Autumn, a fairy tale

Prague, 1981, my third autumn in Europe.

I used to walk from the ulice Veverkova, where I lived, to Valdstejnska, where I worked, that’s near the Mala Strana metro station. The walk took me through Letna Park, which lay in-between. The park is on a ridge running parallel to the Vltava river – Moldau in English. One had a breathtaking view of the river and its bridges from the park. But in autumn and early in the morning, the mist would still be hanging like smoke on the water while the trees in Letna lit up like Tiffany lamps in the sunlight.

wp_20161029_13_56_54_proI remember I had returned to my flat on Veverkova after an unsucccessful hunt for Czech fairy tales in German, which I had wanted to present to my future stepdaughter – she had turned eight that year. I had tried the GDR shop and then even the Hungarian shop – all government outlets, in communist Czechoslovakia, by the way – but I had failed to unearth Cezch fairy tales, whether in German or in any other language. It was evening. I was wondering… a fairy tale? Why not write one? But how did one write a fairy tale?

Autumn in Prague. Light burning in the window of a first floor flat on Veverkova in which a solitary Indian male sat sucking his ball point pen – not the writing end, thank God! – trying to concoct a ‘real’ Czech fairy tale in German for his Polish stepdaughter-to-be. Head swimming a bit? Same as mine. That’s when I wrote ‘Das graue Kleid’, that’s ‘The Gray Dress’, feeling like the long-lost third cousin of Brothers Grimm.

I’d done the Pilsen-Stribro-Bor-Primda route from Prague to Germany so often that I had developed an affinity for the Czech countryside, beginning with the coal-dust smothered Pilsen. So I began my fairy tale many many moons ago in a small Czech town in the dark and lonely recesses of the Bohemian forest, where the winds howl when the wolves don’t. And then I brought in the old Slavic gods Veles and Perun – now also in Wikipedia – who are born enemies, in fact. Veles, in Czech, is of course Weles, in Polish, and Volos, in Russian. Veles is the god of earth and water, of forests as well as of the nether world, whereas Perun is the god of thunder.

The two were having a breather in the middle of their fight – naturally in and over the forests of Bohemia – when they saw a young girl in a gray dress standing among the fallen leaves of the chestnut tree in their garden. The fallen leaves gleamed like tarnished gold in the stray shafts of sunlight. The girl seemed happy in her gray dress, a bit too happy perhaps. So Veles – or was it Perun? – asked her who she might be and what she was feeling so happy about. It was her birthday and her stepmother had made her this wonderful dress, a frock – the girl said. Wasn’t it full of colours, brighter and prettier than the colours of autumn, as her stepmother had claimed? the girl piped. That’s when the gods noticed that the girl was blind.

The gods made themselves invisible and listened to the girl’s stepmother boasting to the girl’s father: ‘Why waste money buying good cloth with a nice pattern for someone who can’t even see? I’ve told the others not to tell her’ – the others being the girl’s stepbrothers and stepsisters – my stepdaughter-to-be used to love that. Those stepbrothers and stepsisters – the nastier and the more hateful the better – were naturally teasing the girl about her gray dress and reducing her to tears. They chased the poor girl out into the street, where everybody, from the street urchins to the big fat mayor of the town, joined in laughing at the girl and her gray dress.

That’s when Veles and Perun decided to teach the hard-hearted townspeople a lesson, together with the girl’s family. Suddenly the whole town turned colour blind, nobody could see colours any more, let alone the autumn colours. Everything was in black-and-white – or grey. But the girl could see again! And the girl could see colours! ‘Tell us, tell us,’ the townspeople crowded round her and clamoured, while the girl walked down the streets and past the gardens and along the high stone wall of the local squire’s residence which was covered with vines and lichen and moss – next to the river, exactly as in Bonn, I added, much to the delight of my stepdaughter. wp_20161029_13_54_43_pro

