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‘Adjustment, no matter how comfortable it appears to be, is never freedom.’ David Reisman said that in The Lonely Crowd, a work of academic/pop sociology, published in the US in the late Forties; much read and remarked on at the time, and now forgotten. I looked it up the other day when I was due to say something at the South Bank Centre in connection with the Cities on the Move exhibition at the Hayward. Reisman divided social behaviour into three categories: ‘anomic’, ‘adjusted’ and ‘autonomous’. ‘Anomie’ is bad – everyone knows that – and something that has long been associated with urban life. But who could be sure, as David Reisman was, that an ‘autonomous’ citizen, no matter how uncomfortable, was better off than one who had taken the trouble to adjust – unless they’d told themselves that adjustment was un-American, the sort of feebleness Charlton Heston might despise? And if you could choose one or other way of being which would you go for? And where would you live?

I had been asked, specifically, to say something about cities I’d lived in and those questions are ones that I find troubling. I was born, not long before the Second World War, in the United States, where until the age of nine I lived in a succession of different towns and states, of which New York was the last, the place from which I left the country for good. I didn’t know at the time that we weren’t going back; and it was only later that it occurred to me that I’d spent the rest of my childhood in some sort of exile.

We were moving – it was now the late Forties – to Europe. More particularly, we moved to Brussels: a dark, rainy, unfriendly, unseductive, unappealing, charmless city. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to say any of that. For one thing, I wouldn’t have been allowed to: Brussels was where we had to be and if I didn’t like it, it was because, my mother said, I was unwilling to make the effort. David Reisman perhaps would have been pleased with me. I found it all very difficult. Again, we moved often. Not that it mattered: I don’t remember knowing the neighbours or playing with the children next-door or downstairs, as everyone did in the States. There was a tennis club to which families like mine belonged but very few places where one could detach oneself from one’s family. I missed the comic books (missed them all the more for not having been allowed to read them), the roller-skating rink in Central Park, the Lexington Avenue drug stores, the Hershey bars and Hamburger Heaven: all important markers of a New York child’s place in the world and signifiers, too, of a world in which there was much to desire. Belgian children ate the same serious chocolate as their mothers and fathers ate and didn’t have places of their own to go to: they stayed close to their parents and wherever they went walked behind them like the Duke of Edinburgh behind the Queen.

What I remember most clearly, besides the gloom and the rain, is the formality: having to shake hands with my classmates three or four times a day – schoolchildren and office workers always went home for lunch – and being told off for all kinds of things that were nobody else’s business, like eating in the street, or sticking my tongue out at children I didn’t like the look of. My father was quite a prominent figure in what was, in the days before the EU, a very small world and I was known as ‘the little Wilmers girl’, whose misdeeds were inevitably seen by someone who knew who I was and considered themselves obliged to tell tales. ‘In the devious world of Villette,’ Tony Tanner said of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, most of which is set in Brussels, ‘everyone spies on everyone else, the watcher is watched with a minimum of eye-to-eye contact. It is a very voyeuristic world.’ Baudelaire, who also noted the spying, said it was boredom that led to it.

When I was 14, in the early Fifties, I was allowed to leave. My father was English and I was sent to an English boarding-school. Which is how, eventually, I came to live here. Wondering what to do with myself after I left university, I took up some unwelcome advice I’d been given and went every day to a place in Kensington High Street where young women were taught a few secretarial skills. On my first morning, as I came out of the Tube, I was alarmed to hear someone shouting a bit further up the road. ‘Alarmed’ because I thought something might be required of me. A minute later a mad woman stormed into view: she was quite well dressed, not a tramp or a beggar, but a straightforward middle-class mad woman, addressing the world. That sort of thing seemed to happen quite regularly around there, with women of different ages but similar habits. And no one ever paid any attention. Without doubt, London was the right place to live.

My family left Brussels in 1960 and several decades went by before I thought to go back to have a look and found that I hadn’t imagined its dreariness: Brussels, it turned out, wasn’t a metaphor for my forced separation from the neighbourhood drug store, or a virtual city thought up to express my pre-adolescent or late-childhood gloom. It was in actual fact much as I’d remembered it. The difficulty is to know who or what to blame. You could say that a place that worships an undistinguished statue of a little boy urinating deserves to be held in contempt. But that statue is just around the corner from the medieval Grand’ Place, which the Blue Guide describes as the most beautiful square in Europe. There are plenty of old streets of the kind that are admired in Paris or Bordeaux and some exceptionally nice old buildings; there are trees; the streets aren’t lit with sodium lights; there are shops, there are cafés; the roads aren’t too wide or the pavements too narrow; the art galleries have wonderful things in them, there’s an opera house and an orchestra and all that sort of thing: what’s wrong with it? As a child I might have said food was what was wrong with it. Too much food, too many long meals, too many restaurants, too many fat bellies. I might still say that now but it wouldn’t explain why it’s a city that seems to interest no one, not even Belgians. There are three Belgian writers whose names are known outside Belgium. None of them wrote about their own country. Simenon went to France, Hergé to Tintin-land and Maeterlinck took flight with his bird. And of English novelists, only Charlotte Brontë wrote about Brussels, that ‘great selfish city’, as she called it.

