Tuesday, 31 December 2013

De geur van kolen*

Let’s face it, Heerlen is not going to win any beauty contests. Mention the name of my adopted home town to most people in the Netherlands and you will receive a look of disdain. It’s not that many of those people will have actually been there, but to be honest, the statistics don’t do it any favours. Of the 50 largest local authorities in the country, Heerlen regularly brings up the rear in terms of social and economic indices of well-being. High unemployment, a disproportionately large ageing population and an exodus of young talent are not helping to improve its prospects. In the eighties and nineties it gained notoriety nationally for its drugs problem, not least due to its close proximity to neighbouring countries, which caused large numbers of ‘tourists’ to take advantage of the country’s liberalised drugs policies. The plain fact is, most outsiders only see the city from the motorway as they speed towards the purpose-built Woonboulevard on its outskirts with its abundance of home-furnishings outlets. The best thing about Heerlen, you will hear people say, is IKEA.

A couple of weeks ago we had one of those glorious December days when the sun struggles to lift itself above the horizon as it makes its brief passage across the midwinter skies. I found myself in between projects, so not wishing to waste such idle moments indoors, I decided to stretch my legs and enjoy some rarefied sunshine. Just fifteen minutes away by foot from my front door is Imstenraderbos, a secluded place where I can find solitude and time and space to think. This extensive deciduous woodland occupies steep hillsides overlooking the bowl of land in which Heerlen nestles. With the sun almost at right angles this afternoon, the contours and undulations of the land were accentuated. There were patches of white left on the grassland where the morning frost had been protected from the sun by the long shadows of the trees. The landscape is one characterised by ancient beeches, hedgerows and thickets, sunken tracks, pastures and old orchards. If you climb out of the forest, you are eventually rewarded with a breathtaking view of the valley and the town below. Returning home, you pass though the tiny settlement of Benzenrade, which - with its hotch-potch of half-timbered cottages, stone-built farmsteads and modern-looking residences – still retains an old village charm.
This too is Heerlen.   

This is very much what the town and its surroundings must have been like 150 years ago before it was overtaken by industrialisation. In 1880, an Amsterdam-based reporter from one of the national dailies was sent down to Limburg to cover an agricultural show in Heerlen. In those days it wasn’t a particularly easy journey to make, but he was more than pleasantly surprised by what he found, writing of the bucolic idyll and its friendly people (even though their dialect may have been somewhat difficult to understand!)

This description is how Joep Dohmen, a close friend and journalist for the NRC Handelsblad, opens his recently published book on Heerlen, De Geur van Kolen. In it he traces the history of the town over the course of several generations of his own family and tells of the tumultuous times of a sleepy market town which discovered coal, suddenly became the heartbeat of Dutch industry, and - equally as suddenly - found itself blighted by the pit closures of the 1970s. 40 years on, Heerlen is still recovering and struggling to reinvent itself.

Industrialisation came late to Heerlen and almost without warning, even though the abundance of black gold under the ground was known. Around the turn of the century mining concessions were awarded, collieries opened and thousands of workers from near and far poured in to the area to take advantage of the burgeoning employment opportunities. The infrastructure to cope with the new influx was slow to follow. In the early years, inadequate housing and a disparate population helped fuel an increase in crime, drunkenness and moral decay. Between 1914 and 1938, the population of Heerlen exploded from 6,646 to 50,581, the greatest surge occurring between 1909 and 1920. This level of industrialisation led to a growing politicisation amongst the workforce, seen as a challenge by the deeply conservative, devoutly Catholic leaders who held sway in Limburg. There was an implicit understanding between the church and the mine-owners to stem the socialist tide. New housing estates, or colonies as they were known, were developed around the church, part paid for by the mines. At work, mineworkers who openly championed socialist or communist ideals received short shrift from management and were threatened with dismissal and, in turn, the loss of their home.

Nevertheless, it was against this background of industrial development that Heerlen flourished. Its civic wealth and pride was reflected in modernist buildings, such as the Glaspaleis (Glass Palace), designed by one of the Netherlands leading architects of the age, Frits Peutz. The Bauhaus construction was commissioned in 1935 for use as a department store (Schunck). It now serves as a centre for arts and culture in Heerlen and is widely recognised throughout the Netherlands as being one of the defining buildings of its era.
Successive generations of Dohmens bettered themselves too: great-grandfather Hub, the fourth in a family of seven, found work underground like many of his cohorts around the turn of the century. Thanks to good schooling, his son, Jozef - one of eight children - eventually ended up working in the offices of the Dutch state mines in Heerlen. Joep’s father, Hub (b. 1923), was destined for an academic career, but his formative years were affected by the Second World War and he later found a vocation working in a senior position for the town council.

