War hero and his sister saved from ruin by kindness of a market town

The Dutch war hero and his sister saved from ruin by the kindness of a market town: When Covid left Arnold and Bernadette’s publishing firm on its knees, they were forced to appeal for help. But they could never have dreamt how locals would rally round

After weeks of dreary オミクロン, enforced isolation and shattered plans, we could all do with a クリスマス story to cheer us up a bit.

This one is set in the pretty market town of Malmesbury, ウィルトシャー, and involves a penniless オランダの brother and sister, a desperate appeal for help, a few thousand books and an extraordinary community which enveloped them in kindness, love and bubblewrap. And also provided them with somewhere to live, 無料.

It all started on September 23, いつ, with their publishing company in freefall, credit cards pushed to their limits and nothing left for the next month’s rent, Arnold, 59, and Bernadette op de Haar, 63, realised things were desperate.

‘We had no choice — we had run out of money, we had nowhere to live. We had to think outside the box,’ says Bernadette.

So they composed a short script, printed it out and, standing smartly dressed and straight-backed in their cosy sitting room, with Harry their black labrador between them, they made a video appeal for the town’s Facebook site.

以内に 24 hours they had even received two offers of free accommodation for a few months — one a few miles away with some literary acquaintances, the other from a lady called Lisa in Malmesbury itself

以内に 24 hours they had even received two offers of free accommodation for a few months — one a few miles away with some literary acquaintances, the other from a lady called Lisa in Malmesbury itself

‘We are in a bit of a pickle,’ said Bernadette. ‘We live in Malmesbury and we are about to lose the roof over our heads.

‘We don’t need something large, or with amenities. Something dry, with an internet connection, will enable us to continue publishing fabulous books.’

Standing by her side, brother Arnold chipped in. ‘If you need someone to keep an eye on property, I am an ex-officer of the Dutch Grenadier Guards. It is now all or nothing. We need a roof, so we are open to any suggestions.’

It is a very poignant video. Two extremely dignified people, in late middle age — it was actually Arnold’s birthday — hardworking, well-educated, fiercely intellectual, who had ploughed everything into their publishing company but now had not a bean between them.

The response was immediate and astonishing. Within minutes, offers of help from total strangers began to flood in.

There were pledges to provide everything from bubblewrap to packing cases, and people of all ages offered to help them move their 180-odd boxes of books and all their furniture into storage.

The past couple of years must have been a nightmare for the pair, as they poured their hearts, souls, all Bernadette’s savings, the proceeds from the sale of her London flat and a large chunk of her pension into their business in a desperate attempt to keep it afloat

The past couple of years must have been a nightmare for the pair, as they poured their hearts, souls, all Bernadette’s savings, the proceeds from the sale of her London flat and a large chunk of her pension into their business in a desperate attempt to keep it afloat

以内に 24 hours they had even received two offers of free accommodation for a few months — one a few miles away with some literary acquaintances, the other from a lady called Lisa in Malmesbury itself.

‘Two lovely furnished rooms at the top of her house, with shared kitchen. It’s perfect . . . we’d never even met her, a total stranger. And no rent, just that we pay into the bills.’

Others piled in to help pack, shift and store boxes: ‘I can’t really lift them because of my arthritis,’ says Bernadette.

The helpers were a brilliantly motley crew, including a cross-Channel swimmer, a 15-year-old rugby player who leapt up the stairs with three boxes at a time and an 81-year-old grandmother who marshalled her sons and grandsons into helping.

‘The kindness! I don’t know what we’d have done,’ says Bernadette. ‘We had run out of options.’

The past couple of years must have been a nightmare for the pair, as they poured their hearts, souls, all Bernadette’s savings, the proceeds from the sale of her London flat and a large chunk of her pension into their business in a desperate attempt to keep it afloat.

年に設立 2009, Holland Park Press is their passion: a wonderful company that, 異常に, specialises in giving unpublished authors of all ages a chance at success, and welcomes unsolicited manuscripts even in longhand.

They deal only in prose and poetry and clearly have an eye for talent. Nearly a fifth of their books have been nominated for awards; and they were the first to spot and sign long-listed Booker Prize author Karen Jennings back in 2012, with her debut novel.

But Covid has nearly done for them. With many bookshops closed and events and markets erratic, takings have shrunk by two thirds and the only book they could afford to publish this year was Arnold’s latest novel, Schurft, in Dutch.

‘We have to keep the company going because if we let that go, we’d have nothing,’ says Bernadette. もちろん, as things became trickier, they trimmed their cloth smaller and focused on simple pleasures — walking the dog, a beautiful day.

Bernadette gave up her beloved theatre trips several years ago. Arnold now limits himself to one ‘tiny’ cigar a day.

