Archive for the ‘Amsterdam’ Category

La Chanson de Pervert

December 30, 2013

Fifteen years after his death Serge Gainsbourg is going global, and there’s a fistful activities in his memory
Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 2006

‘I was living in France when Gainsbourg died and suddenly the whole country was in mourning. Every time you turned on the radio there was Gainsbourg; every time you turned on the TV there was Gainsbourg. We had this old farmer as a neighbour, he was crying and the young people were too, and I thought: this is a real testament to the sad state of French pop that this guy who’s only done one song has got everyone in mourning.’

That was in 1991. Like the rest of the non-Francophone world, rock journalist Sylvie Simmons only knew Serge Gainsbourg as the ‘dirty old man who made Jane Birkin famous’ with that one song ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’. In fact, he wrote more than 500 songs, and this year, the 15th anniversary of his death, has seen a surge of interest in Serge, including the current homage, which culminates on Saturday night in Paradiso.

Simmons will be there, reading from A Fistful of Gitanes, her biography which has played no small part in spreading Gaisnbourg’s reputation around the rest of the globe since publication in 2001. Alongside the writer, Jean-Claude Vannier, arranger and producer of Gainsbourg’s influential 28-minute masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, will perform excerpts from the album, while Radio Oh-La-La’s DJ Nataska, aka Natasha Cloutier, will DJ with Amsterdam Beat Club.

Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzburg in 1928, to Russian parents who fled to Paris after the revolution. His childhood in occupied France scarred him, particularly since he was Jewish and had to wear the yellow star. As a young man, Gainsbourg wanted to be a painter, but made a living playing the piano in nightclubs; eventually, the means of making ends meet became a career and in 1958 he released ‘Poinçonneur de Lilas’, the suicidal lament of a bored Metro conductor. Over the next three and a half decades he would be astonishingly prolific.

All at once, Gainsbourg was chansonnier; jazz tinkler; Eurovision hit-maker; ladies’ man (seen on the arm of Greco, Bardot, Birkin, Deneuve); intellectual; director (his films are showing this week); novelist (there’s be a reading of Evgenie Solokov in Dutch on Saturday); actor. He was a provocateur, burning banknotes, reggaefying the national anthem and, in 1984, releasing ‘Lemon Incest’. The video, showing father and 13-year-old daughter Charlotte lounging on a bed semi-clad, caused outrage. Yet he was also a cherished establishment figure, whom, when he died, Mitterand compared to France’s greatest poets.

What took the rest of the world so long to catch up? For Montreal-born Cloutier, the answer is simple: ‘Because it’s not in English. The fact that British and American artists with a working understanding of French finally ‘got’ Gainsbourg helps the masses get him as well. Without Jane Birkin or daughter Charlotte acting as a bridge between Gainsbourg and the Anglo-Saxon world this may not even have happened.’ Simmons, meanwhile, thinks it only came with a broader change in listening habits: ‘People who were doing dance music were sampling from Italian and French soundtracks and they picked up on Gainsbourg. Also the world music scene was becoming big, so if people sang in French it didn’t matter any more.’

It was in the mid-90s that Gainsbourg’s reputation really started taking off outside France, when his playboy reputation and more kitsch elements were seized upon. It fitted well with the ironic times, but meant that his more difficult aspects were overlooked, and he was packaged as a kind of singing Hugh Hefner. But rather than being a red-blooded male caricature, there’s something almost feminine about his image. After all, it was never really just ‘Gainsbourg’ but ‘Gainsbourg and…’, whether it be Bardot, Birkin or one of the many people he wrote for – and he was as associated with them as they with him. What complicated his persona more, Simmons points out, is that: ‘He often used to tease, or maybe talk honestly about, a kind of latent homosexualilty’ a theme explored in ‘Love on the Beat’ and Je t’aime, moi non plus the movie.

Complexity is the key to understanding – or not – Gainsbourg. He had a restless, magpie approach, which Simmons thinks unique: ‘There’s a great courage to be a star and say: “I don’t care. I’m going to move onto something else.”‘ His subjects ranged from 18th-century literary forgers, Austrian composers, Symbolist poets to bank robbers. ‘Torrey Canyon’ at first appears to be a slice of Sixties shoo-be-doo pop, but its lyrics about a (real-life) environmental disaster reveal a startlingly prescient view of global trade and corporate responsibility. And it’s a great slice of shoo-be-doo Sixties pop. As Cloutier says: ‘It’s by no means superficial. Since it’s about sex, incest, violence, women and other ‘taboo’ subjects, you can’t just listen to Gainsbourg’s music and “get it”. It takes time.’

