Friday, April 27, 2007

Amsterdam to Staffordshire

2 April 2007

What has happened to the days?
No diary since last Wednesday, and here we are Monday already..
A fine, sunny English springtime morning in Staffordshire

But Thursday Friday Saturday and much of Sunday were of course spent in Amsterdam, the second part of my Holland adventure..
By and large, the second part was very similar to the first. Much music, much chat .. and also much much exploration and open-air strolling. Given that I and the genus bicycle had failed to come to an agreement, said exploration and strolling was all on foot, and truthfully so much the better. You see so much more, become part of things so much more when you walk. But I did ‘travel’ once.
On Thursday, we took a a nice, clean modern tram. We took it, because we were going a little further afield than heretofore: over to the Westerpark where Bert-Jan’s business is based and where Kevin – away from the temptations of home -- does much of his writing work. Said business – homed in what once once a stunning red-brick factry building, is named with intentional irony De Kunstfabriek: the art factory. One manufactures art? The two ideas and the two words seem in direct contrast. But the description is correct.
De Kunstfabriek is an art gallery, but not a conventional art gallery. And the items which are on display there are not conventional ‘paintings’. The process of producing one begins with a photograph (usually taken by Bert-Jan), which is then processed into a picture (mostly I think by Bert-Jan), after which the processed image is sent to China where a team of classically-trained artists transform it into a regular oil painting. As in the traditionally-made Balinese paintings, each painter on the team has his special area – hands, feet, hair, flowers, fruit or whatever – so the final work of art is a genuine team effort and is signed only with the logo of the Kunstfabriek.
I know. You will be saying this doesn’t sound at all like something Kurt Gänzl would like. But you’ld be wrong. The interest lies mainly in the choice of image, and the way whatever the subject of the picture is is photographed and viewed. And just a little (for me) in the way the painters use their technique to produce what are sometimes startling images. My particular favourite was a sheet of red and yellow apples. They looked as if one could reach out and pluck them. None of the poised sterility of an old-times still life… these apples were alive.
Give or take a vast series of cows (argh! too close to home!!!), I liked these ‘living’ pictures the best, although I who have always scorned the famous Warhol soup can as gimmickry at worst and fraud at best, found a number of pictures of modern utilitarian object and of commercial products which, whilst obviously descendants of said soup can, were more interesting. Why? Because they were taken not square on, but from droll angles. Or not in full frontal toto, but only in part.
I was, I have to admit, altogether less taken with a series of pictures which clearly descended from Warhol’s other big picture, the wonky Marilyn Monroe, and depicted such other camp divas as Lauren Bacall. However, to some people, these are obviously appreciable and decorative. And therein lies the appeal of the Kunstfabriek’s production. Decoration.
If I were a young or even not so young person with a fine modern home and fine white walls to fill, I would rather fill them with the Kunstfabriek’s apples and carrots, Spa water bottles and can openers, than I would with old masters or even with the sort of pictures which fill the walls at Gerolstein.
You see, its never too late to learn!


While Kevin sat down to translate a review of one of those touring operatic megaproductions which I hoped had died out with the 1980s (a German AIDA MONUMENTAL OPERA ON FIRE at .. Abu Dhabi! in which the fire trick was hilariously quenched by the desert winds!) for a German website, I set off for the daily explore. Down through the Westerpark, where the daffodils were already waning, into an untouristicky shopping street, the Haarlemsdijk. Quite fun, quite ‘typische’, but also quite ordinary. The Haarlemsdijk runs down – way down -- to the Central Station and, as I got near its end, its character changed. Finally I was in the sort of Amsterdam I didn’t really want to see. Tacky shops with names like ‘The Magic Mushroom’ (in English, of course) and … well, just an aroma of the sort of seediness I hadn’t really encountered here. Two teenaged Chinese girls who evidently mistook me either for an habitué or a local (in spite of the street map under my arm!) asked me the way to the Red Light district. How would I know?
Anyway, it was clearly time to get off the Haarlemsdijk and away from the station, so I took a right turn and .. . within metres of this ‘bad bit’ I found myself in one of the loveliest little bits of the city I had so far found. The Browuersgracht (wouldn’t you know! It means ‘the Brewers’ Canal’!). Its not picture-book pretty, its not even what you might call operetta ‘Dutch’, MISS HOOK OF HOLLAND and all that, its just nice. Real. Tall, confident old houses overtowering an attractive canal lined with houseboats, grnd and grotty, and every few metres a quaint little bridge spanning from one side to another of the water. Cobbled streets. And hurrah! The narrow streets on each side of the canal are one way thoroughfares. So cars can’t sneak up on you from behind. But since this is Amsterdam, it pays not to be too confident. The bicycle brigade are subject to no laws at all and a one-way street is only one way, to them, for other people!
Anyway, I took quite a few pictures in the Brouwersgracht, including one of a little white kitten which peeped longingly through a ground floor window at me. Alas, when I clicked the shutter she chose that moment to show me her back end instead of her sweet face, so I have no kitty pic from the Brouwersgracht. Just some very nice houses and bridges. And a kitty memory.

