Break the law – sliding door

Note: This blog entry is available as a sound recording from Soundcloud. See the link at the bottom of the entry.

I don’t usually break the law, but there are laws (against murder for example) and then there are laws (against crossing an empty street when the traffic lights are clearly showing a red man).

To be fair, I’m not even sure if the latter is really a law here in Belgium – though you’d think so. Perhaps (as in Sweden) it’s just custom that keeps Belgians standing at the curb-side waiting for the lights to change. Either way, crossing against a red man is something I do weekly while I’ve never committed murder and I hope I never would.

A couple of weeks ago I broke another law, and now I’m paying for it.

Let me start by saying I really like public transport in Brussels. I think it’s quick and reliable and if it’s crowded at certain times of the day and on certain routes, that’s only to be expected. The night service doesn’t look very good, but as I’m not a pubber or a clubber that doesn’t bother me. However…

My jump cardThrough June I was using what Brussels Transport calls a “jump card”. It’s an electronic passcard that you can load with five or 10 journeys at a time and then use to get about on the trams, the buses and the metro. I wanted to see whether it was cheaper for me to use a jump card than to buy a month’s season-ticket as I’m not travelling on public transport nearly as frequently as Mrs SC.

Monthly tickets cost €49. Jump cards cost €14 for 10 one hour journeys – and you can switch vehicles in order to complete a journey or even make a round trip on one ticket if you’re quick. (I know now it isn’t quite worth it – and not just for what happens below. I ended up spending slightly more in June using the jump card than I would have done if I’d bought a monthly card.)

Back to the story. A couple of Wednesdays ago I hopped on a tram to go up to town to meet Mrs SC after her day at work. I only realised when I was on the tram (when I registered my jump card) that the card had expired. From the sensors in the trams, you can’t tell how many journeys you have left. At least, as far as I know the machine will only pling to tell you your journey has been registered or buzz to tell you your card is empty. I try to keep a countdown in my head, but I was surprised when the machine buzzed at me – I’d obviously lost count.

Now, there is nowhere on a tram – or on a bus or a metro train – to renew a jump card. You have to get off and use a ticket machine, but ticket machines are not always available. There was one at the stop where I boarded my tram, but although I looked I didn’t see any at any of the stops we passed through on the way into town.

So I carried on to my final destination, thinking I could fix it there. That was a mistake.

Barriers 1My final destination was the Rogier metro stop. Here two metro lines, two pre-metro lines and two tram lines all meet and cross one another – for Brussels it’s quite a major interchange. There are three levels, a large central hall on the middle level and numerous exits, and no way to get out without passing barriers where you have to show a valid ticket.

I walked around inside the station for some time looking for a ticket machine, but the only ones I could see were all on the other side of the barrier.

The barriers are not waist-high turnstiles like in London or Stockholm, they are man-high sliding doors that open and then close with the speed and viciousness of a guillotine. I saw how some people in my predicament pushed behind somebody who did have a valid ticket and slipped through before the doors shut, but I simply didn’t have the brass neck to try and do that. In the end I phoned Mrs SC, who was waiting for me above ground, and got her to come down and let me out.

She showed her monthly pass to the machine, the doors opened and I dodged through in the wrong direction. The doors detected me and slammed shut much more swiftly than I’d bargained for and caught me a blow on the side of my chest. I got through, but it hurt. The doors then snapped open and I think there was an alarm (I honestly can’t remember). We walked away as fast as we could with my dear wife putting as much space as possible between her and me. (He’s the criminal. I don’t know him.)

A part of me was thinking of security cameras and how we’d surely been identified and would soon be scooped up by the transport police, while another part was saying: Take it easy, this is Belgium, not Singapore, and quite enjoying the adventure. My side hurt though.

We still had to get home. We re-entered the station another way and now on the right side of the barriers, I loaded my jump card and we walked through like law-abiding citizens.

Barriers 2I wondered a little what went through the heads of the authorities when they set up the system at Rogier – and it’s similar in several of the other intersection metro stations in town, I’ve been looking. The system is designed to punish rather than teach. Not putting ticket machines inside the barriers at the stations makes it impossible for travellers who’ve made an honest mistake to put the situation right by buying a ticket at the end of their journey. I would have.

