On The Road In Holland

On The Road In Holland, notes and impressions in the quaint country of dykes and canals is a book by Charles G. Harper, an English author and illustrator. It was first published in 1922 and describes Harper’s journey as a tourist in Holland. In general he is positive about the country and its inhabitants, but after a while his condescending attitude begins to grate a little. It is typical of that time, when making journeys abroad was not all that common, and when every Tom, Dick and Harry (for they were usually men) who went to foreign places felt an urge to publish their descriptions, diaries, opinions on the locals and drawings.

On The Road In Holland

Harper introduces Holland thus:

“To visit Holland is, for the stranger to that country, to be interested and amused all day and every day. Everything is strange and beside one’s usual experiences. The scenery for most part is nothing… But if Holland’s scenery be tame, its buildings, public and private, are extremely often romantically beautiful.

The untravelled Englishman’s idea of Holland as a country where the people in general wear outlandish costumes and walk in wooden shoes is not altogether correct. Some do, in the rustic parts; but even in the smaller provincial towns the Dutch girls – the “meisjes,” – are often as up-to-date as any London flapper… They are not infrequently very pretty. They grow, it is true, what we think to be more typically Dutch: solid and with thick ankles.”

The author goes from Haarlem to Amsterdam and apparently the road between those two places was as dreary then as it is now:

“I left Haarlem for Amsterdam by road. Had I known what those ten miles of road were like, I would have gone any other way, for truly it is as depressing a route as well may be imagined; and it does by no means maintain the picturesque promise of the exit from Haarlem by the Amsterdamsche Poort. … In all those ten miles to Amsterdam you pass through dismal dull scenes such as you are accustomed to on the outskirts of every great and growing city. … An unpicturesque canal on one side, an electric light-railway on the other, and an ordinary railway, all combine to make the way very unpleasant; and there are many more motor cars here than anywhere else in Holland; a country where, as a rule, there are singularly few.”

Another recurring feature in many travelogues written before the second world war is the undiguised anti-semitism. Many travel books about Holland, and especially Amsterdam, contain discriminatory passages, full of insults and generalisations that were to become commonplace, and de rigeur, in Nazi Germany. In post war society these comments were, of course, denounced and condemned by the general public, conveniently forgetting that anti-semitism did not just happen in Germany. Here is an example from Harper’s book published in 1922 in the UK:

“Amsterdam has a population of 570,000, including not far short of 70,000 Jews in whose hands – dirty hands as a rule – is most of the diamond trade. … It needs no Sherlock Holmes’s penetration to identify a Jew when you see one; nor is the occupation of a diamond-merchant less obvious. His is the elongated, rarely cut nail of the little finger, with which it is found most convenient to sort diamonds and brilliants. … They [people wearing traditional Dutch costume] are better worth looking at than are the diamond-merchant Jews of Amsterdam, who wear a good deal of their stock-in-trade on their persons, but do not appear to make a fetish of washing themselves.”

In fact Harper’s politics are no less offensive:

“The Dutch, as I say, and shall say constantly in these pages, are a likeable and polite people, glad to please; but there is an objectionable leaven in the great populous cities. That is the way in cities populous and great and crowded. A man, intending to be rude, pushed me in the Harlemmer Straat and in the side. Just one of Amsterdam’s lower working-class men; one of those friends of Mr. Troelstra, the Socialist deputy, I suppose. … That is the kind of thing the Socialist Party in Holland, as elsewhere, may reasonably be expected to approve; the hatred of the neckcloth for the linen collar. … I returned the fellow a backhander which knocked off his cap. He took it lamb-like, although a more powerful man, and picked up his cap and disappeared. A policeman looked on, impassive, remote, non-committal.”

After visiting Amsterdam he takes continues the customary tourist route and visits Volendam, Marken and Monnickendam. This is still very much standard for package tours to the Netherlands today.

Monnickendam

Monnickendam

“If towns, like persons, may be said to have retired from business, then Monnickendam is one of them. There is an air of quite satisfied well-being about it, and about most of those old Dutch towns said to be “dead,” that really renders the description absurd.”

This place still looks very similar today:

Monnickendam Now

Monnickendam Now


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