The highlight of my Friday walk was a visit to another tourist site. Well, it should be a tourist site, but not too many tourists seem to have found their way there. I had noticed the ‘Van Loon Museum’ on the map, and I had vague memories of a certain van Loon being an old Dutch painter (or was it van something else, there are after all so many of them), also I remembered a certain fat green book that used to grace my father’s bookshelf. I think it was called THE ASCENT OF MAN, but anyway it was by one Hendrik van Loon. (And only many years later did I find out it wasn’t about mountain climbing – an excusable error given that much of my father’s library was). But I didn’t go there. Then, a couple of days later when I was lamenting the lack of greenery on view and the fact that Amsterdam houses have no front gardens -- I soon found out that what they lack in front gardens they make up for with back ones – Bert-Jan asked if I had visited the van Loon House. I had to admit ‘no’. So when I saw from my inseparable street-map that I was but a gracht or two away from said house I determined to pay a call on the van Loons. Well, the house is still there but that last Mr van Loon died in October, and he left his family house to be the museum it had already been since the death of his grandparents in 1973.
What it is, is the house of a prosperous C18th Dutchman – the original inhabitant was Ferdinand Bols, the artist, later the wealthy merchant van Loon bought it – which has been maintained as, or restored to, pretty much what it was in the C19th. Its all tastefully and unexaggeratedly done, and is agreeably ‘true to life’. And it has a delightful medium-sized garden, all box hedges and patterns. The garden, too, had its guardian kitty. A rather fat relative of Minnie who is clearly utterly used to being photographed. So I did. And I gave her a big pat which she can transfer to Minnie by cataphone. (On the way out, I noticed that the cat has even been made into a postcard!).
The van Loon house isn’t spectacular in any way. It’s just nice, atmospheric, interesting and well worth 6 euros and an hour or so of one’s time.
PS Hendrik van Loon doesnt seem to have belonged to this family. A large family tree in the hall includes a Hendrik but I see from good old Google that I’m a good few generations out.
There are actually four family trees in the hall, one in gold paint on wood, and three decorative ones on parchment, which makes great play of everyone’s family escutcheon. I thought this was typical merchant stuff. Nouveau riche aspirations. But it appears that an early Frouw van Loon was a kind of social secretary and amanuensis to the current Queen of the Netherlands, so the family was doubtless into who was who in a big way.

Friday had another highlight too. Kevin took me across down and down a canal or two tov isit the Amsterdam Theatre Museum. Its an attractive place, housed in a pretty old Dutch building of which some of the interior has been retained. Part of the Museum is devoted to ‘exhibitions’. One was a fascinating one, a biographical show on an innovative Dutch scenic artist who ended up as a designer of classy lighting fixtures and an interior decorator. I’m totally furious that I’ve completely forgotten his name, for I’d like to have Googled him and read more. (PS I Googled the Museum and there it is! His name is Frits Lensfelt and the building is apparently memorable and C17th.. good old Google.). This exhibit was much more successful than most Theatre Museum exhibits I have seen in one part of the world and another. And much much more successful than their other one, something called ‘Backstage’ which consisted of fragments on the various people other than the actors who make up a play. No section was dealt with adequately because all were dealt with a little. There were also several ‘talking heads’, filmed interviews for the TV age person who can’t take in a classic museum. Fortunately they were in Dutch so I was dispensed for listening to the pontificating!
The other part of the Museum is its Library. Their collection is grand, but like other performing arts libraries in non-English-speaking countries, decidedly idiosyncratic. You find really rare C19th books, which many a British or American library does not have, sharing a shelf with surprising copies of some of the worst modern incompetents and ghastlies (no names no pack drill). And yet some good and standard books are missing. Also, the choice of which books – nominally the cream of the collection – go under’ reference’ rather than being available for loan, is sometimes curious.
I can’t complain. Three of my works are on the Reference shelf: the 2 volume ENCYCLOPAEDIA, BRITISH MUSICAL THEATRE and MUSICAL THEATRE ON RECORD. Get the connection? My British books. Not one of my American books has made it. Lack of enterprise or imagination by my various American publishers?
ASPECTS OF LOVE, which seems to be everywhere, is on the open shelves.
Alas, no MUSICALS, and no Lydia and Willie, all of which are actually in the Amsterdam bookshop .. but they have the main ones, which pleases me a lot.
And, as a cherry, they have Ian’s TOP OF THE BILL too.

