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Friendship and Cooperation in Europe: Belgian Village on the Thames

5 April 2017

Belgian Village on the Thames

East Twickenham Centennial Group at Warren Gardens, East Twickenham

Memorial Unveiling Ceremony

in association with Keith Wait and The Stage Company

1st April

Reflection by Thomas Forsythe

“Des souvenirs naviguent en moi tel un navire sur la rivière”.  These words, beautifully carved by a Belgian stonemason, grace a bluestone obelisk that now stands proudly by the River Thames.   But what are these memories that, like a boat, drift along the river?

On 4th August 1914, the German army invaded Belgium, which had refused the army passage to attack France.  These events, which triggered the involvement of Britain in this tragic war, led to thousands of refugees fleeing Belgium.  Many of these settled for several years in Twickenham.  Amongst them was Charles Pelabon, an industrialist, with a large number of his workforce and their families.   This valiant and dynamic band set up a munitions factory by the Thames.  (This building was later to become the Richmond Ice Rink.)  Soon the area around Richmond Bridge became known as “La village Belgique sur la Tamise”.

Under the doughty and dynamic leadership of local researcher Dr Helen Baker, and following a fund-raising campaign of many years, the East Twickenham Centennial Group has created a fitting memorial to these people from “plucky little Belgium”.   On 1st April, a moving ceremony took place in the gardens, downstream of Richmond Bridge, that Pelabon had left as a thank-you to the people of Twickenham, and now all that remains of Pelabon’s physical legacy, following the shameful loss of Richmond Ice Rink twenty-five years ago.  At this ceremony, the Belgian Ambassador to the UK unveiled this fittingly simple and graceful monument to the resilience of the Belgian refugees and their friendship with the people of Twickenham.

There is much coverage of the event from the historical and societal point of view, but within the remit of these arts review pages, this piece reflects on the contributions in poetry and prose, and in music made to the ceremony.

The magnificent and colourful presence of the Royal Military School of Music brought a formal dignity to the ceremony.  The band of thirty musicians from Kneller Hall, under the direction of Major Evin Frost, looked resplendent in the intermittent spring sunshine.  At noon the band’s fanfare started the event with a definitive flourish.

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The RMSM Band

Silence, then the opening poem, Sonnet on the Belgian Expatriation by Thomas Hardy. It describes Belgium as “the Land of Chimes” and describes the poet’s dream of the refugees bringing their own church bells to England so that they “might solace souls of this and kindred climes” before awakening to the reality of the bells being shattered shards.  Our reader, from DramaCube, was 11 years old Milly Stephens.  Her confident, well projected voice and clear diction showed the full beauty of the assonance of Hardy’s phrasing, “stir and stress”, “starlit silentness”, and imbued the poem with its meaning and sense of bitterly nostalgic irony.

The inscription on the memorial was then read out by four young children from England and Belgium.  The inscription had been composed by the then 9 years old Issy Holton, whose wording was chosen from ideas submitted by pupils of Orleans Primary School.  It was to this school that the majority of the Belgian children went a century and more ago.

All these children also spoke with great assurance and clarity.  Issy Holton herself, now 12 years old, read the English version, “Memories flow through me like a boat flows down the river”, a gentle flowing rhythm in itself.  A Flemish translation was read in duet by Louis de Pauw (8½) and Amber Sourbron (11), a remarkable trilingual pair, perfectly in unison, “De stroom van herinneringen glijdt door me heen zoals een boot over het water”.  The word “herinneringen” (memories) rang like the chimes of Hardy’s sonnet.  The French translation, “Des souvenirs naviguent en moi tel un navire sur la rivière” was read by 9 year old Elodie Butler, again with great beauty, lucidity and authority.

A welcome, extended eloquently and succinctly by Dr Baker, explained the sentiment of the memorial and the project’s history, conception and realisation.

Then yet another treat, this time a choir of 7 to 11 year olds from Orleans Primary School, singing a traditional Belgian nursery song, Green Swans, White Swans, but to everyone’s surprise in Flemish!  The accuracy and fluency of these children’s pronunciation was remarked on by the Flemish speakers present.    Singing a capella, the musicality of these children’s voices also attracted the warmest of praise.

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On to the nub of the event, His Worship The Mayor of Richmond upon Thames, Cllr. David Linnette, made a short speech inviting the Belgian Ambassador, His Excellency Guy Trouveroy, to unveil the memorial.  His Excellency spoke very warmly of the links between Twickenham and Belgium, both a century ago and now.  He then swept the scarlet silk from the monument, revealing the elegantly and subtly shaped clean lines of the greyish blue stone.  The RMSM band then played The Last Post, poignant, stirring and inspiring in equal measure.

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Addressing the packed crowd, M. Guy Pelabon, a descendant of Charles Pelabon, told of the history of the family and its founding of the munitions works at Twickenham, his nostalgia blending into pride, and pride blending in gratitude and affection for the people of Twickenham who had welcomed both his brave and famous forebear, and himself, to this part of the Thames.

To complete the ceremony, two students of Der Deutsche Schule at Petersham gave their Reflections on Peace and Reconciliation.  Both in their late teens, they spoke eloquently and powerfully of their pride in being able to live in a part of Europe which, in spite of recent political repositionings, cooperated closely with each other in a spirit of friendliness and respect.  Nikolaus Siller, speaking in impeccable English, mentioned that the an area around Ham, Richmond Park and North Kingston features a German school, a Kindergarten, and some German shops, and the local German and German-speaking people are warmly welcome and part of the community, as were M. Pelabon’s Belgian people in their time.  Lukas Rossmanith originated from an area on the Rhine that had been part of Germany or France at different times in the twentieth century.  Speaking in French, he concluded that the history of Europe had matured until there would no long be a need here in Europe to build munitions factories to kill our fellow Europeans.  (“Il n’aura plus une usine de munition ici pour tuer d’autre européens.”)

The Kneller Hall band struck up La Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem, followed by the British national anthem.

The guests meandered to a marquee for a reception, the band played Vanished Army by Kenneth Alford , and all had the feel of a society event.  However, this was a society event that brought together societies speaking English, French, Flemish and German, in a spirit of great openness and friendship.

Thomas Forsythe

April 2017

 

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