Canada Slim and a Matter of Perspective

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 December 2016

There are many things that are unpleasant about getting older: diminishing senses, unflattering changes to one´s body, memory lapses, acquisition of a world-weariness…

But for myself, especially in 2016, it has been the loss of one´s heroes.

Yet another musical legend passed away over Christmas: George Michael, age 53.

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Famous for many songs, including “Last Christmas I gave you my heart”, George died from a sudden heart attack.

In a truly crappy year of celebrity deaths (Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher…to name only a few) George Michael´s demise has affected me more than the rest as his age at death is disturbingly near my own at present.

Prince´s death was pharmaceutically linked, Bowie had cancer, Cohen was not a young man…all tragic but somehow not so bone-chillingly uncommon to my own life status.

If a man only two years my senior can suddenly be no more, can I truly take for granted the time left to me?

Barring accident or lingering disease, how much time do I truly have left?

What follows is not so much resolutions I intend to pursue as they are affirmations of what I have come to realise.

Many a friend has commented to me that it is important that I write.

They have said that my past is somewhat unique, that I can on occasion string words together, that I have my moments when I have written something of significance.

I am also reminded of something that David Bowie once said in an interview: “Don´t play to the gallery.”

Bowie smiling

I have taken this to mean that I should write what matters to me.

If others love it, great.

If not, I must still continue to write what matters to me.

This blog, The Chronicles of Canada Slim, is written to express my ongoing feelings and to represent my memories and emotions that led me here to this time and place.

My other blog, much neglected, Building Everest, is meant to tell stories outside of myself.

It is my hope that those who read this particular post will feel the excitement of travel, the thrill of discovery and an appreciation of the past that I felt as I wrote what follows:

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, but now also the capital of Europe, buzzes with economic, financial and political activity.

And as I recall time spent there in 1993 and 1997 I think of Brussels as I would Ottawa, the capital of Canada, as I would have others think of me, perhaps boring at first glance, but a closer look reveals continuous momentum, regular heroics, relatable villainy, spectacular moments and a vulnerability to capture both the imagination and interest.

In reading Charlotte Bronte´s The Professor one senses that she never really liked the Belgians, especially the Flemish, but did she like Brussels itself?

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The Professor was based on her own experiences in Brussels, a story of love and doubt, of a teacher seeking fortune and love while being severely tested by beguiling sensuality and manipulation.

If a city could be compared to a woman, could our assessment be affected by our experiences?

“Our likings are regulated by our circumstances.

The artist prefers a hilly country because it is picturesque, the engineer a flat one because it is convenient.

The fashionable young gentleman admires the fashionable young lady – she is of his kind.

The toilworn, exhausted, probably irritable teacher, blind almost to beauty, insensible to airs and graces, glories chiefly in certain mental qualities: application, love of knowledge, natural capacity, docility, truthfulness, gratitude are the charms that attract his notice and win his regard.

These he seeks, but seldom meets.

These if by chance he finds, he would fain retain forever.

And when separation deprives him of them he feels as if some ruthless hand had snatched from him his only ewe lamb.” (Charlotte Bronte, The Professor)

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These I seek, but seldom meet.

“Zoé” had many positive aspects, but what had been felt the year previous seemed lacking within myself.

I told myself “Act as if what is wished is reality until the wish becomes reality.”.

Though she could hardly afford it, Zoé was determined to show me Brussels in the hopes that I would transfer my love for the city with similar feelings towards her.

Zoé was a maniac driver, but no more than many Europeans I would encounter in the following decades.

Breathlessly, my heart a-pounding furiously, we arrived at Bruparck.

Bruparck is close to Metro Station Heysel and is part of Heysel Park.

The Heysel / Heizel is in the north of Brussels where the Brussels International Exposition of 1935 and Expo ´58 took place.

The Brussels International Exposition of 1935 was held between 27 April and 6 November 1935.

Officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, 25 countries officially participated and a further 5 were unofficially represented.

The theme was colonisation, on the 50th anniversary of the establishmnet of the Congo.

The fair attracted some 20 million visitors.

Belgian architect Joseph van Neck was the principal architect of the fair and of the Art Deco Palais des Expositions with its interior concrete parabolic arches and four heroic bronze statues on piers.

Among many other contributors, Le Corbusier designed part of the French exhibit.

Belgian modernist architect Victor Bourgeois designed the Grand Palace, Restaurant Leopold II and the Pavilion Soprocol.

The Belgian art exposition prominently displayed the work of contemporary Belgian artists, including Paul Delvaux, René Magritte and Louis Van Lint, boosting their careers.

Expo ´58 (the Brussels World´s Fair) was held from 17 April to 19 October 1958, the first major World´s Fair after World War II.

Nearly 15,000 workers spent three years building the two square kilometre site on the Heysel plateau, using many of the buildings from the Brussels International Exposition of 1935.

Expo ´58 was the 11th World´s Fair hosted by Belgium and the 5th in Brussels, following the fairs in 1888, 1897, 1910 and 1935.

Since 1958 Belgium has not arranged any more world fairs.

This huge event was a showcase for Belgium and 40 other countries.

More than 41 million visitors visited the Expo, which was opened with a call for world peace and social and economic progress, issued by King Badouin.

Three million visitors travelled in the cable car which soared above the Expo.

Eight babies were born on site.

With the slogan “Building a world for the modern man”, Expo ´58 sent out a message of boundless optimism, confident and enthusiastic about the future of humanity.

In spite of its message of peace and friendship between nations, Expo ´58 was not immune from the tensions of the Cold War.

Beneath the Atomium, the United States and the Soviet Union defied each other in symbolic confrontation.

The Soviet pavilion was a large impressive building, which they folded up and took back to Russia when the Expo ended.

Within the pavilion the Soviets displayed a facisimile of Sputnik, the world´s first artifical satellite, and a model of the Lenin, the world´s first nuclear icebreaker, representing the success of a Communist society.

The icebreaker Lenin, former St. Alexander Nevsky

The Sputnik copy mysteriously disappeared and the US was accused of stealing it.

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The American pavilion was quite spacious and vaunted the American Dream – the consumer society and the comforts of modern life.

The US pavilion included a fashion show with models walking down a large spiral staircase, an electronic computer that demonstrated a knowledge of history, and a colour TV studio behind glass.

The Philips pavilion played the Poeme électronique from 425 loudspeakers placed throughout the park.

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The Austrian pavilion included a model Austrian Kindergarten which doubled as a daycare for the employees, the Vienna (Wien) Philharmonic playing behind glass and a model nuclear fusion reactor that fired every five minutes.

An original manuscript of Mozart´s Requiem was placed on display.

Someone somehow gained access to the manuscript and tore off the bottom right corner of one of the pages containing the words “Quam olim d:C” in Mozart´s handwriting, possibly the last words Mozart wrote before he died.

During the six months of the Expo, 300 friendly, multilingual and devoted young ladies welcomed and guided millions of visitors who flocked to the site.

Dressed in red jackets and blue hats, disciplined and flirtatious at the same time, the Expo ´58 hostesses were considered the epitome of the modern woman of those times.

Joyful Belgium, a reconstitution of a village from olden times, was a place of entertainment with a festive atmosphere, constantly bursting with crowds of visitors eating, drinking and having fun.

20,000 workers, including 500 gardeners, served 20,000 meals every day in the 70 restaurants on the Expo site.

Belgian beer flowed copiously bringing joy to many who staggered on cobblestones filled with spirit and memories.

But every event has its dark side which the Art of Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) will not seek to draw the visitor´s attention to…

Inside the Belgian pavilion was the Congolese village, a human zoo, showing exotic humans living in their natural state, to emphasise the cultural differences between Europeans and those people they regarded as primitive in a display that was highly degrading and racist.

Congolese in cages in a nude or semi-nude state forced to work on typical village tasks pretending that the gawking visitors did not exist.

Belgian King Baudouin visited the fair in the company of actress Gina Lollobrigida.

Expo ´58 remains a part of the Bruxellois psyche as its best known site still remains a symbol of the city of Brussels.

The Atomium is a giant model of a unit cell of an iron crystal, expanded 165 billion times, with each of its nine spheres representing an atom.

Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102 metres / 335 feet tall.

Its nine 18 metre / 60 foot diameter stainless steel clad spheres are connected by tubes of 3 metre / 10 foot diameter.

These tubes enclose stairs, escalators and a lift in the central, vertical tube allowing access to the five habitable spheres containing exhibit halls and other public spaces.

The top sphere contains a restaurant with a panoramic view of Brussels.

Jessica Canepa of CNN in her 24 January 2013 report “11 of Europe´s most bizarre buildings” named it Europe´s most bizarre building.

When Zoé and I visited the Atomium in 1993, the Atomium´s spheres were clad with aluminum.

Following renovations in 2007, the aluminum was replaced with stainless steel.

The aluminum was sold to the public as souvenirs to pay for the renovations.

A triangular piece about 2 metres / 7 foot long sold for €1,000 in 2006.

Three of the four top spheres lack vertical support and are therefore not open to the public for safety reasons, although the sphere at the pinnacle is.

Waterkeyn´s original design called for no supports.

The sphere was simply to rest on the spheres.

Wind tunnel tests proved that the Atomium would have toppled in an 80 km/h wind.

(140 km/h winds have been recorded in Belgium.)

Support columns were added in 2006 to achieve enough resistance against overturning.

(Though a building weighing 2,500 tonnes will take one hell of a gust to topple it…)

The Atomium is open every day of the year from 10 am to 6 pm and receives 2,300 individual visitors every day or 600,000 visitors per year.

The record number of visitors in one day: 4,700 on 17 August 2008.

Each year on average the Atomium is visited by 10 heads of state, privately or officially.

Visitors are provided audioguides in 28 languages.

There are 873,000 references to the Atomium on the Internet with more than 13,000 Facebook fans.

In addition to its unique architecture, the Atomium already boasted the fastest lift in Europe in 1958, with a speed of 5 metres per second / 18 kph.

What breath had been regained from Zoé´s driving was once again swept from me by this heady ascent as the entrails of the central tube sped by at a pace hummingbirds would have been impressed by.

And the view…

It has been boasted that on a clear day one can see Antwerp to the north or the Atlantic to the west, but on 8 November 1993 I recall only seeing the Palais des Expositions, the Planetarium and Mini-Europe, the Grand Place, the Royal Palace and the EU district.

For Expo ´58 a new airport terminal was added to the Melsbroek National Airport, on the west side of the Airport, on the grounds of the municipality of Zaventem, which has since become the name of the International Airport.

(Zaventem Airport might register in the minds of today´s readers as it was the first target of the 22 March 2016 Brussels bombings.

At 07:55 Ibrahim El Bakraoui (29), Najim Laachraoui (24) and Mohamed Abrini (b. 1984) arrived at Zaventem in a taxi.

At 07:58, in check-in row 11 and check-in row 2 of Zaventem´s departure hall, Bakraoui and Laachraoui committed suicide by exploding nail bombs in their suitcases nine seconds apart.

Abrini failed to detonate his bomb due to the force of Laachraoui´s explosion.

At 09:11 Khalid El Bakraoui and Osama Krayem committed suicide in the middle carriage of a three-carriage train at the Maalbeek metro station.

The bombings killed 32 civilians and injured more than 300 people.

The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium´s history.)

