Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Belgium: a state of mind

In 1995, actor, author and Twitter fiend Stephen Fry walked out of the West End production in which he was starring, Simon Gray’s Cell Mates. Nobody knew where he had gone but it turned out that he had taken a ferry to Belgium; on his return to the UK he was diagnosed as bipolar. A couple of years ago, Fry revealed that just before his disappearance he had tried to kill himself.

I'm off to Belgium this weekend and it occurs to me that the country conjures a particular mindset in English-language writers. The most recent manifestation of this is the brilliantly funny In Bruges, when two assassins, Ray (Colin Farrell, channelling Father Dougal) and Ken, hide out in the city after Ray accidently kills a child. "I didn't even know where Bruges fucking was," Ray notes in the film's introductory voiceover. "It's in Belgium." (Nor is he impressed when they get there: "If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.")

David Mitchell's accordion-like 2004 masterpiece Cloud Atlas features in its six tales the correspondence of a young musician, Robert Frobisher, who has fled to work with a composer in the Belgian countryside. Thirtysomething Edward Manners is another gay character who flees to Flanders – in Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star (1994) – for escape and, possibly, redemption. There’s a sense that in Belgium a person may lose himself and become grounded; by ferry from England it's the first landfall of the European continent. None of these figures take Eurostar or the plane to Belgium (I don't think it's specified how Ken and Ray get there).

In Bruges's Ray contemplates killing himself to atone for his act: "I will have always have killed that little boy. That isn't ever going away. Unless, maybe, I go away." As Stephen Fry showed, in Belgium it needn't come to that. To misquote Virginia Woolf in The Hours: "If it is a choice between Belgium and death, I choose Belgium." I am taking Eurostar.

1 comment:

  1. Check out Nicholas Royle's Antwerp for a thoroughly murderous celebration of Belgium, its beers and its seedier side.

    But it's not just the British looking in who paint the country that way - I'm thinking of the way the Dardennes manage to knock the colour out of everything and uncover the lives that slip between the cracks.

    Or, not strictly Belgian I know, but Flanders a couple of years ago presented a flat land of rain and mud and nasty, animalistic sex. Brilliant!