“They like saying we’re too young for something, thinks Valeer. We don’t have the experience. Maybe it’s them that are too old with their point of view permanently fixed to an old experience. Experiences are like an anchor. You feel as if you have anchored the ship of your life safely to them and forget that it also means that you are stuck there.” 1
Jan Terlouw is a well-respected and popular Dutch author of historical fiction for teenagers/young adults, in recent years co-authoring with his daughter, Sanne Terlouw. His most well-known books are Oorlogswinter (1972) (Winter in Wartime) and Koning van Katoren (1971) (How to Become King), both of which have been filmed. Somehow I had missed the fact that he had also been a distinguished politician, a professor of Urbanisation and literature, all after working for several years as a researcher in nuclear physics. Quite the Renaissance man.
Oosterschelde windkracht 10 [Oosterschelde Wind Force 10] is a brilliant way of explaining a slice of Dutch history to youngsters who weren’t born when it was set, or foreigners like me who don’t know the full history of the whys and wherefores of the Dutch sea defences, the Delta Works. Like another of the books I read during the 1976 Club, Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifa, this makes great use of dialogue to present differing viewpoints in a natural way by allowing the fictionalised characters to debate the issues. Terlouw also introduced some interesting subplots to liven up proceedings so it didn’t degenerate into a simple summing up of political points.
Given this is the sort of history every Dutch citizen should know about, it’s a shame that Terlouw didn’t make clear how much of this was factual and how much was poetic licence. Many of the incidents he described during the protests really did happen, including the collision between the small boat and the police launch. In fact, as a leader in the D66 at the time, Terlouw was personally involved in the debate and the protests and was probably present during the flotilla of small boats. However, the storyline about the bomb in the Ministry archive and the petty official who was tricked into giving a television interview which was used against him? As far as I can tell, all of that was completely fictional, as were the more fanciful incidents involving a policeman who tried to arrest people for swimming naked. Terlouw’s afterword notes only that he didn’t base his characters on particular people, though I suspect certain names weren’t changed that much. There is an update at the end of the book to explain what happened later due to further insights about the role of the estuary. The design of the dam was also radically changed to a technological marvel that has been claimed as the 8th modern wonder of the world, a surge barrier rather than a dam. The book was originally published in 1976, before the Delta Works were complete.
This would be a wonderful book to discuss in class as it has all sorts of subplots and raises a variety of issues, amongst others about the environment, trusting the media, the damage gossip and rumour can cause, loyalty to family and colleagues.
Warning: This is more of an in-depth discussion than a brief review, as much to trigger my memory of the book later as it is to encourage anyone else to read the book. If you want to read the book yourself, you might want to do that first.
Book review and detailed discussion
The Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt) is a major sea inlet on the Dutch coast in the southerly province of Zeeland in an area where several large islands were separated by various inlets. After massive flooding from the sea in 1953, with devastating loss of life, it was decided to build vast sea walls to cut off several of the inlets from the sea, creating giant brackish freshwater lakes. In 1976, several of these dams had been built, connecting the islands together. However, there were growing protests about the environmental impact as the new lakes changed in character, reducing biodiversity and fundamentally changing the conditions for flora and fauna. Younger environmentalists and local sea fishermen and mussel growers banded together to protest and tried to turn back the plans.
However, the book begins by introducing us to the family who will feature throughout. In 1953, Anne is a young woman who escapes to her sailing boat after one of her arguments with her pious father. She is obviously headstrong and impulsive and fed up with the restrictions on the religious-minded island. Her father, Strijen, “believed in authority. Anne believed in individual freedom. These two viewpoints rarely agree if the representatives of those viewpoints belong to different generations.” 2 (My translation from Dutch)
I had expected to be launched almost immediately into the story of the 1953 disaster, but I was surprised by an adventure story instead. Out of the increasingly stormy sea Anne fishes a locked wooden case, capsizing her boat in the process. To right it, she pulls it into the remote shore, hangs her wet clothes on the rigging and swims naked to keep warm and pass the time while she waits for them to dry. Unfortunately for her, an overzealous young policeman happens to be passing along the dike on his bicycle and decides he should make up a report. This is really an excuse to find out her address as he’s attracted to the daring girl who answers back instead of being embarrassed or contrite. Later this meeting will come back to haunt her.
