1996 December: Broedergemeente, Ziest, Near Utrecht
As we travelled across Holland the next day, the Dutch clichés multiplied – windmills, canals, bicycles, the countryside flat as a snooker table, (we christened a couple of large barns ‘the Dutch Alps’).
Our Utrecht host was an Englishman named Neil who had settled there in the 1980s. On our way to his house, he showed us around a newly built housing estate. Each street had been created in a totally different architectural style; it seemed that they had allowed about twenty architects to do exactly what each wanted. Once it had acquired the patina of age, this estate would look really interesting. I felt enthusiastic about this: in England you would just get a thousand houses all looking identical – the Barratt Homes barracks. Here, they’d put some imaginative effort into it.
The next venue turned out to be an original medieval castle called Slot Zeist that had been rebuilt to house a religious order called the Evangelishe Broedergemeente of Hernutters (or Bohemian Brethren). It had also been host to the WWII area HQ of the German Wehrmacht, then in 1945 as a jail for Nazi collaborators, followed by becoming the Canadian Army Entertainments Committee base. It looked impressive, even in the dark.
On this occasion the dressing room was a children’s kindergarten – plenty of room but the only chairs I could find were those normally used by six-year-olds. Every time I sat down, my knees hit my chin.
The audience were younger and livelier than usual and, aside from a few word stumbles, the show went well. The party afterwards was even livelier and the drink flowed. I was cornered by a large lady who questioned me closely about the exact circumstances of Wilde’s crime and imprisonment. In the middle of a Christmas celebration I found myself having to explain the precise nature of the Victorian law on sodomy as opposed to fellatio.
After the party we returned to Neil’s home for more drinks. He told us that at one time he had been a bomb disposal expert in the UK (and had been awarded an MBE for his efforts). He said that one newspaper had described him as performing ‘the delicate defusing job of a hero.’ “I was actually hitting the bloody thing with a hammer!”
[Dec. 1996. GENOOTSCHAP NEDERLAND-ENGELAND, UTRECHT.
‘On Friday, 13th December, 1996, inauspicious as the date was, we chose to hold our Gala Christmas Party and to be extravagantly entertained beforehand by Neil Titley in his one-man show, Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes. How is it possible that a satirical evening, forcing us to look at ourselves so candidly, could at the same time be so funny and so poignantly entertaining? Oscar Wilde, seen through the eyes of actor/author, Neil Titley, surely brought us quite successfully into that state with his delightfully incisive wit.
There were moments when Neil and Oscar seemed inseparable. Enthralled and generously entertained by them both, we were later, very movingly, shown Wilde’s rendezvous first with irony and then, in Reading gaol or dying alone in Paris, with despair. Outrage had finally caught up with him. Here was no irony, just sheer genius personified.
As though such an emotional journey were not enough for one evening, the working as well as the drinking classes then digressed to our annual Christmas bash.’]
1996 December: Dorpshuis, Enschede
Consulting the guidebook on the train to the next gig in the Twente region near the German border, Sean pointed out a sentence: ‘the Twente region is renowned for its fierce antagonism to the Dutch liberal spirit’.
“So Oscar Wilde should go down well then”.
Although Oscar never visited the Netherlands, the country was one of the first outside the UK to appreciate his work; there was a Dutch production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ as early as 1892. During his trials, the Dutch papers, while stating that Wilde’s behaviour was reprehensible, did not join in the all-out assault that characterised the British press. Homosexuality in Holland had been de-criminalised by Napoleon in 1811 and the general Dutch attitude was that the British had been far too brutal in their punishment of Wilde. But maybe Twente would be the exception.
Arriving in the town of Enschede, we met the new contacts: a pleasant couple in their sixties called Wim and Ellie. While walking along a pavement near their house, we came across a Guy Fawkes-like dummy of a woman, sitting in a chair and holding a glass of wine. Wim explained that it was part of the ceremony of ‘Meeting Sarah’. When a woman reaches the age of fifty, she is regarded as having reached the age of wisdom; for a man, the equivalent is ‘Meeting Abraham’. An absolutely charming custom – the Anglo-Saxon world never really celebrates age.
The Enschede venue was an old tavern/café called the Dorpshuis, which possessed a genuine proscenium arched 5ft high stage. Feeling adventurous, I decided to ignore probably the best theatre conditions I’d had so far, and instead perform in the auditorium immediately in front of the stage. Which was fine, except that only one stage lamp could be re-directed to light my set. The show took place in sepulchral gloom, an aura that seemed to infect the audience. I also had one major loss of lines and gabbled the first thing that came into my head to cover up. Ad-libbing Wildean epigrams is not easy but I just about got away with it. I think?
