Skip to content

'Only now do I have a fairly comforting life.' Frank conversation with Hans Dorrestijn

Cabaret artist Hans Dorrestijn is known as a gloom and professional grumbler. But in recent years, Holland's blackest joker has less and less to complain about: he has had great success with his nature books and his cabaret shows, and won several awards. This week he turns 80, but he doesn't want to know when to stop - his new book Wish birds has just been released.

In nine candid questions, Hans Dorrestijn talks about his animal love, grim childhood and his dented self-esteem. 'I would like to be a koala bear. They are sweet - so am I - and beautiful and everyone loves them, but they can also be quite fierce. They stand up for themselves. I sometimes get humiliated in front of me and don't think until two days later: why didn't I say anything about it?'

What is the biggest lack in your life?

'A fun childhood. I grew up with a stepfather from the age of eight; my real father was in the resistance and died in 1942 in the Amersfoort concentration camp. My stepfather was terrible. An idiot. He hit, but we were mostly afraid of his shouting and ranting. There was always something that made him angry. From the bang of the front wheel of his bike against the garden fence, I could hear what was coming. To illustrate how idiotic he was: if my brother or I were in the toilet, and he had to go too, he would yank the door off the hook, drag us out of the toilet and then go himself. On stage, I once said: I am the only Dutch cabaret performer who has literally gone off the pot.

It's a cliché, but humour was my way of coping. I soon started telling things in such a way that my friends were laughing at it. That gave the misery some meaning. Although I am the first to sit down to grieve when there is no need for it, I don't experience the experiences of the past so harshly and sharply now. I have even been to my stepfather's deathbed. Even unpleasant experiences are a building block of the house you build.'

What are you most uncertain about?

'About my appearance - I have felt extremely ugly all my life. Once I was watching an athletics competition at the nursery school I was at to become a teacher. I must have been seventeen. Next to me was a boy from a higher class, a nice guy with beautiful curly hair. He looked at me and said, "Godsamme, how ugly you are!" He didn't say it disdainfully, pity expressed itself. Therefore, I was not angry - he was telling the truth. I thought my looks were repelling the girls, because on that front things were going lousy. So the main theme in my work used to be: I can't get a girl.

My stepfather was at the root of a lot of anxiety and insecurity. Insecurity about my appearance was one manifestation. But whether I would have been more sure of myself without that stepfather is questionable, because my mother was a frightened and weasel-like person. There was no strength in that woman at all. The is difference between her and me is that I always got over my fears. I didn't hide behind another person.

I could never imagine that existence could be fun. Only now do I have a fairly comforting life. This is partly because of the appreciation for my work. Everywhere I go, there are young women who smile, grab me by the arm and say they think I'm great. Looking back, I think: maybe they didn't think I was so ugly in the past either, because those girls at medical school were often very nice to me. I could come out cute, whole classes laughed at me, so I wasn't unpopular. But with a nervous guy like me, you don't manage to show that you like him. That is hard to get that across to someone who is 100 per cent doubtful of his existence.'

What is the worst thing you have done to another person?

'When I was a teacher, I once had a black boy in class. A cutie, I really loved that little guy. In class, I played a song by cabaret group Don Quishocking, which included the line: "They say niggers are so big. Well, I'd like to see that!" I felt that all that was possible and I sang those lines in class too. They were all such sweet children, I couldn't even think of them taunting him with that. Thirty years later, in theatre cafe De Smoeshaan in Amsterdam, a black man came up to me, very angry. He told me he had been bullied with that for a very long time. It must have bothered him a lot, otherwise you don't come to your former teacher years later still so angry. Only then did I realise: what have I caused? That poor little boy! I loved that little boy! I did my utmost to let him know how terrible I thought that was. So you see how in a careless moment a human life can be marked.'

Which animal would you like to be?

'A koala bear. They are sweet - so am I - and beautiful and everyone loves them, but they can also be quite fierce. They stand up for themselves. I sometimes get humiliated in front of my face and only two days later think: why didn't I say anything about it?

When I received the Golden Harp, I was to perform the song 'Bowing' with the Metropole Orchestra, on a stage in front of seven hundred colleagues. I had agreed with the conductor that he would clearly tell me when to fill in. At rehearsals, it went so well, it brought tears to my eyes.

On the night itself, the conductor came on; he got thunderous applause, looked at me and the orchestra, and left me cracking up. After the first chorus, I totally didn't know when to fill in. Later I managed to catch on, but by then I had already been a monkey for minutes. It took me years to get over that traumatic experience. I was so broken I couldn't say anything.

A koala bear, then, because it won't let itself be bullied.'

What were you afraid to tell your mother?

'I hardly dared to discuss anything with my mother. If you touched on anything, she became extremely vicious. After all, she was not afraid of me. When I was newly divorced, I had the children once in a while. On a weekend when they were due, I was allowed to perform at the Night of Poetry. I hadn't had a job for a while, so it was important to go there. I called the babysitting centre for a babysitter.

