The Bottom Line in Ghent

Very dull, misty, grey and monochrome – so to the bottom line in Ghent.

The weather has been occasionally dull, occasionally bright for the last week or more. On Saturday it was dull. Very dull, misty, grey and monochrome both here in Brussels and across the country. Not a day to go sightseeing in Ghent as Mrs SC and I had planned – especially not when the attractions include the view from the Belfort tower (“access via a lift”) and the Sint Michiels bridge that “offers the best views of the city”. In Brussels the tower blocks at the Gare du Midi and Gare du Nord disappeared into the mist at about the sixth floor, so we knew views would be limited.

Nevertheless, we took the train and arrived at Gent-Sint-Pieters station in about 40 minutes. (€10 per return ticket. Not bad.) It was 2½ kilometres into the town centre, we discovered (we could take a tram). On the other hand, not 10 minutes walk from the station was the City Museum of Contemporary Art – Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst – which gets abbreviated to SMAK. (Something my Swedish readers will appreciate, smak being the Swedish word for “taste”.) Showing at SMAK right now is an exhibition of contemporary drawing: The Bottom Line. We chose the museum.

It was a good choice. The museum was exhibiting work by more than fifty artists, all active since the 1950s and most still with us yet, and still working. Inevitably some were more to my taste than others, but the cumulative experience of seeing what artists can do with (by and large) monochrome lines on paper was dramatic. I came out itching to pick up a pencil or a piece of charcoal, or playing with ideas of how I might acheive some of the same effects in digital drawing.

We spent a good four hours going around the rooms at the museum, looking at the drawings. (There were also, as a contrast, some light installations by an English artist with a Danish name who works in Belgium – Ann Veronica Janssen.)

Interestingly, as we made our way back to the station afterwards, the subdued light in Ghent combined with the memory of the drawings gave me the distinct impression that some of the drawings were not nearly so abstract and divorced from real life as at first they appeared.

See what you think. Below is an abstract drawing by William Anastasi from the exhibition and under it a photograph of pollarded trees in Ghent.

Drawing the Bottom Line 2 - William Anastasi

Pollarded trees in Ghent

And here are two more pictures. The first is part of a larger drawing in six panels – unfortunately I don’t have a note of the artist. The second was taken at Gent-Sint-Pieters station.

Drawing the Bottom Line 7 detail

In Ghent St Peters station

The formally framed pictures in the museum and the spaces between them were beautifully reflected in this candid shot of a mother holding her daughter to look down into the well of the museum at the reception desk below.

Drawing the Bottom Line 6 - mother and child SMAK reception

Drawing the Bottom Line 6 - SMAK reception

And finally, as we waited in the late afternoon gloom for the train home, I noticed these illuminated panels in the floor of the platform, and the patterns created on them by the marks of travellers’ boots.

Traveller's markings in Ghent 1 detail

Traveller's markings in Ghent 3 detail

Traveller's markings in Ghent 4 detail

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Not so much this week as I am working on my entry for the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.

The Sleeping Place

cemetery (n.)
late 14c., from Old French cimetiere “graveyard” (12c.), from Late Latin coemeterium, from Greek koimeterion “sleeping place, dormitory”…
On-line Etymological Dictionary

Cimetière d'Ixelles, Ixelles CemeteryThe Cemetery of Ixelles is on top of a hill to the south-east of Brussels. Conceivably, the rest of the world may be a little more familiar with the layout of Brussels now than six months ago, so it might help if I say it is on the opposite side of the city from Molenbeek in the north-west, where “all the terrorists” live. I suppose when the cemetery was planned, which I take to be in the mid-1800s, it lay in the countryside. Now it is sandwiched between the two campuses of the Université libre de Bruxelles and surrounded by a student-and-well-to-do-academic quarter.

Boulanger's suicide, illustration from Le Petit Journal - Wikimedia CommonsCemeteries are interesting and sometimes dramatic places (though nothing I’ve yet seen quite beats the Glasgow Necropolis). Apparently all sorts of the “famous in Belgium” rest here at Ixelles, including one Victor Horta. Another is Georges Boulanger, who very nearly became dictator of France at the end of the 1880s, but dithering at the sickbed of his mistress, missed his chance and ended up in exile in Brussels. Here in the Cemetery of Ixelles in September 1891 he shot himself on the grave of his mistress and is buried beside her.

But it wasn’t these names that attracted Mrs SC and I last Sunday. It just seemed like a good place to visit on a fine, cold afternoon. A place for a gentle walk and an opportunity to practice using the new camera.

Cimetière d'Ixelles AbrahamThe sun was bright and the white marble statuary especially, glowed almost with an inner light that often quite washed out contrasts and made for disappointing pictures. This grieving figure on the grave of the Abraham family was the one that came out best. The cemetery is clearly non-denominational, though apart from the obviously Christian graves I saw only a few Jewish graves such as this one. On the other hand, while there were many emphatically Catholic graves (tortured Jesuses, sorrowful Madonnas), there were also monuments and memorials to people from other Christian denominations and none, judging by the symbols and statuary.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Young man with shearsFor example, I’m not sure who this young man is, but I get the idea – he’s cutting the thread of life. This is the job of Atropos in Greek mythology, and Atropos is female, but perhaps the dead in the tomb here was a tailor and I’m misinterpreting everything.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Chinese gravesEither because Ixelles is a multicultural resting place, or because there is a different tradition here than back home, many of the graves and memorials have portraits of the deceased. This is something I’m more familiar with from Orthodox graves in the Balkans or Italy, but that may just reveal the limits of my experience. Here there are Slavic graves with portraits, but also Chinese ones. Recent graves and also older ones.

Cimetière d'Ixelles EmilIt also seems to be quite acceptable to add art to a grave. Not just in the form of sculpted angels or other figures, but also portrait busts like this one. Impressive moustaches – some Belgian men still cultivate dramatic moustaches.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Maggy detailThis was an interesting and sad grave. The cleft, translucent disc appears to preserve flowers. Beneath (out of shot) an inscription reads “A ma Fille”. The gravestone is inscribed to Maggy Forest 1949-1983. She was 34 when she died.

Cimetière d'Ixelles President of the veterans of Stalag VI-DFurther on, this headstone caught my eye. What is that image engraved into the stone? It looks like the watchtower of a prison camp, but who would want such an image? A former prison guard? Not likely. A former prisoner? That turns out to be what it is. This is the grave of H. Georges Chantrain, President of the prisoner veterans of Stalag VI-D, a Second World War POW/labour camp at Dortmund for the captured soldiers of the countries of Europe defeated by the Germans.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Julie and PatriciaBut at least H. Georges Chantrain survived and was proud of his experiences. There are other inscriptions and sadder tales. On the monument by the garden of remembrance for scattered ashes there are several panels with commemorative plaques. If you look at this one you’ll see Mademoiselle Julie van Weereld who died on 14th September 2010 aged no more than 26. Look two plaques below and you’ll see Madame Patricia Nailis, wife of Adriean van Weereld. She must have been Julie’s mother, and she died on the same date. I find myself wondering what the tragedy was that took mother and daughter on the same day. A car accident perhaps?

Cimetière d'Ixelles de SpotTo close, here is another grave that tells a longer story, but I think just as sad. It starts by recording the birth and death of Roger de Spot, born at Folkestone on 12th November 1917, who died not much more than 3 months old on 16th February 1917, still at Folkestone. What is a Belgian family doing in Folkestone in 1917? Probably living as refugees from the German occupation. Roger’s sister Genevieve was born in Ixelles in happier times on 6th December 1913, but she too met an early death, in Ghent in 1934, a month shy of her 21st birthday.

The children’s father and mother lie here too, Joseph, who died at 73 in 1952 and Marie (I guess) who died at 83 in 1968. But look at the bottom of the grave and you’ll see tacked on an aluminium marker for the last member of the family buried here, Etienne. Born in 1910 when his mother was 25, he outlived both his siblings and both his parents. But when he died in 2002 there was no one left (or no money) to add his name to the gravestone in the same style.

So many stories in such a small space.
Cimetière d'Ixelles 1

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Ghana Christmas Ball

The Ghana Christmas ball was the first Christmas present I remember receiving

I have not celebrated Christmas in the UK since 1983. I still get asked from time to time what Christmas is like in England – it happened again just recently – but after all this time it’s not as if I know what goes on nowadays, and how much do I really remember? Still, I have a stock answer. I say: “Christmas is too many people in too small a space for too long, stress, booze and at least one blazing argument.” Which sometimes gets a laugh or a smile. Less now than it used to – my delivery is slipping. (Or too many have heard it already.)

