It’s dignified. It’s upstanding, the restored brick and the blue arches. St Pancras, Eurostar. Even if every 24 months a train breaks down in the tunnel, and the pong of middle-class defecation wafts down darkened carriages to the sound of screaming babies… even with that occasional mishap… you can’t take away from this whole setup, it’s inescapably civilised.
They print me a ticket for Brussels, on paper too, tangible… I can hold it in my hands, my actual hands, like in the old days. My first literary hero was Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert who hated the railways, the fuss they caused in 1850s Paris. I used to love this quotation of his: “The railways only allow more people to move further… and still only be stupid together.” I have an enduring love of train travel, but I still find that line a useful touchstone in understanding Progress.
Every time… Eurostar sets my public-sector heart glowing, it sings to my state-led values. The private sector… the wealth creators(!)… you think they’d have ever dug a train tunnel beneath the sea? Think they’d have put a cosmonaut into space, dug the Erie Canal or funded even one class in the universities that led the research behind the device on which you’re reading this now?
I’m sorry… you see how I get carried away with myself?… that’s not what we’re here for… nobody would pay me to write politics… and even if they did then nobody would want to read it. I give it another 36 months… at most… 36 months before the written word never touches politics again. For this reason, what you’re reading here is about beer.
The Eurostar is taking me to Brussels, not that you have to go to Brussels to get near Belgian beer these days, London is awash with the stuff, the blonde nectar of gentrification, brewed by the 21st century Trappists of the East End. To be drunk down by programmers dressed as lumberjacks and with a pencil tucked behind the ear. Damn… but none of this makes sense anymore.
Where was I? Ah yes… the Eurostar is taking me to Brussels. I don’t have to remove my shoes to get on the train, nor take off my belt, nor remove my computer from its bag. Mark my words but one day an aviation lobbyist will shoot this racket down… they’ll cotton on to the refinement of rail travel and start upping the terrorist threat, the imaginary mujahideen that lurks beneath the sleepers and the signal box. I lean my head against the window… fields, hedgerows… Kent floods by in a hurry. People are talking. From further down the carriage I hear words drift my way… “the thing is… in a democracy…” and five minutes later they’re still going, hard at it… my god… sweet Jesus, I smile… they’re talking politics, it’s like a salon on rails… it’s the world as it could have been.
Brussels is the same as ever… Flemish and gothic… Flemish and gothic crossed with a Mediterranean seaside town, neon lights that hawk kebabs, a Turk who’s set up a Greek restaurant so as to avoid the slurs that are an unavoidable part of being Turkish in western Europe. Yallah and God bless the European Union. I head for a bar, the first one, I needn’t be picky, this is Brussels… it’s safe territory… its media stereotype well-deserved.
I get a full glass that contains a half pint brunette… remarkably small but it packs a good punch. Hops. Citrus – Blah. Blah. – I’m not going to describe it, we’ve all seen the adverts, we’ve read the supplements… I’ll let some unpaid intern sit around figuring out a description for the taste of Belgian beer… for me… well… four beers in and I’ve more important things to write. By the time my half-full glass has become half-empty, my sense of assurance and self-importance is sky-high… I order another glass, I set about the moral history of our time instead. A bartender, dressed in a long, navy apron and a silver, pencil moustache, sets down my glass with a nod. I get back to work.
I think beer… what to write about beer, or even alcohol for that matter? In truth it becomes steadily less distinct from politics, one more emotionally overinvested product in the best of all possible worlds. Beer (and to a lesser extent coffee) have been incorporated as political substitutes. The rejection of orthodoxy, norms and the obligation of work, as epitomised by having a drink, have been amorphously remoulded into an easily consumed act of rebellion. I could write an entire essay substantiating this point, others have already written of this idea of beer as ersatz politics, but one anecdote encapsulates it better than many words. The archetype gentrified brewery, BrewDog, launched their share issue under the banner Equity for Punks. Leave the office… be a punk in your spare time. Rebellion as consumer capitalism. Nothing new.
A girl sits down, two tables from me. She sits alone, orders a beer and opens a book. I wonder if this is a continental European scene, or if it’s simply the sort of thing I’d never notice at home, that tendency for travel to make us more attentive observers of our world. I wonder what it is that has left beer and bars as such an exclusively masculine territory in the Anglo world?
In many ways I dislike like the western take on alcohol, smudged with nihilism and sexism as it is, a long way from the Spartan history of the Orval Trappists who brewed the beer disappearing before me. We’ve all heard the quips, or else read them on chalk boards outside upmarket boozers. “Too much of anything is bad… but too much champagne is just right” – from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Apocryphally from Churchill, “yes madam… I may be drunk… but in the morning I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.” From Sinatra, “I feel bad for people who don’t drink, when they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.”
Somehow I don’t like them, don’t like any of them. Beer could be more civilised than that, could be more humble and humans more gracious. I sense that each line plays to a western – and particularly an Anglo – tradition of irreverence. I think of Dostoevsky’s Marmeladov, that civil servant we meet in a St. Petersburg bar of Crime and Punishment, explaining to Raskolnikov that his daughter has entered into prostitution, in order to pay his drinking debts…
“The more I drink the more I feel it… that’s why I drink… I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink… I drink so that I may suffer twice as much.”
I’ve always liked that take on drink and drinking, I wonder if it’s perhaps too serious, or if it perhaps just belongs to a time when life was hard and people stern, back when the Trappist monks first brewed beers, in order that they might support themselves financially, whilst giving glory to God in honest work. Either way. That’s enough for now.
I head for the house I’m staying in, take a five-beer saunter across the Place du Jeu de Balle. A flea market closes for the day, unwanted brocante, the very ends of unsold boxes, are smashed to pieces in the square, broken glass and ceramic crushed down into the cobbles, swept up by storeholders impatient in the falling drizzle.
Narrow streets lead me on towards my tram stop, potholes in the road, cobblestones lifted to leave small pools of brown water, rippling with the raindrops. Belgium is divided into three regions, most notoriously that of the French-speaking Wallon, and the Flemish of Flanders who, as with the wealthy Catalans of Spain, have established an aversion to social contribution behind a nationalist cloak. Less well-known is that the third region is that of Brussels-Capital. Despite the country’s highest rates of unemployment and poverty, Brussels has been somewhat abandoned, its amenities overstretched, its infrastructure left neglected and shabby between the nationalisms of the two more dominant regions. I watch passengers help an old lady, loaded with shopping, as she struggles up to the high, scarcely accessible platform of her tram. Beer, found here in abundance and great quality, it seems, will solve only some of the world’s problems.
Julian Sayarer is a journalist and author. In 2009 he set a world record circumnavigating the globe by bike. His first book, Life Cycles, is published June 2014. He blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, and is on Twitter at @Julian_Sayarer.
Cover image licensed under Creative Commons.