PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1991 - MARCH
6 45, Sunday 3 March 1991, Brussels
As dawn turns into morning outside my dirty windows, a blue sky promises a better day than yesterday’s grim cloudy one. I will go shortly with Fiona to the Woluwe market, which happens just once a month on the first Sunday. Otherwise my day will be made up of the following: cleaning another room of this flat (I have two more to do before I can be sure that, in the future, I will be wallowing in my own dirt and not somebody else’s); a French lesson; reading one of three books I have here (‘The Emperor’s New Mind’, ‘The Faber book of diaries’, Primo Levi’s ‘The Periodical Table’); listening to the World Service; listening to my tapes (it is such a pleasure to rediscover my tapes, I so rarely listen to them in London any more, I think I shall bring more next time); writing up work notes; and cooking/eating. Not exactly the most exciting packet of events to be filling up my days with.
In fact, it would be true to say that I am feeling a little lonely this weekend. My needs are not great since I am not untowardly distressed, but quite often during these days I have memories of Brazil - my situation there and then was similar. I doubt, though, I shall ever get quite as lonely here as I did there, simply because it is never many days before I am heading back to London/Brighton. Knowing that I am always just about to head back to London means I will never get as needy here as I did in Rio for friendship (of one kind or another) to do something about it. How long was I in Rio before I met Elaine? It was certainly three months, but then life was more difficult there, I had to learn the language, and I knew nobody at all. Here language is less of a problem, and I am constantly moving around the Community buildings which are full not only of journalists but all sorts of officials who one can meet in the restaurants etc.
I am very pleased with my new old standard lamp. Unlike all my others it has a stand made of marble and metal (brassy). Just above the heavy marble base there is fancy brass work as the stand narrows to normal width; a few inches above the floor two small brassy cherubs are attached to the metalwork by their bums, as if siamese twins trying to fly off. I could certainly live without this sculptural filigree (the crude comical cherubs contrast poorly with the Roman which stands alone proud, serious and erect on the little side-cabinet). What marks this standard lamp out for a special mention is the bulb and switch mechanism. The bulb itself still works. Indeed it may be irreplaceable for it has three wattages - 40, 60 and 100 - so that when you click the switch once, the bulb comes on with 40 watts, switch again and you get 60 watts of light, switch again and you get 100 watts, switch again and it goes off. Remarkable to think this bulb still works after what must be decades, and what a good idea too.
Yesterday, Saturday afternoon, I gave over to exploring a part of the city. I can’t say there was any part of it I had a burning desire to see, but I was quite keen to explore the area across the canal from here, and then along the canal to Place de La Duchesse, where I had read about an interesting arts complex, Plan K, was being developed in an old warehouse (like Riverside in London I supposed). From there I planned to take the walk around St Gilles which is detailed in my Brussels ‘Confidential’ guide (that’s a name to put people off - I had to carry it in such a way that no one could read the title). Altogether I was out for about four hours, that includes three and half hours in the queue at the GB supermarket on my way home.
All the walk until St Gilles was really quite depressing. The area across the canal from here is perfectly characterless, it is scruffy, quite dirty and the pavements are often in very bad repair. Most of the people I saw on the streets or serving in the shops were of North African origin; many shop signs were written out in French and Arabic rather than French and Flemish. I could find nothing of interest in the area at all. I did find the name ‘Plan K’ on the side of a large red-brick industrial building with four or five stories, but there was no sign of life not then nor apparently for days gone by or days to come. No posters, no information, doors locked and barred, no lights in the windows etc. A little further on, back at the canal, I came across my first excitement - a road bridge in the air. Like a piece of meccano, the short bit of flat road across the canal had simply been raised three or four metres so that a large barge could pass underneath. Incidentally, this is the first vessel of any kind I have seen on this canal. In the middle of the bit-of-moveable-road’ a man sat in a little cabin. Attached to the side were huge traffic lights for barges to see from a distance or in fog, and the road’s front and back had level crossing barriers which were raised once the road was slotted back into its position. I wondered how much trade flowed on the canal to make it worth while to have someone sit in the cabin all day long. If I took Adam to see this bridge, how long will we have to wait for it to be raised?
The next high point came as I slowly approached a huge construction that, from a distance looked like it could be Alexander Palace but on closer inspection turned out to be just a roof of glass held up by similar ironwork. This was the great covered market wherein, during the week, various different sales take place - livestock mostly but also dead meat, cats and dogs, and cars among other things. There are many small service shops around, of course; in one I noticed a large display of different types of wellingtons! Towards the Gare du Midi the area is very Arabic, I see very few Belgians.
