I first saw Greg when he came through the door of the hotel. Being a hotel in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, the door was only opened when the buzzer was pressed. In the few seconds it took for someone to get to the counter from the door I had to decide if I would give them a room or not. We got all sorts through there. It wasn’t uncommon for people to try to scam the cigarette machine, to hold up the receptionist, or use the rooms for sex. It was not that sort of hotel and I, as receptionist, had to make sure it didn’t become one. I took my role as Guardian Of All That Is Good very seriously.
I knew immediately that I would not to give Greg a room. He looked like a vagrant and it turned out he practically was. He later told me he was down to his last few guilders. As it happened, before I could open my mouth, he announced that he was the new night man and he was reporting for training.
Greg was quite an odd-looking person. Nearly six-foot tall and pear-shaped, his face was flat and flared out at the bottom and his eyes were so deep-set you could barely see them. His thin, receding hair was pulled back into a pony tail. At first Greg made everyone nervous by standing far too close to them but our boss, Dorothie, who never had any trouble taking people down a peg or two, sorted that out. He soon fitted in to the dysfunctional family that made up the staff of our little hotel.
As night man, Greg worked seven nights a week from midnight to 8:30 am, manning the desk and serving in the 24 hour bar. He was a big hit with the guests as he could talk about anything under the sun. He was a wonderful and attentive conversationalist. On the morning shift I would often clean Greg’s hand print off the brass beer pump, smiling at this evidence of a night holding forth one hand on the pump the other gesticulating at all the other worlds beyond.
Ordinarily Greg wore shirts buttoned to the neck, slacks and a long, dark coat and he often wore a hat, a Trilby or a Homburg. Every Friday night Greg would make an extra effort with his dress. He had a shirt, black on one side white on the other, the colours divided by the row of buttons down the front. He would wear a bolo tie fastened with a tie slide of silver. With his hair scraped back and the light not reaching his eyes, he was quite striking. The first time I saw him dressed like this I said, “Greg, you look like the personification of evil!”
I started 3 of my shifts every week at 8:30am often having finished at midnight. Whenever I arrived in Greg would have a cup of tea waiting for me. “There you are my darling daughter!” Then he would pour himself a coffee and we would banter for a half an hour until just before the boss was due, when he would disappear. I was going through a bad patch at the time so to have someone make me tea and spend time, especially when that someone was tired and had so much to do, was a balm for my soul. It was a small thing but it was huge and made my time in Amsterdam so much easier. When I was on the evening shift Ans would come downstairs and we wait for him together.
Like many people who come to Amsterdam, Greg had a story which one did not necessarily believe. He was originally from Rhodesia (he said) and had been in the Rhodesian army. He move to South Africa with his wife and when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe he lost his passport. His marriage broke up and his left his wife and son and his fancy job behind and headed to Spain where he worked in a guest house. Then, having spent some time in England he ended up in Amsterdam.
Greg was a photographer as well as being, fittingly, extremely gregarious. Within six months he seemed to know half of Amsterdam, merely by stopping interesting people and asking if he could photograph them. His speciality though, was photographing children. He began to get commissions from wealthy families and often spent days in people houses photographing their offspring .
Within the year Greg had an exhibition of his photographs at a restaurant on one of the canals. He was great a supporter of edgy art and often became impassioned in defence of art that was banned or excoriated by the majority. His photographs were, in fact, quite amazing, in the style of Lewis Carroll(Charles Dodgson) and like Carroll’s caused a modicum of controversy. One picture in his show was of a child of about 8 standing in an ornate room beside a chaise longue . The child wore only a pair of underpants and had stunning white blonde hair curling to its waist. A woman stormed out of the restaurant on seeing this picture, protesting that a young girl should not be photographed like this not realising that it was in fact a young boy.
During this time Greg starting dating a woman with two daughters, one about 8, one 12, a very similar set up to one he had told me he had in the UK. It was this, along with the photographs and some other things he had said, that triggered a realisation within me one day that he was, possibly, a paedophile.