(Heysel Park also brings to mind another tragedy of a different sort:

On 29 May 1985, Liverpool were the defending European Champions Cup winners facing Juventus –  both this English club and their Italian competitor club were considered the best two teams in Europe at the time.

Despite Heysel Stadium´s status as Belgium´s national stadium, it was in a poor state of repair by the time of the 1985 European Final.

The 55-year-old Stadium had not been sufficiently maintained for several years and large parts of the Stadium were literally crumbling.

A few years before Arsenal fans called Heysel “a dump” when Arsenal had played there.

Both Juventus and Liverpool had urged the UEFA to choose another venue, claiming that Heysel was not in any condition to host a European Final, but UEFA refused to consider a move.

The Stadium was crammed with 60,000 supporters, with more than 25,000 for each team, between them a neutral area reserved for neutral Belgian fans.

Brussels has a large Italian community and many Juventus fans were in the neutral zone, causing Liverpool fans to perceive that Juventus fans had been accorded more seating rights than they had.

At 7 pm, an hour before kick-off, trouble began.

Liverpool and Juventus supporters were mere metres apart – the boundary between them was marked by a temporary chain link fence and a central thinly policed no-man´s land.

Fans began to throw stones across the divide, using the crumbling terraces under their feet.

As kick-off approached, the throwing became more intense.

Several groups of Liverpool fans broke through the boundary separating them from the Juventus fans, overpowered the police and charged the Juventus fans.

Juventus fans began to flee toward the perimeter wall.

The wall could not withstand the force of the fleeing Juventus supporters and a lower portion collapsed.

The collapse allowed fans to escape, but 39 fans died and 600 fans were injured by suffocation or from being crushed against the wall before its collapse.

Bodies were carried out from the Stadium on sections of iron fencing and laid outside, covered with giant football club flags.

In retaliation for the neutral zone attack, Juventus fans in their end of the Stadium then rioted, fighting the police with rocks and bottles for two hours.

Despite the scale of the disaster, UEFA officials, the Belgian Prime Minister, the Brussels mayor and the city´s police force felt that cancelling the match would incite further trouble and violence.

The match eventually kicked off after the captains of both teams spoke to the crowd and appealed for calm.

Juventus won the match 1 – 0.

29 Liverpool fans were charged with manslaughter, 14 of them convicted.

On 29 May 2005, a sundial sculpture was unveiled at the new Heysel Stadium to commemorate the disaster.

Thirty-nine lights shine, one for each who died that night.)

At the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is a miniature park with reproductions of monuments in the European Union on show, at a scale of 1:25.

Image illustrative de l'article Mini-Europe

Roughly 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented.

The park contains live action models, such as trains, mills, an erupting Mount Vesuvius…

(There is something just wrong about trivialising one of the most volcanic eruptions in European history.

Mount Vesuvius spewed a deadly cloud of gas, stones and ash to a height of 33 kilometres (21 mi), ejecting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima bombing.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945.

Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried, the most well known being Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The remains of about 1,500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the overall death toll is still unknown.)

…and cable cars.

A guidebook gives the details on all the monuments.

At the end of the visit, the Spirit of Europe exhibition gives an interactive overview of the European Union in the form of multimedia games.

As fascinating as it is to play the role of Lemeul Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I wanted to experience these wonders of Europe first hand without a sneak peek so I chose not to visit Mini-Europe.

As I type these words there remains much I have yet to see of Europe, but my feelings have not changed in this respect.

In Bruparck there stands an aquatic park – It was winter when we visited. –  slated to close on 1 October 2018, Océade offers 14 waterslides, a wave pool, a rope bridge, interactive video games, an aquatic playground, three saunas (a hammam, a jacuzzi and a Finnish ice bath) – all with a Pirates of the Caribbean feel.

It is said to be the best-equipped aquatic park in Belgium.

Zoé reminded me that Océade was still trying to rebuild its reputation from the July 1992 incident when two children, ages 5 and 7, drowned in the park.

Thierry Den Doncker, the director of Océade, was found guilty of involuntary homicide by default in December 1996.

Still Océade has maintained its reputation as a fun place, receiving 230,000 visitors to the park every year.

The waters are subtropical at a temperature of 29° Celcius, just perfect on a winter´s day.

Nearby the giantic Kinepolis offers 27 cinemas and IMAX.

As enjoyable as exploring Brussels with Zoé was, and I was extremely grateful to her for spending time and money to be my guide to the city, part of me wanted to discover the city for myself.

Seeing a place through a local´s eyes gives one a perspective that a tourist rarely experiences.

Stubbornly I wanted to make Brussels my experience rather than simply sharing Zoé´s experience of it.

I wanted to get lost and discover the city serendipitiously.

Zoé took this as a rejection of her.

It took an infinite amount of long discussions, debates, persuasion and patience to get Zoé to grant me a few hours of liberty from her side.

Granted liberty, I headed for the downtown core of Brussels to do the mundane activities that a tourist does when abroad: mailing postcards, checking e-mail in an Internet café and finding a café or tavern one can call one´s own.

Over cafés au lait, political discussion at the Café Arcadi with two Belgians and another Canadian (a young lady from Lake Nipissing)…

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Belgium is not a country, the two young Bruxellois university students informed us, but rather a political creation.

Unity between the Flemish and Walloons remains fleeting, a mere whisper in the wind barely heard but desperately sought.

But it is this ability for Belgians to have two diametrically opposed peoples share one country that convinces our local drinking companions that it was the Belgians that created “civilisation”.

To talk to a Belgian is to talk with the world-weary, for Belgium is more than chocolate and diamonds, medieval buildings and comic books, it is a land riddled with corruption, seediness, tension and scandal.

Belgium remains in a mind a country that is a breath away from coming undone.

And to listen to a Belgian speak is to court depression, for there seems to be a litany of problems to worry one´s self sick over in Belgium.

Milk causing cancer, arms deals with greased palms, the constant hiss of secessionism, the spectre of paedophilia, bizarre murders and crimes that would have challenged Agatha Christie´s Hercule Poirot, the sale of passports to criminals, reunions of Nazis, a history of colonial genocide…what topic do you wish to talk about first?

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Above: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

And living with your neighbour does not mean loving your neighbour.

The Flemish and the Walloons are locked in a marriage of convenience but not comfort.

In the port city of Antwerp, Belgium´s second-largest metropolis, the world´s biggest distributor of diamonds, one finds a hotbed of tension.

Known as the Jerusalem of the West, Antwerp is home to 20,000 Jews, most of which live in the old Jewish quarter.

Right next door is the Arab quarter, home to the city´s 30,000 Moroccans and Turks.

Thrown into this volatile mix Antwerp is also the headquarters of the anti-immigrant party Vlaams Blok, whose main objective is for Flanders to secede.

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Both past and present Belgium is a battlefield.

A strange battlefield of baroque buildings, thick forests, fantastic restaurants, swan-filled canals, crumbling housing, dodgy areas, port crime, war cemeteries, blood-soaked battle grounds, ethnic turmoil, language barriers, racist graffiti, corruption so common it´s casual, a lack of planning and it no longer seems strange that Belgians like to drink.

Happily drinking is one of the best things to do in Belgium, as the country has over 400 beers of amazing flavours.

But to this casual observer, Belgium feels like it was thrown together without any vision, without any rhyme or reason.

The young Bruxellois lads were, of course, curious about Canada, for it too is a land that remains sharply divided along linguistic lines: English vs French.

But as visiting Anglophone Canadians to Brussels we held fast to a unity that we cherish, but as complex as English-French relations are in Canada the difficulties of Ottawa pale by comparison to politics in Belgium.

In Canada, Canadians have one national Parliament and each province has its own legislature.

In Belgium there are six individual Parliaments with each national party split in two – one representing Flanders in the north and one representing Wallonia in the south.

60% of Belgians speak Flemish, but in Brussels 80% of the population speaks French.

In 2001, I would later read that a train crash in Belgium that killed 8 people was caused because the signalmen – one Walloon, one Flemish – spoke different languages and couldn´t communicate.

But for all their problems it must be admitted that Belgians are interesting.

Take a few examples:

King Albert II (reigned from 1993 to 2013) loves motorcycles and riding them fast, to judge by the number of times he has been pulled over.

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Jean-Michel Nihoul, Brussels businessman and self-proclaimed “Monster of Belgium”, suspected for numerous crimes, won´t be prosecuted because he can name too many government officials involved in his sex parties.

King Leopold II (1835 – 1909), responsible for opening up the Congo to Belgian development and genocide and making a fortune in the process, loved nothing more than riding around on an oversized tricycle and sneaking off to court his teenage French lover.

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Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989), celebrated for his Inspector Maigret stories, was unique:

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Simenon wrote at least 4 books a year – totalling more than 500 by the time he died – in between having sex three times a day.

Known as “the man of 10,000 women”, Simenon still managed to write 80 pages a day, typically meeting his goal of finishing a book within two weeks.

(“Francois”, Zoé´s father, with two mistresses, clearly found his role model.)

René Magritte (1898 – 1967) brought the absurd to the commonplace and the everyday to the bizarre in precise frozen images that always contained a snippet of logic and the whisper of a joke, but Belgians didn´t appreciate him.

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In 1927, Belgian art critics so demonized his first show of reality-questioning, surrealistic paintings that Magritte moved to France.

It took Magritte another two decades for his work to be acclaimed as innovative.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525 – 1569) is worth mentioning for several reasons:

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Above: Pieter Brueghel the Elder´s The Painter and the Buyer (1565)

Brueghel, unlike his 16th century contemporaries, dared to paint other themes outside of religion or portraits of the wealthy.

His landscapes weren´t just Biblical backdrops, but vibrant village life captured in all its bawdy detail and glory.

No detail is insignificant in a Brueghal picture, for each minutae is a vignette that tells a tale of life in the 16th century more dramatically than a library of historical tomes ever could.

And in a sense Brueghal captures the essence of Brussels, not just in illustrating life then but as well a message about life now.

When I recall my conversation in Café Arcadi, the drownings at the Océade, the Heysel Stadium tragedy, the bombings of Brussels, the paintings of Brueghal and the recent death of George Michael, I am left with one final impression:

Seize the moment.

Appreciate the moment.

Capture and keep that moment close.

For God only knows how many more moments are left to us.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Charlotte Bronte, The Professor / Melissa Rossi, The Armchair Diplomat on Europe

Canada Slim and Last Year´s Man

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 19 December 2016

Now, Belgians love a good celebration, but a big night in the Belgian boozers often leads to mornings of regret and grim reflection.

Being the chaste daughter of an English curate, nights in a bar were probably not part of Charlotte Bronte´s story, but her unrequited love for a married professor must have lead her to mornings of remorse and silent rage against the fates denying her heart´s desire.

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It has been suggested by many a Bronte biographer that during Charlotte´s second sojourn in Brussels that she was unhappy and homesick, but was she also lonely?

Chances are…probably yes.

For who had she to chum around with?

Her sister Emily, who had been with her in Brussels for the first nine months of 1842, had remained at Haworth.

Although we can be fairly certain that Charlotte maintained a regular amount of correspondence with Haworth and English friends, her biographers suggest that she had no peers to confide in, she had no great affection for the girls under her charge at the Héger boarding school, nor did she venture out into Bruxellois society, Charlotte being blessed with neither great beauty nor great wealth.

In 1843 Brussels, Charlotte would probably known of, but never have spoken to, the élite of the Belgian capital.

