Sunday, 8 February 2009


A distressed friend seeks my advice.


“Flown with wine and impertinence, I behaved very badly at a recent party.  How can I extricate myself and regain social goodwill?”

Lie, little friend.  Whatever you say, your hosts are not going to alter their opinion, because people try to think badly of each other if they possibly can.  Personally, I favour lies so totally improbable they might just be true.

I once behaved so badly at the 100th birthday party of a very aristocratic lady that my attempt to kiss a lady governor of the BBC went largely unremarked.  The next day I wrote to my host:

“I understand that a person posing as me attended your mother’s birthday party yesterday and behaved badly.

“It is not the first time this has happened and the police are on the look out for him. Unfortunately, the likeness between us is so exact I have myself been cautioned by them for behaviour of his.

“He is a cunning fellow and I still cannot think how he managed to sneak into my home and borrow my suit, returning it in the early hours in a disgusting condition.  But that will give you some idea what the police are up against.

“I will of course make good any damage done by him.”

Now that I am virtually bone dry, I can look back on these follies with indulgence, though I am still not to be entirely trusted with whisky-flavoured ice cream.  Of course, there is always that delicious moment when you fall off the wagon and then anything can happen.

The most embarrassing moment of all was not really my fault.  A delicious girl I met in Bad Hartsburg at the end of the war invited me to meet her father, a Junker Baron, warning me he hated the English.


She did not warn me that he hated Scots.  Otherwise I would not have dressed in full fig - kilt, white spats, belt, and hair sporran.

He was waiting for me in the entrance hall of his apartment, seated at a table on which was a decanter of colourless fluid and two glasses.

He poured drinks, barked “Prosit” and downed his in one.  I swear it was rocket fuel. Mine would not go past my epiglottis.  The next one lay on top of it and the merciless third, on which he insisted with mounting malevolence, stirred the others into action.

I rushed to the bathroom.  No time to reach the lavatory.  My pink tribute flowed into the bath.  Reaching for the tap to ease its passage down the drain, I mistakenly turned on the shower and was drenched.

At the frosty dinner which followed no one mentioned my soaking condition, though steam rose from me in billowing clouds, rivers of white Blanco ran down my kilt and small pools of water from the sporran that looked like a drowned  badger formed at my feet.

But you could see the Baron felt some consolation for losing the war.



As spring approaches it takes all my native cunning to talk the Head Ferret out of going abroad for a holiday.  The exceptions are Vienna and Bruges.  But my favourite is Bruges.


The cuisine in Bruges beats Paris; its canals are more romantic - and a good deal more sanitary - than those of Venice; its fiacres are cheaper than Viennese ones; its bier houses as good as Amsterdam.  Its “primitives” are preferable to Italian religious paintings or the overworked Impressionists of France.


On our holidays there I have never had better service.  A notice in our room claimed the hotel would put any problem right in fifteen minutes.  When I mentioned the breakfast bar had run out of croissants, a porter rushed to a baker and returned with bags full of the delicious items, piping hot.


Romantics arriving at the railway station, or ‘t Zand, where the coaches stop, will be disappointed.  Savour the moment.  It is the only disappointment you will experience.


Walk up the Zuidzandstraat which runs off ‘t Zand.  You soon reach the medieval heart, overshadowed by the 13th century, 250-foot bell tower.  The True Love could not wait to bound up the 366 steps to be bats in the belfry.  I did not join her.  The tower has a three-foot lean.


Opposite are 16th century guild houses, now restaurants.  We chose Pannier d’Or (the golden bread basket), lunched on mussels in its heated pavement café and later dined superbly on game by a roaring fire in a panelled dining room.


On our first visit we were so charmed by this square, the shops, canals and cafes, that we did not discover the Burg, without question the loveliest square in Europe.  Burg is dominated by the 14th century Town Hall, a Gothic masterpiece where the Great Hall glows with murals and the Aldermen’s Room is dominated by a massive 15th century fireplace.  Next door is the Chapel of the Holy Blood.  Its reliquary, containing The Blood, has been paraded round the city every Ascension Day since the second Crusade.


An unmissable bistro is the chic canalside ‘t Traptje in the Wollestraat.  Glamorous, fashionably dressed. Carla has sat at the bar for twenty years.  Could not take my eyes off her, even when I was told she was wax.


For less expensive mussel mountains, rib steaks, stewed eel in chervil sauce eaten to the sound of classical music, try the candlelit Chagall in St Amandsstraat.


There are three ways to discover Old Bruges.  Walk round it, drive through it in horse-drawn fiacre or float on the romantic canals which encircle it.  We chose all three.  In the Walplaats, seeking lace workers, we saw, outside a cafe, a tiny dog bar with a drinking bowl and a tariff which read “dogs free. Photos 5 francs.“


Another walk brought us to the Church of Our Lady with its 400 ft tower, a lighthouse when Bruges was a port.  The port itself has been transformed into a great lake, the Minnewater (the lake of love).  Emperor Maximilian ordered swans must always be kept there in memory of the murder of one of his courtiers.


The glory of the church is Michelangelo’s incomparable Mother and Child, the only one of his sculptures to leave Italy in his lifetime.


Nearby, the Groeninge Museum shows van Eyck’s breath-taking Madonna, one of the world’s great paintings, and Bosch’s nightmare Last Judgement.  The Memling Museum is devoted to the six surviving masterpieces of the Flemish master Hans Memling.


One of Bruges’s pubs has a hundred varieties of beer.  Need I say more?

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