Anne can’t wait to find out what is in the box she has found. Henk, her staid fiancé, helps her to open it and the method he uses is described in detail. Bizarrely, I had just read this when I saw precisely the same method used on television in The Repair Shop: “With great patience he tried out the keys, felt inside with a wire, filed away tiny edges from the key that seemed the most promising.” 3 (My translation from the Dutch). Inside the case they find papers that belong to someone who is obsessed with the sea and the dikes, a certain Brooshoofd, including details of previous floods caused by storm surges: the Saint Elizabeth’s Flood of 1421 in which 10,000 people drowned, the All Saints’ Flood of 1570 and several other less famous floods, including serious flooding on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in 1682. Brooshoofd has calculated that, in the right circumstances, with a major storm surge from the north-northwest coinciding with a spring tide, that the dikes protecting the islands in South Holland and Zeeland would be inadequate.
Anne and Henk are fascinated, she because she is a sailor and Henk because he is training to be a civil engineer who will probably spend his working life working on just this sort of problem. They decide to return the wooden case in person; perhaps they will be able to talk to the man and find out more. However, when they track down his house, he has obviously not been home for quite some time. It seems he has disappeared without a trace. Later, this turns into a murder investigation and the young policeman remembers the incident with Anne on the shoreline and puts two and two together to make five. As he is a very junior policeman in a rural area, the detective from Rotterdam is initially not much interested in his theories. He grumbles, “People from the city always imagine that they’re better than people from the country. Like a pedigree. But in reality, city dwellers are to villagers as cows are to red deer stags.” 4 (My translation)
As this story is set on a relatively small island in a sea inlet, Terlouw reminds us how restrictive that is. “Anne had been home less than hour and she already felt as if she wanted to run away, away from that suffocating atmosphere, away from that island, away from every island, because an island has such clear borders. […] The people on the island never changed. They were quick to label change as ungodly or stupid. It seems as if the closer people live to the sea, the less prone to change they are, more conservative, thought Anne. Does that come from resistance to the changing nature of the sea or is it fear of the water – the deadly sea? Or does the sea never actually change because it always comes, always goes, rising, falling, the eternal heartbeat.” 5 (My translation)
As expected, the next part of the book deals with what happens to the family and people they know during the terrible flooding of 1953. It was due to exactly that combination of circumstances that Brooshoofd had predicted: incredibly high water topped the sea defences, then caused catastrophic breaches in the dikes. Farms and houses were destroyed, people and livestock washed away. In the freezing cold of February, even those who clung to trees and roofs were liable to be unable to hold on until they were rescued, many hours or days later. The fact that anyone survived at all is frankly a miracle. This is all told with the minimum of drama and at a distance: flat facts. The drama comes from the events themselves rather than from any dialogue. The facts speak for themselves. The people seem oddly accepting of the unfolding drama.
Now we switch to the second part of the book, set in the present day of 1976. The family has moved away from the island where they had lived during the disaster. Strijen has retired as a farmer. After graduation, Henk has been working for Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, involved in the flood protection. It is described as a closed sort of organisation with employees who are fiercely loyal to each other. Henk and Anne have two sons, Piet who is also studying to follow in his father’s footsteps and Valeer, who is a practical sort and left school early to work in mussel farming.
After the events of 1953, the Netherlands was willing to do anything to protect the country from the sea and invested heavily in the so-called Delta Works. Huge dams have already been built connecting the northerly islands, cutting off the sea inlets from the sea, turning them into huge brackish freshwater lakes, including the Grevelingen where Anne used to sail. Now the final dam, cutting off the Oosterschelde is about to be built. Both Piet and Valeer are part of a protest group that is planning demonstrations against the new dam. Strijen and Henk were both victims of the 1953 flood and can’t wait for the Delta Works to be finished and for the Oosterschelde to be closed off. Both sons view their father’s employer as the enemy who only wants to destroy nature, by building more and more roads and by completing the Delta Works. Of course, the opposing viewpoints create a great deal of friction around the dinner table. Valeer is impulsive and tends to upset his grandfather by saying things without thinking. Anne often has to try to distract them and pacify their hot tempers. She is not sure how she feels about the proposed dam, so goes out to sail on the Grevelingen she knew and loved when it was a sea inlet. She notices a few differences, but nothing she finds too disturbing, though she does concede that the vegetation has changed and she no longer has to worry about the tides.
