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Anarchists and engineers

In the Netherlands, the bicycle is king and planners have built new towns out of the sea. But in this strong and stable society, immigrants are under pressure and fissures are beginning to appear.

Time: 5pm on a warm June day. Setting: a busy junction in the most bike-friendly city in the world’s most bike-friendly country. In the background an accordionist is playing jaunty folk tunes outside the shopping centre. In the foreground there is a constant stream of cyclists, coming from all directions but mainly heading between Utrecht railway station, with its massive underground cycle sheds, and the pretty old town.

Helmets for Dutch cyclists, whatever their age, are unthinkable. Brakes, lights, bells and other fripperies are optional extras. Sometimes they look where they are going. Sometimes they text. Sometimes they stop at red lights. Sometimes they don’t. Usually they stick to their lanes but sometimes they swerve on to the pavement. Whatever. The accordionist played faster and faster. It was like watching an endless circus act, full of a mad midsummer joy that it was impossible not to share, even vicariously. Summer is short and so, for the unwary visitor, is life.

The corollary of being so bike-friendly is that Utrecht is the most pedestrian-unfriendly city I have ever visited, with the exception of Houston, Texas. Dutch cycle lanes are rarely well-marked, and their placing is unpredictable. You are expected to know, and don’t expect an apology if you get hit. This goes to the heart of Dutchness. It is nothing to do with the deification of the bicycle. Nor with windmills, tulips, clogs, cheese, Rembrandt, van Gogh, prostitution, dope or any other cliché. Except maybe canals and the flatness.

“The Dutch are a combination of anarchists and engineers,” says Jaap Verheul, a cultural historian at the University of Utrecht. So on the one hand they can act like Texan gun owners on two wheels, and maintain their no-but-yeah policy towards cannabis. On the other, they live in a country that, with a less inventive populace, would long ago have been inundated by the North Sea. And they need a profound understanding of how to stay there. The fictional boy who stuck his finger in the leaking dike didn’t have to be told what to do: he just knew.

So this is a place of firm behavioural codes, which are never spelled out, and are enforced informally. Rules as such would be Germanic, and that would never do. But still. “The social mores are as strict as German rules,” one expat told me. “It’s just a different way of getting there.” And expats hear from their neighbours when they breach them. An American woman near Gouda was asked after a while: “How come you haven’t washed your windows yet?”; a weed allowed to peep through a gap in an allotment constitutes a major offence.

This ties in with another Dutch characteristic. Ulrich Tiedau, who teaches Dutch studies at University College London, grew up just inside Germany and was fascinated by the differences. “They are brutally direct,” he said. “They are not interested in talking between the lines. It strikes me as odd, even as a German.” “They’re the Yorkshiremen of Europe,” as one British businessman put it. Ben Coates, author of Why the Dutch Are Different, says that when working on a train, it is normal for one’s neighbour not just to peer at your computer screen but to point out mistakes. A newly arrived American writer, Jonatha Kottler, went to the cinema and ordered a large portion of popcorn. There was a tap on her shoulder from the man behind: “Are you going to eat all of that?” he said. “I see why you are so fat.” One might think that, but even in Yorkshire no stranger above the age of four would ever comment.

Fatness is very un-Dutch, which may be a tribute to the cycling. They are, however, the tallest nation on earth, very noticeably so. Perhaps only the fittest survive, because there is a strong tradition of tough love: “The baby’s fallen down three flights of our very steep stairs!” one can imagine a Dutch mother wailing, and getting the fatherly response: “Good! He will learn from that.”

The other remarkable manifestation of Dutchness is the open-curtain policy, fading somewhat in the cosmopolitan big cities but very much alive elsewhere. It is the norm to keep the curtains open even after dark, which is the complete reverse of life in secretive Belgium. This is sometimes put down to Calvinism, with its emphasis on godliness in every aspect of life, sometimes to house-proud show-offery.

 After dark: a sex worker waits for business behind a window in Amsterdam’s red light district. Anoek De Groot/AFP/Getty Images

Verheul grew up in a working-class district of Rotterdam. “We didn’t even close the door. The back door was always open and at the front the key was on a rope hanging inside so neighbours could reach in.” “What about burglars?” I asked. “We didn’t have burglars. It was impolite to burgle. The burglars have caught on now but most people’s curtains are still open. It’s a great tradition. We welcome the gaze of our neighbours. Closing your curtains is like turning your back on the world.” This does not necessarily extend to the bedroom, but if any nation is going to practise free-to-view sex it would undoubtedly be the Dutch. And of course window prostitution remains the modus operandi of Amsterdam’s working girls.

A country can only operate like this if there is a strong sense of shared values. And this is certainly true of the Netherlands – even though it is a country that has never gone in for much patriotic ra-ra, unless the football team is winning, which it currently is not (they failed to qualify for the World Cup unlike, to Dutch disgust, the Belgians). And even though Dutch life was segregated into pillars, whereby different affinity groups – Protestants, Catholics, socialists, liberals – not merely voted differently but did practically everything else separately as well. They still do, to an extent.

But the country never had much of a class system. “Dutch industrialisation was nothing like the process in Britain,” explained Michael Wintle, the British-born professor of European history at the University of Amsterdam. “It didn’t happen until the 1890s. You could even argue that it was not until the 1950s. So there was no mass proletariat in old-fashioned factories. The wealth came from trading ever since the 16th to 17th century and it has been one of the four or five richest countries in the world pretty much ever since.”

