amsterdam 1

One of the worst meals that I ever ate in my life was served up by a fellow, one of whose aliases was “Bob Ridell” . I’m not sure even now if that was his alias or his real name , because he used several monikers  depending on circumstances and location. It was a meal I tried to eat at one of the hungriest times of my life.The kind of hunger where I was happily contemplating slaughtering one of the chickens in a nearby petting zoo and consuming its raw flesh. Some  people actually get that hungry. You wouldn’t know it looking about at the huge grazing creatures slurping half-gallon milkshakes and stuffing enormous burgers and a variety of snack foods into their constantly ravenous maws these days. It was a bit different back in the mid 1970s when most people walked a fair bit and there wasn’t so much cheap food full of dubious additives such as corn syrup  piling up in supermarkets. Take-away food wasn’t delivered by taxi back then. I was young too, mid-twenties…you need a lot of food at that age, the way the metabolism works so fast when you are actually doing anything..Young men are always hungry anyway.Hungry for food, hungry for excitement, hungry for sex.

We were around a little camping stove just outside of Amsterdam. It was our second visit to the beautiful city within three years and there were many changes afoot in those intervening years. Lots of  long-haired young people like us, backpacks stacked high, hitchhiked the motorways and backroads all over Europe, leapfrogging from lorry to car to bus to train, up and down the various countries. Adventure, you see… Many headed for Amsterdam in the late 1960s and early 1970s , especially those of us of the long-haired hippy persuasion. There was a communality in the grubby dishevelment of the shared ground-level travel   experience.

 Stories and tales of horror or joy would be swapped with fellow adventurers and news would be shared. There were very lax marijuana laws and there were free concerts in Amsterdam’s Vondel Park. It had been an easy-going warm and inviting destination back in 1974 on that first long  hitch-hiking trip. Lots of European hippies used it as a jumping-off point for further forays eastwards bound, possibly on an overland jaunt to the mysteries of India …. I met a Canadian fellow who had spent the previous six months on an overland adventure throughout 1970s India on the strength of a year’s earnings working in a factory back in Toronto. He had arrived earlier in the year and bought a VW microbus  which were all the rage with the hippies. They were perfect in that you could use them like a little camper-van and go anywhere, sleeping in the back at night. He had arrived back in Amsterdam and sold it to buy his air ticket back home. It sounded like the very best idea , but he’d neglected the fact that he also needed to pay some airport tax or whatever and was biding his time while his father wired some funds to get him back home.He was momentarily stranded but it didn’t bother him too much.Time didn’t seem to matter in that listless warmth.It was summer and the weather was good. That was the way things were. It was a very free-wheeling existence.

That last time I was just passing through the city before travelling through Germany and eventually ending up in Denmark, almost joining the Christiania commune outside Copenhagen …the temptations of youth and two  young blonde ABBA-looking hippy chicks….well that’s another story again…the commune is still there….forty years and more later…Needless to say, I didn’t stay.

This time ,though, it was a singular  open-ended visit to the city but as these things pan out, money and resources were very low. There were changes afoot. There was too much heroin and cocaine coming into the community. The mellow “hash vibe” was being dissipated by the more unnerving bitterness and squalor  of hard drugs and its subsequent addictions and addicts. Dealers were walking around Dam Square practically calling out their wares ….Hash…heesh, treeeps! Come and get it, you hippies!! You could be buying “Oxo” cubes or “Smarties” for all you knew…or worse… It really wasn’t that mellow place anymore. Nobody with a bit of wit would have dropped a “trip” in this circus of freaks and thieves. You’d end up robbed or dead with a needle hanging out of your arm in some toilet. There were plenty of young Spanish teenagers and the like  in that kind of sorry state…We were much more wary this time around. We travelled light with only rucksacks and sleeping bags but we were careful where we  slept and crashed out.

Bob and his travelling buddy, whose name I cannot remember, were equally long-haired travellers, but they were doing it in some style. They were  slightly older Englishmen abroad and they were travelling in a big old long, bottle-green  estate car. They both liked to fish, so they had a wee rowing boat in tow on a trailer. A little skiff. They were obviously better organised than us. They were camping by one of the canals, doing a spot of fishing and smoking a joint outside their tent .As fellow English-speakers with the proper long-haired cut to our jib, we were seen as of the same “tribe”, so  they invited us to share both the joint and their catch .My mate “Fangs” and I had no objection to any of that. The last thing we’d managed to find to eat before the money was almost gone was a huge bacon and maple syrup pancake and a “small beer” which tasted like the loveliest ice-cream .We were “starving” and were not about to argue with an invite to dinner…You know too how a nice joint gives you the …”munchies”…that ravening hunger when the senses are stimulated by good grass! Well our stomachs were fairly smooching up to our spines by this time.

The meal though, was a huge disappointment. I remember a description in George Orwell’s novel “Coming Up For Air” which sticks like molasses to my memory, in its descriptive horror of George Bowling, the novel’s hero, consuming a sausage whilst wearing false teeth. The description of same sausage exploding between the newly fitted teeth of the forty-five-year-old Mr Bowling has, for me, the same plangent sound as a long-ago  church bell, ringing in my mind or memory …The Horror!

Come to think of it, George Bowling lived in a part of Bletchley in Buckinghamshire and I had sometime before fallen in and out of love with a girl from that same suburban town outside London and subsequently  visited her parental home there. I remember little of the place now, memory being a thief sometimes. It is sometimes strange how connections are made throughout your life, though. That Orwell book is one I return to over the years, only to find it always reads like a completely new story as I age. Bob Riddell also  reminded me of another character I had met in Leeds whom I’ll call Long John.

Bob Biddell and Long John were two right characters.  They were as different as…name your cliché….okay …chalk and cheese….but there were similarities in their characters. I haven’t seen either of them for over forty years and have no idea what became of either of them in the intervening years. In fact , if you showed me a photograph now, I probably wouldn’t even recognise either of them. It was a different era. We all looked quite different then. We wore different clothes and had much longer hair than is currently fashionable. We were much younger too. These two men never met each other either, because one sometimes lived in London and the other one  at times lived in Leeds. I knew each of them in that vernal timelessness, before adult responsibilities begin to grow like moss and gradually suppress any youthful wildness.

Ebullient ..That’s how I’d best describe them, or certainly in Bob’s case, volatile, or capable of easily  encouraging volatility in others. The main similarity was that both these young men had at one  time in their lives  been dealers of marijuana and hashish. That was an outlaw place to be back then and  as is the way of these things, I was drawn into their orbit, their sense of  provocation and  that excitement. I found them both interesting then, but I’ve no doubt at all that that interest  could never have been a long –term ideal. There was also a certain volatility in the mix. Trouble would never be too far away with these two guys..each in their very separate orbits.

Long John was the easier-going of the two. He was an Irishman whom I  got to know, who on seeing the little trench-coated cartoon dog  character I had drawn for a comic strip story immediately named the little character “Paddy Kool”,  with a loud guffaw.The name stuck.In legend , John was known to have carried supermarket bags full of hashish on the train from London to supply all the “heads” in Yorkshire with good reefe. He loved old -fashioned country music and  laughed a lot as you would imagine.

Bob , on the other hand , came with an interesting back history.How he came to be right there in Amsterdam at that serendipitous moment of our meeting at the side of a sunny Dutch canal went something like this…. Bob  was from a fairly well-to-do family. His father had been a scientist of sorts and had something to do with the development of the jet engine, as Bob told it. Bob and his father never really got on. He had been sent to boarding school and developed into a natural outlaw within that cloistered regime.

He obviously had some of his father’s creativity, because the first money-making scheme he figured out went like this. In the late 1960s he noticed that the waste-oil from fish and chip shops was simply thrown away after use, so he approached one of his scientist friends and asked him what uses this waste could be put to. It became apparent that it could be converted into soap and several other products, being  vegetable based. The  restaurant fish fryers agreed to pay him to take the stuff away in drums and then he set up contacts with factories willing to buy it from him. He was being paid at both ends of the operation for  his time and energy.Later on, of course, it was discovered that this resource could also be used to power the combustion-engine and drive cars as biodiesel fuel, but I don’t think that Bob was too worried about this development. He was suddenly making money out of fresh air …or at least from some old fish and chip oil. Before long he had several vans on the go and then a few lorries which travelled around a variety of fish and chip shops hauling away the oil and bringing it to a factory.He made good money at this for quite some time, but it was in Bob’s nature to get bored easily, so when the novelty of printing easy money and schlepping up and down the motorways wore off, he duly sold on the ongoing goldmine of a business  for a princely sum and got on with his next adventure.

