…and the lessons I learnt in the process.
An hour ago the old English lady (OEL) and I had walked around the Grand-Place of Brussels, the most beautiful square in Europe.
Now we stood on a street corner. A raking film shot started at our lit-up art nouveau large hotel and panned back to reveal, between us and sanctuary, three or four blocks of red light district mayhem. The street threw down a gauntlet of neon exotica and half-naked figures posing to generate undisguised cheap lust. I was used to wandering the different hues of cities but inwardly I groaned, this was no place for a genteel English lady.
OEL was a rather wonderful old lady, the kind that quietly ensures England will never fall. She always wore a blue purple dress while a blue ribbon robustly shored-up long grey hair from plunging back down. Her eyes twinkled with humour and a mischief. If you made a joke that strayed too far her eyes twinkled in a way that let you know her sense of humour was amused, but her discretion could not acknowledge it.
Her Englishness was the comfort of a pot of tea in a homely village. A kindly Miss Marple who knew exactly what was going on.
For a couple of years we both attended European meetings. OEL at least had the role as a cipher of pleasantry, courtesy and wit who somehow rejuvenated frustrated protagonists so they could return to the tense fray. I was simply the unnecessary baggage to inflate an entourage and there was nothing for me to do apart from daydream and admire a German representative who had short cropped hair and the habit of tilting her head and rakishly eying everyone through the curling smoking of her cigarellos. She was a splendidly exotic creature who had drifted out of a WeimarBerlin café.
So OEL and I developed a habit of slipping away. “I don’t think we can be of help here Alex” was her code for saying we’re off to explore and that’s an order. After the stifling meetings the fresh air was invigorating and the streets of Lucerne or Brussels delighted and charmed with the frisson of mildly illegitimate escape. A coffee was plundered in an old world café while wondering whether anyone actually noticed our absence.
OEL was an excellent strolling companion and we followed glimpses of pretty courtyards, twisting alleyways and the shore of a lake. She was happy to stray over the line and if challenged would twinkle and charm her way back.
And so after a fine dinner a stroll took us the edge of the red light district.
It was not a furtive red light district, or it certainly wasn’t that night. It wore its brashness openly and noisily. Nubile half-naked cartoon figures pouted on the walls. Women writhed in windows bathed in neon glow. They beckoned to men window-shopping or trying to pluck up the courage to cross the threshold. Figures skulked in doorways, eyes were caught and eyes were avoided, negotiations were huddled and couples slipped away into shadows or behind glowing white lace curtains.
Shadows fell on the street from men drinking on a bench, one playing an accordion, and why the hell not for it was probably the best free al fresco entertainment in all of Brussels.
The whores with feminine practicality instantly assessed and ignored us, there was no prospect therefore the reason was unimportant. The pimps, johns and lurkers quizzically looked at us with masculine desire to conquer a mystery. Judging by the leering smiles they came to one conclusion I was OEL’s escort in more ways than one. One even gave me a confused thumbs-up in some notion of solidarity.
A train rumbled into the nearby Gare du Nord station. A small crowd gathered outside a striptease cinema. Music spilled out from a couple of remarkably unappealing peep shows and bars. There were shabby sex shops very different to the female-friendly emporiums that would later emerge on the high street. There were video shops, fast food belching out greasy deep-fried fumes and night shops supplying the necessary basics of the local trades. A worn-out baroque church stood silent, dark and defeated.
A gaggle of African whores fell on a poor man, they dragged him away, hand outstretched imploringly at the hotel but he was doomed. Fingers were already opening his flies and his wallet.
Naturally OEL sailed through all this in splendidly English serenity, seeing but looking, with the discrete air that none of this was any of her concern, it was a matter for foreigners. She had an awkward gangly young man to escort back to the hotel, and a stout umbrella to beat off any whores ready to drag him to the shadows. This was nothing. And then OEL stopped.
Her eye glazed and drifted above the street level chaos and she exclaimed with delight, pointing her umbrella upwards and nearly stabbing a surprised looking man in the eye who saw OEL and instantly apologised with a thick voice greased with smoker’s phlegm.
“I say Alex I do love how they decorate their buildings. Look at that!”
We stopped in the middle of the street, a point of still amongst the swirl of the sex industry, gazing-up at the glimmer of ornate gold leaf on an old building. It was a fading but still beautiful piece of rococo decoration frequently seen in these parts of Europe.
And then silenced we walked to our hotel.
So what lessons did my younger self learn from this escapade, mild compared with others to come without the protection of an old English lady?
The first lesson was realising soon afterwards that her discretion was as much about saving a young man’s embarrassment and awkwardness. Now that’s experience.
The second lesson was never presume that a well-travelled lady, with considerably more years of experience and stories than me, would be bothered by a district ruled by the oldest profession. (Likewise never presume that the most mild-mannered polite person isn’t a figure of outlandish bizarre perversity at the weekend, another type of English spirit.)
The third lesson was falling into the trap of often forgetting that old people have a youthful past “drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue” as Jarvis Cocker once sang. I had no real idea about the past of OEL, in her day she could have been the queen of Mayfair, notorious for all kinds of antics like racing around Berkeley Square with a champagne flute in one hand scaring the wits out of a young blade in the passenger seat.
A friend once going through the papers of her ailing elderly mother found a picture of her sitting naked on a chaise longue smoking a joint. As much as my friend was alarmed it also reminded her that her fading mother once broke rules and hearts.
I once visited a neighbour I only ever knew as an old man living alone. On his walls were beautiful drawings of a naked woman that seem to blaze with passion and intimacy. I saw but did not look and then wondered whether the old-fashioned English virtues of discretion and minding your own business can have their drawbacks.
The more interesting way would have been to turn to OEL in the red light district and say: “I say old thing, Have you ever seen anything like this before? And if you have do tell.”
Or to the old man with the drawings of a young naked woman: “you can tell me to mind my own business but what’s the story behind these drawings?”
And what stories I might have heard!
OEL retired the next year after that wander. We occasionally exchange the odd postcard. She has a lot of fun travelling the world. We will never wander together again but there are three things I will remember: her twinkling eye, a night in Brussels and her joy when she gave a packet of chocolates to my young toddler daughter who promptly broke in to the CEO’s office and threw them all over the place. She was one of those who was game for anything and enjoyed it in whatever form it came.
So long as her type live on an old spirit of England will never die.