Daytripper! A visit to Amsterdam – Charles Radcliffe

Provo "provocation" poster

An account of a visit to Amsterdam in 1966 with a focus on the Provos. From Heatwave #1.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 11, 2023

Immigration officials eye long hair suspiciously: they want to check my ticket to ensure that I will fly out again tonight. They tell me I must be on the 10 o'clock flight, as booked. Unfortunately I have no choice anyway.

Everyone talks of provos and riots. The airport is dull and provincial and it is difficult to believe anything can ever really have happened here. I take a coach into the city centre—curiously all the notices in the coach are in English. The city is flat but beautiful, fanning out from the centre with "islands" of houses and narrow streets, linked across the framework of narrow canals by narrow bridges. The houses are old, beautiful and somehow airy. (I am already affected by romanticism.)

The recent riots add a curiously ambiguous touch to Amsterdam's essentially placid, patient nature. The town seems full of kids, police and promenaders. To a Londoner everything seems to move at half-speed; people have time to walk and talk in the streets. It is a city still small enough for people to live within the centre: the provos talk of urban crisis, smoke control, depopulation of the city centre. They are entirely right, of course, but they obviously have acute environmental consciousness. (In London we have already tolerated the almost total depopulation of the city centre, the construction of giant, community-destroying highways into the city centre and an air of breathtaking, poisonous filthiness, without apparently even noticing. If the very nature of Amsterdam, built on water and with only very narrow streets, prohibits the grotesque irresponsibility which has marked London planning and secured for London its place among the truly inhuman structures of the world, it is nevertheless absolutely right that the provos should worry about such problems now, before it is too late. Even if they have nothing else to tell the world the saving of Amsterdam would be enough to justify them.)

I walk into a bookshop selling English paperbacks, China-friend-ship literature, pamphlets on Vietnam, books on surrealism and a few New Directions books. The guy behind the counter has a head covered in band-aid.

* * *

In the street outside a kid, dressed predominantly in white, came up to me after seeing my London nuclear disarmament pin and asked whether I was an English provo? Rather than confuse the issue I said yes. He asked a lot of questions about the anarchists, CND, the Committee of 100. I told him the anarchists, as such, were largely irrelevant, CND absorbed into all that is wrong and the Committee of 100 without the money to bury itself. I asked him about the provos and, in particular, their public dissociation from last week's rioting. (This worried me a great deal when I read about it in the English press, seeming to be a classic example of "intellectuals" behaving irresponsibly, isolating themselves from the physical consequences of their effective intelligence and, in this case, incitement of youth.) He thought that perhaps the issue was too simple for the provos—"the real provos were in the riots". It was simply a case of Amsterdam's youth against authority. The provos disapproved because they did not want violence which made authority stronger. I said I considered that many of the provos' statements had violent overtones and violent implications. He agreed but said the provos were not very consistent. Were the provos who demonstrated with building workers on Monday "official" or "unofficial"? He said they were "official" but that their actions were the direct inspiration of the later "unofficial" youth riots. Was the provotariat disillusioned with the provos? He did not think so; most of the provotariat acted with limited understanding of the provos' actual position. A number of people who admired the provos stopped rioting when the provos made public appeals for the rioters to stay home. Further riots—perhaps soon, perhaps later in the year—were inevitable. The provotariat was frightened but not overawed by the action of the authorities. By this time we had a small group of kids around us and I started giving out copies of The Rebel Worker. "What is Burn, baby, burn?" "What is IWW?" A couple of fuzz (I suspect actually members of the Royal Marechaussee) moved in on us. Some of the kids dispersed but most hung around, ignoring the fuzz. Questioned, I said that I was English. "Why are you in Amsterdam?" "Just to look around, see the Dutch." "How long are you here?" "One day." They drifted away without checking The Rebel Worker. The kids were, however, interested in it.

* * *

I wander through the streets. For someone increasingly stoned sky-high on the possibilities (and no longer sure whether it will all end in social outrage or nervous collapse) Amsterdam is perhaps the most beautiful city in Europe. Not only well-planned but, almost overnight, the capital of youth-rebellion. The kids are the most self-assured I have seen anywhere. They have little of the Londoners' sullenness and their rebellion is much more extroverted. They move around in loose gangs or else storm through the streets in twos and threes on bicycles and mopeds. Amsterdam is designed for the guerrilla warfare of provocation. The streets, at least outside the immediate city centre, are too narrow for cars to move really fast. Mopeds, on the other hand, hardly need to slow down at all. The town is full of beats and the extraordinarily decadent Dutch "mods", decked out in fantastic floral suits. There is a fantastic impression of tranquillity to which the riot police, moving around town in small Volkswagen micro-buses, add a strange distorting effect. Kids do not take very much notice: they seem slightly elated by the continuing concern of the authorities as to whether they will explode again. (In Amsterdam casualness seems a way of life. The Dutch work a 45-hour week but under nothing like the pressures facing a Londoner.)