Tonight’s Christmas party was notable mainly for our introduction to a new drink that the branch had acquired to celebrate the British connection. It was a Scottish wine made out of brambles. I can reliably report that the French chateaux need not get too worried. We slept late.
[On a familiarly explosive postscript to Oscar’s foreign travels, the quiet little town of Enschede suffered an appalling tragedy just three years later. In May 2000, a town centre warehouse storing fireworks blew up killing 23 people, injuring 947, incinerating 15 streets leaving 1,250 homeless, and causing damage estimated at €450 million.]
1996 December: De Vrijheidskerk, Alkmaar
After a night off from the Christmas parties in Amsterdam, we headed north to Alkmaar. Our final host was a burly man named Fritz, who seemed in remarkably high spirits. It turned out that he was the chairman of the local football team that had just held Ajax to a draw. He collected us from the station and drove into the centre.
Alkmaar was a pretty town built around concentric circles of canals; it was known as ‘Little Amsterdam’. It was also home to some museums – the National Cheese Museum was understandable and its Weighing Hall a genuine beauty; but the National Stove Museum? Also a Beatles Museum, based on the rather shaky foundations that John Lennon’s first guitar was made in Alkmaar.
The venue this time was a modern church with recreational rooms attached. As I sat in my dressing room preparing for the performance, two table tennis players continued their game beside me, unconcerned at my presence. It was a small audience but my delivery was clear and un-fluffy – I felt it had gone well.
During the Dutch trip, I had taken to doing an extra half hour or so of answering questions from the audience. I found myself forced into the unaccustomed role of pontificating as an expert on the whole of Irish literature. Tonight, I met my Waterloo. One question cropped up:
“Can you talk to us about the Nobel Prize Winner, Seamus Heaney?”
Oh shit – never having read a word of Heaney I was trapped. I replied:
Not exactly the answer you’d expect from a visiting ‘expert’ but never mind.
1996 December: Amsterdam
We spent the final day in Amsterdam doing tourist things – a canal boat trip with Celine Dion bellowing ‘Jingle Bells’ or something over the tannoy speakers; the Rijkmuseum with its remarkable painting of the Battle of Waterloo (centre stage showed the Prince of Orange standing in triumph after his magnificent victory – Wellington and Blucher had been relegated to the distance, mere extras in the Dutch destruction of Napoleon) then the Van Gogh Museum, (finally discovered the correct pronunciation of his name was rather like a gurgled ‘Van Hockf’, rather than the American ‘Van Go’ or the British ‘Van Goff’).
This museum also housed an exhibition of the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of Oscar Wilde’s few Dutch acquaintances. Wilde once attended the artist’s masked ball at his London home and, while not being a particular fan of the man’s art, Oscar did appreciate one story concerning Alma-Tadema.
Although not a habitual drinker, Alma-Tadema’s social life sometimes meant that he imbibed more than his norm. When a friend became the father of twins, Alma-Tadema made a visit to congratulate the new parents. Unfortunately he arrived after drinking several bottles of wine. Casting a bleary look in the direction of the twins, he hesitated for a bit, then announced confidently: “What a lovely baby!”
In the evening we went for a stroll. Despite the cold, there was something almost cosy about Amsterdam. The canal bridges were festooned with electric bulbs and behind them were the tall, slim, gabled houses. The inhabitants, in order to save interior space, had very thin staircases, their furniture, etc, being swung in by cranes through the huge front windows on each floor – a medieval custom still practised today.
Each window blazed with light, the Dutch seeming to prefer not to close their curtains at night, a habit certainly in force at the next destination.
We turned a corner and walked straight into the renowned red light district of De Wallen. The girls posing in the row of illuminated shop windows at first looked rather like tailors’ dummies. Then on spotting potential customers they sprang to life. Most were young and attractive, generally alone but a few pairings – a brunette draped round a blonde, etc. Small groups of North African men lined the pavement and window-shopped. One detail struck me as being both incongruous and rather sad. Each window had been hung with Christmas decorations.
Next morning, Sean arrived back from a walk to the shops. “I almost got run over by a bulldozer. It makes a change from bicycles”.
As we flew back from Schipol Airport, we enthused about the Dutch and their attitude to life. They seemed to be so stolidly undemonstrative, and yet they possessed a streak of cool logic that led them into the most courageous experiments. I had no idea whether we had increased Dutch friendship towards England but it had certainly worked vice versa.
Next Week – January 16 – The start of the tours in India.