For a day or so, I could think of nothing else. Was he really?How would I be able to face him again? After a while my thinking head kicked in. Firstly I did not know for sure that he was doing anything. Secondly the woman he was dating would surely be responsible for her daughters?And the photographs?Well they were all taken under the watchful eyes of the parents. They were treading a border but then that only started me thinking about borders. I started wondering what exactly it would be like to a person at the edge, in the shadows, someone who did not operate within the confines of societies rules. And who made societies rules?And why were they so often considered “right” if they changed so much over the years?
I also found myself wondering how it was that society wanted paedophiles to obey societies rules but to stay outside society, to remain outcast, to do without the protection of community. I realised if I was that outcast I would flick a finger at society and carry on. It began to seem to me that society was and is dealing with the problem of paedophiles very badly. How they should be dealing with them I do not know, but pushing them away does not seem to be working. (In case its not apparent I will say here that I do not support anyone interfering or abusing children).
By the end of my two days I knew I was going to be working with the same person I had always worked with. I did not have anything only my guts to tell me anything was awry. And more, I guess I was curious about what made Greg who he was.
I worked with him for another year before I left Amsterdam. I did try to talk to him about his photographing of children but it was one thing he would not talk about. Whenever I tried, a door closed. I felt he had long ago decided to be who he was whatever the consequences and was prepared to brook no discussion. He continued to photograph and his reputation continued to grow. I left him my two goldfish and promised to come back and visit.
One day the following May I received an email from a man I did not know saying something had happened to Greg. At the same time, the ever reliable Paula rang me from the hotel to tell me that Greg was dead, having committed suicide in police custody. She had found out while watching the TV in the hotel bar. She had just seen him leave that morning. He was on his way to pick up some photos from a local chemist. This was quite unusual as he had a darkroom at home. The chemist had found some of the pictures questionable and phoned the police who were waiting for him that day. They took him to Elandsgracht station where at some point he, apparently, hung himself.
I have never been able to find any report of what actually happened. He could have been pushed into it. Or maybe, after having moved from country to country he realised Amsterdam was the last stop and he did not have any papers. In my mind’s eye I could see him panicking-he could get into such a tizzy.
I didn’t get over there for the service, which was huge and attended by many of his clients. I did visit 6 months later to see my boss Ans who was dying of cancer.
I took the opportunity to visit the man who had emailed me. It turned out that he was younger than I had though, around 20 maybe, and he lived in a palatial apartment on one of the canals with a well-known Dutch poet. He was a strange boy, intense, very pale with dark hair and near violet eyes. I was not entirely sure how he knew Greg but he had Greg’s pictures in his possession and he had bought the rights to them from Greg’s parents, intending to publish a book of them. He had no more to offer on Greg’s demise and was quite as closed as Greg had ever been. I saw no need to keep in touch with him.
That was years ago now, and though I have often searched the web for evidence of Greg’s work, I could find none. I did finally come across a report in a UK newspaper from 1997 that mentioned Greg. He had been working with a controversial child photographer in the UK who had come under suspicion. The photographer and Greg separately fled to Holland. Greg was wanted for crimes in South Africa & Spain and in the UK for questioning. Greg’s wife, with whom it was said he had a daughter, not a son as Greg had told me, described him as dangerous.
I find it hard to believe that anyone is totally bad but that’s a discussion for another place. All of us are a mish mash of possibilities. There is cruelty, there is kindness. If we believe everything about eachother and ourselves is set in stone then all hope is lost. I know the damage that child abuse can do, to the person and even to succeeding generations. It is a terrible thing.
In the end, I hope no-one would imagine for a second I am condoning any evil acts or any hurt to others either child or adult if in my mind I place on the scales of life, a cup of tea and a little time out from life, and think that it could count for something.
Greg’s anniversary is May 3rd.