Water, water, everywhere

Exploring the landscapes which shaped the Dutch

The lighthouse at Schokland stands on a raised sea wall, next to a small stone cottage with a view of the harbour. In front of it, a wooden pier juts out towards the navigation lights marking the edge of the island. It is a charming nautical scene, with only one thing missing: the sea. Schokland, which lies about an hour’s drive northeast of Amsterdam, used to be an island but is now marooned amid green fields, around fifty miles from the coast. The harbour is dry. Fat Friesian cows graze where fish once swam, and a woman leads a horse across a grassy pasture which once lay underwater.

file-18.jpegAnywhere else in the world, a former island would be considered extraordinary. In the Netherlands, however, such things are relatively common. In the area around Schokland several other former islands are scattered like beached whales, and there are countless towns and villages built on former seabed. About a quarter of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and huge swathes of the country consist of land which has painstakingly been drained to make it habitable. “God created the world,” as one local saying goes, “but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

Read the rest of the article in the Daily Telegraph here


Going Dutch

The stormy marriage between Britain and the Netherlands

When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands arrived in London in May 1940, she was forced to sleep in a basement. The Netherlands had been overrun by the Nazis just a few days previously, and the Dutch monarch had fled on a British destroyer to England, where she would remain for the next five years. However, even London wasn’t entirely safe, and as bombing raids shook the city, the Queen was forced to move every night from her rooms near Grosvenor Square to the cellars under Claridge’s hotel. Dinner guests having coffee in the lobby were (Life magazine reported) astonished to see Her Majesty, “wrapped up in a flannel dressing gown”, descending the staircase to go to bed each evening. Unfortunately, she rarely got much rest: sharing the cellar with her was a man who snored so loudly that the thick curtain between their beds trembled. The Queen protested repeatedly, but hotel staff never seemed to do anything to solve the problem. Eventually, after much Queenly complaining, the truth became clear. The epic snorer was the manager of the hotel, and there was little anyone – even a royal on the run – could do to make him shut up.

Nearly eighty years later, when the Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima visit London this week, their accommodation will be slightly more luxurious. Their schedule also offers plenty of distractions: a welcoming ceremony at Horse Guards Parade, a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, a military exercise on the Thames, and tea with everyone’s favourite republican Brexiteer, Jeremy Corbyn. The whole trip will be – as the Dutch government said – an opportunity to cement “a special relationship”.Ceremonieel tijdens de troonswisseling op de Dam.

The close alliance between Britain and the Netherlands is partly a simple matter of geography. As the crow flies, it’s only about 120 miles from the Suffolk coast to the beaches of South Holland, and London is closer to the Hague than it is to Falmouth or Newcastle. Thousands of years ago, the two nations were even closer; physically connected by a huge land bridge known as ‘Doggerland’. The landscape of the East of England remains strikingly similar to that of the Dutch lowlands: canals and drainage ditches, vast green fields, dikes and windmills. But the relationship goes far beyond mere proximity. Something like 40,000 Brits live in the Netherlands, and perhaps 70,000 Dutch-born people are resident in the UK. Anglo-Dutch companies like Shell and Unilever have been wildly successful, while Britain is the third- biggest destination for Dutch exports, and the fifth-biggest source of Dutch imports. Remarkably, more than 250 flights now cross between Amsterdam and the UK every day – twice as many as between Amsterdam and Germany, and three times as many as there are to France. Centuries after Doggerland collapsed beneath the waves, the Dutch and the Brits remain welded together.

Cliché dictates that there could be few things more different than a Dutch person and a Brit: one formal and class-obsessed and preoccupied with table manners; the other cheerful and freewheeling and smoking pot until sunrise. Yet despite some odd habits which divide them (beans on toast; tea with milk; warm beer) the two peoples share a similar outlook. Britain and the Netherlands are both small countries which became improbably rich and influential, primarily by using their coastlines and navies to build global trading empires. Reliance on trade in turn fostered a certain pragmatism and sensibleness; a belief that few things matter more than being a reliable ally and a good business partner. Above all, both countries have retained an openness to the wider world, and an exposure to global influences which is lacking in some other countries their size. As a French foreign minister said in the 1960s: “the Netherlands was an island in the same sense that the United Kingdom was an island… They had always been looking out over the waters at other areas of the world”. Today it’s easy to find flaws with the Anglo-Dutch model, but it’s a recipe which has helped both the Brits and the Dutch punch well above their weight on the world stage. Together, the two countries account for about a fifth of Europe’s GDP – more than most of eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Belgium and Ireland combined.

Despite these shared values, however, the Anglo-Dutch relationship has had more rivalries and betrayals than a Mexican soap opera. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was usually the Dutch who had the upper hand. From the 1590s onwards, the famous ‘Golden Age’ saw an astonishing explosion of trade, prosperity and cultural advance in the Netherlands. It was at the time easier for a Londoner to reach Amsterdam than Exeter, and Brits who visited were astonished by what they saw. Cultural influences flowed east across the North Sea. English country houses proudly displayed works by Dutch Masters, and when Marlborough House was being built, decorators put in an order for 14,000 Dutch tiles. English architecture, too, was heavily influenced by the grand churches and city halls of the nascent Dutch Republic. Christopher Wren, architect of masterpieces including St Paul’s Cathedral, was helped by two Dutch assistants. Dutch engineers reclaimed Canvey Island from the Thames, uk4drained the Great Park at Windsor and built the first pumping engine to supply London with fresh drinking water, “greatly to the astonishment of the Mayor and Aldermen”. In the economic sphere, the Bank of England was created with capital assistance from Amsterdam, and the first chairman of Lloyds was a Dutchman. Dutch immigrants funded scholarships for Dutchmen to attend Oxford and Cambridge, and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ included a lengthy digression on the wonders of Dutch banking. Dutch nautical words like “yacht”, “sloop”, and “boom” entered the English language, while John Milton took Dutch language lessons and based large parts of ‘Paradise Lost’ on the poetry of Joost van der Vondel. In an era where swathes of Europe were still mired in poverty, the rise of the Dutch was, for the Brits, a thing of wonder. As Sir Josiah Child wrote in 1665: “the prodigious increase of the Netherlands in their domestic and foreign trade, riches and multitude of shipping is the envy of the present, and may be the wonder of all future generations”.