I had lunch with a young, middle-aged man (the actual reason for my business trip to Amsterdam) who gave me impressions of the last week in Amsterdam. He was not sure whether the provos were responsible for the riots; he thought their ideas and statements probably gave the rioters a justification. The provos, in his view, are quite respectable.

"They just want their happenings, white bicycles instead of cars in the city, and smoke control. Many people agree with them. One of them was elected to the city council with 13,000 votes (the Dutch voting age is 21). They have good ideas. They stop Holland going to sleep which is necessary. I think they will grow. In ten years, twenty years, they might even be the government of Holland!"

What do older people think of youth rioting in the streets?

"Mostly shock .. . but maybe that is necessary. Of course no one in Holland likes riots—people and property get hurt. The provos are believed by many when they say they have nothing to do with riots but they make strong statements and people expect them to be responsible for strong actions."

Why do people object to the white bicycle plan which would mean that the city centre would be served by public transport and white bicycles which can be freely used, and left wherever the rider wishes to await the next rider.

"Mainly it is the police who object. They are anti-theft . . . they must protect property. These bicycles would be no one's property. Also, of course, people with cars do not want to ride in the city. They want to show their cars."

* * *

After lunch I make my way further over to the West-side of the city, attempting to find PROVO's offices at Valkenburgstraat. (It is fairly easy to find the way in Amsterdam: the town is small and its layout makes it easy to move quickly in any direction.) I have a number of questions I want to ask: after my previous conversations I am anxious to hear what they say about their "betrayal of the provotariat", which is now the way it looks to me.

I walk up narrow streets, filled with bars and shops selling an even wider selection of pornography than can be found in those little specialist shops in Soho, which proudly announce their medical and psychological interest in flagellation, the circumcision rites of Western civilisation and various other oddities of vital importance to us all. There are plenty of prostitutes—many of them seem startlingly young but perhaps they are simply amateurs. I notice a surprising number of Negroes—mostly very, very cool. They seem much hipper than most West Indians, better dressed, more self-confident. They do not seem to attract the sneaky, half-envious, half-hating glances they would get in London. They are, I imagine, more like the really hip spades of the American ghettoes.

As I move further West the town begins to look more decayed. On the blank walls of buildings are Provo leaflets and posters. Provocation No. 10, which features crude but delightful sketches of cars, exhaust fumes and free-form BRAM! BRAM! BRAM! sound effects, catches my attention. The provo approach is infinitely more imaginative than anything we have done in London (that, at any rate, must now be changed). The walls have painted all over them slogans advertising rock-'n'-roll groups—The Monks, The Sailors, The Croes, The Houw (The Who??), The United Sounds, The Idols, The Amplifiers, The Keys, The Ways. (Unfortunately I did not get the chance to hear any groups play but judging from the frequent pictures of The Rolling Stones in the Dutch pop press I guess that Dutch rock is ex-American-via-Britain.)

By mistake I found myself in the Lazarus Market. It was very, very hot and sticky and this, together with the kaleidoscopic impressions of the city, made both my concentration and energy wilt. I sat down on a box in the market, next to a beat, who talked briefly to me in French. Our conversation was limited to simple French, simple philosophy and metaphysical grunting. He also got a copy of The Rebel Worker. (The notion of The Rebel Worker as an international Open Sesame amused everyone around Heatwave.) He was amused by the explanation of the title. (We are not workers: we rebel against being workers: we are therefore rebel workers.) He was totally disinterested in the rebellion of the provotariat. He liked Amsterdam because the living and the pot was cheap. It is now, he said, the new European centre for youth. It used to be London but the authorities in London didn't like foreign beats, so they now go to Amsterdam instead. He said to me that there was no point in returning to London, that I would do better to stay forever in Amsterdam where no one minds.

(In this part of town everyone seems to be wide-awake; even small kids wear battered denim suits. A wrecked van up against the wall, propped on stones, is crammed full of old crates. The market itself is hot and sandy. None of London's pushing grind. I thought this sort of placid ease was a feature of only provincial France—I suspect it exists on this scale in no other major Western capital.)

I find PROVO's offices: there is no answer when I ring the bell but the front door is open, and I walk up perilously steep stairs to No. 4 at the top. On the landing a pair of white jeans hang out so I knock on the first door I see. Someone shouts so I walk in. The room is small, bare but light. A slight whiff of fish-scent occasionally wafts in through the window. Posters of Castro and nuclear disarmament symbols on the wall. Inside there is a kid of about 15 and two chicks about the same age. His hair is longer than most English kids of that age. They all seem totally turned-on; rather in the manner of some of the kids who used to cram the Committee of 100 offices and who were, in terms of personal liberation, far further out than any of their so-called mentors. Unfortunately we converse only in an erratic, if flexible, combination of Dutch, English and French. After an hour I get a further address and leave.