I’m guessing the punch in the side the sliding doors gave me was also intentional. The doors closed so much faster than they do when they let people through the right way.

Perhaps I should say the system is designed to punish and teach. I certainly feel punished. My ribs are bruised and I have difficult breathing deeply especially when I’m lying down. Two weeks later, it’s easing up, but the first few days after the punch were difficult. On the other hand I’ve now bought and charged a monthly card and check my wallet every time I leave home to make sure I’ve got it with me. So, yes, I’ve learned my lesson. But I still don’t think physical punishment is good educational practice.


As a coda to the above, I’m making this an audio recording, posting the recording on Soundcloud and including a link here so you can hear me as well, should you wish. You’ll know I succeeded if you see an audio player somewhere in the post. Anyway, to make the recording a little more interesting I decided to record some ambient sound on the tram and at the station. I especially wanted to record the sinister sound of the sliding barrier doors as they swish open and snap closed. Sadly, I have to admit, they make almost no sound. Consequently, in order to get the right sense of menace, I’ve included the sound of a guillotine at the appropriate momnent – thanks to the Creative Commons database of sound effects at Freesound.org and the creator Glaneur de sons.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A visitor in Brussels

Michael and me at Café MetropoleThe weekend just gone Mrs SC and I entertained our first visitor. As a matter of fact Michael didn’t stay with us but in a hotel in town, but he probably wouldn’t have chosen Brussels as a destination if we hadn’t been here. Also we spent a good deal of time with him. I think he counts as our first visitor.

Café Metropole interior 1To acquaintances here in Brussels and out on the Internet, I’ve been describing Michael as “my cousin” but that isn’t quite true. He’s my mother’s cousin, the son of her mother’s younger brother. I think that makes us first-cousins-once-removed (and his son is my second cousin). I admit I had to look this up on-line — see here.

Exactly what that would be in Swedish I’m not at all sure. Michael and my mother are kusiner, Michael’s son and I are sysslingar, but what is Michael to me? What am I to him? Suggestions, my Swedish speaking friends! 🙂

Café Metropole interior 3Anyway, Michael is all of 85, and if I am as spry, clear-headed and adventurous when I’m that age, I’ll be very happy. He made his own way here (by train and taxi) and was so curious and active we forgot how old he was and I’m afraid may have encouraged him to do more than he really ought to have done. However, he seemed happy enough with his visit when he left and said he was looking forward to a good rest when he got home.

Café Metropole interior 2On the Friday when he arrived (26th June) we took him to the Café Metropole. It was recommended by one of Mrs SC’s colleagues. It is the cafe/restaurant attached to Hotel Metropole and I’m told is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Brussels. The décor is Art Nouveau, dates from the 1890s and has been lovingly preserved. The food and drink is good and the staff were friendly, helpful and multilingual.

Café Metropole interior 4 - palmAfterwards, we tried to walk back to Michael’s hotel, but that was a step too far, so we contented ourselves with a look around the Grand Place before getting a taxi. When we got there, with my eye on the electronic display by his side, I tried to pay the taxi driver €104. The “104” turned out to be tuning frequency for the FM radio station he was listening to. The journey actually cost €5.40. Everybody but me thought this was very funny. (I have just looked it up – the taxi driver’s radio station of choice was Bel RTL “the most widely listened-to radio station in the French Community of Belgium” according to Wikipedia.)

Michael and me in Van Buuren gardensOn the Saturday Michael came to us by taxi and we took him to the Van Buuren House and Gardens, our third visit. We know the house quite well by now, but the gardens are ever-changing. We sat in the shade under a vine trellis and talked of many things.

Street market Flagey - cheesesMichael’s first visit to Brussels was with his Scout troop in 1946. He was 16. The troop took the ferry to Ostend and walked and camped their way south to the Ardennes, then back to Brussels where at last they stayed in the homes of a local Scout troop. They even visited Antwerp before returning home to London. One of Michael’s abiding memories is of the butter, cheese, bread and fresh vegetables that they got to eat in Belgium — in Britain these were still being rationed.