The family agrees to listen properly to each other’s arguments. First Henk will have his say, then the boys. This is a really clever way to lay out all the facts, as if it was a simple debate between family members. Henk illustrates his points by taking them on a drive to visit the area where the old farm was. They go to the nearby village, Oude Tonge, where Henk tells them how 302 people died, either immediately swept away when the dike broke and whole houses were washed away or later, when houses collapsed due to the water streaming past. In some cases, families watched as one by one, they slipped into the water as the February cold seeped into their bones and they lost their grip on roofs or trees. For a family that does not usually share their feelings, Henk ups the emotional ante by taking them to visit an old man who survived. He tells them how they had to go out to discover the victims, drowned in their own houses or in the fields, finding the last of them six weeks later when the polder was finally dry and the bodies virtually unrecognisable. He describes the weeks of funerals that followed, with some buried in mass graves and all in coffins supplied by the Red Cross. Henk takes them to see the place where the body of a family member had been found, swept away. After this emotional onslaught, he takes them to see the mighty bulk of the completed Brouwersdam, large enough to protect the land beyond against sea, built to withstand a once in a 4,000-year event. I wonder what the odds are now, given the rising in sea level due to global warming. The norms are reviewed every twelve years, last time in 2017. Delta Programme 2022, page 36. According to Henk, if the Oosterschelde is not completely dammed, the risk that other dikes break will increase rather than reduce.
If this book is anything to go by, then Jan Terlouw is a master of subplots. In the first part of the book, in 1953, the rumour mill gets to work and Anne comes under suspicion of murder. In the second half of the book, there is a subplot linked to the question of the Oosterschelde because a small bomb goes off in the shed containing the archive at the Ministry where Henk works, just after he has left for lunch with the librarian. Fortunately, nobody is hurt. This brings the protest group under suspicion of planting a bomb and they have to postpone the publicity stunt they have been planning. Then one of Henk’s colleagues, Lievenbach, visits Henk at home and makes a rude comment when he hears that Valeer is a member of the protest group. When Valeer speaks to Lievenbach about that day, it suddenly jogs Valeer’s memory and he recalls cycling past and seeing the man leaving the library shortly before the explosion.
Just as we think we are about to hear the other side of the story, when Piet and Valeer have their right of reply, Terlouw inserts another subplot. This time a young maritime pilot on the coastal route is assigned to pilot a ship to Antwerp. However, left on the bridge alone, with the ship on automatic pilot, he nips into the toilet on the bridge and is unable to open the door again. The ship is heading towards a grounding and he desperately needs to escape to avoid disaster. I completely missed the point of this, but I later realised that it was so that somebody could make a comment about nobody being able to break down the door to Toos’s heart… The pilot makes it back in time for the rendezvous with the protest group. They are going to play a clever trick on Lievenbach, pay him back for giving their group a bad name and make him eat his words. After all, they have evidence that could incriminate him.
Now it’s finally time to hear the evidence for keeping the Oosterschelde open. One of the points I hadn’t expected was that if the current dikes were sufficient for a once in hundred-year event, then in the previous 20 years, there was a 20% risk of it happening again. The claims that the dams would protect people from a 4,000-year event were spurious, since the chances of the dams themselves lasting that long were virtually zero. The politicians and engineers are so fixated on building impressive sea defences that they haven’t improved and repaired the existing dikes. What’s more, the risks of loss of life due to sea dikes crumbling has been exaggerated as this this actually happens at low tide, with time to repair them before high tide. Piet points out that if there had been an adequate emergency warning and evacuation plan in 1953, many lives could have been saved; usually only breaches in river dikes cause sudden flooding. Yet somehow there is no talk of closing off the entrance to the economically important Westerschelde because that would restrict access to the busy ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp; if it was absolutely necessary to do so, the engineers would be able to find an alternative solution; why not for the Oosterschelde?
