The Belgian connection 

The other day I listened again to the record that was one of the enduring musical milestones of my childhood, though it was recorded when I was scarcely two years old: Jacques Brel’s A L’Olympia (1961). How many times we children sat with our parents on a Saturday afternoon in our Sydney suburban lounge-room listening to Brel’s witty, ironic, passionate, biting, observant songs – some of the greatest in the French language. English may be the world’s dominant language; it is also beautiful and flexible and gorgeous. Yet there is something about the limpid, clear, passionate way in which Brel uses French which still can make me both cry and thrill at the same time. Forget the embarassing performance of French in rock, French does not take kindly to fracturing. This, in non-rock song, is where my lovely mother tongue lives and breathes most wondrously, in the sharp beauty of sung narrative and word pictures of poetic, distilled clarity, ironic humour and touchingly expressed emotion.

Brel’s love songs, often tragic, are masterpieces of luminous image and unrestrained, earthy, yet somehow, refined passion. Unflinching, yet compassionate, robust, yet elegant, disillusioned, yet longing, masculine yet sensitive, intelligent, yet sensual, capable of singing the most deeply felt love song followed by a hilarious dissection of bourgeois mores, Brel is the quintessence of French cool. Not the funky cool of the English-language tribes I hung around with at school, but that very French version of it which seems to raise as many hackles as it elicits extraordinary admiration.

Quite often, on those same musical afternoons,we kids listened whilst reading the adventures of some other great French heroes – the intrepid reporter Tintin and the irrepressible Gauls Asterix and Obelix. Here, it seemed, was the quintessence of modern France, these four creators of popular culture: Brel, Hergé, creator of Tintin, and Goscinny and Uderzo, creators of Asterix. 

Lively, popular symbols of the new France, they showed French popular culture at its best: intelligent, accessible, bright, lively, clever, witty, extravagantly boastful yet self-deprecating, with the lightest of touches yet a deep melancholy, the Gallic spirit par excellence. Something to be proud of indeed. 

Aye, but here’s the rub.For they weren’t French at all of course, but Belgian. 

Belgium doesn’t exactly have the most flattering image in France. It is patronised in much the same way Ireland is in Britain; and perhaps for much the same reason: jealousy. A small country, Belgium is perhaps just too well-endowed with brilliant artists, writers, musicians. Lively, elegant and with a reputation for gastronomy that is richly-deserved, Brussels is nevertheless often portrayed in French stereotype as a dull, bureaucratic hole, while Belgians are traduced as stolid plodders, which is far from the truth. War and incessant internal conflict have washed over Belgium over the centuries, and produced in its inhabitants a combination of stoicism, irony and disillusion which can of course have its negative side. Its French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish have been at daggers drawn for a long time, and indeed many people predict the end of Belgium as an entity any time soon, yet the name ‘Belgian’, anciently derived from the feisty Celtic tribe of that name, from that region, still seems to mean a great deal to the uneasy federation. Outsiders in Europe in a certain way, rarely consulted, the Belgians have nevertheless been at the centre of European history the whole way along, and have always had to be flexible. And perhaps that’s part of their particular genius. 

Indeed, I’m sure that it’s that insider outsider status, that light, melancholy flexibility, which has meant that four Belgians became some of the most well-known ‘Frenchmen’ in postwar popular culture around the world. 

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