By David Lewis:
Once, in Amsterdam, it rained forever. Rain spattered the aeroplane window and the strange and beautiful journey to Centraal Station, rain shrouded the Hotel Botel’s solid presence on the swollen Ij river, rain seemed to drain the flat sky of the last of the light. For three days we woke to the rain outside the cabin, felt a cool rain-wind in our faces on the deck, watched a coot’s nest bobbing in the wake of a passing barge. Rain on the red-brick façade of the railway station, darkening the old walls, rain on the cobbles, rain in the canals, falling softly, unceasingly. Our days were dominated by water.
We were guided by the memories – not the ghost, for he is still mooching through the rain, still causing trouble - of writer Jeff Young, fresh with Amsterdam stories when I first met him thirty years ago. From his Amsterdam days I inherited a brown leather jacket and a heavy Dutch butcher’s bicycle, and in my mind’s eye he limps along Herrengracht in his junk shop overcoat, turns a corner, disappears. We drank in his bars, smoked Dutch roll-ups, had coffee in the windows of his brown cafés. I remember young leaves on the trees along the canals, the endless silver curtain of the rain, soft, gentle, almost apologetic. In the flea market on Waaterloplein I found a battered book, sepia images of the vulnerable doorways and ornate windows that we passed daily, generating a sense of déjà vu, of having known the city in the past. It gave a watery depth to our walks: we never seemed to be dry. From the Rijksmuseum the old painters reached out to us through the rain, washing the tall counting houses along the great canals in clouds and bright skies, illuminating street conversations with a sunshine we never saw. I remember the Frans Hals canvases in Haarlem, scrubbed puritan faces in blacks and greys, explosive white lace flashes at throat or cuff: outside, the rain-crunch of gravel, the green shine of leaves in a clipped garden, the screaming of swifts falling on us like an unseen cloudburst.
Amsterdam was a sea city on the edge of Europe. At night we walked home through Centraal station, beneath the great trains silently leaving for Antwerp, Rome, Vienna. It was city of wet golden distances and black waters, a city of brick streets, cyclists, walkers. On the evening of our last day we drank in the little hotel bar, a glass box on the deck, the golden lights and blue flags outside smeared by the streams of water.
If we choose, if we are fortunate, places do not leave us. Liverpool too is a sea city on the edge of Europe and, cycling along old brick streets to city parks and smoky bohemian cafes, I allowed Amsterdam to tint the whole city. Eventually all Jeff’s gifts continued their journeys without me – the butcher’s bicycle was given to the elderly American in the flat downstairs; beyond repair, the leather jacket was artfully displayed on a dustbin and walked off on its own. And it was not hard to imagine the city as a water-city, as had once been dreamed; canals and huge industrial channels opening from the Mersey, seeing Liverpool’s old streets as a criss-cross of narrow waterways. Gradually this feeling slipped away, and the old streets felt less watery. But even today, if I am lucky enough to walk the city in the rain, the belief that Liverpool is a city of ghost canals rises to the surface once again.
David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside. He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter