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Saturday 23 April 2022

More Memories of 1960s Belgium

When this blog began in 2014, I naively wrote rather long posts – even longer than now. Some exceeded two thousand words. One was “In England They Eat Cat Food” about my visits to Belgium in the nineteen-sixties, part of which I reposted earlier this month. Here is more.   

My overriding impression was that, even after twenty years, the Charleroi region was still recovering from the economic privations of war. Hugo lived in a coal mining region in a house without mains water or sewerage. It was grimy and industrial – how I imagined parts of Yorkshire in the frugal 1930s. 

Hugo’s dad took us on sight-seeing trips. We climbed the Lion’s Mound, a conical hill with a stone lion on top marking the site of the Battle of Waterloo. In Brussels we saw ‘le mannekin pis’, a hideous, two feet high, bronze fountain of a naked boy urinating into a basin. We visited the Atomium, a bizarre, futuristic, three hundred foot, nine-sphered construction in the form of an iron atom, a gleaming statement of post-war confidence erected for the 1958 World’s Fair.  

But post-war confidence seemed in short supply. We went several times by ancient tram to an equally ancient cinema in Charleroi. Neither the trams nor the cinema looked as if they had been painted since the 1930s. I sat through endless French films listlessly monitoring the slow rotation of the only thing I understood, an illuminated clock at the side of the screen labelled ‘Tic-Tac Pontiac’.
Charleroi Trams in the 1960s

In Charleroi there was an old-fashioned street fair of a kind unseen in England since before the war. One stall was an ornately decorated fighting booth where all-comers were invited to challenge boxers and wrestlers for a share of the takings if they could survive three rounds. The Master of Ceremonies banged a drum and goaded passing men with accusations of cowardice and feebleness. This, together with the provocative posturing of the fighters, quickly collected a crowd which goaded and postured back. 

Perhaps the crowd contained provocateurs to raise the temperature. Things started to become volatile. A scarred but muscled boxer looked much too intimidating for anyone to take on, but one of the wrestlers, a bald thin chap hardly bigger than me, with an effeminate leotard and ridiculous handlebar moustache, soon attracted a challenger who impudently threatened to pull off his whiskers. The pre-show was probably more entertaining than the fight itself – I don’t know, we didn’t pay to go in. Why oh why didn’t I take photographs?

Another stall had a platform with huge slabs of meat hanging from metal hooks, and a barred window at the back. A snarling black-faced wild man with a bone through his nose peered menacingly through the bars. The showman roused the crowd by cutting off chunks of raw meat and throwing them into the cage for the savage to devour. He then heated a thick iron rod in a brazier until it glowed brilliantly red, and seared it into the hanging meat which spat and sizzled as it burned, giving off clouds of rancid smoke. He reached into the cage with a meat hook, caught the wild man around the neck, violently pulled his arm through the bars, and rubbed the red hot iron hard across the palm of his hand to demonstrate his immunity to pain. Again, we did not pay to go in, but I wonder for how many years afterwards the stall was allowed to continue. In England by then, we were beginning to find the comparatively innocuous Black and White Minstrel Show rather objectionable.

On Easter Sunday we went to watch a noisy carnival at the nearby town of Fontaine-l’Évêque, where a procession of children, uniformed musicians and costumed characters, some wearing enormous papier maché heads, walked through the centre throwing treats to the spectators shivering in the rain and sleet. 

I went out late one night after dark with Hugo and his friends equipped with buckets of paste and wallpaper brushes to put up “Marche Anti-Atomique” posters on noticeboards and any other suitable surfaces around the village, to the consternation of Hugo’s father who declared I would be deported if caught by the police. It goes without saying that we simply ignored any ‘défense d’afficher’ (no bill posting allowed) notices we came across.

Hugo and his friends also ignored the widespread ‘défense d'uriner’ notices, going about their business brazenly in full view of the road, even when caught in the glare of car headlights. But then, a country that has a peeing cherub as one of its main tourist attractions is hardly likely to have any inhibitions about urinating in public.

Hugo’s friends had no inhibitions about smoking and drinking. Neither had minimum age limits in Belgium, and teenagers openly did both without disapproval. A couple of friends flamboyantly smoked the local ‘Belga’, ‘Visa’ and ‘Zemir’ cigarettes, which came in paper packets of twenty-five at a fraction of the price of the cardboard packets of tens and twenties in England,. Like most European cigarettes, they had the distinctive, musty smell of Turkish tobacco, very different from the milder American variety in England. I took a couple of packets home for my dad. I don’t know what happened to them. I never detected their pungent odour in our house. I suspect my mother put them in the dustbin.

The street scenes in this a ten-minute video of Charleroi trams in the nineteen-sixties re-capture my impressions of the place very well. The same YouTube channel also has a clearer video (with sound) of the nineteen-eighties when it still looked much the same.