The townspeople could see no colours, so the girl told them the colour of the leaves and the colour of the sky; which tree was red and which tree was brown, which a flaming yellow and which still green…

To this day they have this strange custom in that small Czech town in the Bohemian forest – yes, near the German border, just after you’ve driven through Primda and think there’s nothing but the dark and dank forest till the border crossing at Rozvadov – well, on the first day of autumn – that’s the autumnal equinox, tell you about that later – well, the people of that town, including the mayor, whether fat or not, blindfold their eyes and let a young girl lead them through the streets and lanes and by-lanes of the town telling them all about the wonderful colours of autumn. And when they remove their blindfolds, the trees are bare and it is winter.

‘Is that the new Walt Disney film?’ my stepdaughter said. ‘He discovered Technicolor, you know that?’

I haven’t ‘written’ a fairy tale since.

What is European?

I often ask myself. After having spent 37 years at a stretch on this continent – which means the major part of my adult life – I suddenly find myself caught up in the midst of an unholy debate regarding Europeanness and – let’s just call it otherness.

If Europeans are that afraid of otherness, those ‘others’ should have been just as afraid of Europeanness, right? But apparently they aren’t. Hordes of human beings from other parts of the world are heading towards Europe looking for – what? Everything, I’d say, security, above all; security of life & limb, of food & shelter, employment and/or social benefits. Children’s education. Health care. Citizenship in due course. Voting rights. Pension. And all this irrespective of one’s religion – irrespective being the key word.

That seems to be the secret of how this continent of bloody-minded ex-slave traders & colonialists fighting their world wars every twenty years still managed to remain so attractive a place to live in. Irrespective of religion. In its long and chequered history, Europe has managed to preserve, even cherish, its religion, which is undoubtedly Christianity – and still ‘pull the teeth of religion’, as they’d put it in German, and the claws as well, one is tempted to add. We remember the end of the Inquisition & subsequently of all debauched, battling popes. The separation of church & state. As England is a constitutional monarchy, Europe seems to have converted to a kind of constitutional religion. Isn’t the Vatican somehow like the Buckingham Palace? People go and watch the changing of the guard in both places, I’m told, whether the Queen’s Guard in their bearskin caps or the Swiss Guard with their gorget, cuirass, morion and what-have-you.

On a more serious note, what fascinates me about Europe & European history is the fact that they turn entire epochs of that turbulent history into what I call their Great Unifiers. The Greeks and the Romans might have been what they were in their day, but they and their culture were later turned into a part of the humanistic education & upbringing of the European elite – together with Greek and Latin, two dead languages which will never die. Back in the ’eighties, I had a Czech doctor – in Communist Czechoslovakia – writing out his diagnosis in Latin so that I’d be able to present it to my house physician in (West) Germany. Poor fellow didn’t know German but assumed that any self-respecting doctor in Germany would have enough Latin. Charged me one crown, one single and solitary Czechoslovak crown, for the visit, prescription included.

But the Greeks and the Romans pale into insignificance when we come to Christianity, the master stroke of the Roman Catholic Church being to authorise the Latin version of the Bible, for the use of the vulgar or common people, hence called the Vulgate. And then the saints came marchin’ in!

It is necessary to understand how Christian myths & legends managed to penetrate every home & every mind in Europe – provide that substratum of a common consciousness upon which all could draw – the artists for inspiration & allusion, the commoner for understanding & comprehension. Philosophy is for the philosopers, theology for theologists; what the common man – or woman – needs are personal gods to pray to. In the case of Christianity, they gave the common folk the saints. After that there was no looking back. Because saints are human to begin with, their lives are open to human representation – in the arts and literature, for example. In churches as much as in palaces – or hovels.