St Gilles is a very different proposition. The guide book tells me there is a high density of non-Belgians here too, but it is far less noticeable, the quartier has a much richer, more lively and more characterful feel. Brussels Confidential has chosen this walk - one of only three outside the central ring - because it is full of art nouveau. The writer explains that the main exponent of the art nouveau architectural style was Victor Horta whose former residence is now a museum and on the route of the walk. Victor Horta’s house certainly embodies the principles of art nouveau. It is full of doorways and mirrors and effects which add to the lightness of the space, but one does feel rather trapped within the style, it is all too much. One wonders whether it would ever be possible to put down any item - a book, a jug, a piece of clothing - which did not have an art nouveau design. I loved the staircase which spirals, in a square form, up through the house, but the steps get narrower leaving a wider and wider central space - thus, looking down the well seems to gets narrower. This is absolutely the reverse of any normal stairwell which leaves a smaller and smaller space in the centre as it rises through a house. Moreover, it has beautiful carved banisters, and iron supports are everywhere visible with their ‘natural undulating lines’. Interestingly, the wallpaper in the bedroom looked a spitting image of Morris’ willow pattern (the one we used on the lounge ceiling in Aldeburgh). And then of course it struck me that Morris had been an art nouveau designer too, though I had never lined him up in such a way.
Much of the St Gilles walk was designed to pass art nouveau house fronts where one could notice, if one so desired, the unusual construction patterns of the windows and balconies. I also passed by a huge prison built in the 1870s with white stone in a Tudor style, a bar that sells a thousand types of beer, and an art nouveau pastry shop where I bought a delicious cherry turnover.
6 27, Monday 4 March 1991, Brussels
As with Saturday, I spent a good deal of time walking around the city. In the morning, I went with my neighbour Fiona to the monthly flea market in Woluwe. The stalls make up a long line down one side of a wide dual carriageway, but despite the length the character of the market changes not a whit along its length with stalls at one end being no different from stalls at the other. We took the metro back towards town and the Gare du Midi market. This reminded me somewhat of Brick Lane with its variety of stalls selling cheap new goods, but unlike Brick Lane it has an excellent food section with specialist stalls for herbs, greek foods, cheeses, as well as fruit, vegetables, meat and so on. Clearly people go there especially to shop for food. Perhaps there are markets like this in London, but I don’t know where they are. Fiona took me to a Greek restaurant where you go directly into the kitchen and choose from a number of steaming dishes on the cookers - mousakka, of course, stuffed peppers, meat balls, calamari. The food was good if a bit greasy.
Fiona likes to laugh and will, quite often, when conversation lags suddenly burst out laughing as she remembers something funny from earlier. Sometimes she might tell you what she’s laughing about sometimes she might not. Most of the morning we do joke around. Death is a favourite topic of humour with Fiona! She says it’s best to die at thirty (since life stops then) so she’ll take a lot of pills and a bottle of whisky. I say it’s much better to jump off a high building, but she finds this too dramatic and worries about the time to think on the way down. What about the time to think when you’ve taken all those pills, I say. Oh, you can read a book and go quietly off to sleep. You can read a book while jumping off a high building, I suggest.
My first job of the afternoon is to strip the new table. It seems an easy job since the varnish doesn’t look thick. However, I end up putting three or four coats of Nitromors, scraping it as many times and scrubbing it down as many times again. This is just the surface (covered in heat rings). I have not attempted to strip the legs or the little second table near the floor. She looks nice with her dull oak surface, if a bit strange with unvarnished legs.
Soon after I’d begun this job, Hilde arrived fresh from her brother’s farm with her brother’s dog Max - a frisky black one-year old labrador. She is farm-sitting while her brother goes skiing; this involves looking after all the horses as well as the dog. We head for the centre to look at a giant book which has been constructed to advertise a book fair (Hilde has been told about it). Max has not had much experience of cities, nor of being restrained by a lead. Hilde manages to control him better than I, but the strip of leather she has commandeered from somewhere to act as a lead doesn’t have the strength to hold him and he breaks free. We double the leather over, which shortens it by half. But then he slips out of his collar, so we have to tighten that. Poor Max, the city is too much for him.
Hilde and I talk a little bit about the architecture in the centre. Hilde informs me that the central station was designed by Victor Horta. I try and assess whether it really is that ugly. It fits in well with the other buildings around. A new generation of buildings are just being completed in the centre. They bear the hall-marks of the toy-brick style, which I have noticed is so prevalent in London, but also incorporate style features of the area and blend in quite well. I point out, above the Palais de Congress, a building being renovated. It has a conservatory-type room at the top, towering above its neighbours. For years, I have passed this building on the way from the central station to Porte de Namur (where the Hotel Chambord is situated) and bemoaned its sorry neglected, destitute state. Hilde tells me that building too is Victor Horta.
Iraq now continues to capitulate totally. It is as though Saddam held the strings taught right up until the beginning of the ground war, and then he let them go, or somebody cut them. Iraq appears to be doing absolutely everything required of it by the US and the Allies. A major step forward towards a formal ceasefire was taken yesterday with the meeting between the Iraq and Allied military leaders. I suppose when a force as strong as the US is sitting on a huge chunk of your country and there is no prospect of getting them off without ceding to their terms, there’s not much choice in the matter. The US says it will withdraw entirely once the formal ceasefire is signed.
