‘I LIKE Being Naughty!’

The Work of Annie M.G. Schmidt

The writer Annie M.G. Schmidt (1911-) is often affectionately called the Grandmother of the Netherlands; or, if it doesn’t sound too solemn, the Mother of the Fatherland. She owes this title to a combination of talents which it would be hard to find anywhere else. Children’s literature has Astrid Lindgren and Roald Dahl, comedy has Alan Ayckbourn and Neil Simon. We have Kurt Tucholsky’s satirical poems and Lewis Carroll’s light verse, and all the witty lyrics of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. But Annie Schmidt excels in all these fields and she has been writing so much for so long that three generations of Dutch men and women have grown up with her work. You won’t find anyone in the Netherlands who doesn’t know at least a few lines of hers by heart.

Over the last few years, since the eve of her eightieth birthday, Annie Schmidt has been honoured by Queen Beatrix and praise and awards have been heaped upon her. She has received one prize after another – and has accepted them all with the slightly mocking amusement which has become her trademark. She is as Dutch as anyone can be, no great lover of fuss and hullabaloo, always quick to put things in perspective with a remark like ‘Oh well, if you keep going long enough, and you get old enough, there comes a time when they simply can’t ignore you any longer.’ All those juries and committees have in fact been paying a debt of honour. While almost all the Netherlands adored her work, the literary world largely ignored it because it was merely entertainment – and for a long time now the literary world has attached little importance to entertainment. However, once Annie Schmidt was unmistakably a part of Dutch cultural history her work could no longer be ignored. She had become a grandmother; but not the sweet, unthreatening little granny familiar to us from so many films and children’s books. Long before it became fashionable, Annie Schmidt was making a stand in her children’s stories against bossy mothers and authority-figures who thought only of their own positions of power. In her books it’s the children who usually run things, with at most the occasional assistance of a sensible adult. A kind father, perhaps; because the fathers in Annie Schmidt’s books are usually much nicer than the mothers.

All her children’s books are in fact a plea for imagination and freedom of thought and action, though she is never the least bit solemn about it. And she still runs her life on these principles, as she has made clear in the interviews to which she has submitted on various festive occasions. One chat show host wanted to know how anyone can live to such an age and still remain so young in spirit. ‘Plenty of drinking and plenty of smoking,’ she answered mischievously, lighting another cigarette to make her point. One of her books of children’s verse has the title I LIKE Being Naughty! (Ik ben lekker stout, 1955), and that has become her motto, too.

Anna Maria Geertruida Schmidt was born in Zeeland, in the south-western part of the Netherlands, the daughter of a parson. This seems to be the ideal background for a satirist, for she is by no means the only parson’s child to have found a place in the flourishing world of Dutch satire. Even as a child, she had a keen eye for the hypocrisy which tends to be the essential prerequisite for respectability in bourgeois circles. Her father kept hinting that he had stopped believing in God long ago, but had to keep up appearances because of his work. Her mother saw through this pretence and made derisive jokes about it. And the daughter watched, and did not understand why grown-ups always had to deceive themselves and everyone around them. The idea of a grown-up world where such rules apply has always filled her with horror. She once wrote, in the child’s lullaby ‘This is the World of the Grown-ups’ (‘Dit is de wereld van de grote mensen’): ‘Don’t be afraid, you don’t have to go there yet.’

As a girl, what Annie Schmidt liked best was to bury herself in books. She dreamed herself into a make-believe world which was much more beautiful then the real one; just as later, when she had her own family, her husband and child would often find it impossible to talk to her because she would be walking round with yet another story in her head. ‘Mother’s got her head in the clouds again,’ they said then.

At first it was not clear what her future would be. She began by studying to be a solicitor, because that’s what her brother had done, but dropped it halfway through to take courses in shorthand and typing. For two years she worked as an au pair for three aristocratic sisters in Germany, where she became acquainted with the work of satirists such as Kurt Tucholsky and Erich Kastner, writers whom she has continued to admire all her life. ‘That’s where it all came from, from them,’ she said recently, discussing her own sources of inspiration. ‘People simply don’t realise that this culture is one more thing that Adolf Hitler destroyed.’

