29 March 2024

Out of Bruges


I am not a big fan of war.  I have not taken part in one, and I don't think I would be very good at it..... And now I have reached an age when should there be one in the vicinity I am more likely to be a civilian casualty than an active participant.

However, the history of mankind is written in blood, and it seems as though there has been more war than peace since homo 'sapiens' first hit his neanderthal cousin on the head.  

I grew up in the shadow of war.  Both my grandfathers were soldiers in the First World War.  I knew men who had been gassed in the trenches. Both my parents were in the RAF/WAAF in the Second World War.  I played in air raid shelters and on bomb sites.  I read story books and comics and watched films about war actions and heroes.  My school room had bound copies of magazines full of photographs of bombing raids and battles....  And later the whole school was marched to the Rex Cinema to watch Lawrence of Arabia when it came out (for more on this, please see https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2012/12/colonel-t-e-lawrence.html)

I have visited many scenes of battle and War Grave Commission cemeteries, but I had never seen the Menin Gate  and so, when I came across the possibility of visiting Ieper (Ypres) and Passchendaele and Tyne Cot with Riviera Travel, as an option on their Bruges for Solo Travellers trip, I thought I would go for it.....

But not (partly because of the timing) before I had made a quick sortie to Ghent, where I wanted to see the complete and recently restored van Eyck altarpiece in St Bavo's Cathedral.  

As Daniel Boffey explained in The Guardian in 2021, the Ghent Altarpiece (also known as the Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) has, during its near 600-year history, been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.

This work, completed in 1432 and one of the first ever oil paintings, is one of the great masterpieces of European art.  The central panel is dominated by the Lamb which represents Christ, and he is surrounded by angels and the faithful.

Blood flows from the Lamb into a chalice as a reference to the foundation of the Christian faith - the Messiah gives his life to save humankind.

But then, continuing my trip, to Passchendaele, where, from July to November 1917, almost 600,000 men shed their blood for the world to live in peace.....

The trouble is, at least this is what I felt, nothing can really convey the appalling discomfort of the trenches, let alone the noise, the filth, the agony of wounds or the pain of death. In the Passchendaele Museum, in a dark but completely dry and odourless reconstruction of a dugout, a man, who could have been my grandfather, sits on a toilet seat above a bucket. I am sorry, but this just doesn't begin to show the sacrifice each soldier made - even the ones who survived.

In a room upstairs in the chateau, students are told about the weapons used in the war to end all wars. These young people, even the teacher, are too young now to have known relations who took part in this slaughter. There is now a whole industry, an educational industry yes, but one that now profits from the exploitation of a ghastly memory. Are we better for it? Has the memory of the war to end all wars done anything to stop further wars?

New in 2024 is an Immersive Experience, where visitors are supposed to find themselves, according to the brochure, 'right in the middle of the landscape of 1917.'  To be honest, I think the final five minutes of Blackadder goes forth is more effective.....

Don't misunderstand me. Please. I don't think it wrong to remember the dead. I don't think it wrong to have museums that collect memorabilia of bygone times. But I find myself strangely unemotional as I pass through these chambers.


It is fittingly grey and wet in Ieper (Ypres).  The Menin Gate is under wraps, itself the victim of time and the weather.  The glorious Cloth Hall and Belfry have been miraculously reconstructed after the almost total destruction of this town in the war (to end all wars).  Inside the 'In Flanders Fields Museum' (Now more than ever, the brochure tells us) 'you can explore the Great War through authentic artefacts, videos,, projections, and personal stories.  You'll journey into the memories of the First World War.  The past has never been so close.....'

I wonder. It is a more effective museum (in my opinion) than that at Passchendaele, and some of the technology (for example videos of actors dressed as soldiers explaining such things as the use of gas, with subtitles in four languages) is impressive. 

But in nearby St Martin's Cathedral (also a complete reconstruction) I find this picture which tells an earlier story of death and destruction, and which also brings the past nearer:

The Siege of Ypres in 1383. Joris Liebaert, 1657. 

