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Godfried Bomans: respectively loved, vilified, misunderstood and forgotten

Godfried Bomans died half a century ago. Almost immediately afterwards, the Netherlands' best-loved writer sank into oblivion. It is time for a reappraisal of Bomans' literary work and even his political views. I delved into the archives, also looking for the few traces of Bomans in Amersfoort.

First, a few round numbers. Seventy years ago, he delivered a lecture in Amersfoort that caused some excitement in the dusty town. After that, he only came to Amersfoort as a reporter: fifty years ago, he sat on the sidelines at a D66 election rally. Later that year - so also half a century back - he died. He lived to be only 58, like his great example Charles Dickens.

That death cast a long, dark shadow over the country. At the time, Bomans was the Netherlands' most beloved writer ánd most beloved TV personality. People reacted as if a dear family member had died. The funeral was massively attended.

Oblivion

Almost immediately after that, oblivion set in. Suddenly, Bomans was a right-wing ball, an old-fashioned Catholic, a self-righteous jerk, someone who did not speak the language of the present time. In his last years of life, he 'didn't lie well' with the Volkskrant anyway, where his column disappeared from the Saturday front page. Those who dared to confess to reading him or her had to exhaust themselves in apologies.

My father Wim de Valk, a colleague at the Volkskrant from 1958, was somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, he felt that Boman no longer understood the spirit of the times. As a down-to-earth Rotterdammer, he was also averse to the hero worship the writer had enjoyed for a long time. On the other hand, he collected those columns in notebooks: cut out and pasted in. Thus, with post-war frugality, he saved the cost of the collections, which came out with some regularity.

'Luxury reporter'

I was 16 and we are writing 1974 when I had read all the Bomans' work available in the Diemen library and started re-reading them. The books were not allowed on the mavo reading list, which 'Bomans is not literature'. At that time, it gradually dawned on me that I had watched him a few times. As a boy, I was sometimes allowed to accompany him to the then editorial offices of the Volkskrant on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.

My father then worked a Sunday shift amid grey desks, big typewriters and full ashtrays. This way my mother was relieved for a while in the afternoon. I would draw pictures or try to write a Letter to Mum, sometimes getting angry because I couldn't find the rrr or the ggg despite endless searching. Then Dad would come to help, because he knew where every letter was. When it got late, suddenly there were bottles of beer and men laughing everywhere.

Sometimes a gentleman with tousled hair would come scurrying in, whom even a youngster like me could see was particularly tall. He would sit somewhere in a corner - I think on a windowsill - and scribble something on a notebook with curly handwriting. He smoked a pipe or hastily inhaled cigarettes. He handed the torn-out sheets of paper to one of the other gentlemen, mumbled something in a deep voice and left. Later I understood that someone would type out his column for him. Mr Bomans was among the staff who left that handiwork to others. My father did not like 'luxury reporters'; they made a good impression on the outside world but could only exist thanks to the disciplined foot soldiers.

Writing and lecture factory

Back to Amersfoort, my hometown for 34 years. So Bomans rarely came there. This is curious, as he travelled all over the country. His 'lectures' - usually humorous conferences - were wildly popular. Just check the 1957 diary; there were weeks when he performed somewhere every day, in all corners of the country. He usually took the train, which did not go nearly as fast as nowadays. In addition, he would shave in his study three times over. Although he fed the myth that he was "lazy", the real Bomans should be considered a writing and reading factory. His collected works comprise seven volumes á over eight hundred pages.

Why did the Catholic writer visit Amersfoort so infrequently? That might have something to do with compartmentalised society. (At home, we noticed all this. My father first worked for the RK Maasbode in Rotterdam and then for the RK Volkskrant in Amsterdam. He found housing in Amsterdam thanks to a RK housing corporation and the whole family went to RK church there). Bomans was eagerly invited by societies in big cities, where Catholics could always be found. He was particularly attached to typically Roman Catholic cities like Nijmegen. But Amersfoort was predominantly Protestant. Nearby Hoogland was Catholic, but for such a village he did not come all the way from Haarlem by train. Also, in his time, Amersfoort was far from being the cultural city it would become.