The second trick was to adopt the concept as well as the terminology – not to speak of the insignia! – of earthly power to depict everything from the King of Heaven to His representative on earth viz. the Pope. Forget the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, as the saying goes. But power, even at the Holy See, has always sought & expressed itself in pomp, and pomp proved to be a bounty & a bonanza for artists of the ilk of Michelangelo & Raffaello Sanzio. Especially the ‘divine Michelangelo’ did what he liked with the stories of the Bible – he liked naked men, for example! And he created a bit of Europe as we know it, in the process.

What the Europeans have been doing right from Michelangelo’s day is to decontrol & declassify religious/Christian myths & legends so that the secular world – of both artists and commoners or where the two touched – could make use of them for the furtherance of art & culture.

This is exactly what should have happened with our religious myths and epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, for example. Religious myths & legends are not meant to be locked up in a treasure room & guarded with drawn swords & raised halberds – they are meant to be used, both ceremonially and otherwise.

The Indian, Hindu version of the Vulgate is of course Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. The poet-saint of the sixteenth century retold the tales of the Sanskrit Ramayana in his native awadhi, the Hindi dialect of Awadh, and Hinduism of & for the masses was born.

Twentieth century Bengali novelist Satinath Bhaduri based his two volume saga of the Tatmas, a backward, low caste community in eastern Bihar, on Ramcharitmanas and titled his work Dhonrai Charit Manas. Dhonrai is the simpleton hero of this grassroots, realistic Ramayana set in sub-rural India with WWII as well as the Indian Independence Movement rambling on in the background. The way India & Indians have neglected this major piece of work which goes far beyond the purview of literature – and which I rank on the same level as the best of Premchand or Renu or Tarashankar or Bibhutibhusan – is as if the Taj Mahal were to be a forgotten monument among the goats & the scrub somewhere on the banks of the Yamuna.

I don’t know whether Shashi Tharoor got his inspiration from Satinath Bhaduri – I doubt it – but Tharoor based his 1989 The Great Indian Novel on the Mahabharata, recasting the epic to tell the story of India’s independence struggle & thereafter.

So Tulsi in Hindi, Satinath in Bengali & Tharoor in English – have we made the grade, then, so far as decontrolling & declassifying our myths are concerned? Let’s turn to the arts.

Michelangelo’s saints, sinners, Adam, even God Himself were mostly naked or nearly naked. This was in the sixteenth century. Maqbool Fida Husain, named the “Picasso of India” (if only by Forbes), had to breathe his last in European exile (in 2011, at the age of 95) because he had portrayed Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, in the nude. The fact that he was a Muslim merely obscured the debate, which is still waiting to be joined.

See You Later, Navigator!

That’s the way we oldies – such as me & the missus – still potter around Europe in our three-year-old ‘Bored Siesta’ (no clandestine advertising on my blog, especially since I’m not being paid for it). A younger colleague of mine who acts as our joint IT advisor – more like our IT foster father – says that without the ‘Navi’ (as it is called in German) we, that’s me & the missus, are just a public nuisance; with the Navi, we shall be a public menace.

He’s right, of course. It’s the way the Navi Aunty, as he calls her – hunh? Navy aunty? Oh, the woman who gives the instructions on the gps. The thing that really gets on my nerves is her infinite patience: you can make any kind of mistake, even take a U-turn instead of going straight, Navi Aunty will never call you a fool or box your ears but recalculate & tell you to go to the left or go to the right as if nothing has happened; whereas I would have told the driver in question to go to hell, he being too stupid to drive anyway.

“Dear Arun-da, you can’t even operate your smartphone, you think you can operate a Navi?” His smartphone transforms itself into a Navi, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Still, I call it disrespect for a senior colleague. The fact that I’m not smart enough to operate my phone does not mean that I cannot navigate my way around a Navi – and that’s exactly what I, we, that’s me & the missus, did. We decided to do without a Navi this time as well, while travelling all the way from Bonn to Dinard in our Bored Siesta.

What or where is Dinard? It’s in Brittany in northwestern France, close to the more famous town of Saint-Malo – until the Wales national football team decided to make Dinard their base for the Euro 2016 football championships. When we went to Dinard, they still hadn’t taken down the flags – so just ask Gareth Bale the next time you meet him where Dinard is. Or you can ask your navy aunty.

