In 1988 my friend from college Dai Tyler got a job in north Holland. He and I had been students at Guildhall together, in the same year as the late Adrian ‘Benny’ Morris and Ed Tarrant, and quite a foursome we made. Ed and I had already spent 3 years there, and we were joined when the other two came down from the RNCM to do Post Grads, and we all teamed up straightaway, four young trombonists together. But the two lads from the Northern college soon set their sights on the wider world, and by March, Benny had secured the job of Bass Trombone in the Ulster Orchestra, and soon after, Dai went off to Holland.
At the time, and for many years after, I couldn’t understand why he did it. It took me a long time to realise that he meant it, that he’d got a full-time job and intended to stay and make a life there. I could see no further than a wayward, mostly-penniless life of doing gigs few and far between and just thankful if they were anywhere near London. Weekends were spent, if I was lucky, doing amateur choral society shows in churches all over the home counties, £35, bring a stand. I got sick of playing ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. In summers, what are known as ‘muddy field’ dates would start happening all over the place, often much further afield than the outskirts of London. I drove to Exeter and back to do one of these, yet any musicians on the circuit at the time will just shrug at that. We all did anything, anywhere that was going.
But Dai saw past that, to a settled and healthy future, and packed his bags for Groningen. This is a biggish town in the north of Holland, roughly on a level with Sheffield. The orchestra, based at a hall called the Oosterpoort, the east port, was the Noord Nederlands Orkest, the NNO. And after he’d settled in, now an established part of the Dutch national music scene, he got requests to play in other orchestras, the bigger ones down south. If granted the time off the NNO to do these other dates, he managed to persuade them not to replace him with a known Dutch freelancer, or even some swarthy local, but with a scruffy kid all the way from London.
[I really was a shabby sight in those days. When November 5th came round and kids were dragging round ragged effigies of Guy Fawkes for handouts, Dai would call out ‘Penny for the Dan.’ Adding to the scraggy effect was my alopecia, which made half my hair fall out, so I ended up with a head like a dandelion seedhead, so people came up to blow in my face and say ‘She loves me, she loves me not…’. My utter insouciance when it came to clothes also contributed. Tattered jeans, a flat cap for several years, even a ten-foot bright woollen scarf like Dr. Who, that I could wind round my entire top half. A friend once told me I was the ‘least vain’ person he knew, but I knew what he meant.]
Over the next eight years or so, Dai persuaded them many times, and the journey became quite familiar. I’d leave my home in Walthamstow, go into Liverpool Street, from there get the train up to Harwich and make the overnight crossing to the Hook of Holland. Arriving in the grey dawn, it was then onto some rattling train that went up to Hilversum, the hub of the Dutch rail system, to catch a warmer one up through the country. Amersfoort, Zwolle, Meppel, Emmen, Assen, Haren, I knew the route quite well and enjoyed the names before finishing up at the main station in Groningen. This, by the way, is pronounced like Gouda cheese, the initial G being a light rasp at the back of the throat. The middle n is virtually silent. Hhkronigen.
On one of the ferry trips, I’d been told by a friend about a chap he knew who worked on the boat, and that I should say hello if I saw him. I didn’t get the chance. He saw me first, recognising the shape of the instrument case I was carrying, and came and introduced himself, Dave Thomas his name was, and we had a good chat. He was a keen amateur trombonist himself, and talked very enthusiastically about it, and the players he admired. He was good company, and didn’t seem to mind taking quite a lot of time from his duties on board to chat with me. We even had a beer at the bar. At some point though, he had to get busy, and went off to work. I went to another deck to find the cafeteria, as I probably hadn’t eaten anything since leaving home. Taking a tray, I saw that Duck a l’Orange was a choice, and I really fancied it, though it would take almost all of the money I had. But it looked so good I loaded it onto the tray and sidled in the queue up the rails, as you do in those places. When I got to the end I dragged my eyes from my plate, and saw that Dave was on the till. He looked at me in my old student clothes, looked down at the duck, and waved me through. ‘Don’t worry about it’ he said. A massive favour I’ve never forgotten. The world needs more people like Dave.
Sometimes on these Dutch trips I would stay at Dai’s place on my own, as he was already off working somewhere else and had given me the key. But on my first visit, his patch elsewhere hadn’t started, so we had quite a few days together in his new home town.
