Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Waar Zijn Jullie?

Westersingel: one direct road to the station and easy to get lost on... apparently.
The wonderful thing about Rotterdam is that so much of the city centre, from the Nieuwe Maas to Centraal station, and beyond, is built on a grid system. This, to most mortals, makes navigating the streets a breeze, but to students? 

It is Saturday 15th April, the sun is shining and feels warm, but we’re all waiting on a street corner. Amazingly, in the half a mile walk from Albert Heijn by the Vaasteland tram stop to Rotterdam Centraal, The Couple have gone missing – building on the curfew-breaking performance of the previous evening.

In my inimitable style, and channelling my inner Julian, I am remaining calm about things. I attempt to call both halves of The Couple, but to no avail. I’ll be honest, although it destroys my idealised version of Rotterdam being permanently covered in snow, I am enjoying the sunshine.

Unfortunately, Pia isn’t quite as polite about the situation. The fuse was lit following the reporting of last night’s curfew breaking at breakfast time. The fuse had half burned as a result of being invited to walk to Centraal station, rather then getting The Twins' favourite #7 tram. This disappearing act by The Couple has tipped her over the edge.

Before her string of [mild] expletives threatens to get the sixteen survivors of the walk arrested for the Dutch equivalent of a Section 5 public order offence, I hand over the train tickets to her and ask the Eritrean and Grenadian to escort her on to the next train to Amsterdam. I ring ahead and let Kevin and Dennis know that Pia is arriving in thirty minutes and to have a fire extinguisher at hand – failing that a coffee will do.

I get a #7 tram back in the general direction of Hostel Room. As I near the Witte de Withstraat stop my phone rings. It’s The Couple. Managing to sustain my sunny disposition I tell them to wait there, using my journey to plot something harsh and evil to say, but I don’t have it in me.

When I find them, their version of events seems to hinge firstly on taking too long in Albert Heijn, not realising that everyone was wandering in the general direction of the main station. They then seem to have gone underground at Eendrachtsplein, realised they don’t know how to buy a ticket, so walked to the Beurs Metro station, and then back to Eendrachstplein once more for good measure, before finally returning to the hostel.

We eventually end up catching a train one hour after the rest of the group and when we arrive in Amsterdam, the rest of the group have gone hunting for lunch and ended up at KFC... as usual. Pia has given them all the slip and headed to ‘t Nieuwe Kafé on Dam Square.

After her second koffie it is clear that Pia’s blood pressure has returned to normal. She disappears off in search of plants of a legal variety, the curfew breakers head off towards the shops, the Twins head off to presumably ride on a few trams, and Kevin, Dennis and I lead a small group for a ‘cultural walking tour.’

We head along Damstraat, crossing one canal, before turning left onto Oudezijds Achterburgwal, passing a number of dens of ill repute – in my students’ eyes at least. As ever, the realities of the sex trade and the cannabis cafés, or ‘coffee shops’, come as a shock when compared with the myths that surround both aspects of Amsterdam life in the eyes of your average British 17-year-old.

Our group of students, consisting of some of the better-behaved students, huddle closely together as we pass women in the windows. As we cross onto Molensteeg and head along Zeedijk towards the Nieuwmarkt, they want to stop and talk. As a group of young females it is hard for them to understand why it is that a sex trade of any sorts can actually be allowed to happen so openly. Kevin and Dennis explain a little about how, with it being regulated the way it is, at least it appears to be superficially safer, however much they may agree with the girls’ sentiments.

Reclining on an afternoon boat ride in Amsterdam.
We continue away from the red light district and towards Waterloopleinmarkt. It is a classified by FourSquare as a flea market and is full of interesting artefacts and trinkets, from swords, to cameras, to clothes. Kevin, Dennis and I can only stand back and watch as the girls look at and scrutinise every stall, engage every stallholder in conversation and start throwing their Euros around.

With stomachs beginning to rumble once more, we stop off for some vlaamse frite on our way back to Dam Square where we meet Pia in possession of some Class A tulip bulbs for her mother.

When the group is together once more, we go on a boat tour of the canals. The students are clearly suffering after last night’s antics and take the opportunity to sleep for the vast majority of the trip – much to the delight of the other customers who seemed unimpressed with our loud arrival on the 5pm sailing.

Dinner is booked for 9pm at the Indian restaurant, Lulu, next door to our hostel, so Pia and I decide we should get going as soon as our tour is over, much to the dismay of The Couple who want to go shopping. We stop, look at each other, shake our heads and turn towards the station.

It transpires that this decision to leave straight away was wise. After realising that our tickets are only valid on the slow train, and after some dancing from platform to platform, we board the double-decker train, only for it to terminate some 25 minutes later in nowheresville. 

With my Dutch being tested to the limit, I just about work out that there are engineering works, but have no idea what to do next. Luckily for all of us, some of our Muslim girls have struck up a conversation with a Dutch hijabi who guides us in the vague direction of a rail replacement bus. At this point I get separated from the rest of the group and onto a different bus.

When we arrive in Gouda, around twenty minutes later, angry Pia is back. Apparently a racist drunkard has been running amok on their bus, talking about Nazis and the like. Fortunately, Pia is a blue belt in karate and so was able to use some of her special moves to repel his racism, but, in doing so, her sense of humour had taken a massive hit. The students seemed to have found the whole episode rather exciting though.

When we roll into Rotterdam Centraal, hideously late for dinner, I grant The Twins their wish and we all take the tram back towards the hostel. After some careful negotiation, the restaurateur lets us in, by this time an hour late for our booking, but has to split us over three tables. 

I look at our remaining money for the trip. Our finances are looking good and so we go all out for dinner, diving into three courses of excellent food at Lulu and the party is only just getting started.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Doctor No by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin.
Once more the summer James Bond novel tradition is resurrected. This year, with the beaches of the Asturias and Cantabria regions of Spain as my backdrop, and the promise of chorizo and sidra in the evenings to come, I set about reading Doctor No (1958) by Ian Fleming – the sixth novel in the Bond series.

At the end of the previous novel, From Russia With Love, we are left with a serious doubt about whether Bond has survived. Having brought about the demise of SMERSH’s latest plot, he is poisoned and the reader is unsure about what will have become of him.

Obviously, he survives thanks to some quick thinking and good luck. As part of his recuperation a slightly grumpy M decides that the warm climes of Jamaica will suit Bond where he is to clear up the small mystery of a couple of Secret Service operatives seemingly eloping and abandoning their station. Added to this is a fire at a bird reserve on Crab Key, an island off the Jamaican mainland, which an American pressure group seems keen to have investigated.

Bond is convinced he’s ready for real action, but goes along with M’s decision sensing there may be more to these stories, even if it does mean having to ditch his beloved Baretta gun in favour of something new.

From the instant that Bond gets close to Jamaica, Fleming’s ability to evoke the region shines through. The references to sea grapes, soursop, bougainvillea, and star-apples help to furnish the scenery in addition to more detailed description:
“Bond watched the big green turtle-backed island grow on the horizon and the water below him turn from the dark blue of the Cuba Deep to the azure if the inshore shoals… The scattered dice of small-holdings showed on the slopes and in the clearings in the jungle, and the setting sun flashed gold on the bright worms of tumbling rivers and streams… Bond’s heart lifted with the beauty of one of the most fertile islands in the world.”
Upon arrival he is met by Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who had first appeared in Live and Let Die and a somewhat suspicious female paparazzo from the local newspaper. The same paparazzo, Annabel Chung, appears later that evening as Bond is picking Quarrel’s brains over the mysterious Crab Key island and its owner Dr No. Taking no chances they choose to interrogate her, but get very little information – something that serves only to heighten their suspicions about Dr No and the disappearance of the Secret Service operatives.

Bond and Quarrel resolve to escape Kingston and head to the more remote Beau Desert plantation in order to train and plan a night time voyage to Crab Key. Initially they plan just to do a brief recon of the island, but find themselves getting drawn into things much quicker than expected following the arrival of one of the most famous Bond girls, Honeychile Rider. Her arrival is one of the more memorable moments of the film adaptation when the beautiful Ursula Andress emerges from the sea with a knife in her bikini - although Honey is naked in the novel.

Needless to say, her arrival, along with Bond and Quarrel's, has been spotted and it's only a matter of time before Dr No’s mixed race Chinese and black henchmen are after them.

