Letter from Limburg #10: 5 things I hate about the Netherlands

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Dear Blighty,

This title is rather misleading.  As you will know, if you’ve read my previous posts, I think the Netherlands is a fantastic and enviable country.  So, in order to balance things, after having now lived here for well over a month, I thought I would focus on a few aspects of Dutch life that could be improved upon.  So, here goes.

  • Staircases:  houses in the Netherlands are, by and large, very well designed, stylish and utilise the space in the most logical and sensible of ways.  Dutch people also tend to take a lot of pride in their homes.  It amazes me, however, that the Netherlands has one of the longest life expectancies in Europe when, with the most narrow and steep of staircases I have ever encountered, I wonder how they don’t have more accidents and stair-related deaths.  How do the elderly manage?  They can’t possibly all afford stair-lifts.  Or maybe, as a previous post explored, they really are so much healthier, perhaps because of the stairs.
  • Cyclists:  I think cycling is a great form of exercise and a mode of transport that should definitely be encouraged.  I love the fact that so many people in the Netherlands cycle every day.  It speaks volumes about the importance they place on their health and the environment.  However, as a driver, I hate it.  As if the roads aren’t narrow or confusing enough, at times, constantly keeping an eye out for cyclists and priority cycle lanes that run across junctions and roundabouts, not to mention the scooters that are also permitted to use cycle lanes (another pet hate), is a continual worry.  As I have discovered, this is the Dutch policy – confusion and worry, thereby encouraging drivers to be far more cautious and alert.  I certainly am.
  • Music:  the Dutch are a pretty talented people, particularly in the creative field.  It would be a lie to say that I hate all Dutch music.  As a country, it does, after all, produce a disproportionality high amount of successful DJs for such a small country and some talented global music artists too.  But there is some Dutch music that simply defies understanding.  Its not that other countries don’t also produce a lot of crap, musically speaking, but that such huge crowds of Dutch people, probably one of the most culturally advanced and sophisticated nations in so many ways, will pay good money to see such people as Frans Bauer or Guus Meeuwis in concert is beyond me.  I defy you to listen to such artists and not be mistaken into believing you are tuning into a music program for kids on CBBC.  Or, at other times, I have, perhaps unfairly, equated such artists to what I frequently describe as ‘German marching music’.  Imagine hoards of people heading to the O2 to see Chaz and Dave in concert.  OK, folk music is one thing, but nursery rhymes for grown adults is quite another.  So banal, childish and basic – everything I don’t identify the Dutch as being, and yet they lap this shit up.
  • Rounding-up:  as someone who was taught (unsuccessfully, sadly) to be as frugal as possible when it comes to money, the principle of ‘looking after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves’ was constantly drilled into me by my father.  So, imagine my shock when it came to paying for my 99 cent knoflook (garlic), giving the cashier a euro coin, but receiving nothing in return.  Just when I was about to complain, my girlfriend held me back and explained that this is what is done here – shops round up, or down, to the nearest 5 cents.  Of course, this works in your favour if the price is, for example, 1.02, thereby save two whole cents.  But, let’s be honest, how often are prices like that?  More often they are something .99.  Why Dutch people give into, what I can only class as corporate theft, en masse, I know not.  But it gets my goat every time!
  • Finding a home:  this is perhaps the most frustrating.  Having moved home several times around the UK and to Spain, I can genuinely say that finding a place to rent in the Netherlands is, by far, the most difficult.  You can’t begin to look until you’re in the country and if you haven’t got a job, forget about it.  Even having a Dutch partner makes the process no easier.  Some have even advised us to look over the border in Belgium, stating that its far easier there.  The search continues and there are some slim possibilities with friends of friends, but until we have built up at least 3 months of work experience, the chance of an agency or a housing corporation taking us on is slim indeed.  What we would do if were literally homeless (although, in technical terms, we are), I shudder to think.  So, if you know of anywhere, drop me a line.

So, there you go, Blighty.  You thought things were rosey and shiny over here, didn’t you?  Well, by and large, (and in most comparisons with you), they pretty much are.  But, in every rose, there’s a few thorns.  Next time you’re over in these parts (although I think you’ve made it pretty clear that won’t be happening any time soon) don’t allow yourself to get a little prick.

Your loving Brefugee,

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #9: The religion of fitness

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Dear Blighty,

Today, I went to church.  It was the first time in years I had set foot inside a religious building, even longer a Christian one.

For many years, I have made the conscious decision not to set foot inside Christian buildings.  You see, Blighty, ever since the age of 11, after I had started at a Church of England secondary school, I soon realised that it was all BS.  Actually, I think it was more the fact that church services were as boring as Hell (which is an unfair comparison, Hell always seems a far more intriguing and interesting prospect than regurgitating the Benedictus and listening to a vicar droning on about another verse of the bible). This stubborn, but, in my opinion, principled position, has meant I have sat outside Winchester Cathedral, Barcelona’s La Segrada Familia and St.Blah Blah Blah Church in Melbourne, while my fellow travelling companions ventured inside to gawk at stained-glass windows, crucifixes and to light candles along with the thousands of other tourists who visit such places every day as yet one more stop on their itinerary.

I somehow felt that, by entering such buildings, I would be condoning their actions, both currently and historically.  I have occasionally, since my church ban, visited buildings of other religions, in order to learn about (and ultimately criticise) them.  But as both an atheist and, more importantly, an anti-theist, it strongly goes against my own values to give these buildings the kind of gravitas such things as the tourist industry bestows upon them.  Now, some among you may point out a hypocrisy in the fact that I have visited Auschwitz.  But Auschwitz, thankfully, no longer functions as it was intended, and exists as a testament to the worst atrocities of the human race.  Functioning religious buildings and their associated faiths rarely make apologies for the historic wrongs, least of all the present evils they continue to poison in the minds of millions across the planet.  While they exist to serve this purpose, I refuse to penetrate them.

However the church I entered today no longer serves a religious function.  It is now a gym.  And its been around 2 months since I last set foot in one.  Now, that’s unusual for me!

Since the age of 16, I have been a regular gym-goer.  In recent years, I would attend 5-6 times per week.  These last two months have, for various reasons, been my most sedate.  And, boy, did I feel it upon my return?!  Lost strength, soreness, stiffness – for the first time, in a long time, I felt unhealthy and out-of-shape.

Up until this two month sabbatical, I may have been described as attending the gym ‘religiously’.  Indeed, the parallel between the rituals of regular exercise and religious practice are frequently drawn, at least in language. ‘Fitness is my religion’, some claim.  As I head towards the pulpit of the former Dutch church, passing treadmills and stationary bikes in the place where pews filled with prayer sheets and hymn books once stood, I reflect on the notion and the extent to which fitness and religion collide and compete.

With a decline in church attendance and a belief in a god, accompanied by the explosion of gyms and fitness-related businesses across the Netherlands and western Europe, has the pursuit of a fitter and healthier physical existence replaced the desire to follow a path of righteousness in order to gain infinite spiritual existence in the after-life?  Have we replaced the notion of being created in God’s image with attempting to mould ourselves into our own version of statuesque living ‘gods’?

Of course, there are perhaps some obvious parallels.  Both impact on the lifestyle of the follower, requiring a slavish commitment and habitual repetition of certain actions and behaviours in the effort of goal reaching – be they physical or metaphysical.  But that is, I believe, where the parallels cease.

While I do my bit to promote exercise, I’ve never really been a part of the ‘fitness community’.  Although I am a qualified personal trainer, I tend to believe that a fitness regime should be part of a balanced lifestyle, not be your life.  Yes, I spend significant time and effort on my own diet and exercise, but I’m not one for attending fitness expos, entering competitions, hanging around with other fit freaks or being drawn into dull convos about who’s lifting what and who’s consuming the least or most calories.  Nor am I one for pushing slogans like “Be a beast”, “Get big or die trying” or “Eat, Train, Sleep”.  I think there should be more to life than that.

However, while I am certainly no high priest or major guru for the fitness world, as a lifestyle choice, it offers something that religion doesn’t: real tangible physical and mental benefits in this world.

So, fitness is actually more than religion.  Its a lifestyle, but not a belief system, but one that actually delivers what it promises.  It requires you make biological, physical changes for benefits in this life, not moral adjustments for the carrot-stick of a paradise in the next.  Religion is an empty, hollow contract between you and an invisible man in a place that does not exist.  Fitness is a promise to yourself to be a better person physically, and potentially mentally, than you were yesterday and than you will be today.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many of the motivations that drive those down a fitter path are often shallow and two-dimensional, driven by a desire to look better, be sexier, and, in turn, feel better.  There’s no reason to feel guilty about it.  As long as its not the only thing that drives us in life, then we should be able to steer  clear of venturing too far down the ‘dickhead’ path (the occasional ‘dickhead’ moments are permissible).  Plus, these are goals many of us pursue through a multitude of avenues, least of all the fashion and cosmetics industries.  Fitness is yet another, albeit one that requires long-term persistent commitment and drive.  Of course, you can’t workout a personality at a gym, that’s something you’ll have to work on elsewhere, if you don’t have one.

