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Swearing and ranting tapping a tender poem. Biographer Elsbeth Etty shows Willem Wilmink in all his complexity

As good and fluent as writing poems and songs was for him, everyday life fell on him with difficulty. Writer Willem Wilmink grew into a folk hero of Twente, but remained a child at heart, according to the biography by literary critic Elsbeth Etty. 'Someone who, according to his best friend Herman Finkers, couldn't even hold a pair of scissors.'

With compassion, but also critically, Elsbeth Etty (67) shows in her book Inside the man is another boy the poet Willem Wilmink (1936-2003) in all his complexity. His talent and relentless work ethic made him one of the Netherlands' best-loved authors, purveyor of songs for popular television programmes such as Uncle William's film, Clockhouse, Sesame Street, Children for Childrenand The Pavement Maker's Show. Sharp is the contrast with the man he was outside his work: by his own admission, always remained 11 years old, a child in adult form who could not yet fry an egg and stapled broken clothes together with a stapler.

In your Foreword, you write that when you were asked to write this biography, you didn't actually have much of a connection with Wilmink and his work. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage for a biographer?

'I asked myself that too, because my first biography on poet Henriette Roland Holst was my own idea, and that feels different. But as soon as you start looking into someone, they become interesting, so in the end it doesn't really matter. What was an advantage was that I still knew Wilmink himself; he taught at the Institute of Dutch Studies. I know what he looked like - your heart leapt open when you looked into those faithful blue eyes of his - how he talked and what type he was. Another advantage was that, apart from his own diaries and literary work, there were so many people who knew him and could be interviewed. There were many sources to work with.'

Other stories

Those stories of others regularly differ from Wilmink's own portrayal.

'Yes, what stood out was that he had some standard stories. For instance, he claimed that he was once refused a Silver Noble because the jury thought he had written too unkindly about disabled people. Well, I have sat on many literary juries myself and I know it doesn't work like that. But Wilmink had told that story to so many people that they repeated it to me in complete conviction. Finally, in an interview in de Volkskrant known to be a fable. I discovered that he sometimes turned the facts 180 degrees when it came to sensitive events. This was the case, for example, with his PhD as a Dutchman. It was a terrible meeting, with riots because the professors felt the quality of his thesis was insufficient to allow him to be promoted. On the day itself, he stood sweating and stammering on stage. But in his memoirs, he wrote that it was a fantastic meeting, that the committee praised him and did not ask a single difficult question. 'Completely opposite to how it really was.'

Elsbeth Etty ©Huub Liebrand

Did he himself remember it that way, or did he mean to direct the perception of others?

'I think it was a form of self-protection. To a very strong degree, he had a tendency that almost every human being has: that you put a spin on contradictions, disappointments and humiliations that you can't actually cope with, so that you make it into an acceptable story for yourself that you can live with. But the way he was able to fool himself, few succeed. During his first marriage to Noor, there were terrible domestic strife and shouting matches, but he wrote to his friends that things were very harmonious at home.'


In his younger years, he was by no means someone you thought was going to make it.

'No, that's right. He always said he would become famous, but nobody expected it to actually happen. What made him so beloved was his ability to make light of heavy subjects that are recognisable to everyone and to give depth to ordinary, light, everyday things. He himself felt it was very important that his work was not just lollipop, but truly considered and appreciated as literature, as poetry. He eventually succeeded in that mission.'


He had all kinds of anxiety disorders, was completely unable to be alone or take care of himself. Was this the result of the trauma he suffered during the war? Or did he also find it easy to let himself care?

'If you read his autobiographical stories carefully, he describes himself as having autism, a condition not known at the time. His wife Wobke and his stepdaughters also think something like that may have been going on. I would imagine that traumatic events - in 1943, as a boy, he was in an air-raid shelter while the house above was bombed - reinforced his anxious, unpredictable behaviour. In doing so, he exclaimed that people wanted to groom and coddle him. When he was already in his 20s, his parents still prescribed that he wear warm underwear and take home his dirty laundry. It was perhaps also a bit of a vicious circle. If he misbehaved at a party and beat someone up, no one ever said, "William, get a grip." It was appeased, he was spared. His helplessness apparently called that on himself.'


Throughout his life, he was showered with praise and awards. Yet why did he always feel underappreciated?

'Literary writer Kees Fens said Wilmink was always seeking recognition for things he couldn't do. Take that dissertation, for example. He desperately wanted scientific recognition, but not for a heavy scientific work, no, for a book that could not pass as a dissertation. In fact, it was never enough. When Wilmink returned to Enschede, he was considered someone who had become famous in the West, even though he felt scorned there to some extent. In Enschede and Twente, he was world-famous. That gave him wings.'


How can someone with such 'psychological shortcomings', as he called it, still achieve such a body of work?

'What I came to as the book progressed is that he possessed all sorts of curious traits that I think we all have, just not in such gigantic form. If he had been more balanced and didn't have some of those geeky traits, I think that urge to write and shape would have been much less. I hope this raises the question in the reader's mind: how do I deal with my abnormalities myself? Wilmink's story is hopeful. You can sit and sulk, of course, but he turned his limitations into a strength. His work was a form of protection, a way of keeping himself and his compulsions in check. The writing itself was also a compulsive act, by the way, because everything had to be published immediately. Sometimes he would sit tapping like a madman, swearing and ranting, with a red head, and then a very tender little poem would come out.'

While writing, he felt he was in a safe world, which daily life was not for him.

'Yes, you see that right. In his imagination, his stories, he created a harmonious counter-world where it was good to live and where he took comfort - and where he wanted to comfort others too. I gradually grew to admire him more and more, because he managed to get by despite all his limitations and it was not in vain. Collected poems, exhibitions, schools named after him - what living poet has that? He had no reason to complain, but always just remained his insecure, stoic self. Someone who, according to his best friend Herman Finkers, couldn't even hold a pair of scissors.'

Good to know Good to know

Elsbeth Etty, Inside the man is still a boy. Willem Wilmink - the biography was published by Nijgh & Van Ditmar, € 34.99
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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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