Penoze Hugo: An Amsterdam crook spills the beans on his life

Hugo Broers describes himself as “the last true Amsterdam penoze” or member of Amsterdam’s notorious 20th century underworld. He grew up in the Warmoesstraat on the edge of the red light district, hung out with the city’s criminals from a young age, developed a drugs habit and fell into a life of serious crime.

His autobiography, which has been translated into English, tells the story of his early years and his relationship with his abusive father, about the underworld that dominated the city centre and his 14 years in prison.

Today he offers guided walking tours in the Wallen, has thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook, and has turned himself into the classic “criminal with a heart of gold”. His biography has been published by De Kring, a small independent publishers which now sells Penoze Hugo jogging suits alongside the “Champagne Diaries” and books about sport by television pundit Mart Smeets.

Penoze Hugo is a fascinating collection of anecdotes about running errands for prostitutes, beating up people who “ignored the gangsters’ code of honour” and life in the often sordid and sleazy city centre back then.

It also harks back to a period of Amsterdam’s past which today is often viewed through a nostalgic glow, when the crooks were lovable rogues and the prostitutes were known as Blonde Bet. “In my memory, we had a white Christmas every year,” he writes in the opening chapter. “I would never hurt a woman. That is the code,” he says after being locked up in an American jail.

Much of the memoir will be familiar to those who lived in the city at the time. But for those who are new to Amsterdam and its criminal past, it could do with a glossary and footnotes to explain who some of the cast of thousands actually are.

“The punch came from Sore Gerrit, who was also Klaas Bruinsma’s bodyguard,” is much more dramatic if you know Bruinsma was a drugs baron known as “the priest”, who was shot dead by a policeman gone bad in 1991 in front of the Hilton Hotel.

An additional problem is the translation which is basic, far from native, and has some real howlers. Red light district window brothels are known as peeskamers in Dutch and that has been translated literally from pees, literally meaning tendon but in Amsterdam slang meaning to milk, to tendon rooms.

Nevertheless, if you can deal with the staccato text and the lack of a cast list, the story is absorbing, fast paced and a must for true crime fans.

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