Still discombobulated from the paperback launch of The Red Man and Others, we got the message that the line-up of Flame Tree Press’s Beyond the Veil would be made public.
You can find the full list on Flame Tree Press’s blog post, as well as links to further info on each author. This anthology will come out on Kindle, in paperback and in hardback in October, just in time for Hallowe’en. It was edited by Mark Morris, and contains twenty original horror stories, sixteen of which were commissioned from some of the top names of the genre, with the other four selected from hundreds of submissions.
It’s a great list of names, and we are really proud to see ours amongst Priya Sharma, Toby Litt, Matthew Holness (Dream Weaver, and actor, of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – of which we’re huge fans), Lisa Tuttle, and Jeremy Dyson (League of Gentlemen, another favourite of ours).
For our story, For All The Dead, we returned to the area I grew up in, close to the Northern Dutch coast, but that of a century and a bit back. We find ourselves in Soltcamp, the fictionalised version of Zoutkamp, the fisherman’s village that once lay by the sea. It’s a village where the people kept, in the words of one of our characters, ‘one eye on the Bible, the other on the sea.’ It allowed us to play with the folklore of the sea, and embroider our own mythology.
Familiar as we are with the history of Zoutkamp, we worked in elements of one of its infamous residents of the past, the seer Meldine, who was said to have made many predictions of things still to happen, and with her followers to practice her own particular version of Christianity. She is said to have appeared at funerals to preach about the fate of the departed, until the villagers felt she carried that too far and told her to stop. You can read more about Meldine, and other prophets of the sea, in our article for Northern Earth.
The sea, an ever lurking danger behind the dikes of the low-lying areas, certainly had a hold over the people of the coast. It provided their livelihood, but several big floods also devastated the countryside. Chief amongst them was the Christmas flood of 1717, claiming 14,000 lives, but there were other dangers. For our story we were thinking of the disaster of of 1883. A few years ago we visited the monument on the dike of the village of Moddergat on a cold and windy April day; its plaque tells how 109 fishermen went out on 22 ships, and how 17 ships and 83 men remained at sea.
Writers sometimes say that their characters start to lead a life of their own. This definitely has turned out to be true for Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. We started out with a basic outline of who they were, but during the stories we wrote for The Red Man and Others and the follow-ups we’re working on, their personalities definitely have become more complex and nuanced. It’s not easy to define exactly who they are, and often it comes down to ‘Kaila would definitely do this’ or ‘Sebastien would never say that’. For Ymke, we found the one word that encompasses a lot of who she is, how she thinks and what she believes in: Northernness.
This actually came up during a discussion about a project we’ve got in the fridge, about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller M.S. Teenstra – and in the back of the fridge, slightly mouldy, a project about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller J.J. Slauerhoff. Angeline mentioned Northernness, a term used by C.S. Lewis in his Surprised by Joy, and asked whether it’d be translatable to Dutch. It’s a term that encompasses a lot, but has no strict boundaries:
…Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country…
And to go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole, Joy is understood as:
…it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. …I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.
To answer Angeline’s question: Northernness can be translated as Noordsigheid, and it is applicable to Teenstra and Slauerhoff, both writers who travelled to the remote corners of their world, had experiences they could not hope to explain to others (not for want of trying), and yet could never find that single thing that would truly make them happy. Perhaps it was because searched so far that they forgot to look close by; I am reminded of John Boorman’s Excalibur, in which the Knights of the Round Table seek the length and breadth of the realm for the Grail, until Parcival dreams of it while on the verge of death. What is the secret of the Grail? The King and the Land are one, is the answer. Who does it serve? The shadowy figure asks. We may be mistaken this figure for Christ, or God, but no; when the King and the Land are one, we’re looking at a pre-Christian, rural past of agrarian cycles and customs like the May Queen and, per James George Frazer, the Sacred King, who’d take place next to the Earth Goddess for a year.
A sidestep to my dad. While we’re from very orthodox Protestant stock, my grandfather broke with the church, and my father was a Christian in name only. However, he found spirituality outdoors; even when pensioned he’d be up at dawn and on his bicycle, and could be found in the nature reserve close by, or in the polder, the land reclaimed from the sea, while the world was still asleep. This, for me, is a feature of Northernness: the spirituality of the landscape, and the way the northern soul is attuned to it. This is not something that is talked about; it’s a personal relationship. God does not live in a church; God is in the landscape, is the land. With that, the Sacred King, like Arthur, is a stand-in for that deity, but in a way all us northerners are.
One of the most popular and enduring songs in my native Gronings dialect is Ede Staal’s ‘Mien Hogelaand’. You can find the full text here, with the Dutch translation which Google will help you render in your language of choice. It’s worth listening to, even if you don’t get the words, as part of the song’s meaning is in the melody. (Hogelaand, or Highland, is what the area is called – it’s ever so slightly raised, which was a plus in bygone times of floods).