The war years had a profound effect on Heerlen. German troops entered the town on 10 May 1940. The mines were seized and coal production siphoned off to boost the Nazi war machine. The municipality’s democratically elected council was stripped of its powers and replaced by an administration rubber-stamped by the occupying forces. The post of burgemeester during the years of occupation was held by Marcel van Grunsven, who had functioned as Heerlen’s mayor since 1926. This was unusual because most pre-war mayors in the Netherlands, either resigned or were deposed after the invasion. In De Geur van Kolen, van Grunsven is painted as a compliant burgemeester. On the one hand, Heerlen had its collaborators and Nazi-sympathisers and on the other, there were those that offered resistance, both active and passive. In any one street there may have been families offering hideaways to Jews and other oppressed minorities, whilst a few doors further along others would be openly encouraging the German war effort. What should also be remembered is that many families in the region were the product of intermarriage between Germans and Dutch, so loyalties would have been divided. The allegations against mayor van Grunsven are that he cooperated too closely with the Germans and openly mixed in social circles frequented by protagonists of the Nazi regime. One charge, for example, is that he deployed municipal workers to construct sniper holes for the Germans when the Allied forces were advancing on the town. Dohmen quotes many other examples of purported collusion, both factual and anecdotal. Nevertheless, after the war van Grunsven was given nothing more than a light rap on the knuckles and continued as mayor of Heerlen until 1961.

By the 1960s coalmining was on the wane because of cheaper imported supplies of coal and significant reserves of natural gas which had been discovered in the North Sea. In 1965 a decision was made by the government in The Hague for a gradual and coordinated closure of the mines. The last mine was closed in 1975. The government put into effect a long-term plan whereby money would be poured into the region to help cushion the effects of the closures and to bolster employment opportunities. 

Between 1965 and 1990, the Dutch government ploughed more than five billion guilders into the region in an effort to stave off economic stagnation. In the immediate aftermath of the closures, there was a massive clean-up operation. (By the time I arrived in Heerlen in 1984, barring a few pitheads, which were kept as listed buildings, and landscaped slagheaps, all trace of the mining industry had been wiped out.) Whether the money for rejuvenation was used wisely and effectively is debatable. Maastricht, the capital of the province, whose associations with the coalmining industry were highly tenuous, acquired prestigious projects: its university was established in 1976; in 1984 a new international exhibition centre (MECC); and in 1991, the famous Maastricht Treaty was signed by the 12 member states of the European Community. In the meantime, Heerlen and its satellite towns, had to make do with the relocation of government agencies from The Hague, whose office jobs unemployed miners were ill-equipped to fill, and retail parks, such as the Woonboulevard to the north of the town with its flagship IKEA store. It didn’t help that in the period following the pit closures Heerlen was saddled with unimaginative city fathers who lacked vision.

In just three score years and ten – a human lifetime – the coalmines came and went leaving indelible scars behind. After 40 years of makeovers and aborted attempts to kick-start a thriving economic base, the town is still trying to find its way. In many ways Heerlen’s dilemma is its geography. On the one hand, it lies on the periphery of a country whose economic heartland lies 250 kilometres away. On the other hand, historically and culturally, it has always had close ties to the Rhineland. If no border existed, by now Heerlen would have been subsumed by Großraum Aachen. In effect, the border acts as an artificial barrier to economic development. Aachen – a short bus-ride away - has a population which exceeds that of all but the 4 major cities of the Randstad and, with its university, the RWTH, it has more students (over 40,000) than any other comparable institute in the Netherlands, and over the years it has given birth to many hi-tech, spin-off industries in the region.Yet despite being designated one of Germany’s leading centres of academic excellence, it can only manage to attract 150 (yes, just one hundred and fifty) students a year from the Netherlands: every year, the brightest school-leavers in Heerlen and the region are encouraged en masse to follow university courses hundreds of miles away in places like Delft, Amsterdam and Utrecht.

For those who are quick to turn their noses up at Heerlen, perhaps I can reassure them from personal experience that life here is really not that bad at all. Heerlen is surrounded by no less than three nature reserves (Imstenraderbos, Terworm and Brunssumerheide) and is on the doorstep of the Zuid-Limburgse Heuvelland, the German Eifel and the Belgian Ardennes. Maastricht, Liège and Aachen (and three distinctive linguistic cultures) are just a short car-drive away without having to worry about traffic congestion, and if I want to venture further afield, I can be on a high-speed rail link to places like Brussels, Paris, London, Cologne and Frankfurt in half an hour. 
And of course, we have IKEA as well.    

* the smell of coal
Read also:  
Living on the edge 
Der Gute Einstieg

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Vietato attraversare i binari

I seem to have spent an inordinate time travelling on railways in recent weeks. Not that this bothers me in the slightest: those who are familiar with me will know that this is my preferred mode of transport. Some people see a train as merely a means of getting from A to B, but for me, jumping on a train, however long the journey, instils a sense of adventure. Some may find the prospect of a long train journey daunting, even intimidating, but rail travel invariably provides me with a sense of freedom and relaxation that no other form of travel gives. Unlike a flight where - to all intents and purposes – you step out of one time warp into the next, the train journey delivers you to your destination across a seamlessly overlapping but ever-changing succession of landscapes and cultures.

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment in time when my weakness for trains was germinated.
It could have been the thrill of boarding a train hauled by Britannia class 70026 (‘Polar Star’) to our family's holiday destination on the North Wales coast, or perhaps standing on the parapet of a bridge on my way home from school with my head in a cloud of smoke billowing from a Class 9F Crosti-Boiler as it passed underneath. It probably didn’t help that I had a wider family fuelled with the same enthusiasm. At Christmas, my elder cousins would appear with their ‘Combined Volumes’ comparing the locos they’d copped on their trainspotting outings. My parents would even take us on rail excursions, on one occasion as far north as Kyle of Lochalsh. So my predilection for things on rails was sealed at an early age.

