It is extraordinary how a thin cloak of mist can change a landscape. Early this morning the dog took us for a walk out at Berthem. The mist deadened the sounds around us, obscured the horizon and blurred outlines. I thought we’d seen the last of the hares, but we saw no less than six of them, quite deliberately silhouetted on the crest of a ridge. In the picture is a favourite tree, a fairly young oak tree that stands alone and seems to drift among the fields, though actually it is by a dirt track.
As modern public administrations we care about the well-being of our staff. That care extends to encouraging colleagues to eat and drink well and to stay fit and healthy. This morning the two Committees’ medical services, together with the EMAS team, again organised a little exercise in the Bertha von Suttner building. Those who wished to participate had their pulse, blood pressure and blood oxygenation measured on the first floor, and again after they had walked up either to the fifth or the tenth floor. The picture shows me on the way to the tenth floor. Taking the stairs instead of the lift is such a simple way of staying fit as well as saving energy. There is a slight nuance to that in the Committees’ flagship Jacques Delors building. The lifts there were recently given a major overhaul and have become ‘green’ lifts. Now, whenever somebody takes the lift down, the lift conserves the energy generated in order to take people up. Still, unless you are in a hurry, taking the stairs is a simple way to keep fit.
This evening I met composer friend Nigel Clarke for a beer and a chat and, as usual, he broadened my musical knowledge significantly. Maybe I should have known all about Anton Reicha, but I shamefully admit I didn’t. Nigel gave me, as a present, a new disk of Reicha’s string quartets, played by the Kreutzer Quartet, which includes his good friend, Peter Sheppard Skaerved. Later, I listened to the quartets and several were very familiar. What was not so familiar, though, was Reicha’s life. He was a contemporary and lifelong friend of Beethoven who studied with Salieri and taught Liszt and Berlioz. Constantly dislodged by Europe’s endless wars, he was born in Prague and lived in Bonn, Hamburg, Paris, Vienna and Paris again. Among musicians he is as well known today for his theoretical work as for his compositions. He hoped for success with his operas, and I wonder how long it will be before L’ouragan is revived.
I have run the Brussels 20 k every year now since 2008 but this year I was afraid I wouldn’t make it. I got a bad back – the curse of middle-aged joggers – in the US last summer and only started running again about a month ago. Still, I planned a rapid build-up and managed to keep to my programme, getting up to 10 k last Saturday and again on Sunday. I would, I told myself, be happy to get around. In the event, the weather was cool this morning and I somehow managed to start off in a fairly rapid field, getting to the 10 k mark in 53 minutes. The twin problems, as all regular runners know, are the traffic jams on the Boulevard de Souverain and the killer hill of the Avenue de Tervuren 3 kilometres from the finish. Still, when the official time of 1 h 54 was posted I found it a little difficult to believe. That sounds like boasting (and, of course, it is boasting) but this ‘victory’ was much sweeter than the other four. All athletes plagued with injury wonder whether they’ll make it back and when I crossed the finishing line I felt more than a little elated. It has been a long slog back to fitness, but I have made it – for the time-being, at least! And, as usual, the atmosphere was great. Well done, Brussels, and well done everybody else who competed in or completed the run.
We attended a christening this afternoon. It was a joyous occasion. The liturgy had been carefully prepared. The readings were perfect. The parents were great. The baby was mostly serene. However, potentially there was a slight challenge. The couple were Italo-Spanish, and their parents and families were present. But the Belgian priest who officiated at the ceremony took both languages admirably in his stride, striking up conversations with the youngsters present and dividing his sermon equitably into Italian and Spanish. I was interested to learn that he is one of just three Bollandists left in the world. If this is true, then we were effectively listening to one of the last representatives of a dying association, a living link with the seventeenth-century founder of the association, John Van Bolland. But just as interesting is the nature of the Bollandists’ work. Even if they were not a shrinking association, the number of saints is constantly increasing, and so their work would aways be unfinished, even if they continued. I am sure there is a metaphor in there somewhere. Anyway, it was a lovely occasion.
Mention the Doors’ song titles Riders on the Storm or Light My Fire and the chances are that Ray Manzarek’s keyboard riffs will be the first thing to come to mind. Manzarek, who died a few days ago at the unreasonably young age of 74, remained an active and productive musician after lead singer Jim Morrison’s death in a Parisian bathtub in 1971, but he couldn’t escape the long shadow of the Doors period. The Doors (the group’s name was taken from Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-fueled The Doors of Perception) were very much a product of their time, but the all-important Morrison-Manzarek tandem and the characteristic music it generated was, Manzarek claimed, the product of a chance encounter on Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Manzarek was meditating. Morrison appeared, told him he had written a few songs and started to sing one of them to the sea. On the spot the two men agreed to form a band. What Morrison had sung became the basis for the song, Moonlight Drive. This all might be apocryphal. I’ve read somewhere that Morrison knew what he was doing and had already decided Manzarek was his man – and so, in any case, he proved to be.
