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Great expectations?


In October 1992 an overloaded El Al cargo plane lost two of its four engines shortly after taking off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, and crashed into a high-rise housing estate on the south-eastern edge of the city while trying to land again. Horrifying live pictures of the ensuing blaze on the main early evening TV news suggested that as many as 250 people must have died on the ground. Being a cargo plane, the aircraft had only a handful of passengers, but when the first reports were broadcast most viewers were unaware of that, and at first it looked as if as many as 500 people (including a full load of passengers) had been killed in all – one of the deadliest air crashes in history.

Considering that two multi-storey blocks of flats had been reduced to ashes, the final official death toll on the ground was astonishingly low – less than forty. One reason for this was said to be the unusually warm weather for the time of year; many people were outdoors when the plane destroyed their homes. But another, more sinister reason was that the flats, like much of the Bijlmer estate around them, may have been occupied by large numbers of unregistered Ghanaian and other immigrants. If that is so – and the Ghanaian community did report a large number of people missing – then it will never be known exactly how many died. Their bodies would have been consumed without trace, and the Dutch authorities would have been unaware they were even in the country.

Unlike Britain and some other countries, Holland requires all its residents, including foreigners, to be registered with the local town or city council. Whenever I move house, almost the first thing I do is fill in an official change-of-address form. This serves several purposes at once: not only do the tax authorities know exactly where to send their distinctive blue-grey envelopes, but I am automatically on the list of voters for local, provincial, national and European elections (in Britain, on the other hand, people have to remember to keep themselves on the ‘electoral roll’, and at each election tens of thousands, if not more, are unable to vote because they have failed to do so).

But until quite recently residents of Holland were not required to carry an identity card on them – and in practice your identity is even now seldom checked. The police are only allowed to do so if they have specific suspicions, which they have to justify – they cannot, for instance, simply get onto a bus and check all the passengers’ identities (as I have seen happen in Greece). And in the years since the new system was introduced I have not had my papers checked once. But I’m afraid one reason for this may be my age, and above all my skin colour – for it is all too easy for the police to treat being non-white, and young into the bargain, as a ‘justification’ for suspicion. In any case, whoever died in the Bijlmer disaster would not yet have been required to carry an identity card, and most would have had every interest in remaining below the Dutch authorities’ radar.

What reminds me of all this is a book by the respected Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak that I recently came across: De engel van Amsterdam (‘The angel of Amsterdam’), an observant, moving and often disturbing portrait of the Dutch capital down the ages, which first brought the author to public attention. Among other things, he pointed out the increasing social fragmentation into groups who, in the Dutch phrase, langs elkaar heen leven, literally ‘live past each other’ – aware of each other’s existence, but barely interacting (the phrase is also used with reference to failing marriages). And he painted a frightening picture of what could happen to the city if this process were allowed to continue unchecked – as he feared it was being. The far-sighted social engineering projects that might have helped stem the tide were being starved of oxygen by the new leave-everything-to-the-market ethos, with its massive cutbacks in government spending. But, said Mak, some crucial aspects of society could not be left to the unseeing market – or only at our peril.

One of the most disturbing phenomena he described was the emergence of Amsterdam’s first-ever ghettos – among them the sprawling Bijlmer housing estate, where the poorer residents of the city, including large numbers of immigrants, were increasingly concentrated. With rent subsidies (often the poorer people’s lifeline to reasonable housing) scrapped or severely reduced by the same pernicious market ethos, this was one of the few places they could afford to live and still have access to the city’s public transport system (since they could not afford cars either). Despite the fetching green lawns in between the housing blocks, the Bijlmer was overcrowded, with few additional facilities to keep people truly living in the community; they had to catch the metro into more central parts of the city just to find halfway decent shops, or places to have a drink, or safe playgrounds for their children. The old and utterly predictable failing of so many new outlying estates which residents of central city districts (from Glasgow to Athens, and from Lisbon to Copenhagen) have been forced to move to by skyrocketing uncontrolled rents. Market forces in their purest form – and an unfailing recipe for social catastrophe.

