Wednesday, 19 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 2 Manneken Pis (3)

We trundled on towards Brussels in our green van. Every slight deviation from a straight line caused the racks of dry cleaning to swing from side to side, releasing fresh wafts of carbon tetrachloride with each sway. George and I began to feel ill, and weren't sorry to recognise the north-western outskirts of Brussels by the gleaming Atomium coming into view. This giant structure of multi-level stainless steel spheres, connected and supported by tubes large enough to carry escalators, had been the star attraction of the Brussels World Fair of two years before. The design was announced as futuristic, although it was modelled on the molecular structure of an iron compound, a basic building unit of the universe so eternal that the concept of time, future, present or past couldn't really be applied to it. If my head hadn't been so fuddled with dry cleaning fumes I might have thought this through more clearly, but in any case our phlegmatic driver dropped us a little further on.

What gravitational pull drew us to the city centre I can't remember. (Maybe, in a region so concerned with getting rid of excess liquid, coriolis force would be a better term, that curious phenomenon that creates a little hollow whirlpool over the plughole when you run the bath water away.) Later on, with the experience of several cities behind us, we mostly avoided city centres. Lifts, the golden currency of the hitch-hiker, were only on offer from city limits. Nobody stopped in the suburbs. To walk into a city centre, however interesting, meant that in due course we would have to walk all the way out again, accompanied by the clinking and clanking from the enamel mugs, saucepans and water-bottles suspended from our rucksack frames.

As night began to fall we found ourselves in the Grote Markt, the central square, admiring the Northern Gothic architecture of the floodlit city hall and the royal pied-à-terre opposite, but we were more concerned with finding somewhere to eat and sleep. We wandered about looking for a quiet park and eventually found, several streets and grand avenues away from the Grote Markt, a dark and secluded clump of rhododendrons in a corner of what appeared to be quite extensive parkland. We lit our tiny stove and boiled up a packet of chicken noodle soup, ate the last of George's mother's corned beef sandwiches, crawled into the rhododendrons, unrolled sleeping bags and drifted off, lulled by the Brussels night traffic. Shame on me, I can't remember if I spared a thought for flaming Adèle before falling asleep.

In the half-light of dawn I was woken by water spattering about me, particularly on my left hand, stretched out beyond the sleeping bag. My first thought was of rain, and the need to burrow underneath the groundsheet - an ex-army gas-cape -rather than lie on top of it.

But it wasn't rain. Someone was peeing into the rhododendrons. From the dripping depths of the undergrowth I shouted at him, Oi! or Hi! or Hey! (I'm sorry not to be able to recall the exact exclamation: there were other things on my mind). He harrumphed and made off. I don't know who was the more surprised.

I got up, calling to George a few feet away, who had slept through all this. If I'd thought about it more carefully I might have concluded that if there was any country in the entire world where you were liable to be peed on, it was Belgium. Thinking to rinse my hand I tried the water bottle, but it was empty. We'd drunk the last of it the night before. That it should come to this, that my hallowed left hand should be thus debased. Things were bad. George was reluctant to move and showed no sympathy.

When we staggered out from our thicket, having no idea what our surroundings might look like in daylight, we discovered that we'd slept in some very public gardens, worthy of a capital city. Neatly gravelled allées stretched between avenues of fine trees, meeting in front of noble public buildings, pristine and sharply detailed as wedding cake. Parliament? The Royal Palace? The Nation Belgian Bank? The Opera, where once La Muette de Portici had played?

At 6 o'clock ornamental fountains suddenly started up. Few people were about, no one in the immediate area. We stripped off and jumped in for a few seconds, splashing and rubbing. So my left hand, token of in memoriam fidelity, finally lost whatever Adelian patina remained.

Wet beneath our clothes, we crossed a broad avenue, the Koningstraat, and tried to find our way to the station, where there might be a local stopping train or a tram to take us to the eastern edges of Brussels and the main road to Liège and Aachen. Quite unexpectedly we came upon a bizarre statue, cradled in a niche set above a little stone basin in an open place in the Rue de l'Etuve: a small boy peeing, the famous Manneken Pis. How very apt.

