Category Archives: General

Conversations in Drenthe and Friesland

Last weekend I headed north. For the past few years, Culturapeida has had a partnership with PeerGroup, a theatre company from Drenthe in the northern Netherlands. We worked with them on a project for the Preston Guild in 2012 and have maintained the relationship ever since. We are currently working with them on a project called Bridging Blackburn which is about conversations with strangers and encouraging communities to communicate. Our other partner in this venture is a project that works with young people in Blackburn called Slyncs which is headed up by an old friend and ex employee of Culturapedia, Jaf Hussain.

20160917_115447Last weekend a group of seven young people from Blackburn visited PeerGroup to work with four of their young people to further explore ideas that will ultimately lead to a performance/happening/event, in Blackburn in the Summer of 2017.

I headed off, with my bike, and caught a train to Assen. From there I had a 45 minute cycle ride up to PeerGroup’s HQ which is an disused 1960s cold war ammunitions base called Donderboerkamp, surrounded by forest. The site consists of a grid of streets with buildings sparsely placed amongst the trees. Peer Group manage this site. It is where they are based but it also houses sheltered work opportunities for people with learning difficulties and mental health issues. Most of the buildings have been, or are in the process of being, converted from storage units for ammunition into useful spaces for staying, rehearsing, building, eating and creating. They are functional red brick boxes but they have a simple aesthetic with their shutters in amongst the trees.

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The weather was great and we had good company. The chall957447848282696132-account_id2enge was focusing on the task in hand – to think about how you had conversations with strangers and how we communicate – with words, pictures, actions…

On Friday night we set off in a convoy to go and see PeerGroups current production, an hour and a half drive away in the village of Kimswert on the Friesian coast. Five hundred years ago this was the home of Grutte Pier, a celebrated Friesian freedom fighter resisting Dutch or Saxon rule. Friesland still  has its own language, quite distinct from Dutch and a proud identity all of its own. The performance, which came half way through a four year programme of activity celebrating Pier’s anniversary, was spectacular. We were lead from the road, past the site of Pier’s farm house, (burned down on January 1515), by a giant drum and a choir of local women farmers and farmers wives. We arrived at a massive outdoor theatre with seating for over 400. An army, made up of 20 local people were training hard in the mud, preparing for battle. The stage was marked out by upturned tree trunks, brutally thrust into the ground and standing fifteen meters high. This was a hard setting – we were going to witness war. Beyond the trees lay the battlefield. Throughout the performance we witnessed layers of activity, body-bags being dragged, buried and burned. We saw Grutte Pier’s descent into madness, despair and cruelty. His conscience was represented by a narrator dressed in red – the only colour in the production. She tormented him and fought with him verbally throughout. She was his mind, his dreams, his ideas. All the dialogue was in Friesian apart from the narrator who spoke in Dutch. A lot of what she said had been directly lifted from the speeches of Geert Wilders, an frightening, active, charasmatic, outspoken right wing, nationalistic politician here in the Netherlands.

Naturally, I didn’t understand what was being said. I could pick up the odd word but it didn’t matter. This was physical theatre and the actions portrayed the meaning. It was fantastic. I loved every minute. I feel privileged to have seen it. Ticket sales have been so good, they have extended the run. By October nearly ten thousand people will have travelled to this small village on the coast of Friesland. Amazing.

20160917_084224_001B20160917_121006ack in Donderboercamp we further explored ideas and got to know each other better. Connections were made and strangers became friends. We improvised and we discussed ideas, ambitions and dreams. The next phase of the project will be back in Blackburn in mid October….

We had seen a depiction of war and violence on a field in Friesland and I had slept in an old weapons store. I cycled back to catch my train back to the noises and hubbub of Rotterdam having spent some wonderful tranquil hours in the peace of Donderboerkamp – glad that the weapons were a thing of the past and that Bridging Blackburn will be about talking to strangers, not fighting them.

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Sorry, it wasn’t me who broke it.

Team GB’s success in Rio did something to raise the mood but there has been a somewhat somber tone to the UK this Summer. Now the athletes are back home polishing their medals the national news returns to the political turmoil.  

