Category Archives: Culture

For the other side of my work, dealing with cultural outreach

What’s the difference between kiwi fruit and bread?

Sounds like a bad joke, doesn’t it? Well the answer, if you’re the Daily Mail, is that the EU is crazy to have rules standardising the former and crazy to take away rules standardising the latter. Does that make sense to you? I have to admit that I’m baffled. Personally, I think doing away with standard bread sizes is a marvellous idea. In Brussels you could buy a half-loaf and even then I used to be upset at how often I had to throw several slices away. I think in these days of many more single-person households and rising food prices, it’s a common-sense thing to do. I’m sure Daily Mail readers will assess the issue on its own merits, rather than thinking we should have something just because it was in the Magna Carta. Anyway, the Daily Record are happy, which I think might be a first!

I’m going to be in Brussels next week for the meeting of Press Officers from across all the Member States. It’ll be nice to be able to catch up with people while I’m there. It’ll be my first Eurostar trip since the fire, so I hope things won’t be too crazy. I was supposed to be going away this weekend to Bedford to watch the Brussels theatre group, but what with just getting back from Manchester and then heading off to Brussels and from there to France, I had to knock it on the head – sometimes you just have to admit that you can’t do everything you want to do. Still, very exciting that I’ll be moving my stuff into my little house and finally getting installed there, 3 months after completing the sale.

I’m also planning to take advantage of a bit more of London, particularly in dancing terms. Already booked a workshop at the Barbican and a try-different-dancing-styles night, in addition to fitting in Ceroc classes when I can (with more sensible shoes than last time…)

Thought you might like to see this little video. My aunt’s friend Kinny, who has known me since the day I came into the world, runs this great theatre company which does shows for kids, accessible to both deaf and hearing kids watching together. The video gives you an idea of what they’re about and I think it looks lovely. Kinny used to run a puppet company with my aunt, and was Riff-Raff in a tour of Rocky Horror. He’s the one who got me into the musical Chicago as well, as he lived with my parents in East Bergholt while he was appearing in the show in Ipswich. A while ago now though…we moved out of East Bergholt in 1991 and it was a few years before that! Scary…

Off on my travels

After a few years of seeing the world with Janez (Japan and Russia on ITER, US for the world’s biggest science gathering, Prague for the Descartes Prize ceremony, Turkey and Macedonia to negotiate their entry to the EU’s science programme) I have come down to Earth with a bump. So now it’s Liverpool and Manchester that are my destinations. Not that it’s a bad thing – I had a great trip to Liverpool, as my own version of Mrs Trellis of North Wales will know, and man, I’m looking forward to going to Manchester. Because it’s for the Labour Party conference and can you think of a more exciting time for a political junkie to be at the gathering of the ruling party?! I’ll try to write from there and record the atmosphere. Looking for Europe debates on the fringe has been a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but there are a few, and somewhat presciently they tend to be about the global financial crisis, so should be pretty interesting.

Off to the South Bank now for the DancEUnion festival, which looks like being pretty well-received. I don’t think I’ll be able to stay for all of it, as I have to pack for 5 days away, which is a real shame, but J told me it’s sold out, so they don’t need me there anyway. How encouraging that there is such an audience for quality contemporary dance.

Best of luck to the Ryder Cup boys. It’s the only way I can bear to watch golf and it’s nice that there’s one sporting event out there with a European team!

And the last thing – Strictly starts this weekend!! I am so excited I can hardly think about it. Even if I will be watching the first one in a hotel room on my own, it’ll be GREAT!

It’s raining Euromyths

*sigh* a few days out of the office having a blast at the samba festival and I get back to find the office is euromyth central. For the general information of the world out there – we are not banning the acre, we are just not extending the use of a derogation that the UK government doesn’t make use of any more. The same legislation secures the status of the mile and the pint, so they’re not going anywhere either. Equally, we have nothing against Peking Duck, but some ovens used to make it have been found to be dangerous and so rightly removed from use – I don’t think anyone wants crispy skin so much they are willing for someone to get carbon monoxide poisoning. Let’s just recap: the EU is NOT banning the acre and the EU is NOT banning Peking Duck.