It’s not even as if I’m a habitual user of trains, but when I’m in a certain state of mind, I can fantasise about rail travel in much the same way as a person consumed by a craving for chocolate can hanker after a truffle. And if I’m not dreaming about trains, after half a century of travelling on them, I can look back on some fulfilling journeys. Like the childhood excitement of being pulled by Polar Star, some of my most memorable moments have taken place on trains or in railway stations. I’d say seeing the Matterhorn loom into view as the Brig-Visp-Zermatt train reaches its destination at the head of the valley is pretty high on the list. Sharing a journey with a crate-load of durians on the ‘jungle line’ from Kota Bahru to Kuala Lumpur runs it close. So too the crossing of the mighty St Lawrence into Montreal after being hauled up the Hudson valley through the Adirondacks into Quebec. Just three of many.

One of the great things about trains is that you can read, sleep, take a meal or enjoy a beer in the buffet car, engage in conversation with complete strangers, or just simply stare out of the window at the changing scenery. Rail travel is particularly conducive to reading, and if you can combine it with books about rail travel, then even better! One of my greatest pleasures was reading Paul Theroux’s wonderful Old Patagonian Express on an interrailing trip down to the south of Italy and back.  

For my last birthday, I was given a copy of Italian Ways by Tim Parks, which bears the subtitle On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo. I think the friend who gave me the present had tipped Tim Parks off beforehand, because it’s a book that could have been written specifically with me in mind. Ever since my early twenties, when I was studying Geography at university, on and off, for work and pleasure, I’ve been travelling the Ferrovie dello Stato. For someone arriving at Milan’s magnificent Central Station for the first time, the significant role that railways play in Italian culture is plain to see. The Italian rail network runs to 24,000 kilometres and, after Germany (which has 41,000 km), it has the highest density of track in Europe. After the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in 1861, ambitious plans were put in place to link the Alps to Sicily by rail to connect the hitherto divided peninsular.

Parks is an English writer and novelist who has lived in Northern Italy since 1981 and who has been writing about his adopted country on and off for much of that period. With Italian Ways he attempts to describe Italy through the windows of a train, travelling the peninsula from top to toe. He does so by making use of all categories of train, from regional trains and interregional trains to the high-speed Freccia Rossa. As the jacket on the book states: through memorable encounters with ordinary Italians – conductors and ticket collectors, priests and prostitutes, scholars and lovers, gypsies and immigrants – Parks captures what makes Italian life distinctive

On my first visit to Italy I recall how passengers walked across the track at stations despite the omnipresent Vietato attraversare i binari signs. 35 years later, they are still doing it. The 1970s and the early 1980s had been a turbulent time in Italian politics with many radical groups on the left and right committing terrorist atrocities, such as the bombing at Bologna railway station which killed 85 and wounded a further 200. Bomb scares were common in the eighties and on that same interrailing trip our train got stuck for two hours in the baking heat of Calabria at the small station of Nocera Terinese after a warning of a possible bomb on the line ahead. The town’s gelataio, who’d got wind of the delay and had turned up pronto at the station with his ice-cream cart, made a pretty penny that day, whilst passengers seemed totally unfazed by the hold-up. Excited yet unflappable, the Italians simply congregated on the platform eating their gelati, engaged in animated conversation until the danger had passed.

In his book, Parks often alludes to the lost romance of rail travel. For example, he talks about how Milano Centrale’s concourse has been turned from a rail terminus into a shopping mall, where ubiquitous advertising and uniform shop frontage detract from the marble and granite grandeur of the building. Many grand stations, not just in Italy, have sadly suffered the same fate.
Neither should buying a ticket and jumping off on and off trains be taken for granted by happy-go-lucky train travellers anymore, with many operators in Europe only offering cheap-rate tickets if you book well in advance. Nowadays you might have to venture further afield to enjoy the pleasures of low-cost train-hopping.

Fortunately, Italy is still one of those places. On its regional lines it may run rolling stock which is far past its sell-by date and nowadays there is large-scale investment in semi-private high-speed initiatives which charge premium prices for reserved only seats, such as the Italo and the Freccia Rossa, but admirably, the Ferrovie del Stato still operates affordable services and rates on its normal regional lines between the main centres. Buy a ticket today and it will still be valid two months later for the same price.  

My latest flurry of rail activity involved assorted journeys criss-crossing the Alps, the most notable of which was the ‘switchback’ ride from Cuneo(in Piemonte) to Ventimiglia (on the Italian Riviera). The track starts in Italy and rises 500 metres before burrowing its way under the Colle di Tenda, descending 1000 metres into France and thence back to the Ligurian coast in Italy. In between the tunnels and loops which enable it to bridge this height difference, there are some breathtaking views. If you’re a train buff who the likes the sensation of disorientation, this is the trip for you. And all this for a preposterous € 7.10 with a ticket bought on the same day. Now that’s what I call pampering to my tastes.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Selfkant

Proof once again that I shouldn’t toss my local freebie onto the waste paper pile the moment it lands on the doormat. Hidden away on page 15 of my Zondagsblad the other week – amongst mind-numbing reports of minor road-traffic incidents, local fêtes and sponsored cycle rides - was an article that actually held my attention for a change. It was an account of a joint research project recently carried out by students of Maastricht University and RWTH Aachen University. The investigation centred on the effects that annexation had had on the identity of the Selfkant, a small territory of land which, for a little more than 14 years, had been expropriated from Germany by the Netherlands in 1949 as part of war reparations.