I told George I was never going to use the expression 'Well, pee on me' again. He agreed. It was never wise to tempt Providence, but given the nature of the oaths I'd come out with the day before on finding flaming Adèle hadn't kept her tryst, might I reconsider my position? Being peed on in a rhododendron bush seemed much less vexatious than the other imprecations.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 2 Manneken Pis (2)

The coming conflict threw up some irrestistible magpie moments for two of Beethoven's contemporaries. In September of 1792 William Wordsworth, an exact contemporary of Beethoven, was in Paris with Annette Vallon, pregnant with his child, on his arm. He was there when news of a great victory galloped in overnight from Valmy, a tiny village in the Champagne region: the day before the thunderous cannonade of a scratch force recruited partly from the streets of Paris had seen off a seasoned and disciplined army of Austrian and Prussian troops, invited by émigré aristocrats to restore the old order in France. The next day, coincidentally, the French Republic was declared, with its motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, as though henceforth the entire population of France was inviting itself to take its destiny into its own hands. To mark further the break with the past a new calendar was introduced, an ordering of the year of much rational beauty, starting with Year I then and there, September 22nd 1792, henceforth 1 Vendémiaire, An 1. (The calendar barely lived long enough to measure itself. It was abandoned in 1806.) Wordsworth was very excited by the ferment of ideas and the rapidity of change: 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,' he wrote some years later in French Revolution, as it Appeared to Enthusiasts, and later still in The Prelude, 'But to be young was very heaven.'

A year and more later the Austrian and Prussian armies, no match for the fury of Gallic energy that burst upon them, had withdrawn beyond the Rhine, leaving the Low Countries open to French occupation. In December 1793 a most unlikely recruit joined the swelling ranks of British volunteers, not because he wanted a crack at the French but to escape debt and an existence that had become intolerable. This fleshy, long-haired, scholarly man, compulsive talker, admirer of all things German, sufferer from chronic constipation, took the bounty of six and a half guineas and signed on as a trooper in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He lasted a few months before he was dismissed for dirty habits, disorderliness and inability to stay on his horse, although his discharge papers gave 'Insane' as the reason. He reverted to the identity and circumstances he'd been trying to put behand him, that of the poet from whose pen The Ancient Mariner and Khubla Khan would appear: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At least he preserved his initials in his alias. Debt and constipation dogged him all his life.

After the Napoleonic wars Belgium was made part of Holland, thus keeping the Scheldt and Antwerp out of French hands. But by 1830 the seeds of revolt against Dutch rule were germinating, in part warmed into life by a very curious factor: an obscure opera by Daniel Auber called La Muette de Portici, The Dumb Woman of Portici, better known - if it's known at all - as Masaniello in English-speaking countries. The audience transferred the plot, a tale of Neapolitan revolt against Spanish rule, to their own circumstances. Riots in Brussels quickly spread. (The painting above is a fanciful representation of this.) France looked on, licking its lips: French-speaking, Catholic Belgium might yet become French again.

(One day someone should write at least a monograph on the relations between opera and social movement. Some of Verdi's fame, to digress even further, came from the letters of his name happening to be an acrostic for Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel, King Of Italy), at a time when many Italians wanted to unify their fragmented country into one nation under one king. You could shout Verdi! Verdi! in the streets of Turin or Florence with impunity, ostensibly rooting for the great opera composer but in reality shouting a coded support for unification. Add in popular choruses like that of the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco or the downtrodden Scots in Macbeth and the mix was potent indeed.)

Enter Viscount Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary, an extraordinary man who improvised foreign policy as he went along, his only principle the preservation of British interests. Determined to settle the question of the Scheldt once and for all, in the winter of 1830 he summoned the London ambassadors of France, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Holland to work out a solution that would prevent the union of Belgium with France. If I didn't know that Palmerston was a bullying manipulator, I could imagine the slow, minuet-like diplomatic dance of frock-coated, silk-sashed plenipotentiaries, attended by gorgeous, liveried footmen and knee-breeched clerks of sober mien copying protocols in quilled copperplate. But Palmerston pushed and shoved remorselessly, and as a result the Conference of London took a mere month to create the state of Belgium, a sovereign nation for the first time in the history of the people who lived there. Even now it shows signs of having been cobbled together without regard to natural frontiers, religious persuasion or even language spoken.

So we trundled on in our green van towards Brussels.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 2 Manneken Pis (1)

A self-imposed stateliness promised to serve us best. Before leaving England George and I had absorbed the hitch-hiking lore then current as an aspect of late-teen subculture in a relatively car-less society. We evolved the following guide:

1. Stand up straight, no slouching.

2. Don't stand threateningly in the road, obliging drivers to slow down.

3. Declare your nationality visibly. This will gratify anglophile drivers and avoid awkward situations with people not fond of Brits, particularly those wanting to disembowel you because of some desperate gripe arising from World War II but not wishing to start World War III. (I stuck a Union Jack in place of a cap badge on a Royal Air Force beret they used to make me wear on Thursday afternoons at school. In due course this led to disaster.)