It’s the sky behind Uithuizen, it’s the little tower of Spijk, It’s the road from Leens to Kloosterburen, and through Westpolder along the dike. It’s the windmills and the canals, the churches and the strongholds. It’s the land where as a child, I didn’t know of pain or sorrow. That’s my land, my High Land
These examples are not postcard pictures. The accumulation of places, for anyone having grown up there, will go straight to the heart. Ede zooms in gradually, his broad strokes becoming more detailed:
It’s the wheat fields, it’s the oats, It’s the rapeseed in bloom It’s the horizon at Ranum, Just after a thunderstorm
The song goes from the permanence of the landscape to the cyclical nature of the harvest, and to the momentary, to how the horizon looks after a thunderstorm. That he mentions the village of Ranum is immaterial; we from Groningen recognise the wideness of the landscape, and how that sky looks in the distance. Then, he gets personal, and places himself inside of the landscape and the song:
It’s a nice evening in May; a cow is coughing in the grassland. I’m dating for the first time, and feel the sparks from your hand. The wild plans that I had – Nothing will come of them, until the night in the High Land, lays its dark cloak over us.
This is Northernness, Ede sings about, and Joy: it’s a nostalgia that lies as much in a moment as in the place. Did that moment indeed happen the way he describes, or is his longing for how he remembers it, or wants to remember? There’s a Dutch word, Heimwee, homesickness, which reaches further than ‘home’ alone. It’s a yearning like the German Sehnsucht, or the Welsh term hireath, described as ‘the feeling of longing for a home that no longer exists or never was. A deep and irrational bond felt with a time, era, place or person.’ In Groninger dialect, there’s the word wènst, as in “Ik heb wènst van die”, for which the translation “I miss you” doesn’t reach deep enough. For the Northerner, this longed-for place does exist; the villages may have changed, with shops closing and doors no longer kept unlocked, the landscape in its broad strokes is still there.
Artists from Groningen have tried to tap into this. Of a younger generation than Ede Staal is Marlene Bakker, whose Waarkhanden exudes the same heimwee, linking a personal past with the rurallandscape. Its video celebrates the heavy clay of which the Groninger soil is made and which sticks to our feet (figuratively) wherever we go. From the early 1920s, inspired by German expressionists, the members of the artistic circle De Ploeg started portraying the landscape, not as it strictly was (no impressionism or realism here), but as they felt it. That Grail, which Parcival sought, is there, be it perhaps just out of reach: the Northerner and the Land are as one, and for better or worse, this is where the well of happiness, Joy, lies.
So, Northernness. That’s how we’ve decided to characterise Ymke, who comes from an analogue to the rural Dutch north. It’s still a somewhat amorphous description, but it’ll do. As a farm girl she was keenly aware of the enduringness of the landscape – the fields that had been there for generations, the paths that were trod since the first people came to the area, but also the cyclical nature of the seasons. She knows about patience, about sowing a seed and then to wait, trusting that it’ll come up much later, and about finding the brightness in the moment, the way the morning sky looks a bit different every time, the singing bird and ribbitting frog, the flower opening up and the bee with its pollen-encrusted butt. She feels deeply and passionately, yet her convictions are strong as tree roots, below the clay.
A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.
From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.
We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.
We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.
In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Childwe looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.
If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.
And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.
Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.
In 1834, in the then isolated and remote village of Ulrum, Reverend De Cock was unhappy with the increasingly Enlightenment-influenced ideas that permeated the Dutch Reformed state religion, and with the church board he seceded. Eventually, his secession lead to a split in the Dutch Reformed Church, and reverberated through to the USA. Before that, De Cock was relieved of his function by the government, forbidden to preach, and another pastor, Reverend Smith, was called in. Writer, traveller and local gadfly Marten Douwes Teenstra wrote an anonymous pamphlet (with some italics mine)…
(…)Sunday (12 October) morning ships full of hungry souls arrived in Zoutkamp (the next village, a harbour) to come to Ulrum with their dirty linen; more than a hundered carriages and a legion of pedestrians gathered in the streets of Ulrum, of which many went to the Widow Koster (in whose pub the secessionists met), who poured them gin, then left without paying – well, that was for De Cock and the landlady to solve; to pay is worldly and to pray and sigh is heavenly. It was mostly unknown faces who looked at each other in bewilderment. “O, if only these could be the last days of such violence,” others sighed.
At 10 o’clock, Reverend Smith went to the church, which was already full of people, both natural children of Adam as those who (as they felt) were reborn and had seen the light and belonged to the chosen flock. (Here Teenstra’s want of an editor becomes apparent, as the text becomes mired in smug allusions which, 185 years later, become unreadable. Suffice to say: De Cock was busy conspiring with his church council, and sent a friendly preacher, Scholte, to the church to try and preach. As designated preacher, Smith refused to forego his sermon.)
Reverend Smith, climbing off the pulpit, was asked again by Scholte to be allowed to preach in the church that afternoon. On being refused again, as Reverend Smith had received a message from the Provincial Church Council in Groningen to not only refuse it but to prevent it with suitable means, De Cock and his Xantippe started lambasting his sermon. Now the plebs started thronging more and more. Reverend Smith, almost 66 years old, was squeezed and punched, especially in the underbelly, so that his supporting girlde broke. The elderly preacher, almost breathless, would have collapsed in the pushing and pinching mass (amongst which Mrs De Cock shouted out: “Now is the time!”) if not for the few men, who also associate our own work and labours with religion, who supported him in getting out. Now the Game Cock put up his feathers (quo quis indoctior eo impudentior – the more stupid, the more brazen) and shouted to the people: “Stay in the church! Stay, people! Anon Reverend Scholte will speak.” Then some verses from Psalm 25 were sung. Later, however, De Cock and his cronies were driven out of the church by police officials, in name of the church elders and the local governors, after which the church was closed.