The Selfkant today marks the most westerly point of Germany. It occupies an area of 42 square kilometres and is bordered on three sides by Limburg, the Netherlands’ southernmost province. For 15 years, the Selfkant formed part of the Netherlands and was eventually handed back to the Federal Republic on 1 August 1963, just over 50 years ago.

The annexation of the Selfkant formed part of originally much wider plans for the expropriation of German territories which had been dreamed up by Dutch zealots seeking recompense for war damage suffered by the Netherlands during the years of Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1945. Even before the end of the war, it had been established that financial remuneration would be out of the question, given the ruinous state of its eastern neighbours, so concerted plans were devised on various fronts for land annexation. Some fanatics proposed grand schemes which entailed the takeover of land as far east as Hamburg, including the expulsion of German nationals to create new land for an already overcrowded Netherlands. Other schemes carried more credibility, such as a detailed plan advanced by Frits Bakker Schut, who was director of the National Office for the National Plan (Rijksdienst voor het Nationaal Plan) and secretary of the Dutch Committee for Territorial Expansion (Nederlands Comité voor Gebiedsuitbreiding). The Bakker-Schut Plan envisaged expropriation (and complete ‘dutchification’) of land up to the River Rhine, including seizure of major cities such as Cologne, Aachen, Münster and Osnabrück. The plan would have enlarged the size of the country by between 30 and 50 percent.

In the end, such ambitious annexation plans were dismissed by the Allied High Commission on the grounds that 14 million refugees had already been displaced on Germany’s eastern limits as a result of border revisions there. In particular, the Americans felt that destabilisation of the western half of Germany would have an adverse effect in view of the impending Cold War. In the end, these large-scale plans were diluted to the annexation of just 69 square kilometres of German territory, the largest slice of which was the Selfkant, and involved 10,000 inhabitants, who on 23 April 1949, became Dutch citizens.

The border ‘corrections’ in the Selfkant were effectuated on Saturday 23 April 1949 when a column of Dutch military police vehicles crossed the border near the Dutch town of Sittard. Six villages and several smaller communities were placed under Dutch administration, known as Drostambt Tudderen (≈ bailiwick). According to the government in The Hague, the primary reason for annexation of the Selfkant was to relieve traffic congestion in the heavily industrialised region of South Limburg. The physical westward incursion of the Selfkant into the Dutch province meant that the corridor separating South Limburg from the rest of the country was just 4 kilometres wide at this point.

The Selfkant was put in charge of a local administrator, the Landdrost, who was appointed by and directly accountable to The Hague. All local powers were vested in the Landdrost, which meant that German administration was disbanded entirely. Key figures from the latter were appointed to an advisory council, but this council had no decision-making powers whatsoever. Despite losing their German franchise, residents enjoyed all the rights accredited to Dutch citizens. The German education system was left intact, except that now, children would receive two hours’ schooling in Dutch per week.

In the immediate post-war years, the Selfkant was positioned somewhere between a rock and a hard place. A recovery programme was not forthcoming initially. In anticipation of the border revision, little had been done on the part of the German authorities to improve an already underdeveloped infrastructure that had also suffered badly from war damage. Solicitations to the Dutch government after annexation to expend efforts to redress the situation also fell on deaf ears to start with: necessary work would only be carried out when the border revisions were ‘more permanent in nature’. One Dutch newspaper reported that the roads were so dire that it was almost impossible to drive from one village to the next.

The situation changed when the Landdrost brought the seriousness of the situation to the attention of the various ministries in The Hague and an investigation was instigated by the Dutch Ministry of Home Affairs. The outcome was that money and resources were made available for the restoration of homes and improvement of roads.

Despite the privations, reports suggested that the local populace were not unhappy with their lot. Initially they enjoyed favourable currency exchange rates, were able to buy some provisions at cheaper Dutch prices and farmers were able to take advantage of the more auspicious markets in the Netherlands whilst simultaneously ‘exporting’ produce free of excise to Germany. The social security system in the Netherlands was also seen as a bonus. The work ethic amongst the Selfkanters was such that their skills were a desirable commodity in the Dutch coalmining and other industries. There was hardly any language barrier to speak of, since locals on either side of the border spoke each other’s dialect.

Over the years, the situation improved enormously. There were new housing developments and schools were renovated. Instead of 13 kilometres of poorly tarmacked road at the beginning of the annexation, the Selfkant had 63 kilometres in 1959 and a 8-kilometre transit route across the Selfkant linked up South Limburg with Central Limburg (a road which remained Dutch until many years later). Money was pumped into the Selfkant from both sides. The population had the best of both worlds.

Whilst the Selfkant prospered, the debate rumbled on about the territory’s future. Of course, there was a hard core of German patriots who canvassed for the unconditional return of the Selfkant, but given that its citizens were enjoying sweeteners from both sides of the border, most people were probably happy to keep the post-1949 status quo.

The question of a referendum on the matter was mooted several times between 1957 and 1960, but this was never effectuated, on the grounds that it would probably open up unnecessary rifts in the population, even within families. Against the background of ongoing rapprochement at an international level, embodied by the creation of the European Community, an agreement was eventually reached by the two countries whereby the Selfkant would be returned, in exchange for war reparations (Wiedergutmachung) of 280 million Deutschmark, on 1 August 1963.