Even ‘Je t’aime…’ his most famous song, is a complex beast. It doesn’t bear up to comic or ‘ironic’ reinterpretations – although there have been many – because its tongue is already planted firmly in its cheek. And it is also properly sexy. Gainsbourg had every angle covered in advance. And the hand which wrote something that filthy could also turn out something as gorgeous as ‘La Chanson de Prévert’, as well as truly original love songs, which replace hearts and flowers with outlaws and superheroes.

Stylistically, Gainsbourg leapt all over, too, conquering every genre he alighted on: jazz; afro; lounge; prog rock; even reggae albums with Jamaica’s finest, Sly and Robbie. Simmons says Gainsbourg was able to make such masterful music because ‘he was good at selecting the right people to work with. He got great producers, he got great arrangers, and he let them get on with stuff. There wasn’t that ego where he controlled every single thing. He let them do what they did best.’

It resulted in thrilling music, which seemingly never ends. ‘When you get into Gainsbourg, you hear him and then go off and in every direction to discover all the stuff he wrote for other people. It’s overwhelming,’ says Cloutier. Indeed. In addition to 20-odd studio albums, there is the work he composed for others, ranging from one-off songs to entire albums. A Fistful of Gitanes, published in 2001, Lists 115 artists who have recorded Gainsbourg’s music – everyone from Donna Summer, to the Bollock Brothers to Nana Mouskouri – and in the years since the book came out there’s been a steady stream of new releases, most notably this year’s Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisted. And again, Gainsbourg’s work will be taking off in new, unexplored directions on Saturday, when Cor Gout and AU do never-before performed Dutch translations of the master’s works.
That’s one more to add to the collection, then.


Because the Night

December 5, 2012

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, May 2007 (the Rock ‘n’ Roll issue)


It’s one of the most rock ‘n’ roll things imaginable: making a living from writing, often very rudely indeed, about lesbian life and selling it to the masses. So did Sarah Waters ever think she would get rich and famous from peddling dirty lesbian books? ‘No,’ the author laughs. ‘I never knew there was so much money in being a lesbian!’

It’s a flippant assessment of Waters’ short – her first novel, Tipping the Velvet was published in 1998 – but stellar career. She’s one of Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Writers; two of her novels were adapted into hugely successful TV series; she’s won 11 awards including the Betty Trask and John Rhys Llewellyn and been nominated for many more, notably the Booker and Orange prizes – the latter for both Fingersmith and her most recent, The Night Watch, which Waters was in town to talk about as part of the Amsterdam Literary Festival.

But it isn’t an inaccurate assessment. Waters has changed the landscape of literature – and quite probably lesbian life – forever. For many, reading Tipping the Velvet, her extraordinary debut about a cross-dressing oyster seller who conquers Victorian London first as a music hall star and then as a rent boy, was an epiphany. Here was an author who portrayed lesbianism in unflinching detail, and on its own terms, then got it – hand-tooled leather dildos and all – on prime-time BBC. And her books sell by the cartload. No one, not even Jeanette Winterson – the writer to whom Waters can most closely be compared, and to whom she feels indebted – has done that.

So, is the fact that she’s made lesbianism mainstream something to do with herself, or with the times? ‘I think it must be something to do with the times, really,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I came from nowhere. [Jeanette Winterson] is a writer who [did] such a bold thing: write ambitious literary fiction which was also completely lesbian, and there was no problem with that. In something like Tipping the Velvet, I think I just did the right thing at the right time.’

This modest response (she and Winterson must part company here) goes some way to explaining why, in London publishing circles, Waters has a reputation for being one of the nicest people in the biz.

But to ascribe her popularity to the zeitgeist alone would be to underestimate waters’ power as a storyteller – she’s up there with Fielding and Dickens in terms of page-turnability – the very thing that ensnares readers and which allows her to slip in often esoteric, and sometimes eyebrow-raising, aspects of women’s sexuality. ‘It’s a very old-fashioned sort of storytelling,’ she explains. ‘All my novels are in a way. They’re very accessible fiction, and they’re completely relaxed about lesbianism. Lesbianism is both completely important in them and also totally incidental.’

Although all of Waters books are historical, she denies that this is a distancing tactic: ‘I’ve never wanted to make lesbianism palatable by setting it in the past. If I was a historian, nobody would ever say to me: “Why do you bang on about the historians all the time?”’ In fact, it could be argued that the historical contexts of her stories are a way of connecting with the present: they sniff out the reasons for why we’ve ended up where we are now.