As Henk had previously pointed out, work has already started, construction firms havealready heavily invested in equipment and expertise and the powers that be want to maximise this. It is politically expedient to be able to claim the government is investing in safety, whereas the actual loss of life in 1953 was low in comparison to the numbers of people who die or have life-changing injuries each year from car accidents. Points I had expected were related to the destruction of nature and the mussel beds in the Oosterschelde itself if the inlet is a closed off with a dam. Without the tides, polluted water from the rivers would build up in the manmade lake and fish stocks would be destroyed. Again, Valeer notes that with a lack of protein to feed the growing world population, it was irresponsible to remove a food source; shallow coastal waters, inlets and estuaries are the most productive parts of the sea, often acting as nursery beds and are already under threat from industrialisation and urban expansion.
Now it’s Anne’s turn to decide which side has won the argument. She lets herself off the hook by saying she has to consider her decision, but the following day, when a governmental commission is set up, the Klaasesz Commission, she says she will abide by their decision.
A sneaky trick
We now return to the protest group. Their method of playing a trick on Lievenbach is brilliant, though thoroughly unethical. It will certainly appeal to younger readers and would make for a great class discussion about not believing everything you see in the media and how your own words can be used against you by clever editing. As the book comes to its conclusion, Terlouw also describes small boats (kotters) taking part in a demonstration at sea when journalists, government ministers and the Queen’s Commissioner for Zeeland come to visit the site. He describes a peaceful and cheerful flotilla of boats hung with protest banners. All goes well until there is a minor collision between one of the small boats and the police launch. This is later taken to court and though the protesting boat is found guilty, no punishment is given, a cause for celebration in the home port of Yerseke.
What turns the tide, so to speak, and brings things to a head in terms of decision-making is the fact that there is another storm surge in late 1973, only 20cm lower than the 1953 disaster. Being as this is based on historical events, Terlouw concludes the book with a few facts about what happened next. The Klaasesz Commission decided to replace the complete dam with a dam consisting of prefabricated hollow concrete casings (caissons) with moveable gates, retaining the tides, but restricting the water flow and lowering high tide levels further inside the estuary (a storm surge caisson dam – stormstuwcaissondam). This would be complemented by closable dams to further divide the area further inside the inlet to prevent saltwater reaching the new freshwater lakes. It might cost an extra 100 guilders per Dutch taxpayer and take a few more years to complete than the original plan, but it was a good compromise.
In between the politics of the issue, we have another couple of more light-hearted scenes. Anne finally manages to get her revenge on the policeman who blackened her name twenty years earlier. A wedding is celebrated. And we finish with Anne and her younger son Valeer, the two who most appreciate the sea, walking arm in arm beside the Oosterschelde.
“’Maybe you, your generation, has relearned how to feel wonder,’ she said then. ‘We are the children of the century of technology. And technology has done its utmost to remove the wonder from our lives. Technology understands everything, controls everything, changes everything.’
‘Yes,’ says Valeer, ‘that’s how our society is organised, that’s how it’s taught to us. Humankind, with all its technical and scientific knowledge, is going to go ahead and teach nature a lesson.’” 6 (My translation)
The final sentence seems completely unnecessary as it mentions that Anne’s father died that very day. It adds nothing to the story whatsoever; a strange thing to do.
For anyone who can speak Dutch who is interested in the real story behind Terlouw’s tale, I have gathered a few references. Even if you can’t read it, there are some good images in there, too.
Firstly, you can download some excellent official information about the Delta Works Project as a whole, from the Dutch government.
Andere tijden article.
Protests against the closure of the Oosterschelde.
Johan van Veen may have been the inspiration behind Brooshoofd.
A long read from 1984 about the building of the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier. https://www.polderpers.nl/oosterschelde-werken-wereldwonder-toren-babel-2/
A man who originally opposed the damming started working at the Oosterschelde barrier’s information centre and that changed his mind. He tells the tale of when he used to go and stand on the dike on stormy lights and could see how many people’s upstairs and attic windows were lit; they all used to go upstairs as a precaution. Nowadays, this no longer happens because people feel protected by the storm surge barrier. Article about 35 years of the Oosterschelde surge barrier.