Leopold I (1790 – 1865), the first King of the Belgians, had been on the throne since 1831, though Belgian independence went unrecognised until 1839.

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Joachim Lelewel (1786 – 1861), Polish historian, biographer, polyglot and politician, was living in exile in Brussels (1833 – 1861) during the year Charlotte was teaching again in the Héger boarding school, but he earned a scanty livelihood by his writings.

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There is no record showing that Charlotte and Joachim ever met.

And when not silently pining for Professor Héger or teaching young ladies English, Charlotte would have been distracted by problems back home in Haworth.

Charlotte´s father Patrick Bronte had lost his sight (restored in 1846), while her brother Branwell had fallen into a rapid decline of drama, drunkenness and opiate delirium.

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One hundred and fifty three years later…

Of course many historic events had happened between Charlotte´s time in Brussels (January 1843 – January 1844) and my own time there (5 – 12 November 1996).

Many people had lived and died, come and gone in Brussels:

The aforementioned Leopold I and Joachim Lelewel were long dead, as were the entire Bronte family and the operators of the Héger boarding school.

Brussels has seen the likes of:

  • French politician/philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 – 1865), the world´s first self-declared anarchist, in exile here (1858 – 1862).
  • Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (aka Multatuli – Latin: I have suffered much.) completed his masterpiece Max Havelaar here in 1859.
  • French writer Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) completed Les Miserables here in 1851.
  • French poets Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)
  • French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917)
  • French poets Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) and Louis Blanc (1811 – 1882)
  • French General Georges Boulanger (1837 – 1891) and Argentinian General / 1st Peruvian President José de San Martin (1824 – 1830)
  • French writer Alexandre Dumas Sr. (1802 -1870)
  • German philosophers Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895) wrote The Communist Manifesto here.
  • Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
  • George Washington (1871 – 1946), the inventor and first commercial producer of instant coffee, grew up in Brussels.
  • Nobel Prize winners Jules Bordet (1870 – 1961)(Medicine, 1919), Ilye Prigogine (1917 – 2003)(Chemistry, 1977), Francois Englert (Physics, 2013) and Henri La Fontaine (1854 – 1943)(Peace, 1913)
  • Painters Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525 – 1569) and René Magritte (1898 – 1967)
  • Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536)
  • Graphic designer M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972)
  • Architects Victor Horta (1861 – 1947) and Jan van Ruysbroeck (aka Jan van der Berghe) would transform the Brussels urban landscape.
  • Novelist Emma Orczy (1865 – 1947) grew up here.
  • Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha (1908 – 1985) worked as a secretary at the Albanian consulate (1934 – 1936).
  • Rockers Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen), Plastic Bertrand, Brain Molko (Placebo) and Vini Reilly (The Duratti Column / Morrissey)
  • Régine Zylberberg, pioneer of the modern nightclub
  • Writer Hendrik Conscience (1812 – 1883)
  • Mathematician Jacques Tits (born 1930)
  • Andreas Vesalius (1514 – 1564), author of the first complete textbook on human anatomy, On the Workings of the Human Body
  • Actors Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (born 1960)(“the muscles from Brussels”)
  • Chansonnier Jacques Brel (1933 – 1978)
  • Just to name a few…these would “pitch their tents” within Brussels.

1993 was a dramatic year in respect to the Belgian monarchy:

The 5th King of the Belgians, Baudouin, died on 31 July.

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Within hours the Royal Palace gates and enclosure were covered with flowers that people brought spontaneously.

Baudouin had become King of the Belgians when his father Leopold III, surrounded by controversy, abdicated the throne in favour of his son.

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(Leopold III was unpopular because he married an English-born Belgian commoner after Baudoin´s mother had been killed in a car crash, and because he had surrendered Belgium to the Nazis when they invaded in 1940.

Many Belgians questioned Leopold´s loyalties and though he was exonerated of treason after WW2 it was felt by many that he no longer deserved the throne.)

The King and Queen had no children.

During Baudouin´s reign the Belgian Congo became independent.

At the last ceremonial inspection of the Force Publique, the royal sabre of the King was stolen during the parade.

The famous picture travelled the world newspapers.

The next day the King attended the official reception.

His speech received a blistering public response from the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.

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This duality of humiliation of the King became the symbol of the independence of the Congo.

In 1990 Baudouin refused to sign into law a bill permitting abortion.

Due to his religious convictions…

(As well, all of the Queen´s five pregnancies had ended in premature miscarriages.)

…Baudouin asked the Belgian government to declare him temporarily unable to reign so that he could avoid signing the measure.

The Belgian government compiled with his request, because, according to the provisions of the Belgian constitution, in the event that the King is temporarily unable to reign, the government fulfills the role of the Head of State.

All members of the government signed the bill on 4 April 1990.

The next day the government declared that Badouin was capable of reigning again.

His successor Albert II assumed the throne on 9 August and would abdicate the throne in favour of his son Philippe in 2013.

Albert II of Belgium.jpg

Brussels, Belgium, 7 November 1996

“Zoé”, a former girlfriend (of the year previous) with whom I “pitched my tent” during my Brussels stay, had been one of the 500,000 people who came to pay their respects and to view Baudouin´s body lying in state at the Royal Palace, waiting in line for hours in sweltering heat to see their King one last time.

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When I visited Brussels in November 1996, Belgium still felt like a country still in deep mourning.

The souvenir shops were still selling postcards of Baudoin as well as postcards of Albert II.

(Ironically I would see another spontaneous bringing of flowers in memorium when the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was announced while I was back in Brussels the following year.)

Zoé, like Charlotte Bronte, also lacked spectacular wealth and beauty.

So they also shared a loneliness they were both desperate to alleviate.

Your humble blogger too lacked great wealth or looks…

(That hasn´t changed!)

…but I had been accustomed to a life of solitude since I had begun travelling five years previously (hitching around North America, walking in Canada), so as much as I too had my moments of isolated loneliness this isolation no longer frightened me.

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Zoé was terrified of isolation.

Escaping from Zoé´s side was more difficult than accomplishing any one of the Twelve Labours of Heracles!

Zoé had to have noise always about her and listened to the radio or watched TV constantly.

At the time of her life I visited her, Zoé was very découragé with everything: her apartment, her job prospects, her family…

During our year apart I had changed.

I was no longer the last year´s man she had known.

Thursday 7 November was a dark and dismal rainy day in Brussels so we spent most of the day in her apartment.

The apartment, belonging to her father, was by no means a cure for the blues…

It was dirty, dingy, infested by slugs(!), peeling paint, clutter and unidentifiable powerfully unpleasant odours.

Zoé would have liked to live elsewhere but without employment she was dependent upon her father´s assistance.

I did not wish to add to her financial burdens once my savings ran out and finding employment as a teacher didn´t pan out.

I met her father that day and was shocked to see the contrast between them.

“Francois”, 65, was tall (by Belgian standards), stylish, debonair, cultured, and, though I never discovered what his source of income was, able to maintain two mistresses.

Zoé´s mother was never a topic of discussion.

I felt I was in a world alien to my experience.

What kind of morality or conscience guided Francois?

What kind of woman was attracted to someone like Francois?

Had he no compassion for these women, or was that limited to the chase rather than the capture?

Were these women as desperate and hungry for affection as Zoé was?

Could Francois´ womanizing have something to do with the woman Zoé was?

I was no psychologist nor an expert in women.

Zoé had heard of open invitations to become spectators for RTL TVI Station 15´s talk show “Balle Centrale”(?) that evening.

(Perhaps today´s “De quoi je me mêle”?)

The station originated in Luxembourg but is now based in Belgium.

Zoé drove us through the driving rain to the studios to watch journalists, sports figures, singers, actresses and comedians strut their stuff.

My rusty French and the programme´s Belgian accent and vocabulary left me feeling somewhat diminished, while a comedian enraged me with his comments that there was no difference between Canada and the US!!

Zoé had already introduced me to Belgian comedy:

I particularly enjoyed Les Snuls (1989 -1983).

Their humour was mostly inspired by self-mockery and nonsense, much like the British comedy troupe Monty Python or Canada´s Royal Canadian Air Farce, and hijacking national symbols of Belgium (moules-frites, Manneken Pis, Tintin, beer, chocolate, sprouts…).

This quintet of comedy amused me, but also made me consider the similarities between Canada and Belgium.

In the 15 August 1912 Revue de Belgique, Walloon socialist politician Jules Destrée wrote his famous and notorious “Letter to the King on the separation of Wallonia and Flanders”:

“In Belgium there are Walloons and Flemings.  There are no Belgians.”

There remain moments where I have wondered:

In Canada there are Anglophones and Francophones, English Canada and Québec.

Are there Canadians?

Flag of Canada

Perhaps had I not grown up Anglo in Québec I might be like 90% of Canadians who are strictly unilingual.

Flag of Quebec

Above: Flag of Québec

Perhaps I might feel either Anglo or Franco.

In the merging of two into one, can the separate identity of both be maintained?

Should it be?

And then I thought of my time with Zoé since we had been reunited.

So desperate to get me into her world and hold me within…

I had not come to Europe to lose my identity, but rather to discover it by comparison.

In thinking of my identity, both personal and national, I thought much on the music of Montréal Anglo Leonard Cohen.

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Above: Leonard Cohen, 1988

As Zoé slumbered beside me, sleep denied its comfort and I listened to the whispering rain fall outside the window.

And in the jukebox of my mind, from his lonely wooden Tower of Song, Leonard quietly and mournfully reminded me that…

“The rain falls down on the works of last year´s man…”

Above: The flag of Belgium

 

Canada Slim and the Days Confused

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 19 December 2016

Time changes a place.

A place changes a person.

I think back to the little town of Lachute, Quebec, Canada, where I went to high school.

Lachute QC.JPG

Many of the people I remember and much of what I knew is gone.

“Progress” has arrived in the form of shopping malls and fast food eateries that would have been unimaginable back in my days of yore.

Change is inevitable and what I knew as Home can never be returned to.

Consider another town: Haworth, West Yorkshire, England.

In the days of the Bronte sisters (1816 – 1855), Haworth was truly a toxic place and the death toll as regular as clockwork.

Above: Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, painted by their brother Branwell (1834)

Haworth´s final resting place was also the cause of its necessity.

For the population of Haworth the wetness of their graveyard created huge problems.

The Haworth graveyard, drenched by rain running off the slopes, created a peaty bog or swamp.

Its cold, oxygen-free, clammy substance, akin to an American tar pit, is peculiarly preservative of the dead bodies it contains, but Haworth´s preservation of its dead destroyed the living.

It was estimated by the 1840s that 40,000+ corpses had been deposited in the graveyard, which had no drainage other than the run-off via the graves into the springs which fed the water pumps into the village – including the micro brewery Black Bull Pub.

One drank the dead in the Bull.

Haworth produced corpses as efficiently as the American Deep South produced cotton.

Haworth was the necropolis of northwest England.

(John Sutherland, The Brontesaurus)

And the Brontes lived and wrote and perished in this nexus of death.

Now fast forward to the 21st century.

In the small Yorkshire village of Haworth, where the Bronte sisters lived quietly with their clergyman father while penning some of the greatest novels in the English language, there are road signs in Japanese.