That’s certainly the case with the The Night Watch, whose very narrative structure – it begins in 1947 and ends in 1941 – explores where people have arrived by tracing where they came from. It’s a complex, tricksy, formidably researched book (as you’d expect from someone with a PhD in historical fiction), which all at once manages to capture the horror and after-shock of war, tell several love stories across every shade of the sexual rainbow, while also examining shifting patterns of gender. It’s also the most contemporary of Waters’ novels, though she’s slowly creeping towards today. ‘I’m doing a lot of thinking and reading and I have plans to write another book in the post-war setting. Maybe about 1950, that sort of period,’ she reveals. ‘I think I’m going to stay in this post-war world.’

Can she ever imagine writing something set now? ‘If I did write a contemporary novel it would have some sort of identity of its own – it might be a ghost story or something more gothic. I’m as interested in genre as I am in history, so that could take me into the present. For now, it’s still very much the past that inspires me.’

And from that fascination with the past, Waters has achieved a very modern version of success. Could all that fame have gone to her head? What, for example, is the most rock ‘n’ roll thing she’s ever done? ‘I did a gig with the Indigo Girls. That’s the closest I’ve ever come – I was on stage with people with electric guitars!’ she says.

Good answer. But did anyone throw their knickers onstage?

‘No, unfortunately.’

Visiting the dead

March 5, 2010

The city’s graveyards tell mysterious tales about the people who lived there before us

When I was little we used to play in graveyards. We’d scramble round headstones like little Dylan Thomases de nos jours (or de those jours: it was the 1970s then). Me and Andrew Gibbins dived for cover from a runaway horse once, behind the headstones in Hafod Park. Me and Tabitha tried to raise the spirits in the one in Waun Wen. In those days, great mobs of children would run screaming all round town, claiming that they’d just seen a ghost. With a churchyard on every street corner you could never escape the dead in Swansea.

The graveyards of my childhood were plain, austere places with serried ranks of unadorned stone bearing simple inscriptions. Wales is a country where the merest hint of decoration in church (or, rather, chapel) is an affectation dangerously close to Rome. Also, there were no rich people in Swansea, so you never saw any ornate marble mausoleums.

Yet there were thrilling glimpses into other worlds for a child with an overactive imagination. There was the Jewish burial ground perched on top of Townhill, which was always locked, so that you had to scale its tall wall to peer in at the impenetrable Hebrew script, which seemed impossibly exotic to us in our circumscribed world. Or there was the grave in the Gower with the name of the murderer chipped off the headstone of his victim.

This interest in graveyards stayed with me as I grew up and began to travel. I’ve paid my respects to Marx in Highgate and Wilde in Père Lachaise, swooned at Dietrich in Friedenau, left cigarettes for Serge and snubbed de Beauvoir and Sartre for Jean Seberg and Duras in Montparnasse.

And then, after I’d been hunkered down in Amsterdam for three years, it dawned on me (the dawn of the dead?) that I’d never once visited a graveyard here. The hesitation was due in part to the fact that the dead are kept at arm’s length here – and for good reason. In a populous country literally built on water, the last thing you want is the dearly departed leaching into the soil and water supplies. (Cemeteries started springing up outside densely populated areas towards the end of the 18th century, but this precaution wasn’t enshrined in law until 1866). If you want to find the dead here, you have to go and look for them at or beyond the city limits.)

And then, of course, there’s Dutch culture. It lacks big names known abroad – except, of course, for the well-known artists. But even here, the people most of us know best were buried in pauper’s graves (Rembrandt) or interred abroad (Van Gogh). You have to get to know this country before you can learn to love its dead.

But here I was, armed at last with some language skills and cultural knowledge. It was time to start exploring. Any journey through Amsterdam’s cemeteries has to involve one of the biggies – the Nieuwe Oosterbegraafplaats in Watergraafsmeer or Zorgvlied on the banks of the Amstel, both rivals for the ‘Père Lachaise of Amsterdam’ laurel. Each contains notables, but the dead seem to be divided between them. The one contains those who flexed their brains and the other those who enjoyed the pleasure of the senses.

In the Nieuwe Ooster you’ll find poets, politicians and painters aplenty. This cemetery was recently a focal point of attention when polymath film-maker, journalist and provocateur Theo van Gogh was cremated there last November. Zorgvlied, on the other hand, has circus masters, nightclub mavens and punky junkies on its side. Ever conscious of a similar tension in myself between good-time girl and swot, I toss a coin to see what side of the Cartesian split I’ll pursue this time.