Translation of an odd saying
At one of the altercations with his sons, Henk exclaims, “You keep on accusing us of being experts who can’t see beyond our own interests, but what do you think you’re doing, then? Over-excited troublemakers who think you know about something when you haven’t a clue.” (My very loose translation) In fact, the standard version of the saying Henk uses is ‘hij heeft de klok horen luiden, maar weet niet waar de klepel hangt.’ The literal translation of that is ‘he heard the bell ringing without knowing where to find the clapper.’ It means something similar to ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ and is used when somebody has heard something about a subject and talks about it as if they are an expert or give advice on something they know little about. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anybody use it in a real conversation, but it jumped out at me because, 30 years ago, my driving instructor kept trying to get me to memorise a humorous distorted version, ‘hij heeft de melk horen klotsen, maar weet niet waar de tepel hangt’ which means ‘he heard the milk splashing, without knowing where to find the teat’. I assume my driving instructor thought it would be amusing (or perhaps titillating for him) to teach someone whose Dutch was still fairly rudimentary to produce a sentence that used the word ‘teat’, or in human terms, ‘nipple’. Come to think of it, he also enjoyed telling me that there was no law in the Netherlands that forbids you from walking around naked. The policeman in this book would not agree.
Random facts and comments
- The English Channel is called ‘het Nauw van Calais’ in Dutch, the Straits of Calais, so it mentally belongs to the Continent. That makes it rather odd that the French themselves call it ‘la Chaîne Anglaise’, the English Channel.
- Small farmers in the reclaimed polder land on the islands were granted their land under the Agriculture Act (Landbouwwet).
- The start of the mussel-selling season is determined by the Mussel Advisory Commission.
- Information about mussels.
- Saying: ‘Je bent een uilskuiken’, literally ‘You’re an owl chick’ meaning you are a fool.
Footnotes with original Dutch text
- “Ze zeggen zo graag dat we ergens te jong voor zijn, denkt Valeer. We hebben geen ervaring. Misschien zijn ze zelf te oud, met hun standpunt onwrikbaar vastgenageld aan een ervaring. Ervaringen zijn als een anker. Je hebt het gevoel dat je levensschip er veilig aan verankerd ligt en je vergeet dat je daardoor ook niet meer weg kunt komen.” (pp.137-138)
- “Strijen geloofde in gezag. Anne geloofde in individuele vrijheid. Deze twee standpunten vinden elkaar zelden als de vertegenwoordigers van die standpunten van verschillende generaties zijn.” (p.39)
- “Met groot geduld probeerde hij sleutels, tastte met een ijzerdraadje, vijlde kleine randjes af van de sleutel die het meestbelovend scheen.”
- “Mensen uit de grote stad verbeelden zich altijd dat ze van een hogere orde zijn dan plattelanders. Een soort stamboek. Terwijl in werkelijkheid natuurlijk stedelingen zich verhouden tegen dorpelingen als koeien tot edelherten.” (p.34)
- “Anne was nog geen uur in huis of ze had al het gevoel te willen ontvluchten, weg uit die verstikkende sfeer, weg van dat eiland weg van ieder eiland, omdat een eiland zulke duidelijke grenzen heeft. […] De mensen op het eiland veranderden niet, veranderingen werden al gauw goddeloos of lichtzinnig genoemd. Het lijkt wel of mensen naarmate ze dichter bij de zee wonen onveranderlijker, conservatiever zijn, dacht Anne. Komt dat uit verzet tegen de veranderlijke aard van de zee, of is het angst voor het water – dodelijke zee? Of is de zee niet veranderlijk, omdat het altijd weer komt, altijd weer gaat, omhoog, omlaag, de hartslag van de eeuwigheid?” (p.61)
- “’Misschien hebben jullie, heeft jullie generatie, weer geleerd om je te verwonderen,’ zegt ze dan. ‘Wij zijn kinderen van de technische eeuw. En de techniek heeft zijn uiterste best gedaan om ons de verwondering af te leren. De techniek begrijpt alle dingen, beheerst alle dingen, verandert alle dingen.’
‘Ja,’ zegt Valeer, ‘zo is onze samenleving ingericht, zo wordt het ons geleerd. De mens, met zijn technische en wetenschappelijke kennis, zal de natuur wel even de wet voorschijven.’ (p.182)