Last updated on 12/02/2014
Interview with Martin Sixsmith
Author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and basis for the movie, Philomena, Martin Sixsmith has come to the forefront in recent news. In his 20 year career as a BBC foreign correspondent that took him everywhere from Washington to Moscow to Warsaw, he also worked in Brussels. Here at BrusselsLife, we were curious about his thoughts on the city, as a resident and journalist.
Sixsmith’s book and the film tell the extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee’s search for her son who was taken from her by Catholic nuns in Ireland in the 1950s. In the four time Oscar nominated film, Philomena and Sixsmith take us through their emotional quest to find her son.
In the wake of Philomena’s great success, we talked to the man behind this story about his years in Brussels from 1982-85.
You came to Brussels to work for the BBC in the beginning of your career. Was it your choice or were you sent by the BBC?
No, it wasn’t my choice. I was sent there as a journalist after I finished with university in ’81. First I was a trainee with the BBC, and then went to Brussels as a correspondent. There were always two correspondents sent, one junior and one senior. So I was sent to Brussels as the junior correspondent in ’82.
How did your react when you learned you were going to work and live in Belgium?
I was excited. It was an up and coming time for Brussels and it was in the early stages of the UK joining the European Union. It was a great opportunity. I speak French so that helped and probably one of the reasons I was sent to Brussels.
What were your first feelings when you arrived?
It was a good time to be there, I was happy to be there. There was endless work for me as a journalist. I had already lived abroad having studied at the Sorbonne, in Leningrad, and in the US. I was married as a student and already had my first child (3 years old) when we moved there. We lived in Woluwe St. Pierre.
Where did you like to spend free time?
Parc Tervuren was nice, always on hand. Woluwe was an easy place to live as a couple with young children. Our children went to the Jean XXIII school. Our third child was born in Brussels, at Edith Cavell hospital, our “Brussels sprout”.
Did you feel it was easy to adapt to life in Brussels?
Adapting to life in Brussels was easy. It’s manageable, not very big. It’s very international - the international cuisine is great too. Even at the time you could get all the international television channels, and I got the British newspaper as well. The central location was really great too, especially since as a junior correspondent, you have to do a lot of “firemen” jobs. So you are sent on a whim to different cities to cover things like train crashes and murders. I also was travelling to Strasbourg once a month.
What did you dislike about Brussels or are there things that may have bothered you or struck you as strange?
Many people say they don’t like Brussels, but it’s an easy city to live in. It’s pretty. I will say that maybe Brussels didn’t have the culture of London where there are 2 to 3 world class concerts a night. And I did miss the theater. But in the end when you move to a new city, you choose to take it as it is and to make the most of it.
After a little time living in Brussels, did you really feel like a Brussels person or always like a person working in Brussels?
No, I never felt at home truly. As a foreign correspondent you are used to living here and there for 2 or 3 or 4 years, and foreign workers who tell you they feel at home are not telling the whole truth. Perhaps in Moscow I felt the most at home.
Have you had the occasion to go back to Belgium recently?
Yes, I have friends that live there that we go see regularly.
Today, if I said Brussels to you, is there one memory that stands out?
Well that is definitely the Heysel disaster during the Euro Cup in May 1985. I was at the game as a supporter and a journalist, as I was covering the game. I had been to many finals, this was truly horrific. It was a terrible event. I also witnessed the travesty of justice afterwards. I went to the trials and heard how they tried to put all the blame on the Liverpool fans, and it was just not true. It was both sets of fans, and the stadium structure was not sound.