Sunday, 10 September 2017

Places of Beauty and Peace

I was reminded the other day that PJ Kavanagh died two years ago in August. I used to love his pieces in the Spectator - wise, meditative essays. What I hadn't realised was that he had had another life, as a performer on television programmes with David Frost! (My allowance of exclamation marks for 2017, used up right there, but in a worthy cause, I think.)

Having recalled him, I decided I wanted to read some of Kavanagh's prose writing and, after a quick search on Abebooks, I found a book called People and Places in which some of the columns Kavanagh wrote between 1975 and 1987 had been collected. I received it today and found it included an essay about Ivor Gurney and naming, which contains a lovely section about the Commonwealth War Graves that have been established all across the Western Front since the First World War.

Over the last three years, while living in Belgium, I have spent quite a lot of time in CWG graveyards in Flanders, quite often at grave rededications. These happen when patient forensic work results in the identification of a soldier whose tombstone hitherto was marked 'Known unto God'. Kavanagh identifies the important role the Commonwealth War Graves play in reasserting  'the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting' and it is moving to know that this task is still considered important.

The essay, written in 1982, starts with a visit Kavanagh makes to the places that Ivor Gurney mentions in his poetry. Then Kavanagh discovers the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries:

"But all the time, slowly at first, then with increasing speed and force, it is borne in upon one that something has happened since he [Gurney] was there, something almost as enormous as what he experienced. At Aveluy there is a small graveyard of soldiers, surprisingly pretty; at Laventie there is another, and then you realise that at almost every bend in the road, hidden in cornfields, in orchards, in copses, are these small cemeteries, each prettier than the last - two thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven of them in France alone - and in each is the row of identical, well-designed headstones, sometimes no more than twenty and never too many, so that the mind is not overwhelmed, and on each of these headstones is a name...

To someone who has not come across these little cemeteries before the effect is almost indescribable; they are intimate, personal, the way Gurney's poems are. Of course I knew there were war cemeteries on the Somme but I imagined them terrible, impersonal places, with monuments. But the whole of this part of France is subtly and almost unnoticeably a graveyard and the graveyards are all English gardens, with roses and dogwood and prunus trees. That is, the Commonwealth cemeteries are. The German ones, with their tens of thousands of black iron crosses in long rows, and no flowers, give a different impression. It could be argued that they are more appropriate to the carnage they mark. What is sure is that the little British [and Empire] ones have become places of beauty and peace. As a reassertion of the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting, they could hardly be bettered. They have the same insistence on the significance of each separate human personality that is in Gurney's poetry. Possibly he never knew of them.

They are so well and expensively kept, by hundreds of gardeners, that they are a story in themselves. The hero is a man called Fabian Ware, who began recording individual, hastily dug graves during the war. He could have had little idea of the magnitude of the task ahead of him. After many fights with officialdom and public opinion ('Why spend money on the dead?' or 'Bring them back home', or, worst of all 'How could an Office and a Private have the same design of headstone?'), he seems to have won all his battles and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up, each member-country paying a share, according to the number of their losses.

After the war, teams of specially trained gardeners, "The Flying Circus", many of them ex- servicemen, toured the carnage, gathering scattered graveyards together, keeping them as near the place where the men had died as they could. Some of the ground had been fought over so often that identification was no longer possible. In which case 'Known unto God' is on the stone, a phrase contributed by Rudyard Kipling, whose own son had disappeared in this way. In some cases the sons of these original gardeners continue the work and, in the case of James MacDonald, whom we met tending the graves at Aveluy, looking entirely French in his beret, the son of one of the original gardeners (who himself fought on the Somme) is followed by his son: three generations.

