Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999
K A L E I D O S C O P E:|
That's a nice word, from Lewis Carroll. It's like "on the other hand" but "with attitude," because it makes you think of contradiction.
I came to Prague by train from the East recently. With several hours of journey time to fill, I had a supply of reading matter. My latest Oxford Today magazine (for us alumni) carried an interesting article about genetically engineered plants. The local national daily paper, Lidove noviny, prominently featured the finding that in the latest opinion polls the Communist Party was now the second strongest in the Czech Republic, and the consternation this should properly cause. It also carried a piece about spooky novelette writer Stephen King.
It seems that Stephen King has sold over 100 million books. He likes to play to people's fears, and people like to get a little scared once in a while. As a publisher, you just have to write Stephen King on the cover in big letters, apparently, and collect the money.
Speaking of book covers, there is a saying that one should not judge a book by its cover; but, contrariwise, one of my favourite sayings is that, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances" (Oscar Wilde). What I like to think he meant is that shallow people buy pictures and books because of the name of the author, not judging a thing by its merits, by its own appearances. Shallow people also buy newspapers, because of their name, not their content. Like me.
It was a hot day, and the sky mostly cloudless. I was alone in the compartment, the window of which had been wedged open by the lid of the empty plastic bottle protruding from the waste bin. The previous occupant was gone, and the empty plastic bottle made me think back to the recent soft-drink consumption scare and, by extension, to the article on genetic engineering of plants.
Just before 20:00, in fact at 19:58 (like my birthdate), I looked up and noticed a strange phenomenon. Alongside the track were several fields full of sunflowers. In a twist worthy of Stephen King, they had their heads pointing staunchly east, the backs of their necks lit by the low slanting but still hot westerly sun. Only a few maverick dissident flowers pointed west. A little further west, passing along some back gardens, I noticed that the few privately owned sunflowers in them pointed duly west, as expected. I suppose the sun gets too hot for everyone occasionally, but this is true and still feels very spooky. It certainly made me sit up and take notice at the time. Stand up, even.
I went over to the window.
The window carried two messages in five languages, none of them English. In place of the Czech stood linguistically adjacent and entirely understandable Slovak, followed by Russian, French, German and Italian. The signs said 'Do not lean out' and 'Do not open the window as this disables the pressurised ventilation system'. So, the first message presumed you would ignore the second.
Allowing for the possibility that a disabled pressurised ventilation system had been the cause of my sunflower vision, I tried closing the window to see what would happen. The heat became more stifling. Under the window was a lever with two positions, hot and cold. I turned it left to cold. Nothing happened. The previous occupier of my compartment had done the only sensible thing, and ignored the written warning. But where had he gone?
I had just been on holiday in England, so I recalled how in England on old sinks and bathtubs there are two separate taps, and the cold is always on the right (apparently so that dexterous, i.e. right handed people, do not scald themselves). Sinister comes from the word for left - a residue of bias and prejudice by the dexterous majority.
I had once written to the then leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats with a suggestion that they use this as a billboard theme. Left faucet = red = too hot, hot water, (problems, emotional government, etc.). Right = blue = too cold, unfeeling, numb (Thatcherite). Mixer tap (central) = just fine = modern = progressive = vote for us.
He wrote me a nice letter back, but didn't use the idea and failed to win the election - as a direct result of this fundamental error, I like to think.
It would seem that here in the Czech Republic red is right, or the Right is red, contrariwise.
It's not just a left-right thing. Light switches here are on when they are up, the International Organization For Standardization (ISO) norm, as opposed to England, where "on" is down.
Coming back to books, English books are bound with the writing on the spine such that you have to turn your head to the right to read along the bookshelf. Here, in Central Europe, it is contrariwise. The effect of this is that if the book is lying flat and the spine is readable normally, an English book is lying with its front cover upwards, a Central European one faces down.
Read into that what you will.
In England, they drive on the left but give way from the right, you know. Think about it. In England you are sitting on the right of the car, can see clearly to the right, are the first in the line of collision from the right, and the traffic from the right is on the main road. Always. So you drive carefully. Right?
In twenty something years of driving in England, I have seen only two road accidents. I see two accidents every day in the Czech Republic. That is progress, in the wrong direction.
On the Continent, the roads are lined with strange yellow lozenge signs to tell you that you are on the main road (and meaning you don't have to give way from the right) and crossed lozenge signs to tell you a car might come at you from the lane on the right (meaning you'd better give way, although it is your passenger that might get hit if you don't and is blocking your view anyway).
I understand all this is thanks to Napoleon who asserted himself and introduced driving (carriages) on the right, but forgot to change the right-hand rule that went with it for the left-hand rule. And so Europe is stuck with a stupid regulation, and the makers of yellow lozenge roadsigns are happy, on the Continent. In England they do not exist.
"Everything is Contrariwise" is a popular saying in the Czech Republic - a quote from Hasek, or Hrabal, or somesuch.
In Czech, the word for Exit is vychod. But vychod is also the word for East. The word vychod comes from "emergence," like the emerging sun in the East. That sort of thing.
The double meaning adds a whole new dimension to "emergency exit" (nouzovy vychod), making it translatable as "the ever-needy" or "ever-needed" East.
The word for a way out of one's problem is vychodisko. They could just have used that one word for emergency exit.
Maybe the sunflowers were looking for the exit.
When I arrived in Prague, I headed straight for the "East" myself, albeit due West.
The sunflowers are trying to tell me something.
"Turn your back on the EU (agricultural policy)?"
"If you can't stand the heat of capitalism, turn your back on reality"?
"Life is better back East"?
or maybe, contrariwise,
"Never turn your back on the East in case it sneaks up behind you"?
These might be hyper-intelligent sunflowers, anticipating the morning, or incredibly stubborn stupid ones, which would be vindicated by the morning anyway:
"If enough of us look the other way, even the Sun will come round. See."
I suppose these spooky sunflowers look forward to the eclipse of the Sun on 11 August. They'll be looking up just like the rest of us, to see the blindingly obvious temporarily disappear. They'll only be daring to look because the Sun will not be looking back.
Don't stand in the middle of the sunflower field on that day, when everybody's heads are turned up, that's all. All those exposed necks...
One day, when he's fully recovered from being hit by a car, Stephen King will write a best-seller around genetically engineered killer sunflowers, the unwilting souls of the Communist voters of Central Europe, whose day will come.
The Empire of the Sunflowers
You read it here first.
Vaclav Pinkava, 26 July 1999
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