Gone were holidays (other than a two-day camping trip), 新しい服, new books, meals out. She is a pescatarian, but now she has stopped eating fish, あまりにも.

‘It’s too expensive,' 彼女が言います. ‘But we eat well — I always cook meals from scratch. I love cooking and we still have a glass of wine to relax in the evenings.

‘And there’s a new Aldi in town which has made a massive difference!’ says Arnold.

'Here in Malmesbury the people are amazing — they are warm, they are kind, they are emotional and they have saved us; helping us over the hump so we can get our business back on track next year, find somewhere permanent to live and move forward again'

‘Here in Malmesbury the people are amazing — they are warm, they are kind, they are emotional and they have saved us; helping us over the hump so we can get our business back on track next year, find somewhere permanent to live and move forward again

The one thing they never scrimped on was promoting great literature.

‘It is so important. It is what is left when we are not there. It always exists. It tells us about society,’ says Bernadette.

その間, the kindnesses kept coming — some from the most unexpected quarters. Their landlord was selling their cottage but waived their last two months’ rent, then let them stay on even longer until they were sorted out.

‘He is one of the many good people of Malmesbury,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s something very special going on here — people help each other.’

The van they hired to put all their furniture into storage was mysteriously upgraded to a bigger version, which meant they could fit everything in. There were multiple offers of storage spaces for their mountain of books.

When Arnold took their 20-year-old Ford Fiesta to be fixed at the local garage, there was no charge.

‘He just sort of waved it away. Said it would all get mopped up in the MoT. I think he must have known our situation but he did it so nicely.’

Every time they thought they were done for, someone stepped in — such as the day just before the big move when, in the middle of packing chaos, Bernadette’s computer died.

‘It was the end for me. No laptop, no work,’ says Bernadette.

But then their former neighbour came to the rescue. ‘He’s terribly ill with stage-four bowel cancer,’ says Arnold. ‘But within a day he had bought a new one and hand-delivered it, even though he could hardly talk because of the morphine. It was so very kind.’

Bernadette and Arnold are an unusual pair. They are gentle, 思慮深い, eccentric, humble, but also unbowed.

There is not a shred of self-pity or anger between them, despite what scant security they have to show for all their hard work.

She has a PhD in theoretical chemistry from Bristol University (she has been living in the UK since 1983) and decades of experience in the publishing industry.

He was a Dutch war hero — a red beret and commanding officer of the 200-strong unit that helped secure Tuzla Air Base in Bosnia for Nato forces in 1994.

He left the army in 1995 — ‘it was not a sufficiently intellectual environment for the long term’ — to write poetry and novels, and moved to Britain in 2016.

‘I’ve never had much money, so I’m used to it,」と彼は言います. ‘It took me four years to get my first novel published — and Bernadette has helped me out, until now.’

Neither of them ever married.

‘I had a girlfriend in the Netherlands but I saw her just two times in the pandemic. So that is not going that well!’ says Arnold with a laugh.

Bernadette never came close. ‘It has just never sort of really worked out for me,’ she says simply. ‘But we are family. We are very close.’

So instead, they take joy in each other’s company, finish each other’s sentences, live together, work together and jump in quickly to praise each other — Bernadette to applaud Arnold’s wonderful writing; he to admire her courage.

‘I have done some brave things in my life. In the army I’ve been shelled, all sorts,」と彼は言います. ‘But she is the braver one because she always moves forward and stays positive.’

Which must have been tough when the money ran out and they had nowhere to live.

‘We really feared we might end up out on the street,’ says Arnold.

You’d think they would also find it hard adjusting to their new temporary life in two loaned attic rooms, rather than their previous four-bedroom cottage, with all their worldly goods in a storage container. But Bernadette insists it has been strangely uplifting.

‘There is something oddly liberating about the whole thing. The world is very materialistic,' 彼女が言います. ‘Now we have less to worry about. We have our two rooms. We can cook and sleep and do our job, which we love. We can move forward again and we will.

‘I just wish I could buy everyone here a Christmas present to say thank you.’

For Arnold, it confirms everything he has always thought about his adopted nation.

‘In the Netherlands there is a bit of anti-British sentiment right now, but we always thought this was the country to live in and it still is,」と彼は言います.

‘And here in Malmesbury the people are amazing — they are warm, they are kind, they are emotional and they have saved us; helping us over the hump so we can get our business back on track next year, find somewhere permanent to live and move forward again.’

今のところ, they are recovering from Christmas Day, when they joined Lisa’s parents and three children for a huge jolly feast in their temporary home. 2ヶ月前, they were all strangers (‘Can you imagine, we hadn’t even met!’ says Bernadette’); now they’re welcomed to the bosom of her family.

How utterly fantastic.

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