The Black Tulip. Vlanderen/Flanders.

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Picture borrowed from Inge.

My school Geography book showed a similar picture…but it was in monochrome. They tell me that everything was in monochrome in those days. Not so. On certain occasions in the junior classes, a new consignment of plasticine arrived, bright strips of márla, not unlike the pattern of the tulip fields, bringing some glimmers of colour to our nineteen-forties classroom. “Do not mix the colours.” An impossible directive. To make anything at all interesting, you have to combine the colours. Márla sticks to márla.  Once combined, the colours cannot be uncombined. For a little while we got that interesting marbling effect but eventually the rainbow gave way to a dull brown. Red+Green =Brown. Blue+Yellow+ Red=Brown. Everything+Everything=Brown. You can’t make Black, Some fool said that in the science of light, all the colours combine to make White. Nonsense. In the márla world, even light is Brown. (See Stephen Foster for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.  I rest my case.) For the rest of the year we worked the sullen márla into:- birds’ nests filled with brown eggs, brown ships with brown sails, brown flowers, brown people, cows, sheep, cars and simplest of all, brown snakes. There were magic painting books too, the paper impregnated with chemicals that reacted to water. The theory was that you could paint brilliant pictures by merely brushing water over the page. It was a lie. Everything emerged in bleary tones of Brown. These execrable books are still around, an affront to the eye and a severe disappointment to any budding Rembrandt. It is no exaggeration to say that we were often browned off by the sheer dullness of the nineteen forties.

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Eamon Kelly, the legendary Seanachaí, told a story of a farmer who was sitting in his kitchen eating his dinner, when his little boy ran in the door, in high excitement, clutching a bunch of flowers in his fist. (He actually said ‘fisht’). “Daddy! Daddy!” cried the little boy. “Look what I found in the field.” The farmer put down his knife and fork and regarded his beloved child with the posy of flowers. —And if he did, didn’t he draw out and give the child the greatest box in the ear the child ever got. “Didn’t I tell you before that there is no worth in flowers?” he bellowed. “You can’t get a grant for flowers.”—

Incidentally, that Geography book gave an account of ‘the increasingly popular tomato.’ The tomato was grey in colour. It could never be produced in Ireland because of our proximity to the North Pole. Spaniards grew them out of doors and clever Dutch people grew them in glasshouses/greenhouses, but in Ireland, I was informed, the glasshouses would collapse under the weight of snow. (Snow!) The tomato is a fruit, yet a close relative of the potato. They both came from South America in the days of the conquistadors, hardy men, very fond of their chips with tomato ketchup, inextricably mixed now into the cuisine of most European cultures.

I had to take a break from reading Catastrophe  by Max Hastings, his masterly account of how the world went blithely to war in 1914. I felt a profound melancholy settling over me in contemplating how quickly humankind can accept, justify and forget the obscenities considered necessary in the conduct of war. It didn’t just happen in monochrome a hundred years ago. It is happening right now in living, bleeding colour, with all the panoply, heraldry and weaponry of modern industrial warfare. Hastings, as a young man, worked as a researcher on the BBC series, The World at War. He interviewed many veterans, old men and women remembering how their world was destroyed by the savagery and stupidity of that ‘war to end all war.’ Empires fell apart and whole populations were uprooted. This is the decade of commemoration. Some talk of celebration. We are surrounded by monochrome pictures of people and battles long ago. Hastings brings it vividly into focus with startling relevance to the events of our own time. I had to put it aside and contemplate more cheerful things.

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Between the wars some of those clever Dutch people settled in Rush and Skerries, attracted by the light warm soil, or so we were told. They grew flowers! They built glasshouses, despite the danger from snowstorms! Their names, Amerlinck, Ruigrok, DeJong became by-words for hard work and innovation. On our way to and from school we wondered at the large green and red fruit/vegetables in Walter Ruigrok’s glasshouses. Definitely not the increasingly popular tomato. They turned out to be red and green peppers. which in their turn, have become increasingly popular. I gather that they also came from South America.

The Low Countries are synonymous with the cultivation of flowers. The mid-seventeenth century saw an outburst of ‘tulip mania.’ Tulip bulbs became more valuable than gold. You could compare it to the South Sea Bubble or the Dot Com Bubble or, God help us, the Sub-Prime Bubble, with its sub-optimal outcome. Alexandre Dumas wrote about the struggle to develop a black tulip, the Holy Grail of tulip growers. I don’t think it has happened or will happen, just as with márla. The best way to transform the tulip fields of Vlanderen/Flanders into fields of brown and black, is to send millions of young men there, with the best modern weaponry to fight a war, to disrupt the placid courses of the rivers and churn the landscape into liquid mud. It will be expensive but it will make great black and white or sepia, television for generations yet unborn. Perhaps they may learn from it.

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In certain lights, this is our black tulip. It may appear to be a deep red but it is black. It is. It is. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. This is an illusion created by colour photography. In a proper photograph it would of course, be black.  I invite you to invest your guilders, kroner, florins or whatever you have, in our tulip, but keep your hands off it as you walk by, or it will mean war. We cultivate them in marl covered with compost, for peat’s sake. I may or may not go back to Max Hastings, some other time when the weather is brighter and the clouds have lifted. I did enjoy the yellow daffodils. I notice that  Fingal Council is now mixing them with red tulips at roundabouts. Watch these spaces for interesting developments.

Incidentally, greenhouses are colourless. They are made of glass to let the light in.

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