If you can't see it, the video link is:

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Luxury Travel

Leeds Wellington Street Coach Station, 1986

For a short period, I travelled weekly by bus between Manchester and Hull. It took hours but cost next to nothing. I spent the time in quiet contemplation, either looking out of the window or watching people inside or outside the bus. It was not an unpleasant experience.

The route I remember well. From the rubble-strewn patch of derelict ground that seemed to serve as a bus station in Oldham, it climbed Saddleworth Moor to the tops of the wild Yorkshire Pennines, passing impossible bridges, windy reservoirs and the lonely farm between the carriageways of the M62, before descending to Bradford Interchange. Next came the congested National Express coach station in Wellington Street, Leeds, where we stopped long enough to nip out to the shops or the bank. Criss-crossing the M62, the route then took us to Wakefield bus station, Castleford and Pontefract, past the majestic white cloud factories of the Vale of York, a quick detour across Boothferry Bridge between Goole and Howden which brought the bizarre sensation of being able to see my parents’ house without calling in, onwards to the brutalist East Yorkshire garage at Elloughton, and finally Hull Paragon bus station.

The East Yorkshire Bus Garage at Elloughton, 2008. © David Wright (cc-by-sa/2.0)

I came to know the route better than some of the drivers. One asked whether anyone knew how to get to Elloughton (he pronounced it “Ell-how-ton” instead of “Eller-ton”), and I was able to tell him it was only a dropping-off stop, and after asking whether any of the other passengers wanted to go there, which no one did (why would they?), I told the driver he could continue straight along the A63 to Hull. We were a quarter of an hour early. I bet he got lost on the way back.

No doubt coaches these days are more comfortable, like this one which appears in this week’s Radio Times in an advert for “fantastic excursions” to “remarkable destinations” such as the Dutch windmills, North Cape, Seville or Lake Achensee. Why would anyone bother with quiet contemplation of the endlessly fascinating world around us when they could spend the time watching videos on the screen in the back of the seat in front of them? 

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Interview Woes

A colleague told me in confidence he was desperate to leave the software company we were with. He was tired of having to spend so much time abroad. The week after he’d been to Venezuela they had sent him to Athens – talk about jetlag! Fortunately for me, he was away so much he couldn’t get to interviews. Had he escaped, I would have picked up all his travel. It was bad enough being sent away just occasionally, like being asked (i.e. told) on a Friday morning to go to Stockholm to sort out an urgent problem, and having to pop home to pack a bag and leave a note that I might not be back until Tuesday. Newly married with a family in mind, it was not what I wanted. I understood my colleague’s predicament entirely. I decided to get out before he did.

I started applying for lecturing jobs in Polytechnics. It would be a cut in salary, but not all that much taking pensions into account. I had to make my own provision at the software company, whereas lecturers were members of a government-backed, inflation-proof, final-salary scheme worth at least 20% on top of what they paid you. A salary of £20k was the equivalent of £24k, and £25k was worth £30k.

Things did not go well. I applied for no end of posts, but despite being well qualified – higher degree, authorship of academic papers from previous work as a research assistant, relevant commercial experience – it counted for little. I was interviewed often enough, but, no matter how well I felt I’d done, they appointed someone else. It was usually either an internal candidate or the cheap option. At Leicester Del Monte they appointed a twenty-three year-old straight off their M.Sc. conversion course. At James Heriot they appointed a mystery candidate who wasn’t there when the rest of us were interviewed.

Nearly a year went by and I was spending more and more time away. With one last throw of the dice, I applied above my league to the University of Nottingham. There turned out to be two posts and four candidates. We sat around after the interviews awaiting the outcome. It took ages. Finally, they called in the first successful candidate and then the second, but told me not to go away. I will forever be grateful to Professor Peter Ford who explained that they had appointed the two candidates with the broadest balance of skills, and had they been appointing to only one post it might well have been me. “Do not be discouraged in any way”, were his exact words.

I vaguely knew one of the successful candidates as one of those people who spend their lives messing others around and being unreliable, and it annoyed me a few months later to learn that he had chucked the job and moved on.

Polytechnics then changed. The government decided they were all to become universities, and they started to hunt for staff able to carry out research and bring in external funding. It was like a football transfer market. I applied to a Yorkshire institution and got an interview. In phoning to accept I discovered there were six candidates. Not good odds.

On the day only four turned up. Then, like at Nottingham, they said they were hoping to fill two posts. Two out of four looked promising until I learned that one of the candidates was an internal candidate called Anthea who was just about to submit her PhD thesis, another was a high-flying researcher from British Telecom, and the third an affable Rory Bremner lookalike who was a temporary lecturer at a Russell Group university.

We spent the morning giving presentations. I managed to work in stuff about something called SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method), the expert systems research I’d previously done, and how it related to the commercial system I now worked with. The Head of Department though it an excellent presentation.  

We were taken for lunch at which Rory Bremner did most of the talking and Anthea said nothing at all. Then the chap from BT was taken aside and didn’t come back. I heard later that his talk had been terrible, and they doubted his ability to connect with the Higher National students. The remaining three of us waited for our formal interviews in the afternoon.   