Religion rarely fulfils these goals.  On the contrary, it will frequently makes you look less appealing and it certainly isn’t sexy.  Any temptation you may have of evangelising and ‘spreading the word’ or, god (you choose the one) forbid, you decide to impose the judgements of your religion and ‘holy’ book on others, and you too will take a long ol’ drive down the highway of ‘dickheadedness’.  Not only will you share the arrogance of a ‘dickhead’ fitness freak, your arrogance is driven even more by delusion than even his/hers may be.

So, here’s the skinny: fitness people can be dickheads, sometimes driven by their obsession with the gym/pumping iron/the body beautiful (more often steroids), but, there’s nothing from within the fitness industry that will:

  • cause you to stop eating a food just because a book says so (it will be for a REASON, be it calorific, protein/carb/fat content and health).
  • make you hate gays, Jews, muslims, other denominations of your own belief system, non-believers, blasphemists, atheists…
  • require you to wear specific clothing (although being naked in the gym is not usually permitted, keep that to home workouts), cut your hair a certain way, cover your hair, grow a beard, wear a little hat…
  • make you chop off your foreskin and that of your son’s.
  • believe your wife, and every woman, should be treated differently to you just because she was born with a vagina.
  • encourage you to blow yourself up and commit suicide in a multitude of other ways, while killing others in process.

So, if you don’t want to be a racist, homophobic, wife-hating, child-abusing, nonsense-spouting, fairy-believing, deluded dickhead, don’t follow a religion.

If you don’t mind being a healthy, fit, clear-headed, positive-thinking, pumped-up dickhead, then come to the iron-side.

Is fitness the new religion?  Not really.  Its a heck of a lot better for you.

Give it a go, Blighty.  You might like it!

Benedict x

 

Letter from Limburg #8: My Solution To Combatting Extremism

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Dear Blighty,

I’d like to introduce you to a man from Limburg:  Geert Wilders.  He’s become quite a name recently.  Not only here in the Netherlands, but also around the world.

Just in case you weren’t aware, the Dutch just had an election on Wednesday.  It was generally thought, in the world press, that Geert would ride the same wave of populism that enabled Brexit to occur and Trump to triumph by gaining the largest number of votes.  But they were wrong.  Geert and his Party for Freedom came in second place, behind the governing party of Mark Rutte and not far ahead of the liberal D66 and the left-wing GreenLeft party.  The populist wave that the likes of Nigel Farage predicted, leading to the collapse of the EU, did not occur in the Netherlands.  Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen in France and Germany.

Geert Wilders’ politics are generally accepted as being on the far-right.  With his anti-EU stance and a closed-borders approach, its easy to accept this description.  His main party platform has always been focused on, what he calls, the ‘islamisation’ of Dutch culture.  Its not a new concern and its one that has previously cost a politician, Pim Fortuyn, his life.  Geert too is now under constant security 24 hours a day.

The fears about the impact of islamic extremism are shared across the board.  But Geert takes it one step further.  He makes the argument that Islam itself, not just its extremists, is an incompatible ideology with the Dutch values of freedom, democracy and tolerance.  His response is to call in measures like banning the Qu’ran, getting rid of mosques, muslim schools and stopping immigration from muslim countries.

Opponents decry these measures.  The Netherlands has long been a country known for its liberalism and tolerance.  How then, opponents argue, can you curtail freedoms and be intolerant to a certain group of people just because you dislike what they might say and believe?  Aren’t you, as a result, compromising the very values of liberalism and tolerance that the Dutch hold dear?

Now, I may make myself even more unpopular here, but I do not disagree with Geert’s analysis.  I think the values that guide Islam and huge chunks of its teachings are entirely against the principles that we hold dear.  Where I disagree is with his conclusion about how to deal with it.

Just as Chuka Immuna stated in your parliament this week, Blighty, I am not a fan of the use of the word ‘tolerant’.  I’d like to think that we do more than just tolerate most groups of people in western, liberal democracies.  That we celebrate, embrace and encourage diversity and difference and the fact we are able to live together and enjoy the things we do share in common.  However, I think it is naive to believe that, at times, there aren’t groups of people that, at best, we must ‘tolerate’.

Where Geert and I disagree in our position is that, while I recognise that Islam poses a threat to western society, I don’t think we should stop pointing the finger there.  Geert claims the Netherlands is based on Christian, Judeo and Humanist values.  I believe only one of those to be true.  I think that all religion poses a threat to the humanist and secular principles that western, liberal democracies generally base their belief systems.

Geert rejects this argument, making the point that, had he criticised Christianity or Judaism, he wouldn’t require 24 hour security, need to wear a bullet-proof vest at public appearances, be under fatwah by some in the Muslim faith and receive continual death threats.  This may be true and it may be accurate to say that the Islam of today is a far more vicious, violent and brutal religion that its abrahamic colleagues.  But you don’t need to rewind the clock back too far to see the ugly side of Christianity and Judaism and the misery that they wrought upon millions throughout the centuries.  Islam may be playing catch-up, but they’re all pretty sick philosophies, if you ask me.

Christianity and Judaism have been playing PR in a desperate attempt to lighten their tone, lessen the importance of the many death and violence obsessed passages of their holy scriptures, and, in some denominations at least, to seem more appealing to an enlightened masses and even segments of the community it flat-out states it despises and wishes death upon. The Old Testament and Torah are vile, vitriolic pages of the worst order – encouraging pedophilia, genocide, murder of homosexuals and enslavement, to quote just a few of its wonderful teachings.  Of course, Christians will write-off over half of its biblical contents because, they claim, Jesus came and preached ‘love thy neighbour and forgiveness’.  Not that the New Testament isn’t without its own degree of barbarity and questionable principles, not to mention the fact that God must be rather short-sighted if he had to send his ‘only son’ to confess that many of his previous teachings were in fact lies!

Islam is indeed medieval in development.  But so are most of the societies in which it originates and dominates.  Count ourselves lucky to have reached an elightened era that values humanity not BECAUSE of religion, but despite it, and let us not forget the millions of victims it took along the way.

Yes, the philosophy and teachings that guide Islam are incompatible with today’s western culture.  But so is Christianity and Judaism.  In fact, religion itself is incompatible with the predominantly  progressive secular and humanist society we are creating in much of The West.

We cannot ban the Qu’ran or close borders to people who happen to have been born into the Islamic faith.  That fundamentally goes against the values that we in the West hold dear.  It also further pits Islam against the West and against other religions, when we should be recognising that the belief in supernatural entities and in divinically-attributed doctrinal systems that dictate how we should live our lives should be consigned to the cess pit of human progress.  But not banned.

The only way that extremism can be truly combatted is by a culture of dis-crediting and de-legitimising religion.

Let’s ‘tolerate’ religion.  Let’s do just that.  But no more.  Let’s not encourage it or give it a greater voice or allow it more clout.  Religion should be a private thing.  No more.   End all religious education, remove religion from ALL workplaces, cease allowing religious leaders from being part of the legislative process, giving them tax cuts, allowing charitable status, we need to stop consulting with them on matters relating to social policy, giving them air time on our TVs and radios, or column space in our media, simply because they are religious leaders – if they must, then their belief in mythical, unproven, unfounded ghouls, ghosts and spirits should banish them to the back-page bile as pedalled by other such fraudsters who call themselves ‘psychics’ and astrologers.

Rather than assisting Christianity particularly in its widespread PR campaign to make itself more appealing to the public by accentuating the more palatable aspects of its preachings and dictates and glossing over or ignoring the vile, heinous, vicious, hateful and blood-thirsty verses, we need to call it out for the nonsense that it is.  By all means, allow people to believe what they want in their private lives, but we must stop promoting religious belief as an equally valid and relevant philosophy to a humanist, secular, rational, science-based society.

By encouraging, often promoting, religion, as we too often do in the West, we enable a breeding ground for extremism to occur.  It is very difficult, hypocritical in fact, to state that one person’s interpretation of scripture is incorrect but another’s is not, simply because it fits in better with your model of how society should be.  The fact is, most extremists or fundamentalists are being far truer to the letter of their religion than the ‘pick and mixers’ who now reject large chunks of their sacred texts simply because it doesn’t fit in with the liberal, largely humanist, values that we now hold dear.  But that doesn’t make either more true or more valid.  As far as I am concerned, they are both a complete load of bull-shit.  But if you accept and celebrate one, you must, through extrapolation of the bizarre logic of faith and belief, tolerate the other.

Geert Wilders’ campaign failed, but it did expose cracks in how far Dutch tolerance is prepared to be pushed.  While I admire his campaign to be honest about the place of Islam in our society, when too many politicians seem too scared or unwilling to do so, I would wish that he, and others, could extend that honesty to the impact, and offence, of all elements of religion, to our liberal sensitivities.