Meanwhile, the US might be anxious to get out quickly. Civil order appears to be breaking down in Iraq now that Saddam no longer has the will, ability, communications, personnel or whatever to keep control. To establish a new and different government won’t be easy - Saddam has had enough time to eradicate even the most basic of democratic mechanisms. A fundamentalist Shi-ite replacement might combine forces with Iran and prove an even greater threat to future of harmony between Christian and Muslim.
6 49, Tuesday 5 March 1991, Brussels
I’ve seen two films while here in Brussels. There is a wide range of new films within very easy reach of this flat, with the last programmes starting around 9.30pm, so I can get through my evening work programme and still go out. Moreover, without a television, there is more incentive to go to the cinema. Last night I saw ‘Grifters’. The director Stephen Frears is in vogue thanks to ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ (about which I can recall little) and ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (which I didn’t see). ‘Grifters’ has had very good reviews and been nominated for a number of Oscars. Of the stars I only knew Anjelica Huston, who is one of my least favourite actresses. I have to confess I thought the film rather poor. It looked like it had been made in a hurry. The lighting was awful all the way through, the photography banal, the editing atrocious, and the plot’s most interesting part - the enactment of a real con - was done as a kind of not very important flashback. There was no detail in the locations, which were largely hotel rooms, no quirks, no style, no imagination. The music was of the loud thumping, beating kind used by real thrillers in recent years (‘Mississippi Burning’ was a prime example) but without any connection to real action. Even the acting was far from top class. Huston was probably best and remained believable but the other two gave flawed performances - I just didn’t believe in their developments. And, finally, the story was extraordinarily unsatisfying with two violent deaths near the end, and the third of the three characters on the run. Poor, poor, poor.
The other film, ‘Miller’s Crossing’, was a more slick production about gangsterland. The director added a quirky, rather macabre, sense of humour to an otherwise run-of-the-mill gangland tale of betrayal and machine gun shooting. Albert Finney was marvellous as The Boss. It was lovingly filmed with care for period detail and some fine performances apart from Finney’s.
Today I await the telephone engineers. I expect them to perform magic so that when they leave I will be connected to the outside world.
6 58, Wednesday 6 March 1991, Brussels
No telephone. I had not conceived of the possibility that the telephone engineer could come and then decide I couldn’t have telephone; thus when it happened I was really upset - I had not prepared myself. It took me hours to calm down. The engineer came before nine, and I was smiling away to myself. He disappeared into the basement and outside for nearly an hour before returning to tell me that there was no spare line into the building, and that a new cable would have to be put in place. That wasn’t his job, but he would do the paperwork that afternoon. I am now about to leave for my fifth or sixth visit to the telephone office. I fear that if it took six weeks just to come to my apartment to open up a line (and that was extra-special fast because they give journalist’s preferential treatment), how long is it going to take them to dig up the road (oh yes, dig up the road) to put in a new cable. I hope I did not make a prophetic statement yesterday to Fiona when I said that if the RTT tell me it could take months then I will have to think of leaving this flat.
Last night and the previous Tuesday I went next door to watch ‘Twin Peaks’ on Fiona’s television. We now know for certain that Laura’s father Leland killed her; however we are less certain what has happened to Leland’s evil alter ego Bob as it appeared that he flew off, in the guise of an owl. ‘Twin Peaks’ and David Lynch’s direction has certainly lived up to expectations. We have been treated, week after week, to a serial brimming with unique features - plotting, characterisation, humour - fearlessly parodying every whodunit cliche in the murder mystery year book. Agent Cooper treated us to an Agatha Christie (same initials!) type finale in last night’s episode. He gathered all the main characters together around in a circle and then told them that every other method - deduction, tibetan taoism, etc. - had failed so he was going to try one last method - magic. He then made his choice, but it was deliberately a wrong one. There were many other quotations I’m sure but I am not the person to know them. However, there was some Hitchcock in the dream sequences. I had thought last night’s episode was it; certainly the main ends have been tied. The continuity announcer, however, let us know ‘Twin Peaks’ would be back next week. On discussing this with Fiona, we decided there were plenty of sub-plots that could do with some tidying up.
The telephone office has promised the work in the street will be done this month and that the engineer won’t need to enter my apartment again. I’ll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile, Jo, the FT office secretary, told me I should have asked her because she gets telephones done in ten days through foreign office channels!!! One more piece of brilliant news: my answering machine doesn’t work here. Of course it doesn’t! There is some peculiar aspect to the British system which prohibits UK equipment being used simply and easily over here.
13 12, Saturday 9 March 1991, London
I arrived back to find, at the office, Kenny and Miriam rather overworked and disgruntled; and, at home, a vacuum left by Rolf’s departure.
Adam is now three and half. B tells me that he misses me a lot when I first go away, at the beginning of a week after a weekend but then comes a period when he resents me being away. This time, while I was in Brussels, he told B ‘if Daddy really loves me why doesn’t he stay here’. The two of them arrive early in London on Friday afternoon - so I tell them to come to the office. The man from Fingerprint had just left so that all the new Applemacs were on. B is very keen on them, and set to work playing with one of the drawing programmes. Adam had a go on a keyboard.
