Sunday, 12 February 2017

Weekend in Amsterdam Chapter Two

Retracing my steps I passed a couple of cinemas along the way, and wondered which film Godfrey had chosen to watch. The western Shalako was playing at the first one, while the science fiction film Barbarella was playing at another. I’d heard that Jane Fonda did a striptease in the film Barbarella, while Brigitte Bardot, who co-starred in Shalako, was in my opinion the sexiest woman on the planet. I wondered should I go to the cinema, as I wasn’t enjoying myself  in Amsterdam, but I decided against it as I only had a limited amount of time to spend in Amsterdam, and I could go to the cinema anytime.
On the Damrak, and not far from my hotel, I discovered a bar with music and the sound of people’s chatter and laughing coming from within. I attempted to peer through the window, but my view was blocked by a heavy, burgundy coloured curtain, supported on a heavy brass pole. Although I stood on tiptoe in an attempt to peer over the curtain, which was supported half way up the window frame, I failed to see inside, which should have served as a deterrent, but it didn't.
Taking pot luck I entered the bar and found myself in a hallway; there I was greeted by a doorman who spirited away my overcoat for a second time that evening. The bar was laid out like a house, perhaps it had once been so, with a staircase to my right, and a hallway leading to a closed door at its far end. Being directed towards a doorway halfway down the hallway, and to my left, I entered the front room, only to discover that the crowd scene, along with the music, was all taped, and except for the barman, and two bar girls who were hustling  sailors, I discovered the room to be empty.
The girls were employed to boost the bar’s takings, as Greta had done earlier at the nightclub, and could well have been offering the same personal services. I was relieved to discover them to be busy, and although I wanted to leave, I ordered a small pilsner to ensure that I was reunited with my overcoat when I left.
A few minutes later a man entered the bar, and although the barroom was almost empty, he chose to sit on a barstool beside me. He was short in stature, late middle aged, and although his hair had begun to recede at the temples, there were absolutely no signs of grey; in fact it was a rather unnatural shade of auburn, and I speculated that it may be dyed. The man’s face looked crumpled, like an unmade bed, while his waist line had expanded over the years, probably due to too many nights spent drinking in seedy bars.
 He ordered his drink in Dutch, before speaking to me in perfect English.
“You are from England, are you not?”
“Yes I am,” I answered, wondering how this strange little man could possibly have known my nationality.
“I am from Russia. My name is Vladimir.”
“Mine’s Ray,” I answered, and took the proffered hand.
“Do you work in the Netherlands, or are you here for your pleasure?”
“I’m on my way to Eindhoven, for work experience.” I answered.  “I’m only staying in Amsterdam overnight.”
“Pity,” said Vladimir, “it’s such a lovely city. What kind of work do you do?”
“I work for a company making components for television and radio sets,” I told him, while wishing the man would go away and pester someone else.
“Electronics is the future comrade; Russia is very much in need of young men with technological knowledge and new ideas.”
I began to feel uncomfortable in Vladimir’s company, as the cold war was currently at its height. Films and television were awash with spy stories involving Soviet agents, and calling me comrade sent a shiver up my spine.
“Why are you in Amsterdam?” I asked, without really wanting to know the answer to my own question.
Vladimir leaned forward and whispered into my ear as if it were of national importance. “I am chief of security at a Soviet radio station here in Amsterdam.”
I pictured a uniformed security guard at a radio station broadcasting Russian folk songs, with perhaps a little Soviet propaganda thrown in for good measure, but that interpretation could not have been further from the truth.
As he leaned forward the jacket of his brown double breasted suit gaped open, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a small calibre handgun beneath his left armpit. The fact that he wore a firearm convinced me of his diplomatic immunity, which would not have been necessary had he been a glorified doorman at a radio station broadcasting folk songs.
The sailors left the bar, and the bar girls descended on us like vultures. I was under the impression that I was obligated to buy the girls a drink to avoid conflict with the management, so I chatted to one of the girls in a friendly way, while she nuzzled my neck and nibbled at my ear. Vladimir, in contrast, had no such illusions. He shouted angrily at the girls, who quickly returned to their seats at the opposite end of the bar. I waited for the fallout from the doorman, who appeared from the hallway on hearing the commotion. He stared in our direction, but realising that the Russian was  doing the shouting, he disappeared.
“We are having such a nice talk,” said Vladimir to explain his outburst. “We do not need to be interrupted by two silly girls and their inane chatter.”
I agreed with him out of politeness, although I’d been enjoying the company of the girls far more than that of Vladimir, which I found to be intimidating, although I couldn’t explain why.
“You must be aware that the Soviet Union will eventually annex Western Europe,” Vladimir continued, as if nothing untoward had taken place.
“It is one land mass after all, not some foreign land far across the sea like America. This is where the future of the European countries lies, as part of a unified Soviet Union, making it the most powerful nation on earth. It would stretch from Vladivostok on the pacific coast, to Lisbon on the Atlantic coast. Just image the power of such a nation.