Street market Flagey - cherriesOn the Sunday, for a complete change of scene, we took Michael to the open-air market at Place Flagey. Here we walked around the stalls and admired the fruit and vegetables and all the other goods for sale.

Street market Flagey - spring onionsThe oyster and champaign bar was doing a roaring trade, but we decided that wasn’t for us. Instead we had coffee and great wedges of baked cheesecake and then took ourselves off to the Café Belga in one corner of Place Flagey for a beer.

In the Cafe Belga at FlageyThis watering hole is described in the French language Wikipedia as one of the city’s “trendy bars” (at least this is how M. Google translates “un des bars branchés de la commune”). I’m sure if we’d known we’d have felt very trendy. It is also in the ground floor of an art deco building from the 1930s that used to house the Belgian National Radio Broadcaster and is still home to a Dutch language commercial station.

Street market Flagey - baguette towerWe finished the day off — but hopefully didn’t finish Michael off — by visiting the European Parliament area and the Park Leopold before an evening meal on Place du Luxembourg.

It's hard not to put a current events spin on this statue and see the reclining figure as the Greek government gazing longingly up at the Euro being held way out of reach by Lady Europe. Or perhaps you have another interpretation?
It’s hard not to put a current events spin on this statue and see the reclining figure as the Greek government gazing longingly up at the Euro being held way out of reach by Lady Europe. Or perhaps you have another interpretation?

Thanks to Mrs SC for the two photos of Michael and me.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Tourist Information

Belgium is a schizophrenic nation, people say, at the Dutch end of the country everyone is Germanic and efficient, but at the French end everyone is Gallic and disorganised. As for Brussels – Pff! (And a gesture of hands thrown in the air.) The Dutch end of the country is Flanders and the French end is Wallonia while the 19 municipalities that make up the city of Brussels are a principally French speaking enclave just within the area of Flanders.

I heard this story about the difference between Dutch-speaking Belgians and French-speaking Belgians (or if you prefer, the Flemings and the Walloons) even before I moved to Brussels and it’s been repeated to me here by all sorts of different people – foreigners, Flemings and even French-speakers. The French-speakers are apologetic and self-deprecating when they tell it, but they tell it none the less.

Now I really don’t want to be the sort of person who goes around swallowing clichés whole and then regurgitating them, but I’m going to share with you my recent experience of seeking tourist information in Brussels, and I’m afraid it does rather confirm the above.

Last week was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I know I’d left it rather late, but I thought it might be nice to go out to Waterloo for the anniversary celebrations. Waterloo is not far from here at all, it’s just to the south of Brussels and many people live there and commute into the city to work. Also, there is a big expatriate Swedish community in Waterloo clustered around the Swedish school (and attracted there originally following the major promotion of the town by a certain Swedish pop group).

Grand Place 3Anyway, here I am in Brussels, Waterloo is a 15 minute train ride away, it seemed a natural thing to do to go into the Brussels Tourist Information office on the Grand Place and ask for some help. La Grand Place (French) or Grote Markt (Dutch) is in the centre of the Brussels’ tourist district, a fabulous former market square surrounded by tall, 15th century Gothic to 17th century Baroque buildings commemorating civic institutions and city guilds. The TI centre is in the south-east corner of the Place, in the City Hall (Hôtel de Ville). You enter through a short corridor past the sign that tells you (I think) this used to be a police station. To the right is an office where you can buy souvenirs and tickets and to the left an office where you can get information. If you are lucky.

Need InfoI say that because, if you’re going to visit the Brussels TI office, you’d better come prepared with questions that relate just to Brussels. As the young man in the office politely explained, Waterloo is not in Brussels. It is in Wallonia and what happens in Wallonia – even if only just across the border in Waterloo – is a mystery in Brussels. The young man (who had very good English) managed without actually saying it to convey that he felt me profoundly misguided in wanting to visit Waterloo when I had all the delights of Brussels available to me.