In each cemetery is a book with the name of every soldier known to be there, his parents' names and his address; also a book for the remarks of visitors. The French comments are oddly French - 'Très bien entretenu', 'Endroit reposant et sage'. The British ones vary from the eloquent 'Humbled' and the conventional, though doubtless deeply felt 'They shall not be forgotten' to 'The Old Lie, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria mori' (itself a quotation from Gurney's fellow war poet Wilfred Owen). Well - yes. But these beautifully tended English gardens do not fill one with indignation, not exactly. Who is there to blame? The politicians, the generals, seem pitifully small when compared to this vast fact, made so human and particular here. God? It was not God that invented the machine-gun. And in his only reported appearance he recommended love. These cemeteries seem a humble, and almost infinitely laborious, attempt to put a known face on a nightmare."


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Feeling Grumpy

Last night we went to the theatre called Bozar (it's supposed to be a pun; the only thing to do with something so utterly feeble is pretend you haven't noticed is my advice) in Brussels. We were going to a concert given by the Asian Youth Orchestra, conducted by their founder, Richard Pontzious, who can be seen in the first of these videos fooling around with the musicians as they play William Tell as an encore (chosen because people in Hong Kong, where the orchestra is based, are mad about racing) (listening to it I can hear some woman there with the most dreadful laugh I've ever heard; gosh, I'd be so embarrassed, if I were her):


The concert last night was the final one of a world tour. The programme began with some Richard Strauss, then a Sibelius violin concerto, with Sarah Chang as soloist, then Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. At the very end, the orchestra (including Sarah Chang, who you will see slipping in at left) played Nimrod, because as Richard Pontzious explains, it is a tradition, begun under Menuhin:



Well, anyway, as you can imagine, I went home furious at the end of the evening. I mean, how dare these people appropriate my culture? It really is disgusting to think that the citizens of Asia think they have the right to play our music - what can they possibly know about it? Just appalling, don't you think?

And then this morning I turned on the radio and one of the announcers said there were rumours that in the next Bond movie James Bond will marry, and the other announcer said, "I wonder who the woman will be", making the assumption, for heaven's sake, that Bond would be marrying a woman. My outrage knew no bounds.

No, it didn't. The concert was wonderful. I don't care about the announcer's assumption, because it is perfectly natural. The only thing I'm grumpy about is the idiocy of modern debate and the waves of outrage about absolutely nothing that seem to be a regular feature of life today.

Monday, 4 September 2017

What I Did on my Holidays

The other day, the New Yorker reissued this cartoon from 2011 (back when it was still an interesting and varied magazine rather than an unrelenting, unvarying scream of anti-Trump obsession; I'm sure it will calm down and get back to normal eventually; if not, I guess I'll cancel my subscription in the end, but that would feel like a sad step to have to take):
Probably anyone following me on Twitter will also have a vague idea of what I was up to over the summer, but I've been well trained by countless teachers and so, as it is the start of the school year, even though I no longer go to school, and haven't for ages, I feel the need to share at least a little more of where I went and what I saw.

Mainly, I went to Alsace, where I stayed in Obernai. Obernai is a charming town with lots of half timbered buildings, an attribute it shares with most of the towns of Alsace, I soon discovered - not that I'm complaining; the towns are all extremely pretty and I highly recommend Alsace to anyone who wants to go pretty towns. Obernai is also one of those places that has plenty of faces, something I always like - but, rather than put them all here, I'll do a separate blog called Obernai Faces, so that those who do not share my passion for masonry faces can avoid it; actually, it might be better to call it Alsace Faces, as several other of the Alsace towns we visited also had plenty of buildings with faces decorating their facades.

Anyway, the big discovery for me on my holiday was an Alsace illustrator of whom until then I'd only been very vaguely aware. The illustrator's real name was Jean-Jacques Waltz, but he was affectionately known as Oncle Hansi. He was born in 1873 in Colmar and seems to have spent much of his life in Alsace, apart from a short stretch at art school in Lyon. He turned his hand to various kinds of design, including textiles:




magazines, books, menus, labels and playbills:

















and shop signs - several of his charming signs can still be seen in Colmar, and there is one outside Boffinger in Paris as well:






But the works that I particularly loved - although some amongst our party (of two) judged that the element of propaganda they displayed was a little unsubtle - were the pictures Oncle Hansi produced that expressed both his love for his native area and town and his protest at its occupation by Germany, (Bismarck annexed Alsace in 1871, without the agreement of all the locals). As Oncle Hansi was imprisoned several times for making fun of the German military and German professors:






I think he was entirely justified - the kinds of people who imprison satirists definitely deserve merciless mocking.

