Narratives, Photo, Travel

Midnight Love: The Marvin Gaye Tour of Ostend, Belgium

Words & Photographs by Johny Pitts

Even the Belgians I spoke to gave me strange looks. Why would anyone go out of their way to visit the faded Flanders seaside town of Ostend? “I’m searching for the ghost of Marvin Gaye” I would tell people, wondering what excuse Marvin himself gave to his LA in-crowd friends, when, on a wintry day in 1981, he found himself on a ferry leaving Dover to cross the English Channel to live in Belgium. I was searching for the ghost of Marvin Gaye, but I quickly realised I would be haunted by two phantoms, because King Leopold II of Belgium seemed to lurk around every corner.

I caught the afternoon train from Brussels on a wind-swept Wednesday and, after an unremarkable journey through damp, grey-green countryside, dotted with the odd factory, a couple of large storage buildings and a few bland post-war residential estates, I suddenly got that feeling humans sometimes have when they sense they are near the sea. Perhaps it was the marine light, which was the colour and texture of blue-tinted tracing paper. Or maybe the sea-scarred buildings; veterans of wars with winds and salt water. Whatever it was, it made me feel mellow and melancholy. To be by the sea speaks of both freedom and loneliness, and even before I saw the shore, I felt the silent power of the vast expanse nearby. It was this magic; the moody, stirring atmosphere of the sea, that would lead Marvin Gaye to write the biggest hit of his career, ‘Sexual Healing’, with a rhythm inspired, apparently, by the movements of the North Sea waves (when you listen to the track with this knowledge, you can almost hear the swells. You also realise where the inspiration for some of the lyrics came from… “I think I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising…”).

A view of the North Sea
A view of the North Sea

NEXT: Marvin Gaye – Midnight Love Part 2: King Leopold II’s holiday resort.

6 thoughts on “Midnight Love: The Marvin Gaye Tour of Ostend, Belgium

  1. This article is wonderfully written, with beautiful, powerful accompanying photographs. I appreciate how your initial intentions were to uncover the path of one ghost, and in fact you’ve uncovered a million others as a result of the brute that was Leopold II. Regarding your spitting at the vulgar misrepresentation of history, enshrined in false iconographic form, I felt similarly whilst travelling around Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. It came to a head in Cartagena, northern Colombia, a city central to the slave trade and the colonial raping of a thriving civilisation. I’d been told “you must go there”, “the old city is so beautiful”. Contrary to people’s valorisations, I felt a deep sense of unease, sadness and anger whilst surrounded by some of the most astoundingly beautiful architecture. Not only was it stained in the blood, sweat and tears of the slaves, but it was a staunch reminder that the systems of segregation, oppression and inequality born from that era were resolutely still in place. The poverty, squalor and economic deprivation that characterises Colombia are manifestly obvious in Cartagena. Those with wealth enjoy the old colonial centre, whilst former slaves provide them with tours in the ornate horse and carts from back in the day. I wrote about it after escaping this travesty, which helped me to process my anger to some extent. I wish I’d spat, but I went trekking for five days instead! Here’s the piece I wrote, for anyone interested:

  2. Wow! Really enjoyed this. A fascinating mix of history, reflection and the search for “soul” of a place , of a time, of a person and of an empire.
    Great stuff.

  3. Great read! Now I am intrigued to embark on this marvin Gaye digital tour, whilst listening to his album. Something tells me I’ll also “voluntarily” add my spite of King Leopod’s through the activation of my salivary glands;) hehe !

  4. Great read! Now I am intrigued to embark on this Marvin Gaye digital tour, whilst listening to his album. Something tells me I’ll also “voluntarily” add my spite of King Leopod through the activation of my salivary glands;) hehe !

  5. This is very well worded and useful, thankyou. I like the way you explain key concepts minus hyperbole. It’s useful information and I deem you worth sharing.

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