The narrator of Heart of Darkness is obliged to make a stopover in Brussels to collect the documents he needs for his journey. He arrives to find two crones ‘guarding the door of Darkness’, two tricoteuses whom he describes ‘knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Avel Old knitter of black wool,’ he continues. ‘Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again – not half, by a long way.’ Door of Darkness, gateway to the Congo: the association says much of what needs, or needed, to be said about Brussels. I wonder whether the Union Minière, which in my time owned the Congo in much the same way as United Fruit owned Guatemala, still exists. It was one of the few enterprises my parents talked about whose activities I could imagine. The most often mentioned, and most perplexing, was the ominously unparticularised Société Générale, which in fact owned the Union Minière (and thus the Congo) and a great deal besides. Reading Conrad might have done more to alleviate my discontent (‘divine discontent’, my father called it, but I wasn’t so sure) than the many Angela Brazil-type school stories through which I plotted my escape.

Marx and Engels worked on the Communist Manifesto in a house – now inevitably a restaurant – on the Grand’ Place. A few French writers – Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Victor Hugo – spent time in Brussels when for one reason or another they had to leave France. Edith Cavell, the English nurse who said ‘Patriotism is not enough,’ was executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping fugitive soldiers escape to Holland. I was about to say that nothing else happened in Brussels, nothing at any rate to catch the imagination, when I remembered the Duchess of Richmond’s ball and the battle that followed (‘who could guess ... upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise’). But I don’t suppose Byron ever went to Brussels, and the Battle of Waterloo apart, it’s a city without associations. What you see is what there is to see. Geneva, where my family moved after Brussels, is quite a bit duller still, but in my mind it is buoyed up by its past and its connection with larger things. There isn’t even a river passing through Brussels on its way from one place to another: there was one once but it got cemented over. What can be said in its favour is that, unlike London, it names its streets after people who have done something more useful or more glamorous than acquired the land on which the houses were subsequently built. I live near Primrose Hill. What are the streets around there called? Oppidans Road, King Henry’s Road – in honour of Eton College, of course, from whom the land was bought.

In my eyes, Brussels would have been more interesting had it at least been bombed. The one thing I wanted to see, arriving in Europe in 1947 or 48, were signs of the war: but Brussels had been occupied by the Germans and there was nothing to see for that – only whispers and rumours about fat-cat collaborators. One fat cat had a daughter in my class: he wore a camel-hair coat and before long his children were known by their mother’s name. The King, too, was in trouble for having been too close to the Germans. On that matter feelings ran high, and there were stickers everywhere, including my bedroom, in the form of a one-way sign with the word ‘non’ written across it. A referendum took place; the no-sayers won; and the King’s son, the unhappy Baudouin, was invited to reign in his place. In the 25 years between the end of the war and the debacle in the Congo it was the one exciting moment in that city where, Baudelaire said, ‘only the dogs are alive.’

I hadn’t intended to go on like that about Brussels, so I had to tell myself it had some significance as a dystopia of a mild and unthreatening kind. What I’d wanted to talk about was urban oppression more generally and the sense cities can give you of being in the wrong novel or, worse, magazine. New York, for example, was a great children’s book. Now when I go there I feel as if everything I look at or walk past has a frame around it – the seedy parts as much as the affluent. A frame of the kind that is provided by the edge of the page in a glossy – or too chic to be glossy – magazine. From the uptown stoeps and the families sitting on them to the ubiquitous fire escapes, everything that remains of what once made New York so likable has been appropriated by fashion editors; one thing only is still untouched and unglamorised: the steam from the subway that comes up through the grates in the sidewalk. Otherwise, in the parts of Manhattan that I know, from Riverside Drive to the Meat District, it’s all style. Even if I were to walk up and down in front of the Plaza yelling and railing like the former habituées of Kensington High Street – by this stage in my life a dangerously real temptation – I’d probably be thought to be making a fashion statement. I won’t do it, though. Adjustment and freedom may have trouble getting on with each other: what David Reisman seems not to have known is that autonomy can be quite pointless as well as quite painful.

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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 16 · 19 August 1999

Like Mary-Kay Wilmers (LRB, 29 July), who was obliged to move to Brussels, I, too, had to move to ‘a dark, rainy, unfriendly, unseductive, unappealing, charmless city’. The city was Antwerp, and the city my family left was Brussels. Brussels had been for me – this was the late Fifties – a childhood paradise. There were no Hershey bars or Hamburger Heaven, but – much better – the mimosa sold on the city streets in winter mixed with the perfume of roasted chestnuts; and there were streets in my neighbourhood where one could play all day long. In Antwerp (as Wilmers said of Brussels), ‘I don’t remember knowing the neighbours or playing with the children next door or downstairs.’

