The Words That Made Me...
I have literally millions of words in print, so when I’m not writing original pieces on here I will occasionally dip into my back catalogue and see what I can find. If I think something still reads pretty well, is particularly timely or otherwise just vaguely interesting, I’ll stick it on here.
And what finer piece of vintage Flett-ery to kick off with than the piece that made my name (such as it is) — and which I have only just realised is 25 years old.
Originally published in the Valentine’s issue of the Observer’s Life magazine, where I then worked, this 1997 travel article went whatever was the late-1990s equivalent of ‘viral’, kicking me from the ‘First Division’ of female newspaper columnists (I’d had a column in the Observer mag since the early 1990s, when I was editing Arena magazine) into the ‘Premiership’.
Many things — some wonderful and positive, others definitely the opposite — happened to me directly as a result of the publication of this piece and much of that detail, plus the context for the article, can be found in my memoir The Heart-Shaped Bullet (originally published by Picador in 1999, still available as an e-book on Amazon).
I have, unsurprisingly, also re-read the piece before posting it here… so, what do I think of it now?
Well, after 37 years of writing words-for-money my first impression was that it remains the most consistently excellent writing I’ve ever had published. And I’m fine with that because (modesty be damned!) I think it’s as near-perfect as anything written by me could ever be; I still wouldn’t change a word.
I am now also struck by the poignant tension between my desire to fulfil my professional brief — it was, after all, originally commissioned as a travel piece about a ‘romantic’ break in a fancy little hotel in Bruges — while at the same time speaking my heartbroken truth. Something about that juxtaposition between the details — the meals (I was made restaurant critic of the Observer shortly afterwards), the hotel’s interiors, the history of Bruges — and my attempt to navigate total emotional devastation are (still, to me, even as a kind of out-of-body experience) very touching.
If I have a major weakness (as writer, I mean — I have many other major weaknesses!), it’s an occasional tendency to over-write. However, there is an elegant sparseness and simple rhythm to the sentences here which allows the pain at the heart of the piece all the space it needs to breathe its way onto the page.
Obviously, I’m still ‘close’ to this piece — even after 25 years — however, there is now also sufficient distance to see it for what it is, and to own that, and to be proud of it. And, indeed, also grateful for the fact that out of the extraordinary personal pain that followed its publication, I had the opportunity to carve for myself a fantastic career. And while that career is broadly finished now, I remain very happy to have been a journalist—plus, I also had a lot of fun.
As for the piece itself ... well, it was published all over the world, lampooned and satirised, won prizes, sparked features and columns elsewhere in the press — even in my own paper — and was added to exam syllabuses. It also prompted many sacks of actual mail to my Observer desk and I was privileged to read people’s private responses to it alongside their own stories of loss, heartbreak and recovery; that I still have friendships with some of those correspondents is wonderful. Ultimately, the piece lived its own ‘best life’, out in the world, far beyond me.
It seems only fair to add that writing it was a monumental struggle, that I wept as I wrote and re-wrote the damn thing for days on end — but in fact it was technically the ‘easiest’ 2,000 words I’ve ever composed. Indeed, it was a bit like being possessed: I sat at my computer and out it all flowed like ‘automatic writing’ in one sitting, from start to finish. Other than a few semi-colons and some spell-checks (plus a delicate touch by the subs) what you see here is exactly what I wrote over a couple of weekend hours in my flat in Maida Vale, in late January 1997. I came up with the headline, too — referencing Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 novel about a passionate affair, ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’.
However, because I was at the time in a strange masochistic limbo in relation to my soon-to-be-ex-husband, still seeking his approval and trying to win him back (and because he was still under our marital roof, though as it turned out only for a few more days), I handed the article to him as soon as I’d printed it. He took it away to read in another room and, when he returned, handed it back to me saying only: ‘this will make you famous, Kate.’
And of course that was the moment when I allowed myself to cry. I didn’t want to be ‘famous’, I wanted to be married.
BY WATERLOO STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT
I like my stations grand – vast and gracious cathedrals dedicated to the god of travel, with vaulted ceilings and a big clock instead of an altar; with the prospect of leaving and waiting infecting the travellers. This is why ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’ is a great title for a novel and ‘By Waterloo Station’s Eurostar Terminal I Sat Down and Wept’ is not. Still, inspiring or no, it is the place where many romantic European journeys both start and finish, as the couples I saw knotted together beside the automatic check-in machines, oblivious to the coolly functional surroundings, testified.
So, it was inside Nicholas Grimshaw’s plastic tent that my own painful romantic journey began and ended. To Brussels on Eurostar, a connection to Bruges and a ‘romantic’ weekend for two at a hotel called Die Swaene, one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, home of artful drapery, napery, fluttering waiters, candlelit everything, fine wines, fussy gastronomy and, naturally, olde worlde charme.
For my husband and myself this was something of a double-edged sword. In the period between being offered the trip and boarding the train — about a week — he had made it clear that to me that, for him at least, our marriage was not working, that he wanted to, was in fact going to, leave. Which meant, in a way, that we were already travelling; his quiet stoicism and determination and my predictable tears and anger, recriminations and shock tactics had already laid the tracks, precipitating our own, separate journeys away from each other. We decided to go to Bruges to carry on the negotiations — me trying to persuade him to stay, him building his resolve to go — on neutral territory, because at home even the half-empty packets of pasta, loo rolls and old magazines seemed to throb with a hitherto unnoticed and powerful significance: they said All this will no longer be as it was.
Adjusting to the fragile etiquette that surrounds these situations proved a test. We didn’t speak much on the train. I spent a great deal of the three-and-a-quarter hour journey to Brussels in a different carriage, accompanied by Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and several large bags of crisps. We were apart when the train entered the tunnel, and I thought that if something horrible happened, that might be that. Of such wilfully morbid fantasies are tragically romantic train journeys made.
Eurostar hissed into the late afternoon darkness, through Birdsong’s First World War killing fields, where my great-grandfather is buried, and on to Brussels, where the grim Eurostar terminal leaves you in no doubt how good an architect Grimshaw is. We made the connection to Bruges on a desolate platform at Brussels Midi station and sat opposite each other on a squeaky, plasticky, cruelly-lit train for 50 minutes, not speaking, just making eye contact and, when it all became too much, which was often, sighing and looking away.
The cab journey from Bruges station to the hotel takes about 10 minutes. Our driver was cheery: ‘First time in Bruges? Ah, Die Swaene is one of the very best hotels, possibly the best. Do you want to be recommended a restaurant?’ And I thought to myself, ‘You think we’re Mr and Mrs Happy looking forward to our lovely weekend’; and I also thought, as we chatted with him, what great actors people can be.
Die Swaene is three old townhouses of four storeys, with a dimity reception and a creaky lift. The welcome was warm, the staff do not wear uniforms — this is a family-run hotel and it shows. Our suite, number 50, in the eaves, had a shower room, a separate bathroom, a little living room with a squashy leather sofa and a bottle of Moët in a bucket on the coffee table. The bedroom was dominated by a vast bed surmounted by a large gold cupid. The furniture was mostly of the dark, old, eclectic, heavy, oppressively European variety. Two tiny casement windows overlooked a deep-frozen canal. The view was of cobbles, trees, ancient buildings and iced water. Although we were in the middle of the town, it was completely silent.
We arrived at 9pm, just in time for dinner, and were given the best table at the back of the restaurant, which has been converted into a conservatory. Our package — oh irony! — was called the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ weekend and included two set meals, one of four courses, one of six, with wine and, according to the brochure, the threat of champagne being opened by a sword, which is the kind of thing I hate. I wondered if we could borrow the sword afterwards. We didn’t have champagne.
The food really was sublime, and talking about it enthusiastically, with a courtly politeness — ‘No, no, what were you going to say?’; ‘No, after you’ — nearly got us through the evening. We were given an oyster each, as a tiny appetizer, followed by a roulade of wild boar with goose liver pâté; tiny bread rolls with walnuts; a 1993 Riesling selected by the delightful female sommelier, who revealed that her favourite wines are old burgundies; stuffed envelope of cod with wakame, accompanied by a sprightly Médoc; wood pigeon in an orange sauce, a cityscape of a chocolate pudding with cinnamon; tiny petit fours and coffee that was brewed on the table in a Frankenstein-type contraption attached to a Bunsen burner. There was enough to keep us occupied. There were also a lot of ‘When was the last time you ate anything like this?’; ‘When was the last time you stayed in a hotel like this?’ We realised that we’d never done anything like this together; we just hadn’t got around to it yet. We’ve only been married for 16 months.
With the coffee came more tears, more stoicism. The carefully cultivated atmosphere of ‘romance’ was proving difficult because, obviously, we were here to sift and scavenge through the detritus of romance, not feast on it. We were the last to leave the restaurant, and our marriage summit resumed in suite 50 and went on until about 4am before it faltered and was abandoned. Zero intolerance.
Inevitably to bed. Turning down the coverlet revealed two single beds, pushed together, but made up separately. For my husband it was probably a relief, yet it seemed strange. After all, it is not unreasonable to assume that most couples staying at Die Swaene would probably want to be close, but to do so in suite 50 you have to negotiate a no-man’s land of tightly tucked-in sheets. I turned my back to read and left my husband staring at MTV. We agreed that the new U2 single was a disappointment.