It went badly. There were questions that caught me out and set me talking too loud and too fast, and they said not to wait around because decisions had to be approved by the Vice-Chancellor.

I waited ten days. The Head of Department was out so I phoned the personnel office. There was a muted conversation at the other end of the line during which I overheard the words “Bremner and Dunham” and “shussssh”. They said the decision was still awaiting approval. Soon afterwards, the Head of Department then rang me. Yes, I had a job.

The other post did indeed go to Rory Bremner. I felt sorry for Anthea who had to vacate her desk to accommodate him.

We were both still there twenty years later. One thing I learned during that time is that with these kinds of jobs, probably with any job, you can never truly be aware of all the considerations, and why you might or might not be successful.  

Friday 1 April 2022

No England They Eat Cat Food

New Month Old Post (originally posted 12th September, 2014)

“What do you eat in England?” Hugo’s dad asked me in English.

“Food,” I said, trying to be funny.

He translated for Hugo’s mother and sister. Horrified, I realised I might have implied that what we were eating now was not what I thought of as proper food. 

It was my first meal with Hugo and his family in Belgium. I was there on a foreign language exchange trip. Hugo’s dad seemed concerned that, not only was I having difficulty in understanding their French, but that I might also be unfamiliar with their food. They had asked whether I would like beer, wine or water to drink, and not being sure how to reply I had said wine. That was a new experience for me at fifteen. Had I tried to stand up I would have fallen over. Was I red because of the wine or embarrassment?

The food certainly was different. I can’t remember the details now, but there were a lot of meaty stews with lots of bread and weak fizzy beer or bottled water with every cooked meal. There were no familiar bowls of breakfast cereal, but thick chunks of bread and jam dipped into huge bowls of black coffee which rapidly acquired a disagreeable film of jam, butter and breadcrumbs on the surface. They enjoyed an unpleasant vegetable called “le chicon”, a kind of blanched endive with a bitter taste. In the days before ubiquitous international cuisine and mass foreign travel, food did differ across countries and regions. I was just going to have to cope with it. I was there for two and a half weeks.

Hugo and his parents lived in a square, average-sized detached house on a hill a few miles west of Charleroi. It was one of three or four on a busy road with an open valley at the back. The region was brown-field rather than green, the main economic activity being coal mining. Across the valley at the back was an open-cast mine from which a constantly moving, overhead bucket conveyor, carried coal past Hugo’s house to a railway somewhere across the road. Nearby, industrial buildings and black metal structures mingled with terraced housing in grimy cobbled streets.

View Behind Hugo's House
the spoil heap remains today, wooded over
It did not dishearten me. It resembled parts of Yorkshire around Knottingley and Pontefract not far from where I lived. My own town constantly echoed to the clatter of railway wagons and the roar of ships loading coal. Nor was I bothered that the toilet was in an outhouse. I had used outside toilets too. What did surprise me was that the house had no mains water. In the kitchen, instead of a tap, was a hand pump to draw water out of the ground. The toilet looked normal, but there was no water in the bottom, just a dark hole through to a cesspit. A swarm of black flies buzzed gleefully in and out of the hole, not somewhere you would want to sit any longer than necessary, but it made things interesting when standing for a pee; you could try to beat your personal best for the number of flies swilled down.

There was no bathroom; you washed in a bowl of warmed water at a washstand in the bedroom. Once a week we walked the half-mile to Hugo’s grandfather’s for a bath. He had a normal bathroom, except there was no hot running water, so the bath was filled with water heated on a stove. To save fuel you took turns. Being the guest, I was allowed to go first, so at least the water was clean, but it could be scaldingly hot.

Bearing in mind their water came untreated from the ground, it was unsurprising that Hugo’s family habitually drank weak beer with meals, but I was surprised that teenagers of my age could buy and drink alcohol without restriction in the equivalent of English coffee bars. In England, as I was later to find, it took a certain courage to go into a pub for the first time, even on reaching the age of eighteen, but we spent hours in Belgian cafés drinking the local Maes Pils, Extra Pils and Stella Artois (years before it was available in England) and playing ‘kicker’ (pronounced ‘keekay’, the table football game with wooden footballers fixed to spinning metal rods), which the Belgians played with incredible skill. I could never replicate their unstoppable bullet-like shots, executed with a near-imperceptible flick of the wrist. The only way I could get any kind of power was by vigorously spinning the rods right round, but that was not allowed.

As the days passed, I realised I was having a great time. In fact, I returned the following year, and then for a third year after that. I even improved my French a little.

I supplemented the Belgian cuisine by carefully rationing out precious biscuits brought from home. It gave Hugo’s sister the perfect come-back to my earlier faux pas insulting their food. They had Kit-E-Kat cat food in Belgium, but not Kit Kat chocolate wafers. Watching me undo a red and silver wrapper, she choked in triumphant delight as she struggled to get out her words.

“En Angleterre ils mangent des aliments pour chats”, she said.