The missus still mourns for those maps from the German automobile club on which the lady at the counter used to mark out the route with an orange marker – ADAC has done away with the service now. Today you get sheafs of printout detailing every stage of your journey like a ship’s log or a rocket launch. Or you can buy or download – maybe even steal! – a Navi to take you from Bonn to Dinard. Get into the car, check whether the dog is in, then give the address, Boulevard Albert Lacroix Number Such-and-Such, Dinard to the Navi and watch Aunty tell you how to get out of Plittersdorf, Bonn and head for the wide open spaces by turning left after 25 metres.

The Aunty on my younger colleague’s Navi has a rather sexy voice, I thought. I even told the missus about it. That’s when she objected to our acquiring a Navi, I think. Be that as it may, while the world is going ga-ga over Michelle Obama’s Carpool Karaoke, nobody’s kept a tab on the magnificent fights that me & the missus have had because she should have been watching the road signs while I was driving – or the other way round. This time it ended in: “If you saw that it was the exit for Dinard, how come we’re heading for Dinan?” They have two such places right next to each other and both are pronounced Dina, in all probability, knowing the French, God knows how they manage to communicate. “I’m going to Dina and you’re going to Dina, so we can’t meet for lunch. Let’s have dina at Samalo, shall we?”

We’d made a stopover in Amiens on our way to Dinard. The missus had booked a couple of rooms in an Anubis (no-clandestine-advertising-on-my-blog) hotel in Abbeville, for the return journey. Why ‘a couple of rooms’ for a married couple of our antiquity? No, not because we are practising separation but because (i) we had the dog with us & (ii) because I snore – you figure out the rest. Going to Dinard, we’d entered Amiens from the wrong side and had a wonderful drive down a street whose name we couldn’t find on any signpost – in any case, it went downhill and had a wonderful row of two-storeyed Breton houses… Forget it.

Just as we shouldn’t have got lost trying to get back to the road from a motorway service near Abbeville. This was on the way back. Turned out that we were heading back towards the English Channel, so we took the exit at Douchy-les-Mines and asked a kind-looking gentleman in which direction Belgium, Germany et al might lie. Took us five minutes to understand that the man was talking English but he saved our souls better than any automobile club or salvation army or navy aunty.

Like the man looking like a carbon copy of Alain Delon who came down the steps of an impressive pile – a bank? – and tried for around two minutes – in French, with lots of à droites and à gauches – and then told me and my younger brother to follow his BMW (a car or a man of that kind doesn’t need any clandestine advertising). He told us to get into our car and follow his i.e., he’d take us to the place we were trying to go to, bless him and all split infinitives. This was in Paris in the middle of the ’nineties, did I mention?

Ten years later me & the missus were going round in circles in Milan trying to find the Holiday Sin hotel where we were going to make a stopover on our way to Florence. There were some people – very formally dressed, for some reason – standing outside an old building of sorts. Then a young man in coattails came out and got into a car. I charged towards him in my desperation. He listened to my rant for around 30 seconds and then said what Alain Delon had said in Paris: “Follow our car.” When I came back to ours, the missus said: “Did you see the woman sitting next to him?” “Yes, she had a funny sort of veil on her head and a long, billowy kind of dress which filled the whole leg space…” “That’s the bride, you numskull” (or its German equivalent), “you just hijacked a pair of newly-weds to show you the way to your ruddy Holiday Sin. Before they take off for their honeymoon.”

Thank God I had a Bismillah Khan CD in the car, practically new, which I presented to the bridal pair when we parted. Sehnai was Indian marriage music, I told them blandly, knowing that the maestro was nowhere within earshot.

Realism is magic

I’m a literature nerd, as I realise today. And an arts nerd as well. Have always been.

