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Books: Reviews

A Tall Man in a Low Land - Some Time Among the Belgians, Harry Pearson

(pounds 9.99, Little, Brown)

Pearson's mission in writing this book is to convince us all that Belgium's reputation for being dull and dreary is completely undeserved. "Belgian mundanity," he states, "is a camouflage. But like all camouflage, this one, once recognised, quickly disappears to reveal the solid, eccentric shape beneath."

His account of the journey, taking him from Ostend in the North to Arlon in the South, is one of the most amusing things I have read for a long time. From the holiday house in East Flanders, the walls of which "sucked in brightness and burped back dust", to the mannerisms of his hosts, memorably one Monsieur Bonfond ("a pear-shaped man in a weekend sweater"), Pearson's observations are both fresh and funny.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this odd combination of travel- writing, history and slapstick is that Pearson makes no pretence of sticking to the point. Anecdotes about adolescence mingle happily with character observations on irritating museum staff as Pearson, girlfriend and baby daughter in tow, bimbles around Belgium. He does not, thank God, drag us around too many worthy artefacts or yawn on about local custom. We get taken, instead, into endless grim guest-houses, on a whistle-stop tour of garden ornamentation in Flanders, and into the Paul Delvaux Museum, where, we are told, "the nipple count must be well into four figures".

In his ability to combine sharp observation with an unpretentious, often self-deprecating, tone, Pearson manages to convey both affection and admiration for a country which has been invaded so often that the inhabitants have tried to make it "look as uninteresting as possible in the hope that, in the future, their neighbours will simply ignore them or march right through on the way to somewhere that looks more exciting".

Rating 8/10