Saturday, 2 May 2020

Liberation



I will put out the flag at half mast once more on Monday 4 May, our Remembrance Day for WW2, which is 75 years in the past now. I mainly do so to honour my father's classmates. Almost all of them were shot by the occupying German forces, because they were part of a Brabant resistance group that was betrayed. Theo Polet, my Dad, had moved to Amsterdam just in time, otherwise he might have died too.
 
Theo Polet, my father, in 1946
I have never been properly able to understand what it must have been like for my parents to live under a foreign occupation. Until the spring 2020 pandemic hit us, killing thousands and completely disrupting life.

The Corona lockdown is not comparable to a state of war, because the tyranny and gross violence of the German occupiers was many times worse than the threat of the virus. But it probably feels about the same - aged people, who have experienced 1940-45, recognize it: powerlessness, grief, fear and anger, but also a suddenly rediscovered communal spirit.

Long ago, my father wrote his war memoirs. They fill many pages of a closely typed text, in which I found familiar, but also surprising new anecdotes. He was almost 17 years old, when he saw the German bombers fly over his hometown of Waalwijk,
to hit Rotterdam, exactly 80 years ago. He writes the following:

"... There was a brown-yellow smoke high in the air, which passed over us with the prevailing west wind. A few weeks after the bombing I saw Rotterdam myself. The rubble still smoked, a large department store was a distorted skeleton. The shipwrecks lay in the harbour, the same ships in which I would have sailed if there had been no war. My future changed drastically ... "

The latter was a surprise to me. I never realized that he wanted to go to sea as well as I years later. Fortunately he didn’t go to sea: seafaring was a life-threatening business in WW2.

 
Burning ships in Rotterdam, May 1940
What followed after May 1940 was five years of ever-increasing restrictions, persecutions and massacres by the occupying forces. A hundred thousand of my countrymen were put on the train, first to the Westerbork camp, then to the gas chambers. My mother told the story of the “evacuation” of the Jewish nursing home in Apeldoorn, which she was forced to watch at gunpoint by the black-uniformed thugs, a 15-year-old girl on her way to school. The memory remained with her until her death.

As a 19-year-old, my father sat up with an elderly Jewish neighbour all night, after the Germans had refused to carry the old man down the stairs. He wouldn’t leave him alone. The next day they also took him away. My father joined the resistance in Amsterdam after the proclamation of Queen Wilhelmina establishing the Underground Army in September 1944. He never said much about that, but it can be read in his memoirs.


The Monument in Westerbork Camp
What May 2020 has in common with May 1940 is our total lack of preparation for a catastrophe. The disarmament drive of the 1930s was prompted by the same lack of vision that has left our economy and health care so vulnerable in 2020. Precautions apparently were no longer necessary.

There is not only a parallel in lack of foresight, but also in the unfeeling attitude of those in power - apparently that goes hand in hand. During the occupation, the Dutch authorities cooperated, at least in part, nicely with the Germans. As a result, a hundred thousand people could be taken away with the greatest ease.

In 2020, our Cabinet abandons displaced refugee children to their fate in Greek camps, where they have a high chance of contracting Corona or another disease. And the Alderman for Welfare closes the municipal shelter
for illegal refugees in Leiden, in the midst of the epidemic, nicely according to plan. Seven people walked into the rain with their suitcases, into homelessness. Apparently it couldn’t wait. It is of a different order than actually participating in a pogrom, but the harshness is the same.

The experts seem to agree that this will not be the last pandemic. The future of our young people could also change drastically. How will we prepare better and make our society more robust, less dependent on scarce resources and scarce health care? Some kind of Pandemic Marshall Plan? Have we learned from it, and above all, have our politicians learned from it?

I fear the worst. The first thing those in power lose is the ability to listen.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

The world turned upside down

Last week I sent the Dutch manuscript for The Transport to my publisher, Palmslag.


The Transport, like The Batavian, my first book, is set in the years before the Corona pandemic.

It is too early to say if and when we will return to a normal world as we knew it. It can only be expected that many things will change. Hopefully for the better, although I am not so certain. Freedom, civil rights, privacy and health are all at risk.

Unlimited travel, dirt cheap subsidized air traffic, round trips to the Seychelles, Peru or Thailand will also feel the consequences of this crisis. Far worse is the situation of countless people, who lose their income and run into great trouble.

I know a poor family in Ghana. Due to the lockdown, which also applies there, they can hardly leave the house, and the six of them are in a small house. A day laborer cannot make money to feed his family in such a situation. They were a little ashamed to ask if I could help out financially. You can do little else, can you?


