Migration- Theodore Van Houten

Theodore Van Houten is a Dutch-British writer, journalist, musicologist, translator, producer, Radio/TV program-maker and expert in silent movies.

My parents met by chance during their summer holiday. In August 1937 my mother would be 21, and her trip to Interlaken, Switzerland, was her first holiday spent abroad and independent from her parents. She was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a flat overlooking the ‘Meadows’ at Lonsdale Terrace, and still lived there when she first visited Switzerland. She devoted her time to her music, she was a cellist, her work as a civil servant, and took care of her father, who suffered from a cardiac disease.
At the time my father, Taco, who was born in the most northern province of the Netherlands, Groningen, lived in Wageningen. There his father was a famous lecturer on agricultural and landscape architecture at the Agricultural University. My father studied in Amsterdam: theology, philosophy and history, and mastered several languages including Hebrew, Greek and Latin. When he met my mother in the neutral area of the Interlaken open air swimming pool, he was 23.
Although initially he fancied a friend of my mother, her travel companion, also from Edinburgh, he fell in love with Sara. It was a holiday romance, but not one that was forgotten already on the train back home. He promised to visit Sara in Edinburgh and so he did. He came from a family consisting of parents and four boys. My mother came from a family of parents and four girls. Thus there was a difference in family culture, and in national culture. My father took a liking to my Scottish grandfather, a highly talented and musically gifted man, who had a brilliant business career, although – as an illegitimate – he had not been allowed to enter university. One of my aunts took the secret of his ancestry to the grave. Apparently he descended from a bastard child of a very, very famous Romantic Scottish writer. His name was James Lockhart. He was a real gentleman, brought up by a church minister. His mother was an Irish woman of rather ill repute, her name was Mary Gallagher. My father was not that keen on the strong personality of my grandmother, Sara Elizabeth Thomson Lockhart. Her father had been a see captain in the merchant navy and sailed from Leith (Edinburgh) to Odessa. He used to export or import horses, but did not live to be 50. If the family was not in the merchant navy (Thomson), whisky production and trade (Thomson) or cork (Currie) they could be in other careers. There had been a Charles Thomson, who was a commander (admiral) of the Royal Navy in the mid-nineteenth century. He was the ‘hero of the battle of Gibail (Byblos, Lebanon)’, and that gave him his rank.

My grandmother in Lonsdale Terrace definitely steered her household. My mother’s three sisters had already flown the nest. Dorothy was married to a war-invalid, Jim Don, a wealthy jute trader. Jean, later a well-known BBC radio producer, chaperoned the youngest daughter of the family. She was a child prodigy, Elizabeth, and studied the violin with Carl Flesch in Belgium and Cologne, where she once saw ‘Mister Hitler’ in a parade. My mother was the only girl left in Edinburgh. Her sisters called her ‘Mousie’. She was the only one of the four who had children, and she outlived all the others, even Elizabeth, who was almost five years younger.
My mother could be an au pair and she soon moved to Holland. In a place not far from Wageningen she stayed at a wealthy family to teach the boys proper English. She once thoughtlessly told the family that her father would send her money for Christmas. One of the boys awaited the postman every morning, got hold of the Scottish envelope, and changed the contents into Dutch guilders at a bank in Arnhem. The bank thought it suspicious and notified the police. The boy was arrested but later became a university professor of law. After this scandal my father’s elder brother Klaas, a publisher and a bully of a man, went to pick up Sara. She then lived with my grandparents in Wageningen. They taught her to speak Dutch, but with a strong northern (Groningen) accent. It took a long time for her to adjust to ‘proper’ King’s Dutch. She had to be discouraged to the use the Groningen accent she had just naturally acquired. As an au-pair she was once present at some kind of party of snobs with hyphenated names. One of the families was very proud, because their son was a naval cadet in uniform, with cap and epaulets, and he was presented as their golden boy. My mother could not help her remark: ‘We had somebody at sea in our family as well..’ ‘In the merchant service, I suppose’, the cadet’s mother said.
‘No’, my mother replied: ‘Admiral of the Royal Navy’.

Taco and Sara were engaged, as was still the habit, and had plans to get married as soon as Taco had graduated. On 10 May 1940, immaculately dressed in black tie, he waited at the Wageningen railway station for the train to Amsterdam, for his final exam. That day he would take his degree as a theologian from the (Protestant) Amsterdam Free University. But the train did not come. The Germans had invaded Holland that night, and until the 14th of  May a war was fought out. Nazi bombers destroyed the centre of the city of Rotterdam on 14 May, and the Dutch army capitulated the following day. By then the queen and government had already fled to London.