Now we come to the main events of Sunday 19th October.
G.J. Van Polen, police officer from Appingedam, had already arrived early, as well as the constables of the neighbouring villages of Leens, Kloosterburen, Baflo, Warffum, Usquert and Kantens in Ulrum, and, with Ulrum’s constable, guarded the doors of the church. Two of them placed themselves at the pulpit, and two others accompanied J. van der Helm, reverend of Niekerk and Vliedorp, whose turn it was to preach. Coming in the church towards 9:30, it was already filled with participants and onlookers. The constables helped the preacher to get through the crowd and reached the step to the choir, close to the choir fence; here they got so much push-back that they had to retreat a little; while one Klaas Pieters Ritsema (commonly named after his wife, Klaas Wietskes), day labourer in Ulrum, being warned against pushing back by the constable of Leens, called in a loud voice: “Reverend Van der Helm will not get on the pulpit, but De Cock will.” – The constable of Leens called for help from the constables at the pulpit, but they called back that they couldn’t push through: Reverend Van der Helm, while hearing many sniggering comments, had to leave the church.
Now De Cock, in full regalia, climbed on a bench within the choir fence, after having tried himself to get to the pulpit, now being stopped by Van Polen, whom he asked: who gave you the right to refuse me; to which Van P. answered: my superior, that is, the Officer of Justice. Upon this, De Cock, who did not want to answer to any worldly powers, read openly the ACT OF SECESSION.
(…) After reading this so-called Act of Secession – of which we could hear little, and so don’t know where De Cock ended, so we have included the whole thing (though I’m not) – Van Polen once more asked with the utmost sweetness, if it were praying and begging, to no longer rebel against the government – quoting once more the Officer of Justice, to which De Cock replied: “that the Officer didn’t have a say, and that he came in name of God, the King of Kings,” after which he called to the crowd: “Shall Van der Helm climb the pulpit? – No! No! Away with that Baal-priest! Away with the papist! Away with the idolator! Away with Satan’s sermon!” and adding: “The church is ours, we have seceded!”
Van Polen letDe Cock know in soft and modest terms that he was rousing the crowd and was heating tempers, to which De Cock replied: “I do nothing except for God, and should you use violence against me, than you will find your death; because I do not fear any worldly power of government.” A new attempt (by De Cock) to reach the pulpit failed, and the crowd started singing from the 118th Psalm, after which De Cock did a very noisy prayer. (…) We felt sorry for the man: his long, straight hair hung over his hollow eyes and pale cheeks, as if he was drowning. (…) We hoped that Van Polen would let him continue, thinking as the father of a madhouse: “leave the mad to do their talking.” But of course! He was again urged to obedience by Van Polen. De Cock said: “God should be obeyed sooner than people. There are no earthly powers who can stand against this,” and he started reading the community something from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Another caution from Van Polen again was fruitless and the gospel exercise lasted until 11:30, closing with an announcement that the service in the church would continue towards 1. Then De Cock left, the crowd thinned, those who remained were driven from the church, the door was closed and the church was surveilled by the constables.
(…) Wednesday evening, 22nd October, De Cock and church elder J. J. Beukema, the first decent in black and wearing a tricorne hat, the other, as a crippled Vulcan, with coloured stockings, knee breeches with the buckles undone, and a blue sleeping cap on his head, appeared in the village hall. Here they immediately (as if to shoot burning soot from a chimney with a two barrel gun) announced officially that they had seceded and now were independent; requesting protection, instead of opposition, from the Council, because they had to follow God’s holy laws instead of the worldly.
(…)”What shall it be tomorrow?” was the question going round on Saturday 25 October. All sorts of rumours spread here: Reverend de Cock, Reverend J. van den Helm, the constable of Ulrum, called Jan Koster, and also the other constables present, as well as the earlier mentioned Klaas Wietskes had been summoned to appear in Appingedam at the courthouse on Friday the 31st; (…) Others said, that in Zoutkamp more than 40 ship’s mates, all big followers of their preacher Du Cloux of Vierhuizen, would appear armed with crankshafts, to help their reverend, whose turn it was, to the pulpit. One of the main Cock-friendlies (sorry, it’s what it says) said (and I have heard this myself): that opposition made matters worse, and if the constables had started anything, then it wouldn’t have stopped with the eight people (who had been summoned to Appingedam), and what would they have done against it? (…) followed by a much-meaning nodding of the head. He meant that a small force was like a drop of water in a coal fire, only stoking the heat. The sailors from Zoutkamp would not help either; because on Sunday the 26th so many people would come from Friesland, from the other side of the canal, from here to Delfzijl, to help De Cock in the pulpit, that nothing would stop them.
