Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Metamorphosis of Mons

We’re packed into stands on opposite sides of a vast exhibition hall on the outskirts of Mons, Belgium. There are no windows and it’s all rather dark and gloomy. There are no signs of creativity. In fact, were it not for the guest list I was holding that stated the presence of leading artists, museum directors, choreographers and architects – presumably sitting somewhere in the dark cavernous hall - I could well have wondered if I’d walked into the wrong event.

©OlivierDonnet
Two hours later and my doubts had been totally dispelled. The huge space had been filled with more creativity than I have ever before seen at a press conference. It felt like a mini opening ceremony for London 2012, particularly when an open-top double decker bus full of British quirkiness arrived in the exhibition hall - think the Queen waving from the front of the upper deck, techno music blaring out, umbrellas, Sherlock Holmes, policemen on stilts…! But no, this was not the prelude to the Olympic Games, it was the launch of the cultural programme for Mons as European Capital of Culture next year: Mons 2015.

The launch event included the tricky choreography of several local buses arriving in the hall, each illustrating a different Mons 2015 theme through the words lit up on its destination board and the people and props that emerged from each vehicle. 

One bus was filled with sunflowers and had the words ‘I’m called Vincent. And you?’. Vincent Van Gogh lived for a time in the Mons area and it was there that he decided to become an artist. Cue visits to the house where he lived and an exhibition on the sources of his inspiration. Another bus said ‘I sing for Mons. And you?’ Standing on the roof was a singer dressed as the Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus, who was born in Mons in the 1500s. One of the related events will be 700 amateur and professional choral singers gathering on the steps of the town’s Sainte-Waudru collegiate church. And as for the British double-decker, it represented London, which will be one of eight global cities featured in La Maison Folie (the Madness House).

In total Mons will organise some 1,000 cultural and artistic activities throughout the year. Many big Belgian names have got involved, including choreographer Frédéric Flamand, who founded the Charleroi Danses company, artist Arne Quinze, renowned for his large outdoor installations, and the designer and illustrator François Schuiten, best known perhaps for his comic strip work.

There will be no shortage of development projects happening in the town, with five new museums opening in Mons and a brand new train station designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava – and set to rival another of his creations, the futuristic train station in another Walloon town, Liège.

In its own words, Mons plans to undergo a metamorphosis. The town wants Mons 2015 to bring about positive change that will last well beyond 2015. As the outgoing Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo explained in his opening speech, Mons has undergone difficult economic times in recent decades with the collapse of the industrial age. Mons 2015 will enable the former coal-mining area to turn the page and start to write a new and prestigious chapter, he said. “Mons 2015 will not be an end in itself; it will be the start of a new era,” said Di Rupo, who is also the official mayor of Mons.

©DavidBormans
So, as the six local buses, which by the close of the launch were all parked at one end of the hall, said on their destination boards:

In 2015
I am from Mons
She is from Mons
He is from Mons 
Everyone is from Mons
And you?



Saturday, 21 June 2014

Marguerite Duras on a World Cup night



The literary evening got underway against an unusual background: that of the honking of horns and jubilant cheering as Belgium celebrated a World Cup victory on the streets of Brussels outside. Inside, journalist Laure Adler quipped to the packed hall how touched she was that so many people had turned up to listen to her on the same evening as a national football match.

The Frenchwoman had her Belgian audience on side and didn’t lose them for the duration of her interview about the life and work of the French writer Marguerite Duras, who would have been 100 this year.

Adler, whose 1998 biography of Duras has been reprinted this year, explained how she found Duras to be a writer who pushed the boundaries not only in literature but also in cinema and theatre. Duras is a writer she admires greatly and with whom she has identified ever since reading Un barrage contre le Pacifique at a particularly low moment in her life. Duras was also a writer who Adler had the opportunity to meet on several occasions.

Not everyone has always been so admiring of Duras. Adler mentioned the intellectuals Duras hung around with, many of whom mocked her. In fact, when Adler first approached Gallimard with her idea for a biography of Duras, the response was “You’re mad! No-one is interested in that!”

