Friday, 17 November 2017


Je vous ai apporté des bonbons
Parce que les fleurs c'est périssable

In 1842, Charlotte Brontë, unhappily infatuated with her teacher, Constantin Héger, took refuge in the Cathedral of Brussels (the Cathédrale Saint-Michel et Sainte-Gudule)

and, despite being a protestant vicar's daughter, took confession there.  

Though I am neither a daughter, nor a catholic, nor was my father a protestant parish priest, I sympathise.  

Just as complicated is to find a number of books in the gutter one morning.  One of them about Riyadh.  Another by Oriana Fallaci, once the darling of Italian journalists, though by her death in 2006, reviled by such as the dying Christopher Hitchens for her conservatism and reactionary views on the moslem world.  

When I repassed a few hours later, the only book left on the road was the picture book about Riyadh.

In the meantime, not unlike Charlotte B and her sister Mel (sorry, Emily, Ed.), my maternal grandmother found herself in Brussels at an early stage of her life....  Being one of many children of a man born in the same year as Queen Victoria, I doubt not that my grandmother had little idea of where she was, but that's another story.  Whatever the similarities with the sisters Brontë, Marjorie Cecil Napier Ford tripped downstairs in her 'finishing school' in Brussels and fell into a coma.

Cross-written letters tell the story, but don't blame Brussels.  Despite the panic, and her mother's frantic race to look after her daughter, granny did recover, was shipped out to India, introduced and married to Major Robert James McMullin in Colombo on the twenty second day of July, 1920, gave birth to four children on a tea plantation in Kerala, and lived at least to distinguish me in my infancy from her spaniels.

Ah!  I remember my grandmother, all Bakelite telephone, pine splinters on the stairs, the game of halma, attics and dogs.  She was beautiful, she was gentle, kind, ghostly and smelled of Brussels.  I was very small when she curled up with cancer, but I know her grave well.

Ah! Les Bonbons! (Because flowers are perishable!)  

Belgium attracts.  Belgium fascinates.  Even if we don't know where it is, have never been, wouldn't know a Walloon from a Flamande, we have Waterloo in our Abba collection, Bruges in our dvds, and Ypres in our sub-conscious, with the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing on our bucket list.

This is what Belgium may have looked like when my paternal grandfather, L/Cpl Thomas Henry Gibbs, fell with a jagged fragment of white-hot metal in his arm on November 25th 1916.  Churned mud and bare trees.  Grainy mist and a sky like suet pudding (not something you find every day....)

That's how it recurs in my imagination, whatever I do.

But we do not remember things as they are.  We recreate everything to suit our prejudice, our taught experience.  

My mother's mother didn't live in Victorian times; she lived in her here and now in three dimensions and full colour.  My father's father was blown up in Dolby sound and came down in Technicolor.

Writing as William Crimsworth, the narrator of The Professor, Charlotte Brontë had this to say.  This is Belgium, reader - look!  Don't call the picture a flat or a dull one - it was neither flat nor dull when I first beheld it.  When I left Ostend on a mild February Morning and found myself on the road to Brussels, nothing could look vapid to me....  Well! and what did I see?  I will tell you faithfully.  Green, reedy swamps, fields fertile but flat, cultivated in patches that made them look like magnified kitchen-gardens; belts of cut trees, formal as pollard willows, skirting the horizon; narrow canals, gliding slow by the roadside, painted Flemish farm-houses, some very dirty hovels, a grey, dead sky, wet road, wet fields, wet house-tops, not a beautiful, scarcely a picturesque object met my eye along the whole route, yet to me, all was beautiful, all was more than picturesque....

Ah, Charlotte!  How prescient!  How to see a wasteland as productive of milk and honey?  How to sense the underlying wonder of travel, the pulsing delight in moving away from the mundane to thrill to the excitement of watching others in their sloughs.  

But this is the conundrum of nationalism, the wasting disease of conservatism.  We want to have our homes, untouched, to come back to.  But we soo want to travel and taste the delights that others take for granted.

You can have my parsley....

This petty provincialism denies our shared pasts.  A little trick I used to play on my classes was to ask whether anyone had heard of Ox-tail?  Ox-tail soup?  Perhaps ox tongue (not many takers there) or ox heart, or, maybe, an ox-cart?  But then who had ever tasted an ox steak?  Filet mignon de ox?  Ox sirloin?  

And so, when we had agreed that steaks came from boeuf, we wondered where the boeuf tails, tongue, heart, liver, kidneys and other unspeakable bits ended up.

And, surprise, surprise, we made a discovery.  The French-speaking Norman invaders, who made up and gave us the ruling class, ate the best bits, the beef.  The working classes, who were more likely to speak a bit of Saxon or Old English, and who couldn't afford the good things in life, had the offal, the bits of ox, that never got near to veal or beef....

