In northern Holland there’s a bar that’s spooky as hell. You descend a flight of steps, beckoned from the street by the unearthly orange glow of a room lit only by flickering candles in orange flecked-glass orbs, which sit round the cavern and on the black marble bar. The bar itself is an enclosed section in the middle, sushi-style, like Cheers, and is underlit by a transparent plastic cord full of red lights strung just under the counter. The girl who works there tonight is a waif, petite and stringy, a ring in her nose, flowing black hair and a wispy lace top that, when she leans across the red cord… She’s chirpy though, as if relishing the occult setting, hardened yet delicate.
This is the Bar Knarie, the Canary Bar, and what a fabulous place it is. I first though of it as a Poppy Z. Brite dungeon, a dark and wonderful tomb of a bar lavishly ornamented with wraiths and phantasms jumping out of the walls at you. A dark yet ethereal atmosphere, a vision of a fantastic underworld.
It’s also what’s known in Holland as a ‘coffee shop’ and the atmosphere is heavy with dope, the air thick and treacly. Every breath you take is stung with the tang of cannabis. I drank blood-red wine and relished my surroundings. It unbalances you in its feeling of Gothic uneasiness, its suggestion of trolls in Bavarian forests, but there’s more to it than that. The owners, two brothers, have taken real care creating this atmosphere. Malevolent muppets glare down frown every corner in the ceiling, grotesque gargoyles straight out of The Phantom Tollbooth, laughing, grinning, looking mad. This last is most frightening; a perpetual gaze just past your shoulder. A wonderful ostrich, dangling next to the optics pillar twirls slowly on strings all night, jerkily, not smoothly, with his long thin obelisk of a beak. For an instant he looks straight at you, humouresquely berating beneath his thick eyebrows; then his eyes glaze past you, looking comically dozy as he twitches his way round the other customers.
The brothers, “one of them business, the other an artist”, are so described by Martin, the curly-headed Letterman lookalike behind the bar, whose English was so good I thought he was a native. Martin is the artist. He showed me the air-conditioning system: in the roof above the bar there was a huge transparent plastic disc, hollow and about eight inches deep. There appeared to be quite a bit of fruit inside, lobbed up there randomly by drowsy customers, I imagined. Martin pressed a few buttons and the whole thing began to turn. And the plums and oranges, which were in fact a set of differently-sized foam balls began to roll and to spin with it, until the whole thing was a whirling, noisy fan with hundreds of coloured globes racing around inside. What an effect! Ostrich twirled on regardless. “I’ve seen it all before” he said as he turned.
A Speedy Gonzales puppet straddles the two CD racks, his elbows propping him up over them. Grinning, he looks for all the world as if he owns the place. Given his position, I’m sure he’s known as CD Gonzales. Or maybe just Seedy. The walls are covered with very Berlin Wall-type sheets, painted with abstract squares and graffiti and bright colours, the result of the Martin’s imagination. Also down to him is the name of the Canary Bar as, in some places at least, it is that particular smoked yellow colour. In between the hanging sheets are posters for forthcoming punk concerts, though the music in the bar itself is slow junkie reggae, to add to the graveyard atmosphere; a muffled sepulchral heartbeat.
There is humour here too, Dutch humour, which is perhaps the freshest of all nations. A plaque reads Being Paranoid Doesn’t Mean Nobody Is Following You.
The walls are black and orange, the lightest corner being a table set almost behind the dungeon steps, where the colours are nearly clean yellow. It’s a single table, on a higher level than the rest of us, a sunset on our gloom. Round the edge of the room is a black stone bank to sit on, like a Satanic youth club, with occasional black semi-ovoid tables jutting out from the walls. There are stools around the bar, most of them with their foam tops shredded, sliced by vampires’ fingernails long since. And with the gargoyles leering down at you from the walls, with their bulbous red-veined eyeballs, I couldn’t help but think of Poppy Z. Brite’s world of dark relish.