Brussels is a magical city. Its walls are covered in cartoons, it has a river flowing beneath its main boulevards and some say its colossal Palace of Justice contains a portal to another world. This being the case, it’s no surprise that members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are frequently inspired by it. Here, we share some of the stories, poems and whatnots about the city we’ve chosen to call home.
- David Ellard – The Statue’s Tear (poem)
- David Ellard – Brussels: City of Crazy Paving & Maniac Architecture (essay)
- Sabine Sur – The Witch and the Devil’s Fiddle (short story)
- Kate Morrison – Just an old bar (poem)
The Statue’s Tear
By David Ellard
I must have walked for half an hour or more
Without a clear sense of time or direction
Just impending emotional doom
Until I came across the statue
A man with a trilby
On a pedestal in the park square
And the man was crying
A tear that seemed to reach out
From his century to mine
And the tear was so sad and fresh
Like the soft slippery autumn leaves under my foot
But when I looked down
I saw that it was just dogshit
So I wiped my shoe, for my face was dry
And thought about losing you
And it wasn’t the losing that hurt
But the lying that preceded
The punctured illusions and false promises
That you loved me
But that was just bullshit
And I see that it was all
My hopeful myopia, soft focus
Resolved now into harsh clarity
And the statue looked back at me
With petrified indifference
And I saw that the tear on his cheek
Was just birdshit.
Brussels: City of Crazy Paving & Maniac Architecture
By David Ellard
When deciding which European capital should host the headquarters of the European Union, our leaders were certainly spoilt for choice. There was cosmopolitan Paris or London to consider, or the beauties of Rome, the bustling nightlife of Madrid or easy-living, balmy Lisbon, or then again traffic-calmed Amsterdam with its multitude of attractions.
But instead they chose Brussels to be the self-styled “Capital of Europe”. I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been small-town Luxembourg City or, God forbid, soporific Bonn. Many a German public servant would sympathise with the wish that Konrad Adenauer could have been born somewhere just a little bit more exciting.
Hence I find myself newly arrived here in Brussels, one of a whole horde of multi-lingual multi-cultural multiply-overpaid apparatchiks all beavering away at fostering the “common European destiny”, whatever that may be. And my first impressions of the city that is to be my new home? What struck me about Brussels when I first arrived can be summed up easily enough – crazy paving and maniac architecture.
I’ve been checking the European Commission Staff Regulations to see if any mention is made of shoe allowance. I’ve been walking round the streets of Brussels for three weeks now and I’ve already broken one pair of brogues. Multiple impacts with vertiginous pavement edges, with cobblestones, upthrust from the surrounding street level like some peculiar geological formation, have broken off the sole of my right shoe. Welcome to crazy paving, Brussels-style.
Belgium is, of course, mostly as flat as a pannekoeken, but the pavements of Brussels somehow manage to undulate anyway. Sometimes these undulations are relatively gentle, recalling perhaps the Downs of my native land. At other times they are positively Himalayan. At the moment, I’m working on the theory that this is all due to some peculiar sort of local tectonic micro-climate.
It’s not even as if the pavements here are reliably unreliable. Sometimes you’ll get quite a long stretch of good, flat, well-laid paving. Lured into a false sense of security, you glide purposefully across the smooth surface until smack! you hit the one piece that sticks out from the otherwise flawless whole.
It’s difficult to know how to combat this menace. You can try walking along with your eyes fixed firmly downwards scanning terra infirma. The problem with this is that you then start colliding with large objects looming in your horizontal rather than vertical line of view like lampposts or other people not looking where they’re going (they’re also checking out the pavements). If you’re really unlucky you might wander off the sidewalk altogether onto the road itself where you will be entirely at the mercy of the humanitarian whims or otherwise of Belgian drivers. Now don’t get me started on that subject.
Also, if you wander around Brussels with your eyes entirely downcast you’ll miss out on the architecture. Belgium is actually quite famous for its architects. When swotting up on possible answers to that inevitable Trivial Pursuit killer question: ‘Name five famous Belgians’, you might like to add in Victor Horta, one of the pioneers of the Art Nouveau style, to your current, I suspect rather brief, list. Victor, however, is not responsible for any examples of that school of public building design which seems to pervade central Brussels from the Cinquentenaire Arch to the Royal Palace and which I like to refer to as Maniac Architecture.
Maniac Architecture is probably best described by saying what it isn’t. If it’s got taste, decorum, modesty, a sense of scale and place it’s probably not Maniac. If it’s got triumphal arches supported by lots of faux-classical columns and surmounted by crested eagles or wild-eyed warriors swinging dangerous-looking implements on the backs of horses, it’s an odds-on favourite. Maniac Architecture is brash, it’s in-your-face. It wasn’t designed by committee, it was designed by an egomaniac, and probably a mad one at that.
