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A Magazine for Sheffield

I’m really enjoying Not-England

Netherlands correspondent Sean Morley documents the experience of moving from Sheffield to North Holland – and the political epiphany of not living in England anymore.

Jobbsley the Heron

Jobbsley the Heron

Sean Morley

When I lived in Sheffield, a stranger did a literal shit in our garden. I had to scrape it up with a piece of cardboard. From the recesses of their living room, my neighbours peered out at me with the same morbid curiosity I had when I saw a couple getting married in KFC.

Was there anything I could do or say to make clear this was not my shit? This shit was a gift from an enemy. We found it next to a fancy dress costume. Our garden shitter had been having fun.

On the other side was a neighbour who was almost definitely a drug dealer. Their front door opened into the alley that served as the only street access for us and two other flats. I spent a lot of time eyeing up which fences or walls I could feasibly vault and then vault again with two pints of almond milk. Anything to avoid sidling past the furious shapes staking out our neighbours flat and hiding methadone bottles in our recycling bins (but never the right one – glass goes in the brown bin!)

Now I live in a small city in North Holland and a heron lives next to our flat and I’ve named him Jobbsley. I love Jobbsley.

It’s difficult to do a direct comparison between here and Sheffield. I haven’t just moved to a different country, but a different kind of place within each country.

Sheffield is one of England’s many post-industrial husks, left to languish on broken promises of minor train upgrades. Where I live now is a tiny satellite city of Amsterdam, a European capital. The Netherlands’ north-south divide is an inner-outer divide. All of the big economic and urban centres – Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht – fall roughly along the west coast. This constellation of economic centres is called the Randstad and contrasts against the Groen Hart of rural inland agricultural areas which increasingly feel forgotten by the economic elites. I am now a Randstader. So maybe what I’m enjoying isn’t a nicer city or country, but just being on the other side of regional inequality? Grim stuff, actually. Gutted.

That being said, I feel like The Netherlands doesn’t have a Sheffield to move to. Even with my limited experience of wandering touristically around my local area, falling into canals with a block of gouda in each hand, it’s clear the differences are significant.

The language barrier, while thinner than most, still occludes me understanding the context of anything around me. Has the ability to speak garbled, fragmentary Dutch helped with these occasions at all? Almost never. But I love to receive a pat on the head for being Not Like The Other Brits.

The first political differences you’ll encounter on moving to The Netherlands are in housing. There is a massive housing shortage here and it’s common to bid for properties, committing to a little extra rent to secure a place. Or at least, that’s how it works on the private market. The proportion of social housing is twice that of the UK and it’s significantly more regulated. But finding a property at all is so difficult now there is a daytime TV show called De Huizenfixers, where housing experts are challenged to see if they can find people a place to live that remotely fits their needs – carting expectant families to visit anarchist squats, Christian communes, techno-fancy ecohouses, a yurt in the middle of a lake.

Unlike the UK, The Netherlands does not have no-fault evictions, and just last year the city of Amsterdam banned (at least partially) buy-to-let landlording.

As a non-citizen I’m not eligible to vote in the national elections. But I was surprised to learn I am eligible to vote in the Waterschap elections, selecting the regional water management authority, when I received a metre-wide candidate list with over a hundred names from two dozen parties. The Dutch refer to The Netherlands as 'een kleine kikkerland', a little frog country. This is because the country is little and – importantly – wet. Water is a big deal here.

Next to our flat is a 'sloot', a large rectangle of free-standing water which looks like a tranche of functionless canal. It doesn’t connect to anything but is nevertheless the length of an olympic swimming pool. They’re everywhere. They’re the reason Dutch children learn to swim incredibly young, the reason why I regularly have to share the pavement with a family of geese, why we had mosquitos in the middle of winter, and the reason why The Netherlands isn’t currently underwater.

Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK. I always felt lucky to live within walking distance of so many parks and green spaces. But during the 2022 heatwave I realised that green space isn’t all that helpful if it’s a short walk away – it needs to be in the actual places you live and work. A lot of Sheffield city centre is still a heat island. The integration of urban and green space here is pretty phenomenal. I expect, once again, it comes back to water, because having soil and plants absorbs more rainfall than concrete. Being able to wander from the shops straight into undeveloped wetlands is nice.

And obviously the trains are better. Obviously. I’ve been asked too many times to produce train ticket comparisons for friends who love to wince. It varies, but you can usually travel for around half the price of UK train tickets for similar journeys. What’s more, the lower prices have been at least partially subsidised by UK passengers. The national rail company Nederlanse Spoorwegen is owned by the Dutch government, who in turn own Abellio, which runs rail services across the UK and 16% of the buses in London. Although NS pulled out of the UK recently due to "relatively unstable political climate" and "unfavourable economic conditions". Cool!

I absolutely don’t want to fetishise The Netherlands or European milquetoast social democracy. The whole of Europe is still lurching defeatedly further into the cold pallor of forever liberalism. The UK is simply further ahead thanks to successive decades of vanguardist continuity Thatcherism. I don’t want to package moving somewhere quiet like it’s some sociopolitical epiphany. But for me it has been.

My partner got offered a job here in the same week that the Tories started pumping literal shit into the rivers and seas. I was in two minds about leaving the UK, but the water being filled with poo really revolted me. The United Kingdom still has no clean rivers. Every morning after breakfast I look over at the sloot and say hello to Jobbsley. As a treat.

I miss Sheffield, but I’m really enjoying not-England.

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