 If I can recall down through the years , I think this involved initially joining a demolition squad of sorts, possibly in the army and ending up working with them on coral reefs in Malaysia. That was probably where it started initially. Bob was an affable convivial sort but had a wild and entertaining streak in him, which must have endeared him to the local “headman” into whose orbit he fell. This chieftain presented  Bob with one of his daughters as a wife, as this was apparently  the local custom in matters of romance , and set him up with a place to live. Bob seemed to be set in what seems an idyllic existence in the tropics, but like I said, it was in his nature to court trouble. As he put it himself, he was sitting in luxury with a beautiful  oriental wife, the best food imaginable , a hi-fi sound system to die for and every amenity for a comfortable life .What could possibly go wrong, eh?

Well , as I got to know more about Bob’s nature in such situations, Bob could easily go wrong at the drop of a hat. Somewhere along the line he dropped that hat a little too heavily. Being a smoker of some appetite, Bob soon discovered the quality of the local weed and indulged himself with great gusto. The local drug laws, especially regarding foreigners,seemed to depend entirely on how much backsheesh you could afford to pay the police, or how blatantly the laws could be tweaked. Bob could never be satisfied with simply smoking a little weed for quiet relaxation.For one thing, it took vast quantities of the stuff to have any real effect on him , such was his metabolism. I can still recall him driving with a huge nine skin joint clamped in his teeth like a cheroot while burling down the motorway ….the inside of the car smoking up like a garden bonfire and anyone with him experiencing an immediate  “contact high”.Bob liked plenty, no mistake!

t wasn’t too long before he was buying the stuff in quantity from the local dealers and it was then that he had another “Great Idea”. The stuff was so cheap to buy, so why not export it back to the homeland.This was a tea -producing region he was living in, so he set himself up as a “Tea Exporter”. You’ll have seen those little decorative tins of Twinings Earl Grey or the like. Those fat little metal cubes with the round lid and the seal. Well, Bob proceeded to export tea chests full of these little treats, with his own imprimatur, back to the UK. The supplementary idea was to replace a core of those little tins of tea with a batch in each case, stuffed  to the maximum with high grade marijuana. Well, this worked just fine but it wasn’t to last, of course. As was Bob’s wont, he was sitting in his car on one occasion, enjoying the spoils of his labours, a tea tin opened on the passenger seat and the makings of a huge spliff in his lap, when a couple of the local policemen knocked on the car  window. Someone with an axe to grind and better connections than Bob had made a report. Bob was busted and no mistake. The evidence of the opened tin only led to another batch of similarly prepared samples, so there was no wriggling out of this with a neat little bribe. This was evidence of a major drug-smuggling operation. In some respects, Bob got off lightly. No more than a slap on the wrist. He was booted out of the country after paying a substantial fine, which probably had a lot to do with his status as son-in-law to a local bigwig. He had to basically abandon everything though. That included his “wife” and the thousands of pounds worth of hi -fi equipment, his home, business…. .Everything really .

 He was told he’d be persona non grata for a full ten years.It was in this lull in his adventures, only part way into his exile sentence, when I happened upon him by the cana. A man at a loose end with a great yarn to tell..

Back in Amsterdam the first mouthful of  the pan-fried fish fairly exploded in my mouth like cotton wool that had been deep -fried like one of Ringo’s legendary pasties.The pasties had been sold from a van  to home-going young revellers around Queen’s University in Belfast in the early 1970s. Their drink-soaked critical faculties allowed for record sales of this awful mush.

Hungry as I was I was forced to spit it out .It was possibly the worst thing I had ever tasted in my life and it would take more than marijuana to convince me otherwise.

We all laughed in agreement. Whatever was in the canals of Amsterdam had rendered all life within inedible.

One good thing came of our meeting,though,  because Bob told us that if we were ever in London and needed a job, mention of his name at a certain “dodgy”  Harrow Vehicle Cleaners beside Wembley Football Stadium  would be all we needed. He was as good as his word, and we scored jobs within two days of landing back penniless at a friend’s flat in London.

It wasn’t to be the last time I saw Bob. That happened sometime later when he popped up on my doorstep unannounced in a house I was renting  in Putney, some time later…. But that’s a whole other yarn….

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