Books: Chips with everything

Jonathan Sale enjoys some sparkling wit from a flat country
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A Tall Man in a Low Land: some time among the Belgians

by Harry Pearson

Little, Brown, pounds 9.99, 246pp

THE TOURIST board had better re-write that ad campaign. Instead of the hesitant "Belgium - It's Slightly Different", the nation should flaunt itself with "Somewhat More Amusing" or, indeed, "Absolutely Falling About." Harry Pearson, the author of Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows, has now journeyed to our near neighbour and returned with something to declare.

On the face of it, there are not too many laughs in Belgium, particularly since it is turning out to be a world leader in serial child-killers. Pearson, though, grants it a high chortle factor. He discovers a beer called Delirium Tremens. He can't get a word in edgeways - in conversation with a Trappist monk. He gives us a taste of the International Museum of Cakes and Icing. In a friterie he is served by a woman who appeared to have spent a considerable time in her own fryer - "the face that launched a thousand chips".

He learns that Adolphe Sax, Belgian inventor of the saxophone, also designed a mortar which could fire a shell 11 yards wide and 550 tons in weight. He gives credit to the Walloons (French-speakers) who invented pigeon- racing. He gets a cheap laugh by crediting the Flemish (Dutch-speakers) with the invention of "finch sport", which involves counting birds' chirrups .

Serious travellers may dismiss Pearson as a member of the "There's a foreigner - let's giggle" brigade. He might retort that he allows the foreigners, if not the last laugh, at least the penultimate snigger by, for example, ordering a chip sandwich (a gastronomic atrocity unknown in the area) from Our Lady of the Friterie. Still, at least his French was up to it on that occasion: "The number of times I have gone into a little grocery store to buy toilet paper and come out with an apple and frangipani tart are beyond counting," he confesses. "And it is no substitute, believe me."

A more substantial defence would be that the country seems a great deal more interesting by the end of the book than it did at the beginning. What the hell: Pearson's main excuse is that he is really funny. Do not read this book in a public place - especially if the public place happens to be in Belgium. Pricking the Walloon, as it were.