31st Post: 1st HOLLAND: DYKES AND BIKES

Map of the Netherlands – with route in black

HOLLAND – December 1996

I had a bone to pick with Holland. Well, not actually Holland, but with an event that had taken place there about ten years previously. On a morning during which I spent over an hour standing in a dole queue in the rain in Camden Town in London, I received a letter from a Dutch friend enclosing an excellent review of my Wilde show – but performed in Amsterdam by some South African actor of whom I had never heard. I’d been soddin’ well bootlegged!! Not having the money to hire a minicab, let alone an international copyright lawyer, I let the matter slip. But it still rankled.

So, grudgingly, I felt that an invitation to tour the country by an Anglo-Dutch Friendship Society was a sort of olive branch. The main committee of the Genootschap Nederland-Engeland suggested that I might like to visit seven towns in eight days and perform Oscar as the highlight of each branch’s Christmas party. In the spirit of the festive season I agreed; my son Sean volunteered to come along as stage manager and security guard. What we failed to appreciate was that the trip would mean attending seven Christmas parties in a row.

The tour floated on a rising tide of tiredness, daily travel, variable performances, constantly changing accommodation, party highs, post-party ennui, and hangovers. We also had a ball.

The Parliament Building at The Hague

1996 December: Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag

After a wintry North Sea crossing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, we were met by our first host, a tall man aged 70 called Kees, and driven to stay overnight at his home in The Hague. We passed one area that looked much more recently constructed than the rest. Kees explained:

“During WWII, Den Haag was never bombed deliberately but one night the RAF got their co-ordinates wrong and destroyed about a quarter of the city.”

I mumbled a belated apology on behalf of the RAF.

It turned out that the liberation of Holland was almost as costly as its conquest. The Luftwaffe killed 920 citizens of Rotterdam in 1940 when it destroyed the city centre; cumulative Allied air raids over the following four years killed another 880. Despite this toll, when the British veterans of the Battle of Arnhem had visited the country recently (in 1994), thousands of Dutch people turned out to welcome them.

The venue on the following night was the Gemeentemuseum (translated as the Municipal Museum), a modern low-rise building which was home to the world’s largest collection of works by the painter Piet Mondrian. It was also home to a large dinosaur skeleton, the first sight to greet the audience as they arrived in the theatre foyer.

The Wilde Show at The Hague

The theatre itself was the genuine article – proper lighting, proper sound system, proper stage – and a fair-sized auditorium seating 220. We managed to attract 178: not a bad haul. The performance was passable with no real problems and, as I came offstage to reasonable applause, I high-fived with Sean in celebration.

The Audience at The Hague

Outside, the crowd milled for the post-show mulled wine and Christmas carols. There were a lot of smiles and raised glasses as I joined them. I liked the quiet but friendly manner of the Dutch. On the other hand, the mulled wine was disappearing rapidly – they’d had a bigger audience than anticipated with consequent depletion of the booze supply, damn it. I finally managed to grab two large glasses and stood with one in either hand, looking suitably kitted as one of the drinking classes.

An official from the British Embassy introduced himself; he was quite young and breezily hip.

“Thank God for these Friendship Societies. Without them, we’d have think up events for ourselves.”

We remarked on the fact that the Dutch were so tall, in fact, they are the tallest race in Europe. Sean asked him how, considering the doughy diet, the girls kept their figures. The answer was ‘cycling’.

Across the hall, framed between a large Mondrian and the dinosaur, six English schoolgirls began to sing ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’. I clinked wine glasses with Sean and we bawled the chorus.

Back at our host’s house, we sat in the lounge with Kees’s wife Magda, while Kees phoned our next contact – the message returned that a man named Pieter would be waiting for us at Rotterdam railway station:

“He will stand outside the Bruna newsagents, wearing a green jacket, smoking a pipe, and holding an English newspaper.”

Sean murmured: “In which hand?”

The Theatre at Rotterdam

1996 December: Statenburcht, Rotterdam

As we alighted from the train in Rotterdam, the figure of our next contact at the Bruna newsagents was self-consciously unmistakable. Pieter was a charming, gently flustered, bumbling old gentleman, rather like one of Charles Dickens’ good guys. Driving back to his home, Pieter pointed out various surrounding features of interest, including one of the renowned Dutch dykes rearing up behind his house.

“We are 22 feet below sea level here. Sometimes it makes me nervous.”

The evening’s venue was at a restaurant called the Statenborscht in the city centre. I discovered that the pre-arranged dressing room was already in use. An embarrassed branch secretary asked if I would mind changing in the invalid toilet. God, the glamour of the theatre. I replied:

“No, no. Just as long as we don’t have an invalid in here, ha ha!”