As a society that is not officially secular, Blighty, I hope you’re able to take a few of my concerns on board.

Best of luck with tackling your extremists!

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #7: I’m racist too.

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Dear Blighty,

We live in very sensitive times.  We have seen a rise in nationalist and populist movements in the USA, the UK, here in the Netherlands and in other European countries too.

It is usually in times of strife or depression, be that economically or societally, that electorates put their support behind nationalist movements.  They are driven by discontentment with the status quo and feel a need to blame someone or something else.

Too often the recipient of this blame is the ‘other’, the ‘threat’ to their national identity.  Minority groups, immigrants, homosexuals, and those others who are different to the majority are usually first in line to be blamed for the ills of that society.

The reality that too few are keen to admit is that people who support nationalist movements are almost always, as part of their belief, driven by a degree of racism.  It is their inability to move from the cave-man-like tribalist that believes that their group, whatever that group may be, is the best, simply by virtue of the very simplistic fact that this is what they happen to have been born into.  Every other group is, based on this juvenile logic, therefore a threat and, simply because it is not their group, not as good.  Its a very crude and basic view of the world in which we live.  Which is perhaps part of the appeal.  Its basic.  Its simple.  Simple minds and all that.

The truth is that I’m racist too.

Racism = the FEAR or HATE of another race.

OK, I’ve never expressed a hate of anyone because of their race, but I do sometimes fear.

There are most certainly times in my head when I have the audacity to express, albeit silently to myself, stereotypes and prejudices.  Sometimes I walk past a group of black youth and feel slightly scared or threatened.  I get scared when a bearded Muslim man steps on a train with rucksack.  I can also be sexist too, tutting to myself when waiting, excessively, for a female driver to parallel park correctly.  For whatever reason these fears and prejudices exist, probably fed to me entirely through media depictions that have solidified such stereotypes rather than any real innate sense of tribalism I might possess.

Hell, in my head, I’ve murdered, beaten those I disliked, laughed at funerals, loud farted in the middle of school assemblies, screamed expletives during a vicar’s sermon…  I also distinctly remember being very curious to know what the reaction would be if I kicked my grandmother when she greeted me at her door.   Our heads can be dark, sinister places at times.

But here’s the difference:  I am able to rationalise, more importantly, DISMISS the thoughts in my head as being wrong and inappropriate and, actually, because I am an intelligent, thoughtful and considered individual, know that, even though these thoughts crossed my mind, I don’t actually agree with them.

The difference between me (and most other considered, rational, intelligent beings) and most people who choose to support nationalist movements, is that we can assimilate and sift through the information in our heads so that it doesn’t cause us to make bad decisions or do wrong things in our actual, real, physical lives.

While the idiot in my head might get slightly frustrated that I couldn’t fully understand the Polish shop keeper when he served me, I don’t let that idiot control my sense of what is right and wrong by hating all Polish people/Europeans/immigrants, wishing they weren’t in the country, voting for LEAVE in the EU referendum or supporting a nationalist movement like UKIP.

We all have demons and idiots running around inside our brains.  You can listen to them, sometimes you can even have a joke with them, but don’t let the idiot inside your head become the idiot in your mouth and body.

You can be a better person than the idiot we all possess.

And so can you, Blighty.  But sadly, you possess a few too many.

Good luck with that,

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #6: I hope you fail

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Dear Blighty,

I’ve got to come clean with you.

In the early stages of the post-referendum days, I wished you well.  I disagreed with your decision, thought it spelt bad luck for your future, but hoped you could make the best of it.  I no longer feel that way.  I want you to fail.

For the same reason I don’t like to reward bad behaviour.  A child who refuses to share with his friends around him.  I would want that child to be punished, to suffer, certainly not to gain from a behaviour I consider immoral and backward.

For the same reason I make a conscious effort not to visit certain countries thereby supporting their economies, which have policies, principles and politics with which I fundamentally oppose.  Of course, one will never 100% agree with the policies of any one government in any one country at any one time.  But there are some policies that I am uncompromising on – the use of capital punishment, the free right to gun ownership, the illegality of homosexuality, the unequal treatment of women.  As a result, I don’t travel as a tourist, on my own dime, to the USA, I will not visit Thailand, and I refuse to venture to any non-secular muslim state.  I want these countries to suffer as a result of their, what I believe to be, immoral, hateful, discriminatory and vicious policies.  

For the same reason, we, as a liberal western ‘tolerant’ democracy, imposed embargoes against South Africa.  Its policy of apartheid was so abhorrent in our minds that we decided to employ punitive measures to inflict harm to its economy, people and their way of life.  This continued until the desired affect was reached and apartheid was abolished.

I disagree fundamentally with the nationalist agenda of Brexit.  It is, in my opinion, morally abhorrent to move from a position of close co-operation with your nearest neighbours to one of isolation or, as is the agenda of the hard-line Brexiteers, to attempt to appease the bigger boys further away on the globe, or re-ignite a long-dead notion of Empire 2.0.  Not to begin to mention the environmental impact of greater trade with further flung countries than our European counterparts, piecemeal integration with those closest to you is not only desirable from an economic stand-point, it is the right thing to do socially and in an effort to secure peace in our regions.  The EU is by far the best example of cross-border co-operation and integration, but other countries in other continents have been working towards similar unions too, because they know it is advantageous and right for the long-term economic prosperities and securities of their lands.

The British government under Teresa May’s leadership is going full-steam ahead with a hard-Brexit agenda, thereby adding fuel to the far-right nationalism of the small-minded bigots who supported the ‘Leave’ campaign in the first place.  We have witnessed a significant increase in racist attacks across the UK and the continual on-going brandishing of anyone who questions the basis of Brexit, its legitmacy, who dares to raise concerns about the way in which the government is going about it, as a ‘traitor’, as ‘un-patriotic’ and ‘un-democratic’, lacking respect for the ‘will of the people’.  This climate persists while May continues to pursue a Brexit at any cost.

That is not a society or regime I support.  That is not a mentality I wish to see prosper and thrive.  Nationalism is never the right route.  Nationalism only ever seeks to divide, build barriers and create an ‘us and them’ mentality driven largely by paranoia and a delusion of grandeur.  It was this psyche that fed into the rise, often democratically, of nationalist regimes in the 20th century, in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece – all of which the EU has helped put an end to.

In 1973, the UK took several steps forward in working towards a more unified and prosperous continent.  In 2016, it took several strides back.

I wouldn’t wish starvation and deprivation upon you, Blighty, like I wouldn’t starve my misbehaving child, but we must all be responsible for our own actions.  On 23rd June 2016, the British electorate had a choice.  It had ample opportunity to learn, to become informed (not fed lies by the media), to weigh the options.  The majority of those who voted decided to allow their prejudices, their ignorance, their hatred and delusion to cut off their noses despite their faces.  Live with that choice and the consequence.

I hope you suffer.  I really do.  I hope you become a bit less wealthy.  I hope you feel it.  You deserve to.  It upsets me that those people, like my parents, with the fore-sight, intelligence and nous to take a few moments to obtain un-biased information about that which they were charged to vote on, may also suffer along the way, but that is the damage caused by you, the ‘Leave’ voter and not me.

I have voted with my feet.  I have not left because you are a sinking ship, I left because you are not a country which I wish to support, believe in or care to help thrive.  I tried, for over 15 years.  Believe me, I tried, but you failed me and you have failed many others.  I hope some of them too will take the brave step to jump ship and put their talents and skills into good use in societies that want them, believe in them and offer them the opportunities they deserve.  Because you no longer do.

Blighty, you were once my home.  But, almost as if I was returning to a decrepit old cottage that was once my place of residence, your heyday has been and gone and you’re no longer able to support the sort of life and existence many of your residents deserve.

One day, maybe, you’ll realise what you had.  But it’ll probably be too late.

Yours (in passport only),

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #5: Happy as the Dutch

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Dear Blighty,

You may remember that, in my last letter to you, we examined the strange phenomenon of reducing prisoner numbers in the Netherlands and attempted to explore possible explanations as to why that might be.   In this letter, I promised to expand upon that and suggest reasons as to why the Dutch are, comparatively, such law-abiding folk.

Developing on that idea, I’d like to state that I may have given the impression to you, in past letters, that I dislike the USA and, possibly, that I dislike you too.  The fact is, on my two trips to the USA, I loved it.  I think the USA is a fascinating and amazing country.  On a personal level, I dislike some of its politics.  It also has a lot of angry people.  Angry and unhappy people.  It must also be said, in all honesty, so does the UK.  The combination of angry and unhappy people is not a successful recipe for a harmonious society.