At other times, though, the Brits and the Dutch were like tigers in a cage, constantly circling one another and frequently drawing blood. Early Dutch immigrants to Britain were a common target – in the sixteenth century, one mayor of Norwich complained that the arrival of immigrants from the Low Countries had “sucked the living away from the English”. Dutch traders were admired for their business skills but despised for the way they undersold their British rivals. Later, as the British began building their sea power and projecting it outwards, they bumped up hard against the Dutch, who had already established trading posts from Brazil to Cape Town and Jakarta. As both country’s commercial ambitions grew, the rivalry intensified, and English ships began regularly hassling Dutch fleets in the North Sea. In 1651, Oliver Cromwell even attempted a barely-disguised takeover of the Netherlands, sending a delegation to the Hague which offered the Dutch the chance to join the English Commonwealth. When this kind offer was declined, the English attitude hardened, and a series of conflicts – the Anglo-Dutch wars – ensued; characterised by fierce sea battles with fairytale names: the Battle of the Kentish Knock, the Battle of Leghorn, the Battle of the Gabbard. Perhaps the most famous scuffle came in 1667, when a flotilla of Dutch ships sailed up the Thames, smashed through the chains which were meant to blockade the river, and burned much of the English fleet moored at Chatham. Coming within a few years of the Great Fire of London (which many English suspected the Dutch of igniting), the Medway raid was traumatic for Londoners. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: “All our hearts do now ache; for the news is true, that the Dutch have broken the chain and burned our ships… and, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone.” “In all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us,” he said.

The rollercoaster continued through the following centuries, including the small matter of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in which Prince William III of Orange launched a semi-hostile takeover of the British throne in order to prevent a Catholic assuming power. The Dutch King of England ended up ruling for fifteen years; sparking another wave of acquisitions. British artists and architects eagerly copied the latest Dutch styles, while the Dutch admired English literature and coffee shop culture, launching Dutch versions of the Spectator and creating ‘Sterne Clubs’ to read the work of Laurence Sterne. The English also discovered a deep love of Dutch jenever, or gin. Dozens of small distilleries opened throughout London, hiring distillers who had previously worked in Schiedam, and producing English gins based on slight variations of traditional Dutch recipes. For King William, the rapid expansion of the gin business was an important way of keeping wealthy English supporters onside – as English gin production soared, landowners could sell excess grain which might otherwise be worthless to distillers for a healthy profit. Yet the social costs were considerable. London newspapers were filled with gin horror stories, such as the alcoholics who killed their children so they could sell their clothes and buy gin with the proceeds. In 1751, a survey counted a total of 17,000 “private gin shops” in London alone; many of which provided straw on the floor so gin-lovers could sleep where they fell. In Holborn, one in every five houses was a gin shop.

One might think the Brits would be eternally grateful, but as empires rose and fell, the balance of power kept shifting. As the age of wind and sail gave way to that of coal and steam and steel, and the industrial revolution transformed Britain, Dutch power faded. The British, who’d once looked enviously at Amsterdam’s riches, began to look at their neighbours a little piteously. When Scrooge, in Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, sat shivering over a bowl of gruel, he did so next to a crumbling fireplace “build by some Dutch merchant, long ago”. One London newspaper mocked Hollanders as “Hogg-landers”; describing them as “Lusty, Fat, Two-Legged Cheese Worms” and claiming they’d only got rich by cheating others. Easier travel helped strengthen some ties between the countries, and in the nineteenth century, thousands of Brits crossed the North Sea and travelled up the Rhine by boat. However, many were scathing of local habits, mocking the Europeans for their ‘Popery and wooden shoes’. ‘Good Rhinish wine and salmon, and bad cooks’ was Joseph Shaw’s review. Some Brits claimed that the superiority of their nation’s food reflected the superiority of its people. ‘A true Englishman who loves roast beef and pudding cannot breathe freely out of his own island,’ Lord Boyle wrote. Even during friendly times, the rivalry remained intense. One British poet wrote: “To the new world in the moon away let us go / For if the Dutch Colony get thither first / ‘Tis a thousand to one but they’ll drain that too”.

The details of the Anglo-Dutch relationship are enough to fill several books, but it’s fair to say that any account of it is complicated by the fact that it’s somewhat unequal. For the Dutch, the relationship with Britain is perhaps the most complex and consequential bilateral relationship after the one with Germany. For the Brits, though, the Netherlands is important, but also just one of many countries which lie “over there” across the water. Post-war British statesmen have often worried more about how Dutch fortunes influence those of France or Germany than they have about the Netherlands as a power in its own right. Today, many Brits seem affectionate but somewhat incurious about the Dutch; tending to view them as cute and liberal and vaguely Scandinavian, but not worth monitoring in much detail. A Dutch local election or by-election would rarely be covered in the British press the way that one in Germany, the US or even Canada or Australia uk3would. Yet it’s also clear that the Netherlands and Britain still have an enormous amount in common. They’re both constitutional monarchies, with a benevolent king or queen leaving the day-to-day running to a prime minister and a bicameral parliament. As former colonial powers – they’re also both entrepreneurial, Atlanticist and somewhat hawkish; confident on the world stage and unafraid to project their power overseas.

