Henk and I
Henk and I first met on 29th April 1952 on an Amsterdam Central Station platform where he had come to meet my early morning train from the Hook of Holland. After taking a B.A. degree in Germanic Languages at the University of Melbourne in December 1951 I was on my way to spend a year in Bonn on a scholarship. Henk’s elder brother Rein, later Professor of Dutch at the University of London, had been one of my mentors in Melbourne and he had suggested that en route for Bonn I might be able to stay for a few days in Amsterdam with his aunt in the Haarlemmermeerstraat where Henk had an attic room. For a number of reasons of no importance here I knew Rein and his wife Edith, better than students usually know staff members.
I still have the letters we wrote to each other, mine dated 21st April and Henk’s apologetically the 25th. He had been in Zwolle, I presume for Easter, and my letter had not been forwarded.
He wrote, ‘My aunt is not sure whether she can put you up or not, it depends on the two airmen, who are also boarders and come and go at irregular intervals. But I think that for the first night at least I can help you: my next-door neighbour never arrives before Wednesday; today I will write him to ask if I may use his room, so that you can take mine which is not very convenient, I am afraid, but maybe you do not care so much about that.’
The next-door neighbour was Lou van Oyen, a student of Dutch and later one of the characters in J.J. Voskuil’s Bij nader inzien. He lived in The Hague and came to Amsterdam to attend lectures. It strikes me as odd now that Henk planned to write to him but neither of them had a phone in those days let alone e-mail.
He continued: ‘Please let me know at what time you will arrive so that I can meet you at the station, for I know the troubles of being in a foreign town.’ I must have written a second letter with my time of arrival but that has disappeared. At all events Henk met the train and we were soon becoming better acquainted at Smits Koffiehuis opposite CS. My memory is hazy about how precisely the rest of the day evolved, but I think we must have taken the tram to the Surinameplein, said hello to Henk’s Aunt Ali and dropped my suitcase, returning to the centre in the afternoon to take a canal trip in a boat I described in a letter to my mother ‘as streamli-
Henk en Molly, Zwolle 1952.
ned as the Italian buses’ she and I had traveled on after arriving in Naples on an Italian ship. Air travel to and from Australia was still very exceptional.
We then had coffee at De Zilveren Spiegel where we photographed each other on the tiny terrace outside. Although I don’t clearly remember either of these events I do remember that Henk had, rather typically and impractically, cycled to the station in the morning and as a result, returning to the Haarlemmermeerstraat I had my first ride ever on the back of a bike.
How we got to the Concertgebouw that same evening I don’t recall but I still have a vivid picture in my mind’s eye of the moment Marius Flothuis went to take a bow on the platform of the Kleine Zaal after his Sonate Da Camera had been played for the first time by the harpist Phia Berghout and flautist Hubert Barwahser. Menuhin was playing in the Grote Zaal.
The next day was Koninginnedag and perfect spring weather. We must have walked into town through the Vondel Park as I still have two photos of the park on the same page as one of the canals (Prinsengracht?) with houses decked with flags and only two parked cars to be seen. In 1952 Koninginnedag was very different from what it is today. There was virtually no street market, apart from a few vendors of soft drinks or snacks. But there were performers, musicians and clowns or conjurers and we sat and watched them in the sunshine on the Singel on a terrace on an open space which quite soon made way for a new UB building.
In the afternoon we took the train to Bussum to visit brother Rein’s in-laws, who were anxious to have first hand news of their daughter and son in law. We got back to Amsterdam at about 11 p.m. when we went first to the Teddy Cotton Club near the Waag which I wrote my mother was in the Sailors Quarter and had been ‘slashing’, then the English word for ‘cool’. We ended up dancing to a student jazz
band playing outside the police station on the Leidseplein. Outside Reijnders Henk pointed out ‘several of the younger generation of Dutch artists and poets’. We stayed there until about 3.15, and then walked back to the Haarlemmermeerstraat. ‘Even at that hour there were people selling and eating eel in the street. By the time we got home and made a cup of tea and ate some peanuts it was past four and dawn was breaking.’
I recall us both being tired the next day. And how hot it was when we walked to the Stedelijk Museum to see, in addition to the collection, a fascinating exhibition of Harry van Tussenbroeck’s weird and wonderful dolls, later all regrettably destroyed according to his wishes laid down in his Will.
The next morning I caught the Rheingold to Bonn. Henk’s aunt had cut sandwiches for me and Henk gave me oranges and sweets and a print of a cat by Theo Kurpershoek that I had admired in his room. We had promised to write to each other. In Bonn I was met again at the station, this time by a young student of dentistry who had contacted my professor of German asking him if he thought it would be a good idea for him to immigrate to Australia. We became good friends although I told him that I was head over heels in love with Henk.
That August Henk and I met again first in Zwolle where with my mother, who had traveled with me to England, and I stayed with his parents for a few days. Later Henk arrived in London where my mother and I were staying with friends. Among my memories of that time are a visit to Battle in Sussex where the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, a boat trip along the Thames to Hampton Court and eating toffee apples together on Westminster Bridge. The two of us also hitchhiked to Bath and Wells, Glastonbury, Minehead and Porlock, though I’ve very little recollection of it apart from reading Jane Austen on the back of a slow moving lorry and Henk having wakened frightened by a sound which turned out to be a branch scratching on the window pane of the hostel we were staying in.
He then returned to Holland and I to Bonn, after seeing my mother off on a ship back to Melbourne. We spent Christmas together with Henk’s parents in Zwolle and we decided that I could just as well continue to work on my M.A. thesis in Holland as in Bonn so after finding a room close to Henk’s I moved to Amsterdam two days before the Zeeland disaster of the night of the 31st January/1 February 1953.
It took me nine years to persuade Henk to visit Germany and meet Günther, who never did migrate to Australia, but gradually they became good friends although it took more than forty years before they ever spoke of the war together.
What follows are excerpts from letters to my mother, the first dating from 1st February 1953. Gerben Wynia asked me if I couldn’t write something about our early relations with Han and Loesje Voskuil and Gerard and Hanny van het Reve. Henk
V.l.n.r.: Henk, Molly, Loesje en Han.
himself dealt in some detail with his friendship with Gerard in Toen Reve nog Van het Reve was
and although I remember visiting and eating with them in the Galerij and the exotic decorations brought home from the Boekenbal that hung in the stairway, much that was said probably still passed me by. At any rate I do not have the memory for what people said fifty-five years ago that Henk often had.
I’m afraid the excerpts are all embarrassingly youthful and naïve but may give some idea of how very different or the same student life was then and now.
After dinner last night I came round to Henk’s to do some translation with him, he has an exam on 8th Feb. It was terribly windy and wet and when I was going to go home about 11 p.m. it was like a hurricane and Henk’s aunt didn’t want us to leave. So I stayed the night in one of her student’s room, who was away for the weekend. This morning I went around to my room, there were piles of broken tiles all over the streets and many broken windows. Areas have been roped off where there is danger of more falling tiles. It is the worst storm in Holland for about half a century. Many of the dikes are broken, Rotterdam is half under water, train services and electricity and telephone disconnected everywhere in the province of south Holland. It seems to have been bad in England too and the night boat to Ireland sank with a lot of passengers. The boats to and from England and Holland didn’t leave at all. All military forces on leave in Holland have been called back to their barracks and every man between 15 and 45 in the areas where dikes are down have had to report to their town halls with shovels. The Red Cross and other organizations are asking for help
and many polder towns and villages have been evacuated. It is slightly better now but last night you couldn’t move in the wind and people had bicycles blown from under them. It is a national disaster.
Last night we went to a most superb concert. The American negro Big Bill Broonzy. He is an old Blues singer. He has a terrific voice and just brought the house down. He is a very sympathetic and simple figure and every time people clapped he said Thank you, thank you and thank you again. He is 59 and his mother is 101 and an uncle 104. They were both in slavery. You might tell Rein and Edith that I at last met their friends Mr and Mrs Voskuil there and we are going to visit them.
