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Brussels

Off I went on the early morning train to Brussels yesterday morning in order to try and get a sense of place needed for the next part of my novel. It's weird how it takes the same length of time, on the Eurostar, to get to Brussels, than it does Manchester from London. Yet, whilst the train was packed for Paris last week, it wasn't for Brussels. I began with a coffee in the landmark Hotel Metropole on the Place de Brouckere, yet Mary Burns and Fred Engels would never have enjoyed a coffee here, for it wasn't built until the late end of the nineteenth century. Just around the corner from the Hotel Metropole was the English language Sterling bookshop - in a disappointingly modern building. I thought here, if anywhere, I would find a history of the city in the mid nineteenth century, but no, not even here, despite the very helpful and knowledgeable staff. What I did end up buying though was a book on Charlotte Bronte's Brussels - which is good enough - and goes over the same ground as Villette and then that Mrs. Gaskell took in researching her friend's time spent there, with Emily, as both student and teacher at the Pennsionnat Heger (sp). With book bought onwards I went to the Grand Place where I had rather a quick browse around the artefacts in the Hotel de Ville. The square is beautiful, especially the statue of St. Michael up towards the clouds, and has a rich and 'defiant' history ending in triumph. At no.6 Grand Place was my target - Le Cygne - the place where once two men supped their beers and talked and then wrote a certain manifesto... Marx and Engels. Yet on the plaque on the wall of what is now a brasserie, only Marx's name is mentioned, not Engels, which is a shame but to be expected, and something which Engels seemed to encourage - Karl was the genius, Engels was the practical support - yet he was so much more, having written so much for Marx - his newspaper articles and helping to flesh out and extend Marx's ideas. The main tourist attraction, as I headed towards the ridiculous Mannekin Pis, was a young black woman who had stripped to her underwear, her handbag on the rain-soaked cobblestones, her clothes strewn, shouting in French. A crowd had gathered and several of these idiots started to take her photo, and then, as the police arrived to talk her into their car, pictures of them also! I went on to the Cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula. Once you've seen one cathedral (and I've seen many) you've pretty much seen them all. But the stained glass windows were special - vibrantly depicted biblical scenes in bright reds, luscious greens, the bluest of blues, and the most hopeful yellows. By this time half my day was gone so I hot footed it over towards the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts, but stopped on the way at what was rue Madeline, where a certain Charlotte Bronte had once come into Brussels, and Putterie. Apparently there is a Charlotte Bronte plaque to tell us that she once lived on a house behind, which I'm assuming was where the Rue Isabelle was, a small section of which remains.
I bought a combi-ticket which would get me into the Magritte Museum, the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art, but in the end I didn't have time for the Magritte. The works in both Ancient and Modern parts were badly lit and so I found myself, particularly in the ancient arts part, walking round quicker than I normally would, but then, I prefer the eighteenth century onwards anyway and don't find that Rubens does it for me. A couple of sculptures caught my eye - L'humilite and Charite - the former of a woman holding a skull, contemplating mortality and the latter with children at her feet, one of which I found enchanting. The modern part was altogether more successful, although I had to go deep into what felt like the bowels of the building. There were many works here I was struck by, particularly a series of work by Leon Frederic and Eugene Laermans, one of which was The Drunkard. The museum has four works featuring a drunkard, surrounded by his/her poor children and spouse, which I found interesting in itself. Laerman's work I found powerful - the look on the childrens faces in The Drunkard tells their own stories. In Frederic's work I found an undercurrent of criticism of the traditional sitting side by side with a respect and sentimenality of it. In Fiances, a group of three young 'couples' are sat together. Yet only one of the couples, that on the right, seem to actually like each other. The middle couple look as though they have been sentenced to death, and the couple on the left look like a boy who is not attracted to the female form in the slightest and his partner seems to me to know it! Coming out of the Musee I went to a little market of antiques and jewellery before a leisurely stroll brought me back to the Grand Place where I had chips and bought chocolate! I'm not a chocolate fanatic - give me fruit pavlova any day - but I have to say that the chocolate I bought here was something of a revelation, filled with fresh vanilla cream... yummy. Writerly inspiration can come from place - and the tastebuds! And now there is little time for procrastination - I simply must write!

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***


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