Class conscious - Andrew Martin

How middle-class do you need to be to join a queue to see Dutch Old Masters?

Amsterdam is a beautiful but strange city, seemingly run according to dictates laid down by Neil of The Young Ones. At least, that's how it is at its best. At its worst, it seems to venerate British yob culture. One cannabis cafe has a sign in the window reading "Over 18 only", accompanied by the charming subtext: "And dont fuck about" (insult being added to injury by the lack of an apostrophe).

I noted, on arriving in the city, that my guidebook made only the most glancing reference to the red-light district, which, I'd have thought, was the main attraction for, say, 65 per cent of English male visitors. Maybe it's assumed that it is just working-class blokes who are drawn to it, the non-guidebook-reading sort. That is plainly not true, but those streets do resonate with very broad British provincial accents, the general tenor of the remarks being: "Bloody hell, get a load of that!"

An attraction my guidebook discusses at length is the Rijksmuseum, and I dutifully set off there during the limited free time I had during my one-day visit. It began to rain as I approached the museum, and I wasn't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. I was required to stand at the back of a queue stretching about a hundred yards from the main entrance, which brought me hard up against the question: "How badly do I want to see those 17th-century Dutch masterpieces?" which could be rephrased: "How middle-class am I?"

Behind me in the queue, a group of well-heeled English tourists was addressing the same issue. "Do we commit to the queue?" a woman was asking. "I'm not committed to the queue," was the immediate rejoinder from the voice of a man I'll call Steve. There was no answer to this from the woman, but I could tell she was irritated. Then another, quieter male voice spoke up, after which the woman announced to Steve: "Tim's committed to the queue. You're outvoted." "It's going to be at least half an hour before we get in," said Steve. No reply to that from the woman, but after a while she attempted a mollifying comment: "The gate behind us dates from 1609, you know." If he made any response to that, I didn't catch it.

The rain was falling more heavily now. "Can't we do a virtual?" inquired Steve. "What do you mean?" asked the woman. "I mean look at the paintings on the website from the hotel room," Steve elaborated. "At E5 for 15 minutes?" the woman scornfully responded. Ahead of us, two Americans, who'd been talking loudly about the traffic congestion in Rotterdam, peeled away from the queue, announcing to everyone around them: "Coffee and a doughnut for us." With a wistful expression, Steve watched the Americans depart.

"Does it help you to know that the queue is getting longer behind us?" the woman asked Steve. "Not really," he said. He was now attempting to kill time by doing a crossword, but his mood was not helped by Tim (the one whose vote to stay in the queue had proved decisive), who kept looking over his shoulder and working out the answers before he could. "Four down is 'pursuant'," I heard Tim mutter. A moment later he whispered, "I think three down is 'intone'," at which Steve stuffed his newspaper into his pocket, saying: "Let's dump it 'til tomorrow morning," meaning the art rather than the crossword.

"I'm staying," said the woman, sounding steely now, and I sensed that she was the kind of person who defines herself through art appreciation. It was raining heavily at this point, and we'd all moved forward only a few feet. Some renovation work was being carried out within the Rijksmuseum, and two Dutch builders were looking down at us from a window, pointing and laughing. It was a very good thing, I decided, that Steve had not seen them.

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