Through ineptitude, some of our very senior politicians broke Britain and severely dented Europe. The referendum result, on June 24, was a classic example of uninformed democracy with one side promising billions of pounds to the National Health Service and to stop immigration (all total lies because they never believed they would win and have to deliver). The other side decided to ignore the positives of us being in the UK and patronised the electorate with ridiculous doom scenarios (the EU may be crap but we’d be worse off out of it….). A significant number of people who voted to leave only did so to give the Prime Minister a bloody nose – never actually believing that they would be on the winning side. The shock result of 52% leave and 48% remain has divided the population down the middle. The Prime Minister, who called the referendum to silence the swivel-eyed loons on the right of his party, promptly resigned to be replaced by a rather canny politician, who kept her powder completely dry during the referendum campaign. She inherited a government and a country who has no plan for leaving the EU. No plan was drawn up because no one believed we would need one.

We shouldn’t have needed one. We may be sat on a little island but we are still European. We are lucky to have a language that others choose to speak. We are a significant world economy and punch well above our weight diplomatically and in terms of soft power. We are world leader in creativity and the arts and are very good at elite sport as evidenced by the GB medal tally in Rio. On the whole we are quite nice really – we tend to be a bit conservative and traditional but that’s not the worst trait in the world. None of this is possible without cooperation and collaboration. Much of our economic status cames from being the financial managers for the rest of the world. Diplomatically people listen to us because we are collaborators, we bring membership of the EU, the Commonwealth, NATO etc to the discussion. We need trade and conversations to be creative.We can’t be good at track cycling if no one will compete with us.  

There are some important lessons about democracy in the UK here. Firstly, we live in a parliamentary democracy. This means that we elect politicians to represent us. We give them the resources to research and become the experts and vote accordingly. We don’t have a tradition of referenda as they undermine parliamentary democracy. The referendum was decided on the basis of uninformed democracy. Secondly, the vast majority of members of parliament in the UK recognised that the only sensible course was to stay in the EU. Our out of date ‘first past the post’ electoral system, rather than a sensible proportional system, means that we are largely a two party democracy with the Conservative Party on the right and the Labour Party in England and the Scottish National Party in Scotland on the left. The Conservative Party includes a range of people from One Nation centrists to the swivel eyed loons on the far right. Labour range from Blairites in the centre to Trotskyists on the far left.

One Nation Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised a referendum to placate the far right of his party. If we had a system of PR, as exists elsewhere in Europe we would have a larger number of parties made up of people who broadly agree with each other. Mr Cameron would not have needed to recklessly put Europe at risk to retain the support of a few right wingers unless he’d chosen them a coalition partners. All this has thrown the left into disarray. The lackluster left wing leader of the Labour Party has lost the confidence of 80% of his MPs but refuses to stand down. This leaves the new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, with almost no opposition. We’ve long needed a PR voting system that will allow all our parties to divide accordingly.

What a mess!

Without a plan there is no clear timescale for or idea how we will leave the EU. The referendum was not binding. The UK parliament is sovereign and will have to make the decision. May has put three men, who all campaigned for Brexit in charge but they are clueless. Boris Johnson, former London Mayor and the new foreign secretary speaks from the hip and over the past few years has managed to insult just about every foreign leader. Look up what he has said about Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and worst of all Turkey’s prime minister, Erdoğan. The new International Trade Minister was kicked out of the last government for fiddling his expenses and taking his boyfriend on trips at government expense. The Brexit minister has just admitted that when he was campaigning he genuinely thought we’d be able to negotiate individual trade deals with other European partners. We can’t we will have to negotiate with the whole EU. Trade deals usually take about 10 years and most specialists claim that you cannot do more than one concurrently as they influence each other so – 10 years for a deal with Europe, another ten for a deal with the US, then China, Japan, Canada, India…..  It will take about 300 years to get to where we are now as members of the EU. On top of that every single law that has been passed in the UK since 1974, when Britain joined the European Economic Community, will have to be re-written as then all enshrine European law into the detail. Because we have been in the EU since 1974 we don’t have any trade negotiators employed by the government.

The world is a better place if we talk, debate and share rather than argue. The UK is a big player but we are so much stronger when we look outwards and sit alongside our friends rather than fall out with them.

Will we ever leave – I certainly hope that someone will come to their senses, realise what a mess this is and find a way of reversing the decision. Perhaps the threat of Scottish independence, major financial institutions leaving the UK etc will be a catalyst. Perhaps it will just be delayed then somehow overturned at the next general election. Who knows. I have another year on Pancake Street. If nothing improves I may need to apply to the Netherlands for asylum. It wasn’t me that broke it – honest.

The Swan on a cold bright February afternoon

It has been a cold crisp sunny day here in Rotterdam. A beautiful day for a walk and a visit to the Swan which looked beautiful against eh February blue sky. The Swan is the local nick name for the Erasmus Bridge which crossed the Nieuwe Maas  in the heart of the city. The bridge is 20 years old this year. We are planning a tribute to the bridge with a very special concert by Blackburn People’s Choir on April 30. Watch out for more news on that one. In the meantime, if you want to find out about the architecture click here or just look at some of my photos below.

