The story continues, as I always knew it would. At the beginning of November, on the 2nd in fact, I messaged Wim de Lentdecker, who you will perhaps remember is married to Thérèse, Théo Beeckman’s only grandchild. You will recall perhaps the fantastic picture Wim took of Thérèse, flanked by her daughters Charlotte and Julie, their kids (if you can keep count, these girls are Théo Beeckman’s great, great grandchildren).
In my brief message I only wanted to note that Nov 2nd was Théo’s birthday, and since he had become part of our collective remembrance, to mark the day. Wim got back to me with uncharacteristic speed. Wim and Thérèse, both in their sixties, are extremely active people. They often embark on walking holidays in the Pyrenees and I think in Corsica unless I have misremembered. They think nothing of walking for days on end. In short, they like to travel and the summer of 2023 had been no different.
Wim wrote: Last summer, Therese and I went to Bretagne and followed the footsteps of Théo - with a stop on the Pont de La Roche-Bernard. We even had a coffee in the same café as you did.
Now, obviously, this blew my mind. But also slightly reassured me. Throughout the process of writing 1923, I have been consistently plagued by the sense that my investment in the story was disproportionate, and out of kilter with how much these histories really meant to other people. To read that Wim and Thérèse had actually set off in pursuit of the same connections of time and place, following the same impulse was very touching. It meant I was not wrong, in effect.
A little while later, I received an email from Monsieur Seignard. He lives in a small new-built village to the south of Vannes. Around ten years ago, perhaps less (I forget), he purchased one of the two windmills that are just about visible in the film, standing on the horizon of the second “scene”.
I had knocked on their family door, unannounced, last time I was there in late July and had explained to them why I thought they might be interested in my film. The Seignards gave me their email address so that I could send them a copy of the film, which I promptly lost. Then Michel Chatal (the wonderful historian from La Roche Bernard) contacted them again, on my behalf and I managed to send it. A couple of nights ago, I got this email:
Nous sommes très touchés de votre démarche et vous en remercions beaucoup. Merci beaucoup Ned pour ce film c'est une pépite. Je l'ai montré à mon père âgé de 91 ans, il était très ému.
He thanked me for having contacted them, and explained how his father of 91 had been very moved on seeing the film. This is what the old mill tower looks like now by the way, repurposed and renovated by the Seignards. I took this picture in July. You can just about see Madame Seignard trying to avoid being in the shot!
But this latest round of after-echoes doesn’t stop there.
Around a month or so ago, Bloomsbury forwarded me a handwritten letter from a lady called Viviene Guest (or Viv as she later, less formally introduced herself to me). She had read a review of 1923 in the Daily Mail (I know) and had bought the book on the strength of it. It had touched a nerve.
She explained to me that her childhoods had been spent in Ninove, as her father, a mechanic from the Wirral had met and married a young woman from Ninove who he first encountered when he was a soldier in 1944. Her father (so, Viv’s grandfather) had been a professional cyclist, a few years older than Théo Beeckman, but also from Ninove. Viv has lots of memories of her grandad, Remi van Damme and the shop he ran and she played in. She told me that she had found the book emotional to read and had frequently cried at the memories it had re-awakened.
This Friday morning, I found myself unexpectedly in the North West of England, with a day to spare, so I took a train to Birkenhead, and called in on Viv to hear her story. I am so glad I did, and not least for the tea and “speculoos” biscuits she served me. She told me what she could about her Belgian mother and her cyclist grandfather.
Remi’s cycling career was cut short just before the Great War when had been seriously injured: it seems that the forks of his bike had given way. His face was, according to a newspaper report I unearthed recently, "mutliated to the point where he was no longer recognisable", and another report claimed that "sadly that was not much hope for him" as he was taken off to hospital.
He gave up cycling, and opened a sewing maching and cycle repair shop near the station in Ninove, which Théo Beeckman must have known intimately well. René had been left with horrible facial injuries, which affected his ability to breathe for the rest of his life, though not so badly that in 1940 he couldn’t grab a bike and ride thousands of miles to France to escape the Germans who were in Ninove for the second time in his life. But this is a photo which dates back to the before the first war, when he was a young man with a great future ahead of him. It was never to be.
Fleeing the Germans in 1944, he left behind his wife and children, one of whom was Hilda. Hilda helped out in the shop in occupied Ninove and then joined the resistance. She was arrested by the Germans on one occasion, but still smuggled messages on scrunched up pieces of paper hidden in her hair. No one knows any more quite what else she did as she took her past service with her to the grave many years later, in her new home on the Wirral.
After the war, she married Kenneth Guest (Viv’s dad). René was back, and at Hilda’s side at the reception in Ninove. The couple honeymooned in Antwerp before heading for a new life in Birkenhead, where Viv was born. But Belgium was always in her blood.
Viv showed me her parents’ war medals. Ken had a fair few from his war years, and Hilda had two from Belgium, documenting her contribution to the resistance. After Hilda died, Viv found two letters stuffed away in her belongings – one signed by Dwight Eisenhower, and the other by General Montgomery, thanking her for her service.
I sat with Viv in her cosy flat on the Wirral as a November afternoon drew in outside. She has only recently relinquished ownership of a shop the family ran, Hilda included. She tells me that there were times when they had to scrub swastika graffiti off the wall, because some locals had mistaken Hilda’s accent for German.
I don’t know what conclusions to reach about any of this. Suffice perhaps to say that it only takes a spark to start a chain reaction. That little film has connected me with so many people and places. With stories never told, or hidden from view.
Later that day, I tell Michel that Wim and Thérèse had been in La Roche Bernard. He tells me in no uncertain terms that the “next time they come to LRB (as he calls it), they will be afforded a VIP welcome.” And I believe him.
I never expected to end up in Birkenhead when I started out on this. But I was. And I was glad to be there, and also in Ninove at the same time. A magic trick.