Monday, October 30, 2006

Chasing history in Bailleul


I do love the byways that biographical research leads you to. Bailleul's more than that of course, it's 'the heart of Flanders' and surprisingly for such an overwhelmingly flat area it's mounted on a hillside.
It's a sturdy town, rebuilt after its almost total destruction in 1918, its 'belfroi' dominating one side of a large square of fine shops, a 'lived-in' kind of place. I veered off the highway north of Lille to take it in, driven by references to it by my biographical subject J.S.Haldane. He came here in World War One, examining the victims of gas attacks. The tourist office rallied round, and from a range of documents and newspaper cuttings we identified where that work would have taken place. So suddenly Bailleul became mine for a while, I had a reason to march out along the road to Ypres, through the gated archway and into the grand grounds of the former asylum. Then on to the British cemetery, walking the rows of the dead, appreciating the miniature biographies that are there just in the names and regiments and ages, the dates of death corresponding to different battles, the loving phrases of the young men's families. Even the graves marking the German dead, the unknown soldiers, come with their own story: the very fact of being young, dead and unknown in France, buried by your enemy. I took the register out of its 'safe' in a wall and checked for my namesake, standing by the grave of the 19 year old airman, a Goodman from London, for a while. You're walking in footsteps when you follow such traces through a town, treading the past back into living memory in some way.

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