For a retired brothel, Hotel Esperance provided an excellent breakfast. My Brussels sponsors had arranged for me to occupy the favoured chamber with its freestanding claw-footed bath, wispily draped Art Deco dryads, fishbowl lights and heavy velvet curtains. The set was screaming for a David Lynch remake of The Masque of the Red Death. Room Three, Hotel Esperance, Finistère: a beacon of hope at the end of a darkening continent. But something embedded layers deep, mephitic and beyond redemption, was present in this city. All the coded signs – the anarchist stickers on lampposts, the compass roses set into hidden squares, the stalled cavalry of pompous equestrian statues and the sharp-angled church towers like spark plugs enlarged by mad Scientologists – were about getting out of the place, slipstreaming the wake of Van Gogh, Rimbaud and W.G. Sebald.
Close to my temporary perch in the respectably decadent afternoon hotel which seemed to be favoured by poets and covert couples, some of whom would slide through the door behind the bar, was the church of Notre-Dame du Finistère, which housed a statue of the Madonna and Child in oak and walnut; a 15th-century devotional figurehead shipped to Brussels from Aberdeen. It must have been a nice refinement to lie in bed, in post-coital reverie, listening to the sanctified chime of the neighbourhood bells. The Madonna, Notre Dame du Bon Succès, was said to be responsible for many miracles. I was waiting there for my guide, the poet and essayist Adolfo Barberá. This man, with his alert brown eyes and glinting spectacles, had firm plans for my visit to what he called ‘the capital of accurate dreaming’. He would walk with me to Waterloo. Sebald had written about this excursion in The Rings of Saturn: ‘The very definition of Belgian ugliness, in my eyes, has been the Lion Monument and the so-called historical memorial site of the Battle of Waterloo.’
Did I know, Adolfo asked, as we set off at a brisk pace towards the canal and Molenbeek, that after the brothel stopped trading some of the ladies had remained, a sisterhood in slippers and woollen stockings, knitting and chatting, helping out with the bar and kitchen? I knew nothing and I relished my ignorance. It was a holiday keeping my notebook shut while I listened to Adolfo, who paused and smiled, with a nod of complicity, after every nugget of information. We were not making fresh discoveries, but confirming a thesis already walked, composed and waiting to be broadcast.
It was important, he stressed, to appreciate the nature of Molenbeek as a community, not just of demonised immigrants but also of recent and politically committed incomers, including the architects who had invited me to Brussels to screen a film, made in 1998 with Chris Petit, on the brick wall of their converted postal warehouse. The arrests of Morocco-descended suspects from the district after the Paris attacks in 2015 had stained Molenbeek’s name with tabloid anathemas. Adolfo came here weekly for therapeutic ceramics classes and arranged poetry readings in the crypt of the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Knocking on the priest’s door and being trusted with a key, we climbed the concrete tower of this 1930s curiosity, designed by Joseph Diongre, in order to catch the morning spread of the city and see the wooded ridge we had to climb in order to get on the road to Waterloo. The church felt proudly ecumenical, as much mosque as white Catholic periscope. The ascent, with spindly handrails, grids of shadow and a looming bell, recalled Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The cold tower was tight and claustrophobic and we struggled to identify the jigsaw of communes through the slats of giant shutters. Adolfo gestured at our theoretical advance into a limbo of back projection. ‘I might be lost,’ he said, ‘but I know where I am.’
Crossing the working canal, after familiar dunes of aggregate, drained bottles of Hertekamp jenever, poplar avenues with the first spring buds and blank hangars occupied by Sports Direct, we struck off south-west, towards the battlefield. mort à l’état: solidarité avec les prisonniers anarchistes. Invitations to action faded into cataleptic suburbs, the grandiose offices of lawyers and tax avoidance specialists where golden dogs yawned at muslin-draped windows. Villas became mansions. Dentists gave way to the discreet clinics of plastic surgeons. We were on the military road, or a permitted track beside it, in the cough of snarling weekend traffic. Through all the miles of hamlets dominated by US service personnel, the tidy estates of Euro functionaries, and the secure parks of exiled kleptocrats, I never questioned whether this journey was necessary. Adolfo was propelled by the memory of an obligation, in his early legal days, to drive out here to a country club where he could play a nicely judged losing game of tennis with his boss. A tactical politesse that always went awry, since Adolfo invariably missed the turning and had to push on to the next junction, before heading back, mindful of lost reading time.
‘The moment he came upon a tennis court he grew frightened to see how quickly time was passing.’ Adolfo stood at the roadside, lifting an imperious arm, pleased to have recovered the sentence he needed from October Long Sunday, the only novel by Guy Vaes to be translated into English. Vaes, it turned out, was the undeclared agenda of our expedition. We had two or three hours ahead of us, in which, heady on petrol fumes and the piney resin of the forest margin, my guide could construct his portrait of a Francophone poet from Antwerp who was preoccupied by London.