But Gallimard did publish Adler’s biography and in the intervening years has reprinted Duras’s works in its Folio paperback editions, opening the author up to a new generation of young readers. In China, the author of The Lover and Hiroshima mon Amour is the most read foreign writer!

Back to the drawing board
Adler’s biography on Duras took a while to see the light of day, not least because no sooner had she finished her first draft than Duras entrusted her archives to the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine (IMEC), providing a mass of new source material for the biographer. Adler threw her 700-odd pages straight in the bin and made a fresh start.

If the tales that Adler touched on during her public interview in Brussels this week are anything to go by – Duras’s childhood in Vietnam, her World War II experiences in France, her marriages and affairs, her alcoholism, her relationship with her French teacher mother and her absent father…- the story of the writer’s life almost sounds like a novel in itself.

The evening's interview was interspersed with readings of Duras’s work as well as audio clips of Duras herself speaking, with images of the late author projected on two large screens throughout. The event, organised by Brussels’ international literature house Passa Porta, provided a fascinating insight into a woman whose work I first studied on a film course at university. Given that it’s her centenary year, maybe this is the year to revisit her work; there will certainly be plenty of opportunities to do so.

Copyright Bellone 2011-2014

I cannot wrap up this post without mentioning the venue of this week’s event: La Bellone. What a wonderful architectural discovery in the centre of Brussels! From the main street (Rue de Flandre 46) the building isn’t particularly striking, but enter and the main corridor opens on to a covered courtyard dominated by a magnificent 17th century façade. Built by Cosyn, the same architect who designed the Maison des Boulangers (Roi d’Espagne) on Brussels’ central square, this hidden gem is today a listed building.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

KlaraFestival's 10th birthday party

Last night saw the start of the KlaraFestival's 10th birthday party - and what a way to kick off the two-week celebration! The audience was treated to a modern and contemporary programme played by one of the world's top orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, and one of the best known soloists in the classical world, the Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

The organisers promised a festival of fireworks and if the opening concert is anything to go by, then concert goers are not going to be disappointed.

Lang Lang was clearly the main draw of the evening, and it was his performance of Ravel's concerto for piano and orchestra in G that was chosen to round off the Saturday night programme. Jazzy, jaunty, exhilarating and exciting, there can't have been an audience member who didn't leave the hall with a smile on his or her face. It felt about as far from the clichéd image of a stuffy classical concert as you can get.

And in a way that's what the KlaraFestival is about. It's a festival that prides itself on original performances of classical, romantic, modern and contemporary music; it aims to convey the power of music through new performances. And that's why I look forward to the festival so much each year. Oh and if it doesn't feel like a year since the last festival, that's because it isn't: as of 2014 the organisers have switched the festival to early spring rather than autumn.

Also on the programme last night were John Adams' The Chairman Dances (1985), Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony opus 110a (1960) and Human Voices Only (2014), the brand new commission for the Royal Concertgebouw composed by Belgium's Kris Defoort, who was in the Bozar concert hall and came on stage to thunderous applause from his home crowd.

Belgian talent is a particular feature of this 10-year anniversary festival, with other well-known names starring throughout the two weeks including Philippe Herreweghe, Bernard Foccroulle, the Baroque Orchestra B'Rock and Muziektheater Transparant.

For the full festival programme, including those concerts that will be broadcast live on Klara radio, take a look here. Enjoy!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

We're at the Brussels Book Fair!


Foire du Livre  


'What's Cooking in Belgium' is making an appearance this weekend at the Brussels Book Fair - or La Foire du Livre de Bruxelles to give it its proper name. As luck would have it, two of the themes at the 2014 fair are UK authors and cooking, so we seem to fit in rather well! 

Two book signings are planned:
Palais Gourmand (in Hall 4), Sunday 23rd Feb. 3pm-4pm
Waterstones (Hall 1, Stand 127), Sunday 23rd Feb, 4pm-5pm

And there's a radio broadcast, featuring yours truly...:
RTBF La Première (Les Belges du bout du monde - La Première RTBF)
Sunday 23rd Feb, 9:10-10am

If you're in Brussels, be sure to pop by the fair and say hello. 