Heads it is: the flesh wins out.

Zorgvlied occupies a magnificent position on the road to Oudekerk, along the banks of the Amstel. The riverside spot means it’s ideally placed for waterborne send-offs, and if you want evidence that this place is a departure lounge for sybarites, then look at Manfred Langer’s gravestone. Up against the railings and visible from the road, it features a life-size statue with priapic peaked cap. When he died in 1994, the iT club impresario’s pink coffin was brought here by boat along the Amstel, complete with an entourage that included pumping music and grinding go-go boys. Now vodka bottles are scattered at the base. It’s what he would have wanted.

Standing here, the cemetery – which opened in 1870 – looks pretty small. But once you wander the landscaped lanes (the work of one Jan David Socher and his son) you realise the full extent of it. In fact, it’s a 15-and-a-half hectare necropolis. The oldest section, which was part of the original, much smaller 0.8 hectare site, is on the right as you enter from the Amstel side.

They say that death is the great leveller. But wander in a graveyard and you’ll see that the rich must have their palaces and their seclusion, even in death. Follow the path that curves off to the right, and you’ll tombs that help to make this city make sense. Here’s a Krasnapolsky. There’s Oscar Carré. His great, gated sarcophagus is a good 20 feet tall. It has two Corinthian columns and a roof like a proscenium arch. The circus owner was laid to rest in a scaled-down version of his theatre.

Grander still is the Dorrepaal tomb, the most extravagant I’ve seen anywhere in the city. Unfortunately, information on the family is scant. Whoever they were, they must have been rich, since a life-sized carved angel lays a full-sized stone wreath in an enormous wooden pavilion. Despite the showing off, the grave isn’t meant for prying eyes: you have to clamber up and crane your neck to get a glimpse of the inscriptions, and railings keep back the hoi polloi. I wonder what their house was like?

You couldn’t find a bigger contrast than with Annie M.G. Schmidt’s memorial. While the Dorrepaal’s is forbidding, the writer’s grave has a much more human scale. Visitors, and there must be many,  judging by the gewgaws left behind, place miniature jenever bottles and pottery figurines there as cosy tributes to the storyteller. With its pastel-coloured tiles and gleaming glass surfaces, her tombstone has all the reassuring domesticity of a kitchen.

This abandoned individuality, the lack of gravity of many of the gravestones here, is likely to make foreign eyes (especially sober Welsh ones) pop. They don’t go in for buffed-up granite here, gosh no: here you’ll find graves made of anything from stained glass to chrome to stainless steel. You’ll see hand-made graves and hand-painted ones, and there are Amsterdammetjes galore. And there is another culture shock for repressed Brits: the family graves that display name and date of birth but – not yet, anyway – no date of death. How does it feel to stand at the graveside and see your own name there, waiting? How must it feel to be reminded of your own mortality in such a direct way?

The most chilling one I saw was a twin grave that showed two names, two dates of birth and no dates of death at all. Do the future incumbents ever visit it?

There are some other sombre shocks, too, to shake you out of the island mentality you never knew you had. There’s the grave of Willem Wouthuyzen and Esther Ricardo, who lived in Amsterdam and died in Auschwitz, for instance. However much people in the UK may obsess over the Second World War (and believe me, they do) the horrors of occupation were unknown there. That never really hits home until you become aware of things like this.

And the horrors of wartime occupation are immanent here. By the gates of Rustoord on Weesperstraat in Diemen, for example, the first thing you see is a small memorial stone which reads: TER GEDACHTENIS AAN HEN DIE VIELEN IN DE JAREN 1940-45 DOOR DE HAND VAN DE BEZETTER EN RUSTEN OP DEZE BEGRAAFPLAATS. That means: ‘To the memory of those who fell in the years 1940-45 at the hands of the occupier and who rest in this cemetery.”

Next to the main road, beneath a rattling railway bridge, the spot is suitably grim for such memories. There’s no sheltering greenery or respite from the starkness of death here. Yet it’s one of the most instructive graveyards I’ve visited. Make your way through the grand slabs of graves near the entrance, in the oldest part of the cemetery, where the wealthy have nabbed the best positions (as in life, so in death) and go to the border on the railing side.

