Gerard Philey’s Euro-Diary – Quest for a Life by Brendan James
This is an unusual, fascinating and often funny book. It is in the form of a diary kept for about a year by Gerard Philey, a teacher from Walsall, near Birmingham. Except that this is the year, 1995, when he decides to break away from teaching disinclined teenagers modern languages in the local comprehensive. Armed with a modest amount of money, the ability to speak three languages fluently and no plans, he decides to go to Europe. What transpires is a sometimes shocking, always surprising account of what he discovers there, and how he decides to embrace life whatever it holds. As it is written in Gerard’s own voice, I gained a real insight into what life was like in Amsterdam in the mid Nineties for a sometimes bewildered, always affable young man who has a real zest for life in all its strangeness.
Amsterdam is a place of dubious activities, on the edge of legality, and Gerard’s relative naivety often gets him into trouble. He frequently asserts that the Dutch are not easily embarrassed, or really shocked by anything much. He makes friends, meets lovers and does a lot of exercise, while living what transpires to be the Red Light Area in all its openness. He becomes accustomed to the sex industry in all its popularity, and indeed becomes the manager of a thriving sex shop. This is not a book of details, but there are factual observations on the behaviour of the women and men Gerard encounters, and their open attitudes in comparison with what he was used to in Britain. In a way this is a book about friendship, as Gerard meets and makes good friends, especially Frank, a German gay man who helps him finds work, accommodation and much more. Gerard is definitely more interested in women, and his calmness and reluctance to hurt anyone’s feelings means that he is aware how his relationships are fair from ideal. His visits to other European countries are very brief, but there is much to enjoy in his picture of Amsterdam.
This is essentially a light-hearted book which I genuinely enjoyed. It flowed well in its diary format, and it was very easy to decide to read on. Gerard is a warm character who gets himself into tricky circumstances, but emerges as a caring friend, particularly to Frank. The contrast between his old life and present adventures frequently occurs to him, and makes for a fascinating element of the novel. While the tone is often gently bewildered, there is also a poignancy to this book, when Gerard is genuinely concerned for others. Some of the characters may seem to be on the edge of reality, while others are recognisable from real life. All the characters, people, in this lively novel are well drawn and three dimensional, even if some are destined to only have a small role in the story. There is an underlying plot, and it is fascinating to see how it works out. I enjoyed reading this book, it has an interesting setting and the time period, before mobile phones and in the early days of the internet confused the issue. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel, which I found very enjoyable.