How do I know? It’s the way I go on about this painting or that book, for hours, as if people with job worries and child worries and health worries are dying to know why the dog is such a ubiquitous presence in Canaletto’s pictures. Yes, Antonio Canal (1697–1768), of the Venice and London fame. He’s got a man piddling against a wall right next to the canal grande in one of those panoramas – or should we say vistas of Venice? Made me think of Kolkata. No wonder: my mother saw the photos I’d taken of the backstreets (back canals? Bacchanals? Sorry, nerd joke) of Venice and said they looked just like the flooded lanes and bylanes of North Calcutta during the rains.

To return to the canine, Canaletto’s dogs litter his fantasy landscapes as well. And stray dogs seem to have been as common on San Marco square in Canaletto’s day as they were in Kolkata in mine. Rembrandt’s etching of the Good Samaritan from 1633 has a dog shitting in the foreground, right on the doorstep. All these dogs and dog-lovers of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries make me thoughtful.

And the thought is spelt out in bold letters right on top of this blog: Realism is magic. I wanted to have that as my motto or my credo or whatever – where do all these Latin words come from? Ask a nerd. The first characteristic of this particular literary and arty-farty nerd that we’re talking about (ahem, there’s modesty for you) was that he fell in love with realism at an early age – shortly after Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959) and years before Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). In other words, I said no to magic realism and proclaimed – to myself – that realism is magic. At least all the magic that I needed. And it’s remained that way ever since.

I did not even realise that I was falling in love with Europe at the same time, because this is the continent where realism was born (leaving out palaeolithic cave and rock paintings for the moment), especially in the arts, visual as well as the plastic arts such as painting and sculpture – look at Greek sculpture or its Roman counterpart. Go to the Duomo di Pisa – the Pisa cathedral – and you’ll see in the murals near the altar how the Middle Ages are straining towards the Renaissance by becoming more realistic. And then there’s that explosion called the Renaissance, my favourite being the English one in terms of literature and the Florentine one in terms of sculpture and painting.

What did you say? Nothing? I distinctly heard you mutter: ‘Nerd.’

Realism is perspective, of course, which means geometry, will blow your mind to realise just how much! And then you’ll have to read about Brunelleschi’s two-point peep-shows and Masolino’s St. Peter Healing a Cripple (1425) and about Raphael, above all Raphael. You’ll be told that it took nearly 400 years to understand the intricacies of perspective – by which time you’d have landed among the Impressionists! And if realism is a flowering tree, then Impressionism is its cherry-pink-and-apple-blossom-white; Impressionism is the short and tantalisingly beautiful springtime of realism (which includes naturalism, of course, so far as I am concerned). Impressionist paintings represent the Europe that I fell in love with, coming from a land of symbolic and decorative art as I do, both highly stylised. I fell in love with the Europe where realism was king as well as emperor – with or without clothes, new as well as old.

The joke is that if you look at the best of Bengali or Hindi literature, especially in the prose form, especially the novels and the short stories from the first six decades of the twentieth century, you’ll realise that realism has been king in India too – but mainly in literature. Modern Indian painting made the transition to the abstract a bit too soon, I feel.

What? Have I finished? Yes, I am done, you can go and watch The Big Bang Theory now. But remember what I was trying to tell you: Delhi consists of nine cities built on top of each other, they tell me. Europe is just like that, only that all those cities seem to have survived, often side by side. You can visit them and compare the slightly pink Candoglia marble on the façade of the Milan cathedral with the white sang-i-marmar of the Taj Mahal, if you’re that kind of a nerd.

Which you’re not, I’m sure. So how come you read this blog to the end?

Re-few-gees or re-phew!-gees?

Wasn’t that the question till Brexit boiled over? The respectful Indian way of addressing a ‘refugee’ is, of course, ‘Refu-ji! How are you? How is Refu-Aunty? When did you come to Blighty?’ Be that as it may, there are some interesting developments afoot. I have rarely seen so much of schadenfreude directed against one nation – actually two, since the nation in question is divided between the Leave and the Remain camps like the Little-Endians and the Big-endians in Gulliver’s Travels – shudder to think what Swift would have done with this lot!