But I was persistent. Where to find out about events in Waterloo? For that you’ll have to visit the Wallonia Tourist Information centre, he said, and started giving me directions – across the square, down that street, turn left… you can’t miss it. Having previously had experience of “you can’t miss it” directions in Brussels that somehow I did manage to miss, I asked for a map. He wrote the address down and drew a sketch map for me on a scrap of paper. The Brussels TI office doesn’t have maps of the city to give away to tourists who want to leave Brussels.

The Wallonia office, when I found it, was shut. Clearly the opening hours of the Wallonia TI centre are also something unknown in Brussels. They were displayed on the door however, so I made a note and went back the following day.

Espace WallonieThe Wallonia tourist information “Espace” is a large open room, partly given over to exhibitions (currently there is an exhibition for children about Ernest & Celestine who I must conclude are Walloons). The reception desk was staffed with two people who did not seem to have much to do. I went up to them and said: Do you speak English? Then immediately corrected myself (because this is a tourist information office). Of course you speak English!

They didn’t.

Or rather, the older man did not and the middle-aged woman with him said she could manage a little.

So I asked about Waterloo.

I’m not sure what Wallonia has to offer, but I would guess that the battlefield of Waterloo and the associated museums are quite a big attraction for foreign tourists, and judging by the coverage of the Waterloo celebrations in the British press, at least some of them are likely to be English-speaking. Well, if so, they are not expected to visit the Brussels space of the Wallonia TI centre.

The centre had one flyer which, to be fair, did include a few sentences in English and from which I was able to work out that there is a museum dedicated to Wellington in the town of Waterloo and a big hill overlooking the battlefield just outside the town. There are also buses from the town centre to the battlefield.

After consulting her colleague in French, the woman managed to convey to me that there is a new museum. If I understood correctly, built underground. This is a fine museum, the finest in Wallonia! But sadly the Wallonia Tourist Information space in Brussels had no information about it. The lady I was talking to went online but couldn’t find anything about the new museum on the the Internet either. However she was able to find a telephone number, which she used to call the museum. There was a long wait before anyone answered and then a long conversation that confirmed the new museum is open from Monday to Sunday, seven days a week, between 9 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening. She wrote this down for me and was very pleased that she knew both “Monday” and “Sunday”. Her colleague congratulated her.

How to get to Waterloo? If you don’t have a car you must take a train from the southern station and a bus. Okay. I can see from the flyer how much it costs to enter the museum and the different sites – can you tell me how much it costs to travel there? Is there perhaps a packet price? Oh dear, we don’t know. The buses are run by private enterprise and the trains originate in Brussels so that is something we can’t know about. Ask at the railway station. (Later, at the railway station, they said, Pff! And threw their hands up.)

While I was there another tourist came into the centre. This man spoke French and had some questions about Brussels. He talked with the man behind the counter – the one who couldn’t speak English – and although I didn’t understand everything I got the gist. It seems the Wallonia TI centre has no information about Brussels – not even a map – because it’s not Wallonia, you see. But they are happy to recommend the Brussels TI office in the Grand Place, though they have difficulty explaining even in French where it is. Since that was something I knew and the Wallonian information provider seemed so helpless, I almost volunteered to take the chap there myself. Almost but not quuite.

Leaving the Wallonia centre, I walked up the street about 100 metres and found myself outside the Flanders Tourist Information centre. It was open. When I saw this I thought: I have to. And I went in.

Visit FlandersThe Visit Flanders tourist information centre is even larger and more open than the Wallonia Espace, and rather busier when I was there, with seven or eight tourists but only one member of staff, an older woman, working behind the desk. I joined the queue. Obviously it wouldn’t be fair to ask about Waterloo, but I thought I could ask about Flanders Fields – surely as big magnet for foreign tourists in the Flanders area as Waterloo in Wallonia.

Standing in the queue I noticed a computer screen handily placed with “FAQ – Select your language” on it in five different languages. Under the title were buttons for each of English, French, Dutch, Spanish and German. I pressed the screen for English. Nothing happened. The screen wasn’t touch sensitive, so it was actually impossible to follow the instructions, choose your language and read the FAQ. This didn’t bode well.