Poor old Ypres. Attacked by the Bishop of Norwich and his men in 1383, it managed to resist the siege, but, according to Wikipedia, Ypres never really recovered. The entire hinterland of the city had been destroyed and trade with England was seriously compromised.  Over the centuries the place was conquered by the French and later given to the Hapsburgs.  Then, in 1914, it stood in the way of the Germans and the Schlieffen Plan, so it got razed to the ground.

As I said, the history of man is written in blood, and perhaps the worst thing is that it is usually the blood of the poor that is sacrificed so that the rich get richer.... Think Alfred Nobel. Think Lord Armstrong (of Cragside). Think British Aerospace (the largest defence contractor in Europe).

Tyne Cot Cemetery

(the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials)

Please don't misunderstand me. I mean no disrespect. The commemoration of war and its dead probably is a good thing, even though the human race still seems intent on destroying itself. Perhaps Putin and Trump et al should spend some time at Tyne Cot and Ypres (though I suspect they would shrug and dismiss the experience on some pretext or other)?

However desensitised we have become it is still inevitably moving to stand amongst the graves, and to hear the recital of names and ages in the visitor centre. 

I think of my grandfathers, and think of their suffering, their sacrifice. My father's father was about thirty when he, a schoolmaster, joined up. My mother's father would have been about the same age but had previously served in the Boer War. The Great War (to end all wars) didn't kill either of them, but it marked them, and they sacrificed a part of their lives, their peace, for all of us.

And there is no escape. On our return to Brugge I pass a plaque on the wall near our hotel

Here in this crypt
rest the ashes of
political prisoners
from the Dachau concentration camp

When will we ever learn?

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

*   *    *    *    *

This piece is dedicated to all those everywhere who were sacrificed in war for others.

If you found this at all interesting, the following link will take you to a memoir I wrote in remembrance of my paternal grandfather who was wounded in the First World War but who died at the age of 86 with a piece of shrapnel still embedded in his arm:


I also recommend the following:

Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War

Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That

Siegfried Sassoon: Selected Poems 

R C Sherriff: Journey's End


King and Country, a film directed by Joseph Losey, with Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay 

24 March 2024

Back in Bruges

How time passes!

In May 2017 I briefly visited Brugge (Bruges) and subsequently posted this piece: https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2017/05/flanders-2.html, so, if you like you can read that one and save yourself the effort of looking at this one.....

It is alarming how quickly time passes (perhaps especially as you get older?)  It doesn't seem that long ago..... 

But perhaps what is even more astonishing is that Martin McDonagh's film In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, was made in 2008..... Look! There's trigger-happy Harry running by the fish market:

It's still a great film, if you like dark humour and a fair amount of violence, though the locals apparently didn't appreciate it, possibly because the last lines go like this:

Poor Ray.  Not so sensitive as his fellow killer Ken.

But I like Brugge, and wouldn't be averse to spending more time there.....

On this occasion I had booked myself on a short 'Bruges for solo travellers' trip with Riviera Travel.  I booked it some months ago as I anticipated I might need a few days respite from caring for Amanda.  However, time passes, as do we, and now she has gone, I just need a break.

But it didn't start well....  Thanks to an inconvenient incident on a bridge somewhere between Baldock and Letchworth my train to London decided to dump us all in Welwyn Garden City, so I missed my Eurostar to Lille and the convenience of a coach from there to the hotel in Brugge.  I nearly gave up then, but with a little luck and a following wind I finally caught up with my group, ably managed by Rosey, in a restaurant near the Minnewater.  A little frazzled, but hungry, and thirsty, and glad of the company.

Not surprisingly, the town hasn't changed much since my last visit.  The old centre is almost too perfect (which is why Ray didn't like it) - a kind of Medieval Disney World which attracts hordes of tourists..... like me.  