To return to schadenfreude, schon längst an English word, it means feeling pleasure or satisfaction at the discomfiture of others – in its mildest version. At its rabidest, one can see it in the hircine gloating of the Remain supporters over the possible consequences of Brexit for Britain. And this schadenfreude is expressed in Facebook as well as on Twitter in some of the most atrocious punning in the history of the English language, as if not just Britain but English itself was taking leave of the EU! But a much more disturbing trend, to my mind, is to be detected in reports of ‘scumbags’ racially abusing persons of colour in public parks & on public transport in the (still) United Kingdom.

In the midst of all this, Nigel Farage had to take the stage in Brussels & curse the hon’ble assembly in no uncertain terms! A perfect example of democracy & parliamentarianism. And I suddenly found myself asking why in the name of all that is unholy the European Union had to get so excited/involved in the very legitimate process of the government & the citizens of the United Kingdom trying to decide whether they want to stay in the EU or not. Let them decide one way or the other, and then let them tell us what they want – the famous Article 50 – only then will there be any basis for discussion or action.

Till that point is reached – the point of no return – the govt. & the people of UK can hold as many referenda as they like – how does it concern the rest of the EU, pray? To give you but one example: when Spain is having trouble forming a government, the rest of the EU waits politely, do they not? It’s not as if Spain is running around like a chicken with its head cut! As a matter of fact, democracy means the painfully gradual process of determining the political will of the people – by various methods & instruments such as elections & referenda, even opinion polls may be included in that category. Why couldn’t the EU tell Britain, hey look, you find out what you want first and then come and tell us and we’ll see what we can do for you and for the rest of the EU. Why did the EU have to assume just what the British folk was going to decide and then go into a huff because they decided the other way round? It’s the way elections are held in some countries: the polls are valid only if I & my party win, otherwise there are accusations of skulduggery and the other side is always to blame. In countries with a certain tradition the army takes over till both sides have cooled down a little. And the EU doesn’t even have an army.

Why should it? It’s left wars behind and turned into a ‘family’, with the usual amount of bickering & drama. In that sense, Article 50 is like filing the divorce papers. The Brits have said – after much heart searching & heartburn – that they do not love the EU any more. Should the EU start crying Divorce! Divorce! right away? This is worse than Kramer vs. Kramer, I say! Britain is only 52% sure – or rather 52% of 72% of the Britons are sure that love has died – and the EU is behaving like hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Now Britain – the party that was unfaithful to begin with – is dragging its feet when it comes to the divorce. I suggest the EU shacks up with Turkey, gives Turkey the EU membership on an emergency basis just to spite Britain.

On a more serious note, isn’t it absolutely obvious what is going on in more than one country in Europe? UKIP and Brexit in Britain, Front National in France, AFD in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria, Orban in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland – it’s the same pattern everywhere: the European losers of globalisation are turning against the even poorer, even more desperate global losers of globalisation while the winners… Forget it. Entire generations of hard-working Europeans are seeing their lifetime’s work, their lifetime’s achievement, their lifetime’s savings being reduced to a worthless heap – this is the Great Depression in slo-mo, the death of a culture & civilisation without the advent of war.

Remember who the Brexit supporters were railing against? The fat cats of Brussels. Know who they will end up bashing in tubes and trains? People of (identifiable) colour. No wonder our Refu-ji uncle is talking of going back to Jullunder with Refu-Aunty. And I think I shall join them.

Big shit + no chief = Brexit

And we’re not talking about a certain resident of 10 Downing Street who’ll probably be able to buy up the place for a song when property prices tumble in London.

Otherwise you can’t expect a self-respecting blogger cum sit-down comedian like me to let an opportunity like this pass – when Chief Loud Blast That Tears the Skies (vide ‘Rule, Britannia!’) is suffering from constipation & the braves go to a paleface medicine man by the name of Cameron instead of to the shaman Farage for advice & succour. “Big chief, no shit,” the braves report.

Strangely enough, Cameron prescribes the same medicine that the shaman has been calling for since the beginning of the buffalo season viz. a referendum, which is duly held with the result that the flags are now flying at half mast in Brussels after they brought the sad news from Aix to Ghent: “Big shit, no chief!” Naturally everyone thought of Cameron and Cameron obliged them by announcing in the course of the day that he’d be taking his hat in around three months, leaving it to his successor to tell Brussels that they were being dumped – shame, as if he couldn’t have done it via SMS. And now look at Angela crying her eyes out.

As a European of non-European descent, I do not know whether to be happy or to be be sad, whether to laugh or to cry. People suffering from anxiety are said to assume the foetal or prenatal position and here we have Britannia trying to go back to the days of ‘splendid isolation’ as in the late 19th century, when Britain was trying to keep its involvement in European affairs to a minimum. Brought them two world wars in rapid succession as a reward, but that is neither here nor there.

In the country that I come from people still wish that Britain had held a referendum of a similar sort on or before the 31st of December, 1600, when John Company was founded. They’d have had no need for Paki bashing and could have had Southhall and Brick Lane all to themselves had they held that referendum… Just imagine, the country that founded the Commonwealth – which was called the British Commonwealth of Nations till 1947 – is leaving the European Union now. Alas, the British European Union is history. Another star gone from the silly little flag of the EU, as if for a children’s birthday party at McSoandso’s. And when Scotland and Northern Ireland go, there will be another two jewels (though no Koh-i-Noor) missing from the British crown – the Queen will soon have nothing to wear and Prince Charles will have only the Maoris to rub noses with, if it goes on like this. Ultimately, Prince George will be King of London & the Suburbs.

Will the European Union miss Little Britain or Disunited Kingdom or whatever the new entity is to be called? Will there be no more English hooligans fighting the Russian ones in Marseille every time there’s an European football championship? Does anyone realise that Euro 2016 has been free of acts of terrorism mainly because of the ‘hools’? Terrorists turning up to do mischief find the battle already in progress on the streets of whichever unfortunate town is hosting a match involving ‘Hool, Britannia’. It was only after reading Spike Milligan’s war memoirs that I realised that in the olden days, half the British populace only got to set foot on the Continent when there was a war. Doesn’t have to be a war, football championships will do nicely, thank you. My last thought on this count: can you imagine people in any of the erstwhile British colonies agonising over the fact that the British are leaving? Hallelujah.

And there is a last question that we have to answer: what was – or is – Britain’s malady? I’ll tell you. It is anxiety neurosis, angst for the future, angst of the future, angst in view of the subliminal penetration of German words like angst into the English language – almost as bad as the droogs speaking nadsat in Clockwork Orange. The British, who were naming every second warship of theirs Intrepid till the other day, have finally angst that reverse colonisation, the retribution for all their sins over nearly five centuries, will finally catch up with them and overwhelm them. Before England is a battlefield, English will be the battlefield, with mutilated grammar and slaughtered syntax and the unkindest cut of all – that Polish accent on top of the Indian one! – there’s this mixed couple I know…

Don’t worry, it’s just me and the wifey. And we live in the EU.

My wall museum

I also call it my calendar museum. You see, among the presents I (am told to) wish for myself at around Christmas, the first and the foremost is always an art calendar – for the following year. You know, one of the larger ones, with a picture for each calendar month. And then it’s always the Impressionists – and then again a mixed bag. I’ve had a Monet calendar only once, I think, and it was like having just one friend to watch and to talk to, for the whole year.