People who are happy with the society they live in, tend to have more respect and less motive to want to break its rules.  So, Blighty, I’d like to examine the reasons why, you particularly, are a far less than happy country and what lessons could be learned from other places (specifically here in Limburg and the Netherlands) to make you a far brighter and content place.

As it turns out, Blighty, you are officially a far less happy place than even the USA.  According to the 2016 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, you are ranked 23rd, exactly ten places behind the USA (and you’re down from last year).

You are, in fact, a more miserable place than such poorer countries as Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica and countries which suffer bitterly cold winters like Iceland, Canada, Norway and Sweden.  Funnily enough, it generally seems that the colder the country, the happier its population tends to be.  As Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada take the first six places in that order.  Then comes the Netherlands in seventh.

Of course, how the report defines ‘happiness’ may not be how either you or I would.  For example, there’s no mention of access to affordable good chocolate, ability to watch marathons of ‘Family Guy’ on TV or how sexy a population each country has.   Happiness is such a debatable and subjective concept.  For the purposes of the report, they take into account a combination of factors, including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and trust (of officials).  This seems a rather narrow set of criteria on which to base a nation’s level of happiness, so I will be referring to this report in relatively loose terms.  But it is surely true to say, on balance, that happy people are generally wealthy (in relative terms), supported when the going gets tough (i.e. social security), healthy, free to be who they want to be and live their lives how they choose, living in a giving and generous community, lead by people they can trust.  Access to decent chocolate, ‘Family Guy’ and sexy people is probably more of a luxury for people who are already pretty content with their lot in life.

So, for some reason, Bighty, yet again, you score lower than the Netherlands.  Why are you a less happy place than one of the flattest places on the planet?  My hypothesis is that its because you’re a pretty angry place.

Angry people do bad things.  Happy people, on the whole, don’t.  And you don’t have to be rich, not to be angry.  There are many poor people who ooze happiness.  But, again, its all relative.

I made the rather bold claim in my last letter to you, Blighty, that I don’t need to look at any statistics to know that the Netherlands is a far safer place than you are.  One only needs to visit here to get that sense.  Of course, it is possible that Dutch crime rates are astronomically high, but the authorities are so very efficient at concealing any evidence from the naked eye.  However, the statistics do not support this.  The Netherlands is a relatively safe place.

After around a dozen visits to the Netherlands, some for extended periods, I am always astounded by several things.  Mostly by things that I don’t see.  More specifically, things that I don’t see that I would often see in the UK.  Now, I’m not saying things that I don’t see never happen in the Netherlands, I’m just stating that I have either never, or hardly ever, witnessed them.  Such as:

  • I have never seen a fight in a bar.  Or in a town centre.  Or anywhere, for that matter.
  • I have been to many town centres in the Netherlands and never noticed any police presence, not even on Friday or Saturday nights.  Of course, I have randomly seen police driving around the country, but never specifically placed in a town centre or outside a club or bar, anticipating the likely on-set of trouble such as is frequently seen in you, Blighty.
  • I have never seen groups of rowdy drunk young men or women EXCEPT on two occasions – during carnival time in Limburg and on visits to Amsterdam (the rowdy young people have almost always turned out to be British or Irish).
  • I have seen limited amounts of graffiti on trains and on the sides of motorways.  But that is all I have seen.
  • I have never seen a road accident.  They must happen.  I know they do.  I have seen Dutch news!  I have just never seen one or evidence of one having taken place first hand.
  • I have never felt threatened by gangs of anti-social young people.  Of course, I have seen young people and groups of young people, but never felt threatened or seen them behave in ways that could be deemed to be threatening or anti-social.  I have seen and heard some individual boys, on the way home from school, use disrespectful language to taunt their female classmates, but that is all.
  • I have never seen a homeless person or encountered a beggar.  I am told, by Dutch people, that there are homeless people living in the forests.  Not that I ever been on any forages into the Dutch woodland, but I have still seen no evidence in any of the many locations that I have visited.  And on the other occasions I ask Dutch people where their homeless population is, they say they are in homes and shelters.  Which pretty much makes my point.

Now, the Netherlands has problems, of course it does.  Every country has problems.  My girlfriend is a social worker and has worked on the front-line helping individuals to deal with these problems.  Her last job was in a women’s refuge, so knows only too well the violence and abuse that many of these women suffer at the hand’s of their partners and families.  There are also gangs in the Netherlands.  Limburg, in particular, has on-going issues with Hell’s Angels-type biker gangs.  But, again, it is all relative.  It has problems but they are far fewer and far less evident than they are in you, Blighty.

So, why might this be?  Why might Dutch people be less angry and less inclined to be anti-social and break the rules?  Is it their DNA?  Are they naturally a happier and more law-abiding bunch?  Have they been drilled and brain-washed in a North Korean-like fashion?  Or are they all Philips manufactured cyborgs or implanted with chips in their brains making them comply?

Here are a few explanations I put forward to you:

FEWER LAWS TO BE BROKEN.  Firstly, there is perhaps an obvious factor that may account for some of this: the simple fact that there are fewer laws to break.  That things that are illegal in many other countries, are not illegal here in the Netherlands.  Such as prostitution and smoking cannabis.  Some may even argue that the acts themselves contribute to the Dutch level of happiness.   Or at least they’re too busy shagging or getting high to be committing crimes.  Others, of course, may claim they cause more problems.  I’ll let the stats do the talking.

SEX.  In terms of sex (seeing as it is an on-going, but relevant, theme in my life), the Dutch maintain a far more open attitude to discussing it with their peers and families alike and to the notion of selling and enjoying it in all its many manifestations.  Here in Limburg, people are a bit more conservative, being the mainly Catholic region of the country.  But even here, there are sex clubs and shops advertised quite openly.  In the larger cities and vicinities, swinger’s clubs and organisations abound.  Sex is certainly not something hidden away and shunned.  On the whole, most Dutch feel they can pretty much be themselves here and not be judged badly for it, including on a sexual level.

ALCOHOL.  Dutch people, like most western Europeans, except the British and Irish, have a healthy relationship with alcohol.  The culture of ‘alcopops’ does not really exist here and you will rarely hear groups of young Dutch people expressly say “I want to get really drunk tonight”.  It happens, of course.  But, on the whole, the Dutch drink to enjoy drinking, not with the expressed purpose of getting completely shit-faced.  As a result, A&E departments up and down the Netherlands are generally not clogged up with record numbers of injured (from self-induced accidents or brawls) young people tanked up with dangerous levels of alcohol.  The Dutch private health care and insurance-based system may account partly for an individual taking greater responsibility for their health and use of the system.  But even in societies with free-at-the-point-of-use health systems, such as Sweden and Denmark, the same is generally true.  The culture of getting rat-arsed as quickly as possible to the point of being embarrassingly inebriated is, in Europe at least, generally limited to the British Isles or to any location on the continent frequented by large numbers of young British tourists.

VIOLENCE.  Accompanied with the drinking culture in you, Blighty, is very often a nasty, violent streak.  While so many young Brits go out with the intention of getting blotto, a smaller group, but still present across the land, of, predominantly males, go out looking for a fight, or are more than eager to get into one should they be presented with the opportunity.  God forbid that somebody should happen to look at them, or their partner, in the ‘wrong’ way.  Now, I don’t happen to believe that I am particularly attracted to these sorts of people, that any of my friends fit into this category or that I hang out in establishments particularly known for this sort of activity – except for the fact I ever hung out in any bar or club in the United Kingdom.  All I know is, that during my 35 years of living in the British Isles, I have seen frequent bar brawls and street fights.  I specifically remember driving out of Reading town centre one night, confronted with numerous police riot vans, the scene looked like a war zone.  A local told me that that its like that every Saturday night.  The truth is, and if you’re British you know it only too well, that in every provincial shit hole, however big or small, up and down the UK, the scene is replicated over and over and over again.  In contrast, during my many visits to the Netherlands, I spend many nights in town centres and at clubs and bars as a result of the work I often do over here.  I have not once seen a fight.  Again, I am not saying they don’t occur, I have absolutely no doubt that they do.  But I have never seen one.

OBESITY.  If British hospitals aren’t filled every weekend with the sorry and pathetic results of alcohol-binging or drug-fuelled antics or with the battered and bruised corpses of yet another victim of the rather nasty viscous side of British youth culture, the rest of the week they are battling the on-going, and growing, issue of obesity within your population, Blighty.  We’ve addressed this issue just a few letters ago.  But its worth repeating in the context of happy and safe environments.  Healthy people tend to be happier people, for many reasons.  While there are those in the ‘fat community’ who proudly claim to embrace their size and be happy with who, and what, they are, the fact remains that living a healthy lifestyle improves your mental well-being and outlook, your physical confidence and self-esteem, your sex life and relationship and its been linked to greater economic success too.  Unhealthy people, although driven by multiple factors, tend to suffer from higher levels of depression than their healthier counterparts, or, that is to say, the fact they are unhealthy makes them more depressed.  This can lead to a downward scale of depression and self-loathing which can manifest itself in other anti-social activities.  On this front, we have already examined the fact that the Dutch are a far healthier bunch than the British and the possible reasons as to why this might be.