A few graves into the new section, on the far left, you should see a great big hunk of highly polished red and black granite. This is the Hell’s Angels’ Broederschap grave. Within lie seven Angels, each of whom was true to the ‘live fast, die young’ dictum, since not one of them made it beyond his forties. The grave – decorated with Christmas baubles and empty JD bottles when I was there – bears the legend AFFA 8118. These palindromes must be meaningful to other Angels, but I’m baffled: like the Dorrepaal’s frill of iron railings, its function is to exclude outsiders.

That insider-outsider dichotomy keeps recurring. A few rows behind the Hells Angels, the Muslim section (dating from the 1970s) begins. You can see the influence of the orient in the fluid elegance of the headstones, some in Arabic, some in Dutch, some in both. A trim hedge divides this section from the rest of the cemetery. It’s part of the bigger whole, but it’s also separate from that whole. I don’t think there’s a neater metaphor for Dutch society.

Nor can I think of anything more bizarre than the pets section, at the very centre. Athos is buried here, and Samson, and a dozen other pets of undisclosed species but specified age (eight, 12, 14), with toy windmills spinning on top. At first I thought I’d stumbled across the children’s quarter, until the odd names made me look closer. It all seems a touch distasteful, in the midst of so many dead humans. No wonder the hedge around it is so high.

Leaving the pets behind, I pick my way through the old part. Here, on the left-hand side as you face the road, a few graves down from the gardeners’’ sheds, is the tomb of the Ansingh family. The last interment, on 14 December 1959, was the painter Lizzy. It’s falling into disrepair now, cracking and subsiding a bit. Funny, isn’t it, how the dead can make the city come to life? From this moment on, Lizzy Ansingh will no longer just be some street name round the corner in De Pijp, but a woman who lived and had a family and died, and whose grave I’ve stood beside. Things fall into place. And your thoughts return to the Second World War as you pass the memorial on your way out again.

They come back again, these thoughts, in Huis te Vraag, on Rijnburgstraat. So many people buried here, you note, died in the first half of the 1940s. Is it coincidence, perhaps, a natural part of the ‘life’ of the cemetery, if you like? This graveyard was opened at the end of the 19th century and closed at the beginning of the 1960s. Or did they fall, like those commemorated at Rustoord, at the hands of the occupiers? Maybe the exigencies of war just wore them out. The grave guards secrets you’ll never know.

That’s what they should do, graveyards: spark your imagination, set you wondering as you wander. At Huis te Vraag, you slip through an unobtrusive entrance to find yourself in a world that looks like it’s straight out of Tennyson’s In Memoriam: cracked stones, gnarled trees, sinking tombs ensnared in ivy. Its pleasures are subtle. There are no big names here, no marble vaults, just ordinary people who did ordinary things and who lie in ordinary graves. But look around and you can learn things it would take an age to research in history books and public records: life expectancies, occupations, what names fall in and out of fashion.

And it’s beautiful here, peaceful and overgrown. I think of Tennyson’s poem: ‘the path that each man trod was dim, or will be dim with weeds.’ Or, as is the case in this country, that path will probably be swept away, one day. (Under Dutch law, a graveyard which has been out of use for 50 years can be cleared and the land reused.) This is a valuable piece of land, next to the Schinkel. In the case of Huis te Vraag, that date (2012) is creeping ever nearer, so you should go and ramble while you can

As for me, I’ve got work to do. I want to look at that behemoth, the Nieuwe Ooster, and the Westgaarde crematorium, where volkszanger André Hazes had his send off in the summer, and the Sint Barbara, up by Sloterdijk. If you go and you see anything dead good, let me know.

Published Amsterdam Weekly 20-26 January 2005. (And in memory of Andrew Gibbins, 1970-2009.)


March 2, 2010

Looking beyond the ‘kebab wars’… Is Van Woustraat erupting as a new culi-boulevard?

Van Woustraat. Unless you live in De Pijp, you probably never visit this traffic-clogged artery road. And even if you are its denizen, no doubt you never go to the eastern reaches to eat; that’s what Frans Halsstraat’s for, right?

If anyone connects Van Wou with eating out at all, then it’s probably with late-night drunkards shovelling down kroket from holes in the wall at Febo and Barbarella, dried-out lahmacun, or what is poetically known in the UK as “shaving the elephant’s leg” – doners from one of the street’s 11 (count ’em!) kebab shops. The pavements here run red with the chilli sauce spilled in recent ‘kebab wars’, a price-slashing skirmish that sees the current rate for a stuffed pita pocket at Genco (number 159) and bitter rival Leeman (No. 160) down to €1.95. The priciest shoarma on the strip is at Eethuis Ora (No. 123) – a vertiginously steep €2. Stick around here long enough and they’ll be paying you to eat.