But then of course comes the B- word. The Dutch have, understandably, long been keen to see the Brits playing an active role in Europe. When Harold Macmillan announced that Britain planned to join the European Community, the Dutch foreign ministry responded that it had “always favoured” strengthening the community and “thus applauds the British step”. Fifty years later, when David Cameron aimed to reform the EU ahead of the Brexit referendum, he originally wanted to announce his plans in Amsterdam, but had to find another venue when the Dutch government could barely hide their discomfort. When the referendum was held, the result was, for the Dutch, baffling. They’d thought they were in an imperfect but happy marriage, but suddenly found their spouse declaring they wanted an immediate divorce. The sense of confusion and dismay has been heightened by the way things have played out since then – for a country which prides itself on running things consensually and undramatically, the current state of British politics is difficult to fathom. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, spoke for many when he despaired, shortly after the referendum result, that the UK seemed to have “collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally, and economically”. Others have been forced to bite their tongues. “I’m trying to be as polite, as my British friends have taught me to be”, finance minister Wopke Hoekstra said recently.

Both inside and outside the Netherlands, media coverage of Brexit has inevitably focused on the threat to the Dutch economy. Dutch ports at the mouth of the Rhine act as a major gateway between Britain and the rest of Europe, meaning Brexit will leave the Dutch economy horribly exposed. According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, even the “best-case” soft Brexit would see Dutch economic output cut by 0.9% a year. Hundreds of extra customs inspectors have been recruited in Rotterdam, but most experts say that (with the possible exception of Ireland) no European country stands to lose more from a clumsy or hard Brexit.  For the Portuguese or Romanians, Brexit might be an annoyance, but for the Dutch it’s a logistical nightmare. However, it’s also important to note that the effects of Brexit are not uniformly spread. While Rotterdam could be hit hard, in places like Amsterdam, the outlook is more mixed, thanks to the prospect of luring well-paid bankers and bureaucrats away from London. Unilever shareholders recently voted against relocating permanently to Rotterdam, but the European Medicines Agency will move from London to Amsterdam, after the Dutch government pledged to spend tens of millions on new headquarters.

When the history books are written, though, the biggest impact on Anglo-Dutch relations might be played out on a bigger stage; as Brexit forces a redrawing of a complex tangle of alliances at the European level. Within the EU, the Dutch and Brits have long been close allies; leaders of a finger-wagging Calvinist faction which thinks frivolous Greeks and Italians are to blame for their own misfortunes. For the Dutch, the worry is that the post-Brexit EU will become a southern-focused, protectionist bloc; more interested in handing subsidies to French farmers than in promoting free trade. At the same time, if post-Brexit Britain seeks to cut regulation and taxes, the business hubs of Netherlands might be the first to lose out. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, the Dutch would rather have the Brits inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.uk2

For a while after the referendum, it looked plausible that Britain might be the first domino to fall, and the Netherlands might also move to leave the EU. In fact, the opposite has happened. Polling shows about four-fifths of Dutch people back EU membership, and populist parties talk about leaving less than they used to. Now, the smart money is not on ‘Nexit’ but on new alliances. Fearful of being steamrollered by their powerful neighbours, the Dutch are stepping up to take the Brits’ seat at the table, and looking for new friends. “If people talk about ‘the French-German axis’, then I think: ‘what about the French-Dutch axis?’” Mark Rutte said recently. “I want to help shape Europe and you need alliances for that.” In the Hague, people talk of building “a new Hanseatic League”; an alliance of northern countries which can promote free trade in the age of America First. In the past, Britain often liked to think of itself as a bridge between Europe and America. Might the Netherlands now play a similar role, as a bridge between Britain and Europe? No-one really knows. But whatever happens, the two countries are (as the Anglo-Dutch politician Nick Clegg once said) “condemned to work together”.

In 1945, Queen Wilhelmina left her basement in London and returned to her beloved Netherlands; a country wrecked but free. Not long afterwards, she invited Winston Churchill to visit. He was by then, a former Prime Minister with time on his hands, but the visit had many of the trappings of an official Royal Visit – high tea with Queen Wilhelmina, a series of grand banquets and speeches, and cheering crowds on Dam Square, as well as an impromptu stop when the ageing statesman escaped his police escort to enjoy a beer at a terrace bar. At the visit’s climax, Churchill addressed the States-General in the Hague, giving a lecture which was typically sweeping and grandiose. “The tornado has passed away”, he said. “The thunder of the cannons has ceased, the terror from the skies is over, the oppressors are cast out and broken. We may be wounded and impoverished. But we are still alive and free”. There were, Churchill said, “two supreme tasks” facing the Dutch and the British alike: “to revive the prosperity of Europe; and … to devise those measures of world security which will prevent disaster descending upon us again.” “Holland and England were united”, he said, “as the foremost champions of Freedom”; and should now integrate further by forming “the United States of Europe”. After the speech, writing to the British ambassador, Neville Bland, Churchill was a little blunter. The difference between Dutch and British was, he said, that “the Dutch were compressed by the war and are now erect and expanding, whereas we, who were blood donors throughout, are now exhausted physically, economy and above all financially, and find victory bleak and disappointing”. It was time, the great statesman said, for a new relationship.


Homes for hipsters

Why are Dutch houses are becoming unaffordable

A few months ago, my wife and I sold our apartment in Rotterdam. It was a nice place and we’d loved living there, but in truth there was nothing remarkable about it: four rooms plus a balcony the size of a bathtub, all squeezed onto the upper floors of a building which listed like a sinking ship. Given that, we were thrilled to sell it within a couple of weeks for much more than we’d expected. The champagne had barely been poured, however, when we received a sheepish phone call from our estate agent, explaining that the buyer had been unable to secure a mortgage, and had withdrawn his offer. The apartment wasn’t sold after all. We were despondent, but it didn’t matter too much: three days later we managed to sell it again; to a buyer who didn’t just match the previous bid but exceeded it by a significant amount. The price, it seemed, had risen by about 25,000 euros in a week. The apartment – small and wonky and in a slightly tough neighbourhood – was apparently worth roughly double what it had been eight years ago.

In the past, such stories were rare in the Netherlands. Despite their anarchic, fun-loving reputation, the Dutch generally are quite conservative when it comes to financial matters. file-10Debt is often frowned on, executive salaries are unspectacular, and houses are usually small. Even the wealthy often live surprisingly humble lives; dressing casually, cycling to work and eating homemade sandwiches for lunch. For years, these attitudes seemed to be reflected in property prices. In the Randstad (the urban heart of the Netherlands, where most of the population lives) it was until recently still possible to buy a fairly nice apartment for perhaps 100,000 euros, and a habitable one for perhaps half that; a fraction of what it would cost in some other countries. As a result, even in big cities like Rotterdam and the Hague, it wasn’t unusual to meet single people in their twenties, living on fairly low incomes, who owned their own homes – something which was almost unthinkable in London or New York.

Now, though, that’s all in the past. After dipping after the financial crisis, Dutch property prices are rebounding spectacularly. According to the national statistics agency, housing prices in the Netherlands rose by 9.3% in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Around a third of houses are selling for more than their asking price, and it’s increasingly common to hear of buyers paying tens of thousands above the asking price. According to estate agents, the average sale price reached a record high of €288,000 in early 2018, and is forecast to hit €300,000 soon. The Netherlands isn’t the only place where prices are rising, but the rate of increase here is roughly double that of the UK, Germany, or France; and one study found that houses on the Dutch side of the Dutch-German border were about €23,000 pricier those a few miles away in Germany, despite being smaller. In the more rural east and north of the Netherlands prices are still relatively low but in Amsterdam, growth has been dazzling: the price of the average home rose by nineteen percent in the last year alone, to €462,000. Some buyers inevitably pay even more: Justin Bieber reportedly bought an apartment in Amsterdam’s city centre for a cool $27 million. “I’ve been in the business for twenty-five years, but I’ve never seen it like this”, one estate agent in Gouda told me. “People are buying apartments faster than I can sell them”.


The reasons for the Dutch property boom are complex, but it’s essentially down to a familiar cocktail of factors: an expanding economy, low interest rates and a shortage of new homes. Like many countries, the Netherlands suffered an economic downturn after 2008, but has since recovered strongly. As consumer confidence improves, people are keen to get moving again. On the other side of the equation, there are also problems with the housing supply. The Netherlands’ population is growing slightly, and Brexit has pushed some big organisations to relocate from London to Amsterdam. Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren has said 700,000 new homes will be needed by 2025; but in the most crowded country in Europe, there aren’t that many places to put them. “A lot of the houses in Rotterdam were built in a hurry after the war, and so aren’t very good quality”, another estate agent told me. “But that doesn’t seem to matter – there aren’t many new homes, so people are desperate to buy whatever’s available”.

Politically, it all represents a headache for the government. Plans to build more affordable housing have stalled, and there are long waiting lists for social housing. At one local election debate which I attended a few months ago, candidates from across the political spectrum tied themselves in knots arguing for rapid housebuilding while also pledging to keep the local area unchanged . “We need to build hundreds more homes which young people can afford”, one right-wing candidate said, moments before complaining about the loss of local green spaces, the overcrowding of the nearby town centre and the number of east Europeans working for low wages in the building trade.file-7

Economically, meanwhile, the big concern is that the whole economy could take a nosedive if the house price bubble bursts. “Extreme house price growth is unsustainable”, Rabobank has warned, and is leading to “an increased risk of stronger market downturns once a turning point occurs”. Socially, too, the explosion of property values has caused strains. The Netherlands is known as an egalitarian place, where the proletariat and the elite live happily together in a beehive of tiny apartments and offices. However, as property prices soar, people on lower incomes risk being displaced; forced to the periphery of urban centres, or out of town altogether. This isn’t always a problem – most places in the Netherlands are within an hour or so of each other by train, and many Dutch employers are happy to pay employees’ commuting costs. Some cities have also made efforts to make commuting easier. There are more trains between Amsterdam and Utrecht, for example, and a new north-south metro line is helping open the north side of Amsterdam to development. However, preposterous prices are no longer confined to the capital, and prices in cities like the Hague are now rising even faster than they are in Amsterdam. “My job’s in Amsterdam but I have to move to Westzaan!” one acquaintance told me in despair, referring to an unexciting town north of the capital. “Imagine that! Westzaan! It’s like living in another country!” To Brits or Americans who suffer through long commutes, living twenty miles from work might sound like a good deal. But for some people in the Randstad, the ‘Dutch dream’ – a nice neat apartment a short bike ride from work, in a neighbourhood with bars and shops – looks increasingly hard to attain.