The propaganda element is very evident in the contrasting activities going on through the school room windows in these two visions of the same town square, one under French control, one under German occupation:





However, both pictures demonstrate what I really like about Hansi's illustrations - rather like a lot of Hergé's work (the scene in the dining room in Tintin in Tibet when Tintin suddenly yells "Chang" - or does he simply sneeze? I'll have to check - comes especially to mind), it is imagined in such rich detail. Each picture of an outdoor scene contains numerous different figures, all carefully dressed and with individually imagined expressions and personalities, varying buildings, each window, doorway, roof tiling pattern et cetera, clearly delineated with interesting features, while each picture of individuals is again replete with masses of different aspects to discover:






In 1913, Oncle Hansi produced one of his apparently best loved works, Mon Village. Strangely enough, the museum of Hansi's work in Colmar had all the texts displayed but I did not see the pictures, (this may very easily have been an oversight on my part; in fact, I suspect it must have been, surely). Anyway, if you search for them on the internet, you can find many of his illustrations for the book, and they appear to be some of his most charming work.  Apparently they were modelled on Oberseebach in the north of Alsace, and they show children in traditional Alsatian costume, plus veterans from the 1870 war, mixing references to the past before annexation and the time of occupation. The text itself has a nice elegiac poignance to it, I think, with many digs at the Germans incorporated. Some might find the idealising tone too saccharine, but I would point out that the towns of Alsace are genuinely lovely enough for it to be possible that little of Oncle Hansi description strays far from reality, even today. The museum also makes the claim that Oncle Hansi saw himself as a "people's artist", trying to connect with all parts of society with his books; while Mon Village appears to be a book for children, it can also be understood as a work of resistance against German occupation, in its obvious love of Alsatian tradition and almost more obvious attacks on German rule.

Here is the text of the book, Mon Village:

"The village that I am going to describe to you is not my invention. It exists. To find it you have to go a long way off the main road in the direction of Wissembourg or Niederbronn. You will leave the train at some little flower-covered station. You will follow a narrow path bordered by fruit trees. From a distance you will see a pointed steeple soaring above wheat fields or piercing the lace of the hops. Then on the shallow track, overgrown with flowering hawthorn, you will see at the edge of the wood, small girls leaving flowers on graves or at the feet of Turks and hunters fallen in great battles (???). This pretty village, whose pleasant houses conceal some suffering, is an emblem for the whole of Alsace, and that is why I will not tell you its name.

If you search for it in your atlas, you will find it somewhere between the Rhine and les Vosges, wherever your finger lands on the map in the region which at the moment is no longer in France and that has, ever since its removal from its own country, been edged around with mourning.

The Storks

The greatest pleasure of children in my village is the arrival of the storks. The first to arrive, at the end of winter, is an old grandmother stork. She lands for a few moments on the nest on the school house, then she disappears. She has gone off to tell the rest of the storks that the nest is in a good state. The time to return has arrived. The mother stork arrives and perches on the nest, while the father, to ensure he is seen by everybody, executes a few gliding swoops around her. Then from every street and every house cries of joy ring out. All the children of the village from the biggest to the smallest come running from every direction. They gather, join hands, forming a circle, and they start to sing: "Stork, stork, you are lucky. You spend every year in France; stork, stork, bring us in your beak a little soldier" (???).

