In Holland, Black Peter brings nasty presents as well

The merry face of Zwart Piet - Black Peter - beams out at me from the counters of baker's shops throughout Amsterdam. A chocolate-coloured coon. Marzipan is all the way through. His lips are thick and red. His nose is potato-shaped. His eyes are round and rolling. He wears a little red cap.

Christmas is overtaking St Nicholas's Day (5 December) as the main present-giving time in Holland. But the original Santa Claus is holding out. And so is his assistant, Black Peter. The big department stores have window displays with large, nodding golliwogs.

I couldn't at first work out who this was. One of the the Three Kings? But then I was set straight. Black Peter comes across with St Nicholas from Spain on his magical horse. He takes the presents down chimneys. But Black Peter is no saint. He can bring bad presents (perhaps a stick to beat you with) as well as nice ones. If you misbehave, he may carry you off, up the chimney. That merry marzipan smile is a professional front.

It is a shock to a namby-pamby Londoner, battered by assertions that the smallest error in how you speak, write or illustrate can have terrible effects. What sort of "role model" is Zwart Piet?

The day before I went to Amsterdam, I was talking to an American sociologist. He said how good Dutch race relations policy was. It might spring from the Dutch experience of settling the bitter differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. But is it even true? These golliwog faces make we wonder.

Black Peter is "traditional", I am told, and that is that. The honourable Dutch tradition of tolerance includes being tolerant about tradition.

Central Amsterdam is, in some ways, a museum city of the sixties. I have never seen so many men of a certain age wearing grey-flecked ponytails. The famous hash-house coffee bars have names like Mellow Yellow. But Amsterdam's "alternative" society is, in fact, very strongly policed. Protesters tried to stop a metro being built, saying that it would only benefit commuters. The riot police went in. The metro was built.

One of the suburbs it serves is Bijlmer. An El Al cargo plane crashed into a Bijlmer block of flats six years ago, and killed at least 40 people, almost all of them black. The population of Holland contains many people from Surinam (formerly Dutch Guyana), Africa, Turkey and Vietnam. I kept wondering where they all were. I take the metro out to Bijlmer and find the answer. In Holland, migrants are in the outer city. The population of the carriages get steadily blacker as we plunge out through the office blocks and retail parks of outer Amsterdam.

The station I get off at is like a bomb site. Hulks of concrete structures lie all round. The flats are a parody of modernism. They are a honeycomb arrangement of long, 11-storey blocks. From above, on the plan, it looked as neatly abstract as a Mondrian. At ground level, it is a prison.

A young Surinamese woman tells me where the air crash monument is. I go across a dank little pond to a tree surrounded by a wooden ledge. Pots of heather and chrysanthemums. Some typewritten poems. A concrete slab lists all the names. "Rest in peace."

A black community patrolman is showing six Amsterdam police trainees around. (They are all white.) He tells me there is another memorial inside a block labelled Kruitberg. I go with him.

The ground floor is painted with bright murals which only make the rest of the block look more dismal. We go up to the first floor. The flats were designed with a window on to the balcony. In every Dutch town, front windows are left uncurtained, so that you can see the proud, clean still-life of the interior. At Kruitberg, the outside world is shut out by thick net.

The memorial is a narrow, wedge-shaped room. Some flowers are left from anniversary wreaths. On the floor lie official ribbons from the state of Israel, from the Dutch government, from the Surinam embassy. On the walls, more photographs of the African and Caribbean dead, and of the night of the crash: red and orange flames. Next to the door, a wooden plaque with portraits of four children, three of them called Addo, the fourth (perhaps a cousin) Ankrah. In the centre is the blond head of Christ. "May all your souls go to Heaven."

The police trainees have left. I make my way to the next metro stop. Bleak concrete has been painted with gaudy pictures of an Amsterdam street and a peasant hut in Surinam. On one column, a quotation - I suppose from a survivor: "Then it swept me away like a hot wind." Men watch me closely.

I go past a little green mosque to the train. In Britain, I had told my patrolman guide, it was hard to get people to stay on estates like this. "Well," he said, "they have to be here. You must live somewhere."

At my Amsterdam stop, I find myself walking past a baker's. I buy a Zwart Piet marzipan (£2 each) to take home.

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?