On my short life in Belgium

On Friday the 22nd of June I was in my office in the house my Flemish partner and I had bought on the Kongostraat in Ghent, Belgium. It was an ordinary day, I was just footling around with an article for a book I am trying to edit and bring together. There was a knock at the door – typically I tend to ignore calls during the day because they are invariably sales-people trying to hawk something. But this time I answered the door to be greeted by a policeman, the ‘buurtinspecteur’ (neighbourhood inspector) for the Ham district of Ghent. At first I thought it was a formality – my partner and I had given the council all the documents it required in order for me to register as a resident – but that was last year and we’d heard no word since. It turned out that these documents were lost and that the council denied having received them in the first place. What is it with power and its ability to gaslight its victims? The documents they asked for were convoluted and arbitrary and it transpired afterwards that I had forgotten to take out health insurance, which is essential in Belgium. Not only that, but my adamantine, amaranthine love for my partner was in question by the authorities – I needed to prove my commitment and a civil partnership was not enough. Apparently the legal definition of ‘a committed relationship’ is seeing each other for a minimum of 45 days each year. That doesn’t sound much like commitment to me…

As I invited the buurtinspecteur in, he said ‘You don’t understand why I’m here?’ and I confessed that I did not. In fact, the purpose of his visit was resolutely unclear for the duration of his time with me. If I asked a question, I was rebuffed with, ‘It is only my duty to deliver the papers and get you to sign them’. When I asked if he would be willing to translate the document I had to sign, he waffled around the subject and avoided doing so. The one thing that slightly perturbed me was when he said ‘You have one month after the issue of this letter’. Getting up to leave he said to me, and I exaggerate not, with a malign grin: ‘I’ve ruined your weekend’ and when I bluffly said he had not he repeated himself ‘Oh, I think I’ve ruined your weekend’. I quickly came to realise that indeed he had.

It is only because my partner has a lawyer in the family that the document was eventually explained to me – it was my official marching orders – a ukase from the mayor of Ghent declaring I am persona non grata and must leave Belgium within a month. This is a curious thing to happen to a member of the European Union – someone who surely has leave to remain wherever he pleases within the EU, until Brexit delivers its coup-de-(dis)grace. While I am certain that a grotesque clerical error has taken place and I should really fight my corner, instead I opted for the midnight flit. I fled the country on the afternoon of Sunday the 24th and as I was sorting out clothes to bring with me, I felt like I was a dead person clearing out their own personal effects. Like a condemned man, I spent my last evening in Ghent visiting a couple of the cafés I liked. Folklore was my favourite pub in Ghent, but I visited another in order to drink a black-market bottle of ‘Westvleteren’ beer, which is a very sought after Trappist beer. As I sat in the gloom drinking my beer, I started to listen to the conversations around me – mostly in English with some faltering Flemish. There was a party of expats sitting at the table next to me, all tattoo artists. They were talking favourably of Belgium, how nice it was, and some had been there for nearly a decade. It’s hard to be surrounded by people who are deemed by some greater power to be more valuable than yourself, but there it was. I wondered if they saw my beer and thought me a stupid tourist (it being so expensive, it’s only really drunk by tourists). I suppose that’s exactly what I am and have been all along – just a visitor, and an unwelcome one at that.

I cannot in good conscience compare my situation in any way with the plight of refugees and this event has not given me any special empathy or understanding – it would be crass and facile to say that it has. But if I feel like this, then how must they feel? What refugees go through – not only in the countries they leave behind – but especially in the countries they hope will host them – is nothing short of appalling. We are, all of us in Europe, taking a big lurch towards the Right and like the speaker says in that wonderful, if harrowing, George Campbell Hay poem ‘Esta Selva Selvaggia’ (This Savage Wood), we need to watch ourselves, because it is getting really scary out there. In the poem the speaker listens to a polyphony of clashing voices, often uttering unspeakably racist bile and then he replies in italics:

“What crime was it we suffered for?”

“They started it. We willed no war.”

Listen to yourselves. Beware.

It’s not quite at the Stefan Zweig / Walter Benjamin stage of our brightest minds killing themselves on borders and in exile, but it’s getting there. I am not scared in the slightest by refugees, but I am scared by politicians and the bourgeoisie who rather cravenly hide behind racist and chauvinist legislation that is there to protect and perpetuate their own best interests only. But my point is this – until you have been the personal recipient of a powerful government document that in no uncertain terms states: ‘We don’t like you and we want you out’, nothing can quite prepare you for what sort of feelings it provokes. I am still shell-shocked now and to tell the truth a little hungover, having been drinking since I was given the papal bull of excommunication. I had to leave Belgium because I could no longer bear living in such an uncharitable, avaricious and xenophobic culture. Not that the UK is any better mind you! But at least I have the silly jingoistic core requirement of having been born here, having the right blood, so it is harder to eject me.

When the seriousness of the document became apparent to me, I entered a heightened nervous / febrile state and did feel like I was a cornered animal, suicide ideation began and I thought ‘it really is time to leave’. I was reminded of the woefully unnecessary death of the Edinburgh poet Paul Reekie, who killed himself when he was sent a double whammy of two letters, one cancelling his disability benefit and the other retracting his housing benefit. Via an eerie coincidence, on the very flight to Edinburgh that I was using to escape Belgium, I ended up sitting next to a man in Napoleonic era British infantry uniform. He had been in Waterloo for a re-enactment and while I began talking to him about this, it quickly became apparent that he was a musician and artist who had been active on the Edinburgh literary scene in the 1990s. He had known Reekie too. The day afterwards I was waiting to get my train back to Northumberland when I went in an Edinburgh charity shop and found for £1!!! a copy of Paul Reekie’s only solo book – Zap – You’re Pregnant. Only 100 copies of this pamphlet were ever printed, and what are the chances of me finding one after spending the last few days thinking about its author…?

It was never my, or my partner’s, intention to stay in Belgium, it had all been an experiment and a rather failed one at that. I had moved to Belgium in the summer of 2015 and my time there lasted until the late spring / early summer of 2018. When I first went over to Belgium, some friends expressed dismay. My friend the poet Alexander Hutchison was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while I was away and I was writing to him, saying how keen I was to see him. There was still about two weeks to go until my trip to the UK when I found out he’d died. The last letter he sent me was very brief – all it said was ‘Equinoctial bursary’ followed by a smiley face. He’d given me an unsolicited cheque for £150 – Sandy was incredibly generous like that. The money was to be used for my flight over to see him. In the end I used it to pay for another flight to attend his funeral. It’s missing things and people like that that, if anything, makes me bitter about Belgium.

The big move all came about when my partner – who I hasten to add is a Belgian national with whom I have a civil partnership – began to long for her family. Her sisters were beginning to have children and she had lived away from Belgium for nearly all of her adult life. I thought it was only fair that we gave life in Belgium a go because I had only lived in the UK all my life. We lived initially, for some eight months, in a rather drab flat on the outskirts of Ostend, where my partner was unhappily working at the time. From there, we took the plunge and decided to buy a house on an elegant, if snobbish, street in Ghent – her alma mater city. In order to satisfy the authorities, I had to declare financial dependence on my partner, which was ok because she had inherited a large sum of money, as well as having money coming in on a regular basis. For the next couple of years, I lived a liminal existence, torn between Belgium and UK and never really declaring an allegiance to either.

Although, early on, the signs of my life in Belgium being ok were not very auspicious. It was very unlikely I could ever feel like belonging to a country that did its best to make me feel like a second-class citizen. My problem is I only ever came to Belgium for one thing – the love for my partner and through all the stresses and strains, we are still together and she will join me in the UK in a month’s time, once our life in Belgium is severed. I think this is one of the problems why I could not be reconciled with the Belgian government – they thought I was over to seek a better life, when in fact I was only there for love. I find it hard to believe that someone would think the move from UK to Belgium was one of progress and aspiration (the NHS being one reason), but the authorities clearly see it that way.

In terms of expat life, I did all of the right things – I tried to learn the language, even attended college to do so and I steeped myself in Flemish writing and poetry – I was making moves to assimilate. When I went to register for Dutch classes, my life was raked over time and time again and the clerical assistants at the school refused to accept that an immigrant such as myself had the title ‘Dr.’ and happened to live on an affluent street (they kept using my Ostend address despite my pleas for them to change it). The clerical errors I witnessed on all levels in Belgium were manifold and worrying – there is simply no communication between departments. But this is because as an immigrant you are perceived as a drain on the system and its much-vaunted riches. The same thing happened when I went for an interview at Ghent University – I was told that the validity of my PhD (from the ancient University of Glasgow) would have to be scrutinised to see if it was on the same level of worth as a PhD from Belgium. The dream of transnationalism is a total myth, unless you are willing to slot neatly into the approved patterns of behaviour – i.e. being a businessman / a wage-slave, something that the establishment knows, recognises and likes.

Unfortunately, I am not willing to be a little cog in a big machine – I’ve always been a bit of a heteroclite, following my own moral compass. I have tried the conformist behaviour – menial work, nine-to-five work and it has all left me utterly alienated, bordering on suicidal. Of course the murderously callous right-wingers out there will have to compartmentalise me as a ‘snowflake millennial’ in order to be able to sleep at night. This is the crux of the problem. I am only interested in things relating to literature and poetry and since this is my only life, I want to do exactly what I want and I won’t settle for anything less than liberty – like Joan Ure once said ‘I am willing to become a beggar for freedom’. Jeffrey Bernard has a good line that ‘Nobody has to do anything but breathe’ and I can’t help but agree with him.

My bohemian choice of lifestyle was the stumbling block in Belgium because it meant that bureaucratically speaking, I fell through all of the cracks. I work when I please and because I worked in a voluntary capacity for my partner’s company, only she paid the taxes. My other work, the work that didn’t involve money, was what really had my heart – my poetry and literary activities. But of course, the authorities won’t listen to this – to them I am merely a shirking, gold-bricking parasite. I hasten to add that I never used the Belgian health service and I paid for all of my language tuition while I was there. In fact, I didn’t take an iota from Belgium but it took a great deal from me. I just don’t fit in a capitalist society because my value system is completely different – I don’t revere entrepreneurs and people who are typically viewed as successful – business types etc. My raison d’être is not to earn lots of money and then die and leave it to my children. I am dealing with having been brought into this rather alien world and I don’t want to play by its rules. When you’re asked ‘what do you do?’ that is not a question asked out of genuine interest, but a phatic device designed to let the asker know whether or not to look up to, or down on you. I understand that we have made money the ineluctable lifeblood of our world and we all need it, but that doesn’t mean I approve and should be forced to conform. I am only one person of billions, is it really so awful that I choose to live the way I do? How as an EU citizen, in a civil partnership with a Belgian national, can I be evicted from an EU country? Well, it has happened, this is the nicely divided, fissiparous nest we’ve made for ourselves, a culture of insider and outsider, them and us.

The poems in my new collection Passport were written over the period of my short life in Belgium. They cover a melange of moods – from celebrating Belgium, to finding fault with it and myself (above all). In many ways, this collection is the thought process I have gone through since living there and thinking about (non)belonging and trying to find solace in living life my way. Little did I realise when I signed off on the proofs the other week that this collection was to be a swansong for my life in Belgium, but there it is. I am now trying to re-orient my life back in the UK and am so happy my partner can and actively wants to join me here. Her valiant story in Belgium is worth telling too. Trying to get the life worth having is how Hugh MacDiarmid once put it, and that’s exactly what we have been trying to do all along, and it is exactly what we will continue striving for.

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10 thoughts on “On my short life in Belgium

  1. I think this is very moving, sad that people judge before knowing just what kind of life we lead. I’m not like Richie so good with words in fact I’m dyslexic, but I feel the same anger he does. I hope this new chapter in his life is rewarding. I love him so much ( his mother).

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  2. I’m really sorry you’ve been through this experience, Richie. I have admired your poems for many years now and I am very much looking forward to ‘Passport’ – I know a lot of people are. In fact I read a poem of yours at Nine Arches 10th Birthday Party celebration on Saturday (although I foolishly forgot my copy of ‘Cairn’, which is now sold out so there were no copies available there, so had to read another of your poems, ‘Legend’ that you’d sent to AOP). Thank you for sharing this account of your experiences in Ghent which will take time for you to get over. I wish you and your partner the very best from now on. Josephine.

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    1. Thank you Josephine for your support and concern – I consider myself very lucky (and grateful!) to have been published by you at ‘And Other Poems’. I didn’t know Cairn had sold out, but very good to know nonetheless. A huge thankyou for being so kind 🙂

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  3. Richie,
    My thoughts are with you and Stef. There are good people in the world; even in the places they seem most absent. It is our job to make those existences stand out. Look forwards to Passport. Allyna

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  4. So very sorry you have been pushed out and hope you will now thrive here. Your account reminded me of a remark by my partner’s son, a musician, trying to make his home in Belgium twenty odd years ago, that if we thought Britain was bureaucratic we should know that the British were mere amateurs compared with the Belgians. It worked out eventually for him. He and his Belgian wife have brought up two children in Liege. And he is still a musician. Best wishes to the two of you, wherever settled.

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    1. Many thanks for your comment Linda, I am glad your son made a success of things in Belgium – I suspect most people moving abroad would be able to have a good go of it, but I proved to be the exception. For me, the bureaucratic labyrinth was only a part of the story, I was also demoralised about living in a culture that was so success / status driven and money obsessed. I was asked many times if I could make money from poetry, as if there is only one type of wealth, the fiscal kind – not the emotional, intellectual, aesthetic kinds too. All best, Richie

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  5. Richie, I’m sorry you have been subjected to this incomprehensible treatment and for what you have had to go through. The UK is a bitter, shabbier and divided place now but I hope you will both be able to adjust, given time. At least we have your collection to look forward to.

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