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A critical journalist retires

A critical journalist retires

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Wammes Bos (1952, Dordrecht)/ senior editor at Observant since 1986/ married to editor-in-chief Riki Janssen; daughters Maaike and Geesje (twins, 41) from previous marriage, three grandchildren (Cato, Berend, Rick)/ lives in Haccourt, Belgium

I come from a family of journalists. Not at all. My mother was a secretary, but quit when she got married. My father was an economist, studied in Rotterdam during the war. He worked his way up to become executive secretary at the PTT [the former postal and telecommunications service]. He was a tax consultant in his free time. Neither my brother Bert nor I followed in his footsteps. I wanted to study, but couldn’t decide between history, political science and journalism. I chose political science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. It was the sixties, and at high school we spent a lot of time on politics: the Vietnam War, the Provo movement, but also on philosophy and history. We read people like Sartre.
Also a journalist I happened to know from the ANP news agency (because I did babysitting there – don’t ask me why I chose this as a job) advised me to study something with proper content, so not the School for Journalism. My father didn’t like that I wanted to go to Amsterdam, the city of the Provos and the bed-ins on Dam Square. Students kept staging occupations, wanting more influence on the decision-making process at universities. Those nozems weren’t ‘his kind of people’. I harped on about it for so long that eventually I was allowed to go. It didn’t exactly improve the relationship with my father. My brother was often at loggerheads with him too, but he’d just go and do what he wanted. I was more direct, thrashing things out in confrontation.

Just give me a camper or caravan. No way. They’re awful things, obstacles on wheels! Constantly getting in your way on the highway. It’s not that I drive at 160, but I do want to keep going, accelerate. We always rent a cottage or take the tent and bikes with us. I don’t mind sleeping on a mat under a tarp.

Language is, like, totally my thing. I’m all about the humanities, pretty good at languages. I speak reasonable English, German, French and a bit of Italian, if I try my hardest. In my view, there’s no place for bad language, especially in writing. You have an obligation to your reader. You shouldn’t annoy them with errors, or convoluted and vague language that leaves them with no idea what it’s supposed to mean. Someone once said ‘Sloppy writing equals sloppy thinking’, and I agree with that.

Biggest mistake of my life. I see it as a failure that my first marriage broke down. I met my first wife when I was 21 at a party of a mutual friend in Amsterdam. We moved in together. She was five years older and, around the age of 30, ready for kids. They arrived in 1977. We weren’t married; we saw that as common. Still, it was a way of avoiding military service, so we went to city hall on a Monday morning, hand in hand with our kids, together with my mother and mother-in-law. My father wasn’t there. He’d left my mother. They didn’t have a good marriage; it was a disaster for as long as I could remember and it only got worse and more unpleasant. He himself once told someone he’d have been better off not having children. I have the idea that Bert and I made him a hostage; for the sake of decency you didn’t leave your family. He was strict and authoritarian, we were always a bit scared of him. But he also had a good sense of humour and you could have a laugh with him. Eventually they divorced and he remarried.
I’d always thought I’d do things differently, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. Not that my first marriage was a disaster, not at all, but over the years it didn’t go well. And no doubt a big part in that is down to me. We didn’t feel safe with one another, were always looking for conflict. We tried many times to fix it; fortunately, because I think people go their separate ways much too easily, especially these days. But eventually we got divorced – officially in 1996, but I’d already left back in 1993.

Best trick in my job. Calling someone to congratulate them on an appointment is one of the better ones, haha. And that at a point when you’re almost certain who the new dean or president of the board will be. That’s how it went with Martin Paul, when he was still in Berlin and was made dean of the FHML. I decided to phone him up. He was called out of a meeting, assuming I was Nick Bos. Ha, that last name, it’s caused ‘problems’ a few times now. Before I could congratulate him, Paul started talking about documents he’d sent me. That’s when I knew for sure. I told him I wasn’t Nick, but Wammes Bos, from the UM newspaper.
The bosses on the Berg were hopping mad. Martin himself still had some irons in the fire in Berlin and didn’t want the news coming out too early. Myself, the editor-in-chief, and the chair of our foundation were grilled one after the other. Jo Ritzen, the former president of the Executive Board, then even tried to amend our statutes to stop us using confidential information. Which is ridiculous, because then journalism would be impossible, that would be the end of Observant. In the end we just went to print and our statutes stayed exactly the same.

Love comes over you. I got to know Riki as a colleague at Observant. Our love grew slowly. At some point you notice there’s more to it. What I liked about her? Gosh, you’re not going to put that in? A lot, of course. Put it this way: as it became more and more of a relationship and I was still married, I had an interview with a well-known head hunter for another newspaper. Afterwards he started asking me questions, asking what Riki meant to me. The first thing that came to mind was safety. No more conflict.

Cycling. In my dreams I’m Tom Dumoulin. I would have liked that! But I’d never have been good at it. Terrifying, racing around in a peloton like that, taking the bend at sixty kilometres an hour.
As a kid I did athletics and was pretty good at it. But when I turned 12 my parents made me start hockey, a preppy sport. I didn’t fit in; I had long hair, wore bell-bottoms. One time I was sitting at the bar in the clubhouse and someone came over to ask if I was really a member. That’s when I decided to quit. Through Riki I took up cycling. I’m good at climbing, I’ve got strong legs. When we go on holiday we go looking for mountains. The silence is meditative. All sorts of weird songs suddenly pop into my head: Michael Jackson, who I’m not even a fan of, or MacArthur Park by Richard Harris.

A day without laughter is a day wasted. Definitely! That’s something I’m going to miss, with our editorial team. Things happen, we crack jokes, I can also laugh at myself.
I’ll miss the university too. You do play a role within the institution; you write stories and they’re about something, people have an opinion about them. It gives you a kind of right to exist. Jos Kievits [a recently retired colleague from the University Fund] said, ‘I am my work.’ The same goes for me. I want to stay on till I’m 67, but I’m not allowed to and I have to accept that. Wiebe Bijker [emeritus professor of Arts and Social Sciences] wrote to me that he understood my mixed feelings, ‘but you can always write, you just have to find a new context and a different identity.’ That’s a nice way of looking at it.

Interview with Wammes Bos, senior editor at Observant. He retires from Maastricht University on Thursday afternoon, 7 June.

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