Brussels Toy Museum

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Brussels toy museum with our smallest child. A couple of years ago we went to the one in Mechelen which is a lot bigger and has a wider range of stuff on display, but the Brussels version has its own charm. It’s chaotic and dusty and haphazard, and concentrates mainly on early to mid-20th century toys. It’s more like stumbling into a large attic full of old and unsorted toys than a real museum, although there are glass display cases and the occasional explanatory note.

This gigantic, limbless, featureless baby doll welcomes you after you’ve paid your entrance fee.




In one corner of the ground floor there’s a toy kitchen area where a lot of the kids played. In fact quite a lot of the toys were scattered around on the floor and were available to play with.


The bus, in the centre of this photo, was also a popular seat.


A display on dolls notes that the first attempts at making racially diverse baby dolls simply involved taking standard white babies and painting them black.


Another toy kitchen. These dolls are about six inches tall.


There were a lot of toy shops and kitchens, and I was struck by the detail and craftsmanship of the individual items.


Fish and squid.



The religious toy display. Who among us has never wanted to play at being nuns?


Don’t ask me why this boy has a transparent cage torso. The girl on the left seems to be wondering too.


The glorious Raj.


Shadow puppet theatres.



I remember watching Bonanza on TV as a child, but I never knew there was a toy line.


Lorne Greene!


Back in my day we couldn’t afford individual baths, so we’d all pile into the tub together. With a fish.


There’s a lot more than this on display – it spreads over three floors – and it’s worth and hour or so of your time if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Spend, spend, spend

I’ve always had a slightly unusual (I think) attitude to spending money. I’ve gone through periods when I had none, and periods when I had plenty, but the kind of things I spend it on haven’t changed too much.

After leaving the educational system I spent several years in and out of freelance employment. When I had work I was comfortable enough, but during extended workless periods I had virtually nothing and would often have to stretch my meagre resources until the arrival of the next Jobseeker’s Allowance payment, counting the number of slices of bread I had left (yes, toast is a square meal). Yet strangely I could always find a few quid to buy a cinema ticket.

To be clear, I was never in long-term, unavoidable poverty. I chose my work situation (I was trying to break into the film industry) and at any moment I could have abandoned that strategy and got a proper job. In fact that’s more or less what I ended up doing. The point is I always had options. I wasn’t trapped in poverty.

On those occasions when I got a bit of spare cash I felt a bit weird about spending it on anything unusual. I remember after I got one of my first wage packets thinking “Wow, I could actually buy a CD player with this”. And I did, but it still felt like a big step to spend that much money on one thing.

Even now after two decades of employment I still haven’t got used to spending money on certain things. Clothes, for example, as anyone who’s ever met me will attest. “What, you can spend several hundred Euro on dinner but you can’t buy a new shirt when your old one has a hole in it?” Nope. And for many other items which fall outside of the usual categories I’ll still waver for a while and often decide against it just because it feels weird to spend money on a thing I’ve never had and don’t absolutely need, just because I can.

I think it’s also partly because I’ve never craved objects, with the exception of certain functional ones like books. I’m not much of a gadget freak; I have a camera and computer and phone but I’m not constantly checking out new models and will usually only replace them when they break down. If I spend a large amount of money on anything it tends to be on an experience, whether it’s a meal or travel. Otherwise the big expenses tend to be communal or for other people: the house, the car, things for the kids and their school/activity-related expenses. And to be honest I don’t even need more books, as much as I could afford them. What I need is more time to read the ones I have. What I need is to retire.


By the way, according to the website Global Rich List I’m in the top 0.54% for earnings. Now this may make me sound like some kind of fat cat but even someone earning the average wage in the UK, for example, is comfortably in the world’s top 1%, and the average American wage-earner is in the top 0.5% like me. So all those “We are the 99%” placards you see at demonstrations should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

Five mugs

A friend recently posted five consecutive photos on five consecutive days on facebook. The photo had to be of a mug and he had to tell the story behind it. As the month draws to its close and I run out of blogging material I present to you here, and not on facebook, my Five Mugs.

The Shakespearean Insult Mug, from the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. I bought this in San Diego. The only mug I own which is worth reading. I keep this one in my office.


The famous Orange Two-handled Mug. I bought it in Den Bosch in 2007. I use it less than I expected to because I’m not so keen on the feel of plastic, as opposed to ceramic, in my mouth.

The “I heart NY” Mug. Bought in Newark airport in order to use up a few remaining dollars before heading home to Yurp. But then of course the sales tax was added on (because Americans don’t like to include that in the display price) bringing the final price to more than the amount of cash I had left, so I had to pay for it with the credit card and so I still had a fistful of dollars afterwards. Obviously I only use this mug when I’m in a New York state of mind.

The Darth Vader Mug. This came free with some kind of confectionery. I rarely use it because it’s surprisingly capacious and I don’t need coffees or teas that big. No good for drinking from if held in the left hand.

The Ball-handled Mug. Bought in a small shop in Genova. The handle is actually less comfortable to hold than a normal one but I just like the way it looks.

Bonus: Anne found a wacky beer mug the other day in a bar in Brussels.

Lost movies

Last night I saw a documentary about films around the world which deal with the topic of childhood. First of all, here’s the review I posted at rinema.

Fascinating, if flawed

Mark Cousins is something of a divisive figure. No one can doubt his enthusiasm or expertise when it comes to cinema, but I think here he makes a couple of classic mistakes which somewhat spoil what could have been an otherwise great documentary. His idea to use footage of his own family as a starting point, analysing how children behave in front of a video camera, is a great idea, although he relies a little too heavily on it. His choice of movies is very interesting too. What irritates is the way he attempts to analyse them and impose meanings. He often can’t resist the temptation to simply describe what we can already see for ourselves is happening in the images. And he gives the directors too much credit for things over which they can’t reasonably have had any control. As if it were a deliberate aesthetic choice to have the sky be blue in a given shot.
The main strength of this movie is simply the amount of clips from amazing-looking movies, most of them pretty obscure. The film’s official website lists them all in full, and I’m already trying to track some of them down on DVD. So in that sense I guess you can say Cousins has done his job.

As per the last lines of the review, I spent this morning trying to track down DVDs of some of the amazing movies featured in the documentary, helped by the comprehensive list posted on the film’s official website. I managed to find three of them (one Dutch, one Swedish, one Senegalese) on amazon, and then hit a dead end. I was particularly keen to find the Danish classic “Palle alone in the world”, but it seems to be completely unavailable, which is a crying shame considering what I saw of it last night. Although I did find the site of an organisation which campaigns for the release of obscure films, and they had this one on their list. Ditto the Czech film “Long live the revolution”.

It’s good every now and then to be reminded that most of the culture on offer in cinemas, book and music shops only represents the tiniest fraction of what’s actually available. And in terms of cinema especially it’s worth remembering that 75% of box office takings in Europe come from American films, so this film promoting work from the whole history of cinema and all the continents of the globe was a breath of fresh air.

Window shopping in Genoa

Shopping in the old quarter of Genoa is always a pleasant experience, as the warren of narrow, winding alleyways hides a multitude of tiny specialist shops, many of which are Ali Baba’s caves of exotic foodstuffs, equipment and knick knacks. Even if I don’t always want to buy the stuff, it’s usually fascinating to look at.

Whenever we have Christmas lunch in Genoa we have ravioli and insalata russa, but next time I’m going to politely request some cappon magro.

An interestng and slightly disturbing pork display. Vegetarians, avert your eyes.

I can take or leave shellfish as a dish, but the colour of this display really caught my eye. They’re not branzini; that’s the fish in the background.

We stopped for a coffee. The “restroom” featured this intriguing set-up. My wife thinks the shower head is for the cleaner to clean the floor. I think it’s for the customers, because they didn’t have room to install a bidet.

Now wash your hands. Using only the finest English sheep soap, if you please.

However all is not cuteness and tradition in the streets of Genoa. Since my last visit there’s been a disturbing development: “automatic shops” taking the place of real shops. These alcoves containing a selection of Japanese-style dispensing machines have multiplied rapidly, most upsettingly occupying the space formerly used by a little secondhand book and CD shop just around the corner from our flat.

I shudder to think what the lasagne and cannelloni taste like.

Ginseng coffee is all the rage, but machine coffee never tastes any good, whatever the flavouring.

Back to something a little more healthy and locally produced. Fried, battered courgette flowers are one of the things I miss about my mother-in-law’s cooking. Besides, look how cute they are!

The fresh pasta shop on Via Cannetto il Lungo has the most mouth-watering display of pesto, although my mother-in-law’s home-made version tastes the best.

And finally, something we did, in fact, buy. Walnut sauce for the pansoti we ate with friends back in Brussels on January 1st.

T-shirt politics

I wouldn’t normally dream of using my child’s body as a platform for my political or ideological views, but I must say that I’m sorely tempted by this product from Stardust Kids Clothes.

We’ll be in America around the time of the Royal Wedding which will probably mute its potential for edginess and eye-catching dissent somewhat (or is California full of monarchists?), but I like the colour. The sentiment also strikes a chord as I will be doing my best to avoid as much exposure as possible to the event. No, we didn’t plan our holiday with the express purpose of getting away from all the royal hoopla, that was just a very happy coincidence. Now that I think of it, as Stardust Kids Clothes also sells adult sizes of this particular t-shirt, I can almost see us five in matching outfits, all walking around the Disneyland theme park on the actual day of the royal wedding. Maybe we could all get Johnny Rotten hairdos and snarl and spit on the ground a lot?  On the other hand, The Magic Kingdom probably has a zero-tolerance policy towards anti-princess agitators, and we’d be thrown out before you could say “Someday my prince will come”.

I have to say that the ladies in the family don’t all agree with me: my wife has set the DVR to record the BBC’s coverage of the ceremony so that she can show the wedding to our girls when we get back from California, reasoning that they’ll love seeing a real-life princess in a pretty dress. After all she still has a very clear memory of watching Charles and Diana’s wedding when she was about the same age our eldest is now.

Or maybe we could avoid all the potential offence and intergenerational conflict and simply get matching father and son Iron Man t-shirts…?