22 February 2019


Building Bridges.....

Desiderius Erasmus Roterdamus may not have exactly coined the phrase, In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king....  But he certainly gave it currency, a currency (the Euro perhaps?) which is just as relevant today as during his fifteenth century lifetime.....

And I am in Rotterdam, Erasmus's native city, though he wouldn't recognise it since it was almost completely flattened on May 14th  1940 by order of an irate Adolf Hitler who had assumed he could conquer The Netherlands in just one day.

The name, Rotterdam, comes from around 1270, when locals dammed the Rotta, a local stream, whose name means Muddy Waters, which has nothing to do with this Mannish Boy who resides in the  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (currently in a state of major restoration, with a new building going up next door which is not unlike the marvellous Tower of Babel by  Pieter Breughel the Elder which is also here....)...

Oh, yeah 

Oh, yeah 

Everything gonna be alright this mornin'

The city now lies precariously below sea level around extensive docks on the Nieuwe Maas channel, which joins the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta and the North Sea.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, for this is Holland, a part of The Netherlands - the Low Countries - but this evening I dine at De Pijp, (The Pipe), the oldest restaurant in the city, and, it's five metres below sea level.....

There is precious little else of any age here.  The occasional trace of art nouveau glass in a door, a plane tree held up with steel supports, the Witte Huis (1898),

and the Hotel New York (built in 1901 as offices for the Holland American Line, flagship below)....

Most everything else either rose from the ashes of the 1940 firestorm or is from the current millennium, like the extraordinary Markthal (market hall), opened in 2014, created by Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam as the largest artwork in the world: the Horn of Plenty, the cornucopia, with a surface of 11,000 square metres.....

Another daring building is The Red Apple, designed by Kees Christiaanse for the island of Wijnhaven and completed in 2009:

I cannot imagine what Erasmus would make of it all.  Arriving from Basle, his ghost would step off the Thalys at Rotterdam Centraal,

Then, walking out amidst the trams and bicycles, he would stare up at the shining skyscrapers tilting towards heaven,

Then, strolling down by the Westersingel, he would catch the reflections of the wonky blocks opposite, 

Or see the painted face that smiles from the apartments above,

I am enthralled by the exciting variety of modern structures that overwhelm me (I have become the ghost of Erasmus, wandering, totally, how can I say? gobsmacked? by this city....) even though, occasionally, I need to lean against the bar of an Edward Hopper Diner to rest my weary, humanist head.....

Then there's the bridges.  I walk across the span of the Willemsbrug (1981) a mere 318 metres long, 33 metres wide and 65 metres high, 

Which contrasts in many ways with the 800 metre long Erasmusbrug, De Zwaan (The Swan), completed in 1996.  This has an asymmetrical 139 metre high pylon and forty graceful stays.  It sweeps across the New Meuse and is a marvel of grace and poise....

And it may be a platitude to say that building bridges is soooo much better than constructing walls.  

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down....

But the difference between Erasmus and the 'great' men of our time is that the former didn't have his head in a bag, metaphorical or not.....

He wore a sensible, head-warming hat to protect his fizzing brain.....

This was a man who studied, travelled, explored, wrote, taught.  He studied at Paris, Leuven and Turin; was a friend of Thomas More and John Colet, lectured at Oxford and Cambridge; influenced Tyndale and the translators of the King James Bible; and left a legacy that survives today almost five hundred years after his death.  Which legacy is not only in the beautiful bridge in Rotterdam, and in the city's university, but also in the Erasmus Programme, which assists undergraduates who wish to study abroad (his name is used as an acronym for the European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), and Erasmus+, the EU's programme to support education, training, youth and sport....

So, building bridges, supporting people's mobility and integration, whoever they are....

I am not the only tourist in Rotterdam, but the city is not inundated. I hear Spanish spoken over a beer on a boat,

And find myself sitting next to a Scotsman in a bar, sharing his bottle of Spey-side whisky with a friend, but he has lived here for thirty years.....  

It is a busy place, teeming with workers and students whizzing past on bicycles or flooding through the stations....

I meet Kika, five months old, nothing but friendly...

And enjoy the relaxed, unself-conscious air of the streets,

Where even the wildlife is colourful and friendly....

I cannot claim to have studied Erasmus, but read that he did more than anyone else to advance the revival of learning and protested in the interests of the people against the thoughtless tyranny of their rulers....

I understand him to have said, That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland (patria) of all....'

And if that isn't a sensible appeal to build bridges rather than walls, I'm a dutchman.....

So I repair to the Grand Cafe Wester Paviljoen, on the corner of the Nieuwe Binnenweg and the Matthenesserlaan, and take a ghostly beer....

There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other....

Desiderius Erasmus

Oh Yeah!

13 February 2019

Not Dark Yet

Time will say nothing

Shadows are falling and I been here all day

It's too hot to sleep and time is running away

Feel like my soul has turned into steel

I've still got the scars that the sun didn't let me heal

There's not even room enough to be anywhere

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

Well, I found myself in the middle of a dark wood, mulling over the obscure paths we follow in life, and it occurred to me that my sense of humanity was going down the drain....

Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain

I saw this haunted, frightened tree, its trunk smashed by the wind, and, the thought occurred to me that,

I just don't see why I should even care

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

So, being a little footloose, and free of fantasy, I closed the heavenly door of my private and personal  dwelling, through whose leaded panes the sun was winking goodbye,

Wished the fish in my moat farewell, envying for a moment their gelid blood, their fourth degree turpitude,

And, choosing not on this occasion (that  ontological option - free choice! or is that epistemological?) to extricate my old bicycle from the clutches of the spreading bracken,

I light out for the territory, fearful that some Aunt Sally might try to sivilize (sic) me....

You know, I really can't stand it?  I been there before.....

Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree

I followed the river and I got to the sea

I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies

I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes

As the dusky gatherings confuse me, and  the wheels fall off and burn, (the seat covers fade and the water moccasins die),

Well, there's too many people

And they're all too hard to please

I take refuge by the fireside of a quiet inn, picking at the warp and weft that hold together our current chaos.....

I feel the spinning of the world, the careering past light and dark so blinding as to take away my inspiration, my very breath....  Outside the bric-a-brac of accumulations sits fixed upon the shelf,

The tin of 'Brasso' out of reach behind the closed glass of time.

Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

Down the street the dogs are barkin'

And the day is a-gettin' dark
As the night comes in a-fallin'
The dogs'll lose their bark

The tower of St Mildred's looms above me, bells chiming in practiced peals,

Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

It is night and the light is dead.  I touch the boards above my face, the claustrophobic walls of seeming gentle life, wishing for a dawn against my will.....

I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from

Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer

It's not dark yet 

but it's gettin' there.

Not Dark Yet 

Bob Dylan

Time will say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

If I Could Tell You

W H Auden (1940)

*     *     *     *


Not Dark Yet was recorded in January 1997 and released in September that year on the album Time Out of Mind.

In the Chapter entitled Paul Smith, at the top of page 213 of my 2011 Picador edition of Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel American Psycho, I read the following sentences:

Nancy asks, "How's the shad roe at Rafaeli's?" Right now, outside this store, it's not dark yet but it is getting there.