Mary-Kay Wilmers

‘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.