Ghentlemen Prefer Blondes (and Dunkels, and Tripels)

From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.

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Lincoln: Diary of an Impy Kid

It’s funny that England remains a bit of an unknown quantity to me, when I have spent all of my adult life here. I’ve passed through most of its cities when playing gigs, going to away matches or visiting friends, but I wouldn’t usually consider it for a holiday. I think of these towns as insufficiently exotic to go and visit. There is no basis in fact for this; at its best, England matches the picturesque and ancient qualities of my favourite corners of Europe with the state-of-the-art comforts (stuff actually works) of Holland or Germany. There comes a point when it seems ridiculous that you’ve been to St Peter’s, St Mark’s, St Nicholas’, St Anthony in Padua and St Francis in Assisi and yet are wholly unacquainted with the great cathedrals of your own country. And so, to Lincoln.

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Dublin: A Painful Case

One day, my primary school teacher handed out blank maps of Northern Ireland and asked us to create our own weather forecast. Everyone got out the felt tips and went to town decorating our six counties with sunshine, rainfall, dark clouds and flashes of lightning. When the finished pieces were handed in, she roared with laughter and observed that we had all coloured around the boundary of Norn Iron with blue water on every side, as if the other twenty-six counties of the emerald isle had never existed. This story sums up the relationship that more obdurate Prods will have with what my grandfather still calls “The Free State”: there isn’t one.

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Singer’s Hampstead Roam

Regular readers will have noticed that this blog is drifting very far from its original course of visiting everything in Nairn’s London. This is partly because it feels hard to write about different areas of London without saying the same thing. This was a traditionally affluent area that in recent years has become solely occupied by oligarchs and sheikhs. This was a traditionally impoverished area that in recent years has become solely occupied by middle-class families with good jobs. This was a traditionally bohemian area that is now all Foxtons and £5 croissants.

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Netherlands II: Trading Places

Haarlem and Amsterdam are good cities to ponder the Dutch Golden Age, when a backwater became a superpower, with some remarkable things happening along the way. The story illustrates how everything affects everything else, usually with unintended consequences. Catholic Spain kept its hold on the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium, and expelled all Protestants, Jews, and non-Catholics of every stripe. Antwerp and Bruges kicked out their most mercantile peoples, and Amsterdam took them in; they entered a steep decline and Amsterdam boomed. Where other states were run by aristocrats or churches, the Netherlands were run by middle-class merchants. With no altarpiece commissions, the painters turned to domestic subjects, with thrilling results. More interested in trade than evangelism, they eclipsed the Portuguese as seafaring explorers, and were the only people permitted to have contact with Japan in its two centuries of sakoku. The Dutch East India Company arguably laid the foundations of globalised capitalism that we so dearly cherish today.

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The Demon Bar Crawl of Fleet Street

The papers have gone, but they have left behind some remarkable mausoleums, and taken the name with them to Wapping and Kings Cross. Fleet Street is an idea as much as a street, yet the street has no little history; this was the route from the City to Westminster. Having spent next to no time working in central London, doing this walk made me feel like a tourist hick in an important place, getting in everybody’s way.

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The Napoleon Complex of Notting Hill

(REUTERS) – Islamic State (Isis) fighters in West London claim they have taken control of a Royal Park in the central province of Kensington, the second it has seized in a week after battles with government forces. The hardline Sunni Islamist group posted 18 photos on social media showing the Islamic State flag raised over the Serpentine as well as captured vehicles and weaponry, according to the jihadi website’s monitoring service. Western media could not independently confirm the events due to security restrictions. Isis fighters, who control up to a third of West London as well as swathes of Zone 1, and have declared a ‘caliphate’ in the territories they control, seized Kensington Palace on 30 October. “So after the (Sha’ar) company and the (positions) surrounding it became part of the land of the caliphate, the soldiers advanced, conquering new areas, and all praise is due to Allah,” Islamic State said in the message. “Yesterday they tightened control over Sloane Square and Stamford Bridge stadium, and nearly nine (positions) supported by heavy weaponry such as tanks, armoured vehicles, and heavy machine guns of various calibres,” it added. The US says it is not coordinating with forces of the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, to combat the Islamist group.

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