Actually I’m quite fond of Maniac Architecture. Whether Stalinist wedding cake, Ceausescu’s neo-classicist reconstruction (demolition?) of downtown Bucharest or Speer’s Teutonic designs for the Third Reich’s imperial seat in Berlin, there’s something unabashed about it all. The problem with Democratic Architecture is that design by consensus is often a case of selecting the lowest common denominator, and at the lowest possible cost. Look at any public building built in the nineteen sixties if you don’t believe me. Egalitarianism and architectural merit just don’t seem to go together. Would the glories of the pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the temples of the Mayan Indians have come about if they had been constructed on the orders of politicians subject to re-election by universal franchise every four years? I think not.
The problem with architecture conceived on a grand scale is that it needs a grand setting. And the problem with much Brussels architecture is that what would look suitably imposing amid the imperial follies of London, Paris or Berlin looks just a little bit silly in a medium-sized city in the middle of Belgium. Perhaps it was all part of some sort of compensation complex. You know the thing. Small country, big monuments. But as we all know, it’s not the size of the nation that counts but what you do with it.
Yet I can’t help thinking that maybe Brussellians of past generations knew something we don’t. Perhaps all these delusions of imperial grandeur are not delusions after all. If the Euro-federalists get their way, perhaps Brussels really will be the hub of some European superstate where a few triumphal arches and the like won’t go amiss. It’s certainly something to rue over as you plod along a Brussels street on the way to work, but don’t rue too long or you’ll probably trip up on some uneven paving and do yourself an injury.
The Witch and the Devil’s Fiddle
By Sabine Sur
When Violet looked at the Hardanger fiddle in the glass case, she saw a young man sitting next to it, a bit cramped against all the other Scandinavian string instruments. He was barefoot, wore trousers and a coarse woollen shirt. His face lit up in a grin when he saw her.
She moved closer. The other visitors in the Museum had not seen him, even though there were quite many of them.
“Hello, young lady. If you can see me, that means you are… a witch,” the man said.
“Indeed. A witch away from her homeland, sent on a formative journey,” she said.
“Would you like to hear my story?”
“I was born in Norway, in the region of Hardanger, at the end of the eighteenth century. My name is Askel. My father and my grandfather were musicians. This fiddle, with its double set of strings, was passed on to me when I was seventeen, that is to say three years before I died…”
A stout man with infra-red headphones shoved Violet, trying to hear the recorded melodies visitors could listen to when they stood on a certain spot close to the cases. He half-mumbled an apology and shuffled around, perplexed. Askel glared at the intruder.
“You told me that there was beautiful music here,” the man whined to his wife, a stick-thin woman. “I can’t hear a thing!”
She pushed him away.
“You’re doing it wrong, let me show you…”
She tiptoed around and over the spot, to no avail.
“It’s not working here. Let’s go.”
The couple decided to go and see the museum’s most prized possession: a piano that sounded like a harmonica. Violet and Askel were left alone.
“I learned to play when I was old enough to hold a fiddle,” Askel said. “And I had my instrument enchanted by a troll so it could play without my intervention…”
Violet gave a brief laugh and made to leave. Even though she had good reason to believe in magic, there was no such thing as a self-playing violin.
“Don’t go! I was joking,” he said. “In the region, fiddlers were supposed to say that they left their instrument to a troll, which would cast a spell on it so it would play by itself. Doesn’t it sound much better than saying you practised for hours while your grandpa hit your fingers every time you made a mistake?
“But people did not believe any of it?”
“They did. If they hadn’t believed in stories, I might not have died so young. Our instrument has always been surrounded with legends because we thought they made us look mysterious. But they are not completely false. This instrument has its own magic…”
Askel stroked the upper set of strings with a phantom bow, producing high notes; the set of strings lain under vibrated, emitting a hypnotic and harmonious drone.
“The first time I played at a ball, I was nine, and I got into a trance. I played all night but I do not remember a thing, only what my father told me. The other villagers had rarely had such a fine dance, they said. My father snatched the violin away from me at dawn. I slept for a day and a night after that, and earned everyone’s respect, and their fear. At church, during the Sunday service, the priest warned everyone against those balls, our music, our violin. I didn’t care. I was wrong.”
An announcement came through the speaker: the museum was going to close its doors in fifteen minutes.
“Don’t leave me…” Askel said.
Violet hesitated. She did not want to act like other witches she had seen abroad, shallow people who thought they could bend the rules because of their abilities, stealing things by deactivating antitheft devices, using their power of invisibility to spy on people. Violette respected rules, because they were the foundation of fairness, and she liked the idea of a fair world.
“I can teach you to play it,” Askel said.
She did not reply, but went to the top of the museum instead of going down towards the exit.
He waited for her as the lights went out.
Askel was the only ghost among string instruments. He knew an Ashanti warrior among wind instruments, who was always angry about something, and a group of pleasant Tibetan monks who played all day long on their bowls for visitors, who did not suspect they were hearing live music from performers in an unsurpassed state of meditation, going strong for five hundred years and counting. The afterlife was not so bad at the Museum of Music Intruments, and he was safe. But he was done with safe. He wanted to see the world, and most of all, he wanted to live again. He had been trying to attract visitors’ attention, hoping to entrance one of them enough so he would take him home. He played his best melodies, his most sophisticated improvisations, and sometimes went into trance just like the good old days. Visitors did go to his fiddle, but nobody had noticed his presence in all these years, except the occasional sensitive persons, who thought they were hallucinating and walked away, and the even rarer witches, who were unfazed by ghosts and did not really give him a second glance. This girl was a boon. If he could convince her, freedom was his.
