At one time I was a very traditional boy. I was a senator in the cadet corps of the Royal Military Academy (Dutch acronym KMA) and in my spare time I wore a blazer with the KMA emblem. And I had put my para wing on my pyjamas and swimming trunks.
This last act was meant to counterbalance my rather poor swimming abilities. When I had to dive to retrieve disks from the bottom of the swimming pool, I sailed like a decrepit submarine, in those swimming trunks with the para wing, just under the water’s surface, while my fellow student Engelbert used his two-metre tall body to hand the disks up to me from the bottom.
And yes, I went through a tough initiation period, and learned to smoke cigars and drink large quantities of beer. And I also did some things that should remain unmentioned, such as in Brussels, when I distracted attention from the fact that my fellow senator D. was removing the sign ‘Chairman of the Senate’ from the upper chamber of the Kingdom of the Belgians.
In short, I was an enthusiastic part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. You, here in England, may have missed it, but in the Netherlands the traditions and customs of student clubs are incorporated in the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Just like, among others, the trades of a traditional miller, hedge laying, snuff making and the parade to celebrate fruit growing in Tiel.
It’s a long story, but I ended up being a poet. Quite a change, from one intangible cultural heritage to another: poetry.
Recently, I was at the Edinburgh Book Festival. They had interesting events featuring Dutch authors. With the exception of Kader Abdolah, all these authors were casually dressed. Maybe something to add to the intangible cultural heritage: the dress sense of Dutch authors. There are times when you long for a decent suit.
I myself was wearing sandals (with socks!) because of ‘difficult feet’. Yes, even at the reception organised by the Flemish Representation and the Dutch Embassy (it was unclear why representatives of the latter organisation were nowhere to be seen), because I had no time to change. And this in a country which regards combining brown shoes with a dark suit as a deadly sin. But I’m a poet, so I can get away with murder.
I listened to a conversation between a jovial Flemish representative and a female representative of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. The Flemish representative tried to keep the conversation going. There were quite a few similarities between Flemish and Scottish, so he said. ‘A bessem is a term for an ugly woman in Scottish as well as Flemish.’
The councillor of the City of Edinburgh, who looked rather lovely, nodded politely. I glanced at my sandals. The Flemish representative didn’t mean any harm, and my mother would have said ‘he rather put his foot in it’, but all I could think was: and I’m even wearing sandals, what must she be thinking?
My new poetry collection is being launched on 8 September. I’m going to be there in a suit (without sandals but with proper shoes) and I won’t say anything naughty. There will be guys I haven’t seen in thirty years. Guys who knew me when I was sporting that wing on my pyjamas and swimming trunks. The sale of books is taken care of by D., the guy who was involved in the Belgian Senate sign issue, and the same D. who is featured in my debut novel. It promises to be a very special evening. Long live the intangible cultural heritage!
By Arnold Jansen op de Haar
Translation Holland Park Press
This column was originally published as part of Holland Park Press’s Magazine on 7 September 2016.