Recreation and General Development

But he WAS there, on Thursday night, February 8, 1971. He was speaking at Amiticia, one of two theatres in the city. The other was the Grand Theatre, just down the road. That also functioned as a cinema, but on this evening the Utrecht Symphony Orchestra was performing there. The city also had two small cinemas. The Amicitia building dated from 1837 and was located on Plantsoen Zuid: part of the idyllic, green belt around the old city. With a brook, a music pier and rustic villas. Now traffic races through the City Ring here. Behind and under the facade of yesteryear is now a moribund shopping centre. Amersfoorters speak pityingly of 'the Koopgoot'.

We may assume that Mr Bomans was picked up from the railway station, a few hundred metres away, by nervous men from the committee. His lecture started at 8pm. He had been invited by officers of the R.A.O., or Recreation and General Development Department of the garrison stationed in Amersfoort. The Dagblad voor Amersfoort wrote in 1946 that the department watched over "the development and recreation of the Dutch soldier". ''The soldier must become a fellow, who can later take his place in society, who becomes a full member of it, despite the years, which he spent in the army.''

350 words

Bomans spoke for the Medical Troops. These must have worked mainly in the Military Hospital on Hogeweg. A reporter from the aforementioned newspaper repaired afterwards to the editorial offices, which were fortunately only a hundred metres away. At Snouckaertlaan, he typed up a report of about 350 words; short for that time, as newspaper articles could be endlessly long. The page had probably already been set and the layout manager had kept this corner free for the anonymous reporter.

Remarkably, the parole 'show, don't tell' had not yet become commonplace in 1951. Nowadays, every journalist learns that it is unsatisfactory to call a speaker 'humorous'. (The word in itself sounds archaic.) Better to illustrate what that wit shows. The reporter does not do the latter. Bomans "read from his own works in inimitably piquant and humorous fashion", the evening "excelled mainly by a large dose of humour" and the author spoke "particularly wittily" about his youth. How he did so, we don't find out.

Off. of Health Superior Dr H.M. v.d. Vegt

Between the lines, we do notice that the journalist felt the hot breath of the authorities breathing down his neck. Senior military officers expected to be mentioned in such a report. There were not many other media outlets, and the press was meek and law-abiding. So we read that 'Ensign Schol' opened the evening and many officers expressed their interest, notably 'the Commander of the Rgt. Medical Forces, the Off. of Health Superior Dr H.M. v.d. Vegt'. The editorial director might otherwise have had an angry officer on the phone the next morning.

Then the content of the evening. Bomans' 'lectures' were half-serious, half-witty causeries in which he worked like a jazz musician: improvising with familiar material as a handhold, in constant interaction with the surroundings. If a listener asked for specific advice, he would think of an Uncle on the spot who had experienced miraculous things, with the moral: the answer to the question. Later in the 1950s, he had a radio series: 'Problems disappear where the Heads appear'. After a mediocre lady asked whether she should save or not, he came up with an Uncle who counted his money every night; the man got nowhere else. Until, after many years, a notary sat in the same chair and spoke: ''Well ma'am, it's a nice amount. And heartfelt condolences.'' What lesson do we learn from this? Right.

Jacks and jokers

He spoke in a subdued but far-carrying voice. Slow by today's standards. His speeches were peppered with countless archaisms like 'therefore', 'burps and jokes' and 'the zwerk'. The only professional writer still using them in 2021 is Jean Pierre Rawie, in his weekly columns for the Dagblad van het Noorden. His oo's and aa's were accompanied by a slightly curt accent. His criticism was almost always mild, whoever or whatever it concerned. Like Toon Hermans, he gave the impression of improvising, and that this evening was very special. Hermans went so far as to dedicate his show to Uncle Sjeng or Uncle Twan, as it was the beloved deceased's birthday today. Hermans also grossed in family members. Bomans did not go that far.

In Amersfoort, the sought-after speaker began by stating that he was just going to 'read a bit', as reciting by heart was an art he had not mastered. This was followed by two and a half hours during which the audience hung on his every word, which was crowned with "prolonged applause by the completely filled hall".

Ajax-Atletico

According to the daily, he spoke, among other things, about 'Erik or the little insect book', his fairy-tale success novel from 1941. In it, he drew 'from childhood memories, thinking back to a lost paradise, in which the ageing man will never return'. The protagonist Erik 'could not reconcile himself with his existence' and so disappeared at night into the wonderful world of the Wollewei painting. The book contained 'numerous satires' and 'great and small wisdoms'.

After presumably another drink-after with the local dignitaries - Bomans did not turn down something like that, especially if beautiful young women were present - the celebrated speaker was probably taken to the Stationsplein. If he could no longer catch a train to that distant Haarlem, he will have spent the night in the town. The hotel may have been Monopole, an immense overnight accommodation opposite the station. A beautiful building from the first years of the century, with an also enormous, wooden conservatory.

It was demolished in 1978. Earlier in the 1970s, hotel Monopole may also have been the location of Bomans' second visit mentioned in the archives. The exact date and place cannot be determined. What we know for sure is that Bomans came to Amersfoort on a Wednesday evening in the last four weeks before the elections for the Lower House on 28 April 1971. The evening coincided with a football match. It may have been 14 April, because on that night Ajax came out against Atlético Madrid. Bomans then made a series of reports on election rallies; he would concentrate on the politicians' verbal abilities. The series would later be compiled in De Man Met De Witte Das, combined with memories of Bomans' father J.B. Bomans, once the list leader of the Roman Catholic State Party.

Marcus Bakker

He was not about the content, in principle then. For he couldn't resist putting down Marcus Bakker (CPN) as "an outstanding speaker" to whom you "listen breathlessly", who, however, "starts from the premise, that a constant smearing of what others believe to be right produces one's own argument". ''He scolded everything and everyone, with a supercilious tone, a biting sarcasm and bitter hatred.'' But Bakker did not let on about possible CPN alternatives. Bomans: ''Does he know that the insults he affords ministers and MPs here would make him untraceable in Russia?''

He observed something similar at a presentation by Berend Udink of the CHU (Christian-Historical Union, merged into the CDA in 1980). ''There were some 'angry young men' in the back of the room, who showed their independence of mind mainly by asking some questions with their hands in their pockets and shouting loudly.'' To Bomans' surprise, Udink remained calm, polite and friendly. Again, the author was annoyed by the selective indignation: everything in the capitalist West was wrong and anyone who dared to say anything else was drowned out by howls and whistles. ''Fascist traits,'' Bomans thought.

In Amersfoort, 40-year-old Hans van Mierlo made his appearance on behalf of D66, then still written as D'66. Bomans declined to comment on the views of this party. It was a strange evening anyway, as it coincided with the aforementioned football match. The election committee must have known that and could therefore have chosen hotel Monopole. That building was big, but the halls were small. It also advertised that: ''Separate intimate rooms for reception, dinner and meetings.''

Eleventh-hour subdued debauchery

Bomans: , "Around Mr Van Mierlo, leader of D'66, I therefore found only 25 people united. To keep it cosy, they were clustered in a semi-circle around the list leader, so one had the privilege of seeing this much-discussed young man from very close quarters. Mr Van Mierlo has the face of a student from Leiden, about whom his parents rightly had serious concerns, but who then just barely landed on his feet.'' In the then already somewhat drawn countenance, the author saw 'a debauchery contained at the eleventh hour'.

Van Mierlo made a sympathetic impression, but seemed terrified of knowing anything better and falling into grandiloquence. Everything he said he immediately questioned. According to Bomans, what the politician overlooked was "that we have come to this little room in the opinion that he knows better, because otherwise we would have stayed at home".

Furthermore, he noticed a girl with a huge bow, worn on her back. With that, she looked like a butterfly that had briefly settled there. She did not seem to be listening and instead looked around her in a satiated manner, even as the discussion about the polluted environment became increasingly pessimistic. ''The climax of her rapture coincided with the rise of a young man in very tight-fitting trousers, who declared he would not give us all another year.'' Then she left, "with eyes half lowered, like someone almost exploding with joy". It must not have been a long evening. Bomans had a quick chat with Van Mierlo afterwards - the latter said the butterfly-like girl had completely eluded him - and walked to the station.

Death threats

D66 underwent a crisis that spring, in Amersfoort of all places. The national leadership was considering a merger with the PvdA and the PPR (Politieke Partij Radikalen, merged into GroenLinks in 1991). The newspapers reported in February that the Amersfoort branch's board members would resign in protest, and in March that they had done so. In the end, of course, the merger was abandoned. Bomans ignores this entirely; he thought the girl with the bow tie was more interesting.

With this, he could once again confirm the image that was rising in wide circles: that of a political ignoramus. According to Harry Mulisch, he certainly was. In the late 1960s, Mulisch and more intellectuals embraced Marxism, the revolution in Cuba and Mao Zedong. Mulisch's old friend Bomans, who lived in a villa there in Bloemendaal, was a "traitor". In 1966, Bomans had to be temporarily guarded by the police after death threats from The Red Youth, which called for the destruction of buildings housing American institutions. Mulisch stood by this and knew he could not in good conscience show himself in Bomans' company for a while. As a salon communist, he did not look down on a dictator more or less.

Especially during Bomans' much-discussed stay on Rottumerplaat - in July 1971 - fears surfaced. Would the Red Youth kill him after all? He 'farted bagger', literary critic Jeroen Brouwer noted approvingly In his book De Spoken van Godfried Bomans (1982). Just right! Moreover, he had descended to become a TV maker and was thus among the "representatives of the saddened people from the Gooi region responsible for stupidisation, infantilisation, hatred of art and ruination of taste". This smoothly consigned documentaries like Bomans In Triplo to the rubbish bin.

Culture Chamber

It took courage to defend Boman's views as timeless and refreshingly unfashionable. He simply valued democracy. Something that had already become apparent during the war years, although he rarely, if ever, spoke or wrote about it. His past in the resistance was not a topic of conversation. But it was there. He had not joined the Kultuurkamer, which cost him a chunk of money. 'Erik or the small insect book' had just been published and sold very well. But Bomans did not receive a penny in royalties from 1941 until liberation.

However, he did have extra expenses as he housed Jewish people in hiding in his home on Zonnelaan in Haarlem, including the opera conductor Hans Lichtenstein, who had fled from Germany, and Jan ter Gouw, whose real name was Lou Bauer. He listened to banned radio stations and passed on information left and right. The family of sculptor and resistance fighter Mari Andriessen was also able to shelter with him for some time. In 1987, Bomans was awarded - posthumously, that is - the Yad Vashem decoration as 'Righteous Among the Nations' by the Israeli Holocaust Centre.

Rug

For completeness, before Bomans came to Amicitia, some of his plays were performed in Amersfoort. On 18 January 1948, youngsters from the Sint Franciscus Xaverius parish performed 'De Huistyran' in the building of the Catholic Workers' Association on Lieve Vrouwestraat. In it, a stern former colonel in a drunken stupor still gives his approval for his daughter's marriage. The Dagblad voor Amersfoort praised the facial expressions of some of the actors. And: ''The decoration was good, although the rug was in the way at times.''

A year later, on 25 February 1949, members of the Amersfoort Gymnasiastenclub performed 'Blood and Love' in Amicitia. It became a huge success, wrote the Dagblad for Amersfoort, 'not only because of the folly in the play, but more so because of the spirited, animated playing'. The evening ended 'with flowers and a three cheers'.

Bomans wrote the tragedy-parody Blood and Love as an 18-year-old grammar school student. Numerous characters from world history - Jacoba of Bavaria, Ivan the Terrible, Charles the Fifth and many others - meet, even though they lived in completely different times. They speak a bombastic, archaic language á la Victor Hugo. Regularly, a soldier comes running in saying 'Lord, the enemy naked!' According to Bomans' fellow pupils, the characters displayed traits of his teachers. They all die. The teachers themselves were 'not amused' at the time.

If only my wife had one such leg

And while we're among ourselves: in reflections on Bomans - he will have been dead for 50 years on 22 December, so there will be many to come, there's no escaping that - it is routinely claimed that the author had once, after glancing at Marlène Dietrich's legs, remarked: ''If only my wife had one such leg.'' Even those watching at the time think they remember it that way. But it is not true.

He said at the awards ceremony of the Grand Gala du Disque in 1963, while Dietrich had yet to emerge: ,,I was once in the cinema and there was a film by Marlène Dietrich being shown. And I was enjoying it, of course... and next to me was a very old man... also sighing with delight. Suddenly that man bumped into me in the dark, and it really happened, and he said from the bottom of his heart... 'If only my wife had one leg like that'". Only then did he let Dietrich come up. She was wearing a long skirt.

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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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