It's a weekend in mid-November: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and heir-apparent to the British Premiership, Gordon "Steady Hand" Brown, is in Basra, Iraq. The avatar of his credo, Tony "Air Guitar" Blair, is on his way to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Meanwhile, I'm in Amsterdam, in a "coffee shop" near the Nieuwmarkt called the Green Seed Company. Not, you understand, that I've smoked dope for years now, it's just that the habit of watching people's habits dies hard, and I'm intrigued to see what's happened to the Netherlands' famed policy of tolerance in the decade-or-so since I was last here.
Tolerance is not quite the right word when it comes to the Dutch, because the truth is that they have a gritted-teeth conservatism about them. The narrow, high-gabled merchants' houses that line the elegant old canals of the city centre are a reification of the national character: functional - with their protruding winches - and betraying their opulence not in ornamentation but the lack of it. Rich puritans - bummer, eh? And get this, even as a plume of fumes from some deadhead's joint full of Super Silver Haze snakes up my nostril, the outgoing immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, is campaigning hard for the forthcoming Dutch general election. Her pledge: to take out that troublesome black bag, the Muslim burqa.
You don't have to be stoned to wonder exactly to what extent Gordon Brown actually feels himself to be in Iraq, or for that matter, Blair in Helmand. Colleagues who've covered these grubby wars on the ground tell me that the notion that the British forces have won hearts and minds more that the Americans is utter balderdash. Unless on patrol, securely behind armour, and with a heavy machine gun trained on the civilian population, our boys are confined to their heavily fortified barracks. Here, behind blast walls and razor wire, they watch beamed-in soap operas and have roast meals. The aircon' hums - while without it's roasting.
Still, however misguided, at least the troops have a role; and even if their situation is somewhat unreal, the sheer length of the tours they have to serve means that sooner or later the reality of where they are will impinge. We hope not fatally. They're there because they're there. Not so Blair and Brown, the Tweedledum and Tweedledumber of British foreign policy. See them stride across the sandy, rubble-strewn bled! See their bright eyes, narrowing in the glare to statesmanlike slits. We have returned, their purposeful attitudes convey, as surely as if they were McArthur sucking on his outsize corncob while humiliating Japanese warlords on the deck of his aircraft carrier.
Brown looks even more rugger-bugger than usual in his Kevlar embonpoint. What can he be saying, as he sits himself down for the school-style photo-op, surrounded by young men who couldn't give a toss about him, or his long-awaited satrapy. Perhaps: "D'you know where the hell we are, lads?" Neither the flak jacket nor the Hercules flight will have altogether orientated him, for given what a political coward he is - suckled for a decade now on the Wormwood-smeared teat of self-advancement - he probably wears bullet-proof pyjamas. What a burqa.
And what berks the English in Amsterdam are. Leaving the Green Seed coffee shop I proceed up the Geldersekade. The merchandise in these elegant houses is women. Poor Dutch girls, trafficked East Europeans, Moluccan immigrants - all togged out in their so-sexy undies. Up for the grabs of beery boys from Brum, the brothers of the ones in Basra. Look at those hordes of stoned, drunken English! How they wheel and butt, like musk oxen on the arctic tundra, as they weather their storms of toxicity. Around them circle lean packs of Surinamese drug dealers. "Coke?" they importune. "Coke?" again and again.
It isn't easy to be cynical - it's demanding work that requires a man fit for purpose. Here are the English: ensconced in their drug base, protected by blast walls of hash and lines of razor-wire cocaine, while all round them is nothing save the featureless desert of Dutch rectitude. Do they, I wonder, actually know where they are? They've flown into Schiphol, taken the train to Centraal Station, and staggered into their picturesque saturnalia. Their only mission is to enjoy themselves, and they're here because of a fiscal compromise that Gordon Brown might be proud of: the pimps and dealers do good business, but they pay their taxes just like anyone else.
As I regain the yellow light district and enter the marbled, corporate hall of my hotel, the Barbizon, I muse on Rita Verdonk. Will she hang on to power with her VDU Liberal Party? Will she rip the burqas from the 20-odd Dutch Muslims who are estimated to wear them? And how is it that a nation which can withstand such brazen English rubbish has such little tolerance for bin-bag couture?Reuse content