My mother was still a British subject. Anyone in Holland carrying a British, Belgian or French passport was seen as an enemy of Nazi-Germany, and had to report at an internment camp. For British women this was camp Schoorl, north of Amsterdam. It housed many POW’s, including a group of forty British women, many of them artists and circus people that were on tour in Holland at the time of the German invasion.
For my mother there was only one way to acquire Dutch citizenship and avoid incarceration: getting married to my father before the end of May. When still under 30, at the time one could not get married without the parents’ permission. My mothers parents were in Scotland and in no way to be reached. Through the Arnhem Public Prosecutor dispensation was arranged and my parent got married on 21 May 1940, in the bicycle shed of the Wageningen town hall, which had been bombed.
My father soon graduated and the couple lived in Culemborg, Leiden and Amsterdam-North where my father was assistant-minister, student pastor and church minister respectively. Because of my mothers double nationality the authorities kept an eye on the couple, and my father could not do much in the resistant movement. The couple had two children during the war. A girl was born in April 1942 and a boy in August 1944. Both children were seriously ill. My sister always blamed her many health problems to the German occupation during which she grew up. She was just three years old when the war ended. In the last war winter the Germans cut Amsterdam off from food supplies, causing my brother’s rachitis. My mother herself suffered from scurvy during the last war years. She also lost her pre-war weight, to never regain it again.
In the first years after the war the family lived in Britsum, a very small village in Friesland, the Northern province of milk and healthy food. A second girl was born here in July 1947, and she was a blooming baby. My mother had not been back to Scotland for years. In 1943 she received a Red Cross telegram with the sad message that her father had died from angina pectoris at 62. Not too far from Britsum was the port of Harlingen, from where coasters used to sail to Leith or Edinburgh. She contacted the company and before long she sailed with Captain Eijs to Scotland, where her mother and eldest sister awaited her. She was born in a metropole. After years in a small rural Frysian village she was longing back for Princes Street, Edinburgh castle, the tea rooms and bag pipes. First she had two children with her, so it was probably somewhere in 1946. When my grandmother pushed a pram through Edinburgh and was asked what was in it, she said: ‘A pair of blooming foreigners.’
From then on – until 1960 – my mother would travel along on coasters from Harlingen and later Rotterdam to Edinburgh. Usually in September, when it was her mother’s birthday. She always liked to travel, and she probably went over twice a year, to stay away for quite a while. A month was no exception. The shipping companies did not or hardly charge her anything for the trips. It was clandestine. As we sailed into Scotland we were to stay in our cabins and should not be seen aboard. There was something illegal about it, but we were never bothered.
In 1950 the family moved to Aalsmeer, horticultural centre of the world. The family was ‘complete’ so to speak. In five years time three children had arrived. And five years after that I arrived, too late to be of any use. My sister Liz, ten years my senior, took part in my upbringing and taught me reading and counting and so on. When my mother went to Scotland, the (other) children were mostly taken care of by members of my father’s Reformed Church congregation.
Probably in 1953 it was my first turn to cross the North Sea to that Utopia called Edinburgh, where my aunt Dorothy and her widowed mother lived in a large house at Queensferry Road, leading to the famous Firth of Forth railway bridge. Our neighbors across the road, the Eveleens family, provided us with a large brown cardboard flower export box, that was to be my carry-cot.
I traveled with my mother from Rotterdam to Edinburgh each year once or twice between 1953 and the early sixties. When I first flew – with a Polish Lot airplane full of refugees – it was the last flight allowed to depart from Amsterdam airport because of the snow conditions. This was shortly before Christmas 1962, and my Granny and aunt Dorothy by then had moved down to Sussex.
The Rotterdam-Edinburgh crossing took three days. I remember when I was six (1958) or seven (1959) we once found ourselves in a raging storm over the Dogger Bank. The coaster (either Midsland, Gaasterland, or Nieuwland) disappeared in a huge wave, and I felt this was the end of me. I was very seasick and even went to the ship’s railing feeling the rage, salt and foam of nature. I was allowed there, and on the bridge, while my school mates in Aalsmeer were vast asleep and off for school in the morning. My mother did not care about that much, that I missed school. It did cause some trouble however with the school inspection. We would stay in Edinburgh and go shopping, to McVitties or the George Street Book Store tea room, visit the castle, all sorts of friends – always ladies – and no school or church to be seen. We went to auctions where my mother would get bargains that had to come home with us by boat. Our Robert Westphal Berlin piano had been given to us by Granny, and had come over by boat, before I was born.