The canals meander past antique buildings and grand palaces, all of which are clean and free of graffiti.  The only bit of litter I saw was a plastic bag floating on a chill wind, almost certainly aiming to deposit itself in a bin somewhere out of a sense of civic duty.....

It is spring, and the Begijnhof is carpeted with daffodils:

But the weather is changeable, and though sharp streams of sunshine light the Kruispoort:

Dark clouds loom above a rainbow beyond the windmills:

And the reflections of Jan van Eyck's statue shimmer on the cobbles:

But if you allow for the inundation of visitors, it is still a tranquil place and the mellow brickwork and casual chintz curtains make for a restful effect:

While the views from the Belfort (something Ken got too close to) give you a sense of the lay-out of the closely worked streets and rising spires of the old town:

And in the shelter of the Sint-Janshospitaal there is still an unrivalled collection of works by Hans Memling, which delighted me on my earlier visit.  The St Ursula Shrine (1489) is exquisite:

As is the St John Altarpiece (1479) with St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist standing behind the Virgin and child and Saints Catherine and Barbara seated aside. Despite the scenes of torture and execution all around the central picture is one of supreme tranquility:

While in contrast the pale horse of death emerges from the mouth of hell on the right hand panel:

It all happens in Bruges!  In the Markt young sibyls possibly foretell the second coming (or something worse?)

While in the garden of Cafe Vlissinghe the elders hone their skills at Krulbollen (or Curve Ball - sometimes called Rolle Bolle):

The inside of this bar, barely changed since 1515, is warm and relaxed, and an eponymous beer goes down exceedingly well, carefully served by Grietje while Bruno cooks up Vissoep (fish soup) in the kitchen:

It is getting dark when I leave:

By now the day trippers have gone back to their cruise ships, while those who remain are crowding the bars and restaurants around the centre.  The sky fades from deep blue:

To inky black:

Rain begins to fall again and I lose myself in the dark lanes of the city:

Walking by the canals and basins:

Over bridges from which the town gets its name:

Until I regain the open space of the Markt and the great Belfry that rises above the Cloth Hall.  It is stunning and despite Ray (Colin Farrell)'s dying words at the end of In Bruges, if this is Hell, then give me eternity any day......

Ay Marieke, Marieke
Le soir souvent
Entre les tours
De Bruges et Gand
Ay Marieke, Marieke
Tous les étangs
M'ouvrent leurs bras
De Bruges à Gand

Jacques Brel

[For Marieke please substitute Amanda.....]

17 March 2024

In Memoriam, Berkhamsted and others.....

Burp Hampster

[Before I proceed I should explain that "Burp Hamster" was the name of the place our daughters decided their Grannie and Grandad lived - aka Berkhamsted]

At lunch I am sitting next to someone who is supposed to be dead..... (there is a lot of it about, Ed).  This person has clearly been Mark Twained (The report of my death was an exaggeration).

The curious thing is that I was in Berkhamsted to pay my respects to a dead man - but it wasn't this one. Suffice it to say that my companion was something of a misprint (in The Old Berkhamstedian magazine.....)

The real object of the obsequies actually died last year, and I appended a brief tribute to him on my post Snettisham Today (https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2023/06/snettisham-today.html) but this was a day for a formal memorial to Jonty Driver, former Headmaster of Berkhamsted School, poet, activist, and family friend.

I last saw Jonty at a reading he gave in Wells-next-the-sea, in June 2021 (was it really that long ago already?) but we had kept in touch.

Anyway, with the greatest respect to Jonty, and his family, and to Berkhamsted School, this is not (quite) about them.  

Some might say that I grew up in Berkhamsted (for more on which town, please see: https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2013/05/berkhamsted-herts.html) though to be exact, I was a boy in Berkhamsted (I was a lad in Lancaster, a romantic in Rome, ageing in Ascot, a has-been in Harpenden and now getting senile in Snettisham - but take your pick). 

My father had also been a boy in Berkhamsted, but then returned here as a father and a much admired man, (but that is another story).