Let the festivities begin

Last week I had my induction day at Erasmus University and met all the other students on the Pre-Master course and Master course that I’m taking. The Pre-Master is a bit like year one of a two year programme for those who haven’t got an academic background in economics. We are truly an international group. I’m the only Brit on the Pre-Master though there are two doing the Master year. I have fellow students from Germany, Italy, Aruba, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Kenya, France…..

We’ve not started lectures yet but a few of us have been getting to know each other over the weekend. The Rotterdam calendar is packed with festival and public events. On Friday night we went to a gallery for museum night when it was open for free. Last night we went to experience the river show and fireworks as part of the  Wereld Haven Dagen, (World Port Days), festival. Rotterdam is about twenty kilometers from the mouth of the Rhine, which is called the Maas as if flows through The Netherlands. It is the largest port, (or haven), in Europe and right up in the global premier league of posts. The Wereld Haven Dagen festival lasts three days with the water show and fireworks being a key highlight.

There was a large naval ship onto which a transparent marquee had been erected housing a full orchestra.  The ship paraded, up and down the performance area. The music accompanied a 20150905_223301range of boats spurting water which was lit as it plumed into the air. There were lasers directed from the skyscrapers to the south of the spectacular Erasmus Bridge all of which formed an impressive backdrop to the show from our standpoint on the north bank. I cant imagine the difficulty of amplifying live music to both banks of a large river surrounded by tall buildings without it echoing back and forth. It worked but more volume would have added to the experience.

The backdrop is huge. I’ve seen , and been involved in, some events and projects that have failed to compete with the scale of the stage, Some public art I was involved in commissioning for Town hall Street in Blackburn looked great until it was dwarfed by the law courts. The dance performance at the end of the Preston Guild in 2012 and some of the early attempts at animating Salford Quays failed as the human form is too small for a mass audience in a big area.  After the spurting water we were treated to some pretty impressive trampolining on a boat. From where we were we cold just make it out but most of the audience probably didn’t even notice that something was happening.

20150905_225208This apparent pause in the show was, however, followed up by some very impressive fireworking. While watching professional fireworks I invariable find myself grinning with a kind of childish joy, the noise, the height, the light, the colour – what’s not to like. This was a great show from a barge in the river. The skyscrapers remained as the backdrop but the fireworks easily competed. the colour and the intensity of light was particularly impressive.

Yesterday I took a couple of hours to see what else the World Port Days festival had to offer. I pootled around on my bike, looked at stalls and explored a number of old boats including the only surviving Herring Logger built in 1912. Before the second world war this boat traveled between the French fishing ports on the channel and Lerwick in the Shetland Isles. It was an alarmingly small vessel for six men, the turbulent north sea and several tonnes of dead herring.

An added attraction of World Port Days is the Sea Shanty Festival. Choirs, mostly men from what I saw, from all over Europe gathered to sing and perform. It’s great, as a choir member myself I know how good it feels to sing with others. Disappointingly, even in the smallest of spaces, the choirs were all miked up and amplified, (and not very well). It was a real shame, It added a drone to the sound and distorted the voices. A choir can be heard. My choir back home frequently sings outdoors to appreciative audiences without amplification. Please organisers, drop the microphones and speakers next year – that way we’d get to hear the choirs. I shot this short video from behind the choir to avoid the speakers.

There is a very full calendar of festivals here in Rotterdam. I can’t go to the all. Next weekend there is a festival showcasing all of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies and solo concertos in three days, the launch of the cultural season with a festival of contemporary art on Witte de Withstraat, a street food festival and a heritage festival opening up buildings across the city, (this is also happening in the UK with a big event taking place in Blackburn including some somewhereto_ performers).

The list goes on – no reason to be bored in Rotterdam.

 

I’ve arrived

Forgive me reader, It’s been more that two weeks since I last posted anything on this blog.

Waiting for the Hogwarts Express at Schiphol

Waiting for the Hogwarts Express at Schiphol

Gouda

Sue guards the bikes in Gouda

The big news is that I have now arrived and am resident on Pancake Street.  Sue and I got here last Thursday. I managed to pack most things that I’ll need including the emergency rations of Lancashire Cheese from good friends, Olwyn and Claire. The train from the airport took us straight to Blaak station which is just a stone’s throw from Pancake Street. In effect this makes the cheaper slow train, faster – a great discovery

Today is officially the first day of term here in Rotterdam though my induction day at the University is not until Thursday. There is a free festival on campus this afternoon and evening which Sue and I plan to cycle over to in a couple of hours. We’ve spent the past couple of days doing practical things in the flat and being tourists.