* * *

Later in the day, in a small, attractive house in Karthuiserstraat —described by Le Figaro as "certainly the most wretched house in the street" in "one of the most crumbling parts of the town"—I found Roel van Duyn, editor of PROVO-Amsterdam. He pointed out a headline in the evening paper: "VAN HALL SAYS PROVOS RESPONSIBLE". Were they? Van Duyn said perhaps they were: "The blousons noirs come into Amsterdam because of what they hear about us." Was it true that the provos dissociated themselves from the riots? He said they dissociated themselves from the riots because they were caused by blousons noirs from outside town, who had no political consciousness and were violent. The Amsterdam blousons had been "educated" by the provos but this had not so far been possible with the suburban ones. But surely, I asked, PROVO's appeal to the international provotariat (reprinted in this issue) called upon all elements of the provotariat to help provoke a crisis of authority? Surely this was what had happened in Amsterdam? He admitted a crisis of authority had been provoked by the riots but, like his colleague Bernhard de Vries who addressed London meetings last week, said the provos disapproved of this unless it was politically motivated and did not believe in violence against authority because it both justified and encouraged authority to increase the strength of repression. What do the provos want? According to Roel van Duyn a democratization of society, white police, a mayor elected by direct election rather than chosen by the central government, the curbing of air pollution, the prevention of urban depopulation, white bicycles, a squatter movement for the unoccupied houses, the provocation of authority so that it would reveal its true, anti-social nature. Roel van Duyn admits the programme is reformist, "but we live in this society!" The "white police" plan is for police to be disarmed like English police [amongst the most sophisticated forms of authoritarian control any government has ever been allowed to get away with C.R.]. Eventually they would become trained social workers. (Anyone who wants to check out how fast the notions of authority can change in this respect ought to search out Newsweek for June 27, which shows just this trend happening in the USA.) I told him I was very confused by these ideas. I thought some excellent, others very naive. I was surprised that an anarchist group should stand for city council election. Roel said that it is to observe authority from inside. Was there no risk of being thus absorbed by tame authority, being maintained as tame rebels? Roel thought the danger very small. He told me he would probably be doing a six week jail sentence shortly (unless his appeal was successful) for publishing an inflammatory article in PROVO 7. (I was unable to ascertain whether this was the one calling for the physical destruction of the petty bureaucracy.) I told him. I thought many provo statements were inflammatory and I was hardly surprised that the kids took them so seriously, or that provos were blamed for riots. Roel said the more extreme statements were essentially provocative satire rather than direct statement. I said I felt quite honestly that the provos had unconsciously betrayed the provotariat. He no more agreed than did Bernhard de Vries in London when I made the same point. I said I felt it was the provos' task to explain the riots even if they felt unable to physically support them. Certainly to denounce riots which were the provos' philosophical responsibility seemed not only naive but potentially dangerous. "We did not denounce them—we dissociated from them because they served no purpose." (In London Bernhard de Vries said he could understand them but seemed surprised by suggestions that he might have acted as explainer of the riots, even if he felt compelled to say they had nothing to do with the provos.)

As I make my way back to the Central Station from the East-side of town, I pass through a square in which an old man with a guitar begins to play and sing, in a superbly demonic, cracked voice. Immediately he is surrounded by kids, some clambering on top of post boxes, dancing and hamboning as the old man plays and sings.

Whatever the provos say or think, they seem to be in an ironic position: they are the only group—apart from Jonathan Leake's delirious saboteurs of social peace, The Resurgence Youth Movement —who make youth revolt their point of departure. Their manifesto is quite definitely the best and most interesting statement on youth revolt to come out of the Continent. On the other hand they seem astonish-ingly keen to deny the implications and consequences of their thought. The irony is, ultimately, that the first group of revolutionaries (of any sort) to get through teenagers (and particularly the type of teenagers who are usually totally ignored by "serious" revolutionaries) are, at the point of crisis, prepared to turn their backs.

* * *

I talked to a long-haired kid wearing the brightest floral suit I have ever seen, at the airport. He was bugged as hell, having to look after his very-kid brother who blew Pepsi-Cola bubbles out of his bottle over everything and, in between, laughed deliriously. When will the next riot happen? "When we feel like it. Authority needs time to prepare for fighting us but we just come when we want. We always win. Riots, they don't cost nothing for us. Authority pays." Did he read PROVO? "Sometimes I see it. I like PROVO and provo happenings. PROVO gives us cause and we enjoy rioting. There will be more riots."

I do not recall ever having been so sorry to leave a city. I like Amsterdam and, despite my reservations, admire the provos. (In the end I find I agree with the husband of provo "leader", Irene van der Weetering, when he says: "It's a heart-rending, muddle-headed organisation") It is a nice final touch to fly in over Clacton after visiting the capital of the World Revolution of Youth—Amsterdam—beautiful, gentle, patient town raped by the savage hip of the provotariat.