School

The school has two teachers. One, Father Vetter, is very old and everyone loves him. Before the war he was already teaching French to the mothers and fathers of today's little Alsatians. When a child from the village wants to go to France, it is father Vetter who teaches him the most useful words, with the help of a very old, very dogeared grammar book. Father Vetter is invited to all the weddings and all the parties of all the village families, and no small boy has ever dreamed of mucking up in his class. But one day the government decided that he was too old and sent us a young teacher to help Father Vetter. This man is haughty and tough, with a false rubber collar and a jacket made out of a green sheet. He cannot speak anything but a tormented and pretentious form of Hoch Deutsch. He has a cane in his hand at all times and is mean to all the children, except those of the policeman - to them he is all sugar and honey.

The Bakery

In autumn, we celebrate the parish holiday, called the Messti. The day before, the house begins to fill with the lovely scent of pastry. We are forbidden to disturb our mother while she is busy mysteriously constructing huge plum and apple tarts and a gigantic Kugelhopf. Afterwards, if the children are good, they are allowed to go into the kitchen and make tiny Bretzels with what is left of the pastry. In the evening, the solemn moment arrives when everything is taken to the baker's to be cooked in his oven - the large fruit tarts are arranged in serried rows under diamonds of golden pastry. The grown-ups carry their precious platters proudly. The young ones form a guard of honour agains chickens and geese. In the main street, the band marches joyfully in front of little Karl, the seventh son of the policeman, who chews black bread while little Karl fumes with rage and dreams of his plans for vengeance.

Clothes

If you were to arrive in my village on Sunday just when everyone is coming out of church, you would witness one of the most picturesque spectacles anyone could imagine. You would see young girls whose calm beauty is crowned with a large black ribbon, young people whose severe clothing is set off by a pretty touch of red, and old people who still wear wide frock coats and tricorn hats. It's true that the costumes my descriptions conjure up for you are not still worn in all the villages of Alsace, but, even though traditional costume is not preserved everywhere, the Alsace spirit is. Sometimes French tourists visit us; that is a great joy for everyone. One day a little Parisian girl asked me why the girls of Alsace do not put the tricolor in their hair, as the girls in Paris do. It was obvious that she had not met our policeman.

Sunday

Sunday is a wonderful day for the children. To start with, they are allowed to sleep in, on condition that they have polished their shoes the night before. Then, once they get out of bed, they get dressed up. Their mothers do the girls' hair - they wind two pretty plaits around their ears, put on a colourful skirt, an embroidered bodice and their Sunday hat. The boys tidy themselves up - they scrub themselves so hard that their cheeks shine like porcelain. They put on a black suit like the ones their fathers wear. Then they set off for the church, the smallest at the front, happy knowing their parents are behind them, admiring and loving them. Then, once the midday meal is finished, the children run to the school square. Soon under the old liberty tree blond heads, coloured skirts and red waistcoats swarm.

Messti Festival

Like all Alsace festivals, Messti begins with a lavish family meal. Soup with quenelles, hare stew and then an enormous roast. Before the tarts are served, cousins and friends from neighbouring villages arrive, carrying baskets and umbrellas. Officially speaking, the festival doesn't begin before the gendarme has made his rounds. He does this to see that the German flag is flying above any others, according to the law, and to closely inspect the pain d'épices stall, checking that none of the wares are decorated in French colours. This doe, the festival begins. There is a procession led by musicians and the prettiest girl presents a biscuit (?) to the mayor. Finally, there is a ball which lasts into the night. It is very late indeed when the last of our friends leave us."

If you object to either patriotism or prettiness, Oncle Hansi may not be the man for you. I was charmed by a lot of what he did and intrigued by the possibility that Hergé might in some ways have been inspired by the example of his minutely imagined worlds.






