In the weeks leading up to the handover, there was a lot of commotion. Having got wind of the repatriation, it is said that dealers from as far away as Rotterdam and Hamburg had moved in to the Selfkant to trade in commodities like tea, coffee, butter, tobacco, detergents and textiles. With the big price differentials, it would be possible to make handsome profits because at the moment of transfer, goods would be tax-free. It was reported that these speculators had commandeered as much empty storage space as they could in the Selfkant to hoard their goods before the transfer of power.

At 7 p.m. on July 31, the Landdrost handed over the civil registers to the newly installed Oberkreisdirektor and at midnight on 1 August, the Dutch military police retired to behind the pre-1949 lines where new barriers and customs posts had been erected. Meanwhile, when the barriers were raised on the ‘German-German’ border, a convoy of trucks loaded with thousands of tons of produce and livestock headed eastwards.

Appropriation of territory didn’t end completely there. The N274, the north-south transit road bisecting the Selfkant between Koningsbosch and Schinveld, remained in Dutch hands as perhaps the most lasting reminder of annexation, until this was eventually handed over to the German authorities in 2002. The Selfkant is overwhelmingly rural in character and its close proximity to the heavily urbanized region of South Limburg, means that it is an attractive area for many Dutch people to settle. It is said that around 25% of residents have Dutch nationality.

Further reading (in Dutch):
Landjepik: www.haansmits.nl 

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Cricket in Heerlen ten years on


On this day 10 years ago, a Heerlen Cricket XI took to the field in Son and Breughel for the very first time after the club’s re-establishment in 2003. It was a rollercoaster season with ups and downs aplenty. Not many would have wagered on our survival, but ten years later, the club continues to prosper.
Here is an abridged version of my reflections after the completion of that inaugural season. 

A long time ago, I was young, lived in England and life was normal - our football team won world cups, our cricket team occasionally won the Ashes and telephone boxes were painted red and were still called kiosks. At school I was told that Holland was a country of culture and sophistication. So I arrived in 1984 with high expectations.

It took me time to acclimatise. I watched, learned and tried to ingratiate myself in Dutch society. But I knew I was different. 

I tried to fathom the Dutch fascination for speed-skating. Have you noticed how they crowd their ice-rinks with thousands of flag-waving, clog-stomping, klaxon-blowing spectators who dizzily watch skaters go round in circles all day long? What can a coach say when he gives advice to a skater other than, “Go as fast as you can and stay ahead”? Some sophistication. Some culture.

So I never did fully acclimatise.

Then one day I eventually discovered I was normal after all. All those years I’d tried to enjoy drinking beer from diminutive glasses, I’d just been deluding myself.

My life was changed by a single phone call from a Dutch aficionado, who had the crazy idea of starting a cricket club in the wilderness of South Limburg. So, there really were Dutch people who desired culture and sophistication after all. Somewhere on his road to Damascus, my newly found acquaintance had been transfixed by the sound of leather on willow and wanted to know more.

For the uninitiated, the game of cricket can be best described as having everything (well, at least slightly more than constantly going around in circles on an ice-rink). It is a sport which doesn’t have rules, but laws. It has an etiquette. We take lunch and tea and use the verb ‘declare’ intransitively. Tactics are intellectually challenging, so shrewder teams sometimes employ philosophers as captains. But you don’t have to be a brainbox to play cricket: the game attracts devotees from all walks of life – gardeners, night watchmen, spinners, sweepers, seamers, delivery men, even bouncers. It caters for all shapes and sizes – long legs, short legs and puddings.

Don’t bother to ask ‘who’s winning?’ unless you want to spend the next five days of a cricket match having the laws explained to you. Even then, the match may be tied, but definitely not drawn. Okay, the learning curve can be a long and painful one and may take many years, but is definitely worth the investment. And you’ll end up being cultured and sophisticated.

2003 was a great summer. It started off badly for me. I had spent my first full year of teaching at a school in Kerkrade and it was getting me down. I ended up on the sick. I was becoming Dutch. I was ‘overspannen’.

But cricket slowly changed that.

The Dutch had also taught me how to be cynical, so I reacted with a fair degree of scepticism when ambitious plans were presented to put together a team and play competitive cricket in the Dutch league. A few years earlier we’d had a few friendly knockabouts on the hockey pitch using a tennis ball, but it was like learning to run before we could walk.

Before many of us had even realised, we were registered with the KNCB and we were given a fixture list with a list of places in far-flung corners of the Netherlands that our team of all-sorts was expected to play. It was a daunting proposition. Before I knew it, I was helping to organise transport, phoning opposition captains, looking after the kit, sprucing up my skills which had been mothballed for 19 years and – on top of all that - trying to maintain a home life.

When we took the field with our ragbag team at Son on a damp and windy May afternoon, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. When I came off the pitch at Eindhoven on a on a damp and windy September afternoon, I had to pinch myself again, but realised this time I wasn’t dreaming.

Early on in the season, I’d told a few of the other players that playing cricket in Holland was like having a mistress. I was away from home for long periods. After a lover’s tiff on the Sunday, I was never quite sure whether my mistress loved me or loathed me. Sometimes on Mondays I was depressingly reflective. At other times, I was elated. It was a rollercoaster, but I soon realised I wasn’t the only one on the switchback. It’s just the way cricket is.