We have an interesting new challenge to face with Adam. Whereas in the past, most of the challenges have been simple and basic behavioural we are now moving into the more complex realms of psychology. The last weekend I spent with Adam we had a rather ugly confrontation - ugly on my side that is - because during a reading lesson, I became upset and indeed angry at Adam for not being able to do what I expected of him. Without a doubt my behaviour was counter-productive, and worse it is the sort of behaviour that can seriously impair a child’s interest in learning to read. In other words I was doing precisely the opposite of what I was setting out to do.
I have just had an amazing thought: at seven or eight I was transferred from the school on the hill (near Finchley Road tube station) to the private Lyndhurst school because I couldn’t what? Read or write. If it was reading, that opens up a can of worms doesn’t it. Maybe, I am pressing Adam too hard for that reason; maybe Frederic/Sasha pressed me too hard, who knows what sins we pass on.
8 15, Sunday 10 March 1991, London
Mother’s Day: Adam spent a long time yesterday preparing a Mother’s Day card for Barbara. Later, all my mother’s brood will gather at Julian’s to lunch together. The idea is that all the non-Mum’s will do the cooking. Julian is preparing the main course, Melanie the first course, and I the desert.
Soon after my return to the office last Thursday, I went into see my boss, Dennis. There were a number of items on my mind, mostly to do with the re-equipment process. However, I also wanted to get his reply to my request for a salary increase. He turned me down flat - the recession, the freeze on new projects etc. I was sure he couldn’t turn me down. I haven’t had a pay increase since I’ve been at FTBI (except for the inflation increases); I’m now running two newsletters (plus all their supplements); I’m responsible for four times as much personnel time as I was when I started (two full people instead of half a person); I’m playing a key role in the equipment process; the company fraud wouldn’t have been uncovered but for my handling of the attempt to sack Miriam; and so on. Instead, he suggested there might be a way of giving me more money if the East Europe supplement was launched - an editor’s fee or something like that. Why then am I not being paid an editor’s fee for ‘EC Energy Monthly’?
9 46, Sunday 17 March 1991, Brighton
A really hectic week at the office not only in terms of physical work but also in terms of stress. Two parallel stress factors have been gnawing away at me over the last few days, and when waking at night, hindering an early return to sleep: one is my pay level, and the other is the equipment changeover. Since having asked Dennis for a rise and being turned down rather flatly, I have been contemplating writing out a list of the benefits I have brought to FTBI in order that Dennis and John can see them in black and white. I have been grumpy all week, and on several occasions explained my gripe to people in the corridors. I was, in fact, waiting for a spare hour or two to sit down at the screen and compose a text; it is through trying to compose it that I would discover whether or not it was a good idea. Events overtook me.
On Friday, Judy Hubbard called a meeting with John (publisher) and Dennis (managing editor) to discuss the East Europe supplement. Judy had been borrowed from Management Reports when Tessa took her maternity leave and has brought a breath of fresh air and professionalism to the marketing dept. Because Judy ran the marketing for my (very successful) East Europe Management Report, she arrived at newsletters somewhat keen on me, and on the idea of the East Europe newsletter. Since Tessa is now returning and Judy will be leaving, next Friday, for another job altogether, she was anxious to get something moving on this newsletter before she goes. In the meeting, John did most of the talking; round and round he went tightening the essential idea that I should put together a PROPER launch document (slight laughter over the idea that he might be suggesting I hadn’t done things in a proper fashion in the past - of course he wasn’t). He suggested that he and Dennis had a very good chance of getting a launch for this project approved even though there’s a freeze on new projects; and that I could aim at a net loss of perhaps up to £50,000 in the first year. I maintained a rather stony silence through all this. Commenting only briefly when it was essential for me to say something. I said I had had no ideas yet, and that I would need to think about it at length; the equipment change over was taking a lot of my time.
After the meeting, Judy quizzed me on my coolness. I told her that I had two reservations: one was that I had no confidence in Tessa to be in charge of the marketing and, secondly, that management could not expect me to develop another newsletter when they had rewarded me not one whit for my past achievements. Judy said I should talk to John directly; instead I explained all this to Dennis (in the corridor because others were in his room). Half an hour later, he called me back into his room. Firstly, he said, I could have Louis from the marketing department (i.e. not Tessa) who is considered one of the best. Secondly, about money, he said there were three things he could do: raise my salary but that won’t be possible until October or the end of the year; give me a merit award, I’d be at the top of the list but there’s no money for it at the moment; or pay me an editor’s fee for running the East Europe newsletter when it is launched.
I respond that that was not good enough, he was saying no more than the last time we spoke. I then became a little emotional and emphasised I had already set up a newsletter without cost and not been rewarded a jot while others run failing newsletters and get rewarded handsomely. This sent Dennis, poor man, into a bit of a tither, and he was about to promise me payment for the East Europe supplement instantaneously, but before he finished the sentence he began to realise he might not be able to deliver on this. Moreover, I went on to help him out, I was spending £300-400 a month of my own money on rent in Brussels for the wretched company. Ah ha. Well there is no reason why you can’t charge this through expense. Put in a monthly claim with documentation, he said confidently, and I’ll pass it. This, I have to confess, would be a great relief. On the basis of this, the promise of an added payment for editing the supplement, a merit award eventually and maybe even a salary raise as well, I felt I could go ahead.