For the first time in years I had success again, and I came home all happy. Sat there was my ex. She said, "Those few times you have the kids, you take a babysitter, so I'm taking them home now." For punishment, I didn't get to see the kids again. After a few months, I asked my mother if she could put in a good word with my ex. She said, "No, because then I might not get to see the children myself either." That's when I knew: I will never have anything to expect from this woman. Too bad I never told her that to her face. I should have severed the connection, but took it like a lamb. Well, it's going to be a happy article, I can already see. I'm pretty much on a roll.

Whenever I tried to discuss something, my mother would immediately become so prickly and nasty that I'd let it go. I didn't dare because she was such a weak character. Because you know what the worst thing is, and the stupidest thing too: I always wanted to be a good son. I was afraid I would harm her if I was tougher. That was not my intention.

I have been too cautious. As a result, she is the only person for whom I hold a big, deep grudge. She passed away a few years ago, she lived to a very old age. The longer she is buried, the angrier I get. I do not regret her death at all. I am free.'

What was the best decision of your life?

'That I went to study Dutch after nursery school, because then I met all the people who suited me: people who loved literature and wrote poetry. I was brought to university by Mr Lenstra, a substitute for a sick teacher. He showed me an etching by Rembrandt: who can say something about this painting? Since nobody said anything, I did: the centre of this painting is overexposed. This new teacher said, "Would you like to join me after class?" So I thought: oh, fuck, have I totally messed up again. "Mr Dorrestijn," he said, "that was a very good answer. Why don't you come and study with me? I also teach at university." He took me there, the darling. Don't you love it? I could never thank him for that.

[Wipes the tears from his eyes].

I cannot tell stories like this without whining. Of course, I am known as a gloomy person, a grump. But I also meet a lot of people who are really nice and sweet. Whenever I hear someone say that people are bad, I always think: what nonsense. There are bad people or bad moments in a human life. But there are also people like Lenstra, who help you selflessly. Those are very important.'

What is the stupidest thing you have ever done?

'When I was still teaching, a girl from the school fell in love with me. We had an affair - in those days, in the late 1960s, that was still allowed. I was about twenty-six and she was eighteen or nineteen. When I came out of school, at about three or four o'clock, she was often with me and still in bed. She didn't perform a flick, so she failed and had to stay in school for another year. One day, the vice headmaster came by. "You should actually get married, we are getting complaints from parents." Not from her parents by the way, they had no problems with it. I actually knew I shouldn't do it, but didn't dare refuse my employer, so I married her. The marriage lasted a year.'

What might your biggest critic rightly say about you?

'That it is only a small area that I cover: what I make is only about myself. I am actually a poet, who also writes prose. But I am only a small writer. Great writers conjure up a whole era, with guilt and penance and the whole mess. I only make sense of myself.

The other day I was thinking: I am one lump of uncertainty, why have I always kept going? Scathing reviews have been written about me. But then a few weeks later I started a new book or a theatre show anyway. So very deep inside, there must be a core self-esteem. It's deep, but it's strong.'

Who or what would you like to come back as in the next life?

'I also really like birds, so then I choose the long-tailed tit. That's such a cute little bird, with funny colours and a very small beak. And they are beautiful - that's a prerequisite. When long-tailed tits appear in your garden, other titmice immediately join them, pimples and great tits and black titmice, because they are extremely social creatures. It becomes one cosy mess, and it looks so peaceful... like paradise. As a long-tailed tit, you can't be unhappy.'

Good to know Good to know

Wish birds was published by Nijgh & Van Ditmar.

Appreciate this article!

If you appreciate this article and want to show your appreciation with a small contribution: you can! This is how you help keep independent journalism alive. Show your appreciation with a small donation!


Why donate?

We are convinced that good investigative journalism and expert background information are essential for a healthy cultural sector. There is not always space and time for that. Culture Press does want to provide that space and time, and keep it accessible to everyone for FREE! Whether you are rich, or poor. Thanks to donations From readers like you, we can continue to exist. This is how Culture Press has existed since 2009!

You can also become a member, then turn your one-off donation into lasting support!

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

Private Membership (month)
5 / Maand
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Own mastodon account
Access to our archives
Small Membership (month)
18 / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of less than €250,000 per year
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Posting press releases yourself
Extra attention in news coverage
Large Membership (month)
36 / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of more than €250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Share press releases with our audience
Extra attention in news coverage
Premium Newsletter (substack)
5 trial subscriptions
All our podcasts

Payments are made via iDeal, Paypal, Credit Card, Bancontact or Direct Debit. If you prefer to pay manually, based on an invoice in advance, we charge a 10€ administration fee

*Only for annual membership or after 12 monthly payments

en_GBEnglish (UK)