A final challenge is gentrification, as relatively deprived urban neighborhoods are abruptly reshaped by affluent arrivals. Walking around my old neighbourhood in Rotterdam this week, I was shocked by how quickly it was changing. When I first moved there, years ago, North Rotterdam still felt fairly gritty. It was relatively rare to hear people speak English, and tourists were in short supply. If I wanted finer foods – Italian ham, say, or nice Belgian beer – I’d buy them in other cities. Now, though, things are rather different. Rotterdam’s gleaming new train station offers a warm welcome for foreign visitors, who flock to the fancy food stalls in the new market hall. ‘Brown bars’ (bruine kroegen) where sozzled locals once grumbled and gambled over little glasses of Heineken are now fashionable bistros, serving expensive brunches of salmon and sourdough. After years when Rotterdam felt like a poorer, scruffier sister to Amsterdam and the Hague, it’s suddenly hip: a Berlin or Brooklyn on the Maas. From the perspective of people like me, it’s all rather wonderful. But it’s also not hard to see how people like my old next-door neighbour could be disgruntled: the nice Dutch family over the road has been replaced by a group of American students, the local bar has been converted to a fancy coffee shop, and the local grocers’ is now a vintage record store. Between the 1960s and 2000s, the arrival of thousands of (largely Moroccan) immigrants  transformed many Dutch neighourhoods, and made some older residents feel that the Netherlands was becoming a foreign land. Now, rapid gentrification may be having a similar effect.

Before leaving Rotterdam, I went for a pastel de nata and cold-press coffee, and then stopped briefly to look in the windows of a local estate agent. file-9Browsing the properties, I was mildly disappointed to realise that prices had risen sharply yet again, and my wife and I probably could’ve made even more profit if we’d waited a few months. The couple standing next to me at the window didn’t seem to mind, though. A  young woman with flowers tattooed on her arms pointed to a photo of an ugly modern apartment which was on sale for well over a quarter of a million euros. “We should buy something soon”, she told her boyfriend, “before it gets expensive”.

The Last Resort

A medical mistake and the limits of forgiveness

Adrienne Cullen was at work in Amsterdam when the phone call came. It was her doctor, calling from his hospital in Utrecht. An Irishwoman in her 50s, she had been living in the Netherlands for several years.

She had been treated at the hospital – the University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMCU) – in 2011, but had been assured by her doctor that she seemed healthy. Now, two years later, he wanted to see her urgently.

Early in the summer of 2013, she visited the hospital, where the doctor gave her shocking, terrible news. A review of old pathology test results had found that a test for cancerous tissue which he had conducted two years previously had, in fact, been positive. The cancer which Adrienne did not know she had was going to kill her.

Read the rest of the story in the Irish Times here

Exploring the Rhine

I usually aim to post articles or blogs posts on this website quite regularly, but recently I’ve been shamefully lax in doing so. There, is however, a fairly decent excuse: I’ve been busy writing a new book. It’s called ‘The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps’, and will be released later this summer (and, since you asked, is available to pre-order here).cover the Rhine

Writing a book is a long and strange process. I’ve often thought of it as a little like building a house: you spend ages planning what you hope the end result will look like, painstakingly laying the foundations and drawing up plans. Then comes the construction: first building a solid framework, and then adding more and more detail until the whole thing finally looks beautiful enough to invite guests around. After nearly two years of work, I’m now at the final stage: touching up a few last bits of paintwork before the public arrives.

As I write in the book, the river Rhine often seems to get overlooked these days. The problem is partly that a lot of travel writing is essentially based on hyperbole: everyone wants to be the first person to ride a donkey across Tuvalu, or drag a fridge around Honduras. In that context, the Rhine can seem rather familiar or un-exotic. It’s also fair to say that rivers don’t permeate our consciousness in quite the way they used to. In times gone by, a major river like the Rhine would have been a maker and breaker of nations; a combination of moat, motorway, power station and water supply which people would gladly die to defend. In the 21st century, though, rivers aren’t seen in quite such dramatic terms. The world is flat, we’re told, and it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as there’s fast Wi-Fi and somewhere to charge your phone. Against that backdrop, the idea that a river might be worth fighting for has (in Europe at least) come to seem rather old-fashioned. Even the mightiest waterways are seen as nice places to walk a dog or have a picnic, rather than exciting, important things. In the case of the Rhine, there are also some odd cultural biases at play. Younger Dutch people, in particular, often seem prejudiced against the Rhine region, dismissing it as boring even as they fly over its waterfalls and mountains on their way to visit waterfalls and mountains in Asia. Many other Europeans automatically think of the Rhine as a German river, even though it flows through six different countries, and has its source in Switzerland and its mouth in Holland. In the UK, meanwhile, it’s still common to assume not only that the Rhine is German, but that German history began in 1914 and ended in 1945, and that anything German must be a bit joyless and industrial. Like the drummer in a rock band, the Rhine never quite gets the attention it deserves.

This is a shame, because by any measure, the Rhine is still utterly extraordinary. Winding its way some eight hundred miles from the Dutch coast to the Alps, it’s the second-longest river in central and western Europe. 2It charges through not only Germany but also the Netherlands, France, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein; going from an icy pool through rocky gullies, a country-sized lake, majestic cathedral cities, grassy polder meadows, hipster harbours and then finally a dazzling sandy beach. The river has also played a crucial role in the history of Europe, and is continuing to shape its future. Under the Romans, the Rhine served as the edge of the empire; the boundary at which the Romans effectively gave up trying to claim new territory and decided to build a beautiful big wall. (Caesar wrote that the tribes living north of the river “showed such determination in their bravery that when those in the front rank had fallen, the men behind them stood upon the slain and continued the fight from on top of the corpses”.) Later, the river was fought over countless times, by everyone from Napoleon to Bismarck and the Nazis. During the Cold War, NATO said it would fight “to hold the Rhine River bridges…at all cost”, and stockpiled hundreds of nuclear weapons along its banks. France and Germany have battled over its banks as regularly as teenaged siblings forced to share a bedroom.