[And that's what gave us Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson! born New York, 19/06/64]

But I digress.....

When I was a child, I spake as a child, and had a school friend who spoke French.  He lived in Belgium, which was quite extraordinary as we had picture books of the war and Belgium had been destroyed.  But, he told us, from under his very suspicious blond crew cut, that in Belgium people spoke not only French but another language, which I thought he told us was Walloon, though no one ever corrected me on this...

He also told us that there was a thing there called The Atomium which was a giant Iron Molecule you could get inside.

Do you really wonder why we think Europe is dangerous?

This is the molecule.  I couldn't get inside it because every Belgian that ever there was was trying to get in, today, because, today was the day they remembered their dead.  (Or rather, it was a public holiday for All Saints and All Souls and there didn't seem to be anywhere else to take the kids.....)

But I digress....

I like fish....

But I also like rabbit.

Though for a moment I thought the cherries might have been part of the animal.

In general I prefer my road kill to be more artistically presented:

And I like to see my food participating in the rituals:

You could be mistaken in thinking that Belgians tend to be grey, and very passive,

But it's not at all true.  They are very colourful:

And they love to drink, sociably:

I'll say that again.

They love to drink.  Sociably:

No, really.  They are very sociable.  It's a real cafe society,

Where one always feels welcome:

And there would never be even the slightest hint of Russian interference.

After all, this is the home of the European Parliament (Nigel Farage et al.....ndr)

Sorry.  Wrong picture.

This is the home of the European Parliament:

And this is what Belgians do at night.....

That is, when they are not lighting up the Town Hall......

Or rather not lighting it up because the Politie are preserving us from harm,

I wonder what my Grandmother thought of all this, when she recovered from her fall?  

I wonder what Charlotte and Emily Brontë thought of it all when they wandered the streets as Flaneuses?

I'll ask someone.....Excusez-moi?

Nah, not interested.  I'll try someone else.....

Mademoiselle?  Excusez-moi?

Occupied.... One more try......  

Monsieur.  Excusez-moi, mais connaisez-vous Charlotte Brontë?

Oriana Fallaci?  Bien sur. Elle est morte depuis quelques ans....

Ah well!  Sad, really, as I had brought her some sweets, as flowers are perishable....

Puis les bonbons c'est tellement bon

Bien que les fleurs soient plus présentables

Jacques Brel (again....)
Les Bonbons (1964)

Bien.  I'll to confession. To join Charlotte in the great Cathedral of Ste Gudule where vespers are taking place.....

An odd whim came into my head.  In a solitary part of the Cathedral six or seven people still remained kneeling by the confessionals.  In two confessionals I saw a priest..... I took a fancy to change myself into a Catholic and go and make a real confession to see what it was like.....a little wooden door inside the grating opened, and I saw a priest leaning his ear towards me. I was obliged to begin, and yet I did not know a word of the formula with which they always commence their confessions.  It was a funny position..... I commenced with saying I was a foreigner and had been brought up a Protestant.  The priest asked if I was a Protestant then.  I could not tell a lie, and said 'yes'.  He replied that in that case I could not 'jouir du bonheur de la confesse'; but I was determined to confess, and at last he said he would allow me because it might be the first step towards returning to the true church.  I actually did confess -  a real confession....

So sad. 

So like Theresa May and David Davis....  

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

So like all of us, singing for alms under concrete forms while the world walks by.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Fall of Icarus and other stories....

Menneke Pis Artists, et al.....

Musée des Beaux Arts

W.H. Auden (1940)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I was privileged once to be told about Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus by a disaffected teenager at a large comprehensive school outside of Manchester where I was, briefly, expected to teach.  This was a lesson I was never to forget (it was some 45 years ago).  The boy in question was deemed unteachable and it was my task occasionally to supervise him in the library while his class got on with the job of tormenting their teacher.  As I have recounted elsewhere this lad would take days off from school to go into central Manchester to meet his brother, but would spend idle hours in the central library leafing through books.  Books of art, books of who knows what?  I was sceptical, so reached out a picture book and as we were looking through it he recognised Icarus and told me the story, of how the father had persuaded the son to fly, had made the waxy wings, and how, at altitude, the sun had melted the wax, the feathers had come unstuck, and the boy had fallen….. And Look!  The plougher is busy!  And look!  The boat sails on!  This amazing thing.  And the world doesn’t care because it has its own concerns…..  No-one's bothered!

Perhaps my wayward boy had just been reading Auden

But that would be just as fine.

