camera mostly caught the sound of me breathing like some old pervert (say nothing) so I’ve dubbed a Public Domain rendering of Jerusalem over it, which leads to some accidentally hilarity (the choir sings “dark satanic mills”, the camera pans on to the grave of one S W Mills; each time they sing “England”, the camera comes to rest on a Canadian or Australian grave and so forth).

[plug type=”shameless”] If you like the Ken Burns-style stills, you can see more of them by buying my wonderfully produced, if ambitiously priced, book from here. [/plug]

Let the train take the strain

So I discovered the video camera function on my phone, pointed it out of the window and now take you on a journey from Menin to Wervik (edited for sanity reasons) so you too can pretend you’ve been to Belgium too! See what I do for my readers?

As a bonus, I’ve included the return working of the train passing near Zillibeke at the end.

Of knives and forks

I’m back from a week in Belgium. I love Belgium: quiet, laid back, pretty and with plenty to do and see. And above all: British people don’t tend to holiday there.

I’ve only once been on a package holiday, about 15 years ago. I went to Corfu. It too was lovely, but it was infested with Brits – and I hadn’t even gone to the rough, partying part (Paleokastritsa), instead choosing a quieter area (Kassiopi) overlooking Albania. The problem was that Thompson or whoever it was had run a special offer I hadn’t known about and had hoovered up a lot of other British tourists more used to Spain. I spent two weeks in the close company of people who moaned that the newspapers were yesterday’s newspapers, that the plumbing was wipe-and-bin rather than wipe-and-flush, that there was no McDonalds, that there was no Sky TV, that there was too great a chance of running into a local who might not speak English, that the pool was smaller than Spanish pools, that the beach was shingle not sand… on and on, all ending with the refrain “It’s not like Spain!”

That was the reason I hadn’t gone to Spain. Spain was full of British people complaining. I thought a relatively expensive, out-of-the-way not-quite-a-resort like Kassiopi might have been fairly free of Brits. I was wrong and the experience still haunts me.

So Belgium is lovely in that regard… except that we long ago fell in love with Ieper (Ypres that was) and I got my Commonwealth War Graves hobby going. Ieper, home of the Menin Gate and bazillions of CWGC sites obviously attracts lots of British tourists. Still, they’re mainly coach parties, doing a night in Ieper then off to the Somme or Dunkirk or somewhere with tulips and pot, so you don’t see all that much of them.

Except at dinner time. I wouldn’t mind, if it wasn’t for the bloody incessant complaining of the Brits aboard. It’s ABROAD – it comes with differences, that’s why you fucking well went abroad in the first place. Still, I’m pretty good at tuning them out most of the time, and if they’re too far away for me to hear with my useless hearing, it’s quite easy to do. And then I can switch to people watching – the proper study of mankind being man (also, I’m nosey).

One evening, we were eating dinner at Brasserie Central on the Grote Markt. We’ve become friends with Sergio, a waiter-manager, so tend to take breakfast or dinner there four or five times in a week. He tends to seat us with the locals rather than the tourists, so it’s win-win. I watched as a family of three came in and pegged them (in a sociological kinda way, not at all a snobby kinda way, ahem) immediately: Brits on holiday by Chunnel and car, used to Spain, branching out.

They sat down and I waited for the usual food order to be placed – fish and chips for the mum and dad, burger and chips for the (alarmingly large) 11 year old son. Well, slap me down: they ordered off the set menu. This is reasonably priced, but quite exotic in places so I was shocked. It features neither fried fish nor burgers. Still, it does have some “normal” food on it, and the starter of melon and ham they ordered didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the main course – they all had Flemish Stew.

Flemish Stew, I thought, was quite an adventurous meal for them. It can hide a multitude of sins (liver being one) in the thick, beer-based brown gravy it comes slathered in. But they cooed over it (it was, as usual at Central, beautifully presented) and tucked in.

I have in the past, here, on foodie forums and on my previous blog, complained that the Tory decision to remove Home Economics (ie Cooking) from the school timetables created a whole generation of parents that can’t cook even a simple meal and is creating a whole generation of unhealthy children who don’t know what goes into food. Smug in my chef-fy, middle class world, I prescribed reintroducing Home Ec, or where it already exists making sure that there are actual cookery lessons, teaching the basics (hygiene, how to make a roux, how to make a soup or stew) to solve this problem.

The son proved that my solution wasn’t really addressing the problem. I’m not talking about the horrors of an obese 11 year old (although this is Not Good in itself, and I speak as a bit of a porker myself). No, this is more fundamental. I watched as he picked up his knife and fork and looked confused. He watched what his parents were doing and tried to replicate their behaviour, swapping the cutlery from hand to hand as he attempted to saw at a piece of meat. He tried valiantly, but soon gave it up as a bad job, put the knife down and ate with fork alone. Anything too large was simply crammed into his mouth and chewed at, wide-open, until it was swallowable.

This child had clearly never used a knife and fork to eat with before. All his food – and he’d had plenty in his time – had been edible with just a fork or, more often, with just his hands.

How does this happen? How could his parents have let him get to Secondary School age without once noticing that the poor boy had never had reason to use a knife? How in future will he cope in school dining rooms, cafés, restaurants, dinner parties and any one of the thousands of other social occasions that include sharing food? Is he expected to spend his life eating only in McDonalds or Pizza Hut, never again to experience a civilised meal that doesn’t involve using either or both hands to get the food into his gob?

This spell of people watching was the worst spell of people watching I’ve ever done. And I’m all the more convinced that I should holiday in places without (other) British tourists more often.