Walk down the stone-cobbled main street, which looks much as it did two centuries ago (minus the blood-stained phlegm of those with TB – which killed off Maria, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte) and you can buy Bronte biscuits and Bronte gingerbread, Bronte fleeces and Bronte flagstones (for your Bronte-themed driveway).

You might then want to take refreshment at the Villette Coffee House (Villette is the name of one of Charlotte Bronte´s novels.), before stoking up on Bronte tea towels – just impossible to get in Osaka.

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The Bronte Hairdressing Salon salvages some local pride by refusing to call itself Jane Hair (though at least two salons in neighbouring towns are guilty) and the Bronte Balti House is there for all your literary-themed curry needs.

(John Barlow, Everything but the Squeal)

Of English literary shrines, probably only Stratford upon Avon, (the birthplace of William Shakespeare, as well as where I met my wife), sees more visitors than the eight million who swarm annually into the village of Haworth (population: 6, 400), trudge up the hill from the train station, tramp the cobbles once trodden by the Bronte sisters, to pay their respects at the handsome parsonage where literary classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were penned.

The title page to the original publication of Jane Eyre, including Brontë's pseudonym "Currer Bell".

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The entire village is linked to Bronte tourism and overwhelms the visitor by the sheer amount of enterprises capitalising on the Bronte name.

But there are things apart from the Brontesaurus shadow that pique a visitor´s interest…

Haworth is twinned with Machu Picchu in Peru!

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Every November one can watch Scroggling the Holly, when bands and Morris dancers lead a procession of children in Victorian costume following the Holly Queen up the cobblestones to a crowning ceremony on the St. Michael and All Saints´ Church steps.

The Holly Queen unlocks the Church gates to invite the Spirit of Christmas into Haworth.

Father Christmas arrives bringing glad tidings.

Every September the Haworth Arts Festival combines local professional and semi-professional musicians, artists and performers.

Every year the village hosts a 1940s weekend where the locals and visitors don wartime attire for a host of nostalgic events.

The aforementioned Haworth railway station is part of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, an authentic preserved steam railway, which runs along a five-mile stretch of track between Keighley and Oxenhope, stopping at Haworth en route.

The restored stations are a delight, with sections of the line branded into the memory of those who saw the film The Railway Children shot here in 1970.

(Kind of fitting to speak now of The Railway Children, as the story follows the adventures of the Waterbury children who are forced to move with their mother from a luxurious villa in outer London to Three Chimneys, a house near a Yorkshire railway, because their father, who works at the Foreign Office, has been imprisoned as a result of being wrongly accused of selling state secrets to the Russians…)

The village and its station have also featured in Yanks (starring Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave), Pink Floyd´s The Wall (starring Bob Geldof), Wild Child (starring Emma Roberts) and a number of BBC dramas.

I wonder if the Brontes would recognise the Haworth they once knew.

I suspect not.

If their biographers have described the Bronte family´s characters correctly, I have a feeling they would have loathed what Haworth has become and what was done in their name.

But what of the Brussels Charlotte once knew?

Flag of Brussels

Above: The flag of Brussels

The Brussels I later experienced?

Of all that I saw and felt during my time in Brussels would she have recognised the place, the feelings?

As mentioned in an earlier blog (That Which Survives 2a: Teachers´ Travels – Welcome), Charlotte travelled to Brussels with her sister Emily.

They learned languages at the Héger Pensionnat (boarding school) and earned board and tuition by teaching English (Charlotte) and music (Emily).

The sisters´ time at the Pensionnat was cut short when their aunt Elisabeth Branwell died of uterine cancer in October 1842.

Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the Pensionnat Héger, but her second stay in Belguim was not a happy one.

Charlotte became lonely and homesick and fell in love with Constantin Héger, a married man.

Charlotte was deeply affected by the events that transpired (and didn´t transpire) during her time in Brussels and these events would inspire her first novel The Professor and her last novel Villette.

The Professor 1857.jpg

I too was deeply affected by the events that transpired (and didn´t transpire) during my time in Brussels and they are what inspire this blog.

If The Professor and Villette are as autobiographical as is often suggested, Charlotte possibly travelled from Haworth via train to London, then by boat to Oostende, followed by a coach to Brussels.

I, a child of the late 20th century, flew from Montréal to Paris, then a bus to Brussels, but as fate would have it I would later reach England in the reverse manner Charlotte may have left it (Oostende – Margate – London – north).

“Reader, perhaps you were never in Belgium? 

Perhaps you don´t know the physiognomy of the country? 

You have not its lineaments defined upon your memory as I have them on mine?…

…Belgium!

Above: The flag of Belgium

Name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce.

Belgium!…

…It stirs my world of the past like a summons to resurrection.

The graves unclose, the dead are raised.

Thoughts, feelings, memories that slept are seen by me ascending from the clods, haloed most of them…”

(Charlotte Bronte, The Professor)

Rarely boastful, Belgium has in fact plenty to fascinate the visitor.

Everywhere there are wonderful bars and cafés where Belgians feel at home.

You´ll rapidly feel the same.

Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday 6 November 1996

I had left myself in the quite capable hands of “Zoé Lamoureux”, whom I had first met at the Ottawa International Hostel the previous year.

Zoé was a lady half my height and twice my breadth, yet I was drawn to her by the blend of her deepfelt compassion and incredible energy.

She shared with me a weakness of character by which we possessed inadequate amounts of self-confidence, of belief in our individual selves, yet together back in Ottawa we bolstered one another bringing two incomplete halves together to form a whole.

As I had been her guide to a life Canadian, Zoé was determined to be my companion in an exploration of a life Belgian.

Zoé took me to see the captivating facades of the Hotel de Ville and the guildhalls that encircle the Grand Place, which, much like love itself, is reached only after navigating a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled lanes and alleys deep in the heart of the Lower Town.

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Above: Grand Place, with the Hotel de Ville on the left, Brussels

Arriving, one is awestruck by the sheer extravagance of the place…gilded guilds, scrolled gables, dainty delicate sculptures too fragile to contemplate by the droves of tourists this square attracts, leaving mere metres for a paltry flower market which is a mere whisper, a pale reflection of the sprawling commerce that once dominated here.

Charlotte would have been witness to covered markets bursting with bread and meat and cloth.

These cobblestones have witnessed dukes assuming their civic and political duties mingling with the masses they felt little empathy for.

These silent stones have seen the spectacle of tournaments, the proclamation of decrees and pronouncements and the finality of justice meted out with public executions drawing large excited crowds.

These selfsame stones have watched the birth of the first socialist party in Belgium, floods of refugees, war casualities both military and civilian, and every two years. in even numbered years, an enormous flower market is set up made from a million colourful begonias.

Above: The flower carpet, Grand Place, Brussels (2008)

These stones have tasted the spilled blood of the holy martyrs of the religious wars of the 16th century, have felt the scars of unholy war in the Belgian quest for liberty against the French, the Dutch, the Germans.

This square once was akin to the modern day devastation that now is Aleppo…total war, merciless bombardment, so much destruction, so little remaining, so few surviving.

Of the square´s medieval buildings that once stood here, only parts of the Hotel de Ville and a pair of guildhouses survive.

Yet UNESCO recognizes both its beauty and its history naming the Grand Place a World Heritage Site in 1998.

In 1695, a 36-hour French artillery bombardment almost razed Brussels to the ground.

The commander of the French artillery gloated:

“I have never yet seen such a great fire nor so much desolation.”

Yet Brussels rebuilds, again and again and again.

My first day on Belgian soil and I already began to see the contradictions that are the Bruxellois, the citizens of this city.

Beside the Hotel de Ville, on the south side of the square stands the arcaded Maison de l´ Etoile (Star House).

In its gallery, the exploits of Everard ´t Serclaes (1320 – 1388) are commemorated.

His monument, a statue on Charles Buls Street, just off the Grand Place, is said among the locals to bring luck and grant the wishes of all who touch it.

Above: Everard t´Serclaes monument, Brussels

Tourists touch Everard´s arm, because legend says that rubbing his arm will ensure one´s return to Brussels.

But the idea of rubbing Everard for luck strikes me as odd, for Everard was not particularly lucky.

On 5 December 1355, John III of Brabant died and Brabant was supposed to pass into succession to John´s daughter Johanna and her husband Wenceslaus.

Louis de Male, the Count of Flanders, violently disagreed and invaded Brabant and quickly seized Brussels.

On the night of 24 October 1356, Everard t´ Serclaes, Lord of Kruikenburg, scaled the city walls leading a group of Brabanters and drove the Flemish out of the city, enabling Joanna and Wenceslas to make a joyous entry into the city.

Time passed.

Alderman Everard, an “old” man (age 68), led the successful opposition to the selling of a section of Crown land to Sweder of Aboude, the Lord of Gaasbeek.

A group, led by Sweder´s bastard son, ambushed, beat and mutilated Everard on the road from Lennik to Brussels on 26 March 1388.

Everard died five days later as a result of his injuries from the attack.

Next door at the Maison du Cygne (Swan House), today a swanky restaurant, once stood a bar where Karl Marx regularly met up with Friedrich Engels during his exile in Belgium.

It was in this bar in February 1848 that Marx and Engels completed the Communist Manifesto.

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They were tossed out of Belgium as political undesirables the following month.

The first street on the left of rue Charles Buls is rue des Brasseurs and it was on this corner in 1873 that the French poet Paul Verlaine shot and wounded his fellow poet and lover Arthur Rimbaud, because Rimbaud had dashed from Paris to dissuade Verlaine from joining the Spanish Army.

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Above: Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896)

Verlaine would serve two years in prison for his passion.

In a way he had not anticipated, Rimbaud did prevent Verlaine from volunteering for the Spanish army.

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Above: Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891), age 17 (1872)

Following rue des Brasseurs to rue de la Violette and rue de l´ Etuve to the corner of rue du Chêne, the wanderer sees a site that, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris, is smaller than one first imagines.

The Manneken Pis is mini.

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I am certain that Charlotte would have been confused as to why such a big fuss is paid to such a small statue, a 61 cm tall pissing boy stuck up high on a wall, above a small fountain, enshrined and admired by millions of visitors every year.

The bronze statue was made in 1619 by Brussels sculptor Hieronimus Duquesnoy the Elder, intending the Manneken to embody the irreverent spirit of the city.

There are many tales and legends about this statue, some of which Charlotte might have heard but for reasons unknown never felt like sharing with her readers.

The statue is dressed in costume several times each week, according to a published schedule which is posted on railings around the fountain.

(I recall during my sojourn in Brussels seeing the wee fellow in a bright blue American Legion uniform.)

His entire wardrobe would make Ivanka Trump envious, as it consists of several hundred different costumes, ranging from Mickey Mouse to maharajah, many of which can be viewed in a permanent exhibition inside the Brussels City Museum (inside the Maison du Roi on the north side of the Grand Place square).

Above: The Museum of the City of Brussels, Maison du Roi, Grand Place, Brussels

The costumes are managed by the non-profit association The Friends of Manneken Pis, who review hundreds of designs submitted each year and select only a small number to be produced and displayed.

The Changing of the Costume on the Manneken Pis is a colourful ceremony, often accompanied by brass band music.

Many costumes represent the national dress of nations whose citizens come to Brussels as tourists.

Above: Manneken Pis in Judo attire, Brussels

Others are the uniforms of assorted trades, professions, associations and branches of the civil and military services.

Above: Manneken Pis dressed as an organ builder, Brussels (21 June 2009)

Above: Manneken Pis dressed as a sailor, Brussels

On occasion, the Manneken Pis is hooked up to a keg of beer.

Cups are filled up with the beer flowing from the statue…

(Perhaps the origin of the expression “This beer tastes like piss.” ?)

…and given out to passers-by.

I think of the legends surrounding the Manneken Pis that Charlotte might have heard…

In 1142, the troops of two-year-old Duke Godfrey III of Leuven were battling against the forces of the Berthouts, the Lords of Grimbergen, in Neder-over-Heembeek.

The troops put Godfrey in a basket and hung the basket in a tree to encourage them.

From there, the infant lord urinated on the Berthout troops, who eventually lost the battle.

In the 14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power.

The city held its ground for some time, so the attackers conceived of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls.

Little boy Julianske happened to be spying on them as they were preparing.

Julianske urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.

Another story tells of a wealthy merchant who, during a visit to the city with his family, had his beloved young son go missing.

The merchant hastily formed a search party that scoured all corners of the city until the boy was found happily urinating in a small garden.

The merchant, as a gift of gratitude to the locals who helped out during the search, had the Manneken Pis built.

The Manneken Pis has been stolen seven times.

In 1817 a French ex-convict swiped the statue before breaking it into pieces.

The thief and the smashed Manneken were apprehended, the thief publicly branded on the Grand Place and sentenced to a life of hard labour, while the fragments of the Manneken were used to create the mould in which the present day Manneken was cast.

The last time the statue was stolen was January 1963 by students of the Antwerp student association “De Wikings” of the Sint Ignatius Handelshogeschool, now part of Antwerp University, who “hijacked” Manneken Pis for five days before handing it over to the Antwerp authorities.

The local and international press covered the story, contributing to the students´ collection of funds donated to two orphanges.

Zoé introduced me to the glory of Belgian beer, along with a steaming plate of mussels and fries, at the Orta Restaurant on the rue des Buchers, but it had not been an easy decision.

All along the compact alley, tourists and locals thread their way between row upon row of tables to left and right, while touters cajole and flatter the passers-by, simultaneously hurling evil stares and epithets at their nearest rivals.

Again contradiction abounds…

The pedestrian sees the touter´s desire to please, but the more successful the touter, the more unpleasant he becomes, as a prickly pride prods him to strut like a peacock and mock the less successful.

Belgian beer tastes divine.

Temperance will never gain a foothold in Belgium.

And even tee-totalling in the name of religion is an ineffective argument, as Belgians claim that St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers, told the faithful that drinking massive amounts of beer would ward off the Plague.

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Above: St. Arnold (1040 – 1087)

It was thought that the Plague was spread through consuming unboiled water, so drinking beer was safer.

So why boil water when you have been encouraged by a saint to knock back a few?

This must be solid advice, because so far I have not caught the Plague.

Charlotte might have disapproved, but I sense Emily might have enjoyed the scene and would have wished Anne to witness it.

Zoé had known of my fondness for comic books so our next stop was the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinéé (the Belgian Centre of the Comic Strip).

Above: Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée

Most of the displays are labelled in French and Flemish, but a free and very thorough guidebook is available in English (possibly other languages as well).

The Centre traces the development of the Belgian comic strip from its beginnings in the 1920s up until modern times.

What began as art primarily aimed at children has now matured to very adult trends and themes.

The greatest cartoonists appear: Georges Remi (aka Hergé), Jijé, Edgar Pierre Jacobs…

And a childhood growing up in Québec is recaptured by cartoon characters instantly remembered: Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke, the Smurfs, Gaston Lagaffe, Spirou, Quick and Flupke.

Above: Asterix,  by Hergé

Above: The shadow of Lucky Luke, Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée

Above: Papa Smurf, by Peyo

Above: Gaston Lagaffe, by André Franquin

As a boy I instantly identified with Tintin – his energy, his ambition, his curiosity, his eagerness to help others – and I imagined that I would evolve into an older version of the boy journalist.

Tintin is standing in a group amongst the main characters of the comics series.

Above:(left to right) Professor Calculus, Captain Haddock, Snowy, Thompson and Thomson, Bianca Castafiore

I too would don an orange spacesuit and fly to the moon in a red and white checkerboard coloured rocket ship, accompanied by a white dog named Snowy (Mi-Loup -“half wolf”- in French).

Wearing space suits, Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock are exploring the surface of the moon, with their rocket ship in the background.

I too would one day sail the seven seas with a bearded drunk who roundly crushed his enemies calling them “Goths, barbarians, Visigoths”.

But, blistering barnacles…

I never imagined that fate would smile on me playfully transforming me into a taller version of Professor Calculus!

I am a rarely photographed man but I will always treasure Zoé´s photograph of me posing besides the hats and canes of the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson.

Then Zoé introduced me to Brussels´ holiest of holies, the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Gudula the Charitable.

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Above: Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, Brussels

Twin towers of Gothic white stone, fancy doors, statues of the Apostles and the Three Wise Men…

(The latter´s presence in Brussels might explain why three wise men can´t be found in Washington?)

…a massive oak pulpit, marvelous blue background stained glass windows with the green of hope and the yellow of eternal glory, the mausoleums of dukes and archdukes, the Drahmal Cross (a piece of the real deal?)

And here too contradictions abound…

In the Reformation, Protestants destroyed the interior of churches because they attempted to communicate the glory of God to the masses, (many of whom could not read, thus requiring symbolism).

This has always baffled me: how is destruction giving praise to God, the Creator of life and beauty?

And the veneration of saints has always confused me.

Take Gudula of the Abbey of Mauberge.

Granted she sounds like she was a pretty decent woman with many works of charity.

Should this woman´s accomplishments suffice for her to gain recognition and the veneration of a saint?

Why does the Church see the need to enshrine a good person in legends that can never be proved?

A legend says that Gudula went to church before cockcrow…

(Someone has to wake the roosters?)

…and the Devil, wishing for Gudula to stray from the path of righteousness, extinguished her lantern candle.

Gudula.jpg

God instantly rekindles the candle.

Umm…so?

And why is her statue shown with a lizard´s tail coming from the back of her robe?

I am saddened that I never got to see the falcons.

At the end of the 90s, Brussels ornithologists (bird brains?) discovered a couple of peregrine falcons hibernating on the top of the church towers.

Above: Peregrine falcons, painted by John Gould

So, Man being the meddler he is…

In 2001, ornithologists of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) installed a laying nest on the cathedral to encourage nest building.

The nest was never used.

But in the spring of 2004, a pair of falcons nested on a balcony on top of the Cathedral´s north tower.

At the beginning of March 2004, the female falcon laid three eggs.

By the end of May the three chicks were performing acrobatic feats on the Cathedral´s gargoyles.

I wonder whether falcons still do.

Images of Disney´s Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) holding a baby bird in hand encouraging it to fly spring to mind…

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Above: Poster for the Disney film (1996)

Back home, veneration of the divine is replaced by veneration of the divine in one another.

Endless staring contest with Zoé´s cat Fleur who remained determined not to like me.

Fade to black…

To be continued…

Sources: Wikipedia / Rough Guides / John Sutherland: The Brontesaurus – An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Charlotte Bronte / Charlotte Bronte, The Professor

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Canada Slim and the Teacher’s Travels

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 December 2016

They are beloved by everyone from misunderstood teens and fools for love to the serious-minded middle-aged and those of a critical bent.

Now the Bronte sisters are taking centre stage again as the bicentary of Charlotte´s birth (born 21 April 1814) brings a host of events at their Yorkshire home and elsewhere…

Above: Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, painted by their brother Branwell, 1834.

So why exactly do the Bronte sisters, these rural Curate´s daughters with only a handful of novels between them, continue to fascinate us?

From the moment Jane Eyre was published in 1847, the Bronte sisters have exerted an almost hynotic pull.

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Above: Poster for Jane Eyre (2011)

Where other literary sensations flash bright then fade to earth, the Brontes endure, their stories adapted again and again for both stage and screen.

“I think a lot of it is that we´re fascinated by the idea that these women living in a cold, cramped house in Yorkshire wrote about the most intense human experiences.

There´s something very appealing about the idea that they pushed back against the limits of their world.

There are lots of neater, better planned books, but the Brontes novels work because they´re open-ended.

We don´t know what Anne, Emily and Charlotte really wanted us to think and that means we take away something new each time….

It´s not just women who respond to their work.

I know lots of men who love the Brontes.

Yet whoever is reading them, they will always have one sister they think of as “theirs” definitely.

You are either Charlotte, Emily or Anne and you can tell a lot by which book someone claims as their own….

And that´s how it should be.

Your passions are your own.“(Samantha Ellis, author / playwright)

(Observer, 27 March 2016)

My favourite sister of the Brontes is Anne, for she seems to rally more against her situation and seems more determined to speak and act her mind than her siblings.

But what follows here is not her story, but rather Charlotte´s.

Charlotte´s story is herein combined with my own, for there are parallels which I cannot ignore.

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Above: Charlotte Bronte, 1850

The Chronicles of Charlotte (1)

In 1831, 14-year-old Charlotte was enrolled at Miss Wooler´s school in Roe Head.

Curate Patrick could have sent his daughter to a less costly school in Keighley nearer Haworth, but the Wooler sisters had a good reputation.

Patrick´s choice of school was excellent.

Charlotte was happy there and studied well, making many lifelong friends.

Charlotte left Roe Head in 1832, but three years later, Miss Wooler offered Charlotte a position as her assistant.

Charlotte taught and wrote about her students without much sympathy.

Through her father´s influence and her own intellectual curiosity, Charlotte was able to benefit from an education that placed her among knowledgeable people, but her options remained modest.

The Bronte family´s finances did not flourish, so Charlotte and Anne could not hesitate in finding work.

From April 1839 to December 1841 the two sisters held several posts as governesses.

Not staying long with each family, their employment would last for some months or for a single season.

From May to July 1839 Charlotte was employed by the Sidgwick family at their summer residence, Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale.

One of her charges was John Benson Sidgwick (1835 – 1927), an unruly child who on one occasion threw a Bible at Charlotte, which incident inspired part of the opening chapter of Jane Eyre in which John Reed throws a book at the young Jane.

Charlotte had an idea that would place all the advantages on her side.

On advice from her father and friends, Charlotte thought that she and her sisters had the intellectual capacity to create a school in the parsonage where their Sunday school classes took place.

It was agreed to offer future pupils the opportunity of correctly learning modern languages.

Preparation was needed and was felt should be done abroad.

Among the possibilities Paris and Lille were considered, but were rejected due to aversion to the French as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had not been forgotten by the Tory spirited and deeply conservative girls.

On the recommendation of Pastor Jenkins of the Episcopat of Brussels, Belgium was chosen, where the girls could also study German and music.

Aunt Branwell provided the funds for the Brussels project.

Charlotte was 26, Emily was 22, when they travelled to Brussels in February 1842 to enrol at the boarding school run by Constantin Héger (1809 – 1896) and his wife Claire (1804 – 1887).

In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music….

The Chronicles of Canada Slim (1)

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Like the Bronte sisters, Brussels had not been my first thought.

I had travelled extensively in both Canada and the States, but I had not yet had the pleasure nor privilege to visit Europe.

During my North American travels I had learned that my biological mother was American, her father English and her mother Irish, which knowledge persuaded me that finding my grandparents´ documents would allow me to work in Britain for a year through my grandfather and claim Irish / EU citizenship through my grandmother.

