Home » Netherlands » Hendrik Groen » Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old)

Hendrik Groen: Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old)

The book opens with a diary entry by the eponymous Hendrik Groen which reads 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. Groen, as the book title tells us, is 83 1/4 years old. This is the general style of the book – funny, facetious, complaining, me against the rest of the world, particularly the authorities. He claims that he is ever the civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite and helpful bloke and, on the face of it, he is but, deep down, there is a bitter old man who is determined not to go quietly. His aim is simple: in this diary I am going to give the world an uncensored exposé: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.

The care home where he lives is probably like care homes elsewhere in the developed world. People complain, people follow a routine, the authorities try to keep them in line. The people in the home expect their tea at 3.15. They expect conventional Dutch food, none of that foreign rubbish such as rijsttafel. And what do they do the rest of the day? Whingeing is pastime number one down there. As he says You’re supposed to enjoy your sunset years, but it bloody well isn’t always easy. For the other inmates (his term), there is Sunday to look forward to, as that is when the (reluctant) children and grandchildren visit. Groen does not get visits. He had a daughter but she died as a child. His wife never really recovered from the loss and is in a home for the mentally ill. However neither money nor trouble is spared to keep the oldies docile, passive and lethargic, camouflaged by bingo, billiards and ‘Feel Good Fitness’.

But Groen uses guerilla tactics. He goes to tea with an old lady, who gives him some horrible cake. He smuggles it out and drops it in the fish tank. The fish die. There is a big investigation. Groen, ever the helpful bloke, admits he had the cake and left it on the table in the third-floor pantry. Someone must have taken it and put it in the fish tank. The culprit is not found. Groen’s partner in crime, Evert, who may be even more wicked than Groen, specially buys six pink fondant fancies and puts them in another fish tank. The fish die and the police are called. The criminal is not found.

Despite continually protesting his innocence and sweet nature, Groen is not averse to causing problems. He goes – once – to the Keep Fit Class but tells the female instructor (Call me Tina) he will not be going again. When she asks why, he tells her I can’t concentrate on the exercises properly. I stiffen up. Call me Tina has further problems. She shouts at one of the class for not putting enough effort in. The unfortunate lady dies on the spot.

With this death as with others, Groen takes a somewhat detached and cynical view, often using such events for his humour. There is the lady photographed on her birthday, as she was the oldest citizen of the town. The local paper came to take her photo but she fell head-first into the cream cake. By the time another cake had been acquired, she had died. There are other humorous but politically incorrect reports of deaths.

The residents are not completely cut off from the outside world. During the course of the book, Queen Beatrix abdicates in favour of her son Willem Alexander. The residents of the home are generally very keen royalists and disappointed that the bus company will not put on an extra us to take them to see the coronation. Not surprisingly, our hero is not a royalist and mocks them. The residents are also supporters of the 50Plus party, a political party devoted to the aims of older people. (Apparently, other countries have such parties.) Again, our hero uses them as a source of humour, particularly mocking the then head Henk Krol.

Groen and Evert decide to extend their range and, with four other like-minded people, including a new resident Eefje Brand, whom both men have taken a shine to, they set up an outing club. Each person, in turn, must organise a surprise outing. The management is suspicious of this activity but cannot fault it. However, when they try to extend their activities to a cooking club, they are forbidden access to the kitchen (for insurance reasons). The outings go well. They go to a casino and end up winning. Groen decides his outing must be to a cookery class.

Mocking the management is his favourite task. He has allies, not only with his group, but the secretary of the care home manager is an old friend and slips him information. He learns that the home has a very bad rating. His mockery ranges from the fact that he is no longer in a care home but in a market-oriented health-services organization providing individually tailored care to his perpetual battle with Mrs. Stelwagen, the ambitious manager. When a patient with dementia goes missing, Mrs. Stelwagen is eager to keep it quiet and refuses to call in the police, so ever helpful Hendrik Groen pretends he has seen the patient at the bus stop. Staff are sent to find her but the police eventually find her in the park. The battle between Mrs. Stelwagen and Groen and his allies continues throughout the book. He mocks her fire drill. The director called the fire drill a great success. If the point of a drill is to create as much chaos as possible, I’m in total agreement with her. In short, most management actions are subjects of mockery.

Nothing is immune from his mockery. Not only does he mock the management of the home, politicians of all sorts and other authority figures, such as the police, but he also mocks death, including suicide and euthanasia, dementia and Alzheimer’s and incontinence and bowel movements. Only when these come close to home and affect those closest to him does he take a more serious tone. Above all, despite his age – he will reach his eighty-fourth birthday during the course of the book – he is man who is determined to keep going and rise above adversity, whether it is in the form of authority, health issues or other problems and he is going to use humour and bloody-mindedness to do so. The book ends with the end of the year and his telling us that he planned to do this only for a year. However, he ends the year wih a determination to go out and buy a diary for next year.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Meulenhoff
First published in English in 2016 by Michael Joseph
Translated by Hester Velmans