Groningen has a rural feel, that of a town in the country, at least it did then. It centres around two large squares, the Grand Market and the Fishmarket; the Grote Markt and Vismarkt. In the Grote Markt stood the impressive Martini Clock Tower, whose bells can be heard all over the town, next to its Gothic church the Martinikerk. At the weekend, both squares were crammed with stalls, the markets were in full flow with tents of all produce. Around the Grote Markt is a grid of streets leading up to it with smaller runs in between. The town is then (mostly) ringed by canals. Just across the canal, to the east and south, lay the Oosterpoort, where the NNO worked, and Dai’s studio flat in Willemstraat. On one of the branches of the canal was parked a barge, a local attraction called ‘t Pannekoekschip. Sad to say, in 1989, and on all subsequent visits to the town, I never went to the pancake boat or the Gothic church. But then I never imagined I’d ever write about them. My interests were a lot less cultural in those days.
Falling off the Grote Markt, down an incline called Poelestraat was an Egyptian café called Piramide. Dai took me here early on, to show me a dish called shwarma. This was simply a version of a rotisserie kebab, but so different and new to me that I soon became addicted to it. It’s delicate lamb which has been spit roasted then served in a small pita/bap, but how the lamb had been treated, marinated, and was then served was so tasty I couldn’t get enough. Most days I ate two if not three of them. Salad is pushed into the bread with the meat, but it was the three magic sauces that you were given that drew me back to the Piramide for lunch, tea and late-night snack. One was a light tomato salsa, one was a very garlicky tahini-coloured yoghurt, and the last was a fiery crimson sauce. Smothering my tender lamb with these three, especially the last two, was a delight that never wore off, and if I ever go back to Groningen, to this day I’d go straight there. I got more friendly with the chef/waiter (it was a very small café) as my confidence with the language grew. ‘Een shwarma en een Coke alstublift’ I would call as soon as I was in there. Alstublift breaks down in the same way as s’il vous plait does in French. There was rarely a day went by that I didn’t have een shwarma en een Coke.
It was common for me to have this as a late-night snack, as during my many visits I was often to be found wandering happily around the Grote Markt area at midnight, having left my bar, and if it wasn’t a shwarma it was my other addiction, saté croquettes. There was a chain of shops all over Groningen, all over Holland, that was simply a small brightly-lit room, along one wall of which was a large metal contraption made up of about 50 small ovens. Inside each of these little ovens was a snack. You pushed your guilder (Euros hadn’t even been thought of in 1989, remember the various currencies of Europe?!) into a slot by the snack you wanted, and you could then reach in and grab it from its hot little cage. Saté croquettes were exactly what they said they were, breadcrumbed spring rolls filed with a glorious sticky Indonesian peanut sauce. After an evening in my bar I could easily eat three of these. And even then probably still be tempted to nip down Poelestraat.
I’ve called it my bar, but of course it was Dai’s bar. And the bar of those of the NNO who had nowhere else but home to go to. It was called the Morel Bar and became my most frequented place, much more of a base than the Oosterpoort or Dai’s flat. Another small, narrow room, dark and neon, it was simply an area with the bar along the right, and the seats and tables to the left. The tables were all glass, the chairs trendy rods of metal, so not feeling posh enough to sit at them, most of the time was spent standing at the bar. Before this descends into the tale of destruction and dishonour that it eventually will, I’ll say that Dai and I spent many happy Happy Hours in there, just sipping small beers – or if feeling flush, een bolleke, the same beer in a larger, goblet-shaped glass – and it was all innocent fun. Dai was already fluent in Dutch, and introduced me to Pieter who worked behind the bar. He was tall and friendly, ginger hair and a lean face. He spoke fluent English, everyone did, so there was little need for me ever to get further than ‘Een shwarma en een Coke’ and ‘Twee bolleke Pils alstublift’. I adopted the Morel Bar, and was quickly adopted by it, and in subsequent visits to dep for Dai, I could walk in there and be greeted as an old friend like the characters in Cheers.
But I was there to work, and during my first week, when not with Dai in the Morel Bar I was to turn out and play 1st Trombone with the NNO, quite an honour really, and I was quickly accepted there too. The trombone section was a friendly and encouraging bunch. Dirk played second, and spent most rehearsals doing something rather vigorous with his hands in his trouser pockets, but he liked me and I liked him. Mike, on Bass Trombone, is actually from Ilford, another Englishman abroad; when I turned up one year without all my concert clothes, he sold me a set of tails for 30 guilders. And on tuba was Ana, a bearded young man who was just as supportive as the others. There was also Jan and Wouter, two of the trumpet players, who could easily have dismissed this awful fresh-face with matted hair whom Dai had foisted on them all.