HOUSING.  This may seem an odd one, but the housing we live in and our environment actually have massive impacts on our sense of self, self-worth and our place in our community.

The first thing I noticed, when visiting the Netherlands, was the size of the windows.  Many homes have very large front room windows.  This is a rather uniquely Dutch architectural character.  The moment you drive into Belgium or Germany, you just don’t see it any more and I certainly very, very rarely see anything like it in the UK.  I have spoken to numerous Dutch people and asked why their windows are so big and most respondents are unsure.  Although, one claimed it was a government conspiracy to be able spy upon its inhabitants.  While I do believe that the Dutch put an enormous amount of thought into the design of many things, I tend not to believe, in this case, it has a motive linked to spying or invasion of individual liberty.  Firstly, it lets more light in.  Light makes people feel more positive.  One also feels more connected to the community around them, an inter-connection, if you like, between their home and the outdoors.  In terms of security, while some may see it as a concern because it shows off their possessions more clearly, others will highlight how any intruder in their home can be more easily identified and witnessed due to the size of the window.  Again, if larger windows were a massive security risk, this would be reflected in the crime rate, which its not.  Too often, I have driven past homes in the UK (particularly new builds) with pokey little windows and wondered how anyone could tolerate such lack of natural light.  As if the UK isn’t dark and dingy enough much of the time, maximising on the daylight that we do get shouldn’t be an architectural impossibility, even for the lowest quality housing.  Sadly, this is one example of British short-sightedness of cutting corners and saving costs, but in the long-term having detrimental effects on mental health, social behaviour and criminal activity.

My second lasting impression from the Netherlands, re-enforced every single time I am here, is how tidy a country it is.  That every house looks like a show home.  I can even drive into an area of predominantly social housing (what you call ‘council housing’) and notice no difference.  I won’t see any graffiti there, I have never smelt the aroma of kippers in the air, seen boarded up windows, burnt out homes, used shopping trolleys, old bicycles or tyres festering away in over-grown front lawns, been threatened by gangs of anti-social youth smoking or drinking by the bus stop.  Social homes are as well maintained, or so it seems to me, as private ones.  Dutch people take pride in their homes, whether they own them or not.  Now, it is true that a popular TV show in recent years in the Netherlands, called ‘De Tokkies’, chronicled the activities of, what can best be described as, one of the chavviest families around – chain-smoking, shop-lifting, social home residents with foul mouths and fat arses that they would spend much of their time on.  The sad thing is that, in the UK, such people would not be an exception, but the rule, for so many communities up and down the land.  So, while such people do indeed exist in the Netherlands, I haven’t seen them and I see no evidence or major differentiation of attitudes of those in more affluent, compared to poorer, neighbourhoods.  These differences may be starker in larger cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam and while my experience is largely limited to smaller towns in Limburg, my experience of having lived in many towns of similar size in the UK is that there are always stark contrasts and clear evidence of deprivation, crime and anti-social conduct in areas of predominantly social housing.  This comparison is worth noting, Blighty.

Most Dutch people do not live in massive homes.  Many live in terraced housing like so many of your residents, Blighty.  But there is often far more thought put into the design, proportions and use of light (big windows) in these houses than in those of so many local authorities in the UK.  So much of you, Blighty, is still dominated by huge ugly sways of 1960s blocks of flats and poorly-considered council housing and even, sometimes, pokey private new builds too.  Until recently, that has been largely true for most architecture in the UK, with grim, concrete office blocks and shopping malls slotted in between poorly maintained decaying older buildings.  This is improving now.  But the Netherlands has been at the forefront of design, in many spheres, for decades.  It really does feel that every building has a purpose here and has been carefully considered as to how it will best function for the role it has been created to serve, as well fit into the environment or make a bold statement.  In the UK, not so.  As long as it has four walls and a few tiny windows, its sufficient.  The UK, the land of sufficient.  For now.  But not for the long-term.

Community building is so important in maintaining a sense of pride and belonging for those who inhabit it.  Structures and buildings form a large portion of the communities we reside in.  I must be honest and say that I thought the town I grew up in was an ugly shit-hole.  So, I treated it as such.  At least, I made no real effort to make it a better place.  I saw no real future there.  Why would somebody invest their time and effort in a place they see no future or feel gives very little back to them?  Towns and cities are, of course, living, breathing entities that are both served by, and for, those people who live there.  There needs to be give and take on both sides.  Its only recently that you have you begun to realise this, Blighty.  Sadly, for some, its a little too late.

ROADS.  The Dutch have some of the safest roads in the world.  The quality is pretty astounding.  Having driven here on numerous occasions, I have never seen a pot-hole.  I will be so bold as to say they are the smoothest roads I have ever had the pleasure to drive on.  Crossing from the Netherlands to Belgium, you notice the difference instantly.  Not only that, but the Netherlands uses, yet again, very well thought-out road planning techniques to ensure drivers pay far closer attention to the road and reduce their speed.  This is particularly noticeable when off the motorway and in residential areas, where roads are purposefully narrowed and made to share with cycle paths.  You must also remember that, over here, cyclists own the roads.  Hitting a cyclist will cost you dearly!  You must always stay very aware on Dutch roads.  As a result, road accidents are far fewer because all drivers are employing the same level of heightened awareness in order to avoid these obstacles.  Generally, people who are dead or badly injured from road accidents, tend not to be very happy people.  And it certainly means fewer people are breaking the rules on the Netherlands’ roads.  Sure, I have seen speeders and been over-taken by people I would love to have given the ‘wanker’ symbol to, but that is the worst I have witnessed.  And if that is the worst, it leaves me pretty happy to be a motorist on the Netherlands’ roads.

Its worth noting, while discussing roads, that the Netherlands does have the highest rate of bicycle accidents in Europe.  But it also has the highest rate of bicycle use in the whole of the continent too.  So, there’s your explanation for that one.

HATE OF THE OTHER.  It is certainly true to say that the Netherlands has rich people and it has poor people and, like any society, there is envy, greed and hatred associated with such divisions.  And while the Netherlands also shares in common the fact that it has a monarch as its Head of State, there is far less of a noticeable divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ than is evident the UK.  There is a vaguely carved out notion of a class system, particularly in the richer parts in the provinces of Holland, but the lines are far more brutally clear and enforced in the UK.  Even the Dutch royal family has a more mainstream presence and sense of ‘normality’ about it than the British royals.  This long-time entrenched system of upper and lower classes, rich and poor, haves and have nots, continues to breed a deeply held notion of resentment and hatred which is far more prevalent in the UK than it is in the Netherlands.  If there is a hatred of those who rule you, there is far less likelihood that those subjected to that rule will respect the rules imposed upon them.

The ‘other’ also extends beyond the borders.  The UK, as an island, as a former colonial power, has arrogantly imposed its own rule and influence beyond its boundaries to societies in every continent of the globe.  But the moment it feels ‘encroached’ upon by any others, it traditionally attempts to flex it muscles and attempts to expel such foreign elements or recoils in fear.  Even when those influences come from its nearest neighbours.  The UK has always been very suspicious of ‘Johnny foreigner’, mainland Europeans included.  Of course, centuries of war and conflict leaves any country suspicious of the motives and influences of any other, but the Netherlands (which was also a colonial power), due to its geographic location, has had to learn to live with and, sometimes even love, its neighbours – even if one of those neighbours is Germany.  As previously mentioned, many Dutch, particularly in Limburg, live in the Netherlands but work in Belgium, shop in Germany, take a day trip to Paris or Luxembourg, fill up their car in Belgium, use a hospital in Germany and so on.  Sometimes even their next-door-neighbour is literally on another side of a border.  The Dutch are so used to mingling with foreigners (without even taking immigrants into account) and crossing borders, be they physical, linguistic and cultural, that the idea of co-operating with, working for, or even becoming a friend of, someone in another country near to them, is simply part of many Dutch people’s day-to-day existence.

When it comes to immigration, of course, there is tension and there are right-wing movements and political parties capitalising on this.  But at least Dutch people have an understanding of the daily interaction with people from, and in, neighbouring countries that island countries such as you, Blighty, will find much harder to appreciate and understand.   Assessing how this impacts on criminality (or the lower level of it), I would argue that a society that is content with its place in the world, and feels it has a real stake in, and understanding of, the wider world around it, beyond its own borders, makes for a happier place to be, as opposed to one that lives in continual fear, suspicion and lack of insight of the ‘other’, even when that other is from just down the road (or, in your case, across the water).   Of course, this is hard to measure, as Belgium and Germany rank far lower in the Happiness Report than the Netherlands, but those countries do not adhere to some of the other factors I have highlighted here.

