Essays & interviews

The Miracle of Gorinchem

Jo van der Spek – Nov 2002

There was already a local radio station in Gorinchem during the Second World War: 'Het Wonder van Gorinchem' - 'The Miracle of Gorinchem'. In 1940, Mayor van Rappard used the transmitter to give the order to flee the city, because he feared a German attack from the west. A couple of days later, on May 10th, he had to hastily revoke his decree. It had not been necessary, and legally the mayor should never even have issued it. The residents were ordered back home by the Dutch military. We don't know how long 'The Miracle of Gorinchem' remained on air after that.

Sixty-three years later, a radio station has been set up in that same town of Gorkum, as the locals call Gorinchem, in the context of 'The Future from the Sidelines' project. This time, too, the aim is to mobilize people. Not that the radio transmissions are warning them to flee, but they do hope to stir people's imaginations. It invites the inhabitants of Gorkum to come out and play, to tell stories about what they are playing and how.

The sports field 'The Future' has been miraculously changed into a tournament arena. The former clubhouse of Unitas football club has been turned into a workshop and its former boardroom transformed into a radio studio. The editorial team is industriously seeking out news and features, inviting guests and making reportages about how people play games and sports in Gorkum. Young and old, indoors and outdoors, in clubs and in the open countryside. Old Mr. van Kesteren, who used to play cowboys and indians in the willows, and threw snowballs in the nude when in Hamburg, where he was temporarily stationed as a forced labourer. A Moroccan karate teacher visits with six of his pupils, and turns out to be a talented actor. A pigeon-fancier talks about how he has read newspaper reports about how pigeons in Iraq are used to detect poison gas. And an Iraqi pigeon-fancier talks about the end that his pigeons met: they were eaten. And yes indeed, the pigeon-fancier from Gorkum once recognized one of his pigeons in the 'chicken' soup that his mother put in front of him.

The war that has been fought in Iraq during this project also seems to be topical in Gorkum. Like the weapon transports passing by on the railway right next to the Gildenwijk neighbourhood, the images and newsflashes pass by in the stories of Gorkum's inhabitants. Mrs Kamsteeg, who has just come out of the shoe shop in the 'Piazza Centrum', is unhesitatingly able to transfer the war to her front garden. It was the day after the statue of Saddam Hussein had been toppled in Baghdad: 'Now that you mention it, where we live in Lingewijk we also have a sculpture that they can pull down. We're a respectable neighbourhood, but a couple of vandals from outside would be welcome. That thing - a monstrosity in rusty iron - it's terrible.'

It is an age-old carnival tradition to turn everything upside-down, sweep the rules aside, adapt reality to your imagination. Old Simon was a barber and cheer-leader in 'The Gorkers' carnival association. He unearths old legends and restores them to their rightful place in Gorkum's public life, such as the 'Smakbak', a wooden box with a child's clog. In former times the day-labourers would throw dice to decide who would get work and who would go without. Simon had it reproduced in concrete. The pebbles symbolize how youngsters would be swept away by the river's wild waters and eventually end up in concrete garrisons, only then to go and do what was proper. Simon is keen to emphasize that fantasy and reality are for him fairly interchangeable entities.
'You should do everything with your tongue in your cheek. When you use the word 'game' it doesn't mean to say that it's something nice. A war is also a game, and always was. There are the actor-directors, and then all the little pawns who have to play the game. You can't escape being part of the power game. It's best if you stick really close to home. If I greet you with 'Welcome!' then that's part of my game. Playing is not something that you should do halfheartedly, you're responsible for everything you do, and if you play that game then that's what you do. That's what you are. You can say what you like, but what matters is what you do.'

You are what you play.

Did you know, by the way, that it is forbidden to play in the brand-new Piazza Centrum?
I'll be damned if it's not the truth. Mothers admonish their children, supervisers deal out reprimands, police officers take action against ill-advised movements. The first priority is that Piazza Centrum should be a success. 'It's a nuisance for the people who go shopping there. It annoys people, and they blame it on you as a mother.' So there's no mucking around on the moving walkway, and playing football with tincans will be dealt with severely. This is the domain of intra-regional bargain-hunters, the big spenders with a car standing on the rooftop parking deck, and the oldies hanging out on the bucket seats. And the rollator-equipped senior citizens, too, of course.