I had dreamed of Paris since I was a boy.

Tour Eiffel Wikimedia Commons (cropped).jpg

I had pictures of Paris on my walls and it was those pictures that compelled me to choose Québec City (as old Europe – looking as a Canadian city can get) when it came time to pursue further education beyond high school.

Château Frontenac 02.jpg

I bought an open-ended round-trip charter ticket, valid for a year, from Montréal to Paris.

Prior to my departure on Saturday 2 November 1996, I worked various jobs to finance my travels, the last being telemarketing for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

National Arts Centre 2010.JPG

Whilst there an Oxonian co-worker Jonathan suggested to me that should I ever find myself in Oxford that he would supply me with both a place to sleep and employment.

Prior to 11 September 1996, I was resident and part-time employee at the Ottawa International Hostel and though I would never win any prizes for my looks I found that hostels often led to romance.

Nicholas Street Gaol, Ottawa, Canada - 20050218.jpg

I met my ex-fiancée at a hostel in St. Louis.

I would later meet my wife at a hostel in Stratford upon Avon.

I met other girlfriends through the Ottawa, Kingston and Orillia hostels.

My last romantic hostel hook-up prior to Europe was with a Belgian girl whom we shall call “Zoé”.

Zoé was an extremely sensitive and intelligent Belgian girl, bilingual in both Flemish and French, who offered me bed and board and advice to finding work in Brussels.

Driven by the desire to first visit Paris, it wasn´t until 2200 hours on 5 November 1996 that I finally arrived in Brussels.

Though a year had passed since I had last seen Zoé back in Ottawa, our relationship had been intensely passionate and we had fond memories of the experience.

We were foolishly confident that upon my arrival in Brussels we could resume where we had left off and that I could build a new life in Brussels, perhaps never having to use the return-home portion of my flight ticket.

I imagined that I had the intellectual capacity and the courage to find work as an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Brussels.

We had both envisioned in our correspondence that love would conquer all difficulties and that problems were mere obstacles to be circumvented with relative ease.

We were wrong….

The Chronicles of Charlotte (2)

Brussels would dramatically change Charlotte´s life, where she would be forced to depart from the fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria that she had created with her siblings using toy soldiers as the role players and face the harsh reality of the real world where one´s fondest wishes are not always realisable.

Charlotte was short of stature and red of face with many teeth gone.

(It is not that Charlotte did not look after her teeth but rather she like many folks of the 19th century had a tendency to take “the blue pill”.

“Blue pills” were prescribed for every ailment: minor and major, from syphilis to constipation.

Their active ingredient was: mercury.

There was, 19th century Britain and America, an epidemic of mercury poisoning as a result of this popular medication.

The long-term, overdose symptoms were depression, insomnia and fits of mental instability…and loose teeth.)

Charlotte also suffered from myopia (severe short-sightedness) and needed to wear spectacles otherwise she was bat-blind without them, but she didn´t like to be seen with her visual aids on.

Charlotte had folding tortoiseshell lorgnettes – easily put on and taken off – when she felt forced to use them.

And one of the features of the school environment was that spectacles were not considered disfiguring there, but rather indications of mental ability and academic distinction.

So in the classroom, Charlotte worn her glasses with pride.

Charlotte could not attract lines of male suitors, for nature and circumstance had left her somewhat ill-favoured in appearance and being the poor daughter of a poor Curate  she had no dowry to compensate for whatever abundance of beauty she lacked.

Constantin was the husband of the proprietress Claire of the Héger boarding school in Rue Isabelle, which catered for 100 girls in Brussels.

Charlotte and Emily had gone there, on very generous terms, to learn French and gain teaching experience.

Constantin Héger was born in Brussels in 1809 and moved to Paris in 1825 in search of employment.

For a period Héger worked as a legal secretary, but because of a shortage of funds he was unable to pursue a legal career himself.

In 1829, Constantin returned to Brussels, where he became a teacher of French and mathematics at the Athénée Royale.

In 1830, Constantin married his first wife, Marie-Josephine Noyer.

When the Belgian Revolution broke out in Brussels, Constantin fought on the barricades from 23 to 27 September 1830 on the side of the Belgian nationalists against the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Above: Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, Wappers (1834)

In September 1833, Marie-Josephine died during a cholera epidemic.

Their son, Gustave, died in June 1834, only nine months old.

Constantin was appointed a teacher of languages, mathematics, geography and Belgian history at the veterinary college in Rue Terarken, while continuing to teach at the Athénée when it relocated to Rue des Douze Apôtres in 1839.

Constantin met Claire Parent, the directoress of the neighbouring girls´ school in Rue Isabelle, where he began teaching.

Claire and Constantin married in 1836 and would have six children.

Constantin was 33 years old when the Brontes arrived.

He was eight years younger than Claire and six years older than Charlotte.

According to Frederika Macdonald, another English Protestant pupil of the Hégers, Claire was a much more attractive woman than Charlotte in so far as her personal appearance was concerned.

According to Miss Wheelwright, another former pupil, Constantin had the intellect of a genius.

Constantin was passionate about his audiotorium, demanding many lectures, perspectives and structured analyses from his students.

He was a good looking man with masculine features, bushy hair, very black whiskers and wore an excited expression while sounding forth on great authors about whom he admired.

Charlotte´s instruction, especially Constantin´s lessons, were very much appreciated by Charlotte.

The Bronte sisters showed exceptional intelligence, but, unlike Charlotte, Emily didn´t like her teachers and was somewhat rebellious.

Emily learned German and to play the piano with natural brilliance and very quickly the Bronte sisters were writing literary and philosophical essays at an advanced level of French.

After six months of study Claire suggested the sisters stay at the boarding school free of charge in return for giving lessons.

After much hesitation, the sisters accepted.

Neither felt much attachment to their students.

The death of Aunt Branwell in October 1842 forced the sisters to return once more to Haworth.

Nevertheless the sisters were each asked to return to Brussels as they were regarded as competent and needed.

They were each offered teaching posts in the boarding school, but Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843.

Charlotte´s second stay was not a happy one.

Charlotte was lonely, homesick and deeply infatuated with Constantin…

The Chronicles of Canada Slim (2)

Brussels is a city with an undeserved reputation.

It is far more than just a dull, faceless centre of bureaucracy for the European Union.

Above: European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is a thriving, pulsing cosmopolitan premiere city, with highly modern architecture and many superb museums, yet maintaining in a state of pristine condition a well-preserved late 17th-century centre.

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Above: Grand Place, Brussels (City Hall on the left)

Restaurants seduce and the nightlife excites.

Brussels is raw, vital and irresistable and reminded me much of both Ottawa and Montréal, for its bilingualism (Ottawa) and its élan/style (Montréal).

Brussels, much like the EU over which it presides, is a divided, complicated community of communities.

Brussels has always been divided by classes – the rich live in the upper levels, the working class below (a kind of Upstairs Downstairs type city) – and linguistics: the Walloons (French-speaking) and the Flemish (Dutch-speaking).

Add to this a patchwork of people from all parts of the known world – the EU civil servants, the diplomats, and the immigrants…

Above: The official languages of the European Parliament

All living distinct, separate existences yet like sentient shards of coloured glass, they create an ever-changing kaleidoscopic pattern to rival any stained window within any majestic cathedral.

Saints-Michel-et-Gudule Luc Viatour.jpg

Above: The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Giudula, Brussels

Brussels is a Wonderland with surprising contrasts around every corner – from shopping mall to bazaar, slums to sleek luxuries –  all captures the poetry of a populace uniquely its own.

Eurolines bus from Paris to Gare Bruxelles – Nord and Zoé waiting for me at the station.

Eurolines Bova. AB 2009-5, Minsk, Belarus. ЕВРОЛАЙНС, Минск, Беларусь.jpg

The embrace is warm and welcoming and we speed through the streets like a storm-tossed gust of wind, into her apartment and into her chambers.

Zoé is much like Brussels herself – rarely boastful, plenty to fascinate, every part wonderful, a feeling of…Home.

To be continued…

Flag of Brussels

Above: The flag of Brussels

Sources: Wikipedia / John Sutherland, The Brontesaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte

 

 

Wooden soldiers and little books

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 8 December 2016

Oh, what a lucky man I am!

As much as I complain at times about teaching there are also great moments that I also must share…

As regular readers of the gobbledygook I produce know, I have… along with Cambridge Certificate courses, business and technical English courses… conversation courses.

In one of the two conversation courses I teach, I ask my students to read literature and be prepared to speak about what they have read.

A number of weeks ago one of the ladies in this course told me she liked that I was introducing them to English language literary classics that they had not known existed.

I have exposed them to Ethan Frome and Tess of the d´Urbervilles, The Call of the Wild and Gulliver´s Travels, Madame Bovary and The Accidental Tourist…to name just a few.

Ethan Frome first edition cover.jpg

Tess.jpg

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Madame Bovary 1857 (hi-res).jpg

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And I have found an unexpected benefit to this activity…

I am discovering (or rediscovering) these literary works for myself.

Let us light a candle on 17 March in memory of a man whose humble efforts would end up transforming English literature and would also ignite the spark of women´s equality in England and throughout the English-speaking world.

Above: The life of Victorian women, 1840

Patrick Prunty was born in Loughbrickland, County Down, Ireland, on 17 March 1777 to a family of farm workers of modest means.

Above: Patrick Bronte, neé Prunty, 1860

Patrick´s mother was Roman Catholic and his father was a Protestant.

Patrick was brought up in his father´s faith.

Patrick was a bright young man and won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied divinity and history.

Above: St. John´s College, Cambridge, England, where Patrick studied

It is not quite known why Patrick decided to change his surname.

Perhaps he found his surname was too Irish.

Perhaps he wanted to distance himself from his brother, a fugitive for his involvement with the United Irishmen against the British occupation of Ireland.

Perhaps Patrick´s new surname choice was a sign of admiration for Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Bronte.

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Above: Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805)

On 10 August 1806 Patrick Bronte was ordained a priest of the Church of England, eventually becoming curate of the parish of Haworth in Yorkshire by 1820.

Above: Haworth Parsonage, 1861

Above: Bronte Parsonage Musuem

The village of Haworth did not have a sewage system and the water was contaminated by faeces and decomposing bodies from the nearby cemetery.

Food for most was scarce and deficient in vitamins.

Public hygiene was non-existent and lavoratories basic.

Patrick was also a poet, writer and polemicist, but his writing never took the world by storm, and he never became a great financial success as a curate either.

Patrick was also a husband and a father and it was to be his fate to survive, to outlive his entire family.

His daughters would create literature that would inspire millions of readers for centuries to come and would change the perception and the prospects of women forever.

Patrick met and married 29 year old Maria Branwell of Penzance in 1812.

Above: Maria Branwell Bronte

Maria came from a comfortable well-to-do family who owned a flourishing tea and grocery store.

(I am reminded of my own mother when I consider the life of Maria.)

Maria was a literate and pious woman, known for her lively spirit, joyfulness and tenderness, a very vivacious woman.

(Genevieve (Jenny) Kerr, neé Budd, would have found a kindred spirit in Maria had they had lived in the same parish at the same time.

My mother was also quite intelligent, lively, joyful, tender and vibrant.)

Maria (like my mother) died from uterine cancer, a particularly painful manner of suffering.

