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When I first came to Amsterdam in the early 90s, I was astonished that there were hardly any railings or fences.

At least not in the way there would be if London were as wet as Amsterdam. And yet Amsterdam’s canals were not awash with dead bodies.

I recently learned that the average number of annual drownings in the city – depending on which source you trust – ranges from 10 to 30 individuals, many of them drunken men, Darwin award entrants with their flies undone and their pupils dilated.

If London were as canal-heavy as Amsterdam, not only would there be a much larger concentration of railings, fences, walls and barriers, there’d also be more signs. Hectoring, nannying, melodramatic signs that would scream WARNING! DANGER OF DROWNING! DEATH BY WATER! But despite that, for the simple reason that if you treat people like simpletons, they act like simpletons, more people would drown anyway.

bike in amsterdam canal
Every year, around 12-15 thousand bikes are pulled out of Amsterdam’s canals.

My contention is this: Unlike the the Dutch (who, let’s be honest, have a few more tools in the workshop) the English suffer from acute awareness deficiencies towards the natural elements and their attitude towards water is proof of this. As is the fact that a great many of those fished out of Amsterdam’s canals – all bloated and alarmed-looking – are Englanders.

It was a warm June night in the rainy season and I was lost, as usual, but it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault because I have non-congenital topographical agnosia, or something very similar, so getting lost is what I do. Especially in a new city that also happens to be a giant wet maze. Plus I had no GPS on my phone and I was mildly intoxicated.
I had a rough map drawn on a beer mat. Brouwersgracht, Prinsengracht, Bloemgracht. Piece of cake.

A ten-minute ride in theory, back to the room I was staying in before I found one of my own. Twenty-five minutes later, I was drenched and lost and in need of help. It’s harder to stop and ask people for directions in the dark and in the rain because people just want to get home, but I had to ask someone, so I gestured to stop with my right hand and pulled off the cycle path. Which was when I realised that there was nothing to the right of the cycle path. Nothing but canal. I thought I could see a flat piece of land awaiting me, but with eyes full of water and brain full of THC, it turned out to be the prow of quite a big empty boat.


As my front wheel fell away, I made an involuntary noise. Not quite a scream. Maybe a yelp. Something with embarrassment in it. Then I bounced off the boat and was in.I tried to keep hold of my bike but in the panic to stay afloat and stop my lungs filling with water, I lost it.

A butch Dutch man appeared, jumped down onto the boat I’d bounced off and dragged me aboard and then up onto the street.

Then for a moment I just stood there, dripping like a wet dog. The Dutchies, who had stopped to help or gawp then all cycled off and I was alone. I felt stupid. I tried to be angry.

Why were there no fucking railings? What kind of simpletons were these people? I looked back into the water, hoping my bike might have bobbed back up to the surface. But bikes don’t do that. Then I looked across the unusually wide canal and saw a restaurant, the name of which appeared to be silently mocking me.


I nodded, allowed myself an ironically dry smile, and started walking.




Karl is a freelance writer having worked across a range of fields from journalism and novels to comedy sketches and scripts for BBC Radio 4, Warner Brothers and the British government.

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