So, what did happen? Saturday afternoon, about 2 o’clock, an infantry company of the 10th division, one hundred men strong, not counting the officers (and Captain Vrij), came marching along the towpath from Mensingeweer to Ulrum, having come with three barges from Groningen city. (…) The soldiers were quartered with the villagers, and the night from Saturday to Sunday remained peaceful. (…)
Mr De Cock had not been forgotten in this respect, having aside from twelve men quartered in, also a guard at his house. Further there were no or few exceptions; all villagers, whichever denomination, were tasked with housing soldiers, of which butchers, bakers and pub landlords had the most profit: however much bakers were the main cause of the circumstances (Beukema, main church elder, was a baker and owner of half a dozen properties in the village). The girls too, being pious yet greedy, rejoiced, that Ulrum was enriched with a garison.
(…) Sunday morning, the 26th October, heard aside from the rumbling of clocks also the beating of drums. More than a thousand strangers (many out of sheer curiosity) came to Ulrum. This was the end of the handwringers’ mutiny: Soldiers who had withstood the siege and bombardment of the citadel of Antwerp in 1831, stood in line and received orders to loosen their ammunition belts. (…) The church was occupied and the reverend A.P.A. Du Cloux climbed without any opposition into the pulpit.
(…) De Cock wanted to go outside in the morning, telling his guard that he wanted to preach. (…) The guard simply kept him in the house and De Cock was not allowed to preach or go out. (…) Then came a crowd of Cock-friendlies to the rectory, and twenty were admitted, and now started a service in the presence of an officer, who quickly put an end to it.
To the south of Ulrum some of the pious gathered to hear a certain Roelf Medema, farmer in Adorp, in a field, while others played church on the sides of a ditch – then this crowd was soon disbanded.
(…) The soldiers muttered about the lady who’d have them sleep on straw, though they’d managed to get themselves beds, pillows, etc.
De Cock was now inaccessible under house arrest; and the guard at the rectory said: “He (De Cock) is not allowed out and nobody can visit him; if he has to go somewhere, an armed man goes with him, as well as with the missus, and even the maid is followed closely. All his papers have been sealed and moved away, so that he doesn’t even have a napkin left.” It goes without saying, that this was said in an exaggerated tone; only those papers were taken by the constable which had to do with his correspondence.
Everything is peaceful and quiet for now. Many poor villagers, who are not looking towards the coming winter without worry, are concerned that in their poverty they will be eaten out of bread and home, and complain about their guests. And also, these are soldiers from Holland (the west; Ulrum is in the far north), and they are not used to such guests. The soldiers guarding the rectory were also jealous that Mrs De Cock outdid them in swearing and cursing.
One of my early New Year’s memories is visiting my grandfather and seeing, on the roof of a municipal building, a complete farmer’s wagon. In an 1985 newspaper article someone remembers about such an occurrence, decades earlier: My father, who came from the Hogeland (northern Groningen) told us in all colours about it. They would take a wagon completely apart, take the axels out, take the sideboards off, and then it was put together again on top of a farmer’s barn. My father also told that they sometimes loaded the wagon full of manure. (…) Once we were dragging an enormous barrel of fish offal. It stank awfully. We just had it standing on a bridge when the police came for control. The barrel was left standing there, of course, and we were covered with gunk. (…) Sometimes farmers would chase us. They were already waiting for us, and then they had their fun. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
New Year’s pranks like this happened in our village too. Ulrum is a small village, yet it had four churches. That it was the seat of the 1834 Seccession may have to do something with that. Members of some of these churches were not really on speaking terms; “we are not Brothers,” as the Freed Christian Reformed Article 31 members had it. Yet, one Old Year’s Day, after their Old Year service, they had to interact with each other when all bicycles of churchgoers were swapped between churches. My brother adds: “I did it a lot in my youth, starting already during the evening, continuing through out the night. Our main goal was to block church doors and entrance roads to the village. But we also did other pranks such as placing mannequin dolls on top of roofs, changing the name signs of villages in the neighbourhood etc.” From the 1985 Nieuwsblad van het Noorden article: “The young people were getting giddy in anticipation of the dragging. We were thinking of stunts everyone would be talking of the next day.” He still has good memories of the time when he and his friends during the Old Year service swapped all the coats from churchgoers of the two churches. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
The Old Year church service fell victim to pranks a few more times: once when one youth brought in a box of eggs and, from a perch near the back, released the eggs, one at the time. The church floor sloped towards the choir, so each egg would quickly gain speed, rattle underneath the benches and, if it didn’t come to a stop at someone’s feet, come to a yolky end at the front. Another time, someone removed the spark plugs from the electric church organ, bringing a hymn from a full ‘all registers’ to a premature and whimpering anti-climax.
For many years, an old car, a clunker, would be secured ahead of New Year’s Eve, and then after midnight rolled to the village square by local youths and set alight. The fire brigade would be prepared, but wait a while before extinguishing it, meanwhile standing around the fire themselves with a pot of beer. The local Spar owner, poor Mr. Scheper, would also be prepared and have his insurance papers ready, as many years his shop windows would burst through the heat.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may be reminded of that novel’s own clunker (here spelled ‘klunker’), a decrepit car which stands on a frozen lake in Laketown, Wisconsin. The place is protected by Hinzelman, a kobold who does so in exchange for the midwinter sacrifice of a child. Every year, residents hold a raffle in which they predict the date when the klunker will finally crash through the ice, signalling the end of winter. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I would guess that dragging the klunker onto the ice is also a communal, almost ritual, effort. What all these traditions in common have is some kind of shared effort, or a spectacle involving the public destruction of a focal object, to mark the turning of a season.