‘London,’ Vaes confessed, ‘is a predisposition of my character.’ He was a nightwalker in the tradition of Léon Spilliaert, the Ostend painter; a connoisseur of suburbs and out-of-season resorts where impatient dunes threaten to bury speculative housing. Vaes repeated his established circuits, testing for pavements in which ‘the Elsewhere had taken root’. There were psychogeographical superimpositions after the fashion of the Situationists, or the Surrealists, with whom he had closer affinities. Vaes was delighted to announce that he had found the precise stretch of his own port-city that was a ‘quarantined, distant relative of what’s left of ancient Rotherhithe’. He stalked twilight zones, dowsing for echoes of Conan Doyle, Arthur Machen and Thomas De Quincey. We are commuters, he wrote, ‘struck by a quarantine whose extent escapes our measuring instruments’. After wartime displacement to Bordeaux, and the horrors of typhoid, he returned to a shuttered Antwerp, drained, estranged from himself, capable only of exploring his father’s comprehensive library. Convalescence was transformed by a gift from his cousin, a copy of The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson.
These glimpses were a romance of the road. Adolfo was feeding me titbits from twice translated interviews. But his portrait of Vaes, so decisively sketched, fired my selective misreading. The fiction of our weary march is that Vaes, confined to his father’s house in a city under occupation, begins to devour fantastic London literature. A labyrinth of cobwebby associations opens up to him. He produces a speculative essay, perhaps under the influence of a book he never found, but from which he regularly quotes: The Soul of London by Ford Madox Ford. He haunts the special collections of a Jewish bookseller who warns the young man, on the telephone, that he will very soon have to ‘disappear’. The discovery of authors such as John Cowper Powys, about whom Vaes knows nothing, is paralleled in his reinvention of London districts such as Kensal Rise, Shadwell and Fulham. Remaining in Belgium, he finds another London with which he is comfortable: a ‘malleable’ capital with more appeal for a committed wanderer than Paris, with its too obvious attractions and literary canon. The moment comes when Lydie Vaes convinces her husband that he has to break the spell and travel to the metropolis he has already mapped and colonised. The poet returns from London with a bulging portfolio: grey photographs of burial grounds.
Incoming phone calls were becoming increasingly frantic and increasingly difficult to hear against the surf of traffic. Adolfo danced into doorways, hopped on walls, scampered down the line of stalled cars, trying to locate Bruno Goosse, a conceptual artist who was due to meet us on the battlefield. Bart Vonck, an old friend of Vaes’s, and the man who had translated his poetry into Dutch, was already out there waiting for us, as he had been for hours. There weren’t many trains. He had drunk his coffee, smoked a few ruminative pipes and paced the car park, clutching a shoulder bag of books. Now, in late afternoon, collar up, he was feeling the chill.
The elegant arrangements made by Adolfo, this highly qualified and erudite lawyer, were always being undone by the incontinent press of time. He wanted to bring us together in a quorum of disparate influences, beside the hideous imposition of the lion, which stands on a conical hill that looks like a grassed-over nuclear silo. We could then walk the field of slaughter, sharing our visions, somehow redeeming the place and the moment.
I remembered the first time Adolfo came to Hackney. As a fastidious translator, he felt the obligation to walk over every reference in my poem Lud Heat. Line by line we unpicked obscurities; yard by yard we inspected docks, bunkers, pubs and churches. It was only after I had known him for a few years, and the translation job was done, that I discovered something about Adolfo’s double life. He had arrived on my doorstep straight from 11 Downing Street and a conference with George Osborne and Sajid Javid. He remained the soul of discretion about these matters, but I understood that as well as sustaining a network of contacts with poets and art activists across Europe and Latin America, my guide was a shadowy adviser on the legalities of the endless Brexit non-negotiations.
In companionable silence, and various combinations of polite misunderstanding, we took the path to the battleground. ‘A bleak field,’ Sebald said, ‘and a number of ramshackle buildings in a sort of village, which consisted solely of souvenir shops and cheap restaurants.’ Bruno had surveyed the ground by way of redundant miniature golf courses, ‘fragments of Scotland imposed on a foreign land’. Bart had brought two books by Vaes that I would need for my as yet undiscovered task: the 1963 declaration of affinities, Londres ou le labyrinthe brisé, and the 1978 photo survey, Les Cimetières de Londres. ‘Renewed by its vegetal excitement, condemned to a brief maturity, the Victorian cemetery offers its visitors that rarest of spectacles: a creative death throe,’ Vaes declared. I carried these books, kippered with the scent of Bart’s tobacco, home with me on Eurostar. Against the dim traces of flat fields and neat farms, I began to read histories of a stranger’s London.
