Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I'm in Kortrijk in Belgium, which upon arrival I instantly loved. Just off the main square, is a job centre. After gazing, baffled by the job titles on offer in the window, it occurred to me that if I could speak Flemish, I might retrain, for instance, as a Stikster Beddennafdeling and relocate here. I'm still not entirely sure what a Stickster Beddenafdeling does, though I now believe that it may have something to do with the machine-sewing of bedding materials. Never condemn a thing till you've tried it, though: “Where's Newell?” “Oh, after a brief illness, he retrained as a Stikster Beddenafdeling and moved to West Flanders.”
At 11.30 on a Saturday morning, I'm watching a wonderful Dixieland jazz band limbering up for their lunchtime concert. The Belgians like their jazz. In an almost empty city square, a couple are dancing on the cobbles in front of the stage. The spectacle seems impossibly romantic, in a very continental way. It's as if I've accidentally wandered onto the set of one of those difficult foreign films; the type which only gets shown in the UK by special film societies whose members like sitting on uncomfortable chairs once a month in order to watch stuff with titles like: Monsieur Poupou Goes To Poperinge ( 1957/ dir. Miroslav Muntjac).
Kotrijk, as the crow flies, is only about 150 miles south-east of Colchester and does seem terrifically foreign for being such a short distance away. A wealthy Belgian city of some 75,000 people, Kortrijk in the ancient County of Flanders is famous for cloth manufacture and design.
Colchester, being itself an old cloth town, has a relationship with Flanders, which spans back to the 13th century, probably, beyond. Evidence of the two regions' long kinship is still to be seen in the style of older Colchester buildings, as well in the Flemish roof styles of certain farm cottages which straggle along the coast roads to Harwich and Clacton.
A few years ago, in Arras, just next door in French Flanders, I noticed this roofing style and made the connection immediately. Then I saw another, older Flemish style, an almost Mexican mission-church look, to certain buildings. It was pointed out to me that this was the inheritance of 250 years of Spanish occupation of Flanders. Then as I began to study the rooflines more closely, it dawned upon me that the Spanish had themselves been occupied by the Moors for over 700 years. Could it be, I now asked myself, that in these lines of north Essex's old Flemish roofs there might also be the faintest traces of Moorish influence? 'Architecture soup' is where I'll have to leave it for now
I wandered deeper into the Kortrijk streets until I came to the gateway of what looked like a private square with a stately acer tree at its centre. Since nobody stopped me, I kept walking, discovering that leading off the main square were several other small streets and alleyways. The place appeared to be a tiny town within a town. It was extraordinary. At first I took it to be a monastery, half-expecting an angry monk to appear and order me out. Yet, still nobody came and so I padded curiously down its empty cobbled lanes, like a cat, all the time noticing the strange old buildings.
The place was, I soon discovered,an old Beguinage: a place once housing a community of people called 'Beguynes' or 'Beguines'. The Beguines were a religious sect, often widows who chose to live together in semi-monastic circumstances, but without any formal order. For instance, a Beguine, after a time, might return to the outside world, or even re-marry if she chose to. The Beguines were mystics, and beguinages such as the one which I describe were once common in what used to be known as the Low Countries.
I found the beguinage, extremely tranquil, open to my exploration but possessed of such an atmosphere, that I instinctively kept a respectful demeanour whilst I remained there.
I returned to the previously-deserted city square which was by now crowded with locals, all having lunch outside cafes. So this was the fabled continental cafe culture, which our last government vainly hoped that we would all adopt after the smoking ban? How touching.
Continental cafe culture, of course, works brilliantly here. Because it's the continent. It doesn't work in Britain. Why ever would it? The shirts-off, be-shorted, tattooed, smoking, beer-chugging belching English with their knowing eyes and lewd raucous laughter are fine. In a pub garden.
In a British High Street street or town square it just doesn't work.
One thing about the Belgians,however, at least the ones whom I met, is that in many ways, they do seem rather like us. They tend to be slimmer of figure on the whole and yet, in their faces and the way they quietly are – forget the seemingly impenetrable language – you could almost be in any market town on a sunny Saturday morning in East Anglia. In many ways, this is unsurprising because of the to-ing and fro-ing between our respective regions over the centuries. As for their language: if you have a little knowledge of German and you begin to understand the pronunciation, then Flemish (Dutch) comes across as sort of cross between English and German. “Belgium is Europe's hidden jewel.” a friend told me. Too true.