Sanne Meijer, a blogger from Groningen, writes: In some villages the youth goes out on New Year’s night to “drag”: moving objects which have been left lying around outside the house. In the past, farmers’ carts were placed on roofs; now it’s usually smaller objects being moved. Sometimes to a central location, but it can also happen that people really have to search the next day, to get their flowerpots and garden furniture back. “Dragging” is often part of an “Old Year’s Stunt” which was used to put a village or club in the spotlight. In the last weeks of the year a particular object of note disappears from the village, which then is placed back at the turn of the year. On the 31st of December 2013 the signs for “Most fun village of the province Groningen” were removed from Niekerk, and then appeared the next day in the village of Kornhorn. One of the best known stunts was the appearance of Lenin in the Frisian village Oosterwolde. On New Year’s day 1998 a giant statue of Lenin had appeared in the village. It turned out to have come from Tjuchem in Groningen; the owner had imported it from the erstwhile USSR.
To prevent their stuff being dragged, people used to make sure that they’d put everything that could be moved in the shed. I remember that my dad would make sure that our red-and-white painted trash can (easy to recognise when there are twenty bins at the roadside for collection) was safely locked up. Still, looking on the Internet you see reports of place-name signs being swapped, ‘for sale’ signs being moved, orchestrating a garden gnome football match, and what else the youth can invent. There’s a fine line between “slepen” (dragging) and “slopen” (wrecking); swapping people’s garden furniture to have neighbours puzzled or mildly inconvenienced is one thing; dragging their stuff away to set alight is another. You can see both, and the sheer scale of dragging, in this 1978 footage taken in the northern villages of Ulrum, Leens, Wehe, Eenrum and Zoutkamp. In front of Ulrum’s town hall stands a manure wagon, a shopholder is rebuked for having rip-off prices per grafitti, a lot of farm equipment blocking the roads… Do watch it!
As with many unwritten rules, this is not always clear, and slepen can easily turn into slopen. A Nieuwsblad van het Noorden commentator already rings alarm bells (or death knell) of the dragging custom: Another tradition is moribund; the tradition of (in the countryside) the dragging of goods from one place to another. At first glance nothing to lose sleep over, except maybe for those who experience the loss of any tradition as painful and the curse of the modern age. But there’s more. The traditional dragging has been replaced by violence and vandalism. According to the Groninger police force New Year came with chaos, fires and vandalism. It was the same in the other northern provinces. A sad development. Dragging wasn’t always fun for the victims, but it was never more than teasing neighbours or fellow villagers. Whomever had lost something in New Year’s Night, usually knew where to search the next day. Now the dragging has turned into vandalism, searching is no use, as the belongings will have been destroyed. This is bad business. When people are out to cause damage and misery, then it’s about time for the powers that be to sit around the table to talk about these developments. Whether it’ll help can be doubted, but the chance that these conversations leak through to the perpetrators and calms them down can not be left unused. (Nv/hN, 02 Jan 1978)
Then again, already in 1962 there were those who’d rather see it go altogether: START WELL: NO DRAGGING A custom can be old and good, and should be kept, but a custom is not good because it’s old. It’s a custom for some to drag the goods from others in New Year’s Night, because they find it funny, or because it happens each year, or because their parents used to do it, or to tease, or another reason. However, this custom may be old, it is not good, and should be banned. Let’s start the new year well. A good start is half the job done. Sincerely, G.W.M. ZIJLSTRA, Grootegast. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1962)
There are more subtle societal sides to dragging which are easily overlooked: “People would leave stuff outside on purpose. When you thought that you’d secretly dragged something away, they were thinking from behind the curtain: Finally rid of that old wheel-barrel.” However, it could also be corrective: Sloppy farmers had to search and haul back a lot, while the youth was watching and sniggering. People who had placed themselves too much outside of society would find their door barricaded with dragged stuff: “We were dragging those empty oildrums to a peculiar shopkeepers couple. As children we were afraid to pass them; you were not even allowed to stand in front of the shop window, because he’d come outside with a stick and if he got the chance he’d beat you. Someone like that would be put to rights.”
New Year’s pranks are a tradition of the northern Dutch provinces, and the domain of teenagers, the older youth. New Year’s mischief is an example of the upsetting of the normal order, and the short reign of the Lord of Misrule. Think of the passages in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame set during the Feast of Fools (set in the book on 6 January), in which Quasimodo is made the False Pope; while the historical Feast of Fools was an ecclesiastical ritual in which upper and lower clergy would trade places, Hugo’s story widens it up to larger and wilder social context, more akin to the (unrelated) Roman Saturnalia. Rituals of inversion have obvious appeal in situations where there is a rigid hierarchy – such as a military chain of command. The British Army have a tradition, begun in 1890, of officers serving their soldiers in bed on Christmas Day. The drink? ‘Gunfire’, which is black tea laced with rum. Even deployed troops have their small taste of Christmas misrule, as often their Christmas dinner is served by officers. In Groningen too it was tradition that farmers would treat their staff on a good meal at Midwinter; something to come back to another day.