Another NOT in my life at the moment is I am NOT flying anywhere on EasyJet any time soon. We were left at Toulouse airport for more than 2 hours yesterday, so by the time we got through passport control and customs, it was too late for me to get a train back to Balham. Len and Bev very kindly let me stay at their house, but I’m really looking forward to getting back to Balham tonight and sleeping in my own bed!

The festival itself was ace though, indeed much more fun than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be all samba dancing and women with big headresses and little bikinis, but actually it was predominantly percussion baterias and I can confirm that the rhythm IS going to get you… There was also some fantastic street art – from a troupe of musicians with bombards and drums singing in minority languages like provencal and languedocien, to a street magician, and Ens’batucada who were just outstanding – stuff for Watch This Space next year?. Plus I did stuff I love like going to French markets (3 in 5 days!) and I saw my house, which I’m so happy about. Just need to get some furniture into it now.

Feeling calmer now

I didn’t post yesterday because I was having a ‘mare of a day dealing with various administrative things in Brussels and here and the entry would have been one long rant. And no-one wants that, do they! But I met a friend after work and went to Watch this Space and that went a long way to calming me down.

I was at the Spanish Embassy this morning for the awards to the schools in the UK that teach Spanish best. I went along because quite a few of the people involved in the Arsenal Double Club were there. That project is winning its own award next week, so we have been thinking about how to get word out about it. I tried some different angles – Observer Sports Monthly, Times Education – but I’m not hopeful. Shame, because I think it’s a great story on many levels. They were saying at the awards today that Spanish is rising in popularity as a foreign language, partly because of cultural things such as seeing big stars like Antonia Banderas, Penelope Cruz and J-Lo working and talking in both languages, and the growing role of Hispanic culture in the US. I think the number of Spanish sportpeople here is an issue too – is it a coincidence that 2 of the schools are from Liverpool, where both the red and blue teams have Spanish players? We have a report out from the Commission tomorrow about languages and business, and apparently it is a big issue here in the UK – the business community often complain about the UK’s lack of language skills. I know from personal experience that having those skills was a huge advantage for working while I was at college – I did telemarketing in German and worked as receptionist at a language school and got both of those jobs because I spoke foreign languages.

By the way the salt cellar story was definitely a Euro-myth – though not a total myth. Apparently Gateshead Council came up with the idea and Rochdale are trialing it during Salt Awareness Week. The article from the Daily Mail was pretty positive about the idea, as were the vox pops they talked to. I can’t imagine it would have been like that if the suggestion had come from the EU…would you like double standards with those chips, sir?

Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep

According to the Open europe blog, I am “extremely chirpy” – does this count as them saying something positive about Europe? They also say I use too many exclamation marks – a fact of which I am well aware (I also use too many hyphens and brackets as well). Still, nice to know someone’s reading! <– HA!

Was at the launch of the NT’s Watch This Space festival on Friday. It started with a meeting with all the cultural attaches of the different member states and people from the UK’s various arts councils, which was really interesting. For the launch, we watched Tango Sumo and then headed back to the Deck area at the top of the National for the reception. Angus had lined up two of the acts – Mala Sangre, a flamenco group and a couple who juggled and danced. Sounds weird, but was amazing. Highlight of the evening for me was meeting Nicholas Hytner, who directed the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre, His Dark Materials. More being starstruck, after Thursday.

Weekend was fun, with the goodbye party of the people whose house I will be renting on Saturday, so I met loads of new people, then recovery and Wimbledon final on Sunday – what a game! I was just so glad I didn’t have an emotional investment in either player, cos I think I would have expired long before the end.

Got in early today as I’m leaving early, so I did the daily video-conference with Brussels. Found out that we are negotiating with the UK Government so that people can write to the Commission on Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, like we already have with the Spanish government for their non-Castilian languages. Also some nonsense written by Terry Wogan of all people about an EU directive on how many holes salt-cellars have to have. I can only assume (hope?) that it was a piss-take, but the way it is written I’m sure there are people who will believe it is true.

I also followed up a comment written on Mark Mardell’s blog about the healthcare plans, when someone wrote that “Not once in their 50-year history has the EU Commission ever proposed to return a power previously acquired by them back to the democratic arena of the nation-state”. Not true. The marketing standards for fruit and veg is a recent example. Today we proposed a block exemption which would return a lot of state aid decisions to the Member State level. We have undertaken a whole bunch of simplifications, recasts and repeals of legislation to decrease the administrative burden on business in particular. And that’s just a morning’s work – I’m sure there are many other examples to be found.

