Last weekend, I went on a "fact-finding" trip to The Hague. I would like to be able to say that the facts in question were to do with the processes, ramifications, and perhaps shortcomings, of international justice and its implementation, but I'm afraid they weren't.
The trip was what's technically known as a jolly. The price of the jolly was attendance at Crossing Border, a slightly earnest-sounding arts festival in what I'd always imagined to be the world capital of worthiness. The reward would be meals cooked by somebody else, sheets washed by somebody else and drinks paid for by somebody else. I didn't hesitate, of course. So here, in no particular order, are some of the facts I found:
1 That on a cold, dark, morning, boarding a plane while still stuck in the seventh circle of T Mobile customer services hell, the announcement by the pilot that there were eight planes ahead of us in the queue for take-off (managed, one hoped, by an air traffic control not run by T Mobile) made first in Dutch, and then in heavily accented English, was so sweetly reminiscent of a kindergarten teacher informing his tiny charges that if they inspected their clogs, they would find them full of lovely home-made biscuits and wooden toys, that you couldn't, even in your grumpy, sleep-deprived state, help smiling. That Dutch, in short, is a language that cheers you up.
2 That the Dutch, perhaps knowing this, speak at a volume that renders all artificial amplification entirely superfluous, without any of the irritating mumbling which sometimes makes you bark at young people, demanding clear enunciation, or long for a Queen Victoria-type ear trumpet.
3 That if you stop in the street to stare at a map, someone will immediately leap off the two wheels that Dutch people use instead of legs, and propel you to a point where even you will be easily able to find your destination – and that if you live in London, this act of random kindness will leave you gasping with shock.
4 That public venues have coat hooks in public spaces, and people actually leave their coats on them and the coats remain on them, until such time as their owners collect them. And that art installations sometimes have little piles of money and trinkets unsecured and unguarded and that anyone could steal them and they don't.
5 That the Hague doesn't look all municipal, like a giant public lavatory or an out-of-town Tesco, but is, in fact, extremely pretty, with fabulous modern architecture, handsome boulevards and charming little streets lined with all-too-alluring shops and bijou cafés, bars and restaurants full of dark wood and nice pictures and flowers and candles which practically command you to come inside for a cup of coffee and a nice little cake.
6 That light is a quality exquisitely caught in Dutch painting of the 17th century, but conspicuously absent in cafés, bars and hotel rooms, thus rendering reading an activity to be aspired to, rather than pursued.
7 That when you are standing in gigs, it is painfully apparent, even to someone whose brother is 6ft 8in, and should be used to it, that Dutch people are very, very tall.
8 That although there is nothing at all wrong with elderly ladies from Guildford, it's nice to see audiences for literary events not composed of them.
9 That twentysomething men writing for music blogs are much nicer, and better balanced, than the men of my generation were at that age.
10 That today's indie rock icons all look, in their check shirts and cardigans and with haircuts that suggest an anxious mother and a pair of nail scissors, like librarians or born-again Christians, barely strong enough to lift a tambourine, let alone fight off gaggles of groupies, which apparently they do.
11 That a band called Death Cab for Cutie and one called Fleet Foxes are well worth, in the youth lingo, checking out.
12 That in a time of recession, when the news every day is utterly grim, and when the sale of something called securitised bundles across the Atlantic is causing a tsunami of chaos in the industry in which you work, by which you will certainly be affected, there is nothing like some music and art and good writing to lift the spirit and remind you that human beings, in times of crisis, and anxiety and, yes, joblessness, are extremely inventive and resourceful, and able to make beautiful things out of real pain, and gossamer, but glittering, silver linings out of the black clouds that the greedy, amoral, fantasy-inhabiting financial institutions have made for us, and that our sleepy, disgracefully neglectful governments have allowed.