“I think the Americans might have something to say about the Soviet Union annexing Europe,” I told him, feeling a little irritated by the arrogance of this ridiculous little man.
“The Americans will not be interested in risking a nuclear confrontation to protect Europe. The Soviet Union will have overtaken the United States in firepower in less than five years time, and then you will see how much they care about your tiny island.
I felt more than a little patriotic, and pissed off with Vladimir’s observations.
 “The Germans thought they could conquer Europe, but they came unstuck, perhaps the Soviet Union won’t find the annexing of Europe quite as easy as you seem to think.”
“The Germans could easily have conquered Europe, if Hitler had not made the same mistake that Napoleon made over a century earlier,” continued Vladimir confidently.
“What mistake?” I asked, walking straight into Vladimir’s propaganda trap.
“By attacking Russia of course,” answered Vladimir, although he failed to explain that the terrible winter weather, starvation, and poor logistics had been the major factors in Napoleon’s defeat on the Russian front.
“Most of Europe had already surrendered,” he continued, “and your little island would not have been able to resist the might of the German Reich without Russian assistance.”
“We weren’t alone,” I continued, bravely trying to fight my corner even though I was far from an expert on the subject. “We had the Commonwealth countries and the Americans fighting alongside us.”
“And do you think that the Americans would have come to your aid if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbour? Don’t be so naive. Churchill was clever to declare war on Japan, as America would never have declared war on Germany had he not done so. He manoeuvred them into the war.
I couldn’t disagree with his assessment, but I didn’t want the Russian to get the better of me, so remembering what my father had told me I made my case.
“The Americans had already come to our aid. Churchill asked Roosevelt for assistance, he was sympathetic but the American people had no appetite for war, so he came up with the idea of lease-lend. Russia also benefitted from lease-lend. I seriously doubt if your country would have been able to contain the Germans on the Russian front without American armaments.
I think I might have won that round because he changed the subject.
“That argument aside, all western politicians are fools, and will be militarily unprepared when Europe is annexed. Only Enoch Powell has the vision to see the reality of what it to come, but after his rivers of blood speech he is a discredited man, branded a racist, and just like Winston Churchill when he warned of the dangers from Nazi Germany, no one is prepared to take him seriously.”
Vladimir appeared to have a grudging respect for Powell. I was unaware of any concerns he may have had about national security, although I did remember something of his rivers of blood speech.
Powell’s constituents had been expressing their concerns about the number of Afro-Caribbean’s settling in their area. Kenya had announced repatriation of its Asian population, and most, because they held British passports, were expected to settle in Britain. Powell speculated that at the current rate of immigration, Britain would have accepted seven million coloured immigrants by the year two thousand, plus the offspring of a generation. He prophesied that coloured ghettos would inevitably spring up, leaving the white population as a minority in some areas, unless immigration was halted immediately and repatriation begun. After his speech he’d been branded a racist, and Edward Heath, the Tory leader, sacked him from his position as shadow defence minister.
I knew nothing of Powell’s involvement in cold war politics, perhaps he’d made a speech about Soviet expansionism, as a shadow defence secretary it was quite possible  he had, but if such a speech had ever been made I was unaware of it.
Vladimir appeared to be concerned that if Powell became powerful, within a future conservative government, perhaps the next leader of the party, or a future prime minister (2), it could be detrimental to the Soviet Union’s expansionist plans, which were going full steam ahead with the invasion of Czechoslovakia to depose the liberal regime of Alexander Dubcek.
I didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking, and wondered what all this political rhetoric was leading up to. I didn’t have long to wait to find out.
 “We need operatives, friends to help us achieve our aims.”
“Are you talking about me?”
“Yes of course,” answered Vladimir, as if it should have been obvious to me from the very beginning.
“I work in a factory making light bulbs and components for radio and television sets. What possible use could I be to the Soviet Union?”
“You would be surprised how valuable you could be. What is more you would be well rewarded for your services.”
“I would never sell out my country,” I responded patriotically, but Vladimir wasn’t finished.
“If a third world war were to occur between the Americans and the Soviet Union, it would not be fought in either of our countries; Europe would become the battleground, and the prize. Better a peaceful annexing of Europe than its annihilation, don’t you think? You would be helping to save the European people from destruction, not betraying them; they would become Soviet citizens instead of casualties of war. Think carefully about what I have said, we will talk again on the subject soon.”
The bar had filled, unnoticed, while we’d been talking. Two Gypsy women in traditional peasant dress, who looked to be mother and daughter, were pedalling their wares. The older woman was selling roses and telling fortunes, while the younger one sold trinkets from a peddler’s tray held by a leather strap around her neck. She wore a long black skirt, which brushed the floor as she moved, and around her waist she wore a white apron tied with a large bow at the back. Above the skirt she wore a white blouse with puff sleeves, which was heavily embroidered around the neck with flowers, as was the apron and the hem of her skirt.
