hadn’t been to Breda in Holland before, so why should I call this
article Back to Breda?
return to the place, where my grandfather was born and grew up, was a
spiritual return for me. Although I didn’t know that until I got off the
train in Breda on the Queen’s Day holiday.
return to Breda started many years ago when I started writing short
stories and eventually some novels. Nearly all of this fiction was about
Newcastle, Australia, my birthplace and where I grew up. The stories
were peopled with characters I’d met in Newcastle: the cruel and kind
men I worked with at the BHP, the recalcitrant but often humorous drunks
I picked up early in the morning when I was driving taxis and the sleek
and snide solicitors I encountered when I practised briefly as a lawyer.
number of years of pouring out fiction about Newcastle, I stuck my head
out the front door and realized that something had changed. What had
happened was that I’d written so much about Newcastle that I’d come to
know it too well. Too clearly. Something was missing in this industrial
working class town and it was this missing bit that I now needed to
months of restlessness followed after this discovery. My discontent
infiltrated my fiction and I found myself writing increasingly scathing
stories about the dark side of Newcastle: the ever-present violence, the
legion numbers of unemployed on the streets, the parochial view that a
rugby league team defines a whole community, the battler mentality of
struggling against the odds that ensured that Newcastle was treated with
contempt by both major political parties because many Novocastrians
didn’t have the self-esteem to expect anything better.
come to a personal and artistic dead end. So I went to Breda.
off the train, I walked up Willemstraat, the street where one of my
father’s cousins had lived sixty-something years ago. The only records I
had of my grandfather and his family was a small collection of
photographs and documents left in my grandfather’s sea chest. My
grandfather, Antonius Martinus Bogaerts, was born in Breda in 1883, left
via Antwerp in 1911 and sailed to Canada then later came to Newcastle,
Australia, where he married my grandmother, Barbara Shepherd, the
daughter of a coal miner.
grandfather died when my father was seven years old. Antonius Bogaerts
was a mystery. No one seemed to talk about him at all. I can only
recall, when I was growing up, one or two mentions of him by my
grandmother and father. So there was the other motivation for going back
to Breda; the writer’s natural, or unnatural inquisitiveness, the desire
to know the truth at all costs, and to write about it.
is indeed a beautiful place: the Grote Market with its stalls selling
everything from fish to lace, the cathedral dominating the skyline, the
shops selling antique glass, the houses lining the almost medieval
twisting of streets.
real highlight for me was meeting Hanke Bogaerts, someone I’d managed to
contact via the internet. No relation but a handy person to know seeing
he just happened to work in archives in Breda. Hanke had provided me
with a family history that went back to the 17th century, but details
about my grandfather were sketchy. So when I got to Breda I tracked
Hanke down, much to his amazement.
that my wife and I got on well with Hanke when we first met him would be
an understatement. You’d have thought we’d known each other for years
the way we talked thirteen to the dozen. Fortunately, Hanke’s English
was far better than my Dutch.
had done some digging and found the house, in the Einstraat, where my
grandfather was born and the house, Insulinde, where my great
grandparents had lived, almost at the centre of The Grote Market. It was
a very moving experience to see these two houses.
Breda aware of a strong spiritual connection with the place; something I
couldn’t and wouldn’t want to explain in rational terms. My grandfather
still remains as big a mystery and Hanke is still digging.
I will return to Breda and I know my grandfather and his life somehow
form the missing pieces that are still to define who I am.