In Flanders Fields

Somehow, between my two trips into the Himalayas, I allowed myself to be co-opted as chauffeur for a four day trip to into Flanders. I well remembered the hospitality of the pretty little hilltop town of Cassel and gave myself up to whatever piece of arcane research my friend Chris had in mind with the stipulation that I at least be able get the picture-book city of Bruges ticked off my list at last. After having my car checked over and renewing my alcopops (the French police require you to carry your own breathalyser tubes) we set off from Dover on this latest excursion.

Satellite navigation seems to have improved since the last time we tried this and there were definitely fewer unintended diversions but I did need to be reminded that “go round the roundabout, take the second exit” actually meant anticlockwise. When at last the annoying talking box told me “you have arrived at your destination” I proclaimed that I intended to honour my French ancestry with a few glasses of bon vin and that Chris could jolly well walk around Cassel from now on.

And the champagne did indeed flow freely at our first engagement. I will probably never quite comprehend how an event commemorating the WW1 artist, Sir William Orpen, came to feature a super-serious Beat poet complete with black roll-necked sweater and a heavy-handed grand piano recital. Simultaneously. Despite being surrounded by an enraptured audience, I did manage to discretely hit the record button on my mobile phone, stifle my giggles and drink as if my life depended upon it. Ask me to play it back to you sometime if you don’t believe me.

The following day passed in such a pleasant haze, with the lunchtime drinks continuing into the afternoon and then segueing into an equally well-lubricated dinner, it is hard to pick out many of the details. I’m pretty sure that I found myself surrounded by charming Irish people at times (ah! The Orpen connection – they must have been the other invitees) and blithely acting as translator to all and sundry. There was a deep and meaningful conversation with a silver fox of a Dublin lawyer about the possibility of my obtaining an Irish passport before Brexit. I’m not quite sure what I may have promised him in exchange but I’ll probably find out when Chris asks me to accompany him on the next trip.

The gathering broke up on Sunday morning and we set off for Bruges via a backcountry tour of a few of the most remote First World War graveyards. It seems strange to admit it now but when Chris and I visited this region ten years ago I did not even know that I had two great uncles of my own, buried in these tiny plots that still sprinkle the countryside of Northern France and Belgium. Some are really hard to find, despite the meticulous record keeping of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and we criss-crossed the border several times for, despite being only a few miles apart, one lies in France and one in Belgium.

What these sites lack in the grandeur of huge monuments like Thiepval or the Menin Gate at Ypres they make up for in intimacy as each of the immaculately tended gravestones hints at a devastating personal story. These loses cast such a shadow over subsequent generations that many families pretty well wrote them out of the narrative as they struggled so hard to survive the devastating influenza epidemic and the poverty of the Great Depression that followed the War. Mine certainly did. We knew the names, of course, for both men had left young widows and infant children but until Chris did the research for me neither I nor my cousins had any idea where they were buried.

But it wasn’t long before I quietly allowed those lines of research to be abandoned. The demise of Gunner James Schofield of the Royal Field Artillery and Private Cyril Deuxberry of the Canadian Infantry Battalion was followed by more heartbreak for the family. Evidence from the Ocean Liner records of the time records such sadness and poverty as the survivors criss-crossed the remains of the British Empire in an often fruitless search for a better life overseas. Perhaps the family legends which did survive, those of a generation of women who fought hard to support each other into the professions of teaching or medicine will be better suited to the understanding of today’s children who, after all, regard this period as a piece of distant history.

With so many WW1 Centenaries being commemorated at the moment it hadn’t been difficult to ask my grandchildren to prepare some brightly coloured bunting and cheerful thankyou cards. As I silently acknowledged my gratitude to those local people who take such care of these graveyards, we left the tombs festooned with scarlet poppies, flags and messages and headed on to the remarkably intact medieval city of Bruges.

Along with Domenic, an Irish friend of Chris’s who’d tagged along since Cassel, we set about “doing” the City of Chocolate and Lace in the traditional fashion. Perhaps our “traditional” horse and cart driver had been having a quiet week or perhaps he was a relative of one of the more typically garrulous London cabbies but my question about a Flemish Independence movement brought forth a positive tirade against the Belgian government. Now, I’ve kept up with the recent demonstrations and imprisonments in Catalonia and, of course, Separatism is on everyone’s mind in the not-so-united UK as it staggers towards Brexit but Belgium? Belgium: model of conformity and a founder member of the EU? Just what had this particular equestrian “tourist exploiter” got to complain about? Does he want free dental treatment for his horse? As far as I could make out it was something to do with Western Flanders not getting a big enough share of the Brussels pie. As if the centenary of Bruges not getting blown to Kingdom Come like the rest of the country wasn’t enough to assuage his sense of injustice.

We clippety-clopped around the cobbled streets for a bit and then found the art galleries were shut but I was able to congratulated myself on three remarkably “Bruggian” achievements. First I climbed all 366 steps to the top of the belfry without getting out of breath, then I managed to find a couple of tasteful souvenirs and finally a hurried text conversation with my sister, Bea, took me to the delightfully esoteric Lumina Domestica or Lamp Museum. It may be tucked in behind the much more popular Museum of Chocolate but this attractive and highly personal collection of beautifully crafted household objects exhibits the genuine charm that so much of the rest of the city has lost.

Categories: Europe

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