Still, I waited in line. And I waited… But it has to be said, after I got to the head of the queue, that the woman behind the counter spoke good English and was able to give me brochures – in English – about Flanders Fields, a brochure about Ypres, a brochure about accommodation in the area, a tourist map and a leaflet with information about how to get there.

On the counter in front of her was a map of Brussels. The two older women ahead of me in the queue were asking about things to do and see in Brussels (in French). The Flanders TI woman not only answered them in French and made recommendations, but also gave them free tourist maps.

And so I am forced to conclude – at least in respect of tourist information offices in Brussels – it may be a cliché but the Belgian cultural divide is also alive and well and still splitting the country in two (or three).

Also, if you’re in Brussels and you Need Info – I recommend VisitFlanders on Rue du Marché aux Herbes.

Grand Place 4


I’d love to report that I got out to Waterloo and saw the re-enactment of the battle, but no. Eventually I discovered that tickets for the re-enactments (there were several days of them) were all sold out long ago. I’ll content myself with going out there some other time. I apologise btw for linking the 200th Anniversary reference to the on-line pages of the Anglo-jingo Daily Mail, but the pictures are really good.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Piano

There’s something very special, I think, about hearing piano music in the street. Perhaps because it’s not something I hear so often, each time it happens it adds an extra little bookmark in my memory.

Brussels streetA morning walk along a Brussels street. The sun slants, just clearing the rooftops, illuminating the facades but leaving the paving still in shadow. The promised heat of the afternoon is yet to come and yesterday’s has dissipated in the night. It’s a little chill. There are no front yards, the front doors, up steps, a couple or three, open off the street, and the tall front room windows, above the head height of passers-by, are open to let in the fresh air. From one of these comes the sound of a piano.

The pianist is not proficient. This is practice. Four, eight, sixteen bars tried again and again. There’s something a little hesitant about the last couple of bars. The speed drops, a key is missed, fumbled, there is a pause and the passage begins again. I walk on up the street and the piano sounds fade away behind me, but I am remembering another street, another piano.

Cracow streetAfternoon in the centre of Cracow. The yellow trams are rattling past one another up and down the road, taxis weaving between them and people, locals on their way from work to the shops mixed with ambling tourists in T-shirts and shorts. And once again from open windows above head height the sound of a piano. Here, a sign by the door tells me this is a music school. Someone is practising – Chopin (of course), the Minute Waltz. And I stop and join two or three others who stand below the window listening, smiling at one another, and as the piece finishes without a hitch there is a small round of applause before we all go our separate ways.

At the Eurostar stations in Paris and London the management have put out pianos. Older, upright pianos, painted in bright primary colours. Passengers waiting to board their trains or people waiting to meet friends arriving from far off sometimes sit down and plink away. When I was in London in March – my first visit – a young man was picking out Chopsticks. Diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-um-pum-um-pum-pum. In Paris, another young man sat and delivered a proficient jazz melody while his friends stood around.

A hundred years ago there was a piano in every home. Well, perhaps not every home, but in most British middle-class homes and in many an aspiring working class home. Before radio and long before TV and before cheap records and gramophones, people made music themselves and the piano was a symbol of modernity and a product of modern industrialisation (likewise the accordion, but the squeezebox never achieved the same cultural cachet). Sheet music was cheap and the ability to play the piano was a social accomplishment. Before the guitar, the piano ruled.

No longer.

Now pianos may still be built and bought by the wealthy, but the pianos of the past are out on the street. My brother-in-law’s piano – an upright that he sometimes plays (tries to play, but don’t tell him I said that) – was just such a piano. Left out on the street by a family clearing the house of a deceased relative. They were going to take it to the tip – the second-hand charity shop they approached didn’t want to know. It cost my brother-in-law the price of two men and a van to get it home.

The sad piano - warped keysA couple of years ago I came across another piano abandoned by the wayside. I’m not sure how long it had stood there, some of the boards had come away exposing the cast iron harp. It was still strung, but the felt of the hammers was swollen with damp and on the keys the white veneer – not ivory I hope – was coming away from the wood. Of course I tried it to hear if I could make it sing, but it was dead. I took some photographs.

