Notebook: Brussels Spout
For many centuries Lichfield was blessed with a number of springs that flowed with good drinking water, and these were channelled underground to conduits in the city. The history of the conduits themselves (always centres of activity and gossip) make for interesting reading, but having just returned from a trip to Brussels, I’m beginning to wonder if we’re really making enough of them.
The city of Brussels actually has one of its conduits as its icon: a chubby, naked little boy urinating into a basin. Designed by Jerome Duquesnoy and erected in 1618 or 1619, you might be tempted to regard the fountain as a pretty unremarkable piece of Baroque architecture. You would be quite wrong.
Known formally as the Manneken Pis (“little man pee”) and informally as le Petit Julien (in French) and Ketje (in Bruxelloise), the peeing child is immediately apparent in all the surrounding shops, even before you reach the junction of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat where he has stood since the 17th century. The tourist tat en route to the statue is a bit disconcerting at first. As you approach down a narrow road you will see the Manneken Pis on fridge magnets, chocolate boxes, items made from lace, socks, postcards, glassware and doubling up as garden ornaments, waffle-stand adverts and corkscrews. There’s even a chip-shop in the vicinity with a peeing chip on its signage.
It all seems somewhat crude (you think, with a touch of superiority) but nonetheless you can’t help being a tiny bit curious about Ketje. You will know you have arrived – in all senses of the word – when you reach a huge crowd of tourists struggling to take photographs of each other in front of the iron gates that surround the infamous statue. And this is where you begin to wonder what the Belgians are up to, because, when you finally lay eyes on this famous symbol of Brussels, he turns out to be titchy – just 60cm tall and left-handed at that. What on earth is all the fuss about? Nobody knows.
At first sight he elicits the same disappointing response as Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, but unlike the mermaid, the Manneken Pis does have a few tricks up his sleeve (as you will soon discover if you’re staying in Brussels for more than one day). Rounding the corner one Saturday morning, we were startled to find him wearing a pink football kit, but you’re just as likely to find him dressed as a Welsh Guardsman or as Elvis, in a white spangly jumpsuit.
A tradition reportedly started by Louis XV (who clothed the statue in way of an apology after one of his soldiers stole him and left him outside a brothel), Ketje now has a wardrobe of almost 800 costumes and receives new ones four times a year at a special ceremony in which his “wee” is turned into wine or beer (see the bottom of this post for a video of the event). We actually went to see his dressing room – on the top floor of the Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles – where some of the costumes are on display, and the accuracy and attention to detail in each one is quite breathtaking (Ketje has a personal dresser whose qualifications include a thorough understanding of fabrics).
The current statue isn’t, of course, the original. The Manneken Pis has been stolen quite a few times and the one standing today is a replica from 1965. However, there are two historic versions on display in Ketje’s “dressing room” – both are locked in a cabinet for safe-keeping.
It’s fair to say, Conduits were never this eye-catching in Lichfield. While I can’t quite see the statue of Samuel Johnson wearing a cosmonaut outfit, the Council does happen to be refurbishing an historic drinking fountain in Lichfield – the Serjeantson Fountain on Greenhill – though sadly, this doesn’t include restoring the water. Perhaps someone could hook it up to a beer barrel on Bower Day instead? Now there’s a thought…