On Friday we got on our bikes and cycled to Gouda – the home of some fantastic cheese. The Netherlands is fantastically compact and flat – perfect for cycling from city to city. I will write more about cycling and bikes very soon. Gouda is lovely and quintessentially Dutch – all fancy gables, canals and cheese – lots of cheese. We went round the cheese museum and ate a lunch of cheese. We also went to a lovely cheese shop and tried lots of different Dutch cheese before buying some cheese to bring back. Sue was really pleased to find a Dutch blue cheese. (not for me!).

A giant jigsaw puzzle

A giant jigsaw puzzle

A chunk of spare time has been spend building the wardrobe. It’s very big and covers a wall in the bedroom. I needed to do this when Sue was here as it’s really a two person job.  Between assembling what really amounts to a giant jigsaw puzzle we’ve pottered around the city, bought some essentials and tried to have a relaxing time.

Last night we went to the open air cinema in the Museum Park to see Love is Strange with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. It’s a great film. Understated and romantic, it tells the tale of an ageing gay couple who are forced to live apart with relatives until they find a new apartment. See it if you get a chance. It was fantastic watching it outdoors accompanied by the start of a thunder storm that lasted for about six hours. As we watched, the lightening got closer and closer. Luckily the rain only started in the last ten minutes and didn’t fall in earnest till we were safely home.  We got up at 02:30 to watch the climax of the light show and downpour from the balcony.

This morning we successfully rehung the missing doors that I found in the bike store downstairs. They fit perfectly and are now in placeA magnificent door handle

For sale – a magnificent door handle

ready for painting and new door handles. That said the ones on there at the moment are rather magnificent though not quite right for a 1950s flat. I can see why they were taken off – open plan living – but I can also see why they were there in the first place. One closes off the bedroom and shower room from the living room. If anything they make the apartment feel a bit bigger. At some point they’ve both  been altered and fitted with brown opaque glass.  It’s quite nice in a 1970s retro way and goes with the apartment – or it will when the doors are painted and the handles replaced.

Sue heads back to Blackburn tomorrow, leaving me all alone on Pancake Street. Before then off to campus, coats, hats and brollies ready for the HeartBeat festival. Today has been hot and close – we maybe in for another light show.

 

Packing

I imagine that as I get used to popping back and forth between Rotterdam and Blackburn I will have my packing down to a fine art. I am already quite a good ‘light’ traveller and am often amazed at the size of suitcase people take with them for a week in the sun. (It’s going to be hot and sunny – you don’t need to wear very much). I’ve had practice on cycling holidays. A few weeks ago Sue and I sat in a café in Oxford and watched a group of far eastern tourists dragging elephantine cases down the middle of the road as if carrying out a pointless punishment – a chain gang or Sisyphus with his boulder.

Our budget airlines are working hard to get us better at packing. As they encourage us to take less hold baggage the rise of the specifically measured cabin bag market must have been significant. Each airline, confusingly, seems to have a slightly different set of dimensions. Of those flying to Schiphol, Flybe has the meanest allowance. 55cm x 40cm x 23cm and 10KG. This to me is still quite a big case and more than enough for a couple of weeks away as long as I’m not needing to take a smart suit.

My occasional commute between Rotterdam and Blackburn should normally involve no more than a modest rucksack. I will have clothes at both destinations and won’t need to carry toiletries – easy. It will become a quest to get through security with a minimum of fuss as fast as I can.

My next trip will, however, be a bit different. As Sue put it, in a fortnight’s time she’ll be taking be off to boarding school and leaving me there. I will be taking things this time that I won’t ever need to take through airport security again.

I have a packing list which contains some unusual things

  • 2015-08-14 15.46.28Wallpaper, 2 rolls – I took some wallpaper in the van in June, I’d got a really good deal and liked it. Last time I was there I realised that I’d miscalculated how much I’d need  – it has a large repeat.
  • Laptop, Chromebook and tablet – Laptop for working on, chromebook for carrying around and 7″ tablet for reading things on.
  • Clothes – Not just for a fortnight in the sun but to keep warm, decent and stylish day to day, (there are already some things there and I did pick up some shirts in a sale at Zara in Rotterdam)
  • Gifts – I’ve got some wonderful lovely friends who very generously bought me presents for my birthday two weeks ago, ‘to take to Rotterdam’. These include but are not limited to: A mug, A Minions stationary set, some Kit-kats, a pencil case, a book on failing exams, tea, a monographed pen, shortbread biscuits, a windmill, an apron, some British beer and a cravat. (A big thank you to everyone)
  • Text books – As I said last week, some of these can be rather heavy.
  • My admin file – It is amazing how many pieces of paper I’ve been collecting that need to be carted around.
  • A couple of cook books – trying to use Dutch language ones might result in a number of culinary hic-ups.

