Thursday 25th September – Monday 29th 2015
What did I know about Holland beforehand? Edam cheese is like chewing a cold hot-water bottle. Clogs are the most uncomfortable footwear in the history of footwear. Polder, canals, dykes, windmills: Dutch interiors, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Escher: the Concertgebouw, Bernard Haitink, Andre Rieu: Erasmus, Spinoza: Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit (and lots more): Richard Krajicek, Betty Stove, Tom Okker: Tasman, (the only explorer in a colonial power?) Paul Verhoeven, Rutger Hauer (but where other screen directors and actors?) Fanny Blankers-Koen (other Olympic athletes?)… where novelists, poets, statesmen, classical soloists? They’re all there but I’ve never heard of them.
45 years ago Anthea and I were in Athens on our way back from Libya. We decided to leave because she was visibly pregnant and we preferred the NHS rather than what was on offer in newly revolutionised Libya where so many foreign medical staff had left. We had dined in the Plaka and were strolling back to the hotel when I spotted a tempting-looking bar down some steps. I suggested looking in for a quick brandy … Anthea stuck to orange juice. The steps lent on to a cellar- bar divided into several cubicles. We took seats near the entrance and, as I sipped my brandy, I heard murmured conversation and occasional giggles coming from the cubicles and my eye was caught by two flimsily dressed young women reclining on a staircase leading upwards. I turned to Anthea: ‘I’m sorry about this, my love, but we seem to be in a brothel’. The only man in Athens to turn up in a brothel with his heavily pregnant wife.
But I’d had earlier experience of prostitutes as an undergraduate. I was working as a waiter in the roughest pub in Leeds. A snug was always occupied by prostitutes and men used me as a pimp: ‘There’s half a crown for you and here’s some money for whatever that woman over there wants’. ‘The one in red?’ ‘God no … who do you think I am? The one in green.’ ‘Ah yes … of course, sir.’ I had a passing acquaintance with one of the younger ones … just to say ‘Hello’ to. She had an interesting face and it occurred to me that a chat with her … not as a client … would provide me with an aspect of my education undreamed of by the philosophy department at Leeds University. She didn’t work on Sundays so I asked her if she’d like to meet me for a coffee in the nearby café, Sunday ,three o’clock. … no funny business. She readily agreed. I got there early and waited. And waited. The only man in Leeds ever to be turned down by a prostitute.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached …
THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
We paid a couple of visits to what is probably the best known red light district in the world. I’d heard of it and I had an image of what I might see … a normal shop window with a naked woman sitting reading. I was wrong. It’s a small cluster of ginnils where the shop- fronts are cubicles a metre wide in groups from one to several. The window reveals a woman wearing a skimpy bikini, some motionless, some moving, some seated, some standing. And they’re often as close as a couple of feet.
I have a distinct memory of only four: the first was utterly lovely … twenty-odd, shoulder-length black hair, a sweet face with wide dark eyes, and a trim young body in a bikini the size of two belts. She was gyrating provocatively round a pole. The surprise was how innocent and attractive she looked. The second was also twenty-odd and was bonelessly voluptuous like a seal. The third was older … thirty – thirty five … and was sitting on a small chair on a raised platform so that I had to look up at 45 degrees into her cold eyes. I remember the fourth because she looked like a young Christine Keeler.
Engaging eye-contact was … weird. Alongside Anthea I felt like a tourist but when I engaged eye-contact with one on my own I felt like a client and it left me uncomfortable. I tried putting myself in their place … disdain.
I spotted a shop window full of soft drugs. It must be 20 years since I smoked a joint but I decided to give it a try and bought a plastic tumbler of ‘cannabis cookies’.
Just as in the old days it was surrounded by a degree of paranoia. But not in Amsterdam. I imagined that for every inbound Amsterdam flight Leeds-Bradford would have a team of sniffer dogs patrolling the carousel luggage. I could hear the tannoy: Would Mr John Hendry please attend the police office in the carousel court. So I wrapped the tumbler in socks, put it into a zipped toilet bag, and buried it right in the middle of the case. I did my best to remain calm through Arrivals.
I made it! Back home I examined what I’d got: a dozen or so crisp, round chocolate biscuits. I’d been warned that Amsterdam dope was much stronger than that in England so I carefully cut one in half and ate it. I remembered that eating it has less of an immediate hit but a longer-lasting one. No effect whatsoever. Next evening I took one and a half. No effect. The next evening I took all the rest in one go. Some considerable time later I experienced faint pins and needles. I’d have got more of a hit off a packet of custard creams. I’d been done. Good job I only paid a fiver.
Good memories: the lunchtime lagers outside a bar in hot sun and the wonderful shock of the seventeenth century six storey residences – multi-coloured, multi-shaped, with wondrous varied gables, and alongside them brownwater canals with moored houseboats festooned with flowers and foliage.
And the handsome, charming maitre d’ of the Italian restaurant where all the staff were Italian. We’d been helped by a friendly waitress of around 30 who was tending the next table to us when the man delivered our bill. I produced my party piece: Ho studiato l’italiano all’ universita molti anni fa: ora ho dimenticato tutto. (I studied Italian at university many years ago: now I’ve forgotten everything.) He turned to the waitress: What have you done to him? Already he is speaking Italian!’ There was laughter all round and I clapped. We ate there again. Firm friends.
It was an unforgettable experience financed as a joint birthday present by our family. Thank you all very much.
Recommended: The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton … the brilliantly written experiences of an eighteen year old bride in seventeenth century Amsterdam featuring streets and locations that we saw and remember well.