Saturday, 2 September 2017

Gym Shackles

Reading about the demands made by the European Union to an aspirant departing member, I remembered my older daughter's expensive difficulties in getting out of a gym contract she'd signed up to in London. Despite the fact that she had moved away from London and consequently couldn't use any of the gym's services, it turned out that she was enmeshed in the organisation and had committed to payments she could not afford but that would have to continue until some distant future moment. This was because, although she hadn't been told at the time she joined - in fact, like the EU with Maastricht and Lisbon and all the rest of them, the company changed its rules after her membership began ("but we sent out an email about it, and if you didn't agree, you were supposed to reply") - that was the deal.

Never join anything is the only lesson from both experiences, if you ask me. Oh yes, and the European Union is really just an enormous gym-chain-scam - or gym chains are mini-European Unions. One or the other.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Slow Learner

For ages now, I have been working on a non-fiction project and wondering at my hopelessly slow progress. Today I had an epiphany. I realised that I had absorbed too deeply the "tell all the truth but tell it slant" doctrine of Emily Dickinson.

Hunting around week after week for a quirky approach to telling my story, I have got nowhere. Until at last I have recognised that, while there may be many, many more bright and dazzling ways to frame my narrative, I may be some time - in the Oatesian sense of the phrase - if I keep thrashing around trying to pick the best of them.

In short, it is better to get on with it, to do a piece of work, even if it isn't as striking and astonishing as you wish it could be. Something, ultimately, is better than nothing. Progress is better than none.

A lesson learned, rather a large chunk of a lifetime wasted learning it. If you can't be flashy, be solid. If you can't be amusing, be accurate. If you can't be surprising, at least try to be productive. Potential brilliant originality, if it never comes to fruition, is always trumped by just getting the thing done.


Wednesday, 30 August 2017

While Washing Up

I have discovered that it is a rare bit of washing up that cannot be done in the time it takes to listen to an episode of that British institution, Radio 4's The Archers. I do remember Victoria Wood saying once that she'd stopped listening to The Archers and started going into the shed and staring at the wall and found that much more interesting, but she was being harsh. Such a judgment is also, sadly, out of date, as the programme is now maddeningly racy, whereas before it was like cricket on the radio, (or, in Australia, the parliamentary live broadcast), just soothing background noise.

Unfortunately, The Archers is now:

a: a branch of whichever ministry is in charge of government service announcements, ("Oh, have you heard that lichen has been disappearing in the countryside because of spraying, Joe?", "No, Bert, but I've noticed there's not so much lichen on the village stone walls as there once was." "Yerrsse, well apparently there's a spray called 245T that we didn't ought to be using, but everyone is using it." "Is that right, Jo? Why, I think I've got a tin of that somewhere," "Well you should take it into Borchester to be safely disposed of, the offices in question are open nationwide between the hours of 6 and 10 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they will welcome your visit, I'm absolutely certain", etc, etc)

and b: the place ex-Eastenders producers, directors and writers go for audio frolics.  As a result, while we may not be subjected to the kind of graphic sex Geoff Dyer decided to suddenly shove into one of the most up until then amusing books I'd ever read - (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; what was he thinking? Either that he could do DH Lawrence better than DH Lawrence, when it comes to sex, or that it was quite funny to claim that a few pages later that he wasn't the kind of man who boasts about sex, or just that he felt like shoving our faces in it; my view is that very detailed depictions of other people, fictitious or not, performing sexual acts upon one another leave the person doing the reading or viewing in the position of a voyeur and that there should therefore be warnings on such works of art so that those of us who would prefer not to be voyeurs could choose something else to look at or read) - we do get a lot of story lines about lurve rather than about almost nothing, which is what one used to expect from "an everyday story of country folk", (come to think of it, is The Archers still characterised in that way by the BBC? Probably not).

And not only lurve - there has also been masses of anguished stuff about rural poverty, domestic violence, gambling addiction, not to mention fermented and artisanal food. Worse still, the perfectly good actors who used to play, for example, Tom and his father, Tony, suddenly got replaced (on the grounds, I read, that they weren't experienced enough; I suspect some form of nepotism somewhere), and we were supposed not to notice. How could anyone not notice that suddenly we had one of the men from A Very Peculiar Practice playing Tony and a person with a much more annoying manner playing Tom, (which I suppose you could argue is a good move, given that Tom is very annoying as a character. But then aren't they all?)