In fact (of course) I am very keen to move on the East Europe project since getting extra resources will relieve the strain on Kenny and Miriam. When management actually wants you to do something that’s the moment to bite for recompense; but this is the first time I’ve ever been asked to do something specific.
A pause for colour: Just before lights out, I ask Adam about the photo of nursery people on the wall. He names all the children and teachers for me, and then I ask him which of the children is the roughest, ‘Jack’. Which of the children cries the most? ‘Emile’. Which of the children laughs the most? ‘Me’. He giggles, I laugh and then give him a kiss. Minutes after turning the light out he is fast asleep. This son of ours is real gem.
Back to the grime and grey of the office. Through the last week it has become increasingly apparent that our new technology - Applemac computers and Microsoft and Quark software - is not going to bring magic solutions to the business of newsletters. I have not yet done the training course (I go on Monday and Tuesday with Dennis), but I have already assimilated a lot of the processes from Miriam and Kenny, and through practice of my own on the machines. Moreover, having already learned several software packages over the years, one begins to feel the capability of new programmes without necessarily knowing their ins and outs. My impression to date is that the system is not right for our needs; Quark especially is going to prove more complicated than our old system. Although, I have no doubts about my team’s ability to do the job next week (produce EER on the Macs, indeed we have given away all our old computers), I do have doubts for the rest of the office. I have been instrumental in slowing the big purchase order down, and in delaying it for the results of a real test of system i.e. my team producing live newsletters and not the Fingerprint team doing it for us. A lot of people and large sums of money are involved in this project. I don’t really have an official role to play in guiding the implementation of the new equipment, yet throughout the last week I have increasingly taken the view that there has been insufficient preparation and consultation. I haven’t finally made up my mind, I will do so after my training and after we have produced EER on the machines next Wednesday and Thursday. I have already put out warning signals, not to Dennis yet but to Tony Johnson, the project leader, whom we have borrowed from FT Southwark Bridge. He has taken them seriously and passed on my worries to Fingerprint.
Unfortunately, Dennis has no idea at all of the complexity of the process we are now undergoing, and has relied wholly on Tony Johnson’s advice, I suspect. Tony says he was only brought in at the beginning for a quick bit of advice but has been sucked into the process more and more. Now he plans to spend most of next week in our office, so concerned is he. Tony, in fact, runs a huge department at Southwark Bridge - over 50 people he tells me - they deal with all manner of technology problems including modems. Indeed (and to digress for a moment), I am indebted to him for getting one his staff to investigate my problems in Brussels. Through his help, I am reliably informed that Brussels has one of the most difficult telephone systems on which to run a foreign-made modem, and that, almost certainly, I am going to need to buy a local one, which could cost up to £600.
A quiet pleasant weekend in Brighton (I write this on the train to Victoria). On Saturday, Adam and I do one of our usual trips - down to the sea for a play on the pebbles, and then a tour around the shops. I bought a few shirts at Marks & Spencers, some tennis shoes for me, and some blue shoes for Adam at Kays. That young boy is so good when walking round the shops, and through the streets: he is almost unbelievably uncomplaining. He keeps up with my pace of walking by half running most of the time, but without needing to be chivvied along; he groans not about going from shop to shop; makes no demands for cakes or drinks; sits or stands quietly in a shop if I am looking at the merchandise. In the shoe shop, we have to wait 15-20 minutes, just once or twice he asks quietly why do we have to wait so long; he causes no trouble and doesn’t need monitoring.
He has an excellent aptitude for numbers, so we do quite a lot of arithmetic and geometry lessons. I show him the magic of numbers and shapes. However, he is somewhat behind on his ability with a pen, his drawings have scarcely moved on from the scribble stage. I think this lateness has much to do with the fact that his handedness has not finally settled down: when drawing, he still moves the pen or crayon backwards and forwards between hands every few minutes. Until the brain (or teaching, or whatever it is) settles the issue, he’s going to be a bit handicapped. It may be that by keeping a parallel development going in both sides of his brain for a bit longer than usual he could gain some advantages; on the other hand, pass a certain point beyond which it becomes really difficult to catch up (development windows in genetic unfolding certainly exist - before which a particular ability is unlikely to emerge and after which a particular ability might be difficult to reclaim) and the symptoms of dyslexia might begin to show themselves. Thus, I think it is time that Adam moved on with his drawing and writing ability and so have determined that he should only use his right hand.
This morning we went to the swimming pool. Although Adam still has a number of problems in the water, he does grow in confidence. He happily plays on the steps within his own depth for ages, seemingly without getting bored. Occasionally we go for forays into deeper water and I make him kick his legs and today (for the first time) to really float on his own. I tried to explain about breathing and we did a joint duck after one, two or three. It distressed him for a second but he didn’t complain. He met a nursery friend Daniel and I met Guy Doyle and his lady Liz.
