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Saturday, 23 April 2022

More Memories of 1960s Belgium

When this blog began in 2014, I naively wrote rather long posts – even longer than now. Some exceeded two thousand words. One was “In England They Eat Cat Food” about my visits to Belgium in the nineteen-sixties, part of which I reposted earlier this month. Here is more.   


My overriding impression was that, even after twenty years, the Charleroi region was still recovering from the economic privations of war. Hugo lived in a coal mining region in a house without mains water or sewerage. It was grimy and industrial – how I imagined parts of Yorkshire in the frugal 1930s. 

Hugo’s dad took us on sight-seeing trips. We climbed the Lion’s Mound, a conical hill with a stone lion on top marking the site of the Battle of Waterloo. In Brussels we saw ‘le mannekin pis’, a hideous, two feet high, bronze fountain of a naked boy urinating into a basin. We visited the Atomium, a bizarre, futuristic, three hundred foot, nine-sphered construction in the form of an iron atom, a gleaming statement of post-war confidence erected for the 1958 World’s Fair.  


But post-war confidence seemed in short supply. We went several times by ancient tram to an equally ancient cinema in Charleroi. Neither the trams nor the cinema looked as if they had been painted since the 1930s. I sat through endless French films listlessly monitoring the slow rotation of the only thing I understood, an illuminated clock at the side of the screen labelled ‘Tic-Tac Pontiac’.
 
Charleroi Trams in the 1960s

In Charleroi there was an old-fashioned street fair of a kind unseen in England since before the war. One stall was an ornately decorated fighting booth where all-comers were invited to challenge boxers and wrestlers for a share of the takings if they could survive three rounds. The Master of Ceremonies banged a drum and goaded passing men with accusations of cowardice and feebleness. This, together with the provocative posturing of the fighters, quickly collected a crowd which goaded and postured back. 

Perhaps the crowd contained provocateurs to raise the temperature. Things started to become volatile. A scarred but muscled boxer looked much too intimidating for anyone to take on, but one of the wrestlers, a bald thin chap hardly bigger than me, with an effeminate leotard and ridiculous handlebar moustache, soon attracted a challenger who impudently threatened to pull off his whiskers. The pre-show was probably more entertaining than the fight itself – I don’t know, we didn’t pay to go in. Why oh why didn’t I take photographs?

Another stall had a platform with huge slabs of meat hanging from metal hooks, and a barred window at the back. A snarling black-faced wild man with a bone through his nose peered menacingly through the bars. The showman roused the crowd by cutting off chunks of raw meat and throwing them into the cage for the savage to devour. He then heated a thick iron rod in a brazier until it glowed brilliantly red, and seared it into the hanging meat which spat and sizzled as it burned, giving off clouds of rancid smoke. He reached into the cage with a meat hook, caught the wild man around the neck, violently pulled his arm through the bars, and rubbed the red hot iron hard across the palm of his hand to demonstrate his immunity to pain. Again, we did not pay to go in, but I wonder for how many years afterwards the stall was allowed to continue. In England by then, we were beginning to find the comparatively innocuous Black and White Minstrel Show rather objectionable.

On Easter Sunday we went to watch a noisy carnival at the nearby town of Fontaine-l’Évêque, where a procession of children, uniformed musicians and costumed characters, some wearing enormous papier maché heads, walked through the centre throwing treats to the spectators shivering in the rain and sleet. 

I went out late one night after dark with Hugo and his friends equipped with buckets of paste and wallpaper brushes to put up “Marche Anti-Atomique” posters on noticeboards and any other suitable surfaces around the village, to the consternation of Hugo’s father who declared I would be deported if caught by the police. It goes without saying that we simply ignored any ‘défense d’afficher’ (no bill posting allowed) notices we came across.

Hugo and his friends also ignored the widespread ‘défense d'uriner’ notices, going about their business brazenly in full view of the road, even when caught in the glare of car headlights. But then, a country that has a peeing cherub as one of its main tourist attractions is hardly likely to have any inhibitions about urinating in public.

Hugo’s friends had no inhibitions about smoking and drinking. Neither had minimum age limits in Belgium, and teenagers openly did both without disapproval. A couple of friends flamboyantly smoked the local ‘Belga’, ‘Visa’ and ‘Zemir’ cigarettes, which came in paper packets of twenty-five at a fraction of the price of the cardboard packets of tens and twenties in England,. Like most European cigarettes, they had the distinctive, musty smell of Turkish tobacco, very different from the milder American variety in England. I took a couple of packets home for my dad. I don’t know what happened to them. I never detected their pungent odour in our house. I suspect my mother put them in the dustbin.

The street scenes in this a ten-minute video of Charleroi trams in the nineteen-sixties re-capture my impressions of the place very well. The same YouTube channel also has a clearer video (with sound) of the nineteen-eighties when it still looked much the same.

If you can't see it, the video link is: https://youtu.be/ma6xm-ztt8g

24 comments:

  1. I wonder how 'modern' it is now. I have only visited fleetingly - on our last holiday before he died the farmer and I went on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Antwerp - it was a round trip and we came back across what I still think of as the Zuider Zii.

