Questionable Memories of Christian de Laet -- a Man for All Seasons

by Anthony Judge


Christian was a very good friend. Our paths crossed in many unusual venues following publication of the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential in 1976, later to become the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential -- which featured as a case study in his doctoral thesis. He was a long-term member of the Executive Council of the Union of International Associations. Christian notably participated in some sessions of the International School of Ignorance.

The following are scattered memories of someone who could be extremely disrespectful of conventions of every kind -- and be very amusing in doing so, at least for some people. Others could well be offended, possibly for good reason.

In his capacity as Secretary of the Commonwealth Science Council, there was an occasion when key people from the Commonwealth Secretariat were presented to the Queen. Christian was proud of a photo in which he was face to face with the Queen for a few seconds, as required by protocol. He had been able to make her laugh.

Christian attended a highly respected school in Belgium -- Collège Saint-Benoît de Maredsous. Each day he attended morning Mass with other pupils. On one occasion he chose to purchase a black candle, which produces black smoke when lit. He placed it beneath the organ intake pipes. When the high point of the Mass was reached, and the organist played at full volume, it drew on the candle and vast amounts of black smoke emerged from the organ pipes. Is this tale true? True or not, that he chose to tell it is an indication of his personality.

Christian was very fond of music and had played the piano. During the occupation of Belgium by the Nazis, Christian indicated that he had been in a cafe where Nazis were gathered. He used the piano to play a piece of music to mock the Nazis. According to Christian, they did not appreciate this and had responded by damaging his hands so that he could never play again -- in addition to maiming him otherwise. True or false?

Sharing a restaurant meal with Christian was an adventure. He was always able to establish an unusual degree of rapport with those serving at table. At best this ranged from high levels of charm -- even with the most formal people, or the most unhappy. On the other hand, if there were problems he could be unusually sharp in his criticsm -- possibly using humour. On one occasion he had ordered a Four Seasons pizza, a classic dish. When it arrived, he inspected it and said to the waiter: I can only see three "seasons". One feature was missing.

He was an unusual experience for women, since he was able to use his skill in French-style repartee to achieve a degree of rapport to which few would be accustomed. This could indeed cause offence -- especially as seen decades later from the perspectives of feminists. One French woman, Jeanne Gruson, a former model and mutual friend, was to my knowledge the only person who exhibited a matching skill -- to Christian's great embarrassment (and admiration) as described separately in the Memories of Christian by Nadia McLaren.

Christian enjoyed testing the boundaries of people. On one occasion he met me off a transatlantic flight into Montreal. Rather than drive directly to his house where I was staying, he suggested stopping off at a strip club on the way into town. Since neither of us frequented such establishments, and were more stimulated by our conversations, Christian's "test" was to .determine whether I could sustain a conversation -- and eye contact -- despite the distraction. On another occasion, the test took the form of a visit to a mysterious Tarot reader.

Conversation was Christian's forte. He could engage meaningfully with almost anyone on any topic -- and most would find the conversation both pleasurable and insightful. More intriguing for me was that he was able to switch topics with the greatest of ease, blending into the conversation everything imaginable: philosophy, development, sex, mechanics, UN administration, politics, language, etc, etc. He was of course completely billingual -- English-French -- so the conversation could switch to humour in either. He also enjoyed playing with accents, notably French Canadian.

Brought up in Belgium, already a bilingual country (if not trilingual), Christian's father took the unusual step of ensuring his skill with the phonetic alphabet. As a consequence Christian was able to engage with a language he had never enountered before and quickly adapt such as to be able to pronounce words in that language as he became familiar with it -- with a skill of which more experienced practitioners could be envious.

On the occasion of a visit to Brussels of two Aboriginal elders from Australia on a world conference tour to Brussels -- a visit was arranged into rural Belgium, accompanied by Christian. He was intrigued to explore their language with them -- Pitjantjatjara. My recollection is that in that rural area he jokingly pointed to some cow droppings and requested the term in that language. It was communicated to him and he assiduously repeated it -- papakunya (as I recall). The Aborigines were both enchanted at his pronunciation and highly amused. In their culture the first word that one is able to speak in their language is thereafter used as the name for the person. Christian was highly amused at having been so named.

Christian had extensive exeperince of unusual communities, especially indigenous communities around the world. Especially intriguing was a vist I shared with him in 1995 to Swadhyay Parivar, a large village-based movement in Maharashtra, India. The occasion was a birthday celebration of its founder Pandurang Shastri Athavale to which a selected group of "Westerm experts" were invited. As part of the celebration a 20 kilometer route through Mumbai was blocked off and lined with villagers bussed in from rural areas. Honoured as distinguished visitors, Christian and I shared a chauffeur-driven car. Skillfully Christian placed himself on the offside, distant from the pavement on which the villagers were aligned every few metres. I was the one who had to respond courteously with eye contact to the respectful salutation of each villager.

On that same occasion, our Swadhya hosts arranged for the two of us to be driven to a more remote location -- with the owner of the car hire company honouring us by acting as chauffeur. As soon as the car started, Christian loudly announced that there was something wrong with the transmission. I nudged him into silence and we drove on. The car began to lose speed. Christian repeated his comment; I nudged him into silence again to avoid embarrassing the driver further. Bicycles started to overtake us. Christian mumbled. Finally the driver was obliged to pull over and the driver called for backup. Christian had difficulties with tact.

Having been a smoker, he became a vigorous anti-smoker in certain situations. In a Board meeting in which the President was an enthusiastic smoker, Christian as a Board member chose to take his sear at table wearing a "Non-Smoking" sign draped around his neck. The point was made.

Christian had a vast store of jokes of many kinds.