Saturday, Kevin and I did another walk around town and I had a small eye-opener. And I don’t mean my first taste of a Dutch hotdog (manufactured in a machine so that the meat AND the mustard are already inside .. very handy and unmessy and really quite tasty). The morning papers had been full of a new book, a biography of an early C20th Dutch pioneer in what would now be glibly christened ‘gay lib’. It is a wholly serious social document of some weight, and all that seems surprising to me is that no-one has apparently got round to biographising the brave bloke before.
Kevin was most keen to read the hot-off-the-presses book, so we headed for a very large nearby bookstore. I was impressed to see that they already had it in stock. Alas, it was such a huge chunk of solid Dutch text (‘with no pictures and no conversations’) that Kevin, in spite of his amazingly quickly learned Netherlandish skills, couldn’t quite face it. So on we went. Soon we passed another, smaller bookshop. And, good grief. Why aren’t MY publishers like this? There was a huge pile of the new book, right in front of the shop! But there was a reason. This was a gay bookshop, and the new learned tome apparently counts as a ‘gay’ book! I found this quite funny. But there was funnier still when we went inside. A whole wall was devoted to ‘gay literature’. Proust, Gide, everything that Gore Vidal ever wrote whether gay in subject matter or not. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction the lot. It was so all-embracing I was almost surprised not to find myself there!
And the opposite wall? Magazines, videos, DVDs, picture books – from SEBASTIAN to ‘Tom of Finland’ to .. well, just every shape and degree of titillation literature and what I suppose counts as nothing more than hard pornography imaginable. I don’t suppose Proust or Vidal would have minded any of it, quite the contrary, but I was simply, and perhaps unfairly, mostly gently amused.
While Kevin leafed lightly through the stock, I glanced around at the clientele. I don’t think most of them were there looking for a copy of A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU. Surprisingly many were gay girls (for whom the variety of literature though apparently not movies is much more limited). The rest? Well no-one needs a dirty raincoat these days, but lets just say there was quite a lot of young scruff. Hmmm. Good Lord I wonder what they thought of ME with Tom of Finland in my hand? But I don’t think anyone was looking at me. Not even at Kevin.
So Kevin didn’t buy the biography, and I resisted the temptation (??) to invest in Tom of Finland – after all there was no space in my red bag, and should one be unable to live without them, one can probably buy his famous cartoon books of improbably shaped males in Christchurch NZ!

The other purpose of our trip to ‘town’ was to book a restaurant for my final night in Amsterdam’s sort-of-thankyou ‘Dinner for the Golden Boys’. Number one on our list was the Resturant Haesje Claes at nos 273-5 Spuistraat. Whatever that means. It looked charmingly cosy, even though the licence plate confirmed that it held 280 people. And even though it did, it was booked out. However, when we got back to the flat with the bad news B-J picked up the phone…
That night we dined at the Haesje Claes.
Now Gerry Bordman always said that I didn’t care about food. Well, I know I was not always up to comprehending the niceties and special qualities of some of the famous dinners to which he treated us all those years ago in the south of France. And I know I can just as well get by on bread rolls and cheese, as I did in Jersey, but … food can still give me a memorable moment or two to match up to my most fondly remembered lunch on the beach in Rhodes in 1972..
This I think was one of them.
Of course, the atmosphere and the company helped .. for the place is delightful – divided into a number of rooms so that the numbers of people being served are not evident, and tastefully and characterfully ‘old Dutch’ designed (good grief it may have even been genuinely antique!)– the service was charming and bang-on .. and the food?
I was determined to eat ‘typically Dutch’. So I asked advice from our Dutchman. If I’d eaten everything he recommended I’d have burst. In the end I settled for Bloedwurst with caramelised apples and something else incomprehensible, and Kabeljaum. Black sausage and cod. I mean, talk about things you can’t get in New Zealand?????
Well, you can’t. Not like this anyway.
I’ve eaten black puddings in Britain, black sausage in New Zealand, boudin noir in France and loved it everywhere .. but if this is Dutch bloetwurst, then Dutch bloetwurst beats them all into a bag. Soft not stodgy, juicy not dry and fatty, delicious! And the accompanying sweet apples.. with just a hint of local Amstel bier .. perfect.
Then .. cod. Cabillaud. Baked. Hard to be original there? But original isn’t necessary when the fish is made up of soft, tasty flakes 8 to 10 centimetres square, flakes that just fall apart into a delicious little mixture of chopped and shredded vegetables and a light mustard sauce…
Plus one or two of Kevin’s perfectly cooked pommes frites (sic!)
And a little more beer

Haesje Claes (she’s not the owner, merely an ancient Dutch lady with a buzzword name) goes down in my book of memories as a memorable meal..

