From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.
Sometimes you don’t realise the value of a place until it comes under threat. Paris is handy for Londoners and I’ve nipped over on the train a few times, but never thought of it as one of the places closest to my heart. I may have considered it a little too like London; important as the former capital of a huge empire but expensive, crowded, and rushed in a way that leaves its inhabitants irritable, and such a magnet for mass tourism that Venice seems unspoilt by comparison. The other main Eurostar option is Brussels, a rather strange city and gateway to the lovely old towns of Flanders, and I got to thinking of myself as more of a Belgian type. Then came November 13th, when men from the ghettoes of Brussels rained down terror upon Paris, presumably chosen because the republic is secular, so many of its great men were at odds with monotheism, and the Parisians were only ones to put their money where their mouths were and print Mohammed cartoons. Suddenly Paris was a symbol of free speech and European civilisation. I turned up at work the next morning and in hurt, fury, and an impotent wish to show love to our French regulars, I printed out a huge French flag and made a display of Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Queneau, Houellebecq et leurs amis. Aux armes, citoyens!
An Ulsterman in Paris, continued.
“When our children were old enough to take an interest, but still relatively biddable and portable, we went on several trips to Paris in the hope that this would inoculate them in favour of France and give them a graceful ease with both the city and the language in later life. This worked in a limited way… the children acted as a permanent absurdist pint-size John Bull chorus, applying our island common sense to everything from the Sainte-Chapelle to Picasso, with one of the latter’s works actually provoking a low whistle of respect at what he had ‘got away with’. All this thoroughly destroyed the frail pretence my wife and I shared that we were somehow a sort of Belmondo-Seberg team crazily adrift in a city of alcohol & danger.”
Despite his relish for the modern done well, Nairn seldom gives as much attention to stations as to churches. On the whole, I find stations to have the bigger personalities; thinking about Kings X got me wondering if it’s generational. Everybody used to attend their church with a season ticket; it was where they were baptised, confirmed, married, buried. In our post-Christian age there is less of a connection to the drama of one’s life. A grand terminus is where we enter or leave cities, meet or part with loved ones, with all the attendant theatre this entails. Transport is as much of a necessity, and as heavily used, as a medieval duomo would have been in 1350. The crucifix loses centre stage to the clock-face. Then it was imperative that we got our seat in heaven, now it is imperative that we get a seat on the 08.39 to London Bridge. Are stations our cathedrals?