More happily, the river has also brought huge wealth to almost everywhere it passes through. It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that several of the countries of the Rhine (Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands) are among the very richest in the world. Culturally, the river has also inspired countless statesmen, warriors, artists and writers, from John Le Carré to Wagner, Byron and Beethoven. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ after a visit to a Rhine castle where a local man was rumoured to be experimenting on dead bodies, and Karl Drais invented the bicycle on its banks. Bertha Benz took the world’s first car for a joyride along the river, and it was in a riverside laboratory that a young Swiss scientist accidentally discovered LSD. As I write in the book, without the Rhine, there might have been no world wars and no European Union, no Golden Age and no Reformation, no Dutch paintings and no German car industry. “The Rhine”, wrote Victor Hugo, “is historical, …mysterious, …spangled with gold, …abounding with phantoms and fables”.

Today, the river still forms, in various places, the border between France and Germany, Germany and Switzerland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and Austria and Switzerland.4.jpg It has Europe’s biggest port at its mouth, and some of Europe’s most dynamic cities – Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, Strasbourg, Basel, Cologne – on its banks. As I cycled, swam, walked and boated my way up the river, I found it littered with odd and interesting sights: nuclear power stations converted into theme parks, thunderous waterfalls flinging spray into the air, rowdy nightclubs in converted warehouses, glittering modern skyscrapers and Gladiator-style coliseums. I also found it extraordinarily beautiful. In my twenties, I spent years travelling the world in search of perfect tropical sunsets and jungle ruins, but rarely saw anywhere as jaw-dropping as the source of the Rhine at Lake Toma; a shiny blue pearl dropped high in the snowy Swiss mountains.

Setting out upstream from Amsterdam, I was looking forward to re-visiting some places I knew well, but also had a few big questions which I wanted to answer. I won’t give too much away here, but suffice to say I was pleased to find the river thriving. In the 1980s the Rhine was so polluted that people called it “the biggest sewer in Europe”, but after a decades-long cleanup operation it’s now overflowing with fish, beavers and storks. Cities like Dusseldorf are booming, and the port at the river’s mouth in Holland is still by far the biggest in Europe, handling more shipping containers each year than Zeebrugge, Barcelona, Southampton, Felixstowe, Genoa and Le Havre combined. From source to mouth, the river fizzes with energy.

Like everywhere else in the world these days, the Rhine isn’t without its challenges. During the months I spent travelling upstream, Germany was grappling to absorb more than a million refugees, and France had been hit by brutal terrorist attacks. 3Austria had nearly elected a fascist as President, Angela Merkel had been battered in the polls, Donald Trump was gleefully igniting trade wars, and the British were doing their bit to promote free trade by leaving the world’s biggest free trade area. In the Netherlands, there are still serious problems with flooding and climate change, and some of the riverside towns which have grown rich from international trade are (ironically enough) hotbeds of isolationist politics. The French economy continues to stumble, and German manufacturing giants like Volkswagen have had their reputations tarnished. Many places along the river are extraordinarily beautiful and successful but others, like the former industrial town of Duisburg, are not. For a region which has long thrived thanks to its openness to the outside world, the rise of alt-right politics can seem like an existential threat.

In most ways, though, the people who live along the river still seem to represent the very best of European values: open to the world, mercantile and hospitable. Even small towns on the Rhine are surprisingly cosmopolitan: places where Polish boatmen and American businesspeople rub shoulders with Australian tourists, Norwegian chemical engineers and Dutch designers; all busy making money and then going for a drink and a laugh in a kroeg or a brauhaus. Events like Gay Pride parade in Cologne, where there are more leather harnesses on display than at a horse-racing convention, could have been designed to disprove foreign stereotypes about Germany as a boring, sensible place.

In an age when our culture seems increasingly globalized and homogenized, this small patch of Europe is also still amazingly diverse, and it’s easy to walk over a few bridges and visit three different countries within ten minutes on foot. In places like northern Switzerland, the river fronts a bewildering patchwork of dialects, nationalities and opinions. Inevitably, many people along the river proud of their local traditions. The Dutch like to make jokes about Germans, and the Germans quick to look down on French. The Swiss moan about lazy Austrians, and the Austrians grumble about German drivers. The Alsatians gossip about the Parisians, and the Liechtensteiners complain that no-one knows their country exists. But as an outsider, it’s also interesting to notice that the people of the Rhine often have more in common than they’d like to admit. From Utrecht to Basel, people are open and laid-back but also oddly conservative; with a love of hard work and a reflexive aversion to risk, and a fondness for keeping everything in its place and on schedule. The Swiss are the Dutch of the mountains.

Writing a book is a strange process, often daunting and often stressful; like endlessly studying for an exam which never seems to arrive. (“I love deadlines”, Douglas Adams once said. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”) Most of the time, though, writing – particularly travel writing – feels like the best job in the world: effectively making a career out of travelling to beautiful places, meeting unusual people and learning about interesting things. For me, writing this latest book was a great opportunity to explore more of the Netherlands and beyond, and also a lot of fun. Strictly in the name of research, I managed (among many other things) to go rowing through the centre of Amsterdam, explore underground nuclear bunkers, climb through forests to ruined castles, ride on a cow through the mountains, dance at a carnival, discuss politics naked with a group of elderly Germans, take my African dog to a ski resort, go wine-tasting in three different countries and eat fondue on a snow-capped Liechtenstein mountain. 1I learned about all sorts of things, from how the Romans brewed beer with ox-guts to what the French really think of the Germans, why the Swiss like shopping, why the Dutch eat so much cheese, and why gambling a book advance in a casino isn’t a good idea. Above all, writing about the Rhine helped me fall further in love with a region which I already knew well, but (like many people) had too often ignored in favour of more exotic things. I hope that (in due course) many of you will enjoy reading all about it, and fall in love with the Rhine too.