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    1. You can see the Charleroi area on Streetview and a lot of it still looks old.

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  2. You have got a photographic memory Tasker. Great word pictures. Wish I could write with such description.

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  3. It is quite clear you spent a lot of time writing this colourful piece.

    In the sixties the countries of Europe and the UK certainly weren't the vibrant and prosperous places they went on to become. Emigration to the 'lucky country' down under was very desirable and so many did emigrate. I wonder if the much maligned EU was a least partly responsible for the transformation.

    Such carnival type spectacles were generally a thing of the past here in my sixties childhood, although there was plenty written about them.

    I love the Atomium and I had no idea it is so old.

    I'll savour the tram videos for later.

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    1. I enjoy writing and getting it right, although there are some things I dash off probably too quickly.

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  4. I wonder if other European countries had no age minimum for smoking and drinking. My German father began smoking at age 11, well that's what he told me, and eventually joined the army to get smokes for free. Not surprisingly, he died from lung cancer.
    I remember my mum had a miniature Mannekinpis, she thought it was great fun to show him off when visitors arrived. I never liked him.
    I've seen a couple of French films, when my sister in law visited my city, she would go to the cinema where they showed such things, and the films were slow and dreary. An hour and a half to watch a man pining for a girl in a flower shop, that sort of thing. I imagine your Belgian movie experience was similar.

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    1. There are lists on the web of permitted the ages in different countries over the years. Many were fairly unrestricted until into the 70s.

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  5. You appear to have had a much more edgy experience with your exchange student than my friends who went to the same area at roughly the same time. It was a little different for boys perhaps. They spoke of language lessons and organised excursions and not much else.

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    1. As mentioned to Weave, it was intense and really stuck in my memory. I had never experienced or imagined anything like it.

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  6. Like Weaver, my first thinking went along the line of '60 years later, I wonder what has changed'.

    In Korea, in the small towns, women squat to urinate in their volumous skirts. Children go in the streets. Nobody thinks a thing of it. (I did). In Seoul, it was not common, although the men would urinate, back to the streets, against a big stone wall. I had an acquaintance who was very bold and brash. She saw a group of men gathered against a wall, just after arriving, seemingly studying something. She rushed up with her camera to get a photo, and interrupted a group urination. She thought it was hilarious. I would have died of humiliation.

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    1. Isn't it surprising how different cultures have different customs and inhibitions? That situation might have been much more embarrassing to us than them.

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  7. Those trams look like they move at a good clip! I wonder why someone was out making home movies of them? I made it a priority to see the Atomium when I went to Brussels, because it was so mid-century cool. We ate in a restaurant somewhere up in one of those balls.

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    1. I spent ages watching the videos. Very evocative for me.

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  8. It is interesting to read of your memories of Belgium in the 1960s. It is clear the war did take a toll on the area. It always seems a bit strange to me to go back to the 1960s because to a part of me it does not seem that long ago yet of course it was actually almost a different world. I always enjoy your excellent writing Tasker.

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    1. Thanks, Bonnie. I feel the same about the 60s.

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  9. Marvellously evocative of times past and of a character-building episode from your youth, I was wondering - is Hugo still alive and do you keep in touch with him? Have you met him since you were lads who willy nilly whipped out your todgers to tinkle in those Belgian streets?

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    1. We have kept in touch but never managed to meet again. It seems increasingly unlikely we will now. He emailed me to say he enjoyed the various pieces I've written about the language exchange trips. His real name is not actually Hugo, though.

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    2. Why don't you make it happen Tasker? After all, you are not disabled. You could travel to Belgium by Eurostar. It would be an adventure. Is his real name Victor... as in Victor Hugo?

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  10. I really enjoy those '60s trams. We've some running here along our streetcar line. The cars hail from around the states and the globe. They're upgraded in various way before being put out on the line. One especially lovely tram comes from Milan and is kitted out in the most beautiful wood.

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    1. As responded to Steve Reed, I spent ages watching not only the one I posted, but also the other on the same YouTube channel. Glorious time past.

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  11. I trust your judgments while remaining surprised by your observation about post-war confidence being in short supply.
    I can't agree with Andrew's statement that the United Kingdom is more prosperous and vibrant now than it was then.
    Our society is in steep decline economically and socially and I can't help asking if this is what my parents' generation fought the war for.
    Would the men who landed on the Normandy beaches have run even 100 yards into shellfire if they could have seen what a wretched place Britain has become?
    *Salisbury Documentary 1962* YouTube.
    I wish I was back in 1962 : clean streets, attractive shops, decent people everywhere, they even dressed more decorously.

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    1. I think Andrew sees Britain from the perspective of a visitor. I certainly share your feelings about the deterioration in society and worry for my children. It wasn't perfect in the 60s and 70s by any means, but there were for the most part higher standards in behaviour.

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    2. Of course I see Britain as a visitor but I have partner family there of forty years. The generation after my partner became comfortable, unlike his impoverished childhood. They and their children are all decent and I really can't wear that Western and British society has deteriorated, well except for one major country.

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