There’s another piano memory – this reaches way back, more than 40 years – 45 perhaps. A cold, dim November evening in my childhood home in Brighton. The piano teacher is coming. My sister and I, reminded, rush to our upright piano. For a week, since the last time the teacher was here, we have not looked at it, but now with just an hour to go we are squabbling over who gets to practice. Will it be my funereal slow version of “Jig” or my sister’s stuttering rendition of “Frairer Shacker”. (That’s “Frère Jacques” to you.)

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, visiting, slips in ahead of us. She claims the keyboard and plays with bravura the chorus of “Toreador” from Carmen. Most impressively, she does so without reading notes. We squeal in shock, How is this possible? How?! She never learned, she says airily, just picked it up. Plays by ear.

Here we have been struggling to read the black insect squiggles and stretch our fingers to press the right keys in the right order at the right time. Now we learn you don’t have to do that. Just play by ear! We go on strike. No more piano lessons for us. We will play by ear. So, of course, we never do.

“Thank you, Mum,” my mother said to her mother. I think that was when I began to recognise irony.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Chagall

On Saturday Mrs SC and I went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts here in Brussels to see their Chagall Retrospective. We had some idea that this weekend would be the final opportunity but it turns out the exhibition is running for another month yet.

The Promenade
Click on any picture to see it larger.
It was very impressive to see in one place so many of Chagall’s paintings – 200 says the exhibition brochure. So much intense colour. I just found a quote from Picasso who said in the 1950s that after his close friend and rival Matisse, Chagall was the only living artist who “understands what colour really is”.

A little bit of a backhanded compliment that – I wonder if Chagall appreciated it.

I wonder if Chagall would have appreciated this exhibition.

The Lovers in BlueWell, of course he would. The reverence for his art now, contrasts strongly with the indifference and contempt he faced for many years. Indifference first from a broad public in his early years (though not among fellow artists and not at home in Vitebsk).

 Flying violinistBut indifference was less of a problem than the contempt, as his art was rejected in Revolutionary Russia and as Nazism grew in the 20s and 30s. Chagall’s art was “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … [an] assault on Western civilization”.

On the other hand, the exhibition hall is buried in the cellar of the Museum (and what would Chagall have thought about all the artificial light), and to get there visitors have to pass a foul smelling vestibule that reminds you Brussels also boasts a Sewer Museum. Perhaps the smell was a advert for that?

But then you get to the art and the all rest is of no account.

The ringAs there were signs at the museum entrance showing crossed over cameras I assumed photography was forbidden until I saw somebody filming. I went and asked and was told I could take photos for my own use as long as I didn’t use a flash.

I may have gone a little overboard.

Adam and EveThere were pictures from every phase of Chagall’s artistic career, from about 1909 until the 1980s. Personally I found most interesting the ones from about 1912 through to the 1940s – the later pictures from his time in the south of France seem over decorative to me. But the range of his art from a sort of post-impressionist style reminiscent of Gauguin and van Gogh, through Cubism, Expressionism and on into a naïve Surrealism is compelling, and its easier to appreciate it when you see so many works all together.

David - Chagall's brotherThe only thing missing from the exhibition really was any example – or even any photograph – of Chagall’s stained-glass. But I forgive this because I know it was Chagall’s opinion that his glass should be seen with the moving light of day behind it, so that it changes over time and depending on the weather.

The Monster of Notre DameOnce upon a time when I was in my 20s, I stayed at my father’s home in Kent, a village called Five Oak Green. I was to take care of the place while he and my stepmother Doris were on holiday. Before they left Doris said she thought I might be interested in the church in the next village.

“It’s got some windows,” she said. “They’re by some French fellow, some Jew.”

 Green face blue face - detailFor reasons of domestic tranquillity, and because she simply wouldn’t understand what I was getting at, I let the Jew reference pass by.

Doris went on to say that the windows had been put in to commemorate the daughter of the Lady of the Manor who drowned in a sailing accident off Rye, and that her husband – “Harry Goldsmid, you know” (I didn’t) – was the one who had brought in “the Jew”.

