Published in Observant, Maastricht, 30 January 2014
It’s only February and already the year has seen some fascinating debates. Queen Maxima of the Netherlands or Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge: who has the better hair? Who really is the first lady of France? And that ever-enduring question: the hammer and sickle – acceptable symbol of solidarity, or just too Soviet?
Rewind to late last year. I write to you from King’s College, Cambridge, where the framed picture of a hammer and sickle will finally be removed from the student bar. So why was it there in the first place? King’s College has long been an oasis of anarchists, radicals and far-left activists surrounded by an elitist, conservative establishment. This is why Dutch students, whose entire political spectrum is well left of everyone else’s, feel right at home in King’s. To stop over-enthusiastic students from drawing communist symbols on the already red walls, in 2004 the college bought a hammer and sickle flag on eBay, framed it and hung it in the bar.
There it stayed until recently, after a complaint from a Ukrainian student whose family had been persecuted under the Soviet regime. Interestingly, the complaint was “not that the flag is a Communist symbol, but that it specifically represents the Soviet Union”.
Last week, King’s students voted on what to replace the flag with. Proposals included a red flag with a cartoon cat in the likeness of Mao above the words Chairman Meow; “It has communism, a cat and a pun; what more could you want?” My personal favourite was a picture of a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding a horse, overlaid on a rainbow flag background. Vlad: Gay Pin-up.
The winner, in the end, was a series of photos of the college chapel covered with Free Mandela graffiti after his arrest in 1964. These photos celebrate “the fact that King’s has a history of students caring enough about politics and injustice in the world to (among other things) draw stuff on walls. … Also, they’re pretty cool photos.”