 She glanced at Vladimir  as if for his approval, but when he didn’t react she turned her attentions towards me.
Zijn jullie Russisch?” she asked.
“She would like to know if you are Russian,” Vladimir translated.
She must have known who Vladimir was, and it was obvious, from her body language, that she was wary of him, otherwise why would she seek his approval, and then assume that I was Russian.
“English,” I answered, and then as an afterthought I translated. “Engels, one of the few words I’d learned during my short stay.”
“You buy necklace for your sweetheart?” suggested the girl, making my Dutch translation redundant.
She leant forward to display the necklace, lifting the pendant with her fingers and holding it close to my face. At first glance I thought it to be a flying swan cast in a base metal, although on closer examination it turned out to be a winged penis complete with testicles. It took me a considerable amount of time to concentrate on the pendant, as I had a clear view down her blouse as she bent forward. I found myself transfixed by her nipples, which were dark, and even darker than her olive skin.
“I don’t have a sweetheart,” I protested, after regaining my composure.
“You buy one for yourself?” she insisted, unwilling to take no for an answer.
“No thank you.”
She glanced at Vladimir, and when he showed not the slightest interest in the transaction she continued with her sales pitch.
“Fucking scissors?” she announced, which took me very much by surprise, as I was unused to hearing a woman swear.
She produced a pair of painted wooden scissors from her tray; they were about ten inches long, with a naked woman, sporting huge breasts, attached to one of the blades, while a naked man with an enormous erect penis, almost as big as himself, was attached to the other. As she squeezed the handles the two naked bodies came together, and the huge penis disappeared from view, before reappearing as she operated the scissor action. I politely declined her offer, and she moved away muttering and cursing under her breath.
I looked at my watch; it was after eleven. “I think I’ll call it a night and go back to my hotel,” I announced, still feeling uncomfortable in the presence of Vladimir. “I have to catch a train in the morning.”
“You don’t really want to stay at a hotel?” said Vladimir, phrasing his comment more like an instruction than a question, before adding, “so impersonal, don’t you think? Why don’t you stay at my home? I have a nice big bed, big enough for the two of us, and I can cook us breakfast in the morning.”
Suddenly the penny dropped, a man twice my age with dyed hair, who becomes annoyed because his companion is receiving attention from a bar girl. He wasn’t annoyed because she was hustling drinks; he was annoyed because she was flirting and he was jealous.
“I think you’re barking up the wrong tree,” I told him. “In fact you aren’t even in the right forest.”
 “I am so sorry if I misinterpreted the signals,” apologised Vladimir.
 I didn’t know what signals I was sending out, I didn’t even know that I was sending out signals, but whatever I was doing, if this was the consequence, I must remember to stop doing it.
“I hope you are not offended and we can still be friends.” He held out his hand to shake, and I took it out of politeness.
“You will accompany me to another bar where I know I can find what I am looking for?” said Vladimir, ending with the word “please,” as if it were an afterthought.
I wasn’t sure if his statement was a request or an order, as Vladimir’s requests often appeared more like orders, but I decided to go along with him to avoid any unpleasantness.
Vladimir introduced me to a very different type of establishment . The room was long and narrow, barely wide enough to walk around the elliptical bar counter, which sat in the centre of the room like an island in a sea of chattering people. Loud music blared out, almost drowning out the noise of the chatter, which to my uninitiated ear sounded like the stirring music I’d heard played in the newsreels at Hitler rallies.
A couple behind the bar counter were dancing a polka, from one end of the bar to the other, and for the first time since my arrival in the city I was enjoying the atmosphere.
“This is not what I expected,” I told Vladimir.
“It’s a Bavarian bar, he informed me, but didn’t elaborate on its true purpose.
 Soon after our arrival a skinny teenage boy, with bleached blonde hair, came into the bar. He scanned the room as if looking for someone. Spotting Vladimir he waved cheerily, and approaching kissed him full on the lips to stake his claim, in case I had other ideas.
“This is my regular boy,” Vladimir explained, putting his arm around the shoulders of the skinny youth.
I felt uncomfortable witnessing the kissing and cuddling taking place between this child, and a middle aged man with dyed hair and a face like an unmade bed, but then I’d felt uncomfortable in Vladimir’s company for most of the evening. I made the decision that two being company, and three being a crowd, I’d bid them both goodnight and returned to the hotel.


(1) In his first speech to the Conservative Party conference, as Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Powell outlined a fresh defence policy, jettisoning what he saw as outdated global military commitments. He stressed that Britain was a European power, and should be in an alliance with Western European states against a possible attack from the East. He defended Britain's nuclear weapons program, and argued that with a weapon so catastrophic, it is possession and the right to use it which count.

(2) Before becoming Shadow Defence Secretary, Powell had stood in the party leadership election. He came a distant third, behind Edward Heath and Reginald Maudling, but  undeterred he stated that he’d left his visiting card, meaning that he’d demonstrated himself to be a potential future leader.

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