Modern Times

Black And Red.

The Safety Of The Blindingly Obvious.

The front of the tank engine that I painted.
The front of the tank engine that I painted.

It was during the time that I helped as a painter at the Stoomstichting Nederland, a museum that preserves German steam locomotives in Rotterdam. I had been asked to repaint the front of a post-war tank engine in the colours of the Deutsche Bundesbahn, which were very slightly different from the pre-war Reichsbahn. The colours were black and red, only the Bundesbahn red was a shade less striking than the previous colour scheme. German managers, in common with most bureaucrats, are not imaginative people.

That is to say, they like having things looking the same yet different in one detail so that they know their influence has been acknowledged. That few people would ever notice the difference between the two colour schemes, especially underneath the grime of a day’s work, is neither here nor there. The bureaucrat knows, and that means it’s good enough for everybody else too.

So there I was, painting the red buffer-beam of this locomotive when a passerby said “that is a nice contrast between the black and the red”. As they wandered off, it struck me as an odd thing to say, because there is little else that black and red can do. Black and red are of their very nature contrasting. Never mind, to the dulled wits of a Dutchman, excitement needs to be extreme to be noticeable at all. It’s why we have violent movies: the dull witted need something powerful to wake them up.

Which is what this post is really all about. It is my experience that the Dutch excel in dull wittedness in a manner that would scare an English person. That doesn’t mean it’s their exclusive domain, by no means: I know some pretty stupid English people. It’s more that the English forte is telling untruths. The Dutch do this in their own plodding way, but the English are by far and away the masters of this art.

Dutch is reputed to be a hard language to learn. Now: if one is to learn a language well, one must learn the thinking that led to its linguistic expression. This is problematic when it comes to the Dutch because their thinking becomes dislocated at times. Naturally they are unaware of this, and in being unaware, cannot forewarn you. It just leaves the likes of me feeling puzzled and disorientated. Dutch is the part of the world that misses a few of those essential pivots that keep mechanical logic working.

Which means that if one is to learn Dutch – or any other language – properly, at some point you will meet those things that are decidedly negative about the culture that produced it. Before you arrive at this point, however, you will meet are the shortcomings of your own culture. It’s why the British are so terrible at learning other languages: they don’t like seeing the negative side of themselves. There are too many untruths…

Contrast And Thinking.

So today I am interested in what this man said about the contrasting colours. As mentioned, it was a pretty obvious thing to say. That he liked it was more of an expression of his own shortcomings than anything that he might have thought through. Put the other way around, how much thinking does it take to see the contrast between red and black?

Not very much.

The difference is so marked that only a Dutchman could miss it! Yet my passerby thought that it was nice that his senses were met with the visual equivalent of a sledgehammer. His sense of colour had been de-tuned to the point where anything less than the absolute distinction would pass unnoticed.

When someone’s abilities have been foreshortened to “umm, it’s either red or its black, see,” doesn’t bode well for the times when they need to recognize dangers that are a little more subtle.

A German railway carriage in traditional livery of green with a black stripe. The SSN never got a gloss like this, but then, they didn’t care.

The point is that subtle distinctions require the person to think in ways that are broader than the obvious ones like red OR black. The colours of the railway carriages of the Stoomstichting Nederland (SSN) are green with a black stripe – a colour distinction that is far harder to perceive. Which is, after all, why modern Dutch trains are bright yellow with a blue stripe. You can miss dark green carriages against the bright green of a meadow, you can’t miss the yellow and blue of a modern Dutch train.

But then, the Dutch people I spoke to at the SSN weren’t worried about what the carriages looked like. Because they said that the people looking at the train only looked at the locomotive. They had other excuses to hand when they couldn’t be arsed to paint their locomotives properly, but this post is about contrasts not excuses.

The Imagination Kicks In.

If one is to make distinctions of a kind that are not blindingly obvious, one has to start thinking – imagining – for oneself. That is because the subtlety of dark green and black are not obvious enough that they simply cannot be missed; the relative subtlety of dark green and black require a person to look at and reflect on that which they are witnessing. Rather than just sit there and wait for the visual equivalent of a sack of flour to land on their head. The more subtle the person’s ability to perceive means the more they are prepared to look at the things they see.

But there’s a danger…

The first things they are going to notice are the things which are bad. As good a reason as any to back off from wanting to think, don’t you think? People do not like bad things, especially when it’s happening to them…

Which brings me back to the Dutch language: the things I am witnessing are the downside of their culture. I need to ‘up my game’ if I am to see the more positive side of the way the Dutch do things. There is also the issue that when all most Dutch people have allowed their brains to soften to the point where only the blindingly obvious is perceptible, is there anything positive left at all?

I assure you that there is, because I meet businesspeople here in the Netherlands who care for their customers – the first and most obvious sign that a business is doing well. This does require more imagination than reading a set of figures at the bottom of a spreadsheet, and requires a person to look beyond the bare facts. But then, bare facts are like black and red: you don’t need to use your imagination to realize that four is greater than three, do you?

Even realizing that the figures on the spreadsheet represent the workings of a business is to step into the crocodile swamp of that lies beyond the stark contrast of black and red. It’s why a business that doesn’t care for its customers is going to have real problems trying to turn itself around. It’s why people would prefer to get dementia.


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