Back in the Netherlands again in 1932, Annie Schmidt became a librarian – an enthusiastic young woman, who enjoyed reading good books out loud to rooms full of children. During the Second World War she came into contact with journalists from the underground newspaper Het Parool, and after the Liberation she became head of its documentation department. One of her colleagues discovered by chance that Miss Schmidt wrote the odd poem in her spare time. Perhaps she could write a few things for a staff party as well? Her work caused little short of a sensation with its airy, laconic tone. Professional comedians promptly started fighting for material by her, and Het Parool published her children’s stories, poems and columns in rapid succession. Annie Schmidt was already thirty-six when all this began. ‘Writing was a release,’ she said. ‘It was as if I had always had to hold it in and then suddenly I could let it all out.’ All at once the floodgates opened. The stories and poems and columns were collected into innumerable books and her song lyrics were heard in theatres and on the radio. In 1952 she was approached by a radio producer who wanted to make an American-style soap opera about a family, using a whole team of scriptwriters. Her reaction was: ‘Can’t I do it on my own?’ And for seven years Annie Schmidt wrote the script for Mr and Mrs Average (De familie Doorsnee), Dutch radio’s most popular series ever. For it she created a distinctive style, with the dialogue regularly interrupted by songs; a sort of ongoing radio musical. In 1958 she also began writing a TV series on the same pattern about the constantly rowing inhabitants of a boarding house called Pension Hommeles.

Annie Schmidt created a whole new brand of radio and television entertainment – totally Dutch in its warmth and homeliness, but with enough of an edge to stop it becoming saccharine. Progressive, but not blinkered by revolutionary dogma. Playful and teasing, but not fanatical. She took Dutch domesticity and flung its windows wide to let the fresh air in; but the pot plants on the windowsills remained neat and undisturbed. In 1963 a producer asked her if she would translate a musical for the theatre. She had only a vague idea of what a musical actually was, but said: ‘While I’ve got so many ideas of my own, I’ll write my own musical.’ And so she did. And in her musicals, too, she created her own form: comedies with songs – and a bit sharper than had been possible on radio and television, because there was no censorship in the theatre. Typical of the exchanges in that first musical is this:

First woman: ‘My thirteen-year-old daughter carries condoms in her handbag.’
Second woman: ‘Gosh. So young and already she’s got a handbag!’

Since then Annie Schmidt has written many more TV series, children’s books and stage plays. Critics have sometimes remarked that her work could use rather more bite and less restraint. This was their verdict on her play Shifting Sand (Los zand, 1992) in which emotions are understated in the extreme. But in all likelihood this, like all her work, is simply a flawless reflection of the typical Dutchman, who doesn’t go in for impassioned speeches and when he quarrels with someone just stalks round in a huff without realising how funny he looks to those watching his sulks. It is no coincidence that the play’s funniest scene is one between two women, one of whom has a nasty feeling that her husband is sleeping with the other, while the other is on the point of confessing just that. But their conversation, what they actually say, is about small waffles and large waffles and what you have to look out for when you buy waffles at the baker’s.

As yet Annie Schmidt has received little attention from the wider world. Some of her children’s books have been translated – into Czech, Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, German, French and some other languages – but only a handful of isolated titles. To date there has been no attempt to promote her by publishing a representative selection of her work. The English-speaking world, in particular, has been badly served, apart from a nice selection of children’s verses in the collection Pink Lemonade (1992). Yet any idea that her humour might be untranslatable was proved nonsense at the 1991 Story International festival in Rotterdam, where translators from a number of countries pounced on Annie Schmidt’s work. The children’s author Anthony Horowitz, in particular, produced adroit, humorous translations which delighted the writer herself.

Despite the limited number of translations, in 1988 she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). In a witty acceptance speech, addressed to Andersen himself, Annie Schmidt did not hide her frustration at the lack of adequate translations of her work. ‘It is a bit curious and frustrating to make a speech in English, when my best books are not available in that language,’ she said. ‘The international jury had to read my work in German or Japanese or Danish, perhaps to their irritation. The Dutch BBY kept saying: Oh, she’s very popular in Holland. So is football, the jury replied, but because she is on the nomination list since 1960, we’ll take the risk. And so they did.’ And then she ended her speech with a striking self-portrait: ‘Dear Hans, I have been an ugly duckling for a long time, now I am an old and ugly swan. But still a swan.’

By Henk van Gelder
Translated by Julian Ross

First published in The Low Countries, 1994