Monday, 18 September 2017

And Back

Well, Maastricht was good - a fine town, with all the Dutch virtues in evidence, embodied in solid handsome architecture, clean and orderly streets and public spaces, a magnificent railway station (that's a corner of it above, early in the morning, with a woman playing Fur Elise on the piano), and decently dressed citizens riding about town on sit-up-and-beg bicycles. No Lycra, no cycle helmets, no racing bikes - that sort of thing is only to be seen in the countryside; urban cycling is just a natural extension of walking, with no hint of the ferocious competitiveness and aggression of cycling in London.
 As well as streets lined with good-looking, well-built houses of all periods - and surviving stretches of medieval walls and later defensive ramparts - Maastricht also has the wide river Meuse and two cathedral-sized churches of ancient origin, with imposing, castle-like westworks. Sadly, as so often in Catholic regions, the interiors fail to live up to the promise of the exterior, partly as a result of accretions of bad sculpture, bad painting and oversized bondieuseries of every description, and, in Holland, partly because of the activities of the Cuypers brothers, ubiquitous church restorers whose aim seems to have been to make every old building look as fresh and crisp as if it had been made yesterday. All rather regrettable.
 We got out of town - by train - and took a walk down the river valley (the Geul, a tributary of the Meuse), along almost too well-kept paths, through spick-and-span villages, sleepy pastures and green woodland just beginning to show its autumn colours. Along the way, we came across the enigmatic, rusting frame of what seemed to have been some kind of industrial building. A notice explained that this was the remnant of a Nazi slave labour enterprise, built into the limestone caves - a chilling reminder of the suffering endured, within living memory, by this so long fought-over land.

On the way back, we spent a few hours in Brussels, where the Grand Place was packed and noisy, with various hideous kinds of music being performed. After a mussel lunch in a decent bourgeois brasserie, we strolled awhile in what is now the Musée de l'Art Ancien, where a surprising number of paintings had been removed from the walls because of water damage (what happened?), but Breugel's Flight of Icarus remains in place, looking smaller, brighter and more freely painted than one might expect. The painting, of course, teaches a lesson...

Musée des Beaux Arts
(W.H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.



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