Maria died in 1821 having produced six children.

Maria, the eldest child, was born in 1814; Elizabeth was born in 1815; Charlotte in 1816; Patrick in 1817; Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820.

(My mother would also produce six children: Thomas in 1952, Valerie in 1954, Christopher in 1955, Cynthia in 1956, Kenneth in 1960 and your humble blogger in 1965.

Jenny died when I was four.)

Elizabeth Branwell, Maria´s older sister, arrived in 1821 after Maria´s death and remained to help Patrick with his children until her death in 1842.

Curate Patrick faced a troublesome challenge in arranging for the education of his children as his income was barely above poverty standards.

The Brontes had no significant connections to assist them and Patrick could not afford the fees needed for his children to attend well-established schools.

His only alternative was charity schools.

He was aware that some schools were better than others and that the truly horrid existed.

Patrick read the Leeds Intelligencer of 6 November 1823 which reported on two Yorkshire towns where pupils were found gnawed by rats and suffering from malnutrition so extreme that some of them had lost their sight.

But there had been no indication that the Reverend Carus Wilson´s Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge would not provide a good education and take good care of his daughters.

In 1824 the four eldest girls entered Cowan Bridge School.

In 1825 Maria and Elizabeth fell gravely ill and were removed from the School.

Maria had suffered hunger, cold and privation.

Charlotte described Maria as being very lively, very sensitive and very advanced in her reading.

Maria returned from Cowan Bridge with an advanced case of tuberculosis and died at the age of 11 on 6 May 1825.

Elizabeth, less vivacious and less advanced, suffered the same fate.

Elizabeth died, age 10, on 15 June 1825.

Charlotte and Emily were also withdrawn from the School.

The loss of her older sisters was a trauma that would be shown in Charlotte´s writing.

Charlotte blamed Cowan Bridge for her sisters´ deaths, citing the School´s poor medical care, the scanty and spoiled food, the lack of food and adequate clothing, the prevalence of typhus, the severe and arbitrary punishments and the harshness of its teachers.

In Jane Eyre, Cowan Bridge became Lowood, Maria the young Helen Burns, the cruel mistress Miss Andrews became Miss Scatherd and the tyrannical headmaster the Reverend Carus Wilson became Mr. Brocklehurst.

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Above: Poster for Jane Eyre film (2011)

The three surviving sisters and their brother Branwell were very close and during childhood developed their imaginations, first through oral storytelling and roleplaying in an intricate imaginary world they had created and later through collaborative writing of complex stories.

The children became interested in writing from an early age, which started as a game grew into a passion.

At the centre of the children´s creativity were twelve wooden soldiers which Patrick had given to Branwell in 1826.

Toy soldiers

These 12 soldiers fired the children´s imagination.

Dubbing the soldiers the Young Men and giving each soldier a name the children would lead them to the imaginary kingdom of Glass Town, the Empire of Angria and the North Pacific island continent of Gondal.

Above: Manuscript of Emily Bronte´s Gondal Poems

Their stories were written in “little books”, the size of a matchbox and bound with thread.

The pages were filled with close minute writing, in block letters without punctuation and richly embellished with illustrations, detailed maps, schemes, landscapes and building plans.

The books were made small so that the soldiers could read them.

What happened to the family Bronte after Cowan Bridge and how the three sisters would develop separately and together is the subject of the blogs that will follow.

Curate Patrick, an open, intelligent and generous man, bought all the books and toys the children asked for and accorded them great freedom and unconditional love.

Elizabeth Branwell taught the children arithmetic and the alphabet and gave them books and magazines and was also extremely dedicated and generously devoted her life to her nieces and nephew.

Due to the Brontes´ isolation, they would constitute by themselves their own separate literary group.

Their stories would become famous for their originality and passion.

Their fictional worlds were the product of their fertile imagination fed by reading, discussion and their love of literature.

Patrick would live until 1861 and die at the age of 84, but his four remaining children would die in 1848, 1849 and 1855 at ages 29, 30, 31 and 39.

Charlotte would be best known for Jane Eyre, Emily for Wuthering Heights and Anne for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

(Though they would be published under invented male names…)

The title page to the original publication of Jane Eyre, including Brontë's pseudonym "Currer Bell".

Houghton Lowell 1238.5 (A) - Wuthering Heights, 1847.jpg

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.jpg

Branwell would succumb to alcoholism.

Above: Patrick Branwell Bronte, self-portrait, 1840

All of Patrick´s children would deny him grandchildren and only Charlotte would marry, though dying one year later.

I cannot imagine how painful it must have been for Patrick to outlive his wife, his sister-in-law, his five daughters and his son.

But the legacy this son of farmers, this mere curate, would leave behind makes him worthy of remembrance.

Let us light a candle for Patrick.

Above: Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, painted by Branwell Bronte (1834)

Sources: Wikipedia

 

The Ministry of Truth 2084

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 7 December 2016

“Those princes who do great things have considered keeping their word of little account and have known how to beguile men´s minds by shrewdness and cunning.” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince)

Machiavelli Principe Cover Page.jpg

What is truth?

Above: Walter Seymour Allward´s Veritas (Truth) outside the Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Canada

What is fact?

There are moments when what I felt I knew as certainty proved to be not so sure.

“Politicians have always lied.

Does it matter if they leave the truth behind entirely?

Consider how far Donald Trump is estranged from fact.

Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpg

He inhabits a fantastical realm where President Barack Obama´s birth certificate was faked, the President founded ISIS, the Clintons are killers and the father of a Republican rival was with Lee Harvey Oswald before he shot President John F. Kennedy….

And Trump is not alone.

Members of Poland´s government asserted that a previous president who died in a plane crash was assassinated by Russia.

Turkish politicians claim that the perpetrators of the failed coup were acting on orders issued by the CIA.” (The Economist, 10 September 2016)

We may argue, as Tom Cruise did in A Few Good Men, that we deserve the truth.

A Few Good Men poster.jpg

Only to have those above us counter that we can´t handle the truth.

“That politicians sometimes peddle lies is not news….

That truth is falsified is not news….

What is news is that the truth is of secondary importance…that feelings, not facts, are what matter…

It doesn´t matter whether the story bears any relation to reality, so long as they fire up the recipients.” (The Economist, 10 September 2016)

4 April 2084, Ministry of Truth transcript of guided tour of facilities

O’Brien: Hello and welcome to the Ministry of Truth or MiniTrue.

Please follow me closely as it is easy to become lost in the 600 levels, 300 above ground and 300 below ground that make up the MiniTrue complex.

My true name is unimportant, but you may call me “O´Brien”.

It is our sworn duty here in the Ministry of Truth, or MiniTrue, to supply the citizens of Oceania with every conceivable kind of information, instruction or entertainment, regardless of whether it be a rock carving, a statue or a slogan, a lyrical poem or a biological treatise, a children´s spelling book or a Newspeak dictionary.

MiniTrue is the one and only reliable source for every newspaper, film, textbook, TV program, play and novel, and we tirelessly work to ensure that everything and anything with any political or ideological significance that reaches the public is 100% accurate and consistent with the principles of International English Socialism (or IngSoc).

Please let me demonstrate how we function on a daily basis.

Let us enter one of the cubicles here in the Records Department Branch.

Mr. Smith is responsible for editing and writing for the New York Times.

Mr. Smith? If you will…

Winston is seated in front of a speakwrite, into which he dictates the necessary changes or modifications required by speaking directly into the microphone in the centre of the console before him.

Winston receives on his monitor a list of the back issues of the New York Times that require modification to ensure that the record of the past corresponds with the reality of the present.

Past events have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories, so the past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.

The alteration of the past is necessary for two reasons:

  • The present becomes tolerable if there are no standards of comparison and contrast by which to examine the present.  Citizens must believe that today is a far better place than yesterday was and that life is gettting better and better every day.
  • There must be no doubt in a citizen´s mind of his need for the Party and no doubt in his mind that the Party is infallible.  If the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered.

Control of the past maintains the harmony of the present and the certainty of tomorrow.

Winston inputs the dates of the appropriate issues of the New York Times needing alteration.

The instructions Winston has already received on his monitor inform him what articles or news items which for one reason or another it is thought necessary to rectify.

In the walls of Winston´s cubicle are three slots:

On the left wall is the slot where Winston receives the material that requires alteration.

Winston uses the keyboard and monitor at his station to edit and examine the materials he must labour on.

When Winston is satisfied with the results of his efforts, he instructs his computer to both print a copy of his final draft while the vocal transcription of his work is automatically recorded.

In the middle wall, just below Winston´s microphone and monitor, is the slot where the altered material is deposited for examination before being stored into our historical data banks.

To Winston´s right the final of three wall slots, nicknamed a memory hole,  is for the disposal of the original materials requiring rectification which are devoured by flames erasing all memory of the original´s existence.

Next to Winston in the adjacent cubicle is Sandy.

Her job is to track down and delete from the media the names and images of people who the Party has deemed counterproductive to the needs of IngSoc (unpersons) and ensure that they never existed.

This Records Hall where Winston and Sandy work along with 50 other Party workers is only one subsection, a single cell within the huge bureaucracy of the Records Branch.

Beyond this cell on this floor and both above and below this level are swarms of other workers engaged in a multitude of jobs.

Here at MiniTrue there are huge printing shops and elaborately equipped studios, where photos are altered and skilled actors perform in honour of the Party.

Within MiniTrue are vast repositories where corrected documents are stored and huge hidden furnaces where original materials are destroyed.

And, of course, in the heart of the building lies the Directorate which coordinates the whole operations of MiniTrue and lays down the lines of policy which dictate what should be preserved, what should be altered and what should be obliterated out of memory and existence.

You, ummm Mr. Blair, Arthur, is it?

Arthur: How did MiniTrue come to be?

O´Brien: Much of our origins and the details that shaped the Party remain classified information, but what I am authorised to tell you is that our great leader Big Brother realised that democracy was dangerous for citizens to embrace, for individual thought and emotion, though useful for creative endeavours, was detrimental to the overall happiness of the citizenry.

Big Brother's face looms from giant telescreens in Victory Square

So it was decided that the policies enacted by the societies that existed before IngSoc were mostly invalid and required modification.

Big Brother realised that harmony within Oceania was only realisable when the emotions and thoughts of the populace were successfully manipulated.

Experiments prior to the Party´s ascension to power had been successful in showing that fear can drive people to act in ways desireable to the State.

If information was carefully selected and often repeated, and if efforts were taken to distract deep thought away from consideration of the  veracity of the information, then the common man, the proles, could be easily persuaded through their instinctive love of country.

For those with instincts to rise above irrational emotion and able to analyse and think beyond basic impulse, Big Brother realised that the way to control the intellectuals was to control the information they received.

Thus out of this necessity MiniTrue came into being.

Arthur: But, Mr. O´Brien, in the initial years of MiniTrue, wouldn´t this control of the independent thinker be difficult?

O´Brien: This is where the concept of doublethink came into play.

Mr. Smith, can you pull up for me a copy of The Guardian, dated 23 March 2016?

Now, watch, Arthur, how doublethink works in this example of a controversy that took place over a stone carving on the grounds of Tintagel Castle in England.

Now we all know how doublethink works, this power within each one of us to hold two contradictory beliefs in one´s mind simultaneously and accept both of them.

A MiniTrue worker knows memory must be altered.