Dai’s main friend in the orchestra was the bass clarinet player. He was a magnificent man, a pure Viking, tall with a glossy sweep of long white hair like a heavy metal singer, a narrow white/blond beard and moustache, and a huge twinkle in his eye. We called him Chewbacca. He was actually called Rob, and accompanied Dai and I to the Morel Bar a lot, though he had a girlfriend and a house down past the Vismarkt. One day years later it occurred to me that plain ‘Rob’ might not be his real Dutch name, and that it was one he’d simplified for his friends. I’m so glad I asked, as his real name, which much better befitted his striking appearance, was Rokus Irend van der Vlugt. Love that name. He became a very good friend.
The first week was Brahms 1. We rehearsed during the days, only in the morning, which left the rest of the day to do as much mindless personal damage as Dai and I fancied. The night before the show he and I stayed up late with a girl he’d met and her friend. Between us we’d cooked an extremely garlicky chilli earlier in the day, and we drank whisky with the girls. We got back to his flat early in the morning and I crashed on his sofa, with the concert to start at 2pm. Even after a shower, I felt that I must still reek of garlic, and I was a bit shy about it. But I had a job to do, at that age I only felt slightly groggy after a night of Jack Daniels, and it went fine. After the symphony, Dirk leaned over, smiled and said ‘You haff played well’. That meant a lot. A couple of days later I was explaining to Rob about my fear that the section may have been put off by the garlic fumes. He looked at me, twinkle on full beam and said ‘That’s not all I smelt’. Oh my god, I realised with a thump that he must mean the whisky. It was a complete shock. What must the section have thought? They’d turned up for the concert to find their fledgling dep from across the water breathing fumes of pure alcohol. They must have thought I was totally drunk. And Rob! He was sitting in the 2nd clarinet seat. That’s miles away! The entire brass and woodwind sections, probably the back desks of the violas and half the basses must have had some serious misgivings about this sinful-smelling new chap on 1st trombone. I was completely stunned when Rob told me, it felt like a punch in the chest. And there was I a bit shy because of a possible light aroma of garlic.
Dai and I had some fun that week, and any subsequent times when we overlapped. In later years his girlfriend moved in and I stayed at a hotel across the canal and near the Oosterpoort. Most of the time we played snooker, carrying on a habit and an ongoing scoreline from our time at college together. We played hundreds of frames, and it was always close. The rabid Celt in Dai came out when he played snooker. All he could do was pot things very hard and fast, there was never any positional play at all. But when you could pot balls like he could, there was really no need for it, he could knock them in from anywhere. It was always rather a wild-eyed procedure. He’d thrash in a stupendous long pot, that he didn’t need to hit anywhere near as hard. After 10 minutes or so the cue ball would finally stop spinning and rolling and come to rest in a position where it was impossible to imagine what he could possibly do next. But after a few seconds, he’d spot his option, the eye would twitch, he’d bend down to the shot and his cue arm would rev up, rather like someone trying to start an outboard motor. After a few frantic yanks he’d let fly, the impossible pot he’d taken on would slam into a pocket about 12 feet away and the whole thing would start again. It was like playing with a tornado.
Dai had a pet terrapin. This was kept in a very simple tank, with a shallow base of water, and two tall plastic mountains. Every night when we (finally) went to bed, the terrapin was sitting on top of one of the mountains, almost basking there. And in the morning he’d be sitting astride the other. Of course he’d spent the entire night slowly edging down one hillside, paddling laboriously across the small stretch of water in between the mountains, probably nibbling at a weed or two on the way, then taken several hours to haul himself up the other slope. But no, Dai had another theory. He reckoned his pet would wait till the dead of night, warily look over each shoulder, then in an instant shoot across from one mountaintop to the other. I much preferred this idea.
Oh those bachelor days. One day we finished playing snooker and on our way home came across an Irish pub that he’d never noticed before. I think it was a lazy Sunday, and in there was an Irish band in full flow, it must have been the sound that attracted our attention outside. We sat and had a couple of Guinnesses and listened to the band, who were very loud and extremely boisterous, they obviously felt they were back home in the Motherland. So surreal to be listening to them strumming and scraping guitars and fiddles, beating a bodhran and howling ballads on a sleepy Sunday in a bar in north Holland.
