Monday, 14 April 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 3 Kasteel Betho (1)

A rattling tram led out of the town before the day was into its stride. We stayed on it as long as we could, until the conductor told us this was journey's end. So we got out, looked about us, and were surprised to find ourselves back near the Atomium.

Some slight error of navigation, of the type which in other circumstances would have caused Magellan to round Cape Horn instead of discovering a quicker route through the channels of Tierra del Fuego, or which would have caused the recently-launched Sputnik to veer off orbit and lose itself, an unaccountable erratic, in space - some slight error of navigation in central Brussels had taken us a few kilometres out of our way. George, easy-going and positive, located a coffee stall that we might not otherwise have found, and the nearness of the Atomium encouraged me to air certain observations, most of which were met with non-committal uh-huh grunts, while we sipped hot coffee and ate warm buttery croissants, perhaps the best things we ever ate in Belgium.

Remembering the atmosphere in the dry cleaning van the evening before, it was perhaps as well that the designer of the Atomium, an architect called André Waterkeyn, had chosen a simple molecular structure, an iron crystal, for his giant construction rather than carbon tetrachloride, which is very complex.

- Uh-huh.

- Any compound involving multiple chlorine atoms is.

- Uh-huh. I wouldn't know. I did English, Geography and Divinity for A level, remember.

- I remember you once wrote on my bedroom wall, in indelible marker pen, He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, Which saith that hunters been nat holy men.

- They were the only lines from Chaucer I could remember. Your house is always oppressively literary. It's the sort of house that makes you want to fart in it. I was strongly tempted to scribble some lines from Eskimo Nell. In big wobbly letters, but your mum wouldn't have liked it much. I couldn't possibly offend anyone who makes such wonderful apple pie.

- The problem with the Atomium is that it's all wrong, it's meaningless. Firstly, atomic particles are held together by gravitational forces, not stainless steel walkway tubes.

- Uh-huh. It's only a model. The man's done his best.

- Secondly, they move about all the time, at terrific speeds. Well, terrific speeds to us. Probably the same order of speed as things shift within the universe, maybe the universe itself among all the other countless universes. It's all relative, it's a question of scale. Sometimes the particles collide -

- Where did you get all this stuff from? You did Latin, Greek and Ancient History.

- Lucretius. De rerum natura, Book 3. It was an A level set book. And Epicurus before him. It's all there. The ancients had it. Even the shadowy Heraclitus, with his catch-all saying panta rhei, everything flows, everything is in constant movement, although I'm told this is a later attribution.

- What's this got to do with Beethoven?

- Curiously, I think more and more, the more and more I think about it. I might have sorted it out by the time we get to Vienna.

- Uh-huh.

I'm afraid I can't validate this conversation with inverted commas, because at this remove I can only remember the gist. But it did seem to me that Beethoven, wittingly or unwittingly, had seen further and more clearly into great truths as his age and deafness advanced, in a way that no other composer except perhaps Bach ever achieved.

Our next lift took us by a roundabout route to the outskirts of Liège. Near Tongeren we passed a place I had never heard of called Kasteel Betho...

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