Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Strange place to find myself

I never thought it would come to this, but I actually wandered the streets with my laptop searching for WiFi to steal! As you might surmise, I found it, and am now sitting on the Poperinge pavement, my back against the glass front of the pharmacy on the town square (closed on Sundays), listening to the church bells and ignoring odd looks from the passing Belgian townsfolk. Do people not sit on pavements with their laptops in small Belgian towns? Surely it must happen more and more.

I just got asked directions from some suitcase-wheeling tourists, who wanted to go to the one place I actually know around here, so I am useful, at least! Others are staring at me. Well, let them stare. I must blog.

So, Thursday was intense. I got a book, Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way, out of the local library's very small English-language section (which has three copies of Joyce's Ulysses, bizarrely) not realising it was actually about Irish soldiers stationed right here in Flanders in WWI. The book is stunning, the writing is beautiful, it is the kind of book you stay up late with a torch under the covers (or the light on if you're a grown-up) because you can't put it down. I became immersed in the story of the hero Willie Dun, a short Irish boy, 19 years' old, who is one of the few from his regiment to survive most of the 4 years of the war. Barry doesn't stint on harrowing descriptions of the horrors, including mustard gas attacks and the like.

I took the book with me on Thursday to Ypres (or Ieper, as it is called round here), the medieval city which was the site of very heavy WWI fighting and was set alight by the Germans. And I sat, having a coffee, in a tea house on the main square, reading about Willie Dun, who can see Ypres from where he is posted, and then looking up from my book to see the funfair they were setting up. I was quite distraught by the incongruity of it all, nearly crying into my coffee. I was there in 2009, and also back in 1917.

When I went to the Flanders War Museum on the town square, I found the graphic nature of the exhibits to be far to much for me to take. Frankly, it bordered on gruesome, the odd recreation of gas attacks. As I was making my way through the first section I heard the sort of enormous BOOM that in Jerusalem would have us all shaking and turning on the radio to find out what had blown up. I soon discovered that this had issued from the room of the museum which "re-created" the experience of making your way through No Man's Land.

No. Not for me.

I avoided it, still shaking, and headed out. The museum shop sold T-shirts. T-shirts???

I waited for the bus, struck by the thought that there is no-one left alive who fought in WWI, or who was around to tell of it. Gone. I had only had a vague idea of the sheer enormity of deaths, but reading Barry's fantastic book and coming here has really given me a greater sense of it. I am not sure what I will do with this new knowledge, except to grieve that nothing has changed since, unless you count improved killing machines and methods for mass destruction.

Friday saw a change in pace as an innocent tuna salad left me throwing up all night. That slowed me down. Today I walked around the Talbot House musem, which has very moving fragments from the letters of British soldiers in the war, and also a reconstruction of the entertainment they used to put on at the House to give them a break from the horrors. Once again, very stirring.

I am off back to London tomorrow, it will be strange to return to the immense hustle and bustle. I am glad I came here, I am sure it will swirl around inside me and something will filter through into my writing. We will see.


Lauri said...

It is definite that some of this will show up in your writing and we look forward to that.

That museum reminds me of a place my father took us as children. I can't remember what exactly it was, must have been some type of monastery, it was Catholic anyway. And it had this room of modeled scenes from the history of Catholicism. I was a big fan of such models, I'd spend hours with them at the Milwaukee Museum where we often went. But this was something else. They must have used gallons of red paint. It was blood bath after blood bath. I remember a head being carried on a long stick with nerves and such trailing along- it was hideous! To this day I wonder what it was all about. Put me off church to be honest.


It all sounds like a very rich experience, T. S Barry is a great writer, there's no doubt.