For this next trip I have booked ‘hold baggage’. My reputation for travelling light will be banished and I will be forced to struggle with two bags from the airport to the apartment.  Even with all this I shall only be dragging a fraction of what some people take for a long weekend in Ibiza.

 

 

Come fly with me

This is where my green credentials fly out of the window. I never throw a piece of paper away without writing on both sides, I compost all my food waste and teabags, I hate excess packaging. This adventure, though blows it all as it involves rather a lot of flying. I put my hands up and say sorry. As I mentioned in my previous post ” Warning this route crosses Belgium”, the ferry from Hull is eye wateringly expensive and takes an age. Driving down to Dover then up to Rotterdam is also not very sustainable.

GIven that I’ve made the dark decision to fly I seem to have three choices if I want to fly from Manchester to Schiphol. They are KLM, Easyjet and FlyBe and so far I’ve tried all three. I thought I’d try and work out which I prefer.20150628_132550

In fairness all three are OK. Our first investigative trip at Easter was with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. By far the poshest of the three. It’s going home when it goes to Schiphol and gets the best gates. This is the Dutch flag carrier. It has the most flights per day and you get a free drink and snack on the short flight. There is a bit more leg room and if you feel so inclined you can go 20150703_154528first class. I think I’d feel a bit hard done by if I’d paid all the extra gilders only to find that they just put you in front of a curtain and leave every other seat unattended. I can’t imagine that the tea and coffee is of higher quality. The Heineken still comes out of a can. I didn’t like the way that they “Especially want to thank” their Flying Blue customers. It makes everyone else seem a bit inferior.

I’ve used Easyjet before and have always been a bit of a reluctant fan. It is put in the same category with Ryanair which I hate. Have you ever managed to get a Ryanair member of staff to smile with their eyes as well as widening their mouth. (It’s a good game if you’re ever forced to fly with them but it’s hard work). Easyjet by contrast are always smiling and being friendly. They seem to enjoy their work. It’s a bit cramped on an Easyjet flight but the hop over to Schiphol is short enough.

20150628_143434_001The third option is FlyBe which claims to be the worlds largest regional airline, (not really sure what that means). It used to belong to Jack Walker who was a Blackburn metal magnate so there’s a connection to home.  The planes are smaller than KLM and Easyjet which seems to offer the passenger a bit more room. You are sitting two abreast rather than three. I’ve also noticed that the cabin staff seem to be a bit older – this may just be the flights I’ve done. They definitely smile and are really pleasant and smiley. If you can’t do the whole hour without a drink of something then you have to pay like Easyjet but you go get a free branded sweet as you disembark. Flybe definitely has the best in-flight magazine – I really enjoyed reading it and learned a lot. It has a whole business section which indicates that they fly a lot of business customers.

KLM has a loyalty scheme where you collect air miles but it would take a whole lot of short hops over the North Sea to collect enough to do anything serious.  With FlyBe you get Avois – there are lots of other ways to collect these so it might be worth looking at.

It all boils down to timetables really. All three can be booked easily online but FlyBe’s website is a bit clunky. Their smart phone app is awful. KLM and Easyjet do digital boarding passes. FlyBe seem to be working on this.

A big difference is where they operate at the airports. At Manchester Easyjet operates out of Terminal 1. This is the main one, Its enormous and there are often queues for security. FlyBe and KLM operate out of Terminal 3 which is nearer to the railway station, considerably smaller and considerably faster. There are less shopping opportunities but who buys all that stuff when they’re about to get on a plane. T3s got a Boots and a Smiths. You can squirt yourself with the latest smellies and get a Costa Coffee. What else would you want to do at an airport?

At Schiphol it was a very long walk to get to my FlyBe and Easyjet gates. We only taken hold luggage on KLM so far but loved the automatic luggage drop off machines at Schiphol.

It’s an hours flight. It’s comes down not long after it’s gone up. I suspect I will be an airline tart and fly with the one offering the best price at the best time.