4. Let approaching drivers see how many you are. If you're off thumb duty, don't hide in the bushes so as to give the impression that your mate's on his or her own. This may improve the chances of a lift but will cause the driver, for whatever reasons, no small chagrin when you emerge from the undergrowth as soon as the car has stopped.

5. Don't trouble, the legend had it, to thumb lifts from Citroën cars. They never stop. (We found this to be perfectly true.)

6. If you can be bothered with destination placards, make them reasonable. No point in displaying VIENNA outside Ostend. Besides, people going there probably call it WIEN. Be language-sensitive: AIX-LA-CHAPELLE and AACHEN are the same place. So are COLOGNE and KÖLN.

7. Wave your left thumb in a positive, outgoing manner, moving it horizontally across your chest. Smile. No off-the-shoulder right thumbs.

Statistically the right thumb's less productive, said the pundits, those who had seen their teens out hitch-hiking to the Côte d'Azur and had come back lithe and bronzed, bubbling with tales of heady wines, warm seas and yielding women: to John o'Groats and the bizarre, bean-pole people of Wick and Thurso who appeared to drink paint; to Haarlem, to stomp and wave with the Dutch Swing College Band, an early 60s intellectual musical taste more up George's street than mine; to Brindisi, returning with leathery hands and anti-glare crows' feet from manning pumps thence on Apulian caïques to Corfu and Ithaca, and if they said they'd crewed to the Isles of the Blest we would have tried to believe them. But they gave no explanation as to why one thumb should be more effective than the other.

The first vehicle to stop was a very slow green van apparently full of dry cleaning. How impressed the driver had been by our roadside discipline we weren't able to discuss. If he spoke anything but Flemish he didn't admit to it. Brussels? Bruxelles? Brüssel? we asked, opening the passenger door and trying a viable destination in English, French and German. He nodded and motioned us in. Communication was limited to throaty grunts and accompanying gestures. I wondered if this actually was Flemish. Perhaps this was how the language got its name.

Somewhere about Ghent we crossed the river Scheldt. It was clear that the major preoccupation of the people who lived thereabouts, underlying all other activity, was the evacuation of water. Although it rises slightly towards Brussels, the country inland from Ostend is flat, veined with drainage channels, canals, dykes and sometimes larger, navigable waterways like the Scheldt, a river with 82 primary and secondary tributaries, flowing so lazily that when we crossed it scarcely seemed to be moving. The Scheldt reaches the sea via Antwerp, a North Sea port so significant for English trade that for centuries it was a prime factor in shaping English foreign policy. A vital concern of successive Foreign Secretaries was that it should never fall into French hands.

In 1792, when Beethoven was 22 and had recently arrived from his native Bonn to make his mark in Vienna, French revolutionary ideas reached willing ears in the Austrian Netherlands, that part of Low Countries later to become Belgium, which had come to the ruling Habsburg dynasty in Vienna largely through inheritance. Unrest fomented by the French turned to revolt, revolt to war, Antwerp and the Scheldt were threatened, and so began that long conflict with France that was finally resolved at Waterloo 23 years later. In England the great political philosopher Edmund Burke, while recognising the need to contain France's revolutionary imperialism, refused to endorse the government line and said something very pertinent to my theme: 'A war for the Scheldt? A war for a chamber pot.'

Sunday, 9 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 1 Flaming Adèle (3)

Little offset my sense of loss, my feeling that from the very start the fabric of this adventure had snagged on a nail in Ostend and was fast unravelling. I had one or two relics of Adèle with me. They brought no comfort. Relics never do, they only serve to confirm misery and obscure other horizons. Great Expectations came to mind, with Miss Havisham sitting eternally in Satis House in her wedding dress among the stopped clocks and relics of the marriage feast that never took place. The original Satis House in Rochester (but novelists may shuffle persons and places and events about as they please) was actually where George and I had recently completed our sixth-form years.

I had her photograph, a spare passport picture in black and white she'd given me once. As a place marker in The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse, which I carried everywhere, I had the stub of a Royal Festival Hall ticket, where we'd gone together a few weeks earlier for - what else? - a Beethoven concert and she'd worn her white dress. They'd played the Coriolanus overture, the C minor piano concerto and the 7th symphony. George wondered if 'Coriolanus' was a specific for piles. Both of us adepts at turning a joke and standing it on its head, I told him that he could be right: I'd studied it for O level Music and had never been troubled.

And I had my left hand, scrupulously unwashed since the last time I'd touched her, a fleeting auf wiedersehn caress a week before. Occasional application of this hand to my nose brought nothing much now, just the inside of my pockets, cigarette tobacco and Swan Vesta matches. No meadowsweet, freshly ironed poplin or shantung, no rich and heady scents of summer scalp-sweat and Silvikrin, no subtle Rosenduft of being eighteen, and lovely, and unattached, and lonely, and above all German. No hint, either, of barely-dared intimacies.

Clutching at the slightest straws, I outlined to George some joyfully irreverent ideas I had about the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. This was - is - a curious theological notion that the touch, the laying-on of hands, which a Christian priest or confirmation candidate receives from a bishop or senior cleric at ordination or confirmation is the touch of Jesus himself, transmitted from him to St Peter and the other disciples and thence to myriad others through the ages and down the generations. The touch is symbolic of the means to Christian grace and salvation, but I was much less taken by this than by the notion that it could be applied to other, more localised situations. Adèle and I had touched each other frequently, not (more was the pity) in any carnal way, but just in the ordinary way people show affection for each other, kissing, holding hands, an arm round the shoulder or waist. So far so good. Now Adèle must, presumably, have often touched her breasts in the course of her private daily round, washing, dressing, and so on. In the spirit, but as a pallid reflection, of the Apostolic Succession she had therefore inferred my touch, my laying-on of hands, to her breasts, and conversely I could vicariously apply her touch to my person. George saw where this might lead, and reckoned I was loopy, far gone.

So my left hand stayed steadfastly unwashed. The least drop of water might rinse away the last, precious, fleeting vestige of Adèle. Not only that, it carried other pledges: it could only be washed when next we met, which in its difficulty - so natural is the mutuality of the hands that keeping one clean and not the other is next to impossible - was both token and test of fidelity, a sort of hair shirt. I remembered hearing about a woman so besotted with Franz Liszt that she stole one of his cigar butts when he wasn't looking and, Miss Havisham-like, kept it in her corsage for the rest of her days. I doubted whether Adèle was going about with one of my fag-ends secreted in her bra.

We reached the dual carriageway leading to Brussels and beyond. As he dumped his rucksack by the roadside George said he'd heard more about flaming Adèle than was good for either of us and we should now concentrate on giving thumb, his term for hitching lifts.

I should close the chapter by tying off the ends. I never saw Adèle again. She didn't appear at Cologne station. It was here that some lewd fellow of the baser sort and his dismal catamite stole my pocket book with her photo in, presumably to feed someone else's fantasies because their own proclivities wouldn't have encompassed German sixth-form exchange girls in white dresses. Several months later she wrote to me: on returning to her home in Rhineland after the summer term's exchange she'd spent several days in a dreadful agony of indecision. Eventually she'd taken a deep breath and had told her parents that I'd invited her to come with me on my pilgrimage to Vienna, travelling rough and sleeping rougher, to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven, and that she'd agreed. They were horrified and forbade it. By this time it was too late to contact me. And maybe silence was the softer option.

So with much heart-searching I turned my back on the immediate past.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 1 Flaming Adèle (2)

George and I wasted an hour or so waiting for her in a café-bar overlooking the harbour gates, eating corned beef sandwiches from the generous pack his mother had made that morning and drinking the cheapest bottled lager. There was no sign of her.

George, who had never met Adèle, fidgeted and was as anxious to be on our way as I was to linger. He hadn't been pleased when I told him about the arrangement Adèle and I had made behind his back, but he was too easy-going to question actively my unthinking impulsiveness. I shouldn't have done it, of course. If the situation had been reversed, if he'd turned up with some unknown five-foot ten totty in tow, with whom he proposed to spend the next five or six weeks with one makeshift tent made out of army surplus gas-capes between us, I'd have lebbed off and left them to it. ('Leb off' was a then-current expression drawn from some fellow sixth-former having reported seeing LEB OFF roughly painted on a closed left hand gate: when the right hand gate was closed the inscription read LEB - i.e. London Electricity Board - OFFICE. So 'leb off' entered the popular sixth-form tongue.) Besides, everyone knew that if you were thumbing for lifts threesomes were doomed.

George said, without much conviction, that he supposed Adèle would turn up in Cologne, the fallback rendezvous.

So we gave up, shouldered rucksacks, agreed that the chief and indeed the only quality of the lager was its carminative effect, and set off down the road in search of someone who might give us a lift inland.

I could only ease the crushing weight of disappointment, maybe - with Cologne and its possibilities ahead - not yet metastasised into a sense of betrayal, by talking endlessly about Adèle. George was very patient. I didn't deserve such an accommodating travelling companion.

Adèle was short for Adelaide, which itself was a frenchification of Adelheid, a north German name with strong 18th century resonances, meaning nobleness, the state of being noble. The fashionable French influences playing - among others, of course - on the young Adelheids of the 1790s, a tiresome generation which oohed and aahed, gasped, wept, fainted and even committed suicide over the cult The Sorrows of Young Werther (which I had yet to read), turned them into Adelaides. The name and its associations took hold of the contemporary poet Friedrich von Matthisson:

Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten,
Mild vom lieblichen Zauberlicht umflossen,
Das durch wankende Blüthenzweige zittert,

In der spiegelden Fluth,in Schnee der Alpen,
In des sinkenden Tages Goldgewölken,
In Gefilde der Sterne strahlt dein Bildniss,

Abendlüfte im zarten Laube flüstern,
Silberglöckchen des Mais im Grase säuseln,
Wellen rauschen und Nachtigallen flöten:

Einst, O Wunder! entblüht, auf meinem Grabe,
Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens;
Deutlich schimmert auf jedem Purpurblättchen,

[She wanders alone in the garden in Spring, your friend,
Gently bathed in the beautiful enchanted light
Which shimmers through the swaying blossom,

In the reflections of the river, in the Alpine snow,
In the golden cloud of the declining day,
In the fields of stars your image shines,

Evening breezes whisper in the tender foliage,
Lily of the valley rings softly in the grass,
Waves roar and nightingales sing:

One day, O wonder! There will bloom on my grave
A flower from the ashes of my heart;
Clearly on each purple petal will shine:

My translation. It wouldn't be in the spirit of this account to record what I feel about these verses now: but at the time all was excused. It was in German, and if that on its own wasn't enough a contemporary of Matthisson, the young Beethoven, The Master, had turned Adelaïde into a ravishingly passionate song with piano accompaniment, a work that from small beginnings rapidly became tumescent, climactic and practically post-coital in its final relaxation. This conjunction of greater or lesser luminaries, this trine of Jupiter-Beethoven, Venus-Adelaide/Adèle and myself proved how the stars smiled on our association.

George, noble soul, listened with the greatest patience to these outpourings of an obsessive, and guided us through the seedy suburbs of Ostend to the main road to Brussels.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 1 Flaming Adèle (1)

Adèle. Adèle. Flaming Adèle.
When the Dover ferry docked at Ostend, she wasn't flaming there. Not on the quayside, not by the customs exit, the purple stamp still wet on my passport. Not even by the harbour pedestrian entrance. And she'd promised. A week earlier, in a Kentish orchard, as midnight struck, cloaking the undertaking in a solemn witching-hour intensity. In both languages, to make sure.

I promise. Kiss, kiss.

Ich verspreche es Dir. Küsschen, Küsschen.

Capital K for the second kiss, because German nouns start with capital letters. This grammatical convention may have over-dignified the kiss, which as I remember wasn't much more than a peck. But then by this time, after about an hour and a half of saying goodbye for now, until next week in Ostend, her back was tiring: she was considerably taller than I was. Always a mistake for short Brits to become involved with tall German girls. And in my case to encloud them still further by putting them on a pedestal.

Whatever I may have said under my breath, however deep the stab of acerb disappointment and suspicion of betrayal, however needle-sharp the foxcub's teeth beneath one's Spartan tunic, face had to be preserved. George, my travelling companion, must not know how crushing the blow was. The current Classical Sixth-form expressions of shock, distaste and surprise formed on my lips, Olympian in their rarefied coarseness, expletives fit to bandy with Demosthenes at the Eleusinian Mysteries or with Cicero at the Saturnalia:

Well, buggeration. Clutch my cluster. Pee on me. Sod me rigid.

She wasn't there. Flaming Adèle. And there was no means of getting in touch.