Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Belgium and the master detective – not Poirot

Had a fine weekend in Brussels, sampling beer and museums. It was a little odd how quiet the museums were, and how many had bits closed or empty or being moved.

Comics are a big Belgian thing, with huge great murals of favourite characters painted on various buildings and a huge Tintin in pride of place at the Gare Midi, where the Eurostar comes in. The Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee showcases a massive range of original comic artworks, profiles of major figures in the genre, and lots of stuff about Tintin. Found the shop a bit disappointing, partly because so little of the comics on offer were available in translation, and partly because the souvenir things were all madly expensive. For a museum devoted to the subject, it didn't seem to be trying too hard to spread the word.

The museum is housed in an old department store designed by Victor Horta, and we also had a nose round his beautiful Art Nouveau house. Horta and his contemporaries went a step further than William Morris, applying the elegant curves of his furniture and interior design to architecture itself. The Dr's a big Morris groupie, so Horta's house was perhaps the highlight of the trip.

It's a tall, multi-story terraced town house, the insides scooped out to maximise the light. Even on a dreary grey day the glass roof and yellow furnishings filled the place with golden glow, so it felt warm and homely. And for all the rich elegance of the construction and furnishing, I could easily see small children and cats gamboling about the place; a practical family home as well as a work of art. There were so many lovely little features, like the flip-round urinal in the master bedroom.

Afterwards, we toured nearby streets on the trail of other houses by Horta and his mates. There were several gorgeous, decorative frontages – though they're private houses now so we couldn't peak inside. I'd love to know how the interiors work for their modern owners, how much has been remodelled and how well Ikea furniture fits in those elegant spaces.

In fact, we did a lot of walking, pottering around, our route linked together by the places and bars of interest as listed in the Rough Guide. (The Dr, the seasoned traveller, swears by the Rough Guide and has a whole shelf of different editions and countries.) There was some really very fine beer along the way – the 9% Chimay Blue brewed by the Trappists, the 8% Kwak in it's distinctive, round-bottomed glass that needed its own special stand, and the traditional Timmermans Geuze Lambic which is full of yeast and bits of dandruff, tastes more like cider than beer, and wasn't really me.

Then there was the food. We sampled a skewer each of strawberries dipped in white chocolate, which was quite difficult to eat without looking filthy. There were freshly grilled waffles and cream, a bucket load of mussels, and on our last night a really good meal in Le Kanoudou Resto.

Belgium seems to have played some kind of piggy-in-the-middle for most of its history. It was at the heart of disputes between Catholics and Protestants and their relevant empires, and was at one time referred to as the Spanish Netherlands. There's still a certain tension between the French and Flemish-speaking populations, so we tried to offend no one by only speaking English. In 1830, the poor lot got lumbered with Queen Victoria's uncle Leopold as king, the other European nations again deciding what was best for Belgium. Leopold did okay, it seems, but his son Leopold II is probably best remembered for the country's total disaster in bossing someone else around for a change.

We took the tram out to the palatial Museum de l'Afrique Central, which is about to close and be re-fitted with a slightly less racist elan. The place was built on the profits of the rubber trade and Leopold II's internationally censured colonies in the Congo. And inside it's like a stepping back into another age.

For one thing, the entrance lobby is full of statues of helpful white folk bringing civilisation to the black savages. The exhibits are of stuffed and mocked-up wildlife, with – I felt – the indigenous people grouped in with the flora and fauna. There's an argument that the museum merely shows the attitudes of a previous age – Tintin and the comics in the Comic Museum showed a similar racial stereotyping, and Tintin and the Congo these days comes with a warning. But just seven years after the museum first opened, the 1904 Casement report attacked the abuses in the Belgian colonies – so much so Leopold II gave them up.

There was a small exhibit on the history of the Congo, and another on Stanley – whose archive the museum now holds, and who denied all the stuff being said about abuses (I must read Tim Jeal's biography of Stanley, which is staring at me on the shelf). Though, too, a few of the captions in the rest of the place admitted perhaps the whole enterprise hadn't exactly been a Good Thing, it hardly scratched the long and complex history. We'd like to go again after the re-fit, though the Dr wasn't sure how radical that would be...

Got back yesterday and having waded through the emails I rushed out to the Albert Hall to hear AN Wilson and Steven Moffat discuss Sherlock Holmes with Matthew Sweet, with suitable passages from the canon read by David Warner. It was a lively, funny and insightful natter, available on iPlayer for the next few days. Steven let slip a few clues about his forthcoming, modern-day version which will star Benedict Cumberbatch. He also said something interesting about the problems of setting Sherlock Holmes in period, where the background details become more important than the adventure.

Later this month, I've got to give a talk at the Royal Observatory about the proper science in the sci-fi nonsense I knock out, so I'm nicking that.

Glass of vino with some chums afterwards – some of whom I'd not seen in an aeon – and then curry. Was a bit starey-eyed and tired after the long weekend, but don't think I did anything too foolish. Or at least, no more foolish than normal. Now pelting through a big thing that needs writing that's not yet been announced, while on Thursday I think I have to be a policeman. More on that in due course...

1 comment:

Nimbos said...

One of the interesting/disturbing things about the Belgian colonies as distinct from the British and certainly the Congo in particular - they were the personal possession of the King rather than the Belgian state. Considering Leopold II it certainly makes a bit more sense of the mess.