Saturnalia was celebrated on the 17th December, later extended until the 25th. It included gift-giving, gambling and, indeed, role reversal: in particular slaves were given licence to disrespect their masters, and they were treated to a luscious banquet. It was a time for free speech, called “December liberty” by the poet Horace. This levelling of social hierarchy was temporary and had its limits; social norms were not threatened, as the holiday would end. In our contemporary society, it would be the youngsters, living under the thumb of their parents and teachers, and in general having low societal influence, how are allowed for one night to be out all night and engage in mischief, as long as after New Year they’re back to good behaviour.
But how then to match a Roman and a Catholic tradition to something what seems to be more pagan, playing out over the Eastern provinces which fall in the Nether-Saxon language area? Lazily, I wander to the wiki article about the Germanic Yule feast. A description of the pagan Yule has sacrifices left, right and centre, and drinking and toasting. Drinking and toasting isn’t unknown to New Year’s revellers, of course, but the sacrifices are harder to place in the current context (there are other Midwinter traditions that fit, like gift giving and even the carrot for St Nicolas’ horse). With a bit of imagination we can see dragging a clunker through the village for the bonfire as a faint echo of the dragging of the yule log, the communal effort to bring the object to be burnt, the thing that sparks the new year.
The 7th C saint Eligius, who worked for 20 years to convert the pagan population of Flanders to Christianity was said to have been firm about what his listeners had to renounce: the godless and nonsensical merriment on the 1st of January, making sculptures of people and harts, holding big meals, sending round of New Year’s gifts and well-wishing toasts. A century later, Boniface still wrote in anger to the pope about the heathen noise at New Year. There are strange customs we’ve lost: our Germanic forefathers may sit on the roof with a sword with magic runes, and from which way the wind blew they’d know what the new year would bring. Others may sit on a bull’s skin on a crossroads, where they’d fall asleep. Fairies who were trekking round on New Year’s night, as it was their migration night, would predict the future in passing. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
These bands of fairies are not unlike the Wild Hunt, and with the Wild Hunt, with supernatural activity and undead beings walking the Earth, we’re getting closer to roaming youth causing mayhem. Are these youngsters a reenactment of the Wild Hunt? I am also reminded that all of this happens at the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new; a sort of organised chaos is allowed to happen in this liminal period in which people ask each other, “What day is it again?” It’s almost as if it’s a mini-Ragnarok, a “mini-end-times’, a reenactment of when Loki, the Nordic and Germanic trickster and Lord of Mischief, turns against his fellow gods, and battles at the side of the giants, in a cataclysmic war, after which the world will resurface ‘anew and fertile’. Are our youth allowed, for one night only, to be Loki turning against their fellow people?
This is about the New Year Singers, from the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden newspaper, 31 December 1928.
The once so loudly sounding “Neijoarszing’n”, New Year Singing – roughly between Saint Nicolas’ Day and the start of February – is only very sporadically found nowadays. Those “Neijoarzingers” often were very eccentric village types and had typical names. On ‘t Hoogeland, the most northern area of the Netherlands, we have known “BLINDE PAIT”, Blind Pete. “TIDDE TENUE”, “HEN BRINKTJE”, “JAAN KOATJES” en “PAIT NAIN” also were well-known “Neijoarzingers”. The song they sung however was a Christmas song that was very seldom sung in dialect.
Our photo shows FRISTER KLOK in 1918. He was then 75 years old and for three decades he has regularly sung the “Neijoarslaid” in the Ommelanden area. As a boy of eight years old he already went out with his older sister. Klok, who lived in Schildwolde, has died not long ago.
Marten Douwes Teenstra, in his DeKinderwereld (1853) writes (somewhat condensed; the man does gripe on a bit):
On the first of January the year starts for the whole of Christianity, but already before New Year’s Day, around Christmas, poor people and their children start deliver their new years letters to the well-off, or go round the houses with their well-wishing New Year songs; one can not say however that they are nicely worded or “pleasant of voice” – it is more a pesky begging. (…)
In the Ommelanden region, as well as other areas of the country, the begging for a New Year’s gift, which goes with music and singing, is still in use. The musical instrument usually is the rommelpot, named after its sound, which has replaced the earlier used gons and bagpipes. Poor boys then usually start a high and shouting song, as if to frighten children.
On the Hoogeland in Groningen you’ll also find old women who go along the houses around Midwinter (Christmas) and New Year, with the rommelpot to sing new year songs, like:
“Doar schenen drei steerens ien ‘t oosten zoo kloar,
Dei schenen drei doagen, drei nachten veur woar,
Al ien dat godzoalige Neije joar” (etc)
“Three stars shone in the East so clear,
They shone for sure for three days and three nights
In the holy new year” (etc)
Or another ditty: “An heurt eerwoarde hoesman schoon
Wat ik joe sal verhoalen,
Hoe God zien ein’ geboren Zoon
Veur ons leid neder doalen.
