When Colour could kill and I got addicted to a design website…

Standard
Washington's verdigris dining room

Washington’s verdigris dining room

Last month the people at that wonderful (and horribly addictive) interior design website Houzz asked me to write a story about colour for their February Colour Month. It was a great chance to remember some of the extraordinary interiors stories I found while researching my Colour book, including George Washington’s insistence that his new dining room should be a particular fashionable green, made from verdigris (interestingly it was a British fashion, and he was writing home from the battlefield where he was fighting against the British in the American War of Independence.)

I also remembered one story which particularly delighted me at the time, (even though I have never had a comment about it from anyone which suggests I might have been a bit geeky) which was about the problems of painting pillar boxes red, or rather of finding a red paint that stayed red and didn’t drift to a cloudy and faded pink. For that one I spent a whole day in the Post Office archives in London, pulling out of storage letters written by angry ex Admirals who said the splotchy colour was unreasonably ugly on their streets in nice places like Tunbridge Wells, and perhaps the Post Office should bite the bullet and paint the boxes battleship grey, which at least would stand the British weather.

I took this in Bath's Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

I took this in Bath’s Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

There were also some awful tales about how children’s bedrooms in Victorian times were painted or wallpapered in one particular emerald green, which was seen as being jolly for children but which in reality was full of arsenic, and responsible for some horrible deaths and sicknesses. Yet despite that, at a talk given at London’s Royal Academy in the 1870s, there were still a few people who said that they didn’t care about the consequences; it was too marvellous a colour not to use. Here’s the Houzz story.

Always look on the bright side

Standard

ImageIn September 1993 I was sent from The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong to cover the first Beijing bid for the Olympics.

I was a rookie news reporter who knew just about nothing about sport, but I had, three and a half months before, been assigned to do a daily “100 days to the Beijing 2000 bid” countdown, with a new locally generated story every day.

After I had interviewed every potential olympic and paralympic athlete in Hong Kong that still left about 93 columns to find, each written with increasing desperation and I am ashamed to say even on one occasion involving cajoling one of the big hotels to make a “Beijing 2000″ chocolate cake. My reward was to be sent to Monte Carlo to cover the vote.

I remember how, on my way out of the airport in Nice, there was a shortage of trolleys. But a nice Englishman suggested I put my bag on his trolley and as he pushed it towards the buses, I asked him whether he too was going to the Olympic meeting. He said he was with the Manchester 2000 bid. When I got onto the press bus and he into another, the British journalists who had been preening themselves on the plane from London looked extremely impressed.

“How did YOU know Bobby Charlton?” asked the man from the Press Association.

Sir Bobby Charlton carried my bag once

Sydney, of course, was awarded the 2000 Olympics. I remember going to the Australian party that night and an Ozzie athlete telling the barman: “don’t worry about the champagne glasses, mate. I’ll just take the bottle.”

The Chinese had cancelled their party int the room next door, but halfway through the evening, I found the Manchester party in a smaller room down the corridor, with Britain’s finest athletes – including Sebastian Coe and Chris Boardman – sitting in thoughtful mood. Sir Bobby Charlton spotted me as I stood peering in at the door. “You again! Come and join us!” he called out. Read the rest of this entry

Colour, chemistry and scarlet geraniums

Standard

Nature so effortlessly produces the red in a red flower. Photo: Thomas Tolkien

A reader in Ukraine left a lovely message on this website recently: she said Colour had helped her make connections between art and chemistry, which was terrific to hear. It reminded me of a story I heard a few years ago, which I put into the foreword to the Folio edition of Colour, published in 2009.

The story was told to me by a retired Dutch industrialist, now a philanthropist and writer, who studed chemical engineering at Delft University of Technology in the 1940s. He was given the assignment to create a particular red shade out of petrochemicals. It was such a simple colour yet proved so complicated to reproduce. One day when he got back to his room, feeling depressed because he still hadn’t cracked the problem, he noticed a potted plant on his window sill. In a single day it had produced a perfect flower the exact shade of red he had been tasked to create.

Red geranium petal cells PHOTO: Umberto Salvagnin

“It was many years later when I wanted to find a way to understand what I was searching for in my life that I remembered the red of that flower,” he told me. “And how, where a human being with a sophisticated laboratory had failed again and again, nature had succeeded with just earth, water, air and light. Effortlessly.”

Tum Tiddly-Um

There are echoes of this sense of wonder in my favourite DH Lawrence poem.

Imagine that any mind ever thought a red geranium!

As if the redness of a red geranium could be anything but a sensual experience

and as if sensual experience could take place before there were any senses.

We know that even God could not imagine the redness of a red geranium

nor the smell of mignonette

when geraniums were not, and mignonette neither.

And even when they were, even God would have to have a nose to smell at the mignonette.

You can’t imagine the Holy Ghost sniffing at cherry-pie heliotrope.

Or the Most High, during the coal age, cudgelling his mighty brains

even if he had any brains: straining his mighty mind

to think, among the moss and mud of lizards and mastodons

to think out, in the abstract, when all was twilit green and muddy:

“Now there shall be tum-tiddly-um, and tum-tiddly um,

hey-presto! scarlet geranium!”

We know it couldn’t be done.

But imagine, among the mud and the mