We popped over to France and Belgium at the weekend for a little jauntette. It was all plain sailing, except that we went by Eurotunnel so it was more like plain training.
We didn’t need to buy a visa in advance or complete any paperwork, because we’re in the EU and none of that is necessary. There was no need to apply for an International Driving Permit for France and/or Belgium before we could travel, and we didn’t need to contact our insurance company a full 30 days before departure in order to obtain a Motor Insurance Green Card.
We weren’t required to buy and display a big GB sticker on the back of our car.
During the trip, we could use our phones as normal and not worry about data roaming charges, because the EU abolished roaming charges years ago.
We drove from Calais to Ypres at a steady 80mph on smooth, well-maintained roads where, if our car was fitted with one, cruise control would have been handy. Driving in mainland Europe is as close to the driving experience portrayed in car ads as I ever get. And if anything were to go wrong and we were involved in an accident, we wouldn’t be faced with life-changing bills because our European Health Insurance Cards would have entitled us to reduced-cost or even free medical care.
At Ypres, we visited the vast Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and the last resting place of nearly 12,000 servicemen who died during the Battle of Passchendaele (total casualties there exceeded 475,000). Last year we spent a weekend in Normandy, site of the WW2 beach landings. It’s no leap of the imagination to suggest that the founding of the EU has in no small way helped prevent a repeat of those bloody battles, those unspeakable wars, those millions of deaths.
We nosed around the town for a bit (it’s lovely, by the way) then headed for the Menin Gate to witness the playing of The Last Post, a ceremony that’s been conducted at 8pm sharp every night since 1927.
With 30 seconds to go, the crowd of several hundred suddenly hushed, then the Last Post began. It was very moving, despite us arriving too late and not being able to see the buglers. Then a man on our left started chatting to his son, which drew a few ‘shh’ noises from people standing nearby, me included. The father’s enormous friend turned to stare down us down. So instead of being wrapped up in the solemnity of the occasion, I found myself wondering how people could be so utterly self-centred to think that it was perfectly all right to chat away during it, and also whether the big guy was going to be a dick and start something. He didn’t. Phew.
This bit’s got nothing to do with the EU, by the way.
After dinner we whiled away a few hours outside a bar situated directly opposite our little hotel, the Ambrosia. (What’s the WiFi password, we asked. ‘We will remember’ came the reply. Ah, I said. We will remember that. The manager smiled like she hadn’t heard the joke a thousand times before.)
Next morning, we set off back to Calais to conduct our main business, buying coffee, cheese and olive oil.
OK then, wine.
One of the advantages of living in the south of England, apart from not having to live in the north of England (note to self: delete this before hitting publish), is that you can access cheap wine and beer relatively easily.
In fact, outlets like Calais Wine Superstore and Majestic Wine Warehouse (above) make it even more tempting by paying for your crossing, provided you buy more than £200 worth of stuff. We were definitely going to do that because we are in the EU and so aren’t limited to the six-bottle limit that applied before we joined.
(There’s currently a rumour that the UK Treasury will maintain the status quo even after Brexit, as long as you can prove the wine you bring back is for your own consumption. To which I will produce an x-ray of my liver and say OK matey, what do you think? And anyway, the rumour might turn out to be a lie. I know! Almost inconceivable.)
Some people would say I’m depriving the UK of significant tax revenues by buying our wine and beer in France instead of in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. I try to avoid these people. But if cornered, I’d say that the French seem to manage quite well without taxing their booze to the neck. Public transport is cheap. The roads are good, even the toll-free ones. The provision of medical care seems, er, healthy. Everything works pretty well. OK, their TV is awful, but you can’t have everything.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking that the USA was way ahead in terms of just about everything, then came the UK, then everyone else was way down there. This all stemmed from my post-imperial education, at a time when we thought Britain was pretty much the dog’s bollocks when it came to progress. It seems we still think that way, because the people who swung the vote in favour of Brexit are almost certainly the ones who never had the opportunity to see how the UK is, at best, on a level with our European partners. Plus loads of Leave voters are racists, but let’s not dwell on that.
Anyway. That’s that, as far as our little trips to France and Belgium go. Unless there’s a miracle, up will come the drawbridge at midnight on 31.10.19.
He was doing work experience at a newspaper in Birmingham and had been sent to gather details of a burglary at an apartment block in the city. He found the flat, introduced himself to the tenant, interviewed her about the break-in and headed back to base.
The editor asks him about the robbery. David – for that was his name – replies that it doesn’t really amount to much of a story. The burglar had looked through the apartment window and seen the tell-tale flashing light of a video recorder (as rare then as now, but way more desirable). He forced the door and nicked it. The tenant came home to find her door open and the VCR gone.
