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on 8 March 2001
I was given this book for Christmas by my Aunt, who had seen it in a local book shop when looking around, and had noticed it from the subtitle "Some Time Among The Belgians" and thought it would appeal to me. Harry Pearson was hitherto known to me for his "Fever Pitch"esque book about life in the North East as a Sunderland supporter, covering the 1993/94 season, and also for his contribution to When Saturday Comes - the half decent football magazine.
Having lived in Belgium myself, I was able to empathise a lot with Pearson's point of view, notably his comment that their "passion for DIY electrics leaves a permanent smell of singed eyebrows in the air". Whereas books like "The Xenophobes guide to the Belgians" is very upbeat, with myths dispelled and Belgium generally promoted, even if they are guilty of producing Atomium underpants (hmm...), Harry Pearson portrays it as it really is, namely that it's grim in Belgium.
If you are planning a trip to Belgium, you might be dissuaded from the accounts of general lack of pride, self-esteem and shoddyness, especially shown by the frequent mentions of DIY prowess. You may dismiss this as a caricature or cameo of what Belgian life is like, thinking that Pearson has just done the usual and flitted around the country and left. However this is not the case, as Pearson, along with his partner and their daughter, has seemed to have been everywhere there is to go in Belgium.
The book is broken down into ten chapters, each of which tends to focus around a different group of places, or a different facet of life, whether it be bureaucracy, cycling, architecture, or the murderous Leopold II. There are some carefully selected black and white photos in the middle of the book, each wittily captioned, although to get some of the jokes, you will have needed to have read the book beforehand.
The book takes a look into the Belgian psyche, the institutional figures, the traditions, their general outlook, modesty and general way of life, in a way that you would not usually expect to hear from a foreigner. Pearson has obviously got very close to the Belgians, rather than casting askance glances across tables in cafés and trying to overly prey on their smalltalk.
As well as discussing trivialities, Pearson cleverly juxtaposes a trip to a museum filled with the spoils of Leopold's "Conquest" of the Congo, with an insight into one of the most evil rulers of the modern world, and a trip to the Museum of Wallonian life, to go into Wallonian militants, and how they forced the abdication of Leopold III in 1950, after his Nazi sympathising. This then allows Pearson to cover the issue of the day in 1990, when Belgium temporarily became a republic when King Baudouin didn't want to sign an abortion bill.
The insight into this book is incredible, but it still remains a lighthearted read, with politics interspersed with pleasure, and travel with torment, with biographies of some of Belgium's most famous sons. If you are about to go on holiday to Belgium, don't be offput by this book too much, but take it as lighthearted reading. It is a great book...
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on 24 March 2000
As a Brit living in Belgium for years I thought I had seen and heard of most of the idiosyncracies of the Belgians. The many that I recognised (and that the Belgians, be they from Wallonia or Flanders, will cheerfully admit to) were beautifully described - hence the crying with laughter. He truly has a talent for describing interactions with people. I could just picture the situations. I knew I would enjoy it from the early description of his attempts to get information from the Belgian Tourist and I was not disappointed.
However, I also learnt a lot from the book. He does not shy away from tackling some of Belgium's darker side - and let's face it, every country has one - but his observations were thought-provoking and he avoids being judgemental. You don't need to have been to Belgium to appreciate this, just interested in people. If you read the book for just one laugh, read the section about the names for shops specialising in canine care!
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on 7 November 1999
Most of the time, I enjoyed reading this book, me, a 37-year-old Belgian, living in Antwerp. Strangely, a visit to this important Belgian town was not included in the book. Owing to Mr Pearson's system of describing the oddities of a country rather than giving a boring account of a typical touristic guiding. Mostly, he is well-informed and succeeds in mentioning historical information throughout his numerous travels in our clumsy country. We don't always understand his humour, however, but, the author has always kept the balance between laughing at the Belgians and laughing at himself.
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on 6 January 2011
It must be said that Harry Pearson's book "A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among The Belgians" - whilst a serviceable and amusing account of this small but central European country - holds few surprises. This is very much a `bemused-Englishman-abroad' type book in the mould of Charlie Connelly's account of Liechtenstein ("Stamping Grounds"). However, whilst Connelly's book had a connecting theme and a purpose - following Liechtenstein's football team during their futile attempt to quality for the 2002 World Cup - Pearson's account seems a little unfocussed in comparison.

This is not helped by the fact that his disparate accounts of Belgium cover a series of trips made to the country, spanning several years and in the company of various companions. The narrative sometimes segues suddenly between these trips, which can be a little disorientating for the less alert of us readers. I was often left confused as to whether he was recalling a trip with Steve, an old friend, or a more recent excursion with Catherine, his girlfriend (both of whom are very much in the background in this book, and are rarely given any sort of voice). Indeed at some point in the book Harry and Catherine suddenly gain a young baby on their travels, which disorientated me even further...

That is not to say that there aren't some amusing passages in this book - such as his description of the Belgium enthusiasm for (if not proficiency in) ill-advised and potentially-lethal DIY - and his musings on the possible link between the Belgium sense of national individualism and the large quantities of dog mess on the streets of Brussels. However, occasionally one feels that Pearson is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his credentials as both author and comic. For instance his description of a farmers' wife as having the "slender, pallid beauty of one of the female revellers of Bosch's 'Garden of Earthly Delights' (though she was wearing considerably more clothing, obviously)" - seems a little forced.