So, there you have it.  Some of the reasons I believe that the Netherlands is a happier and safer place than you, Blighty.  Its possible that all of this comes down to DNA, although I think that’s highly unlikely.  Even if it were true, there are still many elements from the Dutch experience you can take lessons from.  The biggest being that it really helps to think about the long-term impact rather than the short-term reward.

Of course, nowhere is perfect and no society on the face of the planet will ever escape the evils that plague humanity.  I know people in the Netherlands who have been victim of a mugging and of having their home broken into.  But, as I continue to stress, it is all relative.  Eradication is a utopian goal, not a realistic one.  Reduction is the aim.  While there are countries, like the Netherlands, that do things better than you do based on results, Blighty, there’s the opportunity to take stock and learn in a hope you might be able to improve.

Best of luck, Blighty!

Until next time,

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #4: Importing Criminals

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Dear Blighty,

I remember driving home late one night back in 2014, after having performed at a Dreamboys show, from Hull to Northamptonshire.  Listening to the World Service, as I often did at such hours, I was surprised by a headline that claimed that the Netherlands was experiencing a decline in prisoner numbers to the extent that they were now closing prisons.

Ah!, I thought, this will be a useful bit of information to quote in the debate I was to attend the following day in London of the Liberty League Forum around the subject of pornography and it being a victimless crime.

You see, Blighty, the Netherlands is a highly sexualised society in so many ways.  At least, that is to say, the Netherlands is very open about sex.  Its on display.  Prostitution is legal and prostitutes are openly displayed behind glass in the streets of Amsterdam’s red light district.  Swingers’ and Sex Clubs are all over the country and openly advertised.  Sex shops aren’t boarded up and hidden away in the same way they are in you, Blighty.  And kids can actually talk to their parents and teachers quite openly about sex.  There is no shame when it comes to sex in the Netherlands.  There’s a lot of sex, but a lot less crime.  (Not that there’s actually any natural link between the two.)  Maybe because so much about sex in the Netherlands, isn’t criminal.

Actually, I’m going to retract a previous statement.  I don’t entirely believe that the Netherlands is any more sexualised a society than many others.  Blighty, you are very sexualised too.  You just both deal with it in very different ways and adopt markedly different attitudes.

This is also true in so many other things.

Only ten years ago, the Netherlands had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, it now has one of the lowest.  Its re-offending rate for those serving short sentences of two years or less is just one-fifth of that of the UK’s.

In the last few years, the Netherlands has closed 19 of its prisons and more are set to shut down in the not too distant future.  Some have been converted into reception centres for asylum seekers, one here in Roermond, Limburg is even a luxury hotel.

Since 2005, prison numbers have dropped 43%.  In fact, the domestic prison population is in such a decline that the Netherlands has even begun importing prisoners from Belgium and Norway.  Norgerhaven prison is now headed by a Norwegian governor, housing 234 Norwegian prisoners but staffed by Dutch prison guards.

So, why is the Dutch prison population in such decline and what, with your over-crowded prisons bursting at the seams, if anything, can you learn from this example, Blighty?

It may seem a rather crass and overly simple comparison, but the USA bangs up more of its citizens than anywhere else on the planet.  It hands out long sentences and cages it citizens in some of the most decrepit and rancid conditions of any western society.  Not to mention that many of these institutions are highly dangerous, mentally tortuous and lacking much real focus on rehabilitation.  Of course, it also has the death penalty in many states.

Despite all this, the USA is one of the most violent societies in the world, with some of the highest crime and re-offending rates.

It is quite clear, that when it comes to reducing crime, reoffending rates and successfully rehabilitating offenders, that the American ‘correctional’ system is not working.  Of course, there are many aspects that come into play, least of all guns.  But Americans are obsessed with retribution.  Anything else comes secondary to this.  Which results in a criminal justice system that doesn’t help criminals to pursue a life away from crime and, more importantly, does not make society any safer.  In fact, it probably makes it more dangerous.

Tough on crime does not always mean you have to be tough on criminals.  At least, not in the American sense of ‘tough’. The “bang ’em up and throw away the key” mentality.  It also means you don’t have to be ‘easy’ on criminals either.  Yes, criminals should be punished, but the more important goal is ensuring that we are creating a safer society.  Hardline retribution does not do that.  The way we judge if a criminal justice system is working is whether or not society it is a safe place to live (based on low and reducing crime and re-offending rates).  To put it simply:  the US correctional system is fucked.

Now, let’s return to this side of the Atlantic and examine how the Dutch handle things quite differently, resulting in far more favourable and beneficial results for all – offenders and society.

To summarise simply, the Dutch criminal justice system focuses on the offender and maintaining them as productive members of society.  Some, particularly the victims, may feel this priority misplaced, but this attitude is short-sighted.  Ensuring a convicted criminal population is assimilated back into a civilian life as easily and rapidly as possible is the best way to ensuring a safer and more harmonious society in the long-term.

Firstly, Dutch judges frequently use alternative forms of punishment other than prison, such as community service, fines and tagging.  Not only is this less stigmatising (and potentially harmful) than prison, it also enables offenders to stay in their jobs and with their families.  Its the least disruptive option for them, for their families and for society.  In terms of community service. they can also acquire new skills while making a contribution to society.

Secondly, for those offenders who do arrive at a Dutch prison, a strong focus is placed on the individual and their needs to help them, ultimately, return into society as a functioning individual.  Drug addictions are treated, those with aggressive tendencies attend anger management courses and prisoners who have financial problems are provided with debt counselling.

Thirdly, prison are often (not always), nicer environments than many other prisons in western societies, with green open areas built in to help reduce stress and anxiety amongst inmates and staff alike, more time is given to Dutch prisoners for exercise in designated areas and they are often afforded greater freedom and autonomy to move around the premises unaccompanied to places like the library and canteen.  As it so happens, only a few countries, such as Norway, allow their prisoners greater freedom.

I am a strong believer that a society should be judged on the way it treats those it least desires.  Bearing in mind we all have the potential to make mistakes and do things we regret, and also mistakenly put innocent people behind bars.  Prison should be a punishment, yes, but it should also be working to help those who have veered down the wrong path back onto the right one.

Of course,  none of this satisfies the “eye for a eye”, “throw away the key”, “hang ’em and flog ’em” retributionalist who seeks short-term revenge over long-term societal harmony.  But it is still prison.  As a Dutch prisoner, your freedom is still taken away from you and severely limited.  Jails are still not pleasant places to live.  They may be comparatively better than in other country, but I still wouldn’t want to spend any time in one.  Dutch prisons still face problems, such as the drug use and violence.  And the Netherlands still has more crime than is acceptable.  But, as in so many cases when it comes to this country, it is all far lower than in most other countries western society.

There are, naturally, those within Dutch politics and population at large who are critical of the current government’s prison strategy.  They decry the fact sentences are too low and claim low prison populations are a result of police station closures, lower conviction rates and lack of funding in policing meaning stretched resources and their inability to arrest all those that they should.

Whether this is true or not, even if it is, the Netherlands is still a far safer society than any other I know or have had experience of.  They must be doing something right and their criminal justice and prison system must be playing a role in this.

The fact is that, before even knowing that the Netherlands has relatively low crime rates, if you just visit here and spend time here, it is clear and obvious.  In my next letter, I’d like to consider some of the reasons, beyond the Dutch criminal justice system itself, as to why the Dutch are seemingly such a law-abiding people, particularly in comparison to many of your own, Blighty.

Until then, I wish you a safe and crime-free time.  Make sure you lock your door!

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #3: Where are all the fat kids?

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Dear Blighty,

So, January is now upon us and ’tis the season of New Year’s Resolutions.  Have you made any this year?

As a regular gym goer, its an annoying month, as clubs around the world get clogged up with new members who have the best of intentions to shift their holiday season weight or were gifted gym memberships by concerned family members, hoping they might finally pursue a fitter, healthier life.  Alas, by the time it gets to Spring (often even before then), the vast majority of these have given in to the temptation of the couch over the cardio equipment and normality gradually returns to the gym.  Until next January.

Here in Limburg, the fitness industry is booming!  Gyms are sprouting up links, rechts en midde!  The Dutch generally are a healthy bunch.  In fact, by 2030, while every other country in the EU will have become fatter, the Netherlands is the only country which will be slimmer, being on course to have a lower percentage of overweight people than they do now.

In comparison, Blighty, you and the Republic of Ireland have the fattest population in Europe.  And you’re getting fatter!

I have now spent a month here in Limburg and I have been to the Netherlands well over 10 times now.  As I look around, I occasionally see people I would describe as ‘obese’.  Having previously resided in Scotland and then England, I can state, without exaggeration, that I would see a large amount of obese people every time I left my house.