At home, Dai’s flat, we’d listen to his favourite band The Yellowjackets, or watch what was going on on the brand-new MTV. Anything to delay the inevitable trip to the Morel really. We got an Indian takeaway. Don’t do this anywhere in Europe apart from England. The rice is clumpy and lumpy, but it tastes better than the curries. The sauces are all watery, the vegetables are watery, hell, even the meat is watery.
One time, and this was literally a move to put off the Morel Moment for a while, we took turns playing a particular famous single jazz trombone phrase, which has a very high note in the middle. Whoever split that high note first would buy the first round when we got to the pub. The contest went on for about 15 minutes as we went round and round. The neighbours must have thought Dai had gone mad. But the days always ended up the same way: ring Rob and go off to meet him in our bar, to end up in the Piramide about 1am.
Another day we went for a little drive. Dai loved driving, though his approach to it was sometimes similar to his approach to snooker, shall we say Celtic. I was worse though, as I was illegal. He let me drive sometimes, slowly on the outskirts of town. Driving on the right side of the road, negotiating small roundabouts very hesitantly, I didn’t even have a licence in England, and Dai had to show me which one was the brake. His street was near the railway line, quite close to the main station so there were several tracks that we had to cross, either when walking to the Oosterpoort, or driving to his flat. After letting me have a go on the quiet roads out of town, Dai took over, noticing as he did so that we were really low on petrol and ought to find a garage ASAP. We couldn’t find one, but he had a can at home, we just had to get that far. Approaching the level crossing we saw that it was open, so we started to cross the tracks. But the car sputtered, seemed to lose strength, and died. There was a pause. We had stopped astride an actual railway line, it was like a 20s black and white melodrama. Somehow we bounced ourselves and the car the few yards forwards before the bells started ringing and the barriers came down but it was close, and we laughed till we coughed. This was the sort of mentality we were living in in those days.
Of course, these were the times when Dai and I overlapped, that his freelance work in the south hadn’t started yet, but I was required to cover his seat in the NNO. In later years I always stayed at the hotel in town, and very much did my own thing, which was pretty much the same thing. I really didn’t stray off this beaten path too much. The orchestra would work in the morning, and I’d arrange to meet Rob in the bar later in the day. I’d set off towards the Grote Markt, past the stall on the canal which sold baps of cold herring and raw onion (Dai loved these), and up through the streets to the Piramide. After lunch I’d wander round a bit, perhaps along the canal, or investigate some food shops; there was and is a large Indonesian community in Holland, and some of the ingredients I found in Groningen were exotica I’d been looking for in vain for years in London. One visit I found a wonderful, spooky, coffee-shop/bar, gothic-black with macabre fittings, but that’s a whole essay in itself.
When Dai wasn’t there I spent a lot of time with Rob, often playing pool or hanging out with his friends, woodwind players from Rotterdam. His twinkle was intoxicating, and he was fantastic company. His English was so good that he made me wish I could speak it better myself. One afternoon during an endless round of pool we got to discussing wine, and how it should be paired with food. ‘Of course,’ said Rob, in an immaculate English (and French) accent, ‘I always prefer a Chateauneuf du Pape with my baked beans.’ Twinkling, he once tried and succeeded in persuading me that the Piramide shwarmas were made from goat meat. I never found out.
I never had much money, and during every visit to Holland I had to troop along to the NNO office to beg for some advance on the fee I was going to be paid. I hated to do it but I was no better off than I was in England. I had at least had the resource to try to make some extra cash by busking. When the Grote Markt set up all its stalls one weekend, I joined in by finding a space, standing behind my open empty trombone case, and playing any tunes I could think of. It worked quite well, and I made a bit of money, and there was no trouble with the police. The stall I played near sold leather jackets, and was owned by a way-past-eccentric chap called Felix who also frequented the Morel Bar. After I’d finished playing, or perhaps between stints, he would hand over charge of his stall to the tent next door, and we would head off down the street and spend an hour or two in the dark neon bar. He had the sort of madness that sticks to its favourite subject and loses track of time, and his interest was in a type of chilli called Madame Jeanette. These look like Scotch Bonnets but he insisted on their name, and their multiple uses in cookery. His English was less proficient than most Dutch people, though way better than my Dutch of course, and our conversations, though easy enough, must have been limited in scope. But if we could manage to keep to the idea that the Piramide (I mimed eating een shwarma) might possibly use Madame Jeanette chillies in their fiery sambal, we were on solid ground for at least an hour.