Tonight we watched Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 ‘biopic’, Hannah Arendt. It is an intellectually courageous film about an intellectually (and morally) courageous woman at a key point in her thinking and her life. Barbara Sukowa’s chain-smoking portrayal of Arendt is utterly believable. This is somebody who is constitutionally unable to compromise with the truth as she sees it. Flash-backs cover her sentimental relationship with Martin Heidegger and the moral dilemma this came to represent (the subsequently stable figure in her emotional life, second husband Heinrich Blücher, is beautifully played by Axel Milberg). Von Trotta splices in authentic footage of the 1961 Eichman trial, which Arendt covered for the New Yorker. Arendt’s reactions and her evolving reflections on the nature of evil form the core of the film. Arendt famously argued that she was a political theorist and not a philosopher because “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” It cannot be easy to craft a film about a philosopher and her philosophising, but Hannah Arendt undoubtedly works. The film also provides affectionate portraits of Arendt’s friendships (with Mary McCarthy and William Shawn, for example) and of the small, New York-based , German-speaking community of intellectuals that is portrayed almost as though it were the common room of a university in exile.
One of the challenges Odysseus has to contend with in Homer’s Odyssey is an encounter with the lotus eaters – harmless people on an African island rendered apathetic and sleepy through the consumption of narcotic lotus fruits and flowers. Could the opposite of lotus eaters be banana eaters, I wonder? In any case, at the beginning of a long walk in blustery conditions we met these three young people, each in the process of eating a banana as they walked energetically into the wind. It was such a comical scene, as they acknowledged, that they graciously allowed me to take my little picture.
This year’s weather is getting everybody down. It’s cold. It’s wet. Spring was late and never really sprung and it looks as though we won’t be able to count on a good summer either (something to do with the ocean currents and the winds, someone said). So this morning, as we set off for an in-law’s eightieth birthday party in the Ardennes, we were thrilled to see blue skies and, yes, the sun shining. It was perfect timing for the party. But we had thought too soon. On the other side of the Meuse at Namur the weather closed in, and by the time we got to the Famennes it was raining. Worse, the rain got heavier and heavier. It was a disaster, or so we thought, especially since the caterer was roasting a suckling pig on an outdoors barbecue. In the end, contrary to expectations, it simply didn’t matter. Spirits were so good and the occasion was so happy that the damp weather proved to be an irrelevance. Tents and shelters were improvised. Umbrellas produced, coats worn. Evelyn Waugh once explained that the easiest way to infuse a scene with sadness was to make it rain. Well, we weren’t Singing in the Rain, but our spirits were certainly not dampened. On the basis of today’s example, by-the-way, eighty is definitely the new seventy!
This morning the brotherhood went out to the north London suburb where we all grew up. We visited a surving aunt and then set off to call on our old neighbours, an Irish couple, who were very dear and kind to our parents, especially near the end, and who still tend their grave. We hadn’t warned them we were coming. We just called on the off-chance. They were at home. We were welcomed in and hugged and kissed and shown to the ‘back room’ and a new bottle of whisky was produced and the reminiscences began and we were not allowed to leave until the bottle was empty. The Colemans knew us when we were nippers and watched us growing up. We went out into their garden and looked at the house next door that had been home to us for so long. Every part of it triggered endless anecdotes. I looked up at the small toilet window that I used to climb out of when we played hide-and-seek, shinnying down a drainpipe to the garage roof, and wondered how on earth I had done it. Back inside, we went through a list of the old neighbours – all were characters in their different ways and all were now gone. And then, sadly, we started to go through a list of local pubs that had disappeared: the Alma, the Box Tree, the Red Lion, the Case is Altered (both!), the Goodwill to All, the Tythe Farm, the Queen’s Arms, the Railway Hotel, the Duke of Wellington, the Kings Arms… This isn’t the first time I have blogged about the neighbourhood’s disappearing pubs, but I realise that the names are also links with history – most obviously the references to the Alma and the Duke of Wellington. (For any Spanish Head of a SSG Unit who might happen to read this, the Case is Altered is particularly interesting. It may be an apocryphal explanation but, during the Pennisular War, the Middlesex regiment spent a long time quartered at La Casa Alta, and the Case is Altered would be a corruption of that. Sadly, both pubs of that name are now gone.) Still, the visit to our neighbours was a wonderful trip down Memory Lane and an extraordinary example of spontaneous Irish hospitality at its best.