Cat - detailI didn’t have an awful lot to do once I was on my own. Every morning I had to feed the cat antibiotics because it was recovering from a battle with a rat – it had a rat bite across the root of its tail. That meant about an hour and a half of stalking the cat, holding it down (with gloves on) and forcing a pill into its mouth repeatedly (it kept coughing it up).

That cat hated me. With reason, it must be said.

 The Poet RecliningAnyway, once the morning’s struggle was over there wasn’t much to keep me in the house and so I walked a lot, exploring the byways around the village. One day I walked across to Tudeley to have a look at the church.

I wasn’t expecting very much and the outside of the church, when I found it, was not encouraging. It looked like it might have been quite pretty once, but I was absolutely convinced the tower must have been hit by a bomb in the war and rebuilt by some local builder with minimal experience of architecture. While the body of the church is constructed from an attractive local stone, the tower is a square, squat block in red brick that looks more like an electricity distribution substation than anything else. (I am surprised to discover now, thanks to the church’s own website, that the tower actually dates from 1765.)

Tudeley east window
Tudeley east window – photo by Philip French
Inside, though, all other considerations just fall away as you stand in the wonder of the blue light streaming in from twelve fantastic stained-glass windows, all clearly the work of Marc Chagall.

A little nosing around shows that while Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid may have paid for the windows it was his Christian wife and daughter who chose Chagall. They had seen and fallen in love with the artist’s stained glass when his windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem were exhibited in Paris in 1961. When the daughter, Sarah, was drowned in 1963, the mother, Rosemary, tracked Chagall down and persuaded him to create a commemorative window for the church. Chagall was reluctant at first, but finally agreed and when he came to see the window installed in 1967 he is supposed to have said “C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!” (“It’s beautiful! I will do them all!”) All the windows that is.

The last window was put into the church in 1985 – which may have been after I was there – soon before Chagall’s death.

Wandering JewIt’s strange to think about the windows at Tudeley now and how I came to see them for the first time. Here I am in Brussels, viewing an exhibition that focuses on Chagall and his extraordinary life: Vitebsk, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Paris again, New York, the Côte d’Azur – in his art he portrayed himself, among other things, as the Wandering Jew of folklore. And my mind slips back 30 years or more to that summer, and then suddenly forward again ten, twelve years. Now I am looking down on Kent from the window of an aircraft flying into Heathrow. It’s a crystal clear October morning and my eye follows the route of a railway line and suddenly I realise I’m looking at Five Oak Green and Tudeley, and a little beyond, Tonbridge where my father is dead in a funeral home waiting for cremation.

BirthdayIs it me or is it Chagall? Neither I suppose – it’s just human nature. But Chagall was able to capture in his art the way the mind can hop and skip across time and space and mix fact and fancy. Even fly through the air.

 Green monster - detailIn the museum, the voice on the audio guide is reading an English text that has clearly been translated from French and originally written by an art historian with a definite idea of what Chagall’s art means – but I’m not so sure. I hear her saying “anger… terror… horror”, but I find it difficult to see these emotions in Chagall’s work. I see joy and happiness, humour, innocence and bemusement. At worst I see faces without expression. Chagall’s colour symbolism is beyond me – so green means illness? OK, if you say so, voice from the machine. The falling angel, burning in red with one black eye gazing back at the viewer, now that I find more comprehensible, but I don’t see fear.

Falling AngelAt the end of the exhibition, passed the turnstiles at the exit but before you reach the exhibition shop… (Chagall prints on micro-clothes to dust your computer screens – artistic and practical!) Before the shop is an area set aside for visiting school kids, paper and crayons and an exhibition of children’s work inspired by Chagall. Acrobats and lovers and figures flying over rooftops, angels and musicians and people with Janus faces. The kids seem to have distilled Chagall’s essence – even if they can’t quite do the colours. But then, with both Matisse and Chagall gone, who now understands colour?
Chagall exhibition - Viewers


All illustrations are from my own photography except the picture of the east window at All Saints’ church Tudeley, which links to the original source.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.