(see which tells you more than I can!)

We closed down our meal with something called a mokum coffee. It was 4.95 a glass, so it was evident that it was something a little more than plain coffee. Which it was. I deeply suspect it of being 50 percent Advocaat or something equally Dutch and potent. But it was delicious.

And when I say that three of us ate for 107.00 euros (plus alas the still current 10 percent ‘tip’) – ie something like $200 NZ -- including beefsteaks for the young folk and 8 beers mostly for me – I reckon we did pretty well.

B-J leaped on his bicycle to head back to base, but Kevin had more in store for me. A little glimpse of Amsterdam by night. And delightful it is. The canals and their bridges glittering with little lights .. it’s all too obvious to relate, but nevertheless delightful.
Since I had, up till now – give or take a colourful bookshop – still not seen anything of Amsterdam’s wholly (I now believe) exaggerated gay life, we passed down the best publicised – in the guide books – streets of gay bars. Kevin needed a pee, so we even popped into one. Well. If people come from all over to go to a place like that…?!
The lights were so erratic that you couldn’t see very much, the muzak was so loud you couldn’t hear anything at all, and the clients were sort of slumped around looking as if they were bored out of their minds. If they had any mind to be bored out of. Grim! Just about as witty, bright and sophisticated as the Westport pubs in December race week.
From then on, we just glanced through windows and doors. I value whats left of my hearing too much. And it had been too splendid an evening to tail away like a dying fish. Instead, it ended at 1.30 am, lounging on a big white sofa listening to the music of Stan Kenton …

Sunday morning, with my bags all packed, we went out for my last Amsterdam stroll A veritable stroll it was too. Not a determined walk. A wander around the Vondelpark. Sunday in the Park with Kevin. The sun was shining gently, the breeze was rippling the lake and making little stars where it met the sunshine, there were daffodils and bluebells, and nice young people lying on the grass, and jogging or roller-blading in the alleys. Not so many bikes as on weekdays, so the atmosphere was more relaxed. We strolled, we sat on a bench and watched the ducks go by. It was wonderfully peaceful, relaxed and civilised. Civilised. It’s a word that will always spring to my mind when I think again of Amsterdam.

I wonder why the teenaged (male) British gorms I saw on the plane on the way back go weekending there. Well, I suppose I know why they go. But I would have thought they could get all the drugs and blokes they are after on any street corner in whatever provincial English town they come from, without spending their dole on an air trip across the channel. But they seemed happy with their weekend in Gomorrah.
So why should I be grumpy about them.
After all, young men trekked to Soho, London for years, believing the old publicity that it was a den of delicious iniquity. Whereas it was just the place where Ian and I shopped for our vegetables and charcuterie.

I flew out of Amsterdam airport at 4.30pm. Yes! BMI Baby was – at last – on time! And, whats more, we arrived at EMA 2 minutes early! I was first to immigration – and dammit! I had to fill in a foreigner’s CARD! You would think those things were obsolete now. So I lost my leading place.. but aha! no luggage! So I was back in front as we hit the home turn and there was Johnny just arriving in the other direction! So we even got free parking.. (less than 10 mins)! Fate was liking me this week, I think.

It was about half an hour’s drive from EMA to Staffordshire. It looks less on the map, but there’s lots of wiggling about, and we didn’t go quite in a straight line, especially as there had been some vast motor cycle grand prix at Donnington (right on our way) which chose to disgorge its thousands of spectators at just the wrong minute.

The last part of our trip – once the brewing town of Burton had been passed – was truly beautiful. England at its best is just glorious.. why do I always think of London when I think of England.. crazy!

Down country lanes we went, past beautiful ancient houses both little and very large and finally at about 5.45 we pulled up the sweeping driveway of Hoar Cross Hall.


Hoar Cross Hall.

That’s another story.

I might get to write it after dinner tonight, sitting in one of those big leather chairs in the Long Gallery where the violinist plays, the champagne flows .. and wireless Internet works..
But right now its time for my first ‘facial’. The big attack on the bags under the eyes! Of which more anon

Much more, I hear you say.

Until soon


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