Brussels seems to be the city Anglo-Americans love to hate. I have lived in Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam and now live in Nijmegen (where no one would have wanted to grow up in the Fifties). On returning recently to Antwerp, I realised that my feelings of hatred towards it had to do with pre-adolescent gloom. At that time any city, apart from Brussels, would have been unbearable. Would Wilmers have been happier in Paris? I doubt it. There were no Hershey bars in Paris either, no Hamburger Heaven. And even more attention would have been paid to food than in Brussels. Not loving Brussels is a cliché, as easy as saying that we ‘are in love with Paris’.

Wilmers writes that none of the ‘three Belgian writers known outside Belgium’ was concerned with his own country. Well, let’s see. Simenon wrote a lot about Belgium – much of his memoirs concern his childhood in Liège – though it’s true he didn’t write about Brussels; Maeterlinck’s symbolism cannot be understood without his Flemish background; Tintin is rightly considered the essence of ‘Belgitude’. And it’s not true that ‘only one’ English novelist wrote about Brussels. Thackeray’s sketches of the city in Vanity Fair – he calls it ‘one of the gayest and most brilliant little capitals in Europe’ – have a joie de vivre. Wilmers quotes Byron on the Duchess of Richmond’s ball: ‘who could guess … upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise.’ Perhaps it would have been more apt to quote from Vanity Fair, where the snobbish Mrs O’Dowd declares ‘that the Hôtel de Ville was not near so large or handsome as her father’s mansion of Glenmalony.’

Eric de Kuyper
Nijmegen

Mary-Kay Wilmers overlooks one literary reminiscence of Brussels which adds a visionary quality to the ‘dreariness’ she associates with the city. W.H. Auden spent most of December 1938 there, writing a handful of poems that encapsulate his disabused state of mind at the fag-end of a low dishonest decade. In ‘Brussels in Winter’, ‘Wandering the cold streets tangled like an old string,/Coming on fountains silent in the frost’, Auden evokes a city which eludes the stranger, where only ‘the homeless and the really humbled/Seem to be sure exactly where they are.’ In the poem’s desolate conclusion, ‘fifty francs will earn the stranger right/To warm the heartless city in his arms.’ The city’s greatest cultural asset, the Breughel collection in the Musée des Beaux Arts, in Auden’s poem of that name merely confirms his disenchantment with a world insensible to suffering and morality. Another poem from his stay, ‘Rimbaud’, entertains for the first time the idea of running away permanently from Europe’s clever hopes and empty promises. The indifference of the city towards human unsuccess led Auden to fantasise, like Rimbaud, Marlow and Lord Jim, some complete break with Europe, only to acknowledge, in ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Macao’, those sketches of a Conradian Eastern world also written in Brussels, that such faraway places are merely unreal, comic-opera reinstatements of the European illusion.

Stan Smith
Nottingham Trent University

Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Diary is rather unfair. But her remarks do illustrate an observation which Fanny Burney attributed to one of the characters in Cecilia: ‘Travelling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building here after seeing Italy.’ The young Wilmers’s ‘Italy’ was New York. I first went to Brussels on a school visit in 1946 with only the experience of war-weary London. I found a magical city full of neon lights, wonderful restaurants and tins of fruit. The sun in that city was always shining.

Brian Taylor
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Vol. 21 No. 18 · 16 September 1999

‘I can hardly imagine anyone,’ Lady Georgia observed, ‘setting out deliberately for Brussels’ (Ronald Firbank, Vainglory).

P.S. Joll
Freshwater, Isle of Wight

As an Englishman who has lived in or near Brussels for some twenty-five years, I was touched by Eric de Kuyper's modesty (Letters, 19 August). In talking about Brussels and Belgian writers he never once alluded to the fact that he is, at least in Flemish-speaking Belgium, held in high regard as a writer himself. His books about his childhood in Brussels, Antwerp and on the Belgian coast are wonderful evocations of times past and, in my view, are required reading for those who want to understand the evolution of Belgium as a country and Brussels as a city.

A.J. Caston
Tervuren, Belgium

Vol. 21 No. 19 · 30 September 1999

Arguably the best known Belgian author over the last few decades has been Hugo Claus. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize (whether deservedly so is a different matter) and is the author of a book called The Sorrow of Belgium. The title belies Mary-Kay Wilmers's statement that Belgian authors are not interested in their country (LRB, 29 July). I wouldn't read it as an endorsement of Wilmers's feelings about Brussels, but rather as an indication that Belgian authors dabble in questions of cultural identity quite a bit.

Hilde De Weerdt
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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