Jamestown, Accra, Ghana
What bothers me as an author? Personally, of course, the same as everyone in the Netherlands: less freedom of movement, hardly seeing your children, family and friends, not going to the movies or the museum. And the tiny chance that you will get the virus too.

But if you've written a manuscript set in this day and age, you need to take extra care. Such as Two Fathoms Down, some of which takes place on a yacht, partly in the Wadden Sea, and partly on the English east coast. I do not yet know whether what I wrote will ever be possible again. So the manuscript may very well have to be revised once the future becomes clear.



Another idea, which was still in an embryonic stage, was a story about social disruption after a different kind of disaster (not an epidemic). Well, we are now experiencing that ourselves, so I no longer have to come up with fiction about it ...

An author's concerns are negligible compared to those of families with small children living in a tiny Council flat. This, in turn, cannot be compared to what happens in refugee camps in Greece, to poor residents of the United States and poverty-stricken day laborers in developing countries - India, Africa, Latin America.

They are the real losers of this crisis.



Saturday, 4 April 2020

SOS Moria

A month ago, no one predicted the magnitude of the virus epidemic that is now gripping the world. I wrote about breaking the silence around Idlib in Syria, and about Greece, which has been turned into the European dumping ground for unwanted refugees.

We are now seeing a consequence of the European aversion to refugees: a potential source of contamination has been created that is unparalleled. As everyone in Europe is being urged to self-isolate and practice social distancing, tens of thousands of people locked up in Greek refugee camps waiting for an epidemic that will endanger not only them, but us as well.

Social distancing in Camp Moria? Forget it.
A horrifying example is Camp Moria on the isle of Lesbos, where 20,000 people are penned like cattle instead of the 3,000 for which the camp is intended. Yesterday I learned of SOS Moria, an initiative of thousands of doctors, who are urging Europe's rulers to evacuate Moria and other camps, get them out of there and give them a safe refuge:



Something needs to be done urgently, yet Europe still chooses to look the other way, hiding behind EUR 2 or 3 billion in emergency aid already given to Greece to solve the European problem.

The refugee drama plays a leading role in my novel De Batavier (The Batavian). As an author and as a person, I cannot and will not stay silent about European heartlessness and xenophobia. 
Something - must - be - done.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Break silence over Idlib

Writing a politically motivated post should not become a habit, that is not what I intended with my author's blog. 

However, I cannot keep my mouth shut, because history repeats itself and in the superlative. A few years ago, the siege of Eastern Aleppo and the resulting refugee flow was one of the reasons for me to write The Batavian, published last year in Dutch as De Batavier.


Now the same disaster is happening all over again in the Syrian province of Idlib. Two Syrian refugees write in the Dutch newspaper NRC Next on Monday 2 March that the silence around Idlib must be broken. They are called Mohammad Kanfash and Ali al Jasem and have worked for humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR and AzG.


I recently saw the heartbreaking documentary For Sama, made from film images by Waad al-Kateab from Aleppo. In her documentary you see the Russian fighter jets with their adjustable wings (see below) fire rockets at civilian targets in Aleppo and the result of missiles and bombs hitting a hospital. I can tell you, half the audience was in tears and so was I.




The same is happening again at the moment in Idlib, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary people like you and myelf are trapped between the troops of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, and the Turkish invasion force that supports other groups in the civil war.


The UNHCR is sounding the alarm about the disaster that is taking place.


The silence mentioned by the authors of the article in NRC Next refers to the icy silence prevalent in the Western world. A genocide is taking place, there are a million people on the run from the violence. It is winter in the mountains and the refugees live in miserable conditions, stuck at the Turkish-Syrian border, which is cordoned off against the new flow of human misery.



Turkey may already have taken in 4 million refugees, but is now playing a cat and mouse game with the unwilling EU, which offers no help. The Turkish government claims that the border with Greece is open, which is incorrect as the Greeks block it. Thousands of people are now trapped there in no man's land, in winter, devoid of help, but being bombarded with Greek tear gas.


As regards refugees, Greece has become the dumping ground of the EU, who let the Greeks struggle with the refugee crisis. That includes the Netherlands, where Government is sitting on its hands instead of acting and in a diplomatic and practical sense try put an end to the violence and lend a helping hand in relieving the refugees' misery.



The disinterest not only applies to politicians, but to all of us. The authors of the NRC Next article rightly ask why a nation-wide appeal was was launched in Holland for the victims of forest fires in Australia, a rich country that itself has sufficient resources, but nothing is done for the humanitarian disast
er in Idlib. Instead, we are busy with the daily sensation about Corona, as children freeze to death in the winter cold on the borders of the EU.


