I’m starting to think that October 23 might be my favourite day in the book. Why? Because I, as notCarruthers, get to abandon notDavies, the tiny boat and the foggy Frisians for a day, and, instead, travel to Amsterdam for one glorious night in a luxury hotel.
The book stipulates that the hotel needs to be hard by the Amstel River, and offer a ‘perfect’ bed with ‘glorious redundancies’. It also needs to be within strolling distance of the Jewish Quarter, where Carruthers will pick up his ‘German sea-dog’ disguise for the coming days.
For me, there’s only one obvious place to stay – and that’s the luxurious Hotel Amstel. It was there in 1898, and I’m happy to say it’s still there now. Carruthers rather tips his hand in terms of his taste for the grander type of hotel, when he telegraphs his boss to say, misleadingly, that he can be contacted at the Hotel du Louvre (Sherlock Holmes’s favourite Parisian hotel btw). In Amsterdam, at the time, there wasn’t anything grander than the Amstel.
One curious quirk of the place is that it’s a hotel that didn’t just offer a huge luxurious bed for the night and a sumptuous dining room. It also gained a worldwide reputation as a centre for ‘physical therapy’. Johan Mezger, the inventor of the ‘Swedish massage’, worked out of the hotel for many years, and all the royal families and nobility of the world flocked there for treatment.
I’m sorry to say that the Jewish Quarter has not survived as well as the hotel. There is still a museum and the Portuguese synagogue, but a lot has disappeared. The reasons? Well, the same ones that have accounted for the devastation of several urban areas along the route of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. Between 1940 and 1945, through a combination of persecution, execution, starvation and Allied bombing, the Jewish population in Amsterdam was reduced from 80,000 to just 5,000, and most of the buildings had been destroyed.
The Jewish Quarter now is dominated by the tourist-infested flea market of Waterlooplein, so finding a marine slop shop offering a basic sailor disguise is not going to be easy. A Swedish massage, on the other hand, is probably still quite easy to find.
At the end of October 23, Carruthers talks about reading the German newspapers and describes them thus:
‘in hate of a wrong not theirs’, were one and all seething with rancorous Anglophobia.
It took me a while to track down the line in quotation marks, but I take it to be a reference to an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem called ‘A Court Lady’:
“Each of the heroes around us has fought for his land and line,
But thou hast fought for a stranger, in hate of a wrong not thine.
“Happy are all free peoples, too strong to be dispossess’d:
But blessed are those among nations, who dare to be strong for the rest!”
This rather begs the question as to what fight the Germans were supposedly getting involved in against the English that wasn’t their own.
The most obvious answer is South Africa and the build-up to the Second Boer War. Following the infamous Kruger telegram of 1896, the German press would have been publishing a lot of anti-English articles about goings-on in the Transvaal and its surrounding areas (although by 1898, the Germans may have cooled off a bit, maybe?).
Within a year of Carruthers browsing his journals by the river, Britain would be at war with the Boers, and Childers, the author of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, would be out there playing his part. All in all, this might be a quiet and luxurious day for Carruthers, but the signs of impending doom – so much a part of the atmosphere of this book – continue to linger on all around him.