Will you tell Rein and Edith that we spent a very nice evening with Han and Loesje Voskuil. Just nattering but great fun. Han has asked me to play chess with him which will be fun but I’m sure I’ll be mopped up.
I don’t know if Rein knows that his friend Han Voskuil has got his doctoraal Cum Laude
On Friday night we went to Han and Loesje Voskuil, as usual we spent a hilarious evening screaming with laughter.
7th July 53
Last Thursday night we went to the Stuttgarter Kammerorchest in the Concertgebouw. They played the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Brandenburger Concertos and it was just out of this world. It is easily the best concert I have ever been to. Absolutely ‘mieters’. Han and Loesje were there and afterwards we all went to Reijnders where we sat outside and talked until one o’clock. Henk and I only had 90 cents between us so Han was left to foot the bill. He told us all that he only had 3 guilders and Loesje laughed hysterically when the bill came to over 4 guilders, however Han then produced more money so all was well. Will you tell Rein and Edith that Han has been offered a beaut job in Paris [unless this was supposed to be the Coal and Steel job it never came off – em] and all going well they will go there in September. It is a translating job with absolutely phenomenal holidays. Doesn’t that make Rein green with envy, it does us.
22nd October 53
Today I had a letter to say that I had been accepted for that part-time librarian’s job
at the Royal Institute for the Tropics. I am going there next week with Loesje Voskuil who really got me the job and she will show me the ropes – she had the job before.
Henk had sent poems to Maatstaf and received a nice letter from Bert Bakker who didn’t accept them but asked for more. He said they were influenced by Achterberg.
This evening Henk has gone off to Leiden to a meeting cum party of Minerva, the magazine which publishes some of his poems. We are both interested to know what the other poets are like, we don’t like their work much, but they probably don’t like Henk’s. He has gone off in a clean shirt and best suit most unlike him but he is determined not to give the impression of a long-haired poet.
Christmas Eve ’53
Last Monday evening we went to Han and Loesje and spent a super time – there were eight of us there Frida [Vogels] (Rein knows her) whom I met for the first time, Han’s two brothers and Eddie de Boer a Surinamer – an extremely nice chap very clever. Everyone argued until about one a.m. about whether Eddie did think in different terms from us i.e. whether he was influenced by his African past or assimilated into European ideas and ways of thought.
14th Jan 1954
Yesterday we had some exciting news: Maatstaf, which is, whatever you like to say about it, the best lit. mag. in Holland at present has accepted a short story of Henk’s [‘Wim, Emmy en ik’ – em]. We are of course very thrilled as the best people publish in it. The royalty is about £2/2 [I must have been thinking of two guineas. Probably about f 20 – em] which is not stupendous but only rags pay fabulous sums. The editor wrote a very nice letter asking for more.
10th February 1954
Last Thursday night there wasn’t much to do at Antara [the Indonesian press agency where I had an evening job – em] so I left early and went to Han and Loesje Voskuil who were just back from a fortnight in Strasburg where Han worked as a translator for a session of the Coal and Steel. He hopes to go back there in May when he is able to leave the job he has now [at the Stichting Culturele Samenwerking Sticusa – em]. The translators have divine jobs there. The whole thing lasts for about 3 months a year in Strasburg and Luxemburg and you earn £ 8/4/- a DAY during that time, enough to live on for the year. Han worked this time for 13 days and
Brief van James Brockway aan Henk Romijn Meijer
earned over £
110. Fantastic heh. He is translating French into Dutch and said that if I were still here next year I might be able to get a job there as there are English observers and then I could translate Dutch into English. This time he could have worked until May in Litxemburg if he hadn’t had to come back for his job – as there was some other conference and still on £
8 a day!!
Last Saturday evening we went to Han and Loesje Voskuil and had as usual a great time nattering until 1.30 a.m. They are super friends. Next week they are coming to us to listen to records again – we borrow beaut ones from the British Council, at the moment we have a Violin Concerto by Bach and a lot of records from Shakespeare by John Gielgud (sic!) and an excerpt from Finnegans Wake read by the author James Joyce which is utter bliss.
We are reading Winnie the Pooh & House at Pooh Corner. We borrowed them from Han Voskuil. They never tire. I must have read them at least fifty times. Henk adores them.
3rd March ’54
Last night as there was no packet at Antara I went to Han and Loesjes who live a few doors away from the office. As usual an uproarious evening. Tell Rein this: they have a borrowed copy of Du Perron’s Land van Herkomst with all the notes he made on it (copied) [het zg. Greshoff-exemplaar – red.]. They are copying out the notes and going to give us a duplicate.
I am lending Loesje V my typewriter for a few weeks as she wants to practice with the view of getting a job as typist at the Coal and Steel in Strasburg when Han goes again in May.
Oh something funny the time before last when we were at Han and Loesjes I said in connection with something that Rein was at 49 [my mother’s house – em] and Han said Oh does your mother know Rein? Oh yes I said he sees her quite often. But says Han your mother’s MUCH older than Rein (roars of laughter), Henk I think said Oh there’s nothing between them. But Han remained unconvinced and couldn’t quite understand it all and asked if you were like me.
31st March ’54
[…] tell Rein that the Voskuils have been lent an old farm house in the Dordogne in France.
Wouldn’t it make you spit chips? I have seen photos of it – utter heaven with a castle in the middle distance. The owner is the director of the Moderne Boekhandel and he bought it for £ 500, has renovated it inside but can only go there himself for six weeks in the summer. If the offer holds, they will start living there in September as they work in Strasburg in the summer. Then their flat here will be vacant – maybe I can rent one of the rooms, the whole flat costs £ 5 [f 20 – em] odd, central heating included (two rooms, toilet and kitchen and washbasin in cupboard), but that is a bit much for me alone – maybe I can share it with someone. Of course if they go and live in France we will miss their company but can spend holidays with them sometime.
12 th April ’54
Last Saturday we went round to Han and Loesje where I met an old friend of Rein’s Jaap Oversteegen for the first time. He is very nice and most amusing. We stayed until about 1.45 am and laughed like drains.
5th May ’54
Last Friday evening [Koninginnedag – em] we arranged to go with Han and Loesje to hear some jazz but when we got there we didn’t like it, so walked out and went to see what was happening on the Leidse Plein. It was so full of people you couldn’t move and we didn’t like it there either. The evening was threatening to be a failure when we decided to go to La Pergola, the Italian restaurant. There we ate Canapé
Romano and gorgonzola and drank a bottle and a half of wine between us and talked until 1 am. It was very gay even if it did come to 10/- each. There were Italians singing and every time they came to a crescendo we crescendoed with them and eventually had the whole restaurant in hysterics, ourselves included.
31 May ’54
We went to the 10 year jubilee of the magazine Podium last Saturday night. It started at 8.45 and went on until about 4 a.m. Until midnight prose and poetry was read by W.F. Hermans, Bert Schierbeek, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Remco Campert, Jan Elburg and others of which only the first was very interesting, altho’ Campert and Elburg managed to read a fairly decent poem each. Van het Reve and his wife were there and Lucebert who also performed. Schierbeek brought the house down with a line ‘geef ons buffels, buffels, buffels’ unintentionally funny.
At midnight an elderly Spanish lady got up to sing Spanish songs – she was about as Spanish as I am and tended to explain everything as if to kindergarten children. The crowd of about 300 mostly students and Le Canard members got a bit restive as the remainder of the evening was to be devoted to jazz and dancing and began to clap and whistle while she sang. The good soul took that as enthusiastic applause and sang encore after encore. At last it was too much and people began throwing coasters, there were two upper galleries in the café which were busiest, still she went on, now to a rain of paper, as a newspaper Het Vrije Volk (Han Voskuil’s father is editor) had been freely distributed at the entrance, people tore it into scraps and it billowed down accompanied by three table-cloths into the hall. Eventually Gerrit Borgers quelled the mass and the lady was removed. The jazz was only too successful as it was supposed to stop at 3 a.m. but dancing went on until 3.45. We originally left at 2.15 but on arriving at my place per borrowed bike as we had gone by tram because it was raining I found my room key missing. I knew I had had it at the café as I had used it to cut! an open sandwich as we had no knife. Back we went and found it luckily and were able to see the last sensations of the evening.
25th June ’54
Last Friday Henk had a letter from an Englishman in The Hague asking if he could have permission to translate his story ‘Wim, Emmy en ik’ and try and place it in an English magazine. H. wrote that that was alright but that we would like to see the translation first. He got a letter back saying he would be in Amsterdam today (Fri.) and we could meet him. We did this afternoon. His name is James Brockway, he is about 38 and has published quite a bit of poetry inc. one book in ’48 and prose. He has lived in Holland for eight years now and speaks Dutch extremely well. He was in the raf in the war and flew in India. He lives on translating now tho’ he has had a job here. He was very nice, a peculiar little man to see, about 5 ft 1″ and with a limp, quite a bright little face with intelligent eyes and very well read in English, Dutch
Liftend langs de Côte d’Azur, 1954.
and French literature. A very English accent which doesn’t go with his rather continental clothes and open unshy manner. We went over the translation with him which is excellent, a few things that needed alteration but it was extremely fresh and idiomatic.
30 vi 54
On Saturday morning I went round to Han and Loesje to see if they were back from Strasburg. They had returned the night before and so I stayed to lunch and arranged that we should go there in the evening. Loesje had also been working at the Coal and Steel as Han’s typist. Han has applied for job of lecturer in Dutch at the Sorbonne in Paris. He doesn’t think he has much chance as the prof is R.C. [Roman Catholic – red.] and Han’s father is editor of a big socialist paper. It would be very nice for them, but it isn’t enough to live on as Paris is so dear. Han says too that he would be so tied down – he has to lecture 2 days a week! In the evening we went to Casablanca with them where we saw the famous French actors Gérard Philipe and Jean Vilar who were in a production of Le Cid that evening in Amsterdam. They are both quite young and look very nice, not at all roué.
30 Oct ’54
On Thursday evening we went to Han and Loesje for an hour or so. As usual we had great fun. They have next to no money at the moment but Han goes to Strasburg at
the end of November for his job. They have £ 300 a year but Han only works for 2 months of the year and so can do a lot of work for himself. He is busy learning Italian now and reading Ulysses by James Joyce which means he is surrounded by about 12 reference books and piles of notes. Whatever he does he does thoroughly.
15 November ’54
We heard half an hour ago that Henk has won the Reina Prinsen Geerlig prize for literature for 1954. I am in such a state I can hardly type and will probably have to finish this tomorrow. The prize is the only Dutch prize for writers under 26 and was instituted after war in memory of R.P.G. who was a girl killed in the war. It is a very well known and much coveted prize not so much for the financial side of it as for the honour. It is worth about £ 20 sterling plus having your book published and getting a little on royalties. You will probably get this the day it is awarded 24 Nov. at 3.30 p.m. at the University. H. has got it for seven short stories. He entered them in July neither of us being very optimistic. Two weeks ago he got a letter asking his age which he had forgotten to say and then we were a bit suspicious but tried hard not to be optimistic. It is going to be pretty busy as he has to be available for the press and photographers etc, go to parties etc. (me too). The day of the awarding I have to work at the library but hope I can get someone to do it for me instead. The funny thing is that he now has to choose a title before tomorrow for the book and can’t think of one. It may be Consternation which is the name of one of the stories. He may also choose a publisher as they all descend like flies for the job, even tho’ it usually takes up to 18 months before it is published.