It is true even now. Fly over the country on a clear day and you can see miles of greenhouses: the tiny Netherlands, quite astonishingly, is the world’s second-largest food exporter behind the US. (A few of their tomatoes now even taste of something other than water.) Drive the motorways between the main cities, and the country seems to be covered in distribution depots. Dutch business remains ruthless in seizing the main chance and protecting its own interests. And there are moments, in this oasis of tolerance and adaptability, that one can glimpse how a mutant strain of Dutchness turned this single-mindedness into the horrors of apartheid.

Most tourists, of course, see little more than central Amsterdam. The hotels there and elsewhere in the Randstad – the metropolitan hub – are ferociously expensive in midsummer. I found one so cheap that there had to be a catch. It was a perfectly decent hotel, notionally in Amsterdam, and only two minutes from a metro station. But it was miles from the centre, in the midst of a charmless post-industrial estate, given over to square blocks occupied by multi-nationals. Plenty of parking; hardly a bicycle in sight. And the vista comprised not charming waterside gabled houses but tower blocks, many of them occupied by the newest pillar of Dutch society: the migrants.

Like its neighbours, the Netherlands became multi-ethnic not through coherent policy-making but due to short-term labour shortages and long-term absent-mindedness. There was also perhaps a Scandinavian quality: a rigorous lack of prejudice and a sense of duty. For a while the economy was propped up by Italian and Spanish workers. But this supply dried up. They were replaced by Turks and Moroccans, who had no plans to go home. They were soon talked about as a quasi-official addition to the pillar system who should, in the Dutch tradition, be left to sort themselves out. But the thing about a pillar is that it does have to be attached to the building.

“There was a question of integrating into what,” said James Kennedy, a Dutch-American historian and dean of the University of Utrecht. “In the US, it’s easy. Love America, work hard, maybe learn baseball. Becoming Dutch meant having a full command of cultural mores that were often not explicated and shared.” Queen Máxima, the Argentine businesswoman who married the then Prince Willem-Alexander in 2002, infamously said in a speech five years later: “The Dutch identity? No, I have not found it.” It sounded much less crass in context, but it touched a nerve. If she couldn’t find it, what hope was there for the average new arrival from a desert village?

In political terms, it was already too late for this line of thought. The pioneering populist Pim Fortuyn gained traction for his anti-Muslim views before being shot dead in 2002 (said to be the country’s first peacetime political murder since 1672). Now Geert Wilders – the founder and leader of the right-wing PVV, currently the main opposition party – has inherited his mantle. And coalition-building, which the Dutch did more easily and naturally than anyone else, has suddenly become tortuous: either the fading mainstream lets the far right in or unites to keep it out. (It took a record seven months after last year’s election for a four-party coalition to emerge, led by Mark Rutte, leader of the liberal VVD party.)

Either way the newcomers lose. “The emphasis now is on assimilation as quickly as possible and that the immigrants bear the costs,” says Kennedy. “It can mean that assimilation is retarded because they don’t have the money. And that their language skills are not at the level they should be.”

The citizenship programme now makes some effort to teach the intricacies of Dutch etiquette, but not necessarily encouragingly. One question is about what to do if a colleague has a birthday party for everyone else except you. The correct answer is: “Say nothing, except Happy Birthday.”

Meanwhile, the country is not exactly fractured. But above the pillars the masonry is full of fissures, in need of urgent repair. Major differences in attitudes are emerging between the cosmopolitan cities and the conservative, rural, whiter, increasingly alienated areas of the hinterland. British readers may find this pattern eerily familiar.

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Buy land, goes the old quote usually attributed to Mark Twain, because they aren’t making it any more. This is not necessarily true in the Netherlands. The nation’s 12th and newest province is Flevoland, and in this case new means new. Until the 1930s Flevoland was under the Zuiderzee – which no longer exists. The sea has been tamed and turned into two brine-free lakes, imprisoned within their bounds on condition of good behaviour. And out of Atlantis… cometh Milton Keynes. Flevoland is a phenomenal engineering achievement, if less impressive aesthetically. The new towns look like, well, new towns. And the flat countryside has that very Dutch look, as planned as a living room that the neighbours can see. All the lines are straight; the very trees seem to have been planted on a grid; weeds are as unwelcome as they would be on an allotment. It is a place of business, where fertility cannot be wasted.

Throughout history, the sea and the land have swapped places with each other. In most of the Netherlands modern Western life is theoretically unthinkable, like Arizona. To survive in such a country means that humans have to impose themselves, which is why its environmental record is far worse than one expects from a nation of cyclists. The North Sea floods of 1953, which killed 1,800 people (and 300 in Britain), the last great manifestation of such tragedies over the centuries, have a place in the national psyche almost as great as the war that preceded them.

“The Dutch feel less existentially threatened by water than at any other time in history,” Kennedy told me. “And I say that with due regard to climate change. But it still plays very much into the mentality. The importance of back-up systems, of good planning, sharing risk and making good arrangements: I’ll take care of this part of the dike, you take care of that. They know they need to rely on each other. And they are never going to say that the government that governs best, governs least.”

Flevoland’s capital, Lelystad (ten feet below sea level), is linked to the peninsula of North Holland by a 20-mile causeway. (Calling the country “Holland” is like calling the UK England.)

I was hoping to catch a bus, but the last one ran years ago. So I reverted to teenage habits and hitchhiked. The very first driver stopped, bless him. The journey was disappointingly dull but I soon found myself in the pretty lakeside (formerly seaside) town of Enkhuizen.

It was a hot afternoon. I bought an ice cream, wandered down to the harbour and got chatting to a man called Alex van den Broeck, who was painting his cabin cruiser in preparation for a weekend outing. “Do you worry about flooding?” I asked him. “I think things are under control, and that we are safe,” he replied. “But it’s good to have a boat. Just in case.”

The Lost Continent series will return after the summer

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce