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...