Te Bethlehem al ien ain stal, Doar lait het kind ien douken,
En dat veur ons menschen al, Doar zellen wie ‘t goan zouken.” (enz)
“Hear on dear revered house owner
What I will tell you,
How God let his own born Son
come down for us.
To Bethlehem in a stable,
There it lies in linen,
And that for all people,
That’s where we’ll find it.” (etc)
We will not permit ourselves to write out these songs completely. (So concludes Teenstra.)
In the mid-19th century, folklorist Marten Douwes Teenstra versed:
Borries too, the dreaded hound, With glowing eyes here roams round And lets his tail hang just a little He comes from Weem or is just going You see the Plague dog always alone It keeps to itself and to its own.
Like other ghostly apparitions, the northern Dutch hell-hound Borries is found in the vicinity of wierden, the man-made hills on which many farms and villages in the area are built. One wierde, now a national monument, is called Ol Weem, close to the villages of Houwerzijl and Niekerk. Ol Weem is Gronings for The Old Rectory, which was the last building to disappear from the village of Vliedorp. Nowadays, nothing more than a score of grave stones remains of the village.
The wierde was built in the early centuries CE. The first building we know of is a stone church, built around 1200, but it’s assumed that the wierde had a pagan chapel in its first centuries, before the area was christianised around 800 by the missionary Liudger. The village of Vliedorp is first mentioned in 1418 as ‘to Fleghum’, from the old-Frisian for ‘refuge place’, the place where people could flee at times of high water. Vliedorp never was much of a village, and by the mid-17th century most of the people lived in the adjoining harbour place Houwerzijl. The church remained in use, until the church was in such a state of disrepair, in the late 1600s, that it was abandoned (source: Zijlma)
A tax list from 1702 notes 22 families living in the parish of Vliedorp, and it can be assumed that there were 22 houses, mainly in Houwerzijl. While the wierde had been built as a refuge place against floods, the Christmas Flood of 1717 was so bad that it even washed over the mound. The already dilapidated church turned into a ruin, and 17 houses in the parish were lost, along with 40 lives. While the houses were rebuilt, the last remnants of the church were finally torn down in 1830. On the mound only the old rectory-farm remained, which was used as labourer’s dwelling for a while, until it too was demolished in 1850.
From that time comes Teenstra’s poem; he’ll have seen the old rectory, after which the mound was then called; Ol from ‘old’, Weem from the Old-Frisian ‘wetheme’, church possession. Rectory isn’t actually quite the right word; these were troubling times, so the rectory was more like a fortified stonehouse, and it came with a barn and stables (source: Pieterman) Only the churchyard now was in use, the last grave dating from 1894. it was a cumbersome last voyage too, especially in autum and winter; when the clay paths were too difficult to traverse, the coffin would travel by boat from Houwerzijl, then carried by 6 bearers along the waterside, and over the small wooden bridge, then up the mound, before finding its resting place .
Part of Ol Weem was dug away in the late 19th and early 20th century for its fertile soil. “Now the graveyard is so much abandoned that nettles and thistles cover the graves, while several times stones have been vandalised,” Rev. Noordhuis- van ‘t Land wrote in 1970(note) . This would be around the time my parents lived in Houwerzijl, while on the other side of Ol Weem, at a farm on the road that lead to Ulrum, my grandfather lived. My parents would send my brothers as toddlers to grandpa; they could watch them from the edge of the village, and my he could see them coming from the other side.
That path was renewed towards the end of the 20th century, when Ol Weem too was cleaned up. It’s a really nice path too, and only slightly marred by the concrete farm road that sprung up parallel to it. Ramblers and cyclists can start off the little village of Houwerzijl after a cup of tea at the Tea Museum, or start at the village of Niekerk after a look at the little whitewashed church, and a peek at the graves at its back. It’s easy to miss the little brick path that leads from Niekerk to Ol Weem, hidden as its entrance is between two houses. Zwarteweg is its name, Black Road, and it must be the path over which Borries roamed.
Sources: – Enkele bizonderheden over het kerspel Vliedorp (I.H.Zijlma, Hogelandster, 1964) – Enkele bijzonderheden uit de geschiedenis van het Kerspel Vliedorp (ds. F.A.W.Noordhuis-van ’t Land, Hogelanster 17-12-1970) – Wemen en hun bewoners (Lecture by ds. Klaas G. Pieterman, 20 oktober 2015)
“Halt Here Berghuis.” a slightly bizarre advertising, or warning, sign was the only thing left standing on the morning of Thursday 18th February 1943. The rest of my grandparents’ home was gone. It had been a nice house, of a type common to the area: a front for the living space, and the back a small barn or, in my grandfather’s case, a shop for household goods. The front faced the Wolddiep canal, and the knotted willows on the other side of it, and you could also see the simple but graceful wooden bridge.