We started with a hotchpotch of a team; youngsters, oldsters, beginners, experts, Europeans, A(ustrala)sians, Africans, natives, exiles, schoolchildren, students, professionals, Moslems, Hindus, Christians, Atheists, introverts, extroverts, Dutch speakers, Urdu speakers, English speakers, German speakers.

Along the way, we collected more players, proving the point that there are enough square pegs that want to fit into a round hole.

So we started and finished the season with a hotchpotch of players, but I rather like that idea. It means that the sum of its parts is greater than its whole and the contributions we make as individuals benefit the entire team.
The season was an obstacle course, but we succeeded in clearing all the hurdles that stood in our way. Nobody (not even the weather) managed to stop us playing cricket. No doubt, there will be more obstacles to come, not least the cold winter months without cricket, but perhaps we need the rest so that we return next year with an extra dollop of enthusiasm.

And the next time I go to England, I can tell my friends that Holland, at long last, is a country of culture and sophistication.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Der gute Einstieg

It might not be anything out of the ordinary in these post-Schengen days, but living close to an international border still gives me goosepimples. Borders are nothing more than imaginary lines snaking across the landscape, but they divide communities, which - quite literally - live within spitting distance of each other: they speak different languages, watch different TV programmes and pay their taxes to different governments, just to name a few of the telltale signs. Pulled in opposite directions, their backs turned to each other, their focus is directed on everyday events in their own backyards.

The 44 is a cross-border bus service that links Heerlen in the Netherlands with Aachen in Germany. Journeys between the two conurbations are operated respectively by the bus companies Veolia and AachenerStraßenbahn und Energieversorgungs-AG (ASEAG). For most people who travel on it, it provides a convenient way of getting from A to B. For others, like me - also a regular traveller - it offers an intriguing insight into some of the  idiosyncrasies of the two cultures that straddle the border between Germany and the Netherlands.

The bus service that runs between Heerlen NS and Hauptbahnhof Aachen has been part of my life for the best part of ten years. When I started teaching at the Volkshochschule (VHS) in 2004, the 44 provided an ideal door-to-door service from my home in Heerlen into the centre of Aachen.

ASEAG designates the route a Schnellbuslinie, which means it functions as an ‘express’ service designed to connect transport nodes quickly by stopping at fewer stops. When the bus enters Dutch territory this becomes a misnomer: whilst it takes just 20 minutes for the 44 to cover the 10 or so kilometres from the centre of Aachen to the border at De Locht - stopping only at Laurensberg, Richterich and Horbach – when it arrives in the Netherlands it reverts to a Bummelbus, covering the last 7.2 kilometres from the border to Heerlen in just under half an hour.

The 44 carries an omnifarious mix of travellers, from the ubiquitous commuters and schoolchildren, to drug-tourists, night-clubbers, football fans, shoppers and English teachers. The route is plied by an alternating sequence of buses - sometimes articulated, but mainly rigid-bodied - operated by Veolia and ASEAG.

After leaving the bus station in Heerlen, the 44 follows a slow, circuitous, round-the-houses route as it labours through the neighbourhoods of Heesberg, Heerlerbaan and Spekholzerheide to the border. Take heed not to step aboard when school’s out or on match days when it’s standing room only. Once you’ve passed Parkstad Stadion, the home of Roda Kerkrade FC, and you arrive at Gracht, the bus will have set down most of its Dutch passengers. In fact, in both directions, few passengers on the 44 ever cross the border.

Since effectuation of the Schengen treaty, the border post at De Locht has no longer been manned by guards. More recently the bus has been an attraction for a special breed of tourist taking advantage of more relaxed narcotics laws in the Netherlands. Spot checks are frequently carried out here by the Bundesgrenzpolizei. More than once, travelling innocently with a satchel full of English course books, I’ve been asked Haben Sie Waffen oder Drogen?”, and it’s not unusual to see suspected drug carriers being pulled off the bus for questioning. Drugs policy in the Netherlands may have been tightened in recent years, but as long as coffee shops locate provocatively close to the border, drug tourism will continue to be a thorn in the side for the German authorities. 

On Friday and Saturday nights, the bus can fill up with revellers travelling in the opposite direction on their way to fleshpots just across the border in the Netherlands. A lot of ‘preloading’ goes on at the back of the bus on the way from Aachen. Drivers are relieved when the bus disgorges its boisterous load, leaving only the sound of empty bottles and cans rolling around the floor of the deserted bus in their ears.

Across the border into Germany, between De Locht and Horbach, the countryside opens out affording wide vistas and huge skies. It has the isolated feel of no-man’s-land. One cold and windy March evening, during a bus strike I came off my bike here, landing with a thud on my forehead. Fortunately, I survived, but it was a lonely place to come a cropper and none of the passing traffic stopped to help.

Beyond Horbach, the first (or last) village in Germany the road crosses a line of dragon’s teeth which were put in place on the orders of Hitler in 1936. A major landmark along this part of the route, they formed part of the Westwall, or Siegfried Line, which was built to defend the western approaches to Germany. These pyramid-shaped concrete blocks embedded in the ground served as tank traps to deter enemy attack. In fact, by the end of the war, specialist engineers were able to dispose of them so quickly they had become more or less redundant. Due to their huge numbers and their durable construction however, many thousands of these blocks of concrete can still be seen today in places like Horbach.

Richterich, the next village, has long been subsumed into the Aachen urban sprawl. Here the bus now fills up with German commuters. Because we are now on the ‘express’ part of the route, we are soon within sight of the Ponttor, one of the four major gates that guarded over Reichstadt Aachen from the middle ages onwards. Beyond are the delights of the Pontstrasse, a popular entertainment district with a profusion of bars and restaurants catering to Aachen’s huge student population.

The busiest stop in town is the Bushof, the city’s main bus station. In the hurly-burly of a weekday rush-hour or on dark December weekends when Aachen holds its Christmas market, long queues can be expected – that’s if you’re English like me. But oddly, for a country which prides itself on being ‘ordentlich’, waiting as they do at pedestrian crossings until the lights turn green and sticking fastidiously to speed limits on motorways, ‘queuing’ is not a word in a German’s vocabulary. Climbing aboard a bus at rush-hour is a free-for-all so make sure you have plenty of elbow room when you board. At least during Advent, ASEAG has the foresight to put on bendy buses, when they fill up with hoards of returning Limburgers tipsy on Glühwein and replete with shopping.

After the backcountry-ism of the journey so far, the terminus of the 44 at the Hauptbahnof, the city’s main station, comes somewhat as a relief for those with a more outward-looking mentality. With its Jugendstil architecture, its high-speed connections and its selection of international magazines and newspapers in the concourse bookshop, it has all the trappings of a main line station, and not without reason. There has been a railway station in Aachen since 1841 when the Rheinische Eisenbahngesellschaft opened a line that was later extended to the port of Antwerp (the Belgian border being only 7 kilometres away). The Deutsche Bahn classifies Aachen Hbf as a Category 2 station, which means that it functions as an important junction for long-distance traffic. Both Cologne and Liège (B) are less than an hour away, and you can be in Frankfurt within two. Brussels, Paris and London can all be reached within half a day. Needless to say there’s also a local line that links Aachen with Heerlen.

Thank goodness that somewhere on this bus route, there is a place that offers a wider window on the world.

See also: Living on the Edge

Photo credit 

Monday, 25 March 2013

In praise of the passive

Politicians give it a bad name. Business tycoons have a similar proclivity. Even church leaders aren't averse to doing it. In fact, anyone who wants to shirk their responsibilities is helping to discredit the passive voice.

US President Reagan used the phrase “mistakes were made” when describing the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. In the phone-hacking scandal which came to prominence in the UK in 2011, part of Rupert Murdoch’s apology for the serious wrongdoings committed by his newspapers, included the words, “We are sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected”. In 2006, Pope Benedict was accused of ducking out of a full apology when he said, “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address [in a speech he gave in Germany] ... which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.”
Bizarrely, in 2011 Liam Fox, the defence minister in the UK coalition government, in evading a full and complete admission of guilt for a breach of office for which he had to resign, used a double passive: “The ministerial code has been found to be breached”.

What strikes the reader of course, is that the individuals or organisations making the mistakes, inflicting the hurt, causing the offence or breaching the code are not specified by name. And it’s precisely because of statements like these, which lack the action of an agent and thus create an impression that the buck is being passed, that the passive voice gets a bad press.

Modern style guides tell us to avoid using the passive whenever we write. Some advisers treat it as a grammatical pariah, advising us to eliminate the passive voice wherever possible.
Here are just a few of the reasons they advise us not to use the passive. 

Always write so that the reader knows who the actor is
Passive language can sound impersonal and bureaucratic
Avoid using passive verbs as they result in a vague, over-formal tone
The passive voice is rarely valuable
An active sentence is short and to the point, a passive one requires more words and ends up saying something less clearly

And who has not, for instance, seen the words “Passive Voice (consider revising)”, flash up on their spelling and grammar checker? It has, as it were, become gospel truth.

So, with so many people wanting to ditch the passive, does it have a future? The answer is probably yes, and with good reason. It has its legitimate uses. Like the active voice, the passive voice has been with us for time immemorial and is not likely to go away for a while yet. After all, even those who are most vehemently advocating its demise are using it – and a lot of the time.

George Orwell, amongst others, was disparaging of the passive. In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), he wrote, “Never use the passive where you can use the active”. Professor Geoff Pullum*, a linguist who was the co-author of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ (2002) and who frequently writes in defence of the passive, calculated that in Orwell's essay alone, 26% of transitive verbs used were in the passive voice. For a typical prose, such as a newspaper article, this is around 13%. Orwell is just one example of a writer who passes judgment on the passive, whilst actually making excessive use of it.

The main arguments against the passive seem to be that it impersonalises the language, because often we don’t know who the agent is. The result is formal, vague, stilted and verbose. But is this actually the case?

Most style guides which advise against its use, invariably quote bad examples of the passive. They try to prove their point by fabricating the examples themselves so that it becomes blindingly obvious an active sentence is better. For example:
I enjoyed the film (active) and The film was enjoyed (by me).
The student had to rewrite the essay (active) and The essay had to be rewritten by the student (passive).

It is perfectly legitimate (and proper) to use the passive. For example, in situations where the agent is unknown or irrelevant. If you don’t know who is responsible for an action, then a passive construction is just as useful as an active one, if not better (unless you are being deliberately misleading). In fact, where the object (receiver) of the action is more important than the subject (agent) of the sentence, then a passive sentence is the most obvious choice.

