Bruges: Art, Architecture And Mortality

Bruges is a curious town. It's almost a bubble: a city that's also a World Heritage Site, a place that is home to hundreds of thousands of people, yet contains more functional medieval buildings per square foot than nearly any other urban centre on the planet. Ringed by a canal and a four-lane highway, Bruges is a place out of time, and one that embraces that most modern of money-making activities: tourism.

It is, without a doubt, an astonishingly pretty town. Centred on the town square, the Markt, Bruges is stuffed with ancient churches, beautiful statuary, imposing public buildings and many, many low-ceilinged dim little bars. Everywhere's walkable or, if you like, it's even quicker to whizz around on a bike. The canals that cut through the city are well worth a boat tour explore, giving you a different perspective on a place that offers new camera-fodder with every corner. There are many bridges but one, overlooking a weeping willow, is one of the most photographed sites in Europe. Cars are tolerated but, in the civilised fashion of most towns in the Low Countries, they're viewed as second-class citizens: on the narrow, winding streets of Bruges, the motor car is a liability.

 

The town is almost an gallery in itself, a lasting tribute to the explosion of artistic invention that came out of Belgium and Holland in the 14th and 15th centuries. The work of the Flemish Primitives and the sacred art that came before it is celebrated in the Groeninge Museum, which houses a wealth of local masterpieces. Medieval art has always been a bit of a slog for me, to be honest: shonky anatomy, static, lifelike poses and occasionally shocking bursts of violence. The Death Of Marcus Lucinius Crassus by Lancellot Blondeel is a sweetly rendered pastoral scene with… hang on, what's that in the corner? Ah, there's Crassus, tied to a rough framework of branches, having hot lead poured into his screaming maw. The surrealists at the end of the show are more to my tastes, with pride of place going to a Magritte. His calm, dry wit is a welcome tonic to the shrieking gilt-caked lunacy of the Flemish masters.

A ticket to the Groeninge Museum also gets you into the Arentshaus, and I can't recommend this highly enough. Home to works by Frank Brangwyn, a member of the Arts And Crafts movement in the UK who studied under William Morris, I instantly felt at home. His etchings, prints and linocuts have a fluid, joyful muscularity that manages to blend a sympathy with the human condition with a celebration of the everyday achievements of the working man. As a comics fan, I was reminded of Joe Kubert and Barry Windsor-Smith. As an art-lover, I was brought almost to tears by his astonishing series of lithographs depicting the passion and crucifiction of Christ. A must-see, to my mind. Also visit the garden, which contains four statues of the Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Armoured, insectile and terrifying, they're part Terminator, part Dark Judge, all mean.

 

A five minute walk brings you to The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church Of Our Lady), which houses a Michelangelo Mother And Child in marble. Her calm serenity is breath-taking, and seems a perfect fit in a building that, while imposing, serves as an engine of faith to the Roman Catholic community that use it on a daily basis. There's nothing uppity about Michelangelo's Madonna. She and her child are at peace with the world.

 

 

Modern art gets more of a showing than you might expect in an old town like Bruges. The old St. John's Hospital, next door to the Church Of Our Lady, has a permanent exhibition of Picasso and his contemporaries (featuring, at the time of writing, a showing of Andy Warhols). There's a Dali museum on the Markt, and a cluster of sharp-edged modern statues on t'Zand, to the west of the centre. This is also home to the new Concert Hall and, while we were visiting, a big screen showing Belgium's first World Cup match. The big square was full to bursting with football fans in black, red and yellow, draped in flags and wearing foam afros. An example, perhaps, of an art happening for and by the people.

I haven't mentioned comics yet. How silly of me. The Belgians love their comics–how could they not in the birthpace of the sainted Hèrge? On this visit we sadly didn't make it to Brussels, which wears its love of the Ninth Art firmly on its sleeve, to the point of hosting a Museum Of Comics History. But Bruges has its own little corner of comics nirvana; De Striep, on Kaeterinastrass. On the outside it looks a little underwhelming, but once inside the place opens up like a puzzlebox. There's a gigantic range of bande desineé in Belgian, French and yes, even English. Upstairs houses a great range of prints and artbooks, and the secondhand shelves at the back are a treasure-trove of goodies. If you're a comic fan, you owe it to yourself to visit and support De Striep. I certainly found it tough to drag myself away.