I was in Groningen for a whole month in 1995, my penultimate visit. It was this much time because I was covering an opera that the NNO were doing in a theatre across town. This was an extremely modern piece called Satyricon, the music and setting based on a rather freakish novel written and set in 1st-century Rome. I could never work out exactly what was going on, but I did notice the nude homosexuality and an electric dog. The dog model was on a sort of skateboard, and was very haphazardly radio-controlled by someone in the wings. Down in the pit, I remember looking up one night to see the dog’s front half teetering, literally rocking on the edge of the stage, six feet above the clarinet player, who was concentrating on a solo.
At one point in the opera there was a page of aleatoric music. This is where an element of the music is left up to the performer, to play or improvise or interpret however they want. In Satyricon, we were all faced with the same page, which consisted of about a dozen short fragments of music. What we had to do in the next five minutes was play any of the fragments, at any moment, leaving gaps between the fragments for as long or short as you wanted. Totally random. The brass section was only one trumpet and one trombone in the brass section: Wouter and me. In the first performance, when the piece reached this page, we both sat there independently, properly waiting not to be the first to play (usually people just dive in, but that’s not what the composer wants at all), then both picked up our instruments and rattled off exactly the same excerpt at exactly the same time and speed. It was absolute perfect unison (which is also not what the composer wants) and the chances of that happening were so remote and crazy that neither of us played for several minutes after this, for giggling. I suppose giggling could be seen as a form of aleatoricism.
I had a bad spell during Satyricon, a heavy cough. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t be visiting the Morel every night, and I was in there with several friends when someone – I think it was Rob – suggested that beer wasn’t doing my cough any good, and that I should drink port and brandy. So I ordered one, which felt quite good and soothing, so I switched to those, and the evening carried on. It was quite a busy night, and instead of standing at the bar, we were all sitting round the tables.
The next morning I woke up in reasonable health, my cough seemed OK, and rising late, I went up to the Piramide for lunch. But something wasn’t right. I had that horrible feeling that I’d done something wrong. In those days it was usually a nagging fear that I’d tried to drape myself round some poor girl, but today I just didn’t know. I spent the whole day in a horrible, desperate fret, but I just couldn’t remember if there was anything to fret about. By the evening, when it came to turning up for the opera, I’d convinced myself that it couldn’t be anything, and though how I’d got home might be a mystery, there was nothing else worth knowing about the previous night.
Almost casually I asked Rob ‘I was alright last night wasn’t I?’. The eyebrows went up, the twinkle twinkled, and my nausea returned immediately.
‘Don’t you remember?’ he said.
‘Remember what?’ I stammered.
Instead of answering, he started tiptoeing around, making an awful crunching sound with each step. O my god. I didn’t dare ask. Had I accidentally swiped a swathe of beer glasses and brandy goblets onto the floor? I didn’t even want to think that I might have suddenly crashed into or fallen onto one of the glass tables, shattering it and virtually smashing up the whole bar. But whatever it was, it obviously involved some major infringement on my part, which had caused everyone to have to leave the bar and scrunch their way out over a carpet of broken glass. The look Rob gave me and the crunching sound still haunt me now.
But it didn’t always end in such dismay. When it was just me and Pieter left in the bar one night he said it was time for him to shut, I waited for him and we went off together. At the bottom of the street was a Turkish bar, and we popped in there. There was a pool table so we stayed all night, yet another dark bar, heavy with the smell of hashish and with a frisson of racial tension, I don’t think we were very welcome. But there was no trouble, Pieter may have been one of those people that knows everyone in town, and they gave us beers till five in the morning. Pieter had his bike with him, and he gave me a lift home. Such a great feeling of freedom, from everything, as I sat on his handlebars and we crossed the bridge over the canal in the early morning light.
These escapades would have been between my ages of 22 and 28, and I made a great many friends in that time. I’d already enjoyed the loose Dutch mentality and sharp sense of humour before going, now I loved them as a nation. Maybe as much as I loved shwarmas.