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Famous Belgians

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Belgium - a byword for boredom, or (if you are a fan of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series) the rudest word in the Galaxy. A small, dull country with nothing to commend it and nobody famous ever came from there. Right?

Not quite. There is a game called Famous Belgians. The challenge is to name ten - er - famous Belgians. You would think it a difficult game, the rules as complex as those of One Song to the Tune of Another, but with practice you too can become tediously expert, and maybe learn a bit about European history along the way. Actually it's not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because Belgium was only created in 1830, a country very much of two halves, the amalgamation of historic Flanders1 and Wallonia. This is fortunate, in that there have been several famous Flemings over the centuries.

Let's Play!

Hergé or Hervé (real name Georges Remi) is probably the best-known Belgian in recent history, the writer of the Tintin books and commemorated by a giant plastic image of Tintin on one of the buildings in Brussels, among other representations. Best-known, that is, unless you are a cyclist, in which case Eddy Merckx beats him by a country mile. Formula 1 driver Jacky Ickx was faster still!

Fans of Agatha Christie will readily name Hercule Poirot as a Famous Belgian, and this is normally allowed (except under Olympic rules), despite his being fictional. MC Escher was not really Belgian, although he lived in Belgium for a while he was really Dutch, but Belgium includes what was formerly Flanders, so Breugel, Rubens and Van Dyck are definitely in, coming as they did from Antwerpen (Antwerp in English), and van Eyck was Belgian too. Rene Magritte may or may not have painted a pipe, but he was definitely Belgian, unlike the surreal2Hieronymous Bosch, who lived his entire life in the small Dutch town of 's-Hertogenbosch (den Bosch to its friends), although he was heavily influenced by the Flemish school of painting. Nor is Belgium's artistic achievement limited to the graphic arts, with Georges Simenon being more Belgian than French, unlike his creation - the marvellously complex Detective Maigret.

Adolph Sax was Belgian, as was his invention, the Saxophone. Django Reinhardt, the two-fingered gypsy guitarist, founder member of the Quintet du Hot Club de France and long-time musical partner of the legendary Stéphane Grapelli was also Belgian. Jacques Brel was a favourite of Nina Simone and his 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' was played at her funeral. Organists and choristers will be familiar with the works of César Franck, and while Eddy Wally is probably more infamous than famous; Plastique Bertrand was briefly but excruciatingly famous in the 1980s for 'Ça Plane Pour Moi'. Michael Flanders, of course, was entirely British.

And speaking of plastiques, plastics pioneer Leo Hendrik Baekeland, inventor of Bakelite, came from the Flemish town of Ghent.

The Sun struggled manfully to find a decent rhyme for Belgian-born Eurocrat Jean-Luc Dehaene - and failed (probably because they wanted it to be rude as well as rhyme). They would have been better sticking with former NATO Secretary General Willy Claes or EU Competition Commissioner Karel van Miert. All a bit of a soft target, there, as Brussels is part-time home to the EU, so how about an elder statesman: General Lamoral Egmont, who inspired Beethoven's Egmont Overture (famous indeed). And this is not the first time in history when we have felt Belgian political control to be contentious: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, kingmaker and effective ruler between Edward III and Richard II, was really John of Ghent born (of English parents) in Flanders. He married in Reading, by the way. Well worth playing your Joker on that one.

Cartographers are grateful for the work of Gerardus Mercator and his famous Projection, and what Mercator did for Earth, Vesalius did for the human body, mapping it by meticulous dissection and publishing a ground-breaking work on modern medicine. The architects Horta and Van de Velde were also reassuringly Belgian.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) playwright, poet and winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Literature and his most famous play was The Blue Bird, after which Malcolm Campbell's speedboat was named.

Paul van Himst made a bit of a name for himself playing the Beautiful Game (football - beautifully, by all accounts), and appeared in the film Escape to Victory, which nearly puts him in the acting class with... but let's not spoil the suspense. As with most countries Belgium has a few footballers who are tolerably well-known outside their homeland, such as Jean-Marie Pfaff, Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo and Marc Wilmots, and Belgian tennis is experiencing a bit of a flowering at present in the persons of Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Xavier Malisse, and the recently-retired Sabine Appelmans and Dominique Van Roost. Whether they will be remembered past retirement, as Mercx has, is of course the mark of whether their fame is real or ethereal.

Showjumping just about qualifies as a sport, and Ludo Phillippaerts is a luminary in that field. His horse is not thought to be a famous Belgian, though.

Finally we have the stars of screege and stain, as British comedian Ronnie Barker put it. Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston is clearly Belgian, though better known by her stage name of Audrey Hepburn. Jean-Claude van Damme has made no such efforts to conceal his Belgian-ness, or indeed his biceps.

Can we allow famous Belgian towns as well, we hear you ask? Sadly not: although Waterloo has a certain notoriety, Hoegaarden has a deserved reputation and Duffel is beloved of Paddington fans everywhere, the game includes only people.

So, fully-equipped for your game of Famous Belgians, why not take a trip to the Famous Belgians Website and fill in those final gaps in your knowledge.

1The British suspicion of all things Belgian would be particularly puzzling to the average Fleming, sharing as we do a passion for beer, chips and beef - and, of course, a deep-rooted suspicion of all things French.2But not Surrealist, by four hundred years.

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