He heard a series of short breaths, and although he could not make out her slender silhouette, her neat haircut, he knew it was her. He was in with a good chance.
“Let me show you what my violin can do.”
The bow lingered on the upper strings, and the strings underneath hummed ecstatically. Coloured threads flowed from the violin in the case, mingling and forming moving scenes that changed with the music. Violet saw a barn, a teenager and his violin facing a group of dancers. Some people sat on benches against the walls, looking down on him and whispering in a rough language she could not understand.
Another sequence came. A man wearing straggly black clothes walked towards the village, clutching a Bible. He knocked on doors, begged for food and shelter, then ranted about the devil and the apocalypse. People listened to his words, quick, blunt and rocky, delivered in a merciless tone.
“When I was twenty, an itinerant priest came to persuade villagers of the necessity of giving up on sin to live a pure life. What did they do then? Did they just let him talk? Did they stand for what used to give them so much pleasure, protect musicians, my family, people they had always known and who had done them no harm? No. They decided it was time to destroy those ‘Devil’s fiddles’. They made a ceremony out of it and built a bonfire for our instruments. Satan would not have done it better—people bent on exterminating the Devil become devils in their turn… I ran away with my fiddle. I just wanted to hide it in a safe place. I tripped on a stone and broke my neck. And so I died…”
Violet looked at Askel, curled up, holding his violin in his arms. The ghost lost himself in his thoughts for a while, playing a slow melody. He spoke again.
“Luckily, a friend found me before the others. He hid my fiddle away. I regained consciousness as a ghost and never left my instrument—it became a part of me. I went from hand to hand, even crossed the ocean and lived for a while in the North of America, hanging on the wall, looking at a family of immigrants who took their meals and learned English in front of me. Then I went into a garage sale, then in an antiques dealer shop… Until the day the curator of this museum found me. And so I found myself in this big glass case. But I have been there for years, and I am bored. When I was alive, I wanted to see what was there beyond our hills. I wanted to see the world…
“You saw a part of it,” Violet said.
“Not enough. Never enough. My violin is for making people dance, making them dream, giving them joy. I want to play at a ball again. I want to teach what I know. I want to catch up on what I did not live.”
“Lots of people come here. They listen to you. You give them a bit of happiness.”
“And you think that’s enough for me? This is not what I want.”
Violet stepped back.
“What is it that you want? Do you want me to take you out of your case?”
They stood in silence.
“Do you know that it would be theft?” she said.
Askel managed to reply with a calm tone of voice.
“How come you are in a museum at this time of night? Isn’t anybody waiting for you at home?”
Violet did not reply.
“Isn’t anybody worried about you? Maybe you could use a companion, someone you could confide in, somebody who would look after you.”
“No. I like being on my own. I have too many people worrying over me in my homeland. I am finally enjoying my freedom now.”
Askel gritted his teeth when he heard her sarcastic tone. He had not found the right angle.
“Well, I would respect your space. And I would teach you how to play.”
Violet tensed up. This instrument was rare, and she could use it in ways Askel certainly did not imagine, back in her land…
“Wouldn’t you like to do this?”
Askel played soft, sweet sounds, punctuated with pizzicati, that crawled under Violet’s skin, silenced her concern, suppressed her thoughts—the witch breathed in rhythm as music imposed itself on her, sumptuous, triumphant, as luminous as the Devil.
Violet reached for the case and fumbled, trying to find the lock. She could only make out the mother-of-pearl decorations on the Hardanger fiddle. A beautiful instrument it was, with an entirely decorated surface. Surely the police would think it got stolen to be resold, and look for it with antiques dealers, violin makers.
Askel, who had been practising for this moment, used the violin to emit a sound that de-actived the alarm and the electronic locking system. Violet grabbed the fiddle and clutched it. She had to get out. She clambered up to the last floor, where the terrace was.
As she tied the violin against her torso with her scarf, she looked at Brussels under her feet. The gardens of Mont des Arts were illuminated. Mismatched Flemish houses and heavy rectangular buildings were cramped together as if they were playing a good joke on the rules of architectural consistency. She went out, let the cool air prick her skin a little, and flew off.
She landed shortly before dawn at the top of a desert hill in the Ardennes. She untied the violin and tuned it patiently according to Askel’s advice. The ghost lay on the fresh grass and looked at the receding night. Violet played a few clumsy notes. After some stops and starts she managed to salute, with long and harmonious notes, the rising sun.
Just an old bar
By Kate Morrison
Nicotine-stained turquoise walls of funkiness
What scenes were contained within
Jaunty young men
Upon threadbare green velveteen barstools
Drinking trappist brews
Crooked wooden balustrades of mystery
Where gazes glanced down from above
Beneath incomplete flea market chandeliers
Sipping vivid cocktails
Dented yellow piano keys on a grand
With a blackened belly encased in dust
Silent, forlorn ghosts
Mourning an echo of this musical shroud
Reliving dazzling nights