Splitting the Difference

Why the new Dutch Government isn’t as boring as it seems

Like a man in a diving suit trying to complete a marathon, Mark Rutte has finally staggered over the finish line. Nearly seven months after Dutch voters went to the polls, the incumbent Prime Minister has finally managed to negotiate a new coalition agreement with the progressive D66 and the conservative Christian Democrats and Christian Union; an odd collection of allies which the NRC newspaper memorably described as representing both “the cargo bike and the church pew”.

Dutch politics is often pretty boring, but when the elections took place this spring they generated a terrific fuss in the international media, focused largely on the possibility that the populist Geert Wilders might end up running one of the world’s most liberal countries. Many months later, the media’s reaction to the coalition agreement has been much more muted. This is perhaps because – like most people with any sense – journalists simply got bored of watching the marathon talks drag on and on. However, the low level of interest also reflects the fact that the result is completely unsurprising. It wasn’t impossible that Wilders would make a breakthrough, but if you’d asked an expert a year ago to predict the eventual outcome of the elections, they’d probably have said: Mark Rutte will win the most votes, Geert Wilders will do well but not well enough, and Rutte will eventually return to power with an unwieldy coalition of smaller parties, pledging to deliver a moderately right-wing agenda.170316090557-01-mark-rutte-dutch-election-results-0315-super-tease

In many ways, that’s exactly what’s happened. The agenda announced by Rutte and his partners this week contains little that would disappoint centre-right leaders in Britain, Germany or Scandinavia: lower taxes for individuals and businesses; more funding for the police, military and counterterrorism; tougher steps to fight climate change; and stricter rules on immigration. Coalition negotiations inevitably have rounded the sharper edges off the pre-election pledges, and grand promises about transforming the economy have been replaced by sensible but technocratic changes to the tax code. Controversial issues like euthanasia have been kicked into the long grass.

All coalitions are compromises, and Rutte’s latest is no exception. A blockbuster budget for the military is counterbalanced by a pledge to close coal power stations and build more windfarms. Tax cuts for corporations are offset by more paternity leave and more money for development aid. Stricter rules on refugee residency are balanced by lower tuition fees, and cuts to sick pay bills for small firms are offset by more money for teachers and nursing homes. Rutte himself described the new government’s programme as “ambitious and balanced”, but in practice it’s far more balanced than it is ambitious – a set of compromises which will (in the grand tradition of Dutch coalitions) make no-one entirely happy, but not really offend anyone either.

Looking a little deeper, though, there are a few things which are more unexpected. Along with the fairly mainstream stuff about taxes and education, there are also a few dog-whistles: odd little policies which most voters will hardly notice, but which will delight the bases of the smaller parties in the coalition. The idea of giving all 18-year-olds a book about Dutch history, for example, is unlikely to tilt the earth on its axis, but will delight conservative voters who are horrified about the fecklessness of young people today. The lefties get more houses being built without natural gas connections in the kitchen, and there’s a proposal to establish government-run cannabis farms to supply the country’s coffee shops. The real-world impact of these policies may be limited, but if you’re the kind of traditional-values voter who loses sleep over the fact that not enough Dutch schoolchildren know the words to the national anthem, you’ll be thrilled.

It’s also interesting to see the coalition agreement in the context of the broader currents reshaping Europe. Rutte has long been a reliable ally of Angela Merkel in her efforts to make Europe less free-spending and more competitive; a member of the am‘Northern Alliance’ of conservatives standing up to the spendthrift ways of hapless Greeks and Italians. Under the new coalition government, with the leftish Labour Party (PvdA) now out of power, that dynamic looks set to continue. The new government has firmly ruled out Eurozone governments forming a joint budget, and said the creation of new Eurozone debt mechanisms would be “undesirable”. They’ve also made it clear that future bailouts will require investors to take involuntary “haircuts” on their debts; and said they’ll expect all EU member states to “fulfil their responsibilities”. This kind of stuff doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, but is likely to please Merkel and disappoint people like Emmanuel Macron, who has his own grand plans to reform Europe. Post-Brexit, the EU may end up looking more Dutch than before.

Within the Netherlands, the reaction to the new government has been largely positive. The parties which aren’t in the coalition are naturally opposed to it, but most people seem relieved that the circus over, and the government can get back to doing what Dutch governments do best: running the country quite competently without making any radical changes. However, it’s also worth noting that the story may not be completely over yet, for two reasons. Firstly, despite all the talk of how the Dutch “defeated the virus of populism” this year, the new government’s grip on power is strikingly fragile. Together, the four parties which make up the new coalition hold only 76 seats in the 150-seat parliament. Slender majorities aren’t unusual in the Netherlands, but the new administration will be the first four-party coalition for forty years, making it harder than usual for the Prime Minister to hold all the pieces together. The Christian Union and D66 remain bitterly opposed on issues like euthanasia and abortion, and it’s not unthinkable that one big bust-up over immigration or climate change could collapse the whole administration, forcing new elections. Mark Rutte is now on his third coalition in six years and has acquired a reputation as a canny negotiator, but – like a circus ringmaster trying to keep the peace between tigers and lions and bears – his future isn’t completely secure.

Secondly, it’s also worth noting that the new government’s whole agenda rests on a single basic assumption: that the Dutch economy will keep growing strongly. After a shaky few years, the Dutch economy is firmly on the upswing again, with GDP growing at its fastest rate for nearly two decades. During the coalition negotiations, this gave Rutte and his partners a lot of flexibility: they could afford to reverse some of Rutte’s own previous spending cuts, and increase funding for popular things like the police and schools, without having to make unpopular cuts elsewhere. However, this dynamic also means that the new government’s position is again rather fragile – even a slight dip in growth rates could play havoc with their plans, and potentially force the coalition to make some very difficult decisions. Like a man running up credit card debts ahead of payday, Rutte is assuming that he’ll be able to cover the bills, but it wouldn’t take much for things to go wrong. For now, the outlook is good, but it might not be too long before Dutch politics gets interesting again.

Pride and Prejudice

Germany’s mixed record on equal rights – and how Merkel gets away with it

For anyone who believes the clichés about Germany being a sober, sensible, slightly humourless country, the Gay Pride parade in Cologne might come as a big surprise. Travelling down the Rhine yesterday as part of a book project I’m working on, I found no shortage of eye-catching attractions on the big river bridge in Cologne; from bearded men in ball-gowns to topless women spraying champagne, and a man dressed as a dog on a leather leash, barking at the city’s twin-towered cathedral.


Cologne’s Pride parade – better known as ‘Christopher Street Day’, in honour of the place where the Stonewall riots began in 1969 – has long been a major fixture of the Rhineland summer, attracting hundreds of thousands people to drink and dance, protest and celebrate. This year, the mood was perhaps even livelier than usual. Just ten days before the parade, the German parliament had voted to legalize gay marriage; an occasion which saw the Bundestag erupt in cheers, glittery confetti tossed across the debating chamber and same-sex couples kissing in the gallery. It was, as the German Lesbian and Gay Association said, “a historic day, not only for lesbians and gays, but also for a more just and democratic society”.

Across Europe, gay rights have taken huge strides forwards in recent years. The Netherlands voted to legalize gay marriage in 2001, and was soon followed by a host of imitators, including France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and even the United States. There are still serious problems with discrimination in many places, but in countries like Britain, the political turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Twenty years ago, it was routine for senior British politicians to advocate banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools. Now, even on the conservative right, it’s almost as unacceptable to oppose gay marriage as it is to love taxes or dislike dogs.


In all those years of progress, though, there’s been one major exception. Same-sex couples in Germany have been able to register their relationships on a legal basis for several years, but when it came to actual marriage, the German government has bucked the European trend, refusing to change the law even as the rest of the world moves on. The reasons for this are complex, but include the personal views of the Angela Merkel. The Chancellor has recently become a hero of the European Left, thanks to her refugee policy and her principled opposition to Donald Trump. However, at heart she’s fundamentally a right-wing politician; a pro-business conservative who’s the devout daughter of a Protestant pastor. “Man and wife, marriage and family, stand at the centre of our social model”, she said in 2005. “Other lifestyles should not receive comparable constitutional protections.” In government, Merkel has depended on the support of a Bavarian conservative party, the CSU, whose president recently promised to launch a “family-oriented offensive” in support of traditional values. And outside government, too, the gay rights lobby has faced other formidable headwinds. The churches still play a significant role in German civic life, and (like the Dutch) many Germans are still quietly but profoundly conservative in their attitudes to work, money and family. Until very recently, the legalization of gay marriage in Germany looked like a passionate affair between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin: something which could theoretically happen, but was almost impossible to imagine.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, everything suddenly changed. DSCF8698Answering a question from a member of the public, Merkel unexpectedly relaxed her opposition to same-sex marriage. Five days later, parliamentarians were allowed a free vote on the issue, and history was made. German politics isn’t usually known for its rapid pace, and the change came so quickly that even some supporters were left reeling – in Bonn last week, I met someone who was convinced that the whole thing was essentially a mistake, with a few careless words by Merkel triggering a vote which she’d never expected. The Chancellor herself has claimed that the shift was more deliberate, and she changed her mind after talking to two gay women in her constituency who were caring for eight foster children.

That twee tale may well be true, but there’s also little doubt that politics again played a role. In late 2016, a poll found that 83 percent of Germans back same-sex marriage, and 95 percent think gays should be legally protected from discrimination. German elections are looming, and although Merkel looks likely to win , she’s facing a sparky liberal challenger in Martin Schulz, and must be worried about succumbing to a Clinton-style shock defeat. As in the Netherlands, German governments are almost always coalitions, and two major parties had already announced they wouldn’t agree to any future power-sharing with Merkel unless gay marriage was on the table. With prominent members of her own party coming out in favour of change, the populist AfD making homophobic comments, and Schulz noisily trying to position himself as a German Martin Luther King, Merkel was being squeezed from several sides. DSCF8774Weighing the odds, she may have judged it was best to leap without looking for too long. U-turns on other issues like nuclear power and military conscription haven’t always been popular with her conservative base, but they have enabled her to keep firm control of the centre ground. By being flexible on gay marriage too, and allowing MPs to vote on the issue immediately, she’s effectively killed off the issue before the election campaign really gets started. Ever pragmatic, the Chancellor seems to have pulled off the neat trick of keeping both sides happy – personally opposing gay marriage while heading a government which makes it possible. One can’t help but wonder whether poor Theresa May (who once opposed gay marriage but then changed her mind and helped implement it as Home Secretary) would be quite so easily forgiven if she now voted against gay rights.


Of course, the battle for equality is far from over, and in Cologne on Sunday there were plenty of lurking criticisms: snarky posters of Merkel hugging Hillary Clinton, campaign ads for Martin Schulz, and protest banners accusing the Christian Democrats of persistent homophobia. Overall, though, in a country which often seems haunted by the moral failings of its past, the mood was grateful and joyful. And politically, the U-turn seems to provide further proof that whatever her faults, Merkel is still an unusually savvy operator. As the public broadcaster ZDF put it on Twitter on Friday: “Merkel’s vote against ‘marriage for everybody’ is a shame. But she has another eight terms as Chancellor to think about it”.