The following morning brought a late room service breakfast of scrambled eggs, little pastries, coffee and orange juice — perhaps the very best thing about hotels — then out into a perfect winter day of high blue skies, fogged breath and blood-coagulating cold. We had a map, but Bruges is made for meandering. The city’s chocolate-boxy looks are due to the fact that, for a very long time, it was a dying city. In the 1300s, a phenomenal 150 ships moored there every day — brugge is Norwegian for wooden dock — but later the estuary silted up and the ships moved on, taking the trade with them. Bruges’s inhabitants were too poor to knock down or modernise, so the city and its eight miles of canals waited for someone to invent the camera. Now almost a theme park, Bruges in August is apparently nearly as unbearable as Florence — and even in January no cobble, spire, bridge or canal was left unsnapped by grinning, hand-holding couples. Base emotion or no, I found it in me to be jealous of them all.
There’s not much to buy in Bruges except lace or chocolate. I couldn’t see a place for lace in either of our futures but sought short-term consolation in the purchase of several pounds of dark chocolate from Leonidas — shockingly good. Neither of us was in the mood for culture, and my usual passion for churches seemed to have abated — they make we wobbly at the best of times — which meant that I took a picture of, but couldn’t face entering, the beautiful 12th century Basilica of the Holy Blood in the cobbled Burg, one of the many European churches which claims to own a clot of Our Lord’s platelets.
We had a cheap and delicious lunch — chips, mussels, beer, what else? — in an unpretentious, if touristy, restaurant in the Simon Stevinplein, a small square dedicated to the man who introduced the decimal system to Bruges and invented dykes. We barely spoke. Shortly before sunset, we boldly took one of the ‘romantic’ horse-and- carriage tours of the city that leave from outside the Basilica. Actually, even if one was feeling romantic, they’re not romantic at all — the guides are too good, talk too much and crack too many jokes. For 900BF (plus tip), our guide, Toon Defauw, and his horse, a bay called Wilco, gave us a scatter-gun history of the city at a cracking trot. It’s worth it. Toon took a picture of us sitting to attention in the carriage, with horse-blanketed knees and big, brave camera-friendly smiles, with the Lake of Love behind us.
As the sky turned dark, we retreated to the hotel for coffee and downtime. I read, while he watched television, both of us building on our reserves of strength for the evening’s six-course dinner, and all the rest of it.
Dinner: a bavarois of crab and turbot with caviar; a glass of Sancerre; roulade of ray with a cherry beer sauce; a glass of Chardonnay; lobster tempura; lamb; a heady Médoc — of which my husband observed, with faux pomposity: ‘It smells a bit like dirty, medieval, treacherous velvet. Thick, historical, Inquisitional. It’s like Donald Pleasance as Pope.’ After tasting it he admitted it was ‘actually Vincent Price as Witchfinder General.’ Which made me laugh for the only time in Belgium.
Back in suite 50, after deep-fried Camembert with orange and a pudding called a Zephyr, with rose petals, and coffee and petit fours, I felt a dull heavy pain in my solar plexus which I would have liked to blame on courses four to six but couldn’t. We talked until late, again; and I couldn’t sleep, so at 5am I finished Birdsong on the sofa and when I did, finally, sleep, I dreamed dark, medieval dreams.
Next morning, something like a routine emerged among the chaos — our second identical breakfast. I ached from the previous day’s walking, all over and inside, and as we went out into a Bruges Sunday, the skies were no longer high, but just above our heads, and our feet hit the cobbles hard. From a church belfry came, bizarrely, a discordant carillon of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. It was too cold to walk for long, so we went back to the hotel and drank hot chocolate in the tiny wood-panelled bar until it was time to leave. Upstairs, the bottle of Moët remained untouched on the coffee table.
For such a beautiful city, Bruges station is hellishly ugly. And, when you have to wait a couple of hours for a delayed train, Brussels Eurostar terminal is hellish, too. We did this in silence, letting go. On the return leg we travelled first-class and were served strange pâté and prawns by an endlessly smiling Belgian girl. The journey was slow — left Bruges at 1.50, got to London at 8.30. In compensation Eurostar offered everyone free single tickets.
At Waterloo, people were being met by their partners. As I watched mine striding ahead to the taxi rank, I felt him let go even more, uncouple, move on. By the time the taxi had taken us home, I knew nothing would stop him.
If your marriage has to end, perhaps it is better that it does so against the backdrop of a city like Bruges, rather than under the sodium glare of a streetlamp outside the local chip shop or on the sofa in front of the Nine O’clock News. Die Swaene and Bruges are beautiful, but it will come as no surprise to discover that I won’t be going back. It’s time to go forward.