That said, whilst it took a while for me to engage with this book, I did begin to warm to the accounts after the halfway mark, and Pearson obviously has a certain affection for this idiosyncratic nation. His accounts of the various nationalistic affiliations to Belgium's official languages - especially between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons (who generally seem to ignore each others' existence; with the minority German-speakers caught somewhere in the middle) - are informative and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the scene where a train announcer has to change the place-names of destination stops on a single journey, according to where in Belgium the train happens to be...

Another interesting account, which comes late on in the book, is of Belgium's former monarch: King Leopold II's barbaric yet farcical colonisation of the Congo in the 19th century. Whilst drawing on the full horrors of both this debauched individual and his actions (Pearson makes the astute point that King Leopold made around £3million out of his African land-grab; slightly less than a pound per African life lost as a result) he also finds some telling irony here: "Soon African chiefs all across the Congo basin had signed away their independence to an organisation with a blue and yellow banner and its headquarters in Brussels. Euro-sceptics may wish to pause at this point and have a good old rant".

All in all then, a bit of a mixed bag; but - as with the previous book - an informative and largely engaging account of a small European country seen through the eyes of both a fellow European and a cultural outsider.

I must say, I felt that the conclusion of this book reflected my point about the lack of narrative structure here. Of course, this is a travelogue and not a novel, but the abrupt Epilogue - a mere two pages which start with a stroll through Namur, take in a paragraph's worth of Antwerp and end with the ferry back to England via Holland - seemed especially sudden and a little dissatisfying.
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on 17 July 2009
This is indeed a funny book, even if the author doesn't know much about Belgium. A bit like Borat and Kazakhstan. Having written two books about Belgian cultural history, I would say Belgium is per se incomprehensible and maybe the natives like it that way. Just don't believe what it says in this book.Flanders: A Cultural History (Cities of the Imagination): A Cultural History (Cities of the Imagination)
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on 24 February 2011
I'm afraid I have to disagree with the reviewers who say this book is funny. It made me smile about 3 times, getting nowhere near laughing. That would be the least of my troubles. I was a lot more annoyed by the constant belittling of (almost) all the places he went a people he met. I really don't think that describing how fat or ugly someone is that funny. But then again maybe I just don't understand English humor. I really had to fight hard to keep reading the book.
I have to agree with another reviewer who said that this book lacks focus or a goal. It was annoying reading how he would take a train or a tram to go somewhere and as soon as his sole purpose of going there wasn't fulfilled he just got right back on the train or tram. That doesn't sound like a proper traveller. Especially one who has (seemingly) unlimited time on his hands.
All in all it was a very disappointing experience for me. I've lived in Belgium for 5 years now and I wanted to learn something more about the country. I did learn some new facts but also got very annoyed doing it. Not really worth it...
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on 11 August 2014
The most famous monument in Belgium is a statue of a small boy urinating. What other oddities and interesting facts can Harry Pearson discover? Well, quite a few as it turns out. Having lived in Belgium for several months, he totally immerses himself in the local culture - drinking beer, attending a festival of shrimps and goes to a museum which is ...pants.

We’ve been to see the Mannekin Pis and it really is as bad as it sounds. The girl version is ten times worse however. Still needs to be seen to be believed. And have you ever been to a museum that is quite literally pants? This is one museum experience I shall never forget.

Belgium is a wonderful yet misunderstood country I felt and reading this book where someone applies his own brand of observation and informal guide is much better than any guide book you will read.

This is a good guide to seeing the more unusual sites of the European capital and believe me, there are many more....
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on 2 December 2010
Passionate, witty, partly historic and immensely readable. The author balances healthy skeptiscism with genuine praise for this country. It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant most Brits are about Belgium: its eccelectic surrealism and humour and some of the best food and beer in the world all wrapped up with some of the friendliest and most open persons in the world (puts the UK's lack of languages to great embarrassement). Super Read.
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on 7 August 2000
Generally very funny tome from a guy with a very dry, sardonic sense of humour. Possibly a little too much historical padding but neverltheless an extremely well written and amusing book. A one one for the holidays.
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on 12 April 2003
After reading Pearson's superb journey through the football of the North East of England in 'The Far Corner' I was suitably impressed enough to follow his exploits in Belgium. Despite being a travel book, his journey seems to have had little organisation as Pearson route through the country can best be described as haphazard. A line of his journey would resemble a zig-zag more than anything.
Yet this is how Pearson views his stay in Belgium. Rather than being a straightforward walkthrough of linear progression, Pearson actually resides there for a time, allowing himself to wallow in Belgium culture and gradually absorbing the makeup of the nation and it's various eccentricities as well as getting to know the Belgians and their various peccadillos.
While I wasn't particularly interested in Belgium to begin with, Pearson's beguiling Palinesque bemusement in a foreign land is endearing and helps to connect the reader with the subject. The author has a wonderful store of metaphors collected from his upbringing which are liberally sprinkled to keep you laughing.
While I enjoyed the book I don't have much of a fondness for Belgium than I already possessed. The author for me was the interest in the book, much more interesting than the subject.
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