Of course, Simon, you can't pretend that play doesn't have something to do with power (and vice-versa, to be sure).

For adults play is mostly nostalgia. Memories of playing cowboys and indians, free-wheeling. Something that you no longer do, no longer can do or are supposed to do. Most people cannot entertain the notion that you might also play games with a rollator, could take part in a race, even if it's to see who can go slowest. And entertain yourself with the puzzle game 'traffic jam', to kill time? No, that just increases the stress.

Just like Gorkum's Gildenwijk area, the whole Piazza Centrum is a crossroads of different tempi, in the same way it's an intersection of city and countryside, of papist and protestant, of indigenous and foreign. And a town council, or the board of a sports club, wants to make sure it's all properly channelled, set in stone in regulations, and therefore establishes a complex web of amenities so that nobody has an excuse to throw everything into confusion. Or wither in solitude behind the geraniums - with or without a rollator.
Play tends to cut across all of this. Play is a means of appropriating space, pushing back boundaries and fighting about the codes: codes of behaviour, cultural codes, questions of taste and the rhythm of life. Do whatever comes to mind, give your imagination free rein, and see where you end up landing - or colliding with another vessel.
So you need space to manoeuvre. And you have to be able to take a knock, in case you crash. Because, says Simon, 'In a game there can also be casualties.'

That's how serious it is.

'We don't intend to annoy people or destroy things. For us it's simply about being able to go skateboarding. We search for every spot where it's smooth, and if there's a spot that's smooth where there happens to be a lot of people, then we'll simply skate there.'
Gorkum's skaters have discovered the square in front of the town hall, the smoothest in Gorkum. It's cool. The sound of the clattering wheels pierces through into the wedding chapel, and bridesmaids shit themselves if a kid makes an emergency stop in the planter. True skaters don't get married, after all - they're married to their board. If it breaks you buy a new one. With utter contempt for death they defy the laws of gravity. Breaking your ribs in the process, or destroying some street furniture, is all part of the game É I mean, of the skateboarder's way of life. For local residents and passers-by it is sometimes an attraction, but usually a nuisance. 'That's their bad luck.' It's all about friction. Skaters make every wrinkle, even the slightest unevenness, painfully palpable and audible.

People are constantly on the move. Sometimes covering short distances at a slow pace, as with a walking frame. Sometimes travelling erratically and elusively, like on a skateboard. Sometimes progressing great distances in short spaces of time, like an invading army or a tourist. Sometimes travelling for a long time and to distant destinations. We then call it migration. From village to city, from hot to wet, from south to west.
People throw everything into confusion, and confuse each other, as children can do best. The world will probably never be one big happy family, but there's plenty to fight about. You can call this process integration or cohesion, or simply a colourful neighbourhood.
Playfulness is also carelessness, briefly giving no consideration to all the rules and codes. Playing is about stepping on people's toes, taking blows, tribal warfare and competition. And it's about formulating new codes. Throwing punches and getting hurt, falling down and getting yourself up, splitting your sides laughing - it's all food for the soul. One man's game is another man's misery - you can't escape that.
This may well be the reality, but it doesn't work without fantasy. As the old oracle Johan Huizinga already realized 65 years ago, we have to trust in our gut feelings, our fantasy and our creativity.

Surely it's no miracle that the skateboarders on the square in front of the Town Hall grace the cover of the town council's vade mecum?

Preparing for the not-yet

Jeanneworks – 2016

The Blue House

Paul O'Neill – 2012

Playing the City

Maaike Lauwaert – 2008

In The Field of Players

Kim van de Werff – 2004


Siebe Thissen – 2002

The Miracle of Gorinchem

Jo van der Spek – 2002

Principles of Hope

Henk Slager – 2002

The Ontology of the Bagel Cart

Martin Lucas – 2001

Networks, faces, membranes

Reinaldo Laddaga – 1999


Maaike Engelen – 1999

A House for the Community

Ole Bouman – 1995