But wiping away the grease smudges reveals that van Wou’s oleaginous reputation is slowly oozing away. Bog-standard Thai is being shouldered out by authentic Japanese riyouri like Kagetsu (No. 29), which does a killer tempura moriawase, and specialist – destinational, even – culinary spots are springing up like chanterelles.

One of the first to open, at the end of 2003, was Cipi Ripi (No. 200), Amsterdam’s first – and only – deli selling groceries from the former Yugoslavia. It’s the place t head when you want to knock up a Balkan fest at home. There are jars of Macedonian avjar, Serbian čvarci and prsute, with oblate for afters, all washed down with a bottle of Croatian Zlatan Plavac. (Cipi Ripi, by the way, also caters for appetites of a different kind: sporadically, a trestle table is set up outside, where you can flick through pre-owned porn videos. Go figure.)

Another place you’ll not find the likes of elsewhere is Buna Bet (No. 74), a slick-looking Ethiopian coffee shop (of the non-smoking kind), from the country where coffee was discovered. The stichting-run cafe opened in November, and is strictly fair trade; so fair, in fact, that they train women back home to work in the coffee industry as a way of helping them out of prostitution. Amd Meston, who works there, said they opened on Van Wou for the simple reason that it was a ‘good location’.

Eating options here are limited to sticky buns or a tosti, but if the things which transform ‘food’ into ‘dining’ are ritual, tradition, the gathering of people to talk, sharing and being served, then Buna Bet’s traditional coffee ceremony has these in abundance. For €4.50 a head, groups of six to 10 people can while away a couple of hours experiencing a fundamental of Ethipian culture.

Sitting on the floor, drinkers’ beans are roasted on a charcoal stove to release aroma, then crushed with a mortar and pestle. The ground coffee is transferred to a traditional clay pot, then sieved and brewed. When ready, the coffee is poured from a height and drunk black and sweet – very sweet. It’s considered rude to drink less that three cups and the last one – ‘Berekha’ – is blessed. Mesten says the ceremony is quite popular, with 15-20 people a month taking up the ultimate slow food experience. They also sell four varieties of coffee by the cup: Jimma, low-caffeine Yirga, Buna Melange – the house blend – and Harrar, which has a wine-like sharpness.

Talk of wine takes us to Van Woustraat’s most recent epicurean venture, Grape District (No. 54), which opened on 10 April. This wine merchant’s interior is styled along the lines of swankier eateries (think 15 and Herengracht), all exposed brick and bare concrete, with a striking rainbow-coloured sign, enticing enough to make even the strictest adherent of the temperance movement’s wagon wobble.

Grape District’s Joost Bockwinkel says they came to Van Woustraat because ‘the neighbourhood is changing. There are a lot of young people living in the surroundings. We have a very nice spot, a corner shop, so there are lots of people walking by, there’s good visibility. It’s a neighbourhood that connects with our philosophy and our concept.”

Even though the shop has only been open just over a week, it’s doing roaring trade. “It’s been above expectations actually,” says Bockwinkel. “There are lots of people coming in and looking around. Everybody has said it’s something new, a very nice, open shop, a new approach and they like the young appearance.”

There’s just one thing that Van Woustraat lacks – surprisingly, given the number of people who live there with backgrounds from the region – and that’s a really good Turkish restaurant. If you’re after an Ottoman-sized feast, then you’ll have t assemble one yourself from the Turkish grovers that line the street. Or there’s always those kebabs. If you do indulge, then Bockwinkel has this advice for maximising your shoarma’s potential: “The summer’s coming, so if you have a kebab you need wine that has the summer in it, but also has a bit of spice. You should drink one of our roses. I recommend a full-bodied rose called Castell d’Algars.”

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 20-26 April 2006

Dutch courage

January 20, 2010

Published in Diva magazine, August 2005

Chris Crain surely couldn’t have imagined, when he was booking his holiday to Amsterdam, that his presence in the Netherlands would have a profound and lasting effect on Dutch politics.

He never envisaged what would happen on the night of April 30th. It should have been a happy end to a great day out. It was Koninginnedag, the celebration of ex-Queen Juliana’s birthday, which transforms the Dutch capital into one big street party. The central Leidesestraat was still busy with revellers in the early hours of Saturday morning when Crain – all six-foot-seven of him – and his boyfriend started walking back to their hotel. Not far from one of the city’s small gay areas, they were holding hands.

They walked past two young men, one of whom spat on them, and called them ‘fucking fags’. Relating his story to the Dutch police later, Crain remarked that his attackers had ‘Moroccan features’ and spoke with accents that didn’t sound Dutch. The two aggressors – yet to be caught -were joined by five others, and a scuffle broke out in which Crain ended up bruised and broken-nosed.

What his assailants didn’t realise was that Chris Crain is chief editor of US gay weekly The Washington Blade. Following the attack, his highly publicised account on the magazine’s website has sparked off something of an identity crisis for the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular. In the two months since the incident, Dutch natives have been asking themselves: can Amsterdam still legitimately consider itself the gay capital of Europe? Reports across all media have shown that the events of April 30th weren’t a one-off, and that a growing number of lesbians and gay men don’t feel as safe on the streets as they once did.

A survey conducted by the national LGBT campaigning organisation the COC claims that a third of the city’s queer population feel unsafe walking hand in hand with their partners. The city’s mayor, Job Cohen, recently revealed that there are around 20 cases of homophobic violence reported every year. Twenty cases may sound minimal, but for those who regard the country’s famous liberalism as a benchmark of Dutch society it’s a shock: anti-gay feeling in Holland was something that was unthinkable. The changing tide of tolerance – which has always been about putting up with difference rather than embracing it – also shows in the city council’s drive to clean up its red-light district. Part of this move includes the battle to close down those gay men’s backrooms which fall outside a very narrow area of the town centre – which most of them currently do. No conclusion has been reached yet, and the war of words goes on, with Councillor Anne-Lize van der Stoel most vocally in favour of the shutdown. Surprisingly, she’s a lesbian.

But the fact that Crain described his assailants as Moroccan-looking has added another dimension to the debate. The Netherlands’ Moroccan immigrant population has been in the news since the outspoken film maker and author Theo van Gogh was murdered, allegedly by a Dutch-born man of Moroccan origin with extremist Islamic links. Van Gogh critics argue that he was anti-gay, and became a victim of his own Islamomphobia; he reportedly called Dutch Muslims ‘goat-fuckers’. Since that moment in November last year, heated discussions about what: means to be Dutch and the place of immigrants — particularly Muslims — in Dutch society have been raging, and now the focus has turned to lesbian and gay identity. Many Dutch people blame Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, whether first, second or third generation, for stoking up anti-gay hatred. In 2001, Khalil Al-Moumni, an imam in Rotterdam, described homosexuality as an illness, and on national TV compared gay men to dogs. But other people feel that the whole debate is a vicious circle: immigrant people are disenfranchised by Dutch racism, and retaliate by taking out the frustration on gay people – who perhaps symbolise ‘Dutchness’ or Amsterdam – and so it goes on. The role of the Christian Democrat-led coalition government, whose policies are based in part on biblical teachings, shouldn’t be forgotten, either. Anne Klijsters, a lesbian in her mid-20s, think they should shoulder a lot of the responsibility: ‘People in government at the moment are anti-gay. That’s a big problem. They’re afraid of making policies to protect gays. The country’s really going backwards.’

Klijsters’ view is reflected by many lesbians and gay men in the capital, who speak nostalgically about the past gay glory days. ‘It’s strange: eight years ago, people could hold hands on the street and show affection. Now, they’re discriminated against,’ says architect Jan-Peter de Vries.

Nostalgia for the good old days of gay liberation is so strong that Puck Verdoes, a well-known face on Amsterdam’s scene, recently organised something the city hasn’t seen for many years: an LGBT demo. Staged to coincide with the first IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) on May 17th, the kissing and hand-holding protest took place just a couple of hundred metres from where Chris Crain was viciously attacked. Several hundred people showed their solidarity – waving placards that read, ‘Gays are Cool!’, ‘I’m a little bit of everything’ and ‘Transsexual Menace’ – an impressive turnout for an event that was organised in less than a week. Another notable, large presence in the crowd was the media. All the major TV and radio stations attended and the demonstration was the lead story on every news programme that night, proof that the media, at least, is taking the problem of homophobia very seriously.

If anything good has come from the attack on an innocent man, it’s that it has galvanised the LGBT community. On June 9th, the police, COC and Amsterdam City Council announced that they would be working together to combat homophobia. And, just two days before that, a new Dutch-based, international gay rights website,, was launched with the aim ‘to stand up to protect and preserve gay rights within the ever-growing European Union’.

With the Netherlands taking action to curb its burgeoning homophobia, it seems the Queen isn’t going lose her crown just yet.


