The bells, the bells…

Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leuven

Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leuven

The day job recently took me to Belgium, a country I first visited as a schoolgirl, but which has since seen me only fleetingly, passing through it on my way south from Rotterdam. It deserves far greater and closer scrutiny from me and I’m delighted now to be able to share a particular highspot of my all-too-brief stay.

KU Leuven is the largest university in Belgium. Founded in 1425, it today enjoys a formidable reputation as a leading and innovative European research establishment, having itself co-founded the League of European Research Universities.

My visit to its wonderful academic library, the Universiteitsbibliotheek, not far from the centre of Leuven, included a chance to see in use its imposing and spacious reading room

One half of the lovely library reading room

One half of the lovely library reading room

and a private guided group tour of its 73.5 metre bell tower, which now is open to the public (tickets from here). Access to the lower four floors of the tower, the square bit, is by spiral

The spiral tower staircase, viewed from the Grand Staircase

The spiral tower staircase, viewed from the Grand Staircase

staircase and these floors house an exhibition depicting the story of the double destruction by fire, in each of the two World Wars, of the library’s collections in two buildings, the old University Hall in the Oude Markt and this one.

Oude Markt, in 1913

Oude Markt, in 1913

Oude Markt in 1914

Oude Markt in 1914

University Library in 1913

University Library in 1913

University Library in 1914

University Library in 1914

We were guided by beiaardier/carilloneur Luc Rombouts. Under the tower’s stone cupola, he plays its carillon, one of the most beautiful in the world and donated by US engineers as a war memorial. Indeed, the whole of this 1928 Flemish Renaissance-style library was built with American funding.

US architect vision of the new library post WWI.

US architect vision of the new library post WWI.

The exhibition itself, a collection of still and moving images, proved to be a fascinating insight into the power of a library destroyed to excite outrage and generate propaganda. It is generally accepted that the 1914 fire was the work of German soldiers, but it is not completely clear which side was responsible for the one in 1940, though each blamed the other.

The Nazi propaganda machine swings into action in 1940. Recognise anyone?

The Nazi propaganda machine swings into action in 1940. Recognise anyone?

Fortunately, the forty-eight bells of the 1928 carillon, because of the design of the tower, could not be removed for munitions as they were elsewhere during WWII and survived, being added to in 1983 (again with US support) with a further fifteen bells.

Gillett and Johnston carillon bells

Gillett and Johnston carillon bells

Automated mechanism for playing the bells on the hours and quarters

Automated mechanism for playing the bells on the hours and quarters

Luc Rombouts at the baton keyboard

Luc Rombouts at the baton keyboard

Luc playing 'Yesterday'

Luc playing ‘Yesterday’

Luc playing 'Streets of London'

Luc playing ‘Streets of London’

The carillon instrument

The carillon instrument

Luc not only allowed us to see the carillon instrument, but brought time – the normal quarter-hour Reuzegom, a Flemish folk song – to a halt, in order to play for us; the sounds of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ were soon filling the air around us, the square in front of the library and the lovely city of Leuven itself. He demonstrated on this organ-like machine skills which had taken him four years to learn, banging his fists on the baton keyboard and pumping the pedals with his feet; he also told us about the bells themselves – they were ordered from the Croydon foundry of Gillett and Johnston, because English bells had the finest, most accurate pitch; he made the whole visit interesting, personal and friendly and our sincere thanks are due to him for all of this.

View of Sint-Pieterskerk, in the centre oLeuven, from the bell tower balcony

View of Sint-Pieterskerk, in the centre of Leuven, from the bell tower balcony

All text, photographs and video on this website © Christina James

The ticking of time…

Carriage clock

Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday.  Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892.  If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded.  I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.

My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died.  Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life.  She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts.  She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses.  Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match.  She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house.  People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays.  She had standards.

You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events.  Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria).  She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family.  Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches.  She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike.  She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP.  After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts.  She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.

These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them).  Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born.  It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:

  • Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
  • Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
  • Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
  • The General Electric Company was founded.
  • The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
  • An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
  • The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
  • Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
  • The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home.  It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
  • Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
  • It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid.  Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.

The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s.  There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned.  When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone.  Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride.  In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.

All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.

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