A Proper Job: Richard Foster On The Factory Floor

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Flower Factory, Richard Foster recalls the reaction of Dutch workers to tragic events across the Atlantic

‘GET OFF ME, YOU FUCKER. You fucking wanker.’ These and other expletives are coming from the two bodies rolling on the floor, locked together in one writhing, pummelling exertion of anger and frustration. Two of my workmates are having a barney on a sunny Sunday September afternoon in Bar en Boos where the weekly drum circle is taking place. Their exertions kick up an awful amount of muck. Millions of dust particles are suspended in the autumn sunlight pouring in from a large back window overlooking the canal. The drum circle carries on bashing its way towards some form of percussive communality; though more hesitantly, maybe, as it’s hard to concentrate on your bongo beats when two English ravers are trying to tear lumps out of each other a few feet away.

Our group watches on. Most of us are giggling nervously, apart from one lad who looks on in a strange, detached way. I suspect he’s the cause of this fight. He’s a bit weird, a year or two older than us. He likes staring into space and showing off his bronzed profile under what looks like an Austrian army cap worn by the Good Soldier Švejk. From the clipped conversations I’ve had with him he seems to be someone who has strayed too far into living out the new dawn brought about by the Second Summer of Love. He also seems a bit thick.

‘I do my Tarot reading every day and throw the I Ching. It’s a good


‘You know what I don’t understand? I speak good German, and I thought if I used that in Holland I’d be accepted. You know, get work straight away, get a head start, but it’s not like that. I keep getting weird looks.’

‘You fucker.’

‘You arsehole, you fucking arsehole.’

Taking advantage of the fact that the two wrestlers are rolling in another direction, I go to the bar and pull out a blue ten gulder note to get a round in. Frans Hals stares idly back at me. This money is soon to be replaced by the EU-wide currency, the euro. It’s a shame as I like the design of the gulder notes and the fact that loads of old coins are in circulation. I’ve had some from the reign of Wilhelmina, the revered matriarch and war leader who hasn’t been queen for a good half-century. By contrast the design of the euro notes looks really fucking boring. Bridges. Maybe that’s the point: enforce a sort of vague spirit of togetherness upon us all. We are all soon to receive packs of euro coins to prepare us for handling the new money. Some of the Dutch lads in the factory are really unhappy about the euro. There is wistful talk of the Dutch state hoarding all their notes and coins somewhere in the dunes in case this project goes tits up. There is other talk of the euro’s introduction being nothing more than a good excuse for a stealth tax, whereby the prices are raised ‘to adjust’ to the new currency.

‘How can they? It’s swapping one digital currency for another. Why should that mean the costs are carried by us? Who the fuck said that was okay?’

The Dutch obsession with saving the pennies takes on a populist, political hue. Other changes are less planned. Less than a week ago, last Tuesday in fact, the Twin Towers in New York crumpled into a billowing cloud of dust. The reactions were diverse as the news seeped through the factory.

‘Have you heard? We’re at war. There’s an attack.’

The only solid fact was that something dramatic had happened in America. There were some whoops and smiles from some of the Dutch lads, the most unlikely of sources you would have thought. It turns out they were billeted with American troops on their national service and harbour grudges. By contrast, some of the supposed New Age ravers wanted immediate reprisals against whoever did it. One Swiss girl, the daughter of an important client, and moreover who looks uncannily like Bobby Gillespie, burst into tears at the news. Unlike the legendary Mr Gillespie, she’s a quiet and sweet soul, happy to hum away to herself in Swiss-German. She often writes wistful messages to her parents on the sides of the tulip boxes, with hearts and flowers. We suspected her reaction was more to do with a strong aversion to violence of any form.

We cycled home and switched on the TV, which showed a grey furze as if on the blink. Images of rubble and ash. In the week since there has been nothing else to talk about as we sit on the grass munching our sandwiches in the pleasant autumn sun.

‘This is bad, let me tell you. This is the beginning of a whole new bad time.’

‘Ach, come on, stop being such a bloody hippy. How do you know that? The Yanks will blow the crap out of them and it’ll be over in a matter of weeks.’

‘Fucking Americans, they had it coming. Always interfering with everyone in the world.’

‘By the way, have you seen how many American flags there are round here? What do the Cloggies do, stash flags until they need them?’

It’s true, they must stash flags ‘just in case’. Countless Stars and Stripes have appeared as if by magic, hanging from all the flagpoles in the area. Nearly every Dutch house has a flagpole and the effect is startling, especially when cycling through the farmland of the Bollenstreek.

The only pain we workers have had to suffer is the fallout on the radio. The jocose Dutch DJs are at a loss at how to react to such an event. It’s also clear they have been ordered not to be frivolous, an impossible undertaking for many of the daytime pack. Their voices have dropped into a much deeper range than is sensible or normal, and they look for simple, world-embracing sentimentalities at every turn. This also means a lot of deep inhalations of breath, interspersed with lots of ja, jas and the retelling of their personal reactions to 9/11 and those of their circle. It’s as if these lads can’t deal with a world that doesn’t just offer up simple pleasures such as girls and beer and barbecues, 24–7. And we’re fucked if we are going to help them out. They should do a proper job, with their hands, like us.

Sadly the collective public enfeeblement of the DJs has been magnified tenfold by the music they play. Scorpions’ ‘Wind of Change’ followed us around like a wailing child in a supermarket. ‘American Pie’ and ‘Piano Man’, both plodding and hateful navel-gazing rubbish of the worst kind, were drafted in on a never-ending rota to show us simple working folk what America must be feeling and thinking right now. After two days there was a vote in the canteen. This radio was killing us. It was making us walk slower, pick orders more lethargically and lose our rags in the packing bay. We voted to turn the radio off. Someone brought in a Rolling Stones CD and stuck it through the tannoy. Spirits lifted to the simple beat music of the Cryogenic Five and the orders got packed. We were too busy for world politics.

Flower Factory: A Fairy Tale by Richard Foster is published by Ortac Press on 7 June

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