7 44, Tuesday 19 March 1991, London
Only one potential lodger has come to Aldershot Road to see the front room. Clare, at 23 and just out of university, is closest in type to previous lodgers. Although somewhat nervous, she appeared intelligent and reasonably mature. I have a suspicion I will take her. In any case time is running out before my next trip to Brussels.
The Liberal Democrats won a stunning by-election victory in the Ribble Valley some days or more ago. This is good news. I believe (and hope incidentally) that the centrists will win a portion of power at the next general election. I’ve said it before and say it again, I think people now want a greater degree of fine control over the policies of this country; the way to get it is through proportional representation and breaking up the two-party system. The previous SDP may have been stronger and more glamorous but it was too early, the timing was wrong. Now, people want it, and so they will vote for it, regardless (within reason) of the state of the centre party.
Chaos continues to brew in the Soviet Union (Gorbachev’s referendum has proved rather inconclusive); in Yugoslavia (where the prime minister has resigned and the Republics are mobilising their armies); and in Iraq (where civil war now rages.)
Wednesday 27 March 1991, Brussels
The days here are fine if somewhat cold. I have come with A and B who are settling down well in the flat. Adam goes to sleep in our bed until it is time for us to go to bed, we then transfer him to a floor bed in the lounge. His cheeks are so red we wonder whether something is wrong. B has not yet fully recovered from the last weeks and days of term when she overdid it a bit. Although she gets tired quickly, she is well excited to be in Belgium, in Brussels. I left them this morning at the Park while I went to the FT office and then to the Commission. B let A play a long time in the Park playground before visiting the St Michele cathedral and the Grand Place.
Our trip from London yesterday was relatively easy and pleasurable. We left Aldershot Road around 6am thereby missing most of the heavy traffic. In fact the journey took over an hour and a half so we arrived with about 50 minutes to spare before our 8.30am departure. High winds were delaying some ferries but our ‘Pride of Bruges’ left, half empty, in good time. Although the captain promised us a bouncy ride, the sea was not so rough as to leave passengers vomiting in corners. B felt a bit squeamish; A loved it. He had no problem developing his sea legs. The four and half hours passed by without problem. A played in a small children’s room full of large plastic shapes. While I tried to sleep on the comfortable foam in there, he covered me with shapes, and when I would have none of his game, he found two teenage girls to talk to. B had prepared a full-scale picnic. There wasn’t too much to see overboard since the weather was grimy. A and I had watched the Dover cliffs before retiring inside, and then occasionally observed a passing tanker or cargo vessel through the dirty window next to our seat. I retired for an hour to read my book on language and species. We arrived in Zeebrugge on time at 2pm, local time. I was somewhat worried about the entry into Belgium because of my new computer and a large blind.
Sasha had persuaded me to transport a large blind for his partner here in Belgium, Louis. Louis, apparently, had been unable to buy this sort of blind in Belgium and had chosen to have it made in London. Neither he nor Sasha had, however, quite figured out how to get it across the Channel. Dad worried me slightly by suggesting I might get done for customs duty or something, and he had duly prepared some paperwork, declaring that the large blind was worth just £75, and that it was secondhand. The wretched thing only just fitted inside the car: it straddled the back and front seats coming to rest somewhere in the vicinity of my gear lever, and was thus rather visible. Moreover, I was also carrying this Applemac computer (upon which I now write - more of this anon) without any paperwork to speak off. I need not have worried in the slightest. We drove off the ferry with barely a second look from any official. Within ten minutes, we had left the main road to a cute village called Lissewage which boasted a huge and rather magnificent brick church. We strolled quietly round the church and its churchyard pleased to have arrived in Belgium, and to have such a peaceful walk as the start of our holiday.
Friday 29 March 1991, Bruges
A long day today out on the road. We spent rather an abortive day yesterday around Brussels so I decided we should get out and about. We drove south to Namur, and beyond to Dinant. We must have left the house around 9am and we weren’t back until 7pm, but I can’t say we did or saw anything really special. So many attractions, of one sort or another, are not open until April or Easter. We tried an amusement park at Walibi near Wavre but this was not due to open until the 31st; gardens at a chateau along the Meuse between Namur and Dinant were similarly closed. Our first stop was at Gembloux where a market was in progress. The stalls seemed to stretch throughout the town streets, clustered in a central dip above which a church tower dominated. At the top of the high street and above the town an old beguinage - now an agricultural college - proved an attractive setting for some photos.
Adam was in fine spirits, wanting to rush everywhere: to and from the fountain in the college grounds, in and out of the market stalls. In the coffee bar, on finishing his juice, he immediately moved over to another table to try and play with another child. He has such a facility for engaging strangers into play or talk. On the boat, he talked to two teenage girls for ages, much longer than I could manage. And B reports that on the train, recently, he talked to another three year old in a ga ga voice, and then proceeded to have a real conversation with the child’s mother.
After Gembloux we drove straight through to Namur and quickly found a parking slot next to a small park. We did not, however, find a place to eat lunch quickly. We strolled through much of Namur’s attractive centre (many of the houses on its main shopping street - Rue de Fer - still have their original domestic house appearance above the ground floor; the street’s appearance though is somewhat cluttered by the lights and giant snails strung across like Christmas lights every twenty or thirty metres.) We were wondering around the centre around 1pm but we could not find any restaurant or bar where people were eating. The take away chip shops were crowded and people were eating sandwiches in the street but nobody seemed to be eating in restaurants and neither were there any busy cafeteria type places, usually so common in city centres. We eventually settled for a place wherein there were at least two diners. B ate the fish menu of the day, while I ate the veal. We shared our courses with Adam, but it was all heated up with a microwave.
We chose not to ascend the citadel on the hill between the rivers, just as we also chose not to climb the 408 steps to the Dinant citadel (the cable car operates only from April/Easter) preferring to make our way back to the car via the cathedral. We had been in several cathedrals and churches by then, my favourite remains the plain brick church at Lissewage just out of Zeebrugge. Namur cathedral is different for being all white on the inside, well, cream. It looks like one hell of a painting job. Adam’s first task on entering a new church is to find the organ. He’s not yet fully mastered this, failing to look high enough on some occasions or unwilling to scour all the sides properly. I haven’t much to say about these religious places: I’m very glad they are there, since they provide a focus for our humble tourist aspirations; they can be relied on to provide a place to go in any town or city; they are the most interesting and numerous human extravagance; and these ones in Belgium seem to have a fetish for extraordinarily ornate wooden pulpits.
The drive to and from Dinant along both sides of the Meuse was probably the highlight of the day. The land starts to undulate more, and for much of the stretch the river cuts through cliffs and makes its way steadily down through small hills. Long barges ply backwards and forwards with oil products or cargo while an occasional pleasure vessel can also be seen. Large houses tend to line both sides of the river. At Dinant, we parked and walked a little along the river. All day long the sun has shone but there has also been a biting cold wind.
Saturday 30 March 1991
B drinks her tea in bed, Adam still lies asleep on his makeshift bed on the floor in this room
I was about to say last week, but of course I have been in Brussels all this week so I mean the week before. The week before this one past, we produced our first issue of ‘European Energy Report’ on the Applemacs. The process was far from simple, indeed I would go as far as saying it was quite traumatic. I have said all along that using Microsoft Word/QuarkExpress on the Applemacs would be more complicated process than the old Newswriter system. We proved it, but nobody has any interest in putting a stop to a more complete changeover of our office. Certainly the computer company would never turn around and say, I think you are better with the old system; neither my boss, Dennis, nor the FT guy, Tony Johnson, could say so either. And now that we have the new machines, it is our interests too that everybody else has them. Moreover, as I said to Kenny, I don’t have the stomach to fight this one through and I would gain nothing out of it. So with the Applemacs we will go.
Given that understanding, I made it my business to press for a different approach from here on. Our own conversion has suffered from a) too little preparation, and b) too little examination by Fingerprint of what it is we do. Consequently, the week we went live was a mess. Fingerprint people were in all week, and yet we were still unable to get a decent looking document. Well, it didn’t look too bad but, for example, the columns on many of the pages did not justify equally at the bottom; and the spacing of some lines and headlines was awry. Fingerprint’s training person has been in the office all week, and has spent a day or more with Kenny and Miriam. That is after all the training, all the help we got while going live, and all the extra bits of help we’ve had from being the first (i.e. experts in and out of our room all the time). One of the main problems was that styles and templates were set up in the training sessions too hurriedly without enough preparation. It needed, and this is one of the things I have stressed, the training person to come and see what actually happens on a newsletter production page - not any newsletter but the specific newsletter whose editors she will be training in the next few days. The key to this project is understanding the complexity of what it is we are doing and, in consequence, making sure there is adequate preparation. I have also suggested that the process of converting the office should be slowed down, so that each group gets its new equipment (hard and software) and its preparation only when the last group is up and running without too many problems. I think the preparation should include a full discussion of what hardware, software, training and on site help each group will need. Moreover, no group should have to convert, since there will be plenty of spare Sirius machines around for those who want to stay with the old system. An order for conversion of groups should develop logically depending on which group lobbies hardest to be next.
I won’t be there for the next edition of ‘European Energy Report’, but Kenny and Miriam are already far more expert in this software than I am.
I see Raoul a couple of times. Once in the week when we dine at a popular pizza house in the King’s Road. And on Sunday we meet with the children in Holland Park. Holland Park is a smashing place to meet because of the animals, woods, buildings, and, not least, the excellent coffee bar. Matilda is now walking confidently and needs more attention since she can wander off down the path or sit at the bottom of a slide. We talk on this occasion a little about the pharmaceutical trade. I tell Raoul about my articles in ‘Pharmaceutical Business News’ and the EC’s attempts to develop a central evaluation agency (I send him some copies from the office later). He then tells me about a new anti-cancer drug he has developed for Ciba-Geigy which should be released this autumn. It sounds like a hot story, especially since the drug has not been patented but, at the same time, is likely to be used for many breast cancer patients. He cannot tell me the relevance of his forthcoming article in the ‘Lancet’ on the subject.
Between us, Barbara and I, are building a very mediocre impression of Brussels as a place to be on holiday with children. Having traipsed around the streets of the Marolles this morning to see the flea and antique markets, this afternoon we thought we would try the children’s museum which is not, as in London, a museum of childhood, but rather a museum for children. We had to trek out to the Ixelles suburb only to discover the museum was shut for Easter this Saturday as well as Sunday and Monday - just when most parents are in search of entertainment for their children. In the small park next to the museum, there was no playground! Nor was there a playground in the parks along the Etang d’Ixelles, nor in the park around the Abbaye de la Cambre. We then proceeded to walk as far as the start of the Bois de la Cambre but cars were clearly more important in that park since the entrance was a huge great roadway - no sign of any playgrounds anywhere. Poor mite, he spent the best part of the day just running along the streets after us. We played hide and seek in one of the parks which he liked, and I carried him on my shoulders sometimes which cheered him up.
Sunday 31 March 1991
Easter Sunday in Brussels. We might go to the Grand Place in a little while to see the flowers and birds (will they be there on Easter Sunday morning?) and to a service in the cathedral or even the Basilique.
All round, today turned out better than expected and better than yesterday. After breakfast we walked to the Grand Place to see the flower and bird market. It is a pathetic market for both products, and one wonders how it survives. The only saving grace is that it takes place in the Grand Place. Adam loved looking at the canaries and parrots in cages, although B was quite upset by the sight of so many distressed birds. Does anybody come here to buy birds, or are the sellers just paid by the tourist authorities to turn up once a week? There were only a couple of flower stalls, hardly a market. There were more photographers than birds or flower stems. As usual, mid-morning we took a coffee and a pastry. We strolled on towards the cathedral St Michele. Somewhere along the way we discovered that the clocks had gone forward and that we were much nearer the time (12:30) designated for a trumpet recital than we had thought. In fact, when we arrived at the church, it was packed and two trumpet players were busy entertaining the crowd. Before many minutes had passed, one elderly cleric and his long-haired junior descended from the altar area, so everything seemed to be finished. Many people left. Others entered and took seats. The trumpeters started again, playing very similar tunes. We really couldn’t work out what was going on - the cleric was back on his seat with a different junior by his side. Still, Adam enjoyed the music, and I enjoyed seeing the cathedral for the first time. It has been cleaned up and appears very light inside with its high clear windows. Beautiful stained glass and a series of a large sculptures on columns along the nave make the church quite special. We visited the only half-ways decent playground we know of, the one in Brussels Park, before heading home for lunch.
Generally, we have been very undecided about what to do or where to go, and I have tended to make the decisions with very little notice. During lunch, I decided we really ought to go to Antwerp Zoo this afternoon, to give Adam a treat. Although I think of Antwerp as quite distant, I have to keep looking at the map to reassure myself that it is only 30 miles away, and consequently just 40 minutes by car. Really not far at all. Reading my ‘Blue Guide to Belgium’, however, I came across an entry for the National Botanical Gardens. I can’t quite believe my eyes. How is it we have got this far without discovering that such gardens exist. There is no mention of them in my Brussels guide (‘Brussels Confidential’) nor in the children’s guide to Brussels.
We race off after lunch since I plan to stop at Meise where the gardens are and then arrive in Antwerp in good time for the zoo which shuts at 5pm. It takes us barely ten minutes to find the National Botanic Gardens. We are surprised by the activity: many people are parking cars and going into the Gardens. In fact, it seems, the gardens have just opened (an hour earlier) for the first time this year, hence the number of people. The grounds are very pleasant, with a chateau and lakes, although there is very little of botanical interest. The main attraction is a giant greenhouse with a dozen or more rooms. We pay a nominal fee and follow a trail through the hothouses (along with a fair crowd of others). This proves a real treat for all of us: for Adam because he enjoys the unusual climate and scenery, and we spend a lot of time talking to him about the leaves and fruits (bananas, coffee, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, date palms, cacti, and water lilies among others); for B because looking at plants is absolutely her favourite past-time; and for me because I enjoy looking at plants, and because I am happy that A and B are happy. Adam gets shown. After the hot-houses we stroll around the pleasant grounds and take a coffee in the orangery before returning to the car. It is too late to go to Antwerp for the zoo, so we return to Brussels.
On the way home we take the opportunity to have a look at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur which so dominates the skyline in the northwest part of the city. One guide book claims it is the fourth largest church in the world. It is an extravaganza, if I can use that word, and huge. Inside, the church manages to maintain both a sense of its huge dimensions, particularly with the sight-lines which include the giant dome, but it also manages a sense of intimacy in some parts. The overall style is art deco more than anything else with a strong emphasis on rectangles and straight edges rather than curves.
Paul K Lyons
Copyright © PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG