July 26, 2023
Why have I never been to London before? Fear, fear of transforming into an irksome anglophile. Also, because London reminds me so much of Helmond – you can sense it in the suburbs while riding the Stansted Express through Harlow Town, towards Liverpool Street. See it. Say it. Sort it. It’s as if we are traversing through Helmond. Beautiful Nedschroef factories dot the landscape, the factory where my grandfather once toiled. Indeed, jesting aside, London eclipses all other Brabant cities with her unmistakable reflection of a Helmondian design aesthetic.
However, I must admit, in all honesty, Buckingham Palace starkly contrasts the magnificence of Helmond Castle. Veronique wanted to see the changing of the guard. As you shuffle past the ungainly edifice, more akin to a colossal warehouse, you arrive at a square where a golden statue of an obscenity that defies taste, catapults you mercilessly back to the realization that you are far from Helmond. That macabre spectacle, wherein an unfortunate figure, adorned with a ridiculous headdress, must remain motionless for hours to demonstrate an outdated notion of authority – such lowly displays are unnecessary in Helmond Castle to draw an audience.
Otherwise, London is simply a stunning city. We viewed most of it from a double-decker bus, which is the best way to explore London. It does seem slightly empty, perhaps with the exception of Camden Town, which was quite bustling. But yesterday, as I had to pay 70 euros for a rather meager breakfast – two small cups of yogurt and one English breakfast – and we were sitting in a small unassuming basement, not in the Ritz or anything – London is indeed terribly expensive, only King Charles could afford to stay here longer than two days.
My daughter, Mavi, adored it. She’s considering moving to London. For two years, she’s been attempting to convince me to visit Paris, but I’m quite the stubborn father – I simply do not care for Paris. Hence, this year, I thought, let’s choose London instead. It turned out to be a bullseye, she regards it as the most beautiful place she’s ever seen, except for Japan. She’s never actually been to Japan, but those Japanese Mangas, of which she is a huge fan – they’re evidently an incredibly effective form of propaganda.
No, what you see everywhere in London – that the Indians have taken over half the city – is a marvelous example of colonial karma. It feels genuinely multicultural in the best meaning you could give to that word – the cosmopolitan meaning, the sense of being in a sort of world center. I feel this less in Paris, and that’s because minorities there are hardly admitted to positions of power. For this reason, Paris is less pleasant and always feels rather gloomy to me – you feel the classic ghetto more there than you would ever feel it in London.
That doesn’t resemble Helmond either, which is more like London, the entire city center full of beautiful Turkish and Moroccan shops. One must stay somewhat loyal to one’s roots. You can easily imagine yourself in the 1960s Marrakesh in Helmond, back when it was teeming with writers and LSD was liberally sprinkled to usher in a new era. And while the officials there are all too keen to imitate Eindhoven, which is just six villages that have built an industrial area in the center in an attempt to emulate a city – you’re not going to imitate that, ruly noses at the city hall – well, whenever I think of Helmond, the anglophile in me surfaces, the perfectionist. More Vlisco, more Nedschroef. More Africa, fewer ruly noses.
Helmond is the oldest city in Brabant. They’ve managed to recreate it across the canal, and not such a bad copy, except for that strange palace where they really dropped the ball.
At a certain level, the resemblance between Helmond and London transcends the bounds of surrealism and penetrates the domains of an unlikely harmony. But for the untrained observer, or rather, for those less skilled in deciphering urban puzzles, you’d have to scrutinize these parallels with a gigantic magnifying glass, as sharp as the eyes of a peregrine falcon locking onto its prey.
The price tag of London is indeed much higher, and a significant number of zeros removed from the down-to-earth Brabant values of Helmond, but surprisingly, the comparisons are numerous. In one place, the elegant bridges spanning the Thames are a feast for the eyes, while in the other, graceful canals meander through the city like silver ribbons in the morning light.
And yet, just a stone’s throw away – a distance even a committed lazybones could traverse on foot – lies a completely different universe. Eindhoven, six villages that boast a name that sounds like the title of an avant-garde science fiction novel. A place where the industrial lights resemble more the desperate signals of lost spaceships in a technology-soaked night sky, an urban landscape so faux-futuristic that you might imagine yourself walking in a second-rate Chinese version of Blade Runner.
A neon-lit whirlwind of high tech and brainport, a bastion of futuristic bravado that enthusiastically catapults itself into the stratosphere of technological supremacy. They wear labels and nicknames that the down-to-earth Brabander would consider horrifying. Brainport – the terminology is so repugnant that it defies aesthetic sensitivity, grotesque technological nicknames that defy the beauty of human language.
But beneath the all-encompassing tech-bling and the fiber-optic lit cityscape, at a walkable distance, lives the real soul of a city, our own London on the Aa, our personal Big Ben on the Zuid-Willemsvaart. The warm, homely charm of Helmond, a welcoming tune that reverberates through the icy Chinese brain-pudding-port. Genuine simplicity and hospitality, which still resonates even in the shadow of the most futuristic fascist utopias.
No, a Helmonder does not need the grandeur of London to indulge in the delights of anglophile existence. However, I am delighted that I was able to give Mavi the opportunity to see how far the roots of Helmond extend. That essentially the entire world is steeped in the spirit of Helmond, a realization that hits the nail on the head of our forgotten grandeur.
I believe the illustrious Hans van de Waarsenburg already articulated this truth, although I had trouble with the title (‘Helmond Can Be The Universe’) at the time (what do you mean, ‘can’?) A man whose fate ran parallel to mine, he too was denied the title of city poet by the spasmodic pendulum of the bureaucratic pickles in the city hall. These so-called guardians of our city would, given the chance, preferably turn Helmond into a tasteless, sticky noodle pudding. Good heavens, I read that under 13 years of Rutte the bureaucracy managed to grow by twenty percent. A tumor that managed to take over the body. How do we ever get rid of that?