On Wednesday the 17th February, about 6:30 in the evening, an English bomber let loose its bombs above the small village of Sebaldeburen, in the north of the Netherlands. How this happened has never become clear; probably it was being chased by a German hunter. It was a miracle that the whole family survived. As my uncle Lukas, the oldest son of the family told: “After the bang everything was completely flattened, except for a small part. A new inside wall had just been built, and part of the attic was resting on it. How we landed in that corner, I don’t know. After the hit we all were in that corner, but not before the impact.” My grandfather then forced himself through another newly built wall, wrecking his back for life, and the family got to safety.
Little can be found in the archives about what really happened, as documentation is scarce. One local historical researcher found no more than a receipt for repairing the bridge: a list of the various works, with below the line the sum of 6827,- guilders. RAF report are also infuriatingly vague. Six Wellingtons went armed with bombs to Emden, but then: “Lost: none”. That’s all. Jan Bos was a boy at the time and lived in the pub across the road. He remembers the bombardment well, according to a 2013 newspaper article: “Everything moved, it was like an earthquake. You heard a horrible shriek, really frightful. We knew something came down, but not what it was.” Jan van Duinen was just working outside: “A shriek, and then bangs. No, not one, but four or five.” He didn’t seek cover as, “It had happened already.”
Locals rushed to the Berghuis family home to help, according to a recent newspaper article, and were amazed to see the family appearing from the house unscathed. Looking at some of the photos, and hearing the family stories, a slightly different picture emerges. It is of people engaging in disaster tourism searching through the rubble for anything still useable – the Berghuis family after all had a shop. It is a story of the Berghuis family being left completely destitute, and forced to bunk in with relatives for years, until they found their footing again. My mother was born in the autumn of 1945, more than two years later, on the farm of an aunt. There were no birth announcement cards – just plain postcards, brought round by an aunt to the few friends and relatives.
The joke went round that my grandfather had asked for the bombardment himself, with his big sign, “Halt Here Berghuis.” and of course the pilots had read this. My grandfather wasn’t well liked; this is what they won’t tell you in the newspaper articles. This is what we don’t talk about in the family. In the later 1930s he joined a political party which had promised to stick up for the little people like him. A party which promised, let’s use some modern parlance, to drain the swamp. My grandmother wasn’t too pleased and said: “Don’t get involved with that bunch of crooks!” but Hemke didn’t always do the sensible thing. Of course, when the Germans rolled into the country, he could not back out of the party. As a ‘friendly’ shop, the soldiers came to the Berghuis shop, and my grandmother made the best of it. She invited them for a cup of coffee, asked them what they were up to. Going round the houses looking for draft dodgers? Well good luck. Then she’d send my aunt round to warn the people to make sure nobody was hidden in their houses.
That was all forgotten on the morning of 18th February. Was the bomb maybe divine intervention? At least, he’d deserved it, no? After the war, my grandfather was rounded up with all other ‘traitors’, great and small, and locked up in the primary school of Grootegast, where schoolboys made it a sport to look at who they’d caught. He didn’t stay long there, as the mayor wrote a letter of recommendation, stating that Hemke Berghuis had been harmless. Still – when my mother was a teenager, and went to a dance somewhere in the neighbourhood, and she was dancing with some guy, it would only be a matter of time before he’d be tapped on his shoulder and she’d overhear those dreaded words: “That’s one of Hemke Berghuis’s, the collaborator.”
A new bridge was laid over the Wolddiep, and the pub from which Jan Bos heard the bombs falling as a child is still a pub. Nothing remains of Berghuis’ house and shop. It’s pasture now. It’s as if nothing has ever happened in Sebaldeburen. Some wounds, however, run deeper than in flesh alone. One thing is as true now as it is then: don’t vote for fascists, no matter what they promise you!
The farmer’s life isn’t an easy one; Ymke’s father, in The Red Man, would agree with that.
As a farmer, Marten Douwes Teenstra drew the shortest straw. In 1819 he started farming on ‘Arion’, the farm his successful father bought for him. However, profit margins had collapsed due to cheap imports from the Americas, and he didn’t manage to make the farm a going concern. After five years of hard work, he threw in the towel. He became a civil servant, travelled to the colonies and wrote important travelogues and works on folklore.
In the early 2010s Teenstra’s home village of Ulrum saw some development; a new road was laid around the village for heavy traffic. The plan was that businsesses would be built alongside it. Someone suggested naming it “Teenstra Road,” but this was quickly shut down. Surely a road couldn’t be named after a failed farmer! As of 2020, only fields of potatoes and some lazing horses line the Industry Road.
Teenstra could be long-winded; make a punchy point, and then spend paragraphs, pages, diluting its impact because he couldn’t rein himself in. This was a particular problem in his own magazine, without the restraining hand of an editor. As shown by this short piece from a Frisian almanac from 1845, Teenstra at his best writes from the heart, with a shovelful of social conscience and a whiff of pity.
THE FARMER, AT THE GRAVE OF HIS HORSE
Here lies my loyal nag, who stiff and old of days Till the end of its life, shackled in its harness, pulled the plough through fields – ’till finally this beast, hollowed out by hunger, gave up the ghost under the knacker’s knife.
And so this is my fate! What benefits me all my toil? When another harvests the fruits for which I’ve had to plough, When they milk, pick, shear, yes, skin my life away; I am Worse off even than my horse, as it already lies dead by its grave.