MARK TURIN Distant Neighbours

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© Mark Turin, 1997

I think I've finally puzzled it out - the difference between Holland and England. I wouldn't have got there without Shakespeare's help, so a big 'thank you' to Bill. Without further ado, let me kill the story in the first paragraph. In Holland, there is reason in the madness and in England, madness in the reason. In case I've lost you, please bear with me for another minute or two and let me explain.

I'm sure most people have had enough dealings with the English (not British - Scotland and Wales are clamouring for independence as we speak, but more of that another time) to realise that beneath that thin veneer of politeness and general normality they are, on the whole, completely bonkers. Exactly a year after her death, the English Rose is still dead not that you would know, given all the media attention she is still getting. I'm not going to unearth the whole Diana thing again, but the words "mass hysteria" do come to mind. While the Brits were watching her funeral and weeping about their lost rose, the rest of the world was busy watching the Brits and wondering what on earth had happened to them and why they were acting so out of character. Even the better Dutch newspapers carried leaders on the lines of "British stiff upper lip finally crumbles" and such like. You see, whether it's the death of a princess, or a few mad cows, or some quite inexplicable little war with Argentina because Thatcher needed to whip up some support and enthusiasm and rally the nation around a good cause, it's all quite odd. Bonkers. Far Out. And all the more so because they pretend everything is just so and perfectly in the ordinary. In short, madness in the reason.

Now Holland is a completely different matter. This is particularly interesting given the shared intellectual traditions of the UK and the Netherlands. In fact, apart from a few years of Anglo-Dutch wars (here perhaps called Dutch-Anglo wars), our two countries seem to agree about more things than they disagree about. Despite this intimacy, the Dutch and English still marvel and wonder at each other. I am still surprised at the surprise that the Dutch show when they witness the surprise of the British population when one of their politicians hangs himself with a garter belt or confesses to once having had an affair. It seems that many Dutch people feel surprised that the Brits are so shocked when one of their politicians makes a complete public fool of himself. And although it's a hackneyed old topic, most Brits still can't really believe that the 'Red Light District' really is like that.

But it's not just traditional Dutch liberalism that provides the shocks, it's also its nemesis the semi-privatised social state. Perhaps an example will serve to illustrate the point. My mother and I were recently in a bicycle accident I drove into a pole and she fell off. When the ambulance finally came (because of a rather nasty bump on her head), the first thing that I was asked was whether I had a preference for a certain hospital. In an emergency situation, I have to say that the last thing I want to think about is about which hospital to go to. I just want to go to one immediately, and the best one at that. Whether the AZL does good coffee, or another hospital is better known for its flower arrangements just doesn't concern me. Anyway, the ambulance team weren't going to move before I made a choice. "How about that big one behind the station", I said "it looks good". Readers will be relieved to know that my mother is recovering well. I was too, until I received the ambulance bill.