Tour director Rosie Goldsmith chose Norwich as our fifth destination because of its strong links with the Low Countries and with literature. For example, this is the home of Writers Centre Norwich, the British Centre for Literary Translation and the famous UEA which nurtured the talents of Ian McEwan and Malcolm Bradbury.
It is about 150 miles from the Low Countries as the crow flies. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dutch engineers were responsible for draining enormous expanses of the countryside in the east of England. They created polders, built canals and watercourses, erected windmills and planted tulips. The landscape here looks typically Dutch. Even the Norwich Arts Centre, a converted church where the event is held has a photographic exhibition about windmills and wind energy in the foyer.
In 1565 Queen Elizabeth 1 invited Dutch families to settle in Norwich. Amongst the new arrivals were 32 protestant weavers who could thus escape religious persecution in the Low Countries. The immigrants were known as ‘strangers’ or ‘aliens’.
Today seven new strangers arrived in town, not invited by the Queen and not escaping persecution (I hope). The seventh stranger is still a stranger to the tour - Geert Mak, who has joined us for the final two events. His reading from In Europe, a wonderful book describing Europe past and present at the end of the twentieth century, sets the theme for the discussions tonight. Mak wrote the book in 2000 and says in retrospect that he underestimated the complexity of the European project. ‘We were focussed on the tensions between East and West Europe at the time, over-optimistic in general, and neglected the gap between North and South. The current financial crisis has arisen from the difference between those two cultures, traditions, ways of thinking.’
Today hasn’t been the first time we’ve talked about European politics on this tour. Another recurring topic has been the similarities and differences between the English and Dutch, and the links between the two. Early on the authors explained how they all grew up with British culture and the BBC. ‘We hebben meegelift op de cultuur,’ Peter Terrin said, meaning they ‘hitchhiked a ride’ on UK culture - through television, literature and music.
Herman Koch, who lived in Chiswick for a while, mentions that he’s a great fan of the sheepdog trials, televised in ‘One Man and His Dog’, which I grew up watching too! They’ve all read English literature: Amis, McEwan and Barnes, but Koch says he reads Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel too. They listened to the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd and beyond. And Britain clearly influences the Lowlands. Dutch literature and their humour are influenced by ours and it could just be why it is going down so well here.
Nick Chapman, the tour’s manager, who hails from Northampton, feels put to shame. ‘It’s a bit of a one-way street,’ he says, ‘they had our culture but we didn’t have theirs. I had no idea about the Dutch literary tradition before the tour. I had never read a Dutch book.’ He spent more time in Belgium on holiday as a child because of its proximity to France and his best memory of anything Dutch was their 4:1 defeat in Euro 96. It really mattered to beat the Dutch at football.
It was a seminal moment in my brief life as a football supporter too. A fantastic achievement and just when the other team I supported, Norwich City FC, aka the Canaries, were ace-ing it too. Holland meant football and beer and the local landscape. It wasn’t until much, much later that I came into contact with Dutch literature and many Brits never do.
Yet during this tour we’ve discovered a surprising number of people here on the ground championing these bridges and links between the two cultures. People like the energetic academic Henriette Louwerse, who has practically started a revolution at Sheffield University; Embassy representatives like Jan van Weijen (Netherlands) and Geert de Proost (Belgium); the Dutch Consul for the North-West of England, David Prior and his Dutch wife Godelieve; Lottie Ysenbrandt, Margriet Leemhuis, Marja Kingma and many more. High Impact networks are being formed across the country, doing the work that still needs to be done.