Vaes was born in Antwerp, to a bourgeois family, in 1927. His determining characteristic, it struck me, was the pride of the electively self-condemned. He lived and thrived on his difference, choosing to remain at an oblique angle to fashion, publishing a successful novel in Paris, receiving the benediction of Julio Cortázar, and then waiting almost thirty years before releasing another. Living in a Flemish port, he wrote in French: his liberal parents having migrated to Antwerp from Brussels. He was a poet, but he had to secure some source of income. October Long Sunday emerged from the tedium of military service and lengthy spells of convalescence. The state of enforced suspension from life suited Vaes: a mood of creative boredom, reserved erotic potentialities and remembered walks that might or might not have happened. Journalism was a compromise, not a vocation. As was the necessity of working in Brussels while preserving Antwerp as the city of his soul, the terrain where he could project himself into the London of his admired authors. ‘Bogus journalism’, as Vaes called it, had its attractions. Obliged to chase a story on Singapore, he did his research, all the tedious economic and social bits required by fact-checkers, before he left. ‘I did that precisely so I could walk around without thinking of the demands of the job,’ he said.
The poet’s London was a literary mausoleum edited from quotations. And then, in growing excitement, a place actually experienced from a number 14 bus, before he struck out in whichever direction his fancy carried him on any given morning. He reviewed films, the least onerous form of journalism, and cinematic prompts from Fritz Lang to Cocteau now merged with neo-realist scenes witnessed in the frame of a smeared bus window. Like Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, Vaes suffered the vertiginous shift from detached observer to implicated stalker, caught in a pan-metropolitan drama of flow.
The more I became absorbed in Philip Mosley’s translations of the essays, the more I identified with Vaes. There was one section of ‘An Antwerp Palimpsest’, originally published in 1993, so close to what I had tried (and failed) to say at that time that I began to think I must have written it. Or that I had been occultly ventriloquised by the same locations. ‘I needed, upon my return from the capital, to eliminate the metastasis of information (spots before my eyes crowding my inner vision),’ Vaes said, ‘in order to try, at nightfall, to renew my ties with what was left of myself.’
‘To eliminate the metastasis of information!’ Vaes is overwhelmed by particulars, by the necessity of aligning a starburst of discoveries with the legend of London he had composed in the safety of his study in Antwerp. Out in the field, rushing from Soho to Bethnal Green, he is ‘resurrected and dying at every single moment’. And so, like Sebald, who shared this compulsion to warp the distinction between reportage and fiction, he animates free-flowing texts with modest black and white photographs that are never illustrations. The images avoid signature. They confirm the fact that the author of these extravagant fugues travelled through a verifiable landscape. ‘This is the text of a man who is keen on walking,’ Vaes wrote, ‘of a man who has guarded, from adolescence to old age, a particular sense of space … I have felt realism crumble in the spool of those streets whose angles threaten the line of my footsteps.’
In Paris, soon after the momentary exposure of October Long Sunday, published in 1956, Vaes admitted to himself that he might be obliged to give up writing. His wife persuaded him to stop procrastinating and make the trip to London. At first, it was a failure. But then, slowly, the magic started to work and a new approach to thinking about place emerged. Now he began, as he explained, ‘to coincide more fully with myself’. He accepted a commission for Les Cimetières de Londres, a publication in which photographs are dominant, with the accompanying text ghosting as an introduction. This is the book that pushed my identification with him to another level: in 1975 he must have been roaming the parks and burial grounds where I was cutting grass and gathering material for Lud Heat. Highgate, Kensal Green and Nunhead were orthodox necrophile plantations, but Vaes also found himself in Abney Park in Stoke Newington and the mysterious suburbs favoured by Arthur Machen. As I looked at the Stoke Newington captures, I was reminded of Poe’s doppelgänger tale ‘William Wilson’. Everywhere I went, Vaes shadowed me. He preceded me. He wandered the unimproved wilderness of Tower Hamlets Cemetery, where, as a parks gardener based in Mile End, I took my lunchtime sandwiches. Twenty-six years later, Sebald’s narrator in Austerlitz, returned from Waterloo, is drawn not so much to a particular map reference, a labyrinth of branching paths and tumbled memorials, as towards the unquiet photographs of Vaes.
Bunhill Fields, St Pancras Old Church, the small park around St John’s in Scandrett Street, Wapping: all the strange fruits of my wanderings were logged and recorded by Vaes. Our paths must have crossed. The final shock came not with the now inevitable portrait of the pyramid alongside Limehouse Church, the cover image I used for Lud Heat, but the quotation Vaes chose to set alongside it. He reached, as I did, for Sir Thomas Browne. ‘To subsist in bones and be but pyramidically extant is a fallacy in duration.’