Totally starstruck

Back in the office after the trip to Liverpool. And what a trip it was! I got up there on time to make sure the cars were there, before the President and his entourage arrived. we drove to Liverpool and once we had all checked in and put our stuff in our rooms, a few of us headed down to Albert Dock. it was about 10.30 by this time, but still worth it – the regeneration that has gone on there is amazing. Still, it was quite a long walk, particularly in heels!

The next morning we headed over to the university for the honorary graduation ceremony. There was a journalist from the Liverpool Post and the Europe by Satellite team, so they got all the preparations. There was all the usual pomp of a graduation ceremony – in fact it was his honorary degree but also the graduation of the Masters and BA students from the Department of Social and Environmental Studies, so loads of politics students. After the ceremony was over, we walked to the Metropolitan (Catholic) cathedral and there were quite a few students doing their graduation photos over there – several came up and asked to have their picture taken with the President and one guys mother ran down the street to get him to sign the graduation book, saying how pleased the guy had been to have the President there for his graduation. Really nice to see people being so positive.

Once the ceremony was over the day got REALLY fun. First we headed off to the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge for a very nice lunch. The day’s other honorary graduand was there, so I can now say that I have had lunch with Elvis Costello and Diana Krall! After lunch we headed down to the Liverpool Tate, where we were met by the Gallery’s Director and various luminaries from Liverpool’s City of Culture including Phil Redmond! We visited the Klimt Exhibition and then some of the 20th Century Art collection. All very impressive. I did lots of PR for Lewis’s book and in fact Phil Redmond had already bought it on the recommendation of the Chairman of the North West Arts Council, so Lewis has some heavyweight fans! After a cup of tea and a biscuit at the gallery while the President talked to the city leaders about the renaissance of Liverpool (and the role played by EU funding!), we did a short press point outside, then back in the cars and off to the airport. It was a great day all round. What really impressed me, and the President I think, was the way that the whole city has embraced the City of Culture – there was even a City of Culture prayer in the Cathedral! I was talking to the local media people and they were saying that the biggest thing it has done is made people elsewhere in the UK appreciate what Liverpool has to offer, and get beyond the “jolly scouser” or “scally” stereotypes. I guess it shows the link between culture and economic development – that there’s more to doing these thigns than pleasing the elite – it actually brings something to a city or region. Hopefully we can get that message through to some of the people in Brussels as well!

Pif Paf Pof

It’s in the Scottish papers today that Alyn Smith MEP is starting a campaign for Scotland to have its own entry to the Eurovision song contest. There’s quite a lot to be said for that (ie it might have a chance of doing well!). But actually the first year’s entry is already written – don’t know who remembers “The High Life” but one of the best episodes was their Eurovision entry. You can see the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rhrX7aYeNk

I’m still giggling.

First the cucumbers, now the kiwis

[Sigh] One step forward, two steps back…

The redtops are full of a story today about a market trader who is being fined for his kiwis being 1mm smaller than the rules for grade 2 kiwis allow. Of course “Brussels bureaucrats” are getting the blame. Now, there are a number of things here:

1) We do not ensure implementation of the rules, the countries do. So the bureaucrat in this case is British, not Brussels

2) We are trying to get the rules changed so that even if there are standards for how things can be marketed, produce that falls below those standards can be sold.

3) The standards are set at UN, not EU level: http://www.unece.org/trade/agr/standard/fresh/fresh_e/46kiwifruit_2008.pdf

3) In this particular case the fruit were on average 4g below the minimum weight for a kiwi fruit to be sold for food. Now I’m no mathematician, but I reckon that’s more than 1mm smaller than regs – in fact the regs don’t have any size requirement in them at all.

I was thinking about this case in the shower this morning (rehearsing how I would make these points to anyone that calls us…) and it occurred to me that the humble kiwifruit is a result of one of the best ever marketing campaigns – remember when they weren’t called kiwi fruit, rather cape gooseberries? That was dreamt up by the New Zealand fruit marketing people, to encourage people to buy theirs. It’s all spun back on them though, because now they’re called kiwi fruit, wherever they are from!