As I wrote in my postscript to The Batavian
three years ago: I am afraid history will judge the EU and our generation for what we have done.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

A new book

A mysterious tale

As a father and son sail their yacht in a coastal area of shallow creeks, islands and sandbanks, they pick up de body of a young man drifting in a half-deflated lifejacket. Resuscitation fails, and after they have called the lifeboat to take the body away, they are ordered to the port of Harlingen to be interviewed by the Border Police. That same evening a mysterious young woman visits their boat, asking after the drowned man. 
A suspect encounter in the fog
In the ensuing weeks they are confronted with a ruthless gang of human traffickers who are active in the area, using an old trawler. The authorities remain deaf  until it is too late and more bodies turn up. 

This is a short introduction to my new novel Het Transport, which is expected to be published in Dutch next October, by Palmslag Publishers, who also published The Batavian. The title of the English translation is The Cargo.

One of the sources of inspiration for the book is a 120-year-old spy story: The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, a British-Irish yachtsman and author, who sailed his yacht Asgard to the German Frisian islands and the Baltic during the years prior to the First World War.
Erskine Childers and his wife Molly sailing Asgard in 1910
Childers himself led an eventful life. He served in the British Army during the Boer War and in the Royal Navy during the First World War. He moved to Dublin in 1919 and played an important role in the negotiations on Irish independence. The resulting treaty with the English was disputed within the Irish leadership and led to the Irish civil war of 1922-1923, in which Childers, out of discontent, chose the side of the insurgents. Unfortunately, that cost him his life: he was arrested by the Irish Free State Army and sentenced to death by a military court.

1976 shipping news

Meanwhile I have added a new chapter to my seafaring memories: a six-month voyage in a tramp ship, made in the mv Amstelpark in 1976. I was on board for nearly seven months and the journey took me halfway around the world.
A stormy Atlantic crossing
We left Poland early in January after dislodging the frozen warps from the deck. The next two weeks we were hit by every storm that the winter ocean could fling at us. For some reason, the Captain wanted to follow the slightly shorter Great Circle Route north of Scotland, which regrettably means you will encounter more bad weather and therefore have a longer crossing. West of the Isle of Rockall, just beyond Scotland, we made about 60 miles a day for two days ... sideways!

Read more on my website.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

A Christmas Carol




With Christmas approaching, we are often caught by nostalgia and emotion. Suddenly we think of old friends whom we have not spoken to throughout the year, but who we still regard as friends. We are overwhelmed by a collective good feeling, as if we have to make up for the past year, in which not everything may have been as good as we’d have liked.

Despite ourselves, the  nostalgia reminds us of days long gone. For me, Christmas is inextricably connected to a ghost story written by Charles Dickens in 1843, A Christmas Carol, the story of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by spirits on Christmas night, showing him the way to better his misanthropic life and opening his eyes to the poverty around him.

It appears that little has changed since the 1840s. The world is still full of poverty and refugees and displaced people in squalid camps, who have been deprived of all human rights and have no reason to celebrate. Spare them a thought as you sit at the table.


Albert Finney and Alec Guiness as Scrooge and Marley

Recently I re-read A Christmas Carol in an English edition which is part of my collection of Dickens writings. But I became acquainted with it first in January 1976, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, in heavy weather. I was on my way from Gdansk in Poland to Baltimore on the east coast of the United States, in a bulk carrier named Amstelpark, in which I served as Third Mate.

As usual, the ship had a movie box on board with three 16 mm sound films, which were almost the only entertainment on board such a ship. Those boxes were often exchanged with other ships when in harbour, so we had a new film almost every week. On board the Amstelpark, during that rough crossing, the film box contained the 1970 movie made after the Dickens story, starring Albert Finney and Alec Guinness in the lead roles of Scrooge and Marley. We showed it three times.

Heavy weather in the North Atlantic, mv Amstelpark, 1976

Conditions were so rough that one of us had to hold the projector down as it was running, because it nearly dropped off the table, so badly the ship was rolling about. I still don't know whether he was holding down the projector, or the projector was holding him... I do remember though, that in the following days, whenever we encountered each other in the corridors of the ship’s accommodation, we greeted each other hollering "Scroooooge!" 

Last night I watched the movie again with one of my sons - an old, poor quality DVD. The boys used to hate me for wanting to show that film each Christmas, but now we both enjoyed it. 

Tonight is Christmas Eve, the traditional feast in English-speaking countries. I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and those who are at sea and may read this, a safe journey.