I hang the calendar on the wall at the foot end of my bed. It’s a Danish bed and if I put the slatted frame up a bit at the head end, I can sleep in reclining like the medieval knights who were scared that the Devil might carry them off while they were asleep, mistaking them for dead. The Devil won’t mistake me for dead since I snore, nevertheless. So while I recline in that half lying, half sitting position waiting for sleep the sweet brother of Death to come to me – that’s when I watch the picture of the month. It’s a nice feeling to know that I’ve got a whole month to get to know that picture, intimately, in every detail and every blemish, the strong points as well as the weak points.

And I can’t skip a picture if I don’t like it, since I can’t skip a month. So I have to live for a month with a picture I don’t like – until it begins to grow on me. I’ve hated some pictures so much that I’ll never forget them in my life. And then there are pictures that I have liked but forgotten. Is there a lesson in there for us?

Looking at the picture during the day is a different experience all over again, especially if I don’t have the light on, as in summer. The window is on the other side, so I can watch the sky and the clouds getting darker or lighting up as I try to get an afternoon snooze. I don’t have to twist my neck to watch the sky and the clouds through the window – I watch the sky and the clouds in the picture, two parasolled ladies taking a walk in the fields near Argenteuil, say. The sky and the clouds in the picture begin to look dark and menacing as the sky clouds over in Plittersdorf, where we live. Did the Impressionists paint that way or is it a vicarious effect of light and shade? Who shall know?

I always recommend the Impressionists to our younger colleagues freshly arrived from Asia as the best ‘access’ to European painting. I show them a small, insignificant canvas of young birch trees in leaf (it’s by Monet, I think, but sometimes I think wrong) hanging in one of the museums on Berlin’s Museum Island. My younger colleagues are suitably impressed; they can even see the fresh green leaves sprouting on the branches, they say. Then I make them go up to the canvas until they’re practically rubbing noses with it – and the museum guard comes looking by. My younger colleagues see just bits of colour brushed in casually, somehow, anyhow, at times with the wrong end of the brush. And with what economy! Not of colour but of form and shape. ‘How does he do it?’ They’re talking about Monet and not about me. ‘He paints it directly on your brain’ – I tell my younger colleagues. Monet does half the painting and your brain does the rest.

The only true thing, really true, about an Impressionist painting is the light – I tell my younger colleagues. And light and dark is what even the human foetus can distinguish in the mother’s womb. That’s how they won, that’s how a motley crowd of Frenchmen could take on the Florentine Renaissance and the flying Dutchmen of the 18th c.

‘Don’t go directly to classical European painting, it’s too iconic and frightfully white Caucasian and Christian’ – I tell my younger colleagues. ‘Don’t go anywhere near Braque, Brancusi, Mondrian and the rest of modern art – not until your nerves are stronger. Get to know Europe’s skies and clouds and colours – painted with the simplicity of a house painter applying paint to a peeling door.’

December 2015 broke all records by being the second warmest December, ever. Every flowering tree in Bonn and surroundings thought it was spring and came out in bloom. But I had Camille Pissaro’s Winter Landscape in Louveciennes to stare at (painted 1872, oil on canvas, original in Folkwang museum, Essen, Germany). It’s just a snow-covered slope with some scattered trees and a farmhouse to the left. Until you realise that what is so fascinating about the painting are the shadows of the trees on the deep snow – and even in the hollows – how light changes colour, white into near blue, not quite grey, too bright for that, I suppose.

December 2014 I had spent staring at Claude Monet’s The Magpie (painted 1869, oil on canvas, original in Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The farmhouse in the picture is a long drawn out affair in the background, drowning in light, in the wintry sunshine. In the foreground there is a kind of wickerwork fence carrying a load of snow, throwing a wonderful silhouette of itself in steely grey-blue on the slightly soiled snow. There’s a very rackety and rickety wooden door to the left side of the fence on which a lonely magpie is sitting. Trees in the background all carry wild sprigs of fresh snow, fallen in the night, I presume.

My way of getting to know European painting. Know any better?