Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

‘Jock Tamson’s Bairns is Lowland Scots dialect version of Jack Thomson’s children. The phrase more often occurs in an extended form: We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns. This is interpreted in a metaphorical sense as a statement of egalitarian sentiments equivalent to “we’re all the same under the skin” or “we are all God’s children”…’ : Wikipedia.

We’re all the same under the skin. Unless perhaps that skin is our BMW or our Lexus or our Ford or our Toyota.  And unless also perhaps we all live together in a city that we must all learn to share.

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In a small city in a small country that is well served by reliable and affordable public transport there are very few people who have, of necessity, to regularly travel to their place of work by car.

Travelling salesmen perhaps, and taxi drivers, but their place of work is their car. Policemen, firemen, paramedics and the owners of ice cream vans maybe, though the same can be said of all of them.  No, in truth I’m scratching my head already to add to the list. But no doubt at least one of you will help me.

The fact that many others choose to do so though is another matter.

And when their choice is exercised to the detriment of the safety, the health and the wellbeing  of others, whether consciously or not, then surely it is right and proper that it can be regulated and limited?

No sane person would argue that motorists should be permitted to drive in any type of vehicle that they chose at any speed that they choose.

So why then should they be free to drive in any place that they choose?

A large part of Brussels city centre was permanently closed to traffic on July 1st and an extensive programme of pedestrianisation is now under way. Lawns and trees are to be planted. Ponds and fountains will be built. For now much of it has a makeshift air. Though it’s certainly a fresh air.

There are issues, of course. Taxi drivers and hoteliers are understandably unhappy. Litter and public order are also of concern but the City seems aware and responsive. Street cleaning has been stepped up and to my eye the newly pedestrianised streets are at least no worse than any of the others.

If I can offer one piece of advice though I don’t think putting the Brussels police on Segways really does very much to add to what is already at best their rather limited air of authority.

But to say that the scheme has divided my circle of friends would be an understatement. I live in the city centre and I don’t own a car. That said it has been hard to even share a beer with friends or neighbours this last month without conversation quickly descending into bitter and often ill-tempered argument.

But here’s the thing: the bitterest words and the worst fallings out have not generally been among car owners and non car owners. Nor between those of us who live in the city centre and suburban dwelling commuters.

No, the most vociferous arguments that I have had and I have heard have not been for or against the exclusion of cars but rather for or against the inclusion of people.

Or to put it more accurately, and more disturbingly, against (more often than for I’m ashamed to say) the inclusion of the wrong type of people:  the young people, the poor people, the immigrant people, and yes, whisper it, the black people who, amongst the rest of us, and I use the word ‘amongst’ advisedly, have quickly taken to strolling, picnicking, playing and, yes, partying in summer sun in their newly car free city.

With obvious enthusiasm and in steadily growing numbers. And why ever not?

Remove cars from a city’s principal commercial centre and replace the space previously devoted to them with pingpong tables, petanque courts, badminton nets and picnic tables and obviously people without access to cars no longer feel excluded.

While people without money have a reason to go there and to spend time there without the need to spend money they don’t have.

In Brussels I’m happy to say that both of these things have happened. And they have happened overnight. And there’s the rub. Because people without cars and people without money just so happen to be disproportionately young people, poor people (obviously), immigrant people and black people.

The legacy of Belgium’s colonial history, the post-war arrival of Italians to work in the country’s mines, the migration of French speaking Arabs from North Africa and more recently the influx of workers from all of the various member states of the EU to work in its institutions and their satellites have given Brussels a vibrant and a deep rooted multiculturalism.

In European terms, at least, Belgium is also a comparatively low wage economy. And Brussels still enjoys, for a European capital city at any rate, a comparatively reasonable cost of living.

But what is perhaps most revealing about the current ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ spat among friends and neighbours is that I have not once heard it advanced by any Belgian. A people who, in my experience, tend for the most part to be both more tolerant and more inclusive than many.

I have heard it loudest and most often from people who have come here to make lives, and livings, from beyond these shores. Not as immigrants, of course, but as expats. And doesn’t that little trick of the tongue speak volumes?

Some have told me that many of the children playing ping pong are ‘not Belgian’ which may or may not be true. Without sight of their passports I’m afraid I’d find it impossible to say. Besides, for those Belgians whose ancestors came from The Congo, for example, it’s  tempting to point out that they never really had that much of a say in their citizenship in the first place.

Others have denounced it all as the dictat of unaccountable bureaucrats (always popular bogeymen in this town) when in fact it is no more and no less than the implementation of the long declared policy of the city council.

For, or indeed against, whom even expats have the right to vote.

And tempted as I am to conclude by identifying them and their origins I’m not going to. Partly out of respect for the confidentiality of what are, after all, private conversations among friends. And partly in the hope that those friendships continue to strengthen and endure.

But above all else, of course, in the very firm belief that we are indeed ‘ a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’.

Happy holidays.

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