January 7, 2010

Published Amsterdam Weekly, 24-30 November 2004

It’s apt that Jane Birkin is performing at Carré. The theatre, which reopened on 15 November after a €23 million refurbishment had a ribald start to life – it was originally built as a circus – but over the years it’s become a place for far more decorous entertainment, even gaining the royal stamp of approval along the way.

The 40-odd years of Birkin’s career have taken a not entirely dissimilar path to respectability, from her earliest incar nation as a risqué Chelsea girl to being appointed to the Legion d’honneur (a gong she finally accepted from the French government a couple of years back, after previously refusing it).

The journey from pin-up to favourite eccentric aunt began back in Swinging London, and Birkin’s pedigree from the era is impeccable. Discovered by (who else?) the photographer David Bailey, she’s possibly the prototype model/actress/singer/whatever

She got her first acting role (she’s made more than 70 movies since) in The Knack, but it was in Michelangelo Antonioni’s hymn to pot-smoking, free-loving London, Blow-Up, that she made 1966 a landmark year in UK cinema by becoming that nation’s first onscreen, full-frontal nude (blink, though, and you’ll miss it).

Her love life also kept her in the gossip columns from the moment she married James Bond composer James Barry at the age of 17. Yet it was when love and cinema, collided that Birkin really shot to stardom, particularly in France, which would become her adoptive home.

She left her native London for Paris in 1968 to land a part in the film Slogan opposite the complicated figure of Serge Gainsbourg – Renaissance man. musical genius and chain-smoking drunk. After an inauspicious first meeting (she called him “Serge Bourgignon” to his face, having no clue who he was and knowing no French), the pair soon became lovers and were inseparable for the next 12 years.

Birkin eventually left Gainsbourg in 1980 when his drinking, the late nights, and the intimate documentation of their lives got too much: “Nous sommes mythiques,” Gainsbourg said of their very public relationship. And yes, she is pretty close to a living legend.

But those 12 years were ones of remarkable creativity. Birkin inspired and recorded some of her lover’s finest songwriting, from the proto-concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson to her Ex-fan des Sixties (as well as inspiring, in her time, both the tribute band Baby Birkin and Hermes’s most coveted handbag).
But if you only know one thing about Jane Birkin, it’ll be ‘Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus’, the filthy-chaste duet she and Gainsbourg recorded – with gloriously smutty appropriateness- in ’69. The song immediately caused a furore with its orgiastic moans set against a hypnotic church-organ grind, and was predictably banned.

For that, we can (if we believe music business lore) thank this country’s royal family. Queen Juliana had financial interests in Philips, Gainsbourg’s label, and legend says that when she heard about the scandal the disc was causing she ordered it to be dropped immediately. Naturally, this guaranteed that the record would become a timeless favourite, and 35 years later it can still raise the roof.

But if you think that French pop in general – and Gainsbourg in particular- is just lift music for lounge lizards, then you should hear Arabesque, the album of North African interpretations of his songs that Birkin- now, astonishingly, 58 – has been touring with since 1999 and brings to the Carré on Monday.

She’ll be accompanied by some extraordinary musicians. Djamel Benyelles has worked with the king of rai, Khaled (coincidentally, the first act to play the revamped Carré last Wednesday), and his plaintive violin shadows Birkin’s vocals, alongside Aziz Boularouy’s magical percussion work and Moumen’s haunting voice. Together, they transport Gainsbourg’s compositions from the Seine to the souk, lending them an elegiac quality.

Birkin’s fragile voice, somewhere between schoolgirl and schoolmarm, is never fully French yet not quite English either. Nearly 15 years after the songwriter died, and nearly 25 after Birkin left him, you still get the sense of a woman mourning a lost love she can’t quite give up. Her vulnerability makes the songs valedictory: I defy anyone to hear her ‘La Javanaise’ – an a cappella version sustained by a complex internal rhythm – and remain unmoved. It’s so intimate that you feel you’re intruding on someone’s private grief.

Yet amid the sadness there’s a sense of rejuvenation: North African music was one of the few areas that genre-busting Gainsbourg didn’t master, and Arabesque takes his songs off in new directions years after his death.

With racial tension boiling over, and seemingly no other conversational topic in Amsterdam besides the North African population, Birkin couldn’t arrive at a more fitting moment. For the city to celebrate North African culture instead of treating it as a suspect package will be as refreshing as a sip of mint tea.

And I even want to think – without sounding woefully naïve, I hope – that a Carré full of allochtonen and autochtonen, all there to listen to music at its multi-culti melting pot best, could work its magic and do its small bit to heal the rift.