Reading Doctor No on the beach in Santander, Spain.
Having visited the Caribbean for the first time last year, to the small island of Saint Lucia in the Windward Islands, reading this book definitely brought back elements of that tropical island landscape, even if culturally the Jamaica of Doctor No and modern day Saint Lucia are culturally and socially rather distinct from one another.

At times I wish that Bond would hang about on the beach a bit more, or take a walk through the dense forest, or even take a boat out to a reef by daylight, just so that Fleming can continue to describe the scenery of his second home with the passion he does.

That aside, the plot pushes the boundaries of what is sensible at times, as all of the Bond Novels do, but perhaps to a greater extent here. The action seems so plausible until we reach Dr No’s lair, deep underground on Crab Key.

Added to this, a modern reader will be troubled by references to ‘chigroes’ (a portmanteau of Chinese and negro) and ‘niggerheads’ (I think a partially submerged dark rock under the surface of the water) whilst reading. Such ignorant language could easily detract from the skills of an author who is clearly much more gifted with language that such expressions would seem to imply.

Simon Winder, author of The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, and who also contributes the introduction to the Penguin edition, says it so well:
Dr No is definitely Fleming at his peak, even when he turns silly, and Dr No is perhaps his most attractively crazy villain. It is probably also the only novel in any language where the hero’s penis is directly threatened not just by a centipede’s jaws, but by a giant squid’s tenticle too. Fifty years after it was written it remains – even with all its racism, snobbery and chaotic plotting – a book that can read over and over again with immense pleasure.”
I’m inclined to agree with Winder. Bond seems at his best towards the end of the novel, even if Fleming’s plot choices aren’t, but overall Doctor No is well up there with action of the preceding novels.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Cover image © Penguin Classics
A few years back, my father went through a phase of reading a newspaper that was giving away free DVDs. For a few weekends the DVDs were all old Alfred Hitchcock films, and included the original 1935 version of ‘The 39 Steps’ starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. I decided to get my hands on a copy of the novel on which the film was based.

Following on from my trend of reading James Bond novels, The 39 Steps by John Buchan is, in many ways, a precursor to those novels. The flipping between fast-paced action and moments of tension, all set against a backdrop of espionage and counter-espionage, is very reminiscent of The Cold War world of Ian Fleming’s character.

The novel follows Richard Hannay, a man living in London, struggling to get into the rhythm of life there after having been based in Rhodesia for a period of time. 

The action starts when Hannay is approached by an American gentleman, later identifying himself as Franklin P. Scudder, who states that there is a conspiracy to assassinate Karolides, the Greek premier, during an upcoming visit to London. He also reveals a plot by a German spy ring called Black Stone who intend to steal military information prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.

Hannay offers to hide Scudder in his flat, but to little avail. Scudder is murdered, and, fearing for his own life, Hannay decides to escape for remotest Scotland. So with “a well-used tweed suit, a pair of strong nailed boots, and a flannel shirt with a collar,” along with “fifty pounds … in sovereigns in a belt which [he] had brought back from Rhodesia” and Scudders pocket-book filled with notes and cipher, he heads to London St Pancras, having consulted his Bradshaw’s Guide.

Needless to say, his attempts to evade the attention of the malevolent German spy ring fail and both the local police and a German plane pursue him – the most familiar features of the story for lovers of the early Hitchcock film adaptation.

This story, in the same manner as Ian Fleming’s bond series around thirty years later, is wildly fantastical at times, but the author describes it in his dedication as a “shocker” – “the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” 

Probabilities aside, the plot is excellently thought-out and the writing so exact and direct that you never get a sense that he is padding out the novel. Furthermore, Hannay is a very old school hero – a gentleman, educated and well travelled – and is actually likeable in a way that sometimes James Bond could only dream of being, despite the occasional similarities between them.

Published during 1915, when the First World War was still young, the novel was said to have been appreciated by soldiers in the trenches with one officer writing to Buchan stating: “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Overall, this novel is worth a read. Those who have watched the films will see some similarities, but may also appreciate the more serious nature of the original Hannay compared to Hitchcock’s more comedic interpretation.
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