So, though I have been back many a time over the years, I found myself thinking about our time here, and sifting the way things change, or not. After the celebrations of Jonty's great life, and the pleasantries of meeting other dead people, I wander down to cross the Bulbourne, the chalk stream that carved this valley through the Chilterns.

It flows, that's still true, but it shows neglect.  I remember walking down the stream bed from Northchurch to Berko in my wellingtons, past the watercress beds and into the town, without worrying about the collection of dog shit.....  Perhaps there weren't as many dogs then?

On the Moor, which is the canal basin hard by the railway station, I meet a charming couple who have taken to live on the waterways.  How nice to travel slow and easy, tranquil in the security that your home will always be with you while the world passes by inconsequentially.  I am taken by the idea, but realise that it takes two to manage the locks, and so shelve that thought.....

I carry on along the canal side, sniffing that pervasive smell of stale water, dead fish and puddled mud, to reach The Rising Sun, where, with a pint of mild, I watch Ireland beat Scotland in a room I first frequented sixty years ago (yes I was under age, but scoring darts improved my mental arithmetic no end!)

When I leave it is already dark.  I don't really want to go, but I know no one and the match is over and my pint is drunk.....

So I meander down the High Street, dodging the motorised prams and people in unisex one-piece tailor-made personalised jogging suits, past my bank (The National Provincial), which was once the school attended by the girl who would become Winston Churchill's wife, and which is now a restaurant (the bank moved across the street behind the bus stop, but even the NatWest is now gone....)

Almost everywhere is now an eatery.  You might think that no one knows how to cook at home these days. Or you might think that the populace is so well off they can all afford to dine out every night (I guess they would once have had servants? Maybe they still do, though I guess even they may have a night off?)  I don't know, but once upon a time the Gas Showroom was a gas showroom (not a restaurant) and the Post Office was a Post Office (not an M & S Foodhall)

But at least some things don't change.  Woods is still a garden centre, and, appropriately for today, Malcolm, Jones and Metcalfe are still dealing with our demises from the same address.  We did business with them when my parents needed their services, but they may not remember that late one Saturday evening over sixty years ago someone rang their front door bell and ran away.  

Joe and I are still ashamed, having run to hide at the bottom of Park View Road.  

I am particularly ashamed that we were caught.....

Just up the next hill, Boxwell Road, I feel a little weird photographing the facade of Number 2, but this is the house where my dad attended Mr and Mrs Popple's infant school almost a hundred years ago, and it is the address we all lived at some forty years later. 

Hey!  Memories.  It is a questionable benefit being able to recall all the crimps and creases of a misspent life.  Time to call time?

At the bottom of the road I step into The Lamb, wishing to wash away the lingering taste of fish and chips that I hungered for earlier.

Here I meet Gordon Lee, a fellow from Hemel Hempstead, a few years older than me.  His card introduces him as an 'All round good guy,' a 'Roving FF Reporter,' and a 'Soldier of Fortune.'  He has been in town today to watch football , but is intending to return to Papua New Guinea where he feels more at home (I understand).

I feel a presence, a drift of energy.  It is as if Jonty Driver is catching my eye.  I sense that I should turn in, and thank my new friend for his offer of another drink.  I could go the distance, but perhaps another day.  I am too full of memories, of unclear thoughts. It seems that perhaps I have done with Berkhamsted.  My mother and father are dust on the hill:

I am becoming bleary, no longer sure of anything:

I enjoyed the company of Ron Hall at lunch, despite the announcement that he had recently passed away.  I enjoyed meeting my friends with their canal boat, though I am so sorry that I cannot recall their names.  I would have spilled much beer with Gordon in The Lamb, but I have to leave the last words to Jonty:

Far gone?  Gone for good?  I abjure
All pre-knowledge, but now I know for sure.
You (the reader) don't; or do you?
I wrote this before I knew.


C J (Jonty) Driver

Thank you, everyone,

For everything,