Ostend For Greeneland

According to those better able to describe such things than myself, decades ago the crossing to Ostend was one of drenched decks, the smell of steam and oil and of stale Bass from the bar. As black silk-clad stewardesses moved hither and thither with their tin basins, arriving travellers with coat collars upturned and hunched shoulders prepared to disembark to a wet quayside marooned within a wilderness of rails and points.

The sound was of water, falling from an overcast sky, washing against the side of the channel steamer, hiding the quay behind chains of beaded rain. A newly arrived Jew, an English teacher and a variety dancer might make their way between abandoned wagons towards a customs tent as an onlooking worldly purser wished them well and wondered of a bet made with a galley waiter. Thus Grahame Greene introduces his characters on the first pages of Stamboul Train.

On the dockside sits The Orient Express, long lit, thirty feet below the crane drivers and, in Greeneland, bound from Ostend to Cologne to Vienne, Belgrade and Istanbul.

Puffins will be relieved to hear I have bored them enough with my own tales of Mittel European derring-do in the general direction of Asia Minor. We must part company with Richard John the would-be school teacher, Myatt in his heavy fur coat and poor, waifish Coral Muskar. Our eyes will cast away from the rails, sleepers and signal lamps turning to green, and towards those cranes. Is one of the drivers in his blue dungarees, in a box amidst the fog and rain, turning a big wheel to unload a Ford Prefect from the hold? I think he might be. And might that Ford Prefect belong to my grandparents? There is photographic evidence that it does.

Unloaded and free of the iron road and the inconvenience of any timetable we may sight-see the Belgian port. Although his characters have parted east, Greene lingers with us on the seafront.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Picture 1: Ostend.
© Always Worth Saying 2023, Going Postal

The rain has passed. There are some brave summer dresses in the middle distance but jackets remain worn. To the left, a man on a stick, may be suffering a recurrence of his elephantiasis. To the right, two gentlemen, suspiciously looking like plain-clothed Catholic priests on sabbatical from a leper colony, are engaged in earnest conversation regarding the different types of love.

On the railings behind them leans a heavily set artisan in a cap. Perhaps a down-at-heel vacuum cleaner salesman looking pensively to sea having missed the train to Vienna and with it any chance of making that rendezvous in the Hoher Markt cafe.

On a more serious note, the Ostend described by Greene in his 1932 classic and that visited by my grandparents were two very different places.

Successive waves of destruction struck Belgium’s premier seaside resort during the Second World War. The German invasion at the beginning of the conflict was followed by demolitions to allow for the construction of defensive bunkers. The British and, following their entry into the war, Americans bombed the important port. Incendiaries wreaked havoc.

Towards the end of the war, the Germans’ slash-and-burn destruction began to prevent use by the Allies after D-Day. Much of the infrastructure and many public buildings were destroyed. Much that remained wasn’t worth saving and was demolished.

In 2019 a summer exhibition was held at the Venetian Galleries on the city’s Parijsstraat. Entitled, Destruction and Reconstruction, Ostend 1944-1958 it chronicled the rebuilding of the city and drew contrasts between the pre and post-war worlds. Curator Marc Dubois explained some of the changes,

“Before the war Ostend had two stations: the Maritime Station and the Central Station. The Maritime is the one still used today. It’s next to the docks where the ferries used to arrive allowing travellers to hop on an international train straight away. This is where you took the Istanbul Express! Local services were kept separate and arrived at the Central Station, where now the Delhaize supermarket stands.” 

“Before the war the fishing fleet moored by the quayside adjoining the city centre. Already before the war moves were underway to move the base of the fishing fleet to the East Bank of the port where a brand new fish auction building was built. This operation was only completed after the war.”

Belgium’s three leading architects were involved in the reconstruction of the city. Public buildings were rebuilt. Some docks were filled in. Mayor road construction took place. Mayor Adolphe Van Glabbeke was also Belgium’s Minister for Reconstruction and Public Works and knew how to channel cash to projects that would benefit the city.

As can be seen from the photograph, the reconstruction of the waterfront was somewhat slab-sided. Not unattractive, the roof line remained consistent. Seafront alterations begun before the war were accelerated with a vengeance as old hotels were pulled down and replaced.

The significance of 1958, besides my grandparent’s visit, was that it was the time of the World Exhibition in Brussels. The new Ostend had its own pavilion there. Not only that, during the festivities, Monaco’s Princess Grace and her husband Prince Rainier (more of whom later) attended the opening of a new festival hall on Ostend’s main market square. With a casino nearby and its status as Belgium’s biggest seaside resort, Ostend even was twinned with Monaco (more of which later).