A more challenging game here in Limburg and across the Netherlands is to play ‘Spot the fat child’.  I can genuinely say that, so far, I cannot recall ever seeing one.  I have spotted several who I might describe as carrying a little ‘puppy fat’, but I cannot remember encountering one single fat child since being here now or any of my previous visits.  Where are all the fat kids?

I find it hard to believe they are all hidden away in homes or secured behind barbed wire in ‘fat camps’.  A more logical conclusion, and backed up by the stats, is that, by and large (mind the pun!), they just don’t exist here.  At least, not in the same proportion they do on you, Blighty.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems with overweight children and obesity amongst the young here in the Netherlands.  It does exist, and it is currently growing.  If it exists at all anywhere, then, of course, it is a problem that needs to be tackled.  But the fact still remains that there are, proportionately, far fewer overweight and obese Dutch children than there are British ones.

The question therefore is:  why?

Why does Britain have so many more fat kids than the Netherlands?  What is so different about their country, mentality, lifestyle and culture that means Dutch people, by and large, are far healthier than their British counterparts, including their kids?

In the age of the internet, video games, fast food and on-demand movies, why aren’t Dutch children getting trapped into the unhealthy habits and its effects to the same degree as British kids?

I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do have a few suggestions that I have garnered from my own research and from speaking with people here in Limburg:

  • More Dutch children cycle to school than in any other European country.  On average they spend 40 minutes per week cycling.  In a flat land of cycle paths this is, of course, a whole lot of an easier thing to do than in parts of the UK.
  • Far more Dutch children walk to school than British kids and very few are dropped off in cars by their parents.
  • It is not usual for Dutch school children to be served cooked food at school.  Most Dutch kids are given packed lunches prepared by their parents.  This is, of course, leaving it to the whim of the parents but, based on the fact that Dutch adults are a generally far healthier breed than us Brits, it stands to reason that this logic is replicated in the lunch  boxes of their off-spring.
  •  Dutch people generally have a greater concern with the aesthetics of ‘things’ with a long tradition for cutting-edge art, design, architecture and fashion.  This often translates over into their own physiques too, with higher percentages of Dutch people engaged in physical activity well into their older years.  It is quite common to see someone in their seventies riding a bicycle and sometimes even speed-walking or running.  This attitude is therefore likely to be present in their parenting and passed-on to their children.
  • One lady commented to me that ‘being fat’ is treated with less of a stigma in the Netherlands than it is in some other countries.  She therefore surmised that people who are overweight do not suffer the same treatment and are unlikely to turn to coping and comforting measures (such as comfort eating) to maintain and increase their weight.
  • It is certainly not true to say that the Dutch have a particularly healthy diet.  Dutch cuisine is renowned for its fatty delicacies, such as oliebollen and frikadellen.  But the Dutch seemed to have mastered something that the British (and Americans particularly) find hard to manage:  moderation and portion size.  You won’t find any restaurants here serving the monstrous portion sizes you find in many places in the USA and, increasingly, in the UK.  Dutch towns still all have McDonalds, KFC and Burger King  (and a whole lot more), but most Dutch people visit sparingly and responsibly.

It may also be fair to point out that Dutch people are amongst the tallest in the world and so carry often their weight better than their shorter European counterparts.

So, Blighty, there’s some food for thought.  But don’t eat it!  Just think about it.

What can you learn from the Netherlands that might just help save some of your citizens from an early heart attack or being diagnosed with Diabetes?

And if you don’t believe me that things in the Netherlands can really be so much better, come and play ‘spot the fat kid’ game over here.  I’ll go to the UK and play it there.  Even if I sit on a bench, I’ll bet I win the game, while you’ll still be searching high and low to match my numbers.  But at least you’ll be burning some fat in the process!

Best of luck with your New Year’s Resolution and to a new and healthier you!

Benedict x

 

 

Letter from Limburg #2: Notion of Nation

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Gelukkig Nieuwjaar, Blighty!

Welcome to 2017!  You survived 2016 and all the challenges it threw at you, I’m sure 2017 will be a breeze of fresh air in comparison.

I’m not sure how you spent New Year’s Eve, but I do hope you had an enjoyable and safe time.  Whether counting down the bongs of Big Ben in the comfort of your front room or braving the winter breezes with the crowds down by the River Thames.

I was invited to spend Oudjaardag (Old Year’s Day), bringing in Nieuwjaardag (New Year’s Day) with friends at a party in their renovated farmhouse in a village near Maastricht, dancing the night away with the mildly merry (albeit entirely well-behaved and in-control of their facets) villagers from the neighbouring houses.

The Dutch love to drink.  They also love to dance.  But they don’t seem to need an awful lot of the former to participate in the latter.  Alcohol, particularly beer, is, very much, part of the Dutch culture – names like Grolsch, Heineken and Amstel are synonymous with summers by the canals and proudly displayed outside bars across the Netherlands.  Although, on this night, the locals seemed to favour a Belgian brand, Jupiler.  Mind you, with the border only a few kilometres away, and the Wallonian village of Jupiler just a few kilometres beyond that, its easy to understand why the lines around here are often blurred, or simply ignored.

This is Limburg.  The southernmost province of the Netherlands.  It is a tiny slither of land running from just below Eindhoven to just beyond the cities of Maastricht and Heerlen in the south.  At its narrowest, near the town of Susteren, there are only around 6km separating the bordering countries of Belgium and Germany.  Within a 20 minute drive from Heerlen you are in the German city of Aachen.  Within a 20 minute drive from Maastricht you are in the capital of french-speaking Belgium, Lieges.  Nowhere are the benefits of European Union membership more regularly taken advantage of than right here. Many residents of Limburg live here but shop in Germany, fill up their cars in Belgium, use hospitals in both and even work in one or the other.  There is no border control.  You drive from Belgium to the Netherlands to Germany as easily as you drive from Kent to West Sussex to Surrey.  A sign and an imaginary line is all that separates them.

Signs and imaginary lines.

So much a feature of European history ever since, well, I imagine human beings decided to invent such concepts as ‘territory’, ‘possessions’ and ‘nations’.  Nations are simply constructs of someone’s imagination, if not, eventually, all of ours.

I know you find this difficult to get your head around, Blighty.  For you, everything seems clear.  You seem to know exactly what you are and where you stand.  Your borders are defined by centuries of sea erosion which has created a natural coastline beyond which live the ‘others’ and within which live your own.  The sea creates a clear boundary between you and your neighbours.  You are, by and large, a detached land, not a semi, like Ireland, or a mid-terrace, like the Netherlands or Belgium.  Even though 8,000 years ago you were connected by land across what is now the North Sea from East Anglia to the Netherlands. But that is long gone and so, too often, is any sense of attachment you once had to the rest of the continent.

Of course, your situation does get a little more complicated on the other side of the Irish Sea and also when one begins to consider the nations within your kingdom that comprise the union.  There is not exactly a consensus from within these as to what does and does not comprise the limits of their identity against that of your overpowering British nation creation project.

There is a mentality among many of your inhabitants (at least within England) that the UK is an almost divinely-given physical entity on the face of the planet.  The rigid borders of your naturally defined steep-cliffed coastline are too often replicated in the closed-minds of many of your inhabitants.  Your border may have traditionally once been your greatest asset  and defence against your enemies of the past, but it too often aids in the creation and growth of ignorance and ‘enemies’ against tolerance & progression from within your own.

Many within you may speak with great certainty about what Britain is, where it is and what it means to be British as if it is a given, set in stone, unchanged from time immemorial.  Of course, any competent student of history (which, I must confess, I was not the greatest), will recognise the shortcomings of this mentality.

In Limburg, you don’t need to be a student of history to see the banality and superficiality attached to the notion of nation and nationality on a daily basis.  Don’t get me wrong, the people of Limburg are, by and large, proud to be Limburgers.  They’ll wave their little flag and speak with great fondness about their dialect and the many differences between them and the rest of the Netherlands.  But there is no call for separation, there is no independence movement here.  Equally, they are happy to be Dutch, but many speak of the fact that it would be no different if they were Belgian.  The fact is, that over the last millennium, they have been many things – Spanish, French, German and now Dutch.

Today, Limburgers are as influenced by the music and media of the Netherlands as much as they are from the United States and, indeed, yourself.  With one flick of a button they can go from watching ‘Ik Hou Van Holland’ to ‘Eastenders’.  From ‘Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden’ to ‘Geordie Shore’.  Limburgers receive Dutch, Belgian (Flemish and French) and German TV channels as standard, and most also receive BBC1, BBC2 and BBC World too.  On top of that, most Dutch TV networks broadcast large amounts of english-language programming and, as opposed to what they do in France, Germany and Spain, none of it is ever dubbed (except for children’s programming).   All of this, without even mentioning the internet.