Quite a busy day today, not helped by my being out of the office yesterday afternoon with the hayfever. Sounds stupid, but I was having such a bad attack I couldn’t do anything except blow my nose and feel sorry for myself! Today we’re trying to place an article on Zimbabwe, have another on patient rights that needs serious rewriting, I’ve got to get in touch with the Arsenal Double Club people as it looks we’ll be able to arrange a visit to Anderlecht with the kids, been talking to the National Theatre about how we can market the European aspect of the Watch This Space festival. And then I head off to Brussels this afternoon! Looking forward to seeing everyone there again.

London is a village

I’ve already discovered how small London can be due to various overlaps with people – Hannah and the architecture festival, for example. But it was literally a village on saturday when I met my friend Kathryn and we took her some to the Holy Trinity Fete on Clapham Common. It was all a traditional English village fete should be – tents selling fairy cakes (and not an over-zealous EU food inspector in sight…!), dogs wearing rosettes from the dog show, a series of vegetable monsters that had been judged and prizes won, plus tombolas, raffles, games and even a brass band. And best of all, a Pimms stall! It was great, just like the fetes you remember when you were a kid.

In the evening I headed up to town, where Exhibition Road had been closed for music day and the beginning of the London Festival of Architecture. it was also the celebration (10 days early…) of the beginning of the French Presidency. I walked up exhibition road where there were bands on the street corners and loads of cool architectural exhibits. Then I headed to the Albert Memorial, where there was a stage set up in conjunction with the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. As my luck would have it, I got there as some Germans who had listened to too much Kraftwerk were twiddling knobs, but it was good to be on the stall for half an hour and interact with people. It’s funny – far from what I would have expected – but I really get the feeling that the British public aren’t as EU-sceptic as they’re painted. Various things over the last few days are highlighting this – comments left on the BBC website, letters to some regional press, conversations with people who are from outside the “establishment”, EU or UK, who are fed up of only ever being given one side of the story. Maybe my work here will not be as hopeless as many are leading me to believe!!

What it’s all about

Today has been a little microcosm of what this job is going to be about.

We started out with two “bonkers Brussels” stories, neither of which were correctly reported. Firstly was the one about “Brussels” (I love the way they say that) has banned dogs from the kitchen of good old British B&Bs. The times story was written by the ironically named Simon de Bruxelles, if you can believe that – Geoff Meade says that’s his real name; I thought it had to be a pseudonym for one of the Brussels journalists! Anyway, as usual, this is a story of overzealous implementation in the UK – our rules make people working in the food industry responsible for ensuring their food is prepared in hygenic conditions. This may require keeping animals out of food preparation areas. But the rules have flexibility to take into account the presence of animals provided appropriate measures are taken to ensure there is no contamination. Which makes sense – none of us wants dog hair in our fry-up, I suspect! The other story was that the Commission is bringing in new rules that will close duty-free shops in regional airports. Basically the MEP (Con…) peddling this one was a few months out of date, because the Council working group is amending a Commission proposal that might have had this effect and we’re completely happy to go along with that. Which just shows that a) the member states have an important role in European processes and b) the Commission doesn’t have overarching unchecked power to decide about European citizens’ lives.

Then mid-morning, I found myself – joy of joys! – at the stage door of the National Theatre! We are sponsoring the longest street arts festival in the UK, organised by the NT, called Watch This Space. I actually went along to this a few years ago as a punter, so it’s exciting to think we’ll be directly involved. We met with the organisers and press people to talk about how we are going to do the launch. It’s a fabulous project, and a fantastic opportunity for serious visibility (in the most literal sense – you’ll be able to see the banner from the other side of the river I think!). Of course, all these Polish, Spanish, French and whatever acts would have much more difficulty coming here and taking part without EU rules on free movement and so on. And we hope it will be a showcase for UK acts to go to European countries. I’m just going to love the cultural diplomacy side of this job!

Saw a flat at lunchtime, in Clapham/Battersea. In old local authority buildings, so pretty unprepossessing from the outside, but quite nice inside, certainly less soulless that the Greenwich Millennium Village places I saw yesterday! Also off for another viewing of the houseboat today, so will see how that goes. No luck finding someone to share the Balham place yet and they had someone to see it yesterday who was very interested, so that might be an idea I have to give up, unfortunately. Such is life…