Saturday, 21 February 2009


Near bedfast as I am, neverthless, as spring approaches, it takes all my native cunning to talk the Head Ferret out of going abroad for a holiday.  The exceptions I would be prepared to allow if The Bag permitted  are Vienna and Bruges.  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 cafĂ© 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.  Why? No one likes to come into an empty bar, we were told.


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?






Reading newspapers on my sick bed gives some ide of how Gibbon must have felt that afternoon when he decided to write about the Fall of the Roman Empire. It is quite clear that what we are seeing are the death throes of the British Empire, which was conceived in greed but managed for many years to stay the blood letting instincts of the native politicians over whom it had a measure of control.

Africa is in a state of collapse and enough time has passed for us to be able to see the Opera Bouffe which was the Last Days of the Raj in India.

Gibbon would have much fun with first: the notion of planting  a giant hedge which cut India in half; abandoning that in favour of setting up a man, a civil servant who had never been to India before, in a bungalow with a book of maps and tasking him with drawing the Line of Partition. He might have glanced at the wisdom of creating a Royal Oaf like MountbattenViceroy in  place of a scholar like Wavell who knew and loved the continent. A Royal Oaf whose twin obsessions was keeping his wife out of the bed of his coloured opponents and getting g everything sorted in time for him to scurry home and join the Festivities which sprang from the adoption of the nephew of his choice into the House of Windsor.

Gibbon, I fancy, would have  been diverted by the jointly held opinion of the native proponents of Partition, that by the time it came to deciding, they were all too tired to think clearly.

Gibbon would have a fine time with the British Empire, the symptoms of whose fall are all around us. I fancy he would point out that, like the rest of the so-called developed world, we operated under a  financial system which spectacularly broke down ever century or so, providing material for both Dickens and Trollope, and required regular wars to stroke it into life.








My eldest daughter sleeps in the same brass bedstead in which, but for a welcome turn of speed on the part of a midwife, she would have been born.  A bed I, in turn, had inherited from a deceased parent.


I am all for ancient beds.  The best sleep I have ever had was in 1941 in Bonsall in Derbyshire, immersed, for no other word can describe its welcome, in the flock mattress of a lady called Grannie Gerrard after the bombing of Manchester had driven us from our home.


You would have liked Grannie Gerrard.  Whenever German bombers flew overhead she would scuttle nimbly out of her cottage, switch on her torch and train the beam skywards.  It was said in the village that she harboured Nazi sympathies and the local policeman was sent to investigate.  Not so, she told him.  She was shining the light in the pilots’ eyes to dazzle them so they wouldn’t be able to see her cottage.  I remember thinking at the time that anything which protected  my flock mattress was a good thing and I only wish I had it today.


All columns have a reason and the reason for this one is a pronoucement by a Tourist Board spokesman.


“The fundamental reason for going to a hotel is to sleep.  And no one can have a comfortable night in a bed that is more than ten years old.”


Only foreigners stay in hotels.  British gentlemen and their ladies stay in guest houses or pubs which are ‘omes from ‘ome.  One of the charms of ‘omes from ‘ome is the variety of furniture which is encountered in them.  Most of it picked up for a song in the auction room.


The truth is that a bed needs bottle age and lineage.  A mattress, like a woman, is only interesting in middle age.  You can always tell when you are in a bed that has enshrined a happy marriage.  A recumbent body on the outer rim of the mattress finds itself rolling inexorably towards the centre.  Beds with a three-in-one gradient from the middle out are mute witnesses to domestic disharmony.


There is, of course, a secret bed code which a friend of mine accidentally broke.  He had the usual bachelor’s dilemma.  He was at that happy stage in life when a double bed would have been a thoughtless extravagance and a single bed too narrow for the passing guest.


He took the problem to a superior furniture store in Kensington.


“What sir wants, “ the assistant informed him, “is a gentleman’s occasional.”