Then and Now: The History of the Brussels Writers’ Circle

The first time I came along to the Brussels Writers’ Circle, I was greeted by a full room of faces. That evening I heard a chapter of a novel, a prologue for a nonfiction book, the beginning of a screenplay and a handful of poems.

It has not always been this way. According to David Ellard, current Chairperson of the BWC and one of the group’s longest-standing members, in the beginning you could never be sure that anyone would turn up at all. He recalls a time when one lone member sat at the table waiting in vain for someone else to come along. On other occasions there would be a decent gathering of people, but no work to critique.

The Brussels Writers’ Group, now known as the Brussels Writers’ Circle, was created in 1997 by Alice Jolly and Melissa Watkins, two aspiring British writers based in Brussels. Now a published author, playwright and creative writing teacher at Oxford University, Alice explains that the BWC was born as a splinter from a pre-existing writing group. The convenor of the original group was quite strict with who could come and who could not, imposing rules that were difficult to dodge since the meetings were held in her house.

Increasingly frustrated with the restrictive nature of the meetings, Alice says, “We decided to move the group and make it open to a wider group of people”.

Settling on an Irish pub called the Sin É, in the early days it seems that the group was marred by its consistent choice of Irish watering holes as meeting venues. The Sin É’s ceiling had fallen in just before the group came to meet there, and although it was repaired, Alice says that the members were frightened of being electrocuted by the new and unreliable wiring. “I think we once met by candlelight.”

The Sin É closed down overnight, prompting the group to move to a second Irish pub*. It’s a venue that Jeannette Cook, member since 2001, recalls less than fondly. “We had to pay a flat rate for the use of an upstairs room which was never heated in the winter, and was never aired or dusted, period. It would have been a nice room as it had a huge conference table and floor-to-ceiling windows but it had crap lighting and heavy, ugly, floor-to-ceiling curtains.”

The hideous curtains of the second Irish pub necessitated the move to the present day Cercle des Voyageurs. It was not the delicate aesthetic sense of the writers towards the curtains that provoked the change in venue, however, but the manager of the pub, who claimed that they had damaged them somehow. Nearly 10 years later, Alice Jolly is still a little bitter about it: “They were curtains you couldn’t have given away.”

Of course the story of the BWC involves more than just the badly upholstered locations in which it has met. Members have reflected on the diverse range of writers to have come and gone over the years. EU civil servants, UN diplomats, journalists, language teachers, social workers, scientists, translators, tour guides, retirees, documentary filmmakers and ‘trailing spouses’: multicultural Brussels has always provided the group with an assorted candy bag of people, speaking a variety of native languages.

The international nature of the group has consistently made the weekly gatherings interesting not only from a literary point of view, but from a cultural one as well. “We’re constantly immersed in another place and time, one week transported to the Code Noir years in the Seychelles, the next seeing life through the eyes of a foreign intern in Japan,” says Stephen Lawson, chair of the BWC from 2005 to 2009.

“There has been a core group of writers but mostly people have come and gone over the years, although they remain with us through their words,” Stephen says. He recalls Lucy Elliott, a now deceased member of Australian-Polish origin, whose autobiographical book, Dead at Twenty, “still haunts us with its message of a woman refusing to get beaten down despite all the adversity in her life.”

From the beginning, the BWC aimed to be friendly and all-inclusive. Although bad and ugly members are inevitable features of writers’ groups the world over, for the BWC these have luckily been scarce. David Ellard remembers a particularly pedantic and aggressive member who gave 20-minute tirades about grammar and punctuation, constantly interrupted and contradicted other members, and was unforgiving with non-native English speakers. David says, “He was the one and only member ever to have been politely asked to leave.”

The group has helped plenty of successfully published authors, poets and memoirists on their journeys. British thriller writer Jeremy Duns read out extracts from his now published first novel, Free Agent, at the BWC in around 2002. Other famous alumni include Australian Murray Andrew Gunn (known to the group as ‘MAG’) whose memoir about life in Bhutan, Dragon Bones, was published in 2011; American John Lash, who has published a handful of books on spirituality and comparative mythology; Reesom Haile, the former poet laureate of Eritrea; and of course Alice Jolly, one of the BWC’s founding members.

Of course it’s not always serious business at the BWC. Although most of the writers are aiming at eventual publication, Stephen Lawson points out that the group has never liked to miss an opportunity for a good time when it presents itself, like when “[former member] Helen threw a poetry jam as an excuse to use up her copious supplies of booze before she left for the States. Yes, we’re nothing if not practical in the group.” Likewise, the annual BWC retreat in Tremelo (Flanders) is almost as much about socialising, eating and drinking as it is about writing.

From the time when one lone writer sat dejectedly waiting for a friend, the BWC has now expanded to the point where two weekly meetings are possible. As ever, although some members attend intermittently, on the whole you can rely on a core of familiar faces to be there every week (including the silent but friendly member who hides under the table**). Consequently, after a while you grow accustomed to the style of particular writers, you shake hands with their creations, and you can almost predict the advice that certain members are going to give.

It’s a productive, ambitious and friendly group, equally keen to offer feedback on the characters and plotlines they’re familiar with as the stories and poems that come along once and then disappear.

As Stephen Lawson says, “Some of us are still hankering for our first publishing commission but we’re definitely having a great time trying in the process.”

*Purposefully left unnamed, as the pub is still operating today
**Kathleen’s Scottish Terrier, Jules

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