Time: quite early on a Saturday morning during the Holiday season.
Weather: temperature well below zero; a clear sky.
Setting: a train rattling through Brussels’ industrial outskirts.
Mood: temporarily elated.
A serious book, by a serious writer, deserving my full serious attention!
Ah, early morning frosty winter light…. Slowly illuminating a pale blue sky with the faintest of pinkish glows – and suffusing the roofs & upper parts of buildings with a warm coppery radiance. The kind of light that gets even the grimiest industrial landscape smoldering & glimmering. Riding a train through such a wintry limpid atmosphere is a pure delight. One could spend hours gazing out of the window.
Except that there’ s also a book demanding my attention.
Hmmm – how nicely the sun-light is refracted by the book’s rough paper . Shall I hold the book more upright, to capture all of the light streaming in? Or perhaps I should just tilt the book a bit to the right? And what if I lay it like that, obliquely on the little table? Look - it’s made of brittle golden parchment, this book. Soon it’ll be set ablaze! Oh…… now the train has taken a bent, the sun’s gone and there’s the plain black-lettered pale paper again. (photo’s shot: 11 - pages read: 2)
I have to change trains in Tournai – where the platforms are deserted, far too freezing cold , so all the waiting passengers huddle together in the station hall. It’s a large 19th century, bulky station hall, with many rows of arched & pillared windows. No doubt meant as a tribute to Tournai’s great Romanesque cathedral, unless it was specifically built to celebrate the generous patches of golden light on the red-tiled floor?
A few minutes before my train arrives, I get outside, walking shivering up & down the platform and watching the strange movements of a girl on the opposite, sun-flooded platform. What is she doing? Gliding forward, then stepping back, waving her arms, now feinting something like an attack, then almost doing a pirouette.
Oh, I see, to fend off the cold she’s fencing with her shadow!
From Tournai it’s only a short ride to Lille, in the North of France. When I first went there, almost 15 years ago, it was still a struggling town, uncertainly looking for a new life beyond its decaying industrial past. Since then it has become quite a confident, trendy city linked by fast trains with London and Paris. It has spruced up its historical centre, bubbles with shops & restaurants & bars, and has attracted many service industries & lots of cool folk.
But something of the vagueness & wistfulness of past glories, something of the tedium of decline, can still be sensed in the smaller towns surrounding Lille. Especially when taking the tramway to Roubaix, clattering through a sub-urban landscape now mercilessly & frostily lit by a glaring white sun. There is the fading glamour of early 20th century art-deco houses, mansions alternating with humble workmen’s houses. Then a non-descript post-industrial landscape with gaudy shopping malls surrounded by vast asphalted parking spaces. And finally, sturdy Roubaix itself, with its weighty decaying bourgeois-industrial heritage. But it’s now definitely much neater and more smugly middle-class than 15 years ago - the grime and the crumbling have mostly gone.
And yet, there’s still this air of provincial desolateness, of relative poverty. Or is this because, on this icy-cold Saturday between Xmas and New Year, people either stay at home or have flocked to the cozy shopping delights of Lille? Anyway, it’s not the merry-go-round (with only a few lonely kids on it), so utterly lost in the white winter glare of a large empty square, that will bring joy. Nor the freezing wind from the east, which blows scraps of papers through empty & vainly Xmas-lit streets. And the festive red carpets on the pavements only serve to highlight the pathetic lack of passers-by.
Most cafés & restaurants are closed, so it’s in a rather grubby sandwich bar that I replenish calorie reserves & warm my icy hands at a mug of hot tea. And there I decide that, at minus 3 ° C, aimless wandering about in desolate towns is perhaps not a brilliant Holidays idea.
And so I resume my voyage to find the Northern Light.
Because that was the true destination of this trip: an exhibit of Nordic painters in the Palais des Beaux Arts of Lille.
Readers of this blog know it is my firm conviction that a painter’s sensitivity to light is inversely correlated with his or her daily exposure to sun. It is light deprivation which makes artists attentive to the faintest variations in intensity & quality of light. Hence it are the painters of the North that can make us fall in love with what little light they get to see, not the sun-flooded Italians (except perhaps the Venetians , undoubtedly because of that strange lagoon-haze which filters their sun light).
And in my quest for Northern light I am not disappointed …. I can bask all I want in Nordic crispy crystalline light – refracted & reflected in snowy landscapes, or surreptitiously gliding over a wall, or so quietly shimmering at a window sill. The soothing stillness of winter light, whether it be outside or inside.
(But perhaps also the numbness of winter light? …. “as freezing persons recollect the snow” ….. also the oppressive stillness of winter light?.... “darin der Schnee des Verschwiegenen treibt”…. )
When I leave the museum, the city sparkles in the violet hour – an abundance of electric lights have gone up , mixing their glow with the purest indigo radiance coming from a frosty sky. And for a few dazzling minutes the world remains suspended in this violet hour, hovering between day & night, between city lights and luminous sky.
Soon the city lights win out, profusely pouring out of shop & café windows, glittering & twittering in decorations everywhere. People are thronging in the streets, cafés and restaurants are crammed full. Full of people eating & drinking & shouting & chattering to keep the cold dark night away. So, high time to seek refuge again in a train & a book.