Limburgers love Limburg, but most of them don’t let the fact they happily live here define them and allow it to be a reason to dislike those who are not from here.  There are, of course, racists and right-wing movements and political parties.  Geert Wilders leads his party, the Party for Freedom,  with an anti-EU and anti-immigrant, particuarly anti-islam, manifesto, feeding particularly on recent fears related to the refugee crisis stemming largely from the war in Syria.  He was recently found guilty of inciting discrimination targeted mainly at the Netherlands’ large Moroccan population.  However, while there is often a racial element to Wilders rhetoric, much of it is focused on the attack and threat on the Dutch and liberal way of life, particularly by the Islamic religion, and does not spend much time attempting to create a blood and ethno-racial link to dutch identity, which many traditional extreme right parties of the past have attempted to do, most recently your very own British National Party.

There are, undoubtedly, racists in the Netherlands, but, at the very least, they spend very little time hating their closest neighbours and wanting to draw-up a metaphoric drawbridge against them.  Not only might that be seen as a regressive sign of anti-neighbourliness, it would be foolish in the extreme.

If you thought the EU made no sense, come to Limburg and see it in action.  While many Dutch still lament the loss of the Gilder and decry the associated elevation of costs in the immediate days after the introduction of the Euro, most Limburgers would not return to the days of exchange rates and commission fees.   Many Dutch still fear the ease of accessibility into the country by terrorists because of free borders, but the ability to travel hassle-free into a neighbouring country for work or a grocery shop or, as in some cases, to visit a neighbour or friend, isn’t a freedom they want to abandon any time soon or in the future.

Freedom and progress through co-operation, often with old enemies, can carry risks and costs, but the ability to overcome the traditional limits and boundaries erected through the concoction of nations and nationalisms is one of Europe’s greatest accomplishments in recent decades.  To succumb to the triviality of a nationalist agenda, carries even greater risks and costs, at least in the minds, and first-hand experiences, of those who have been victims of it many times over.

2017 will certainly be an interesting year as we continue to find out what your appointed leaders will decide to do with the result of last year’s referendum result and what direction they wish to take you in.  We await the result of elections in France and, in March, here in the Netherlands too.  Will the forces of the right and nationalism prove stronger and reawakened in light of global trends in you and over in the USA?  Or will the people of mainland Europe reject the right-wing agenda and continue to focus on a future of unity and togetherness?

We shall see.

Whatever happens, Blighty, I wish you every success in 2017.

Until next time!

Benedict x

 

Letter from Limburg #1: Prettige Kerstdagen

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Dear Blighty,

Merry Xmas to you!

This is now the second Xmas* Day I have spent away from your shores.  Just over a year ago, I decided to vacate the country of my birth, with my Dutch girlfriend and three Romanian dogs, for an unknown future on the mainland of Europe.    Then we were headed to the Andalucian province of Almeria, in the south-east of Spain.  Today, I write to you from the southern-most province of the Netherlands:  Limburg.

We still currently reside in the Iberian peninsula, but frequent the Netherlands, visiting family and friends of my partner and sometimes for work.  This time, we are here for an extended visit of a month over the Xmas and New Year period.

I must confess that I long for my Mother’s cooked Turkey roast Xmas lunch, preceded by a prawn cocktail starter, served in frosted green glass bowls and ending with the obligatory Christmas Pudding.  For the second year running, neither a brussel sprout nor a pig in a blanket will pass my lips, not to mention running the exciting risk of swallowing a two penny piece in amongst the dried fruit and brandy butter.  Instead, I will have to settle again for what the Dutch call ‘gourmet’ – cooking your own tiny portions of meat on a mini stove in the middle of the dining table.  (Which may, in part, explain the Netherlands’ low level of obesity.)

While I lament the Garrett Family Xmas tradition (I even miss the inevitable pre-lunch argument between the parents and my post-lunch refusal to listen to an old German woman preach at me about how amazing her year has been and what I should do to be a better Brit), I must confess, Blighty, that I do not miss you.

I feel a lot has taken place since I left you.  I certainly never departed as a great patriot, but I had a sense of place and the comforting notion of ‘home’ in you.  Now, after certain events over the last year, I feel I no longer know you and, perhaps more sadly, am ashamed of what you have become and are becoming.

Here I sit, just under 260 miles from your nearest point.  In just 3 hours drive and a 2 hour ferry ride I could be back on you.  In another 3 hours, I could be back home with my beloved family, pouring gravy over my roast potatoes and placing a purple paper crown over my head.

The Netherlands is indeed one of your nearest neighbours.  Culturally, we share a lot in common: the Dutch, at least, watch many of your TV shows (un-dubbed) and listen to a lot of your music.  Linguistically too, Dutch has remarkable similarities to English (despite your inability, laziness and lack of desire to even begin to comprehend a language that is not your own), both are germanic based and most Dutch people (even the elderly) speak your language exceedingly well, often better than many of your people!  Your people drive similar cars (albeit on the other side of the road), eat similar food (both are famously bland and often fried) and look remarkably similar too (although the Dutch can sometimes be a bit blonder, more fashionable and a few inches taller).  You’re both monarchies and ex-colonial European nations, with strong maritime histories and significant immigrant populations from your caribbean islands and former Asian possessions.  Physically too, although you’re a bit more hilly, you have areas like East Anglia that are remarkably flat too, and your climates are almost identical.  As two different countries go, you both share an awful lot in common.

Why then, oh Blighty, does the Netherlands frequently out-do you on so many things?

Having been a speaker at many debates at universities and on TV & radio, usually around questions related to sex, sexuality and the sex industry, I have often referred to the Netherlands as a ‘success story’ in certain matters (youth STI rates, teen pregnancies, attitudes to prostitution and public policy related to it, openness about sex and communication with parents).

Now, don’t get me wrong, Blighty, I know the Netherlands is no utopia.  Talk to any Dutch person and they could rant for hours about the many problems of their country and the dilemmas it faces.  Of course, nowhere is perfect, everywhere has problems.  But it is all relative.

The fascinating thing about Europe (often its curse) is that it is a continent made of many diverse little nations.  All sharing a land mass, sometimes sharing a language and similar cultures, but that also do things quite differently – whether it be intentionally by government-led policies and bodies, or unintentionally through patterns of behaviour and simple demography.  As a result, we get varied outcomes and successes that can be compared and contrasted and placed into neatly designed league tables put together by beloved statisticians and experts.

So often, Blighty, the pattern follows that the Netherlands is either at, or near, the top of these tables and you are placed several rungs down or significantly lower.  As a perpetually curious person (yes, I was one of those ‘but why???’ kids), the question we must all ask is: ‘why?’.  As a Brit, with 34 years of first-hand experience of living in you, I specifically relate these questions to you, Blighty.  Why does one country continually perform better than you?  What is it about that society that is so markedly different to yours?  What could you learn from that country?

Now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the Netherlands and with Dutch people, I have increased first-hand knowledge of what life is really like here on a day-to-day basis, how the system operates, what the people who live here think of it, their complaints about it, the issues that affect them and their mentality and way of thinking over a whole range of issues.  I’ve also spent time examining the reality behind the figures and whether the league tables reflect the reality of life in this land.

I find it hilarious, that a country that frequently performs amongst the worst in western Europe in so many categories, has recently chosen to stick a big middle finger up to most of the rest of the continent and say “we can do it better on our own”.  Bearing in mind you don’t yet, I don’t personally think you ever can, but that is another gripe of mine.  Fortunately, although others might wish it, although you might be leaving the EU at some point over the next few years, you cannot be kicked out into the middle of the Atlantic and will still, geographically, be part of Europe.  Sometimes its good not to assume you ‘know it all’ and that ‘British is best’ because, sadly, it too often is not.  We work best when we look around and learn and co-operate with others, particularly our nearest and dearest.  OK, so you may not look at them as your ‘dearest’ and you many not be up for a whole lot of ‘co-operating’, but you can at least learn a little from your nearest when they have a proven track record which is better than yours in many areas.

So, Blighty, I write you these letters from Limburg out of a concern and a desire to help you to learn and, possibly, improve.  Do with the information as you wish, but if you don’t, at least, listen and learn, you can’t begin to decide whether you wish to make a change.

I must be honest with you, Blighty, I don’t love you and I don’t miss you.  I may no longer live in you and, as it currently stands, ever have any desire to reside in you again, but you have been a significant part of my life, my education and up-bringing and continue to be the place that most of my loved ones choose, or happen, to reside.  If only for them, please, at least, take the time to read my letters.  If you wish to write back, I would very much like to hear from you.

Until next time!

Benedict

 

*The linguistic snobs amongst you will criticise my perceived laziness at the use of ‘Xmas’ and not ‘CHRISTmas’.  As an atheist, I wish to make it clear that any personal recognition of this day (which nowadays, as today, usually incorporates nothing), is simply as a secularist holiday and the associated non-religious elements attached to it.  It is also recognition of the fact, prior to being hi-jacked by the Christians and their mythical tale of magical children of higher spirits, it was a pagan festival that retains to this day several elements of that ritual.