Take the following examples of passive structures from a newspaper report today (about snowstorms hitting Britain) and try reconstructing them into the active. Ask yourself if they would be an improvement: 
The snow and ice is expected to cause continued problems on the UK's transport network. 
The severe weather is also thought to have led to the death of a woman in Cornwall. 
Many sports fixtures, including Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Russia and two race meetings, were called off on Saturday.
In each of the sentences, the agents – i.e. those who expect, those who think, and those who call off – are not known, neither are they relevant within the context. In fact, in the last example, multiple agents are involved and you would be hard pressed to attempt to mention them all in an active sentence, let alone identify them. And, more to the point, you could hardly say the sentences were clumsily written or difficult to understand.

It is ironic that many universities produce style guides admonishing use of the passive, not least because academic and scientific writing demands use of agentless texts using the passive. In fact, there is a conscious choice to ignore use of the 1st person singular or plural in research papers, as this might affect the objectivity of the experiment.
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
Sentences like these leave the reader in no real doubt that it was the scientist who was doing the dissolving and the titrating. The passive voice places the emphasis on the experiment rather than the analyst. Use of the passive does not make it any less legible and the opening paragraphs of a scientific paper will usually make it obvious who the agent (scientist) was.

More than often it is not the passive voice which is at fault, as is often claimed, but sloppy use of the language. Sloppiness is not limited solely to use of the passive however. It may range from acronyms, ostentatious wordage and jargon which is deliberately used to confuse us, to bad spelling, punctuation and grammar (including, for instance, poor use of the active voice). Ultimately, it is about clarity and readability and the passive voice can be used as effectively as any other medium of language to achieve this.

* Geoff Pullum (and others) have written some interesting articles on the use of the passive. This link provides a good starting point. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Olive Davies (néé Gillings) 1923 - 2013

Before I left for England on the day my mother died, a good friend of mine emailed me with their condolences and gave me some advice. They suggested I take a brief time-out from my busy schedule, go into the garden, light a cigarette and remember my mum. Well, I don’t smoke nowadays , but it seemed like a good piece of advice, even without the cigarette. So here I am, in my imaginary garden, with my imaginary cigarette.

Of course, I’d like to remember mum, not as she was in her final years, but as she was in her prime. 

When I was born, the youngest of three brothers, my mum was still a young woman at 33.
We grew up in a warm and loving environment and, perhaps without fully appreciating it at the time,
had happy childhoods. That was mostly due to mum and dad. Dad went out to work, mum stayed at home and looked after our daily needs. They sheltered us from the grim realities of life, but never put us on a leash. We were allowed to develop our own interests and no pressure was applied to do something with our lives we didn’t want to do.

As a family living in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, we spent happy times together, but perhaps never more so than when we went on holiday.
As young children we would spend hours building sandcastles or playing cricket on the beach at Scarborough, mum’s home town, where we’d stay with grandma and grandpa Gillings.
Another Davies family haunt - from way back - was Colwyn Bay, where for many years we rented a cottage, whose main asset, as far as we were concerned, was that it backed on to the main London to Holyhead line. Every time we heard a Jubilee, Royal Scot or Britannia approaching, we would dash upstairs to watch it pass. What could have been better for a kid growing up in the Sixties?
Later, when we bought a car, we’d venture further afield and spend holidays in Scotland. It was the peace and tranquillity away from urban life in Manchester my mum and dad were seeking – and they certainly found it for us.

My mum enjoyed walks in the countryside as much as anyone. She was not necessarily bold or adventurous, she just loved the beauty of the seasons, the countryside and the flowers and birds around her. Walks were all part and parcel of a good holiday and by the time I was 12, as a family, we could count Snowdon and Ben Nevis amongst our conquests. I’m sure it’s from my mum that I gained a passion for walking.

The holidays together didn’t end when we’d all left home and started our own families. In retirement, my mum & dad fulfilled one of their dreams by moving to Thornton Dale in North Yorkshire. We all loved going to ‘Harefield’. And the happy holidays theme was passed down to another generation. I’m sure all the grandchildren have fond memories of playing games, feeding the ducks, going to Wardills, tobogganing down Miller’s Hill or enjoying an ice-cream from Balderson’s when they stayed with grandpa and grandma in Thornton Dale.

The 15 years they spent there were golden years for my mum and dad. My mum kept a diary during those years. In fact it was only in 2003 – at the age of 80 – that she gave up writing. Each entry would start with a report on the weather that day. In between the trivialities of everyday life, she would write about her painting class (she was a modest but talented water-colour painter), her gardening endeavours, the walks in and around the village and quite often about the birds she had seen that day. The entries invariably ended with the words, ‘Thank you Lord for today’.

When her memory started to play tricks on her in the last decade, in between bouts of lucidity and disorientation, she would often imagine herself going back to
‘Harefield’. Even when she started to dote, she would make it abundantly clear how much she missed Thornton Dale.

Mum can look back on a good life. She had a happy marriage in a happy household. She was unassuming, not prone to any great socialising, and was perhaps happiest out walking with dad, in the garden or engrossed in her painting and, of course, being with the family. And if her mental health hadn’t eventually failed her, she would have been able to appreciate her grandchildren and great-grandchildren growing up a great deal more, but I’m sure I can say on her behalf that she’d be proud of what she leaves behind.

Olive Davies (néé Gillings)
Born Scarborough, 7 September 1923
Died Hull, 31 January 2013
Text given as an appreciation at my mum's funeral on 12 February 2013