'Erm - yes, there is your father's loss, of course, said Mr Cooke hastily, although it appeared that this was not what he'd actually been referring too. 'But we were commiserating with you, rather, on your start in life. What with one thing and another - the pub and the Belgian thing - you must have felt severely handicapped.'
Said Mr Cooke, Thomas Foley's boss at the COI, the Central Office of Information, about his parents, his father being a pub owner and his mother a Belgian refugee of the Great War. But the combination made him in the eyes of his superiors (and in the eyes of British Intelligence) perfect for keeping an eye on the activities in the Britannia, the pub of the British Pavillion at the big Expo 58 world fair, where the Belgians have put the Russian and the American Pavillions next to each other. The Cold War is breaking out, spies are everywhere, but the atmosfere at the Expo is also one of hope after the 2nd World War, and a generation of young people is looking towards the future, rather than the past. One of them was my mother, two years before I was born, working as a nurse on the Expo grounds (she still has the pin). And so this book interested me, and I have read it with the utmost pleasure.
It is, of course, a comedy. Jonathan Coe is one of Britain's great contemporary writhers, famous for his comedy novels, reminding me a bit of the great PG Wodehouse. With the Expo 58 as a background unravels an espionage novel with a twist of comedy, and with figures as Andrey, the Russian journalist/spy, Emily, American beauty/spy, Anneke, Belgian hostess, and Shirley, barmaid of the Britannia, the figures dance in the curious world of Belgium, anno 1958. And of course i should not forget Mr Wayne and Mr Radford, British spymasters, popping up at awkward moments, and curiously reminding me of the two rats in the animation movie Chicken Run.
I loved this novel. It is a nice story with some surprising twists, it gives a good background on how Expo 58 was seen by its visitors and by the people working on it, and I loved the parts where Foley heads back home, to a family life in Britain end of the 50ies, strangely droll and boring in comparison to the bubbling life on the fair. It's a comedy with a good story and it ends in an Antwerp wok restaurant that used to be the Oberbayern restaurant at the Expo.
The original Oberbayern, now a wok restaurant in Antwerp
I love how Coe brings this period to life. I love some of the characters, no heroes, just ordinary people, like you and me. Great literature ? No, but a very nice example of a British comedy novel, with a Belgian touch. Lots of joy in reading, lots of smiles, and a few tears...I think I'm going to buy the translation for my mother.
One of the nicest things for a book-lover/reader is browsing through the offer at a bookstore, without a title or an author in mind, just picking up books, looking at front pages, admiring particularly well done layouts or covers, and reading snippets in order to make up your mind that it might be a book worth buying and reading.
And sometimes a mighty hand seems to sweep out of the pages and grip you by the collar to pull you into the story. A few pages later you come back, you suddenly realise again where you are, and you think: this one is for me.
It happened to me with this book. I didn't know the author and I rarely read American novel's, but I loved the artwork and the cover so much that I picked it up and started reading...
- Wow, this is the greates week of my life.
- Sorry. You probably don't understand that.
-Okay, comparitively, it's not such a good week for you. You've been, well, I guess you've been brought here. I just mean that bringing an astronaut here was hard, but getting an actual cop here...Jesus. Kev said I was invincible and now I know it's true. Shit, I forgot to tell him. I'll be back.
The book is about Thomas, a young man with questions, that abducts an astronaut. He used to know and admire him in school, and starts asking him questions, trying to make sense of the world around him. From one question comes another and soon a congresman, his math teacher, his mother, a cop and a lady are abducted and interrogated, each one shackled in a separate building. The layout of the book supports this very well and every chapter is named after the number of the building in which the victim sits.
The first time I read it I read it too fast, like a thriller, and it did not satisfy me. So i read it a second time, because I felt I did not do it right the first time, and now as a novel, and it opened up beautifully. It is a very special book, with a trip through the mind of the subject, and with some remarkable moves in the storyline. I loved it.
Though the book seems simple at first it isn't, and it should be read sober and concentrated. Every time I was too much distracted I had to start again.
