Saturday, 26 June 2010

Light-Hearted Trips in the Political Heart of Europe: the Banal and the Bizarre Come Together in Belgium

It must be said that Harry Pearson’s book “A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among The Belgians” - whilst a serviceable and amusing account of this small but central European country - holds few surprises. This is very much a ‘bemused-Englishman-abroad’ type book in the mould of Charlie Connelly’s earlier account of Liechtenstein (“Stamping Grounds”). However, whilst Connelly’s book had a connecting theme and a purpose - following Liechtenstein’s football team during their futile attempt to quality for the 2002 World Cup – Pearson’s account seems a little unfocussed in comparison.

This is not helped by the fact that his disparate accounts of Belgium cover a series of trips made to the country, spanning several years and in the company of various companions. The narrative sometimes segues suddenly between these trips, which can be a little disorientating for the less alert of us readers. I was often left confused as to whether he was recalling a trip with Steve, an old friend, or a more recent excursion with Catherine, his girlfriend (both of whom are very much in the background in this book, and are rarely given any sort of voice). Indeed at some point in the book Harry and Catherine suddenly gain a young baby on their travels, which disorientated me even further...

That is not to say that there aren’t some amusing passages in this book – such as his description of the Belgium enthusiasm for (if not proficiency in) ill–advised and potentially-lethal DIY – and his musings on the possible link between the Belgium sense of national individualism and the large quantities of dog mess on the streets of Brussels. However, occasionally one feels that Pearson is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his credentials as both author and comic. For instance his description of a farmers’ wife as having the “slender, pallid beauty of one of the female revellers of Bosch’s ’Garden of Earthly Delights’ (though she was wearing considerably more clothing, obviously)” – seems a little forced.

That said, whilst it took a while for me to engage with this book, I did begin to warm to the accounts after the halfway mark, and Pearson obviously has a certain affection for this idiosyncratic nation. His accounts of the various nationalistic affiliations to Belgium’s official languages - especially between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons (who generally seem to ignore each others’ existence; with the minority German-speakers caught somewhere in the middle) - are informative and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the scene where a train announcer has to change the place-names of destination stops on a single journey, according to where in Belgium the train happens to be...

Another interesting account, which comes late on in the book, is of Belgium's former monarch: King Leopold II’s barbaric yet farcical colonisation of the Congo in the 19th century. Whilst drawing on the full horrors of both this debauched individual and his actions (Pearson makes the astute point that King Leopold made around £3million out of his African land-grab; slightly less than a pound per African life lost as a result) he also finds some telling irony here: "Soon African chiefs all across the Congo basin had signed away their independence to an organisation with a blue and yellow banner and its headquarters in Brussels. Euro-sceptics may wish to pause at this point and have a good old rant”.

All in all then, a bit of a mixed bag; but – as with the previous book – an informative and largely engaging account of a small European country seen through the eyes of both a fellow European and a cultural outsider.

I must say, I felt that the conclusion of this book reflected my point about the lack of narrative structure here. Of course, this is a travelogue and not a novel, but the abrupt Epilogue – a mere two pages which start with a stroll through Namur, take in a paragraph’s worth of Antwerp and end with the ferry back to England via Holland - seemed especially sudden and a little dissatisfying. In articulating this feeling I shall paraphrase my conclusion to Charlie Connelly’s earlier account of Liechtenstein:

“If I have one gripe about this book it is that it all ends rather abruptly. [It] includes an Afterword… but - right at the last page – I was left with a feeling that I had spent an enjoyable few hours in a bar with [Harry] as he recounted his adventures and then, mid-sentence, he just got up and left…”

Maybe it’s just down to my company that these authors need to excuse themselves so abruptly!

Anyhow, next stop is The Netherlands; although first I need to take my leave of Belgium. I must admit to being slightly worried about my decision to go by train, given Harry Pearson’s advice on this local mode of transport:

“The railway stations of Brussels at night are no place for anybody who might be susceptible to depression. The first time I arrived in the Belgian capital it was 10.30 pm on a Friday. I got off the train from the airport at Brussels Nord. As I walked through the cavernous tunnels at the Metro, thoughts of loved ones left behind filled my head, the strip lights buzzing above and my footfalls echoing across the emptiness to be heard, as far as I could tell, by no fellow human speakers, a static crackling emerged from the hidden speakers of the tannoy. It was followed shortly by the melancholy tootling of Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’. Harder men than I would have broken.”

Bearing this in mind, I decide to travel during daylight hours, and arrive at Brussels Nord on a sunny morning. There is a comfortable InterCity train that connects Brussels Nord station and Amsterdam Central Station that runs roughly every hour during the daytime. The single ticket is only €33.40 and the journey takes about 2 and a half hours. The train goes via the river port of Antwerp (whose Central Station looks remarkably like the new St Pancras station in London) and also Den Haag Centraal, the largest train station in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam’s main train station is the real heart of this city – and is indeed centrally located with a buzzing atmosphere mingling travellers and commuters. As it is a nice day, I break my journey here and spend a pleasant afternoon wandering along the main Damrak boulevard and its side streets, pausing for a beer or two (or three) and a salad at a bijou little café by the canal-side.

After an enjoyable afternoon’s excursion in Amsterdam, I board the 14a metro line to Rotterdam Centraal at 22.26, leaving there at 23.13 on a sprinter train that arrives in my destination of Maasslius at 23.32 (it is dark by now so it is hard to describe the scenery on this leg of journey!). The one-way trip sets me back €14.70.

Maasslius is a provincial city in Southern Holland and the setting of my next book: the novel “The Sundial” by native author Maarten ‘T Hart; which sounds like an interesting mystery story of the fatal consequences of mistaken identity…

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