April 11th, 2019

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belgium

Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Things had progressed pretty smoothly since the weekend. Over last night's dinner, he had finally told Sylvia about the Brussels assignment. She had been shocked, at first: the thought of coming with him did not seem to cross her mind (nor did he suggest it), and the prospect of being left alone for six months certainly alarmed her. But Thomas's reassurances were convincing: there would be letters, there would be telephone calls, there would be weekends when he flew home to see her. And the more he told her about the fair itself, the more she came to see that this was an opportunity he could not afford to turn down. 'So, really,' she had said - at last beginning to see the thing clearly, as pudding was dished up and she poured condensed milk over her slender portion of apple pie - 'it's a great honour that Mr Cooke has singled you out in this way. He didn't ask any of the others. And you'll be rubbing shoulders with people from all sorts of places: Belgians, French - even Americans...' And Thomas had realized, when she said this, that from one point of view Sylvia was actually willing him to go, already: that in her eyes, painful though the separation would be for both of them, he would grow in stature from this experience. No longer a mere government pen-pusher, he would become, for six short months, something much more interesting, and indeed glamorous: a player (however small) on the inter national stage. The idea appealed to her - even titillated her. And perhaps it was this knowledge, more than anything else, that lightened his step that Tuesday afternoon, and added a few imaginary inches to his height as he strode across the footbridge towards Birdcage Walk. He felt a sudden, unexpected kinship with London's seagulls as they swooped low over the water beneath him, revelling in the freedom of flight.
I'm always on the lookout for books about Belgium, and this revolves around the great Expo 58, which put postwar Belgium firmly on the map and whose legacy remains in the north of the city. Thomas Foley is a mid-ranking mild-mannered civil servant who gets sent to Brussels to oversee part of the British cultural contribution, the Britannia pub in the UK pavilion. He gets involved in some not terribly believable spying scrapes, and in an entirely believable romantic intrigue (the two are of course linked). The distance across the channel was much greater in those days before cheap phone calls, let alone emails or the Channel Tunnel, and there's some very effective writing about the difficulties of communciation. There's also a very lovely passage where Foley finds the site of his Belgian mother's home near Leuven, before the first world war. And there is a nice coda set in 2009, wrapping up the various plot strands, more or less. Not great literature, but entertaining in a quiet way. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2014. Next on that pile is 1913: The World before the Great War, by my former colleague Charles Emmerson.