Life was altogether different in Scotland. Dogs and cats would sleep in our beds and I loved the dogs. I had to behave like a prince in brown shiny Clark shoes, in sailor’s suit, sailor’s cap reading HMS Claverhouse, and a white cord and a whistle. My school mates in Holland wore overalls, boots or wooden shoes. When I was six or seven my mother took me to a clockmaker, Mr. Penny, in a small narrow street just before the Edinburgh Castle parade square. His workshop was full of clocks and springs. He wore an eye glass to look into the mysterious worlds of clockwork. Mr. Penny was kind. Apparently my aunt Dorothy was a good customer. He gave my me first watch. It was probably American, as its face showed the American popular hero from the southern states Davy Crockett, wearing his famous fur hat. When I returned to school in Aalsmeer – I was seven or eight – I was the only pupil there (out of  300)  who could tell the clock. A 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Hansma, would regularly send me to the central hall of the school where a large clock was: ‘Go and see what time it is.’ I was the only one in school who could do that. In the fifties children did not sport watches. Moreover, I was the only one in school who could speak English. I was certainly a bit of an outsider, being half-foreign, the smallest boy in the school, on Clark shoes.
When we were in Scotland churches did not seem to exist. We never went there anyway, while in Aalsmeer it was compulsory.
Everything was so different in Scotland, it was ‘a country full of aunties’. There were hills there, and we would pick nick in the Pentlands, where the crystal clear streams contained small fish swimming against the flow in extremely cold water. We drank tea a lot, and Granny would add ‘a mickle’ or ‘a muckle’ of sugar to every dish she prepared. Aunt Dorothy would bake delicious pancakes and scones on the Aga, and we would watch Robin Hood on the little TV there was. We had no telly at home yet.
There seemed to be money for everything. I was named after my aunt Dorothy, but she had not much experience with children, other than her three younger sisters. She was active in the Tory party and a very generous person. If I would stand before a toy-shop and study the shop window, she would already walk in to buy me the whole stock, so to speak. We were once taken by a Rolls-Royce to meet the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and I had to behave as good and as silent as gold. There were no churches, no schools, no friends. Edinburgh seemed to consist only of shops, parks, tearooms and auctions. I remember we once visited a family that had a man in it. He took me up to his attic, occupied entirely by a table full of  wind-up miniature trains.
In all, I must have spent six to twelve months or maybe more in Scotland. In 1958 we went down – in an Austin A40 Somerset – to London, where the two other sisters of my mother lived and some other family members. One of them was in a wheel chair. He had been a top man in MacKinlay’s Scotch whiskey and was by now very old. That morning my mother had given me a present, a glass paper-weight with colorful flowers in it. When we came to old Uncle Jimmie (his son, Montgomery’s right hand, was ‘Young Jimmie’) I felt sorry for him because of the wheel chair, and showed him my precious new paper weight. ‘What does he want?’ asked Uncle Jimmie, and my mother explained: ‘He wants you to have it.’
Three years later I inherited his silver card-case.

