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Column: In and among people7 November 2009 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
I live in the small Dutch provincial town of A., about the same size as Reading. Nothing ever happens here. Late at night you will not find more than four cars waiting for the traffic lights on one of the main thoroughfares.
Early on Sunday mornings the city centre is so deserted it resembles Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster. Most inhabitants consider the beautiful green countryside that surrounds their city to be A.’s greatest asset.
I teach a creative writing course and last Tuesday, after the session had finished we all went for a drink in Brasserie Dudok. It seemed that they were still embracing the spirit of All Souls.
They closed promptly at half past eleven and everyone went duly home, except for one of my students. So we ended up in a pub on the most popular square in town. A grand total of three tables were occupied.
After about half an hour they too were empty and the waitresses started cleaning up the place. ‘This is the last round,’ announced our waitress when she brought us our drinks and she quickly rejoined her colleague to close the bar.
Just as we were celebrating, my student told me that her very first poetry collection had been accepted for publication. I became aware that the two waitresses kept looking at us, clearly wishing that we would leave soon.
I looked at my student, with her splendid décolleté and was very much aware that it could not get any more exciting in A.
On Thursday I was expected at the Town Hall to attend the launch of a new book about A.’s history. After having covered medieval times and modern history, the time in between these periods was now also recorded in a new work.
The attendees looked as if they were better suited to represent the occupants of a home for the elderly. It seems that being close to your own demise increases the interest in the history of those who have gone before you. All of a sudden, at the age of 47, I felt absurdly young.
The presenter posed a question: ‘Describe a typical inhabitant of our city A.’ Well at least they were all in agreement A.’s dwellers are dour, aloof, somewhat conservative but rather sporty.
‘I am actually not that sporty,’ said one elderly gentleman dryly. An even more elderly gentleman was equally direct: ‘I am not sure that A. qualifies as the capital of the province.’ He then mentioned two independent communities, ‘de Achterhoek’ and ‘het Rivierenland’ for whom A. might as well be located in the Third World. A disapproving murmur filled the City Hall.
‘What is really special about the city itself?’ the presenter persisted. ‘Its parks,’ muttered the audience.
The Mayor couldn’t refrain from contributing to the conversation, she insisted that the inhabitants of A. are not at all aloof but in fact very friendly. This was met by all-round approval. A councillor, who was born in Groningen (a Northern Dutch province known for its dourness and aloofness) concurred: ‘People there are truly reserved!’ The audience certainly liked this comment.
Then it was time to present a prize. This was introduced by the Mayor’s husband, who also happened to be the chairman of the jury. At this point I was cringing in my seat and studying my shoes and I thought of Dennis Thatcher, modesty is a gift.
The history book was launched and to round off the event a last question was posed to a very old former Mayor. The drift of his talk I can’t quite remember. I do recall that, with a big frown, he made it clear that at one point he had feared they would pass him over. Then it was up to me.
I recited Johnny van Doorn’s (1944-1991 - city A.’s talented but also provocative local poet) most famous poem: A Regally Radiating Sun. This was the poet who referred to A. as ‘Chicago of The Veluwe’ (The Veluwe is one of the National Parks).
However his comment was made during the time in which A. was one of the places to be, when it was hot, back in the 1960s. His performances, which he called his ‘electric acts’, took place in the local pubs and squares and were considered very loud and unheard-of. Therefore the city council banned him from the city in an attempt to protect the local population from an attack on their morals.
So there I stood behind the lectern impersonating Johnny. It rained outside. I mimicked his imposing voice more and more fiercely until my spittle landed onto the audience.
When I arrived at the last crucial line of his poem I moved to the centre of the city hall and shouted at the top of my voice: ‘A Regally Radiating Sun!’
I repeated it and again and again until starting hesitantly somewhere at the back but gradually gaining support and it increasing as if they all felt young again, they joined in: ‘A Regally Radiating Sun!’ and again ‘A Regally Radiating Sun!’
During the drinks afterwards I ran into the councillor from Groningen, who was convinced that people in her province were the most reserved, although interestingly she then told me in a loud voice: ‘It is top secret but we are going to commemorate Johnny.’
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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