Still my stock answer felt true once upon a time, and it’s certainly the root reason why I’ve not been “home” for Christmas for 32 years.

And yet… thinking back now I wonder if that description – if it was ever completely true – wasn’t true for just a few years, just a few Christmases, when I was in my teens. Perhaps in the run up to the separation and through my parents’ protracted divorce proceedings?

Trying to remember the Christmases of my childhood, I can’t actually bring to mind anything that corresponds to my stock answer.

The first Christmas I remember was in Ghana when I was six. I don’t feel that the concept was new to me, so I must have then had memories of earlier Christmases, but now, looking back, this is the earliest I can recall.

We celebrated Christmas, my Mum and Dad, my sister and I, at the expats’ club. My engineer father was dressed as Father Christmas in a hooded coat and and a large false beard. Sweating like a pig (to use his own expression) he handed out presents to all the children. Although I’d been told it was Dad in the red hood and white whiskers, I wasn’t entirely convinced. He was giving a very jolly performance and seemed to be enjoying himself in the surging sea of reaching kids. Could this really be my father?

I look back now and see my six-year-old self on the edge of the crowd looking on with suspicion. I can’t escape the probability that I’m imposing a later perception of my father and our relationship on the scene, but the true memory I have remains. Father Christmas, large, red and white, seen over the heads and arms of the kids. Up close, I guess, I would have seen his eyes at least and smelled his smell (Old Spice covering sweat, cigarette smoke, whisky), but I have no memory of that.

I do remember my present was a brown football that I was only moderately pleased to get. I suppose that I’d wished for something else, though I can’t remember what.

The football may have been Dad’s choice, but my adult self doubts it. I imagine a job lot of toys, wrapped by the mothers and put in the sack for Father Christmas to pull out. Nothing with a specific child’s name on it. In this scenario, my getting the ball would be chance.

That seems harsh, now I think about it. In fact Dad might have chosen the ball for me in advance, if the opportunity presented itself at a moment when he was feeling generous. He might even, at the moment of picking gifts from the sack in Santa Clause mode, have recognised the ball for what it was in its wrapping paper disguise and taken it to give me. After all, a ball would have been the sort of gift he might choose.

I wonder now if my six-year-old self was already wary of ball games. I was certainly wary of them later on. I’m like my father physically in many ways. I’ve inherited his build, his walk, his hands and his hairline, but one thing he didn’t pass on was his ball sense. Dad was a natural ball player. Football, cricket, tennis, golf – you name the sport, he could play it. But probably because all ball games came so naturally to him, he was also hopeless at teaching others – me – how to play. He tried a little to begin with, but he failed. Catch was about the limit of what I was capable of, and even then I fumbled the ball more often than not. I was both a disappointment to him and a puzzle: How was it possible that a son of his was such a bad ball player?

My abiding memory of the Ghana Christmas ball is its colour. Brown. Like one of the hens that scratched in the dust around the homes of the African houseboys. I’m not sure when the ball went missing, but it was soon after we got home from the club that Christmas Day.

The children’s party was in the afternoon. The club house was decorated with strings of coloured Christmas tree lights and the shutters and curtains were closed against the sun, but I remember how bright the day was when we came outside. I guess there was to be an adult party there in the evening, but our parents took us home for supper and bed.

I may have played with the ball in the garden in the early evening after we got home. That was when it went missing. I lost it at some point, kicked it out of sight, looked for it, failed to find it, just as Mum called me in to supper. Did I worry about losing it and decide not to tell anyone?

Later, as the light was failing, I stood on the veranda, looked down into the shrubbery and saw what I thought was the ball, but I was in my pyjamas and now getting called to bed.

The following morning the ball wasn’t where I thought I’d seen it and I wondered if, in fact, what I’d seen was one of the hens. Or if one of the African kids on the street had found the ball and taken it.

I don’t remember any repercussions for having lost the ball. This supports my belief that Dad never chose it for me himself. If it had been a present he had particularly picked out he would – surely – have been cross with me. And I – surely – would have remembered.

And that’s it – the first Christmas I remember. Me looking from the sidelines, an unwanted gift, a loss, an uncertainty. But no fighting and no recriminations.

Brown hen and football - Ghana Christmas

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.