Yet, in the newly fragmented social fabric and ‘no-nonsense’ political climate, there were many who still saw market forces as the panacea for society’s – or at least their own! – ills, and continued to vote accordingly. Towards the end of his book, Mak described a family party in a modestly well-to-do part of Amsterdam – near enough to the city centre to have easy access to its main facilities (up-market department stores, the Concertgebouw and the opera), but just far enough out of it to avoid the excesses of its nightlife (drunkenness, drugs and muggings).

I quote (my own translation from page 228 of De engel van Amsterdam, published in Amsterdam and Antwerp by Uitgeverij Atlas – the publication date will come in a moment):

…. the kitchen table was filled with shrimp-stuffed cherry tomatoes, halved quail eggs garnished with Russian caviar, kiwi fruit, Chinese dumplings, half a side of ham, roast beef, herring, cold Italian pasta and assorted salads. The drinks were out on the balcony.

I found myself talking to the family’s eldest son, a nice, quiet lad aged about 17, who had only one passion: clothing. Everything he wore had to have a particular brand name and be in a particular price bracket (always high), though he didn’t care much about quality or other details. The brand name was enough for him – in fact, it was all that mattered. To afford this lifestyle he worked in a supermarket two afternoons a week – dirty, hard, arduous work that earned him a few dozen guilders on top of his pocket money. Right then he was saving for a particular sweater that cost nearly 200 guilders. He didn’t yet know exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, but in any case he wanted to earn a lot of money. ‘How much is a lot?’ ‘About a million by the time I’m thirty.’ He was dead serious. When I told him what I earned, he stared at me in amazement. And when I told him what the average 23-year-old earns per month, he wouldn’t believe me.

To put this in some kind of perspective: this was 1992, the year in which the European Union called itself that for the first time and decided to introduce a single currency ten years later. Since the Dutch guilder eventually converted at a rate of 2.20 to the euro, the above figures need to be more than halved to give some idea of what they mean today. The young fellow at the party was earning about €25 a week at the supermarket. The sweater he coveted cost the equivalent of €85, so no big deal – though I personally wouldn’t pay that amount of money for a sweater even today, and if I see something with a brand on it I avoid it on principle, since I object to paying money simply to advertise the product (if anything it should be the other way round).

But then the lad’s great expectations: a million guilders by the time he was thirty. It isn’t clear from the book whether he meant a million a year or a million a month, but let’s assume a year. A million guilders is the equivalent of €450,000 – a year. Even now, nearly 25 years later, that’s ten times what I earn – gross – in a good year, and I’m not badly paid by present Dutch standards. Most people I know personally earn less, and can live on it without great difficulty.

But perhaps he did mean a million guilders a month, since Dutch people generally quote their salaries per month (whereas when I lived in Britain it was always per year). €450,000 guilders a month, back in 1992 – and this by the time he was thirty. Excuse me? It almost looks like the author was being deliberately ‘wound up’ – yet he’s a perspicacious man, and he himself says the lad was dead serious. Having hung out with drug addicts and other social misfits, Mak was no fool, so I tend to believe him – and whether the figure was per month or per year ultimately makes very little difference. Either the young fellow was living in cloud cuckoo land (Mak does in fact describe some of the attitudes he encountered at the party and further down the same street as ‘living in dreamland’) – or else he had good reason to believe, from what he had heard around him, that such a monstrous salary was actually within his reach if only he played his cards right (and wore the right brands).

Recently we’ve seen the whole shaky superstructure of inflated ‘earnings’ come crashing down around everyone’s ears – yet there are still those who insist that the only way out is ‘more market forces’. It makes you want to scream.

Halfway through the book I checked the date of publication – and it turned out to be 1992, the same year as the Bijlmer disaster. So I was surprised to find no mention of the crash when the author mentioned the estate, invariably as a ticking social time-bomb. Then, as I finished the book, I saw the date at the end of the closing acknowledgements: August 1992, just two months before the plane lost its engines and hit the ground.

Would Geert Mak have seen the Bijlmer crash as an omen of what was happening to Amsterdam? I don’t know if he mentioned it in later editions of the book – I don’t even know if there have been any. But as a historian he would probably have confined himself to the demonstrable facts. And an overloaded El Al cargo plane could have crashed anywhere after taking off from Schiphol. Couldn’t it?


From → Economy, Politics, Society

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