OSTEND - a detail or two 

It has to be said that any mentions of Belgium are exceedingly rare in works of English literature; if they appear they are usually confined to remarks about the nefarious King Leopold II (“…how the demons chuckle and yell/Cutting his hands off, down in Hell…”) or via the presence of laconic and phlegmatic characters, such as Hercule Poirot. Either that or the citizens of this humble nation simply bear the brunt of witty asides from the French or the Dutch, alluding to their stoic charmlessness or their sole recognized virtue as brewers of good beer. So, hats off to our haloed author for giving Belgium a small but worthy part to play in his saga; and not just Belgium, he has even chosen to feature the unglamorous harbour-town of Ostend.

Since the place will largely be unknown to readers of English, other than to those from the UK who have passed through, via boat and train, on their way into the deeper reaches of Europe, I thought it might be useful to fill out the picture a little; I have a lot of family there and, more to the point, I went there every summer of my childhood.

To begin with, the name of the town has three spellings: “Ostend” (Eng.), “Ostende” (Fr. & Ger.) and “Oostende” (Flemish) – only the first two of these are used in ATD. For the time that the narrative is set in, this usage is very realistic – French & English being seen as classy in that age – nowadays the Flemish is the preferred spelling.

The Digue (rhymes with “league”) is still there today, much in the same form as it was in the 1890s and early 1900s. It stretches from the port, at the north end of town, for about two kilometers or so along the seafront, running in a north-easterly to south-westerly direction, ending at the public baths at the south end, close to the Hippodrome. It averages about 75 metres wide from the line of cafés, shops and hotel fronts to the railing at the top of the sea wall.

As is described in ATD, about half way along the promenade, it swings to the east and then back again, the great edifice of the Kursaal casino being nestled there at the swerve. (Incidentally, the shape of the curve in the Digue looks just like a graph of t = tan ½ χ, in Roger Penrose’s description of "Frequency splitting on the Riemann sphere", p 163 of The Road to Reality). However, whereas in the era of our story the Kursaal was a magnificent belle époque, domed and turreted pavilion, its counterpart today, still a casino and performance venue, is a much more prosaic sweep of concrete and glass.

The surface of the Digue also remains largely as it was: it is paved with several million identical, square, buff-coloured tiles, about 15 cm along each side. Together with the old Kursaal having gone, however, all of the buildings along the sea-front were also destroyed, by the citizens of Ostend themselves in the Second World War, in the face of the advancing German army. This was to deny the invaders the use of whatever amenities those buildings might have provided them. The sight along the seafront in current times thus conforms in general shape to what the author describes but the buildings of today are all post-war constructions.

[As an aside: My family, the Barrats, owned seven or eight seafront properties before the war; in despair at the destruction of all the family’s assets my great uncle jumped from the roof of the last of their hotels, the Hermitage, before it was blown up. After the war they rebuilt the Hotel Bellevue Brittania, a stone’s throw away to the north of the new Kursaal, on the Albert I Promenade, and that’s where I spent my summer holidays. It was sold up in recent years and the site has now been redeveloped.]

Perhaps the last thing to say re the interlude Ostendaise in ATD is that, having some knowledge of the area to the south of Ostend, down to Mariakerke and Middelkerke, and areas inland, there is no location definable, in ordinary geographic terms, for the mayonnaise factory and research centre, where one of the lead characters gets into a pickle. Like the famous Frittenden treacle mines of Kent, England, (q.v.), the location of that great epicentre of mayonnaise research can only be represented by various combinations of coordinates along axes defined by the three distinct forms of the square root of -1: i, j & k…

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