(Address: Tours et Taxis - nearest metro, Ijser; or free shuttle bus from Gare du Nord)

Friday, 6 September 2013

KlaraFestival 2013: melancholia

The KlaraFestival is underway in Brussels! The theme running through this year's festival, which is largely one of classical music but also incorporates dance, theatre and film, is melancholia. As the film director Lars von Trier said, "I see melancholia as a vitamin that we all need. In all western art there is something of melancholia, otherwise something's missing."

To bring this theme of melancholia to life, three composers feature heavily in the two-week KlaraFestival: Britain's John Dowland, born 450 years ago and one of the most influential musicians from the Elizabethan period, his compatriot Benjamin Britten whose centenary is being widely celebrated this year and the Russian master Dmitri Shostakovich, a contemporary and close friend of Britten.

Last night Shostakovich and Britten were on the programme in a performance by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by the young and lively Teodor Currentzis. The concert opened with Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, which was a first for me and throughout which I was totally captivated by the tenor Ian Bostridge's interpretation. After the interval the focus switched to Shostakovich, first a thrilling Piano Concerto No. 2 played by Alexander Melnikov followed by an energetic Symphony No. 9.

Earlier in the week I went to hear ‘Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorgno for 40 and 60 voices’ by Florentine composer Alessandro Striggio, the largest known polyphonic work from the entire Renaissance period. Still to come is a date with Quartet lab, a string quartet that is said to contrast established repertoire with contemporary works and improvisation.

There are also plenty of other offerings on the programme, including classical musicians interpreting Radiohead in a night club and a series of film classics all with a melancholic edge. Take a look at the KlaraFestival website to see if there's anything that grabs your attention. And if you can't make it in person, many of the concerts are broadcast on the radio.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

What's Cooking in Belgium: it's out!

It's written, published and launched. Yes, What's Cooking in Belgium: Recipes and stories from a food-loving nation, written by yours truly and Neil Evans, is a reality…and there's far more to it than chocolate, beer and Brussels sprouts!

The book is a compilation of stories and recipes, grouped thematically, which together tell the story of Belgium and its love of food. Illustrating the recipes are fabulous photographs, for which neither Neil nor I can take any credit. For those we have the food stylist Hilde Oeyen and the photographer Diane Hendrikx to thank.

Our book in the front window!
The Brussels launch took place last week, supported by the publisher Luster, the English language bookshop Waterstones and Le Meridien hotel. We had a brilliant evening! We both really enjoyed giving our presentations, explaining how the book came about and how we went about researching and writing it, and were extremely pleased that so many people followed up with interesting questions. It was also fun signing copies of the book afterwards!

For more information about the book, please take a look at the publisher's website. For now, the easiest places to order the book are directly from the publisher, at Waterstones Brussels or simply get in touch with me.


Below are a couple of photos from our Brussels launch. Today Brussels, tomorrow...




Friday, 22 March 2013

The Sami make history in Brussels

Earlier this year I went to Inari in the far north of Finland, home to the Sami parliament. While I was there I was lucky enough to meet several Sami people, including one of the parliament's Vice-Presidents, Tiina Sanila-Aikio (pictured below). I learned a lot about the Sami culture, including how the indigenous Sami people are seeking to preserve their language and traditions.

© European Union 2013

By a stroke of luck, the Sami parliament happened to come to my hometown of Brussels this week where they made history by holding a session in the European Parliament. As you can see from the photos, they came attired in their traditional dress as they sought to remind the EU of the importance of fighting to preserve minority languages and cultures.

© Anna Jenkinson
©Anna Jenkinson


The invitation to Brussels came from the MEP Nils Torvalds who in welcoming his Sami colleagues said, "We don't need to go very far back in history to see that the Sami people didn't have many rights in Finland...You should continue your fight. You have to save the Sami languages for your children. Without the Sami languages, the Sami culture won't be there in 100 years. We hope it will be there as long as Finland or Europe."

© European Union 2013