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Aug 2003 Journal

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Colours of skin and mind

'Brown is the new black', proclaims Meera Syal of Goodness Gracious fame, and, as she is a television personality, none would gainsay her. What her cryptic utterance means is that, in the rich mix of multicultural Britain, India - the source of Bombay Nights and curry - has replaced the Afro-Caribbean as the flavour of the month.

Though in this context black and brown denote skin colour, in another time and place they had political connotations. In pre-Anschluss Austria the authoritarian Dollfuss/Schuschnigg government was dubbed die Schwarzen because of its links to the Catholic priesthood (dressed in clerical black). Since the Anschluss brought die Braunen (Nazi brownshirts) to power, it could well have been said in 1938 Vienna that 'Brown is the new black.' (Incidentally, black is not only connected with the clerical element in Roman Catholicism. In Judaism too, the ultra-orthodox are sometimes referred to as Schwarz; black-turbaned mullahs, of course, play a special role in Shia Islam.)

No colour carries a heavier baggage of political meaning - both positive and negative - than red. In interwar Austria the rightwing militia leader Prince Starhemberg routinely referred to the Social Democrats as die roten Hunde (red dogs). Contrariwise, the Red Banner was one of the highest decorations a Soviet citizen could aspire to - and Rote Rosa was the affectionate nickname bestowed on the martyred Rosa Luxemburg.

On this side of the Channel, where politics are less sanguinary, 'Reds under the beds' caused a stir once, CND chanted 'Better Red than Dead', and Old Labourites sang 'The people's flag is deepest pink/It's not as red as you may think' even before Tony Blair's arrival at No. 10.

Actually, in Britain blue has more of a ring to it than red. The colour is connected with the two ancient universities: Oxford dark blue and Cambridge light. (The recent TV series about Burgess, Maclean et al entitled Cambridge Spies could more intriguingly have been called 'Light-Blue Reds'.) The phrase 'true blue' identified a pukka Tory when the Conservatives were the natural party of government. At the time, they were also often led by blue-bloods like the Marquess of Salisbury.

A colour which has only relatively recently entered the political spectrum is green. In the West as a whole, the colour denotes the environmental lobby - but in Germany, where the Greens participate in government, they are both eco-warriors and militant pacifists. In the East, green is the colour of militant Islam. Gruesomely masked Hamas fanatics march under green banners adorned with Koranic inscriptions; not so long ago a 'little green book' - probably inspired by Chairman Mao - contained the distilled wisdom of Colonel Gadaffi.

Things get even nastier when we get to the colour yellow. In popular parlance, 'showing a yellow streak' denotes cowardice. The 'yellow press' refers to a scandal-mongering corrupt media. Dostoevsky readers may recall that Raskolnikov's love Sonja carried a yellow prostitute's passport entitling her to ply her trade. Even more defamatory was the connection between the colour yellow and the Jews - from the obligatory pointed Judenhut of the Middle Ages to the Nazi-decreed Gelber Fleck, which earmarked millions of wearers for slaughter.

Contrariwise, two of the world's most powerful entities - the Chinese nation and the Vatican - glory in the colour yellow. To the Chinese, whites look 'underdone' and brownskins 'overcooked', while they themselves are the golden mean. A very pleasing pale shade of yellow also happens to be the colour of the Papal flag. Speaking of the Pope - the white-red Polish flag apparently depicts the watery discharge and the blood flowing from the first wound of the crucified Christ.
Richard Grunberger

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