Antwerp: who can know it and not rave?

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SAMUEL BUTLER, of Erewhon fame, reports how a friend heard at dinner a clergyman 'raving' about Antwerp. 'You feel,' rhapsodised the man of God, 'under the spell of a certain painter - Rubens, for instance. As you go about the streets, you feel as though you might meet him at any corner.' 'Ah,' his hostess drily responded, 'when we were there we went about in the trams.'

This raving episode perhaps deserves more analysis. Who can know Antwerp and not rave? Alas, it seems to suffer from Belgium's curse - a place to be rushed through on the way to somewhere else rather than visited for its own precious sake. A like curse has blighted Glasgow, European city of culture last year, as Antwerp is this year. Not exactly the reason why my wife and I went to Antwerp last week. Just a reminder of what we had long realised and intended to remedy: that Antwerp was the nearest fine city or finest near city in Europe we neither of us had visited.

Implicitly mocked with Butler's raving clergyman are all those of us who, drunk after an orgy of Rubens, stagger out into the cold light of everyday and at once see Rubens faces everywhere - in that mild- faced young mother, for instance, her lips slightly parted in affectionate concern and wonder; in the messily greedy little son she feeds in the Art Nouveau cafe; in her swarthily handsome bearded husband, who plies them with fruit juices; in the scruffy family pet slumped under their table - Rubens, all Rubens, surely, resurrected, to life? Are we wrong to see it so? Has not

Rubens miraculously opened our eyes to what is ordinary in the glorious or glorious in the ordinary, so that our fellow poor strugglers on this earth around us are all transfigured?

By the way, would anyone in the streets of London today repeatedly halt as if transfixed, hand on heart, murmuring 'Bacon, pure Francis Bacon'? Think of that, and tremble.

Perhaps in the clergyman's hostess's mind lurked romantic notions of the artist as typically a penniless Bohemian vagabond, compelled to trudge the rough cobbles while the haughty bourgeoisie sail past in the trams (still there, God be praised, and flying gay little Euro-culture flags) for which he can't afford the ticket. What an illusion]

Even Bacon was rich, to be sure; hired whole trains to bear him and his cronies to the South of France playing poker all the way behind drawn curtains. Rich, Bacon, yes, but not respectable. As for Rubens, like many other artists of his time, he was not only rich but grand, a shrewd businessman, organiser and entrepreneur commanding and directing the services of other skills, himself haut bourgeois or even princely.

His magnificent mansion in Antwerp survives, with its arcades and courtyards and formal gardens, rivalling the mansions of our own Victorian Apelleses, Leighton, Millais and so on. 'Has paint done all this?' mused Thomas Carlyle, as he sourly surveyed Millais's splendid studio. Yes, it had. Paint and, in Rubens's case, not only paint but architecture and formidable connoisseurship, shrewd buying and selling. You wouldn't catch him roughing it on the South Bank or at the ICA. He'd be more at home in some ideal Upper House, an artist of the grand old school.

Rubens's house was actually restored or rather rebuilt during the Nazi occupation. For Belgium it was a time of great cruelties and deprivations. I remember in liberated Brussels you could get nothing to eat except, oddly, banana ice- cream, nothing to drink except advocaat, nothing to wash with except a block of grey grit. Prigs will be shocked by the untimely restoration: didn't these chaps know there was a war on? Their defiant act seems to me a stirring example of the Baden-Baden syndrome. Do you remember: the Pont drawing in Punch of an indignant old lady in wartime, ticking off the obstructive clerk at the Continental booking office? 'I know nothing about all that,' she expostulated. 'I have to go to Baden-Baden for my health.'

I doubt whether the distinguished 70-year-old architect responsible for the restoration would have been better employed in the Resistance, and certainly his labour force was working for Belgium's glory rather than for Germany's.

People are so rude about Belgium, as about Switzerland, equally blameless and admirable, more so perhaps in that no atrocities were ever denounced in any Swiss Congo. Matthew Arnold disliked Belgium, thought Belgians 'the most contemptible people in Europe'. Baudelaire, asked for an epitaph for Belgium, could only think of 'at last'. He further speculated on the reason for the existence of the Belgians, concluding that they were ancient souls shut up for horrible vices in hideous bodies fashioned in their own image: 'a Belgian is a Hell living on earth'.

The 18th-century traveller Philip Thicknesse accused the Belgians of cheating at play and of not paying their gambling debts. Sidney Smith found Belgian inns dirty and expensive, the people 'ugly'. He ridiculed the Belgic parliament for solemnly debating a pound missing from the public accounts: more ridiculous still for us today, who cheerfully ignore billions lost. These and other bouquets you will find in Peter Yapp's superb and entertaining Traveller's Dictionary of Quotations.

These sour insults surely tell us more about those who uttered them than about Belgium. We felt ashamed of them, anyway, as we sat in pleasant brasseries and cafes, served by polite, friendly and pleasant-looking young waiters and waitresses, quite without our British truculence and contempt for service, all well educated, with more languages than a university lecturer here, their bills always clear, modest and correct.

The girls of Antwerp are not ugly, but pretty and charming, though you will note especially in Antwerp what Anthony Powell noted in another context: that faces of the most delicate beauty, spiritual or even ethereal, may crown bodies substantial, with bottoms traditionally and touchingly ample.

I fancy the Belgians themselves don't feel quite at ease with their Belgian identity, with its linguistic indigestion, and with its frontiers all in the wrong places, dividing French and Dutch speakers from other French and Dutch speakers and causing confusion. With other sorts of people thus divided, this might have created another Yugoslavia or Ireland. As it is, it has created a certain innocent, pacific and beneficent yearning for a fuller, all-embracing European patriotism in which French and Dutch and everyone else will all feel equally and happily at home. Incidentally, we heard in Antwerp far more English spoken than French.

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