And so it continued. Not content with fireworks, rowing contests, schoolchildren’s chain-making competitions, and exhibitions galore, it was finally time for the historians to have their four-penn’orth about the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Medway, which was why I spent last weekend in Amsterdam, attending a conference jointly organised by the Naval Dockyards Society and the Vrienden van de Witt.
In truth, I don’t need much persuading if a trip to Amsterdam is in the offing. I’ve loved the place since I first went there, well over thirty years ago, when I was working on my doctorate. I knew I could hardly work on seventeenth century naval history without seeing things from the Dutch side, so I swiftly became well acquainted with the Rijksmuseum, the Scheepvaartmuseum (the Dutch national maritime museum), and the great churches, not to mention many rather less renowned landmarks. One of these was a little bar which floated my boat for some unfathomable reason, and to which I return every time I’m in Amsterdam, including this one. It’s nothing special – indeed, in some respects, it’s a bit insalubrious – and it hasn’t actually changed at all in the thirty plus years since I first went there (possibly one of the reasons why I like it), but it’s very central, never particularly full, and always seems to be playing exactly the music I like, i.e. almost nothing written since The End of Music, which, of course, took place in approximately 1990. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it’s called or where it is, in case you all start going there. But it provides a haven for a breather between my regular destinations, which on this trip, included the likes of the Rijksmuseum, the Oude and Nieuwe Kerks, and the Kok secondhand bookshop, plus a new discovery, the wonderful ‘secret’ Catholic church of Our Lord in the Attic.
(The visit to the Oude Kerk was a bit frustrating, largely because it currently contains what has to be one of the daftest ‘modern art’ installations I’ve ever encountered – and there’s a lot of competition for that title, says Mr Grumpy Old Man. This one consists of what are essentially large rectangles of gold wrapping paper laid out over the floor, thus obscuring many of the fascinating grave slabs and forcing visitors to play a game of human chess, i.e. having to move to the right or left if someone else is approaching along the same vertical line.)
I’d not been to the Rijksmuseum since its huge refurbishment some five years ago, and was duly impressed by the new look. But like all great international museums, visiting it is still a slightly frenetic experience, thanks principally to the vast tour parties on their ‘see the Rijksmuseum in five minutes’ excursions – and invariably, that means setting up a colossal siege line in front of The Night Watch. However, that’s only marginally less hectic than the rest of the floor devoted to the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, the seventeenth century, which unfortunately includes the naval displays, my principal target. Still, most tourists are significantly smaller than me, and only relatively few needed to be hospitalised as I manoeuvred myself into poll position in front of the glorious works of art by the van de Veldes et al. However, I’m not sure that the Rijksmuseum refurbishment has been kind to the naval material. The sternpiece of the captured Royal Charles, for example, now hangs above a door, and it’s not possible to get as close to it as it was in the old incarnation, where it was alongside a mezzanine. But otherwise, it’s still possible to wander through huge swathes of the museum, including, for example, the ship models room, and encounter very few people, while of course, I’m not going to complain too much about any national museum that devotes an appropriate amount of space to naval history. (Are you listening, British Museum?)
Tomorrow, I’ll blog about the conference programme itself. There was one massive timing glitch during it, though – but it most certainly wasn’t the fault of the organisers. When I sat down after giving my paper, I checked my emails, and came across a piece of information that I wish I’d known about earlier, so I could impart it to the audience. (OK, yes, that’s an euphemism for ‘indulging in shameless self-publicity’.) This was the news that the new Quinton novel, The Devil Upon the Wave, had become available on Amazon that very afternoon. Naturally, the book focuses heavily on the Dutch attack on the Medway, but it also places Matthew among the defenders of Landguard Fort as they try to beat off yet another Dutch onslaught, and also takes him to sea, albeit this time aboard the Dutch fleet, where he confronts a terrible dilemma and a huge personal tragedy. Several real historical characters make ‘cameo appearances’, among them King Charles II, Samuel Pepys, and Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, while fans of the broader Quinton family may welcome the return of the enigmatic Uncle Tris, Matt’s outspoken elder sister Elizabeth, his dour Dutch brother-in-law Cornelis, and, of course, his feisty wife Cornelia. As a special treat and ‘teaser trailer’, next Monday’s post on this site will provide a free preview of Chapter One – and for a book set against the backdrop of the events of 1667, it’s most definitely not what you’re going to expect!