 

As I said at the start, Bruges is a curious place. It's easy to buy chocolate, yet surprisingly tough to get a pint of milk. The bars are full every night, yet there's no real sign of trouble even late at night. If anything, the streets are eerily quiet after hours. Apart from one sanctioned underpass on the way to the train station, there's no graffiti or street art to be seen. Possibly the odd sticker on a lamp-post. It's very clean and very friendly. You do get the feeling that there's an element of theme park about the whole place, particularly at weekends when coach parties and school trips descend and the streets clog.

Nevertheless, it's a fun place to visit, with plenty to see and admire. It's perfect for a long weekend, and very romantic. Just make sure to leave room in your luggage for the chocs and beer that you'll need to bring back with you.

 

TLC has posted an evocative Flickr set of our travels: check it out.

 

Loops And Tones: The Delian Mode

For a generation of British kids, the notion of something being scary was irrevocably tied up with the notion of the otherworldly sounds coming from the mind of sonic pioneer Delia Derbyshire. Continue reading Loops And Tones: The Delian Mode

Tales Of The Black Meadow

An evening of hauntology to launch a great new exploration of the unexplainable…

To Reading Library I stepped my way. I had received an invitation from Chris Lambert, host of last year's Z-Day and a Dead Files colleague. He was launching a new venture–a literary and musical examination of one of the North of England's strangest phenomena.

 

North of R.A.F. Fylingdales, on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, lies a place known locally as the Black Meadow. It is a place that has been the nexus of folklore, songs and stories for a very, very long time. Strange things happen in the Black Meadow. There is a mist that will rise from the woods even on a clear and cloudless day. There are things in there, the stories say. A man made out of rag and bone. Dancers with horses heads and men's bodies. And a village that will appear and disappear without a trace.

The note sent by Lord Brightwater to a petitioner as the Royal Commission was set up. It would come back to haunt him...

 

The Black Meadow has devoured many souls over the centuries. The songs and stories that have developed in the local area warn against the place and even now, should the mist rise, people will not leave their houses until it has dissolved again. It is these disappearances that have sparked interest over the decades, with a Royal Commission in the 1930's under Lord Thomas Brightwater tasked with the investigation of the mysterious incidences. That inquiry was plagued with controversy, and Brightwater abandoned it, and his political ambitions under a cloud of opprobrium.

In the late 1960s Professor Roger Mullins of the University of York picked up where the Commission had left off. His initial exploration of the folklore around Fylingdales led him in strange directions, and his research took an increasingly esoteric turn. He disappeared in 1972, and he has never been found. The Black Meadow has a way of keeping its secrets to itself.

Mullins, with the radomes of R.A.F. Fylingdales in the background.

 

Or perhaps not. Mullins left behind a stack of research material that have formed the basis of this new project. Chris, along with musical collaborator Kevin Oyston, have put together a package that explores the folklore that has formed around the phenomena of the Black Meadow. Chris's book of tales, beautifully illustrated by Nigel Wilson, gathers many of the best known tales and poems in a neat little volume. Meanwhile Kevin has taken on the musical side of the legend, collating the songs and ballads that are regularly sung in the taverns of the area–songs that will reliably reduce a room to silence, and many of the listeners to tears.

The launch evening was a huge success. A packed room enjoyed a presentation of the legend and its history, along with readings of some of the poems, and a dramatic re-enactment of the tale of The Devil and The Yoked Man.

It seems, however, that the more you try to explore the phenomena of the Black Meadow, the less clear it becomes. You become mist-blind, and the truth slips through your fingers like fog.

 

If you'd like to find out more about the Black Meadow, Chris's book is available from Amazon. Kevin's music, which includes a remastered version of a 1978 Radio 4 documentary on the phenomena, is available through Bandcamp as download or, if you insist, CD (this does contain a 4-page booklet with new art and a preface from writer and hauntology fan Warren Ellis, so the physical form has that going for it).

The Book Of The Black Meadow

The Music Of The Black Meadow

The Brightwater Archive, which gives more information about the Black Meadow, is open to the public at http://brightwaterarchive.wordpress.com/. Go more deeply if you wish. But for God's sake, stay out of the mist.

 

(Illustrations courtesy of The Brightwater Archive, apart from the photo of Prof. R. Mullins, reprinted with permission of Prof. Philip Hall of the University of York.)