I was brought up bilingual and as a young boy could distinguish between the British and Dutch ways of life. I well remember the bright red colors of  Edinburgh mail-vans and kitchen chairs, and the use of bright green on doors, and what not? It was all less Calvinistic than life in Holland. And Britain was wealthier then, than Holland. I clearly noticed that as well, when five or six years old. My aunt Dorothy once said to me: ‘I have had nothing all my life, only money.’
I was an early migrant, growing up in one culture and regularly sniffing at another surrounding where everything was different. The left side traffic, the strange money system, the white tea… My aunt Dorothy, although very much influenced and bullied by her mother, was the solid rock. She smoked Benson & Hedges gold packs continuously and could be found working in her garden as soon as she had half a chance. My grandmother did the bringing up: ‘Eat your din-dins properly.’
In the early sixties Mother and daughter Dorothy moved to the south near Hastings. I would still visit them regularly, but I had got used to the differences in culture, behavior, taste and life altogether.
I could not always come along with my mother on one of her Scottish excursions. Her four children were then placed in the families of parishioners, friends, sometimes family members, as long as she was hands-free to move about in Scotland, from shop to shop window, from tearoom to tearoom.
I usually went to one family for a few weeks. Good hard working people, devoted to their religion, as good as gold, but it was not quite the same as Queensferry Road. Their family culture differed as much from home as Edinburgh did. On Saturday night a tub was placed in the middle of the living room, and all children used it, the one after the other. As a guest I could go first. After the last bather had been cleaned a greyish watery substance remained foaming in the bath. They sang psalms and hymns at the organ, and would then play board games. Nothing like that at home. The ‘auntie’ who took care of me sang psalms and hymns all day long. She would have spent her very last penny if she could help a hungry tramp. These people were the few true Christians I ever came across. My eldest sister went to school in Haarlem. A friend of my father lived there, an eccentric sculptor and painter. She had to sleep in the attic where plaster models, busts and so on haunted her sleep. My younger sister would stay at another church minister’s house in a village nearby. These people were extremely, pre-war old fashioned. At home we could do anything we liked. But the daughter of this family, studying to be a doctor, had to ask her mother everything: ‘Mum, can I have a banana?’ or ‘Mum, can I have a glass of milk?’ My sister went mad of this fossilized household and she gave us the weirdest examples so as to agree with her. This family was so obsolete that we nicknamed them ‘The Flintstones.’ My brother used to stay at a family where they had five or six daughters, no sons. This was peculiar, because a son would have done well as a successor, as the father had developed a very large horticultural company. He would have liked one of his daughters to merry my bright businesslike brother, no matter which daughter. But it did not happen.
Staying at different families in Holland and tasting Scottish life now and again we noticed that migrating is not just a matter of crossing borders. Behind every front door exists a certain family culture, certain family habits, even a use of language that will differ from the neighbours. There will be different values and mores, the kitchen will testify different cookery books, the music sounding through the living room will not be next door’s. In extreme, one could say, that meeting another person is already a confrontation with a different culture.
If I look at us four children who grew up in our family in the fifteen years following WWII, I can state that three of us became translators. My eldest sister Liz moved to the USA when she was eighteen, in a student-exchange program. We received an American sister from the Iowa family where our own sis stayed for a year. Later our Liz lived in California for some years, and back in Europe married an Englishman. My brother worked in various countries: Luxemburg, Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Africa. Like myself he can equally well write in English or Dutch. My youngest sister seems to be best settled in Holland, while I traveled widely over the Northern hemisphere. I feel equally at home in the now simplified tea room over the George Street Book Shop in Edinburgh, as in a messy karaoke bar in Quiapo, Manila. I am able to migrate within myself, and would attend mass in Argao, Cebu, which I would never do at home. I felt an earthquake rattling buildings in South Luzon, but I can also easily be rattled by an Elsschot novel in Dutch, written in Rotterdam over a century ago. When her duties as a family mother became less, she went out as a travel guide. By bus, plane or boat she would guide many groups of tourists to Israel, other Mediterranean countries and Mid-European countries. She was witty, funny and spoke all the necessary languages on tour. It was difficult to keep her home. Even when she was very old she made trips abroad to spas and other tourist attraction. She could not be kept from traveling.

I found, that at points I could easier communicate with a New York Porto-Rican lady selling pea soup on the top of the WTC, a partly Arabic Maltese composer, Pilipina factory workers, Hong Kong business people, Soviet-Russian film makers and writers, American opera conductors, an Argentinian poet and a butcher from Mississauga, Toronto, than with my next door neighbours or close family members. Migration does not necessarily exclude nearness. Being physically close does not necessarily imply that there is no gap distancing people from each other. Two people may be far apart within their relation or marriage, even if they grew up in the same culture with similar values, ideas and mores. At the same type, two people, seemingly very different, may compliment each other in harmony. There is no school text book about all this.

We migrate through time and within ourselves. Migration is not just an ethnic or demographic principle. We are not flight numbers or suit-case labels, but individuals. With the ovulation and the ejaculation our lifelong migration begins.

Edinburgh (Leith) captain James Thomson and some family members on his ship, ca. 1880.


Violinist Elizabeth Lockhart (1921-1999) was Sara's younger sister. Here on a record sleeve. She had a marvellous career for about twenty years. In 1957 she married conductor Anatole Fistoulari. In 1917 he fled from Russia's revolution, during the war he fled from France to England and escaped the holocaust.

Theodore James at 5, spring 1958, kindergarten, Aalsmeer

Theodore, aged 7, at Edinburgh castle, 29 Octobre 1959. At the background the Princes Street monument of the famous romantic Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott.