The Irritations of Modern Life: 32. Eurostar
Wednesday 10 March 1999
One Friday afternoon in 1990, in the pre-Eurostar days, my then girlfriend, who was from Brussels, rang to say she was ill and wanted love, comfort, and Lemsip served to her by me. A passionate Fleming with little time for debate, she made it clear I was expected in Brussels that night, and that I was required to use any possible means of transport to get there.
Frantic telephoning disclosed that all flights were full, the Jetfoil which met connecting trains in Ramsgate and Ostend was not operating because of gales, and the only Channel train involved a four-hour ferry ride.
I cajoled a friend into lending his car, and drove to Dover. The ferries were having problems docking, so I spent an hour sitting by a cliff face at the Eastern Docks, being splashed by the spray and staring at the stars. With not another soul around, I pondered on love and imagined I was the Milk Tray man.
It was around midnight when the ferry docked in Calais. The roads to Brussels were empty, my headlights illuminating evocative signs. Dunkirk, Ypres, Ghent, scenes of mighty battles and bits of schoolboy history which were now desolate woodland and farmsteads. Soon after Ghent, a ferocious rainstorm hit and I slowed to a crawl, splashing through an empty, flooded roadway.
I reached Laurence's cosy flat in the Place Flagey at 3.20am, and when she looked at me and heard my tale her worry and fury dissolved into a warm embrace. We sat and drank Lemsip until dawn.
This kind of journey became commonplace during the next couple of years. With the airlines too expensive or too full, the midnight drive through Belgium became a kind of mad commute. The time on the ferry deck watching Dover disappear, the excitement of the Flemish motorway signs, were times of contemplation and the frisson of being alone in a faraway land.
None of this would happen with Eurostar. We are now whisked to Brussels with clinical efficiency. Of course, I could still be a Luddite and take the ferry now, but there is no point. That is what's so irritating.
Having the Eurostar is like seeing a cable-car built to the top of the mountain you always used to hike up.
The Grand' Place and the lovely little streets around it are now full of weekenders who wander round muttering about how much nicer Paris is than Brussels and using their mobiles to check the time of their connection to Amsterdam.
The three suits doing deals on their mobiles all the way from Waterloo (London) to near Waterloo (Belgium) had no inkling of any of the history, people, or scenery they were passing at 200mph. How many of them knew, or cared, about the tens of thousands of Great War dead in the soil around them? They certainly didn't stop and ponder life while watching the cliffs of Dover. The sanitised "whoosh" of Eurostar may well have brought Europe closer, but it's also lost parts of Europe - and parts of us - for ever.
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