That’s it? asks the editor. That’s it, says David. That’s not good enough, says the ed. So David is sent back to the tower block with a list of questions to ask the residents. The elderly female residents, preferably.
Questions like: Do you worry about being burgled and your flat turned upside down? Are you anxious about coming home late at night on your own? Does the sight of groups of youths scare you? To which the answers were inevitably yes, yes and yes.
Now there was a story. It was about far, far more than a one-off opportunistic theft. I can’t remember if it made it to the front page or not, but I do remember David telling me the headline they came up with.
Flats of fear
Remember, variations of this happen every day, in everything from whatever’s left of local papers to the national dailies. They’re not happy unless we’re scared.
I went on a short cycle ride just now. I’m not what you might call a keen cyclist. I don’t even look the part, having none of the kit and certainly not a flashy racing bike. I just like exploring the roads and parks near me when the weather suits. It’s also about the only exercise I get.
Today I was in Richmond Park, southwest London, which in case you didn’t know is HUGELY popular with cyclists. I was midway through my little jaunt and taking a breather on a park bench, when a proper cyclist approached and asked if she could share the bench. Of course, I said, and asked if she’d been out for long.
‘Yeah, a few hours, I’m training for the 78-mile ride next week.’
‘Wow, that’s got to be further than Brighton!’
‘Yeah, Brighton’s 55 miles, I’ve done that, no this is a loop. I’ve done the Castlebridge loop, that’s 44 miles, but this one’s longer at 78.’
I couldn’t question her grasp of arithmetic.
‘I’ve probably managed three miles this morning!’ I said.
“Yeah, I’ve been doing that hill over there a few times but it’s not long enough.’
‘That’s quite steep.’
‘No, it needs to be longer for proper training. The one at Box Hill is better, that’s a gradient of 1.3 to 6 and is over 2.4 miles, done that a few times, but need to do more for this 78-mile ride next weekend, only I didn’t train at all last weekend.’
‘Right. Well, you certai…’
‘My company organises the ride, they do it every year.’
‘It’s not compulsory I hope!’
She looks at me. ‘No, you have to sign up for it. I did the 36-mile Bridgenorth loop with them a few years ago, then the 60-mile Box Hill to Sussex ride last year. Today I’ve just been going up and down the hill for the last four hours.’
I decide I’ve rested enough. ‘Bye then. Nice hearing about you.’
Note: Box Hill exists, but I made up the other names. I couldn’t care less where her bloody loops are.
Socks with sandals was a definite no-no when I was growing up on the south coast. An unspoken law of the beach. You just didn’t.
Later, during travels around France, Spain, Israel and the Greek islands, I noticed with approval that it was fairly universally observed.
More recently, the law has become a lot less unspoken. People frequently comment on (typically) an old person’s socks ’n’ sandals combo and declare it the worst crime against fashion imaginable.
No, sandals on bare feet is the norm. The conventional. You could say it’s ‘mainstream’.
SFX: DISTANT ALARM BELLS
With a growing sense of horror, I started to realise that it was only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, would want to subvert the sartorial status quo. If everyone zigs, you zag, right?
So my loins have been in a perpetual state of girdedness, awaiting the day when the wearing of socks with sandals is not only acceptable but – NOOOOO!!! – cool.
I just never expected the move to come from that well-known fashion house, Google.
‘They’re up! The new 48-sheet (count em’) poster campaign for Stihl!
HUGE thanks to the entire team who made it all happen. That late-ish night was definitely worth it in the end!
Special thanks to the copywriter, who controversially eschewed any fancy-dan wordplay or clever-clogs copy to deliver a simple, refreshingly down-to-earth message. (Love the ‘approved’ Stihl dealers bit! That’ll get all the unapproved ones worried!)
To the designer, who managed to construct an all too familiar, everyday gardening scenario around every single one of Stihl’s extensive product portfolio. To the model, whose expression conveys job-well-done satisfaction, perhaps mixed in with a hint of puzzlement as to why she’s holding a leaf blower, traditionally deployed to noisy and wasteful effect in autumn, during what is obviously the grass-cutting season. Also, female empowerment box well and truly ticked!
And an extra special thanks to our amazing client, who bought into the whole kitchen-sink concept from day one. He could have insisted on something simple, powerful and different (yawn!) but instead opted for the, ahem, down to earth, common or garden route.
Well done, team! Together, you’ve brought the old advertising maxim to life: when everyone else zigs, you zig too.’