Published in November 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Standing in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar in 2000, I was talking to a senior United Nations official, who was Dutch, and who needed, as part of the task of getting food and aid to Afghans, to deal with the Taliban. “These people are evil,” he said, railing against them for praising the closing of a girls’ school as a good day’s work, and for devising an identity card for women that, like a black joke, had to be folded many times to entomb the picture in layers of paper, and even so, could not be easily compared with a heavily veiled woman.
I thought then and still do how likeable it is that the Dutch get everywhere, even into the remotest corners of the world. Instinctively international, they are also European and liberal to the core, sure of their values and uninterested in relativism, just focused on fixing the problem in front of them. Ben Coates, a former young parliamentary adviser, has thrown himself at the question of why the Dutch are so distinctively, well, Dutch, in a book that is as quietly appealing as its subject.
It’s full of fascinating details: that “Schipol,” as in the airport, means “ship hole” and marks the place where many ships met their end. That Rembrandt is thought to have acquired his sensitivity to light and shade by growing up under the turning blades of a windmill. That the racks of cycles at every corner are part of a tidy environmentalism that sees nature—not just its watery aspects—as something to be controlled. Coates, who looked up a friendly Dutch girl when stranded there for a night, and stayed for supper—and then for good—is entirely convincing in his affectionate portrait. When you think of how often the country has been invaded and tramped through, it’s astonishing that the Dutch remain so clear in their identity. But they do, and they’re all the more likeable for it.