“Female rights are human rights!” the beautiful blonde Dutch girl with the loud-hailer shouted in English, before returning to her native tongue, in Dam Square – Amsterdam’s tourist central, complete with a vast Madame Tussauds and more KFCs than you can shake a bucket at. I agreed totally, but still carried on with my journey to the Sex Museum just along the Damrak – the road which borders the Red Light sex district and the Grey Area drug den.
Trying to have a virtuous trip to Amsterdam is like going to Manchester and expecting not to get wet. I’ve been there twice before over the past decade and I don’t remember very much about what happened AT ALL. Like some wag said of the 1960s, if you can remember it, you probably weren’t there.
“The Dutch are rude, but it’s not personal,” a charming Dutchman told me, but I’ve always found them to be the most polite and charming of people. They’re rude in a sex way, though, without doubt. You expect the Sex Museum to be sex mad – but you don’t expect NEMO, the children’s science museum, to be similarly obsessed. This was the first city in the world to build a restaurant around the gimmick that you eat on beds rather than at tables – the infamous Supperclub. There is a famous mixed sex sauna, the Sauna Deco, where the genders hang out with nothing on, against an original Deco backdrop transplanted from Bon Marché department store in Paris. Even the KattenKabinet, the enchanting museum of feline-related art on the stately Herengracht, revealed among numerous pleasant drawings of cats going about their day-to-day business of sleeping, eating and hiding in boxes a monstrous line drawing of a human-adult-size cat having sex with an apparently ecstatic woman. One can only presume – or hope, rather – that the artist had partaken liberally of the wares of the city’s coffee shops.
A few minutes from the Sex Museum you can eat Kobe hamburgers and smoked salmon on corn bread under a smiling portrait of Queen Beatrix, with eye-wateringly explicit images still crowding around your brain, leering and jeering. Sensitive souls, which I am not numbered among, might take serious exception to the portrayal of exhibitionism as something inherently comical – a life-size model of a man in a dirty raincoat hisses “Oi!” and before you know it, you’re nose to nose with the whole kit and caboodle, as it were. Elsewhere, a sniggering sailor ejaculates over a window at the press of a button, and giggling groups of girls pose with 7ft phalluses.
Across the dock from my houseboat, I could see what appeared to be a huge turquoise ocean liner. It was in fact the NEMO, a massive six-storey science museum where the motto is, in English, It Is Forbidden NOT To Touch. My husband and I had our tiny minds blown time after time as we ascended through the levels of this amazing place, which makes the London Science Museum look about as exciting as a cracked test tube and broken Bunsen burner left in a leaky old shed for the delectation of the public. But this being Amsterdam, there’s a LOT about sex. The Teen Facts section reminded me of those weird parents who always boast about “wandering around naked in front of the kids”, blithely ignoring the fact that such behaviour is a) half-witted in such a cold climate and b) mortifying to the kids themselves. In both the Sex Museum and on the Teen Facts floor, the funniest thing was the actual teenage children sitting as far as they could from the grisly exhibits, eyes fixed on the ground, while their parents strolled around taking a self-consciously frank and unashamed interest in the miracles of the human body. You could practically see the OMG! thought bubbles coming out of their lowered heads. There was even a special locked Sex Ed room that you had to get a special key for from the front desk! I dread to think what was in it, but I’m pretty sure it was too fast for my blood.
What was out in the open was pretty shocking. In a section called Phenomena, I gasped at the sight of pickled foetuses in jars, the eldest near six months old, and of Siamese twins and animals in utero. I was especially taken with a “Newly Born Lion Cub”, perfectly formed, with beautiful fur, squashed into a jar, and felt anxious as to how the museum had come by him. “He probably died of natural causes,” my husband tried to reassure me, seeing my sadness. “Yeah, old age. That’s why the label says Newly Born Lion Cub!” I snivelled.
Amsterdam really is the most gorgeous place simply to walk around, though, and I say this as an indolent type who chose to visit in freezing weather. Your aching feet and the low temperature are made more bearable by the prevalence of the coffee shops, where cannabis can be bought by the bag or ready-rolled. It’s the sheer normality of these places that is surprising at first, growing up – as one does – with this country’s “Reefer Madness” attitude to dope, which still finds some newspapers implying that legalisation would immediately see us all throw in our jobs and leave our loved ones and choose to spend endless days in a fuggy haze. (What a giveaway this theory is to how boring the holders of it find their jobs and loved ones, believing – as they apparently do – that a few jazz fags would wipe away all attachment to them!) The main danger I could detect in the dozen or so dens of hemp vice I visited was that the endless cretinous reggae played in them might easily drive one stark staring mad by the end of a long weekend. What’s wrong with a little Ella Fitzgerald?
(A “friend” says: “Never buy packs of dried psilocybin mushrooms on the Warmoesstraat, the chewing of which the first time ushered in an Elysian paradise, the second the screaming ab-dabs. And don’t buy ’coke’ from the dealers on the Damrak. It’s mainly speed and Vim, as the asking price indicates.” So there!)
I’ve noticed that in classy travel pieces the writers don’t just ‘fess up and admit that they just got stuck in and blotto on the local firewater, but rather seek to learn a lesson from their travels. (This type are always travellers, never tourists.) So, what can the Dutch teach us? They do seem very relaxed about things. Their queen just abdicated, simply because she’d had enough – no mystic bond with the Almighty for her. The user’s manual on our boat put it nicely: “Personal freedom is tightly connected to a great sense of personal responsibility. There are plenty of places (coffee shops) where you can get reliable information and even have your drugs tested. Drug misuse and drug-related misbehaviour like damaging property or disturbing neighbours will not be tolerated.”
One in three men in the Netherlands works part time or a four-day week, but their economy doesn’t appear to be going to wrack and ruin. Sex education is eye-wateringly graphic, but they have a far lower teenage pregnancy rate than we do. In fact, the one area where the Dutch appear to have got it wrong is in the red-light district, which is truly vile – a malign petting zoo where, for a price, you can sodomise the pets. In 2000, the Dutch government legalised brothels; it has proved a field day for pimps and traffickers and a nightmare for prostituted women. In the past couple of years, the government has acknowledged this cruel mistake by closing down a third of the city’s brothels because of trafficking and the involvement of organised crime. As Julie Bindel wrote recently in an excellent piece in The Spectator, “as the Dutch government reforms itself from pimp to protector, it will have time to reflect on the damage done to the women caught in this calamitous social experiment.” The girl with the loud-hailer in Dam Square could have said as much, if I could speak her language.
Julie Burchill’s book “Ambition” is being republished by Corvus Books on May 2