So, if it is all such a disappointment, why do I keep on listening? Well, as I say, it does fit in very well with the time it takes to do the washing up. Additionally, and more importantly, very, very occasionally, the programme is, if not stupendously brilliant, at least faintly perceptive. An example of this occurred last week, when in a very short piece of dialogue the problem at the heart of the disintegration of contemporary life was expressed for all to hear.

The dialogue in question took place between a fairly new character,  filthy rich, new-money businessman Justin and old-money, widowed Oliver. They were talking about the possible sale of Oliver's dead wife's hotel, Grey Gables. Oliver has some debts, but he cannot bear to sell his farm, as the Grundys, the programmes ne'er-do-well heart-of-gold yokels, live there and he has promised not to shift them. Thus he wants to sell the hotel instead.

Justin, talking about Grey Gables: Old charm can only take you so far when you're trying to maximise profits
Oliver: Which is what you want to do?
Justin: It's what everyone wants to do. That might mean redundancies, high staff turnover ...
Oliver:That's my greatest concern - Caroline had such a loyal staff. They loved her and I don't want to let them down
Justin: It's a hard world out there, Oliver

There we have it, that phrase "maximise profits". What the hell happened to making a profit? Why isn't that enough, in combination with running a business that takes care of its staff and customers? Why is maximising profits at all costs the new thing? What happened to the idea of business being both profitable and community minded? How can we change back to that better way - the pre-Thatcher, triple-bottom-line approach? I think we urgently need to do so.

For the long version of how frightful everything is because of the unrelenting, singleminded drive to maximise profits at all costs, regardless of the consequences, this is a very complicated but utterly absorbing and hair-raising read. For the short version, stay tuned to the washing up and The Archers. Grey Gables will soon be luxury apartments, sod old world charm; you mark my words.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Woncky

It was that fairly rare thing in Belgium - a really beautiful day. Having missed out on spring to a large extent and quite a lot of summer, I decided I must go into the country immediately and breathe fresh air and lie on grass. 

And so I went to Wonck. Not because the Wonck Tourist Board has been promoting the Grottes of Wonck and I have fallen for them:

but just because Wonck is there.

When I arrived, I went for a wander and got all nostalgic about being a child, when my main focus was the nature table in my classroom at school. In those days my weekends were taken up with foraging for exhibits to present to the nature table, (it still rankles that Miss Pickard insisted on throwing away my beautiful dead mole after only a couple of days on exhibit in a rather superior shoe box).

In those days, I knew the names of flowers like this:




I don't know any of those sorts of things any more, and I don't think I've replaced those bits of information with anything that sustains my soul better. I began to feel rather dismal pondering this state of affairs. My camera, sensing this, decided to make my photographs take on a slightly apocalyptic colouring, to reflect the way I had begun to feel:


Spooky is a favourite word of Edna Everidge's, and one I try to avoid; however, it has its place and this, I thought, was one of them:


I was surprised when I came to this wooden tower, which didn't seem to serve a purpose, beyond being slightly scary - those tattered things hanging off the roof are creepy fingers and most of the perforations on the body are the shapes of elfin creatures, I think. The sign beside it declares with great cheerfulness, (provided you believe in miracles):  "We need a miracle, if our planet is to be saved":

And what is it with Wonck and towers, anyway? Is it a competitive sport down there I wondered, when I came to a second one within a five minute walk of the other. If so, that first one is left for dead by this amazing structure:

which is, it turns out, the life work of one Robert Bercet, a stone mason and soi-disant philosopher:
Bercet believed in love, thought, creativity, liberty, equality and fraternity. He was also keen on fossils. The tower is, I think, an expression of all these concerns.

