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Memoir Review: Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates

November 20, 2017

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I started reading Why the Dutch are Different a while ago and have just finished it now. At first I wasn’t sure whether it was memoir, history, social comment or what it was, but actually it’s a mixture of all three.

Ben Coates is a young Englishman who was formerly in the hectic political world of the UK. As a speech writer and lobbyist, I am sure he must have been used to viewing the world through a critical lens. This book is a reflection of his ability to stand back and look at the Netherlands without any rose-tinted glasses on, something I think I would find hard to do myself as I tend to want to focus on the positive aspects of life wherever I have lived it, and of course I’ve lived in the Netherlands for nearly seventeen years.

First and foremost, let me say Ben Coates is an exceptionally good writer. His flexible use of English in his keen perceptions on the Dutch, their history and their customs is perfect and I often stopped reading simply to admire a sentence or phrase that seemed particularly apt or succinct. There were, however, quite large sections of the book I felt tempted to skim over. For those who don’t know much European, and specifically Dutch, history, this book gives a kind of potted summary of many of the important periods in the country’s past and it will probably be useful as well as interesting; for myself, I could have done without quite so much straying into the activities of the VOC (the East India Company), King William’s exploits into England and the history of the Spanish and French domination of the Netherland; nor did it seem to have much to do with why the Dutch are different now, other than setting the historical background for the country’s great reputation as a trading nation that supported the arts in its Golden Age. On the plus side, I learnt a lot of fascinating little gems, such as why the city of Breda got its name (the breede Ee, meaning the wide river Ee) and other such titbits. I found myself frequently asking my Dutch partner ‘Did you know this?’ and often he didn’t, so for all those interesting snippets, I was very grateful.

Strangely enough, I enjoyed the section on the Dutch obsession with football. I’m not a football fan at all, but the fanatical devotion the Dutch have to soccer is a curious phenomenon in this country and I found the accounts he gave of the teams, the key players and managers and both the national adoration and criticism that the Dutch have for their footballers really entertaining.

However, most of all, I enjoyed the later chapters where he writes about how the intrinsic Dutch culture of ‘anything goes’ has been tested in recent years by what opening borders and increased immigration have meant to the Netherlands. He writes lucidly and honestly about how this has affected the traditionally relaxed attitude the Dutch have had to drug use, prostitution, homosexuality, euthanasia and immigration.

All this quite intense discussion is set against the background of Ben Coates’ own experience as he travelled around the Netherlands during his early years in the country and while he makes few personal judgements until quite close to the end of the book, he tells things like they are. I must say I quite often wondered if he even liked it at all; that was until I reached the final chapter, when I realised that he, like me, appreciates how much our easy, breezy self-confident and optimistic Dutch hosts have to offer. He also shows how fond we can become of these smiling, but direct people who fully espouse their ‘philosophy of a flat country’.

As I said at the beginning, this book is part memoir, part history lesson and part editorial. Overall, it is a really good read and I learnt a lot from it. I am now looking forward to reading his new book about the Rhine, which is apparently due out soon.

The link to the book is here

The Kindle book is priced at €2.99 in the Netherlands store and the paperback around €12.00

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2 Comments
  1. Having lived there for 17 years, you are exactly the right person to review this book. You did a great job of hitting the high points and low points. It’s interesting that the book was so precariously balanced that it took until the last chapter to find out how he really feels about the Dutch.

    • Steph, yes! I think it’s because of his political journalist background, however. He probably wanted to be totally objective although sometimes he seemed a bit more negative than neutral to me 🙂 Thank you!

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