I stand in The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Old Masters) before La Chute d’Icare (De Val Van Icarus) by Pieter Bruegel I? (1527/8? – Bruxelles 1569) and listen to the distant splash of failure, so poignant, so vain. 

For a moment I think of Farage.  The awful impact of a fall.  The terrible fact of being ignored.  The turning of the backs.  The insignificance of it all.....

I turn to other marvellous paintings.  The Bruegels are temporarily on display here [this unique initiative offers everyone the chance to immerse themselves in Bruegel’s works by honing in on the details of each painting and accessing expert knowledge] to enchant with their depictions of how we love to play, how vile we can be, and of how we queue to view the rare.  If these guys had had cameras…..  just how Weegee or Kertész would they have been?

Belgium is surprisingly full of art.

Surprising because sometimes it may seem that Belgium is without fashion, without stars (that old game, naming a famous Belgian, and only coming up with Hercule Poirot…. so sad for Audrey Hepburn - I'm half-Irish, half-Dutch, and I was born in Belgium. If I was a dog, I'd be in a hell of a mess!)  Much of the country is relatively flat, and featureless, the cities sprawl, the Walloon towns sit squat upon the old coal fields.  But its Flemish treasures, like the Memlings of Bruges or the mysterious Van Eyck altarpiece in Ghent, are feasts worth every penny of the Eurostar.  And in this age of wonder, when people will camp the night on Regent Street to spend a thousand pounds on an iPhone X, the Liège-Guillemins railway station, by the architect Santiago Calatrava, which was officially opened on 18 September 2009, takes some beating. 

The station is made of steel, glass and white concrete and includes a monumental arch, 160 metres long and 32 metres high, covering 9 high speed tracks and 5 platforms (three of 450 m and two of 350 m).  St Pancras (a fourteen year old Phrygian boy martyred in Rome at the age of 14 and buried somewhere on the Aurelian Way in 304AD) is turning in his grave….

Meanwhile, at the other end of the platform, the Collégiale Saint-Barthélemy de Liège holds the twelfth century Fonts baptismaux, a bronze masterpiece of the Meuse valley, attributed to one Renier de Huy, about which hardly anything is known….

At the Abbaye Villers-la-Ville shafts of light strike through the sightless windows.  This Cistercian masterpiece is unique in its use of circular piercings in the upper walls,

and survived through thick and thin until one of the thickest of them all (until aujourd’hui, je crois) imitated Henry 8 in terms of desecration.

I take tea with the Magrittes in their ground floor apartment in Rue Esseghem, in a nondescript part of Brussels known as Jette.  René has thoughtfully placed a picture of me over the fireplace, though I suspect this is just his sense of humour. 

In the Place Royale, late at night, it doesn’t take much to see that Ceci n'est pas une pipe, though it is indeed quite hard to think of another word for it…..

Nearby, in the Royal Museum, Marat takes a bath, and an oriental gentleman poses for his picture by Jacques-Louis David’s Mars disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824). 

Not far away, in the suburb of Saint-Gilles, the streets are full of Art Nouveau, bearing the mark of the architect Victor Horta (1861 – 1947), 

and a wander on from there the Museé d’Ixelles houses a small but fascinating permanent collection, 

ranging from the Old Masters, to the Symbolists and Surrealists.

En passant, as they say, I cannot help but notice a tribute to Tintin’s unhappy creator Hergé (Georges Prosper Remi, 1907 – 1983).  A tribute, perhaps, though probably not one that would please the original master….

Of course the arts on display in Belgium are not all masterpieces.  One of the weirdest museums is tucked in between the European Parliament and the Natural History Museum.  Antoine Wiertz (1806 - 1865) was a Romantic artist who won the Prix de Rome in 1832.  Convinced of his own genius, he persuaded the Belgian Government to build him a vast studio, 

which is now his memorial and museum.  Flying in the face of the maxim that No Art is better than Bad Art (pace Maybot) he produced wallfulls of the most astonishing crap.  Admittedly some of it, such as The Premature Burial (1854), 

which owes much to Edgar Allan Poe, is somehow fascinating, but I won't be going back in a hurry.....  This really is taking the pis..... 

'Nuff said.

However, the most famous art work in Brussels, perhaps in Belgium, is the Manneken-Pis, a bronze statue of a boy taking a leak. It was designed by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1619, though the current statue is a copy made in 1965.  The 61 cm tall little man is often dressed in costumes by a charitable organisation, which has around about 200 different sets of clothes for him.  It is not surprising that one of this Menneke’s roles is that of embodying the Bruxellois sense of humour, which is known as zwanze in the local dialect. 

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters:

They were always taking the pis…..

Au revoir......

L’Été, René Magritte, 1932