Among the amazing features of the tower is that although it is just near Wonck, it is actually quite difficult to see from Wonck. You can in fact wander around Wonck, completely unaware that just nearby there is a tower with a winged cow, a winged lion and various other rather badly sculpted winged creatures on its roof - as well as gargoyles of a bishop, a soldier or policeman, some other figure of authority and a crocodile, (people who tell lies and generally abandon their souls to worldly things become crocodiles in Bercet's world view)m sticking out the side.

I don't know whether these stones were already there when Bercet moved in. The site was once a quarry, so possibly. Anyway, they made me think of Obelix and menhirs:

Behind the tower is a lovely grove:
Sadly, it is filled with the most frightful bits of sculpture, (I thought once of starting an Instagram dedicated to bad modern sculpture but then I realised I'd never have any time for anything else, as there is so much of it in the world that it would take up most of each day to document it).

This particular collection is dedicated to pacifism; naturally, its effect was to make me want to go and belt the living daylights out of the people responsible; I do realise this probably says more about me than about the works involved:
This one's by Eva Devaux and is called the Voice of Hope. Isn't it frightful? The caption beside it tells us that it seems impossible to unify our hopes without communicating them, without sharing them and without exchanging our ideas. It points out that there are many of ways of delivering and cultivating such ideas and that the symbol of the megaphone seems appropriate as a vehicle of cohesion and broadening of the sharing, while the woman's face, sheltered at the heart of the speaker makes one think of the words of Aragon (???), another symbol in the shape of a human. It ends with the rousing statement, "Woman is the future of man". So there. 

This unpleasant and enormous piece hurtled me forward from primary school memories to the dying days of provincial Yugoslavia. It has just the level of dreary symbolism to have been very much at home in Skopje, circa 1985. It was made by a collective, and I hardly need to tell you that the hands are raised in supplication to all the divinities in the universe, begging that all the crimes and atrocities committed in their names should cease. There is a lot of guff about hope on the sculpture's label, plus a quote from Mahmoud Darwich, (according to my diligent research i.e. one internet search, his name is usually spelt Darwish and he is a Palestinian poet who, in one photograph from a long time ago looked like Yves Saint Laurent in his heyday), which is this: "We suffer from an incurable disease: hope". My teeth are grinding at the sheer wishy washy wetness of it all, because I am a horrible, horrible person.

This piece is by Nadine Devreux and is called "Looking towards a better world". Apparently just as a tree hides in the forest, man surrounds him or herself in the protective cocoon of stereotype. Instead, we should accept our inequalities and culpabilities, without racial, sexual, religious or any other kind of discrimination, in order to overcome our fears and frustrations together and live in tolerance and respect for others, unified by our hope of making a world of love, liberty and fraternity, tomorrow. You will note she doesn't mention anything about making things of beauty, today, tomorrow or yesterday, presumably because she knows that is well outside her ability, judging by this nasty piece of work.

But if I thought that was unpleasant to look at, this took the cake. It actually made me feel sick, (I think you have to be there to absorb the full flesh crawling quality of the texture of the hanging objects). I didn't find out who it is by. I assumed it was some kind of reference to Strange Fruit, the song by the woman who isn't Billie Holiday but whose name escapes me. It turns out that it is something to do with willow leaves and the Chinese Buddha and the positive life force. I don't think any sculpture before has made me feel nauseous but this one did. Nevertheless it is called Spreading Hope. 

This one at first looked approachable, with its vague visual likeness to a cabinet in a 19th century museum. It was made by Adria Ceen and is called Glass Thought. The objects within it speak of the first part of the recovery of the artist's husband  from an accident that left him with a cerebral wound which caused him to lose language. I don't think my husband would be terribly thrilled with the offerings in a similar situation - the most stomach turning was the lizard thing with its mouth wide open, exposing an enormous pair of dentures, set in a material the colour of vomit. 