About 10 years ago my GP advised me to cut back on the beer and start drinking wine: it was healthier and the size of the bottle put a natural curb on consumption. I followed his advice, became quite fanatic about wine, and was blissfully unaware of the Beer Revolution that started happening all over the world. A complete generation discovered this beverage, started looking around for it, started brewing it and started tasting the beers from beer's home countries: Belgium, England and Germany. It is easier to get to the materials (hop is sold dried, grapes not) and this Revolution was quick to spread over the whole North American and European continent, and as styles started being copied everywhere everybody seemed to learn from everybody and soon you could drink locally brewed Belgian Trappist- or Saison-style in small towns in North America, and were Belgian micro-brewers working on IPA's or Stout's. It was during a recent trip to British Columbia in Canada that I became aware of it, and was amazed about the quality and the taste of beers by breweries like the Granville Brewing Company, Steamworks, Banff Avenue and Jasper Brewing Co, to name but a few. Back in Belgium I was so curious to see if the same thing happened in Belgium itself, and I went to the specialised store's to quench my thirst and my curiosity. And though I found some great IPA's and a lot of experimenting, i was most amazed by the Porter's (or Stout's).
To be honest with you Stout or Porter was never really my favourite, and I bought these bottles out of curiosity: how could i say something about this Beer Revolution if I skipped one of its major expressions or styles ? But these beers amazed me and were responsable for a learning moment: I suddenly realised how beer can be as complex as wine, and how much it is a result of someone's personal choices when he blends his malts and hop's. These three were all excellent but they were also so different that I have become very interested in the style.
Stouterik, Brasserie de la Senne - Prince N°1
The unfiltered and unpasteurised beers from this Brussels Brewery are hard to find, even in Belgium, but are allready famous for their quality and their artwork. They started brewing in 2003, in the De Ranke Brewery, and only moved into their own premises in 2010 in Molenbeek, in the heart of town. With 4,5% alcohol it is not a strong beer. It is made with barley and the hops used are East Kent Goldings. Nice aroma's, with toasted malt and also something sweet and caramalised. In the mouth it packs more punch and is very direct like a Guinness. The bitterness of the hops is quite clear. The coffee and caramel of the malt arrives at the end. Very nice. "Stouterik" means naughty boy, the Senne is the small river that ran through Brussels (now underground). 15/20
Zwet.be, 3 Fonteinen - Prince N°2
3 Fonteinen (3 Fountains) is one of the most famous Gueuze breweries of Belgium. Gueuze is a unique beer and is a blend of lambic's. Lambic's are brewed with the help of all other brewers nightmare: wild yeasts. These only occur in one part of Belgium, not far away from Brussels, and here brewers open their fermenting vessels to tempt it in so that Brettanomyces bruxellensis can start it's work. Today most of these are residential in the brewery. This beer is even more special as it is the result of what is called mixed fermentation, a mix of top-fermentation as usually used for Stout and spontaneous fermentation as used for lambic's and gueuze's. Armand De Belder, the owner and master brewer of 3 Fonteinen, created it because he was not so fond of traditional Stout's, and it is brewed in the Proefboerderij, a brewery where everybody can experiment with small batches. The beer has a very strange smell that changes very quickly. It starts as a sour lambic beer, but with undertones of Guinness, and then went very quickly from armpit smell to very exotic perfumes, very complex and interesting. The taste combined the acidity of a gueuze with the touches of chocolate and coffee usual for a Stout, but in a very complete and interesting way. Great beer ! The name zwet.be is pronounced in Brussels as zwet bee, or black beer. 16/20
Created by the Wychwood Brewery in Witney, in the Cotswolds, where the famous English Hobgoblin ale is made. Brewed with four malts (Pale, Black, Crystal and Oats) and three hops (Fuggles, Progress and Challenger). The smell is exotic and female, with perfumes but also sigars, like a high-class 19th century brothel, and with some nice bitter hop-elements. The taste is absolutely fun, with bitters hidden behind fruit and freshness, popping up as you swirl it in your mouth. Extremely drinkable, and a porter for people who don't like porter. 15/20
All beers were tasted in Beer Sommelier glasses designed by Ben Vinken, Flander's Beer Sommelier.