The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 and a quarter years oldAKA Attempts to Make something of Life
By Hendrik Groen? Anon?
Translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans
Tuesday 1 January 2013
Another year, and I still don’t like old people. Their Zimmerframe shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and biscuits, their bellyaching.
Saturday 26 January
Bingo night. … whenever the number 44 is called, Miss Slothouwer always says ‘Hunger Winter’ and the entire room looks up, perturbed.
Not long ago a group of residents wanted bingo moved to Wednesday night because Saturdays are for family visits – which is hogwash actually. The real motivation was probably what programme was on the telly on Saturdays. The Wednesday night choir promptly objected and proposed Monday night, which was quashed by the billiards club….[Friday night] met with stiff resistance from the Feel Good Fitness people, who were too tuckered out from their afternoon exercises…
When three meetings of the Residents’ Association were still unable to come to an agreement, our own King Solomon, Mrs Stelwagen, decided that everything should stay as it was for now . Relations have suffered. The knives are out.
Thursday 6 June
I am wearing my best and only lightweight suit. I have also unearthed an old-fashioned straw boater. I want to look a bit like Maurice Chevalier.
Thursday 12 September
I heard that, on the heels of hospital clowns for sick children, special clowns are being deployed to cheer up lonely OAPs. I don’t know what they’re called or where they come from, but I should like to warn them in advance: if any clown arrives to brighten my day, so help me God, I’ll use my last ounce of strength to bash his jovial skull in with a frying pan.
commentary: We’ll call the author Hendrik Groen. He started to write his diary for a Dutch literary website, and it was picked up by a publishers and became a huge bestseller in the Netherlands, and now is moving on to other parts of Europe, where it will surely do the same.
No-one knows exactly who he is, or how much of a diary and how much fiction it is – some of both presumably: it has a very real feel, and apparently the author has said ‘Not a sentence is a lie, but not every word is true.’
It’s a diary of a year in his life at an old people’s home on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Hendrik doesn’t think the home is well-run, he’s keeping an eye on Dutch and world politics, and he has friends and enemies inside the home. The friends shine: they form an Old-But-Not-Dead club, and go on exclusive outings, to the annoyance and secret envy of other residents, and the feeling from the staff that this must be stopped, except that they can’t think of a reason.
The book is hugely charming, very easy to read, very entertaining, very funny – and, as with all diaries, I find that I’m saying I’ll just read one more entry, just to the end of the month, and suddenly I’ve read a huge tranche. It feels truly authentic – it would be hard to believe that our author does not live in such a home.
And there is one extra benefit: For most fictional diaries you have to suspend your disbelief about the author actually having stopped what they were doing and written all this down. I am second to none in my admiration for Bridget Jones, but she plainly wasn’t pausing half-way through her evening out to write down events up till NOW to increase the tension. But Groen keeps telling us that he doesn’t have that much to do, and it is believable that he spends a lot of time writing, and he often says he is writing something up the next day.
He has a rambunctious friend Evert, a sweet romance with a lady named Eefje, and a heart-breaking friendship with Grietje, who knows what is wrong with her. If there is a more touching moment than this in any book this year I will be surprised:
Yesterday Grietje presented me with a big bunch of flowers and a gift voucher for a book. When I asked what I had done to deserve it she showed a booklet about dementia, in which she had underlined the following sentence: ‘The illness will make someone with dementia barely able to appreciate all you are doing for him or her.’
But the book also has plenty of funny moments. When Hendrik goes out on his mobility scooter he ponders the dangers and says ‘If you happen to see any Amsterdam municipal guards about you can be fairly sure the coast is clear, for they tend to avoid danger at all costs.’ When there are rumours of the home closing,:
‘I’m thanking you in advance.’
‘that will be the death of me,’ I have heard several residents stoutly declare. I’m not sure whether you can hold people to that kind of pledge.Hendrik tells us all about medical problems and mobility aids, and adult diapers, and goes into some detail about the right to euthanasia (hard to insist on, apparently) but he also tells us about great outings and meals with his group of friends.
The best news is that he has bought another notebook/diary, and there is going to be a followup… in the meantime, everyone should read this book.
I was looking for the right picture for this entry, and found the top one, from the Dutch National Archives, showing young boys cheering a football match in the Netherlands in the 1930s, and I’d like to think one of them might be Hendrik having a good time all those years ago, with Evert beside him.
The dapper chaps in lightweight suits and boaters are from the NYPL collection, dating from the 1940s.