Inevitably, we did have an invalid in there – whose wheel chair was manoeuvred into the toilet over the top of my Wilde costume.

Before the show I was introduced to the committee, including a profoundly deaf Dutch girl called Geela. She asked if I could wear a transmitting device under my jacket lapel so that she could pick up the sound on her radio hearing aid.

“Otherwise I’ll have to be glued to your lips all through the show.”

“Sounds fun.”

She laughed: “I’d better rephrase that.”

As the performance proceeded, I heard a very faint, tinny sound coming from beneath my chin. The hearing aid boost was also picking up short wave radio signals. The Dutch equivalent of ‘Can you collect a fare at the Town Hall to go to 27A, Boogeraallstraat?’ etc. Fortunately, it was pitched too low to reach the audience.

After the show, we joined the committee to have dinner in a gloriously old-world restaurant called the Pjip, set in one of the very few pre-war buildings left in Rotterdam. Pieter told us that the owner was arrested during WW11 for Resistance work and, as a result, all Germans had been banned from the place. He had only allowed them back after 1985.

It turned out that the deaf girl Geela spoke Dutch, English, German, French and – incredibly – Welsh! It seemed so sad that she couldn’t hear in any of them.

1996 December: Belfort Hotel, Amsterdam

The Belfort Hotel and venue, Amsterdam

After passing through Delft, Lieden, and Haarlem, the train arrived at Amsterdam the next morning. A new problem had arisen – the weather had turned very cold and I had forgotten to bring an overcoat. We struggled outside with our luggage into the pre-Christmas rush of the city.

The streets of Amsterdam were a pedestrian’s nightmare. Not only did you have the usual road traffic, but also a lot of bicycle lanes in constant use. If they didn’t get you, the trams would. It meant remaining continuously alert.

We found a taxi and drove to the Belfort Hotel about a mile or so to the south. It had the functional, tawdry 1950s look of a lot of post-war Holland. Inside, it was pleasant enough; the theatre space was a medium size conference room with good acoustics. Our contacts this time were a pair of very sweet, delicately chintz, old ladies – we tiptoed through the teacups of politeness.

Then at 7pm I went to look at the performance area. As a gesture to the festive season and (presumably) in a spirit of goodwill, the hotel staff had decorated the whole stage with an army of Christmas fairy lights and stacked sheaves of holly, laurel and ivy. It was the first time I’d ever performed Oscar Wilde in the middle of a Nativity crib. Sean carried the props in, took one look at the stage, and whooped with laughter:

“OK, when do the Three Wise Men turn up?”

It being far too late to change things, I shrugged and sighed.

The show did not go well – it was an elderly audience who, surprisingly for the Netherlands, seemed to struggle with the language. There being little response to the jokes, I emphasised the tragedy of Wilde’s time in jail and early death instead. It seemed to get a better response, even if it made for a gloomy Christmas offering.

Back in the hotel bedroom, I watched some Dutch TV. It finally struck me that the reason 1960s rock groups used to trash hotel televisions was not vandalism – it was simply good taste.

Bikes outside Amsterdam main train station

1996 December: Huize Kortonjo, Eindhoven

In mid-afternoon the train pulled into Eindhoven Station where we were greeted by a distinguished man aged 70, also called Pieter. He was a retired teacher who had strong contacts with the UK; in fact he had received an OBE for developing Anglo-Dutch Relations.

We drove through the grim square blocks of Eindhoven – a dreadful looking place. It was the Philips Electronics company town (Philips had started making light bulbs here in 1891). Pieter said that a few years previously the only decent building, a neo-gothic city hall, had been torn down to make way for a planned arterial road. The road never materialised.

He continued: “The old joke used to be that Eindhoven wasn’t twinned with anywhere but it had signed a suicide pact with Slough. But that is no longer so. Last year we twinned the city with Minsk in Belarus.”

The theatre this time turned out to be attached to an old folks’ home called the Kortonjo. The dressing room was the toilet again. Pieter said that as sales had been slow, he had given some free tickets to the old folks. “They might understand some of it.” Oh Gawd, as if the audiences weren’t elderly enough already! As I wearily made up in the toilet mirror, I had a strong sensation that I did not wish to be here.

I could not have been more wrong. I was so tired that the performance was nerveless. The show flew like a dream to an excellent response. It simply displayed the lottery of live acting – it is impossible to prejudge an audience.

Xmas manger at the Eindhoven Hotel

NEXT WEEK September 19 = The Second half of the Dutch Tour.

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