It was with some relief that I turned to the tower itself, which is admirable in the sense that it is the most amazing feat of sheer labour on the part of Mr Bercet, (and,  knowing a little of Belgian bureaucracy, I suspect quite a feat of battle against planning authorities as well):

Bercet built it himself, between 1949 and 1963, while also working in a quarry as his day job. You cannot do anything but stand in admiration before his indefatigability, even if a tiny voice keeps asking, "But to what end?"

By the entrance there is this sign, written on what may be slate but may be a piece of inner tyre, I couldn't quite tell. It says: "The stones that are here are witnesses to life through the ages. Let them speak for themselves. Don't write anything on them, don't vandalise them, don't take any away. To respect work is to collaborate with it. Peace and poetry live here. Be worthy of them."

I don't agree with all the claims in that statement, but I do feel sorry that apparently people have stolen a lot of the fossils Mr Bercet embedded in the tower's walls.

Anyway, in I went, and found inside some pictures of Mr Bercet. Here he is with his mother, when he was a small boy:
Here he is with his wife; the expression on her face isn't entirely thrilled, but perhaps it was just the light at that moment:
Here he is later in his life, still with his wife, who still doesn't appear to be exactly jumping for joy:
Here he is very late in his life, making some point with what I suspect may have been his usual conviction, (dogmatism, even?):
The rest of the interior of the tower is given over mainly to a museum devoted to Mr Bercet's thoughts. By the time I'd finished reading and listening to what he had to say, I was feeling exceptionally glad I hadn't remained at the nature table stage of existence, for I fear that that might be exactly what happened to Mr Bercet. The whole enterprise of his tower and his pacifist sculpture garden and his long screeds of so-called philosophy - (upstairs in the tower is a room in which the portraits of various well-known scholars are hanging, beside one of Mr Bercet himself, which suggests he saw himself as part of a pantheon of great thinkers) - struck me in the end as an example of what happens when quite a lively mind is left to itself, rather than taken off by its owner to engage with other lively minds at a university. The energy and intensity of the man was enormous, but what he ended up formulating seems to me to be a bit of a muddle, with various pieces of religious tradition, some science, some history and a smattering of philosophy thrown together in what ends up as less than its parts.

On the other hand, would the world have ever seen any stone-walled rooms with dinosaurs busting right out of the structures, if Bercet had gone off to the Sorbonne:

Or rooms with rather bewildered looking angels holding up the roof:
Or indeed a tower in the Belgian countryside with a flying cow on its roof:
Or a flying lion:



Or a gun embedded in its parapet:
I have never been convinced by so-called outsider art, but I think that is what Mr Bercet's tower is an example of. It struck me as a rather lonely enterprise. I hope he had some happy moments on this earth, rather than just being a raging ball of slightly confused ideas. I hope his wife did too; she looks in those pictures rather as though she might not have had the jolliest of times imaginable.

Meanwhile, Mr Bercet, unaware that he was creating outsider art, came up with the idea of "flint art":

Flint art, he tells us, is the tacit message of the gods. Art is eternal and there are  examples that have been made for the intelligent to find for 60 or 70 million years.





I left cured of my nostalgia for innocence, convinced that innocence, unharnessed by education, all too easily curdles into dottiness. On the other hand, I also thought that someone might imagine a quite interesting novel about Bercet, unschooled genius nutter, alone in a world of Philistines who laughed at him and pinched his fossils. A bit of a sad novel though.

On the other side of the road, someone was growing apples:

They looked tantalisingly red and shiny and delicious. I wondered if that mightn't have been an easier and better way to lead his life, if Mr Bercet hadn't been so determined to make a mark, to be seen as a great individual. But then again, look what happened the last time someone started thinking about picking apples.

The world is full of strangeness - and most of all of strange people. Mr Bercet's tower is certainly quite an achievement and, in a certain sense, a sight to see. Whether it is, to use the Michelin phrase, "worth a detour", depends on how much time you have to spare. I'm not sorry I went. Although I wish I hadn't seen some of those sculptures. Too late now. Once seen, things cannot be unseen.