The dogs of Brussels, less evident than in London, go unscooped. But already, even before lockdown, I had noticed that the canine offerings on our own pavements were not being so assiduously bagged. It didn’t help that Victoria Park, the first of the non-royal parks, the famous ‘green lung’, was self-isolating, padlocked at every gate. Footfall traffic had been kettled to the narrow canal towpath, where an attempt to observe a proper social distance would involve walking on water. Further down the path, considerate constructors were hard at their essential graft, shoulder to shoulder, promoting calming canal views and vibrant market life.
Offered a residency in Brussels in March, in a centrally located apartment generously provided by the Passa Porta ‘house of literature’, I had jumped at the opportunity to re-engage with Vaes on his own ground. ‘Annie Proulx was in your bed for two months,’ I was told. ‘She was researching shipbuilding and she wrote a lovely piece about what she could see from that window, when she worked at the big desk.’ When I walked the long corridor towards the bookshop where my event would take place, I noticed that they were removing the poster for John Banville, the next advertised participant. His medical advisers had forbidden him to take a flight.
Adolfo had never been so conflicted by his double life. Now that Brexit was done, as promised, its interminable narrative had been superseded by lugubrious pronouncements, brittle internet chatter and communal songs about kicking back against the celebrity virus, Covid-19. But the wordy business of not talking continued in Brussels. My translator had attended a lecture by David Frost, former diplomat, CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association and special adviser to Boris Johnson. The man chosen to lead negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal. The Brussels audience was alarmed by Frost’s naked intransigence and his blunt repudiation of compromise. But then everything in the city was out of kilter, speeding up and slowing down at the same time, in an effect that Vaes, as a man of cinema, would have recognised as zooming in (to the scream) while tracking out. Adolfo sent me a photograph he had found: Vaes, balding, sharp-eyed behind thin spectacles, pen in hand, interviewing the producer/director Sydney Pollack, all curls and sideburns, at a café table.
The distancing filter of false memory interacted with the horrors of contemporary Brussels. Messengers kept arriving from the past, struggling through Conrad’s whited sepulchres to the house where he received his Congo commission. All the lines of force snaked into that monstrously inflated folly, Leopold II’s Palais de Justice. I wandered the echoing corridors for hours, discovering a hidden bookstall from which, on one fortunate occasion, Adolfo had extracted antique plans of the city. Lurking outside the Gare du Midi, where economic migrants, trying to live off the stray pickings of the station, fell down drunk in the hall where Eurostar travellers arrive, I looked at a photograph of the boulevard du Midi from 1880, when Van Gogh lodged there, showing the Palais de Justice under construction and lacking its pregnant dome.
I was waiting for Chris Petit to arrive from Rotterdam. We were about to attend a screening of Asylum, a film we collaborated on at the turn of the millennium. He emerged, disorientated, his neat leather luggage like a quotation from Auden and those few haunted weeks he stayed in Brussels in the winter of 1938.
Snow is falling. Clutching a little case,
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.
The screening took place in the Molenbeek warehouse where a group of architects make space for spontaneous performances, dance and discussions. ‘What we try to do,’ they told me, ‘is dissolve boundaries.’ Vaes’s vision of London infiltrating Belgium was made manifest in an inspired projection of mute M25 footage on an oval panel in a glass door. Asylum, with its wilfully degraded surface, opened with a voiceover that I had forgotten: ‘The virus was terrible. It created itself in the protein soup of bad television, with the sole aim of destroying its own memory, the last cultural traces …’
Adolfo suggested a final walk, before we drove to Antwerp to visit Lydie, Vaes’s widow. A prized possession of his was an early edition of Blanchard Jerrold’s London: A Pilgrimage, with the great Gustave Doré etchings. It was a gift from Lydie, chosen from her husband’s library. Now, as he took us past the old city abattoir and the street where ‘the man in the hat’ had been arrested after the suicide bombings at Brussels airport in 2016, phone calls started raining in. First, the Passa Porta event was cancelled. It would be held behind closed doors and filmed. Then Bart was ill and couldn’t travel. Then Lydie was unable to receive visitors. Later we would learn that David Frost and his European counterpart, Michel Barnier, were both experiencing the ‘mild symptoms’ of Covid-19 that at that point seemed to affect senior politicians.
I couldn’t come any closer to the secrets of Vaes and his London project without visiting Antwerp. I knew that he spent the summer months on the coast at Knokke and tried to reach there by tram from Ostend. But it was too late, and tourism felt posthumous and questionable. I got out at Blankenberge and struggled, in wind and rain, to the end of what looked like the last pier in Europe. Time to go home. And back to the books. The tanned pages of the copy of Londres ou le labyrinthe brisé, presented to me by Bart, were still uncut, set aside from the day of publication in 1963. When I sliced open the ‘Justification du Tirage’, I found a faint, pencilled inscription. Inspected with a magnifying glass, it appeared to say: ‘Iain de passe’.