greatescapeattenborough

Grim and pale with (heavy) head in hands, I sat in Dan Van Samaritan’s apartment in Utrecht, central Holland on the Monday morning. It was 08.30 and I was due at work in south west England … hundreds of miles away.

Before I’d been shooed away at midnight by the be-whiskered Amsterdam Police; through a fug of tasty smoke, they’d given me the phone number of the British Consulate in The Hague. I pulled the scrap of paper from my pocket. “Right” thought I. “These Union Flag-flying fuckers will sort me out. No problem. That’s what they do, isn’t it?”

I called their number on Dan’s phone. No answer. The Consulate staff weren’t there. My life was already a Dutch Breakfast so I could well do without those lazy sods still nibbling on Gouda and pumpernickel reading their morning Expatica Express.

“Get thyselves sat beneath a portrait of The Queen and help this beleaguered countryman, you work-shy mandarin bastards” I chuntered to myself. I lit a Peter Stuyvesant and tried the number again. Still nothing. Perhaps they were out last night dressed in orange celebrating the first herring of the year, or something?

Half an hour later, I finally extracted a gruff ‘Hullo’ from a she-male voice at the other end.

‘Geertruyd here’.

It was the cleaner!

It transpired that Her Majesty’s Ambassador and all his merry civil service men were not in the office that morning due to what she called ‘a Training Day’. I vented my spleen toward the damduster-wielding dutchwoman. I was beside myself. (In-cand-escent and in-de-shit). She sympathised with my plight; understanding my acute frustration and desperation, but unable to offer any advice other than, ‘Continue to the port sir, and hope that your passport is there waiting’.

OK. South I go to bloody Belgium then. It can’t be that far from here can it?

By the way, the coach I had missed in Amsterdam had long since arrived in England. Unbeknownst to me however, my friend had been given a hard time by UK Customs at Passport Control. “And which one are we today then sir?” he’d been asked as he wielded 2 passports and a likely story.

Anyway, I got on a local bus full of Holland’s finest old cloggy women and headed towards the nearest motorway junction.

mp3 : Talking Heads – Road To Nowhere

Back on the main Highway, out came my map, anorak, thumb, and my metaphorical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Benelux Blues. The drizzle lowered in the Lowlands. After half an hour, a car pulled over. It was clearly an ‘Ok ya, company car’. An unwashed black Audi with 4 tell-tale ironed shirts hanging in the back.

Herman the Sales Rep listened to my tale of woe. He was heading to Eindhoven for a Plastics Convention. A city I knew only as the home of a football team called PSV and the Philips Lighting Company. Herman seemed friendly enough. (But then, Jack The Ripper was probably a right charmer on first meeting). We chatted over the next hour or so and I told him my tale. He shook his head in disbelief.

I mentioned the beer, and the cold, the lack of ID and money, Amsterdam, and the missed coach home. I told him that I was serving in the Air Force and that my bollocks would be lightly poached as I was late back on duty.

mp3 : XTC – The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead

Then, in a truly bizarre coincidence, as we passed Eindhoven, he had the most wonderful lightbulb moment!

The nearest RAF Station was not far across the Dutch/West German border.

“That’s it. That’s where we can go!” declared Herman.

In 1984, RAF Brüggen was a major NATO base in a Cold War world – where a certain apocalyptic Nuclear War was just around the next bunker. Two Tribes, Greenham Common, Threads, Reagan, Thatcher, CND, Protect and Survive, Cruise and Pershing missiles. Why, even painting the windows white and sitting under the kitchen table wouldn’t save you.

This Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) meant we were doomed – the lot of us. In fact, the only undecided thing was how you were gonna spend your final 4 minutes; prior to kissing your ass goodbye.

Aaah, happy days!

Anyway, I digress. Herman agreed to take me across the border into Germany and onto the RAF base. As a Sales Executive, he knew the way like the back of his leather-bound filofax.

‘If you don’t get home safely, I’m a Dutchman’ he vehemently declared.

“Aren’t you the funny fucker?” says I.

We crossed the manned National Border, with him flashing Fritz a Buisiness card and me a crazed inane grin – with thumbs up like Selwyn Froggitt.  On a road through a forest, we approached the sprawling air base, negotiating speed-calming barbed wire chicanes flanked by armed guards. We could see the Hardened Aircraft Shelters. Fierce German Shepherds prowled the perimeter fence. How ridiculous they looked with their crooks, dressed in their woolly waistcoats and leather shorts. (Only joking, I mean Alsatian-type dogs really).

At the RAF Brüggen main gate, Herman came into his own with sales waffle a-gogo. Thankfully, the airman on guard duty wasn’t the pointiest bullet in the magazine. His tin hat was on the wrong way round. (‘Must be a chef in his day job’ I thought). For all he knew, I could have been a Yorkshire-based Soviet Stasi SuperSpy. (I had no ID and he had no idea). With a salute from him and a weary wave from me, we were in. A high security top-secret base with the largest Tornado aircraft force in NATO had been infiltrated by a Dutchman saying, “I have come to check the vending machines in the NAAFI” and me – a scruffy youth in a borrowed lime green anorak.

By the way, This ‘oops’ moment had happened at RAF Brüggen earlier that year.

And so, now on the Camp, and en route to Station HQ, it was then very strangely that my ears began to bleed. Herman pointed it out to me as he parked up.  It had bever happened before (or since). Dan Van Samaratin’s rain jacket would never be the same again and my white ‘Tube Station’ T-shirt sported fresh claret blobs.  Herman passed me a wet wipe with ‘Currywurst’ printed on it.  With ears dribbling, I tried to compose myself and rehearsed my story in my fat head.

I introduced myself to a clot of a Corporal in Personnel Services. Seeing the blood, he quickly realised it was above his pay level and found me a Warrant Officer. And, if Rottweillers had hats then he’d be one. At this point, Herman motioned that it was time for him to leave. I thanked him – woefully insufficiently – and he was gone. Rotty with a blue beret took me to a room where I regaled him with bumbling tales of lager and London and Leeds United. Throughout my desperate report, I remember how he took phone calls about bonfires and sausages and fireworks. (It was the 5th of November). Here I was, at my tether’s end, whilst he considered the merits of a good Catherine Wheel.

So here’s the plan: Issued with a Temporary ID card and an Advance of Pay to cover costs home, I take a lift to Mönchengladbach in a mini-bus full of bonfire-going kids. There I catch a train through what’s left of Germany and across The Netherlands to the Hook of Holland. Overnight Ferry to Harwich. Train to Waterloo. Train to Salisbury. Taxi home. Bollocking from work. Re-union shag with girlfriend. Phone call to relieved mother. Two-way tales with passport-holding mate. Food. Sleep.

Through the damp suib of a German Bonfire Night, I hurries to the train station for the 19.30 Deutsche Bahn (that’s German for ‘a big train’), relieved that I had escaped the jaunty jabberings of a dozen excited under-10s eating sausages. (Bratwursts/Worstbrats).

I’d been given an advance of pay in cash. Exactly 138 Deutsche Mark – to cover the whole fare from Monchengladbach to Salisbury.

I asked for a ticket and the frau behind the counter told me the price …

“That is 143 Marks please”.

“Surely some mistake?” I argued.

“Nein. The price it has risen last veek”.

“Shit. Bollocks. Fuck”. A queue built up behind me.

“Can I leave you my name and address? I twitched. Can you take my watch instead?”

Sensing my desperation (along with the fact that if I were to throw myself under the train there would be an interminable delay – even by über-efficient German suicide-mopping-up standards), the woman behind me in the queue stepped forward and offered to pay the 5 DM difference.

“Oh, thank you. Danke, muchos” I babbled, as I went to hug her … but as she recoiled, I thought better of it!

I made it onto the train and felt like Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape. All I needed was the Trilby hat and a pair of specs made from old German milk bottles. The ‘funny look’ from the Guard as he checked my ticket added to the ‘squeeky bum’ moment. We shake, rattle and rolled all the way to the west coast port of Hoek van Holland

(Cue ‘Homeward Bound’ by Paul Simon you may be thinking? Too obvious, dear reader. We don’t just throw this blog together you know).

Unsurprisingly, I puked all the way across The Channel. So much so that I expected any chewy bit to be my own anus. The sea was as rough as an unkempt bear’s arse. (Is there anything worse than not having a cabin and clutching a pissy public porcelain pot for hours and hours?)

Anyway, I can see you glazing over at the back dear reader. Suffice to say, I continued across Britain in shabby vagrant style and arrived home to my accommodation block on the Tuesday afternoon in one piece.

Many were relieved to see me. (‘Cept the bloke next door who’d had his eye on my portable TV). Why,  I even went on to marry the girl waiting for me.  Aaaah!

mp3 : Paul Weller – In Amsterdam (By a strange twist of fate, this is from his new album!)

Dick Van Dyke, 16 May 2010

JC adds…

Almost four years on and I still can’t believe nobody has snapped up the film-rights to this tale.

Over the years I’ve asked DvD to consider becoming a regular contributor to the blog(s).  Hopefully one day….