He knows that this alteration plays tricks with reality.

But this alteration of reality has created a new truth.

This new truth becomes memory.

The old truth/memory is swept out of existence as if it had never been, by conscious effort and will to forget that which was once truth and reality.

Doublethink is the child of what was once called post truth.

Post truth in practice was quite simple…

Create a myth that appeals to the heart and a person´s best intentions, regardless of the facts and evidence that tell that person that the myth is a falsehood or untruth.

The person´s desire to want the myth to be true makes the myth a reality in that person´s heart and mind and naysaying facts and evidence to the contrary to be false because they are denied believability.

Post truth dictated that feelings were paramount over facts and reality an opinion that one felt to be true.

Doublethink took post truth and molded into the concept that if we eliminate comparison then we eliminate dissatisfaction and a need to question the validity of the reality our senses perceive.

By isolating the citizens within Oceania so they have nowhere to compare Oceania with and removing from them the ability to compare truthfully the past with the present and restricting them to only one source of information that is never contradictory, thus Oceania has achieved harmony.

Back in the Old Calendar Year 2016 AD (Age of Digital?), a group of 200 Cornish historians, unpersons, criticised plans by English Heritage (now part of MiniTrue of IngSoc) to turn Tintagel Castle into what they called a “fairytale theme park” based on the legend of King Arthur rather than highlighting its true past.

Upper mainland courtyard of Tintagel Castle, 2007.jpg

These unpersons, calling themselves the Cornwall Association of Local Historians, said they were appalled that the head of the wizard Merlin had already been carved into a rock face at the wind and wave battered site.

The CALH asked English Heritage to rethink other plans they had for Tintagel Castle, which included a larger-than-life sculpture partly inspired by King Arthur and a compass installation that would remind visitors of the Round Table.

In a statement the CALH said:

“We are appalled at what English Heritage is doing to Tintagel, one of Cornwall´s most historic sites. 

As an organisation of over 200 local Cornish historians, we view with alarm the plans to turn Tintagel into a fairytale theme park….

Focusing on the mythical fantasies that King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel guarantees the eclipsing of the real story of the site…

We accept that many people visit Tintagel because of the Arthurian legend, but it should not be the role of English Heritage to further the fantasy.

In fact, it should be the function of EH to help visitors learn the true history of this Cornish place, to begin to better understand what has gone before and to preserve that heritage.

The idea of carving even a small face of a mythical druid into one of the stones of Stonehenge or adding an 8-foot statue of a legend to the scene would be beyond any historian´s imagination.

Stonehenge, Condado de Wiltshire, Inglaterra, 2014-08-12, DD 09.JPG

If English Heritage wants to combine history and fantasy it should hand the site over to Disney.

TWDC Logo.svg

This is a historical site for Cornwall and we urge EH to look elsewhere to increase revenues.

St Piran's Flag of Cornwall

Above: Cornish flag

Don´t tamper with Cornish history.” (Guardian, 23 March 2016)

So, Arthur, what do you think we should do about this article?

(Transcript ends…failure in range to record full conversation in all MiniTrue locations)

Memorandum from the Directorate of the Ministry of Truth, 6 December 2084:

guardian 28.03.2016 (OC) reporting controversy Tintagel doubleplusungood refs unpersons doubleplusungood thoughtcrime untruth unconcepts rectify all

Eric Arthur Blair unperson thoughtcrime rectify all refs

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

George O´Brien unperson thoughtcrime rectify all refs

Sources: Wikipedia / http://www.orwelltoday.com / The Economist, 10 September 2016 / The Guardian, 23 March 2016 / George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

1984first.jpg

 

 

 

 

Water Wars

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 6 December 2016

We Stand On Guard #1

Why does the United States invade a country?

Where to Invade Next poster.png

Historically, wars are fought over scarce resources, with religion or politics as convenient excuses or triggers for the commencement of hostilities.

So what does Canada possess in greater abundance than the United States?

(Besides being the 2nd biggest country in the world while the US is simply the 4th biggest?)

Fresh water.

Canada has 40% of the world´s total fresh water.

Now the idea of Canada and the United States going to war over water…

Unthinkable.

Right?

Well, let´s consider a few factors.

Historically, war between Canada and the United States wouldn´t be a novelty, for it has happened before.

Americans wanted to invade Canada during the US Revolution.

The siege of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a second British army, paving the way for the end of the American Revolutionary War

We fought one another in the War of 1812 (1812 – 1814).

War of 1812 Montage.jpg

America claims it was a war against the British and that they won.

But the British were mostly preoccupied with Napoleon on the European continent and so it was mostly Canadians who fought to protect their homes.

And a war where no real gain is made is not a victorious war.

Neither side gained as much as a single hectare of the other side´s territory.

Though in retrospect, both Canada and the United States have this war to thank for the strengthening of their own national identities.

Flag of Canada

It was the burning of Baltimore and Washington DC that resulted in the Star-Spangled Banner and the White House.

White House north and south sides.jpg

It was the defence of our land that forged the Canadian identity and the determination of maintaining our identity separate from the Americans.

So throughout both our histories US-Canada relations have not always been in agreement and Canada is quite fine with that.

We shared the same battlefields at times but not always.

We both fought in both World Wars, the Korean War and Afghanistan.

The US had other allies in Vietnam, in Iraq and other theatres of war it has chosen to involve itself in.

We were America´s steam valve for escaped slaves, Vietnam draft dodgers and unhappy political exiles.

Being separate from America, Canada has avoided civil war (though we have had rebellions), McCarthyism (though Communism did worry us from time to time), racial unrest (though our record is not unblemished), the banking crisis or a Wild West.

Canada is happy not to feel afraid of our neighbours foreign or domestic, despite not having anywhere near the military power the US possesses.

Education in Canada is not cheap, but certainly not as expensive as the American equivalent.

We have universal health care which we treasure and which works well for the most part.

We pride ourselves on our openness, our politeness, our multiculturalism.

We don´t hate America, but we remain vigilant and wary, but not to the point of paranoia.

We share many values, have signed many cooperative agreements, are members in many of the same international organisations.

But do Canadians completely trust America?

No.

For America has a history of maintaining its own self-interests paramount over any previous agreements with other nations it may have had.

So, could Canada find itself one day being invaded by the United States over the question of water?

It is not as unthinkable a scenario as one might imagine.

Let´s look at America environmentally.

In the news, debate still rages over Standing Rock and the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Energy companies in their quest for profits gladly risk the destruction of the environment for short term revenues.

As rivers lead to oceans and petroleum-bearing sea vessels, building pipelines that follow the course of these rivers seems to be the path of least resistance for the planning of pipeline routes.

The real and probable danger of damage to the American environment is simply an accident waiting to happen.

The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world´s largest aquifers, lies under 174,000 square miles (450,000 square km) of portions of eight US states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas) and irrigates 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States or 80% of the High Plains area – the Breadbasket of America, the provider of much of the food that Americans consume.

The Ogallala Aquifer makes much of the livestock, corn, wheat and soybean production and consumption in the United States possible.

Intensive farming has reduced the Aquifer´s storage capacity by nearly 10%.

Belated conservation practices (terracing, crop rotation, more efficient centre pivot irrigation and drip irrigation practices) have barely made a dent in the drainage of the Aquifer.

Once depleted it would take over 6,000 years to replenish the Aquifer naturally through rainfall.

The proposed construction of the 1,661 mile / 2,673 km Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the Athabaska oil sands of Alberta to refineries near Houston, Texas, crosses the eastern part of the Nebraska Sandhills and risks the possibility of contamination from spilled dilute bitumen into the Ogallala.

Destroy the Ogallala and life in America is gravely damaged.

Let´s look at global warming.

Despite naysayers and conspiracy theorists, global warming and its resulting climatic changes is and has been scientifically measureable.

Above: 2015: The warmest global year on record (since 1880), NASA

Global warming, no matter what post truth feelings one wishes to embrace, is real.

Global temperatures and sea levels are rising and deserts are expanding.

Extreme weather events are more frequent, including droughts, heat waves, flooding, abnormally heavy snowfalls and increased levels of acidification of our oceans.

This can lead to less food as a result of decreasing crop yields and depleted numbers of fish.

Some of the effects of global warming are already being felt all over the planet, while others even more dangerous may not occur for decades, centuries or even millenia.

But increasing population growth resulting in increased levels of the production of methane and carbon dioxide due to our reliance on fossil fuels hastens the process of global warming.

We are our own enemy.

The American and Chinese economies are responsible for the greatest amounts of carbon dioxide emissions produced every year, yet it is these economies that remain the least concerned about the effects they are producing.

Could the Dust Bowl return to America?

The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty 30s, was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American Great Plains and the Canadian prairies during the 1930s.

During the drought of the 1930s, the soil turned to dust and many crops failed, making the Great Depression even more of a nightmare for many Americans.

And the possibility of another Dust Storm ravaging America once again caused by pollution, global warming or chemical attack is not so unforeseeable as the 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar showed us.

A ringed spacecraft near a wormhole, here depicted as a massive reflective sphere.

In the Dirty 30s, Canada too was affected by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but the possibility of Canada being isolated from a future Dust Bowl striking America might be possible as the American environment is being destroyed more rapidly than the Canadian one.

In the graphic novel We Stand on Guard (pictured above), it is suggested that America uses the terrorist destruction of the White House as an excuse to invade Canada.

(We did do this during the War of 1812, though America used as an excuse to begin hostilities the British highhandness on the high seas, searching American ships during the Napoleonic blockade and forcing into service of the British Navy any able seamen found abroad captured ships.)

Then, as now and in the future, Canadians were badly outnumbered by the Americans, so our strategy was to act defensively and allow the invaders to make mistakes.

In the graphic novel, the Americans possess greater numbers and superior technology, but Canadians succeed in repelling America in a similar fashion to how Russia repelled invasion by the French and the Germans.

Now one might think that a war over water is quite unlikely, but according to the United Nations water organisation UN Water, the total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is only about 200,000 cubic kilometres – less than 1% of all freshwater resources.

And water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of this last century´s population increase.

It is predicted that by 2025, a mere 10 years from now, that 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.

Although an overwhelming majority of the Earth´s surface is composed of water, 97% of this water is saltwater.

The fresh water used to sustain humans is only 3% of the total amount of water on Earth.

The competition for water on an overpopulated planet is a major threat to human stability and could even lead to a world war fought over the control of diminishing water supplies.

And war over water is not a new phenomenon in world history.

As far back as Ancient Times, war has been fought over control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Israel fought to secure its water resources during the 1967 Six Day War.

The countries and regions suffering most water stress are North Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, China, Chile, Columbia, South Africa, Australia and South Asia.

Though it is true that water desalination is increasingly more effective – worldwide over 13,000 desalination plants produce more that 12 billion gallons of water a day, according to the International Desalination Association – the energy intensive nature of desalination with its associated economic and environmental costs raises questions if desalination is economically viable or environmentally sustainable for the foreseeable future.

So as I prepare myself to go to work by anticipating taking a shower, boiling water for my coffee and for my lunch, I recall Kevin Costner´s movie Waterworld and again Christopher Nolan´s Interstellar.

Waterworld.jpg

These films don´t feel so fictional after all…

Above: The famous shower scene, Alfred Hitchock´s Psycho (1960)

Sources: Wikipedia / Brian Fagan, Elixir: A Human History of Water