Wednesday 4 October 2023

Gedogen gezellig

Years and years ago, I secured [nepotism alert: my sister was proper working in the London office] a Summer job at TimeLife books in Amsterdam. We were planning on camping [with The Boy aged 5½] to save money. But one day when I was at work, The Beloved wandered into town and saw a small ad for a sub-let in a student residence on Prinzengracht. We paid the young feller for his room for July and August and he buggered off to Greece. Evenings and weekends we rattled around in an almost empty complex of bedsits with communal bathroom, kitchen and day-room. But the thing is, that building was a few doors down from the Anne Frank Stichting in the very centre of Amsterdam. There were even fly-screens on the windows to hold back the midges that swarmed up from the canal in the evenings. It was so long ago that we could even park our well-worn Citroën Dyane on the quayside below our window. It was gezellig: quietly wonderful just to walk over the little bridges, looking at every day Amsterdam - its houseboats and bicycles and flowers and cafés.

My pal D recently told me I had to read Amsterdam: a history of the World's most liberal city by Russell Shorto. Possibly because he remembered a weekend he spent visiting us in that city 40 years ago. Shorto comes from New York, formerly known as Amsterdam in Nieuw-Nederland, but has lived and worked the last several years in the original Amsterdam and this book is a tribute to the city which has taken him to its bosom and is the birthplace of his son-and-heir. Amsterdam's golden age, which spanned the first ¾ of the 17thC, overlapped with the Eighty Years War of independence and interdependence of the Dutch provinces from the rule of the Hapsburgs. It used to be called the Golden Age because the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie VOC [bloboprev] brought fabulous wealth from the Far East back to investors and this geld trickled down to local craftsmen [Huygens], artists [Rembrandt, Vermeer], scientists [van Leeuwenhoek] and petty industrialists. Golden Age is now deprecated, because slavery.

Shorto suggests how wresting dry land from estuarine slobs and salt-marsh required communal effort and that that working shoulder-to-shoulder on a mighty infrastructural project cemented the community by their common energy. But, in contrast to the builders of the great cathedrals or workers on existing land, the common dry-ground was parcelled out to each participant as a personal domain. Because no Bishop or Prince was involved in the transaction, democracy of a sort was born in the creation of the polders. Democracy which allowed and valued private enterprise and the liquidity of capital.

That mutual respect was accompanied by a tolerance for the neighbours involving turning a blind eye to their non-treasonable transgressions. It became increasingly okay if the folk in the house next door went to a different church or no church at all; what they ate, how much they drank and how they spent their disposable income was a private matter. Gedogen is the word coined for this nodding tolerance for activities that are formally illegal - selling maryjane in cafés being the most notable modern example; or kraken squatting in unused buildings at the end of the 20thC. I think Shorto makes a bit too much about the historical inevitability of our Amsterdam growing from the Amsterdam of Rembrandt.

Another theme that runs through the book is series of interviews with Frieda Menco-Brommet, a neighbour of Shorto's and of Anne Frank's back in the day. Her experience of being rounded up and sent to Auschwitz . . . and surviving into the 21stC don't explain how and why 75% of Amsterdam's Jews died in the War [much more proportionately than Belgium, France or Germany] despite the 'tolerance for neighbours' which applied to other sections of society. The last event in the book is when Shorto introduces his infant son to the 90-something Mvr. Menco; the chap won't remember but he'll be told that he touched the hem of history - so there is that.

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