As for the actual location of picture one, Ostend has a very long seafront with the buildings being much of a muchness in terms of height, style and age. However, the windowless gable end visible on a side street is distinctive. After a few false alarms, the side street turns out to be Louisastraat which leads via a couple of name changes from Sint Petrus en Paulus Kirk to the Albert I promenade where the photo was taken.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Picture one today
© Google Street View 2023, Google

You can have a look around via this link.

Looking from the left, the six-story bay-windowed building has survived. To the left of that, a gap has been filled with a taller structure with two garage doors opening onto the promenade. There’s a gap on the right and a newer building on the near street corner. On the other side of the corner, the 1950s building remains. Further down the prom, it’s difficult to tell from the photographs but a stroll via Street View shows some post-war buildings have been kept and others have been replaced. But the feel of the place remains the same.

In the other direction, behind the photographer, sits a corner that leads to the port and Ostend Maritime railway station. On the other side of the channel leading to the port, is a different Ostend altogether with a sandy seafront of beach huts before sand dunes with housing estates and caravan parks behind.

To the left of the original photograph, down Louisastraat, we reach old Ostend which has the layout and feel of a traditional Flemish town but with more modern buildings on account of war damage and reconstruction. Central to this is the Church of St Peter and St Paul, captioned in our old family album as Ostend Cathedral.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Ostend Cathedral.
© Always Worth Saying 2023, Going Postal

The streets have changed in so much as all except the one on the left have been pedestrianised. As a sign of changing times, the Old Shakespeare pictured to the right now appears to be a post-Brexit Bistro Beethoven. You can have a look around via this link.

Looking behind the photographer reveals a trawler and across nearby a bridge we see the familiar chateau tower ends and arched middle of Ostend Maritime. Reassuringly there is a t’Waterhuis on the street corner. Is that Walloonie-Flemish for Wetherspoons?

As for The Old Shakespeare, it is mentioned in dispatches in Irish film-maker Bob Quinn’s memoir Monk Manque. Decades ago it was the first hotel Mr Quinn spotted as he alighted the train from Paris. A blonde receptionist stroked a Pekingese. He was the only diner in the restaurant. Supper was a succession of delicious small seafood courses – one consisting of a crab rescued from the attentions of a lobster in the dining room’s small aquarium – all wheeled in on a silver tray.

Mr Quinn’s only grouse was plastic toothpicks rather than wooden ones while sipping his cognac. Not as resourceful as a Puffin, many years later he returned to Ostend but couldn’t find it. After Googling and trying the phone he declared the Old Shakespeare turned into apartments by the pandemic. We know better, turned into the Beethoven Bistro, as if a little crab consumed by a monstrous Brexit-hating lobster.

From the Shakespeare the eye is drawn back to the Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk. Work commenced on the neo-Gothic design in 1899 and was completed by 1908 under the enthusiastic patronage of King Leopold II. The architect was Louis Delacenserie who based his plans upon Cologne Cathedral and the Votivkirche in Vienna. We shall imagine Greene stood next to my grandfather, taking his own photograph to be developed, printed, mounted and hung in the crucifix room of his Berkhamsted mansion.

In the foreground stands a statue of a young woman in a long dress extending her left arm horizontally and raising a torch in her left, as if representing Belgium in the manner Marianne represents France. I wonder if the lady in the light dress posing to the bottom right is my grandmother?

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Ostend cathedral today
© Google Street View 2023, Google

It’s difficult to tell but what can be said with certainty is that the statue isn’t there now. Something very similar does sit before the Leopold monument on the opposite side of the public park beside the Venetian Galleries.

In order to face the mounted Leopold on the top of his column, the plinth is at an odd angle as if not the statue’s original location. About the sides of the column, described as a double reflected ‘L’ for Leopold, grateful Belgians and happy natives from his empire look up to His Majesty.

Leopold II loved to holiday in Ostend which he referred to as the Rhine of the beaches. His monument was erected long after his death, in 1931 (a year before the publication of Stambul Train) to mark the centenary of his dynasty. Leopold II’s daughter Clementine was in attendance at the unveiling as was the then King of Belgium, Albert I and his queen Elizabeth. The Congo having been used as a private, profitable but cruel fiefdom, I wonder what Greene would have made of the grateful Congolese about the statue’s base? Made a few novels out of them I would expect.

Having bid farewell to his characters, we must now bid farewell to Greene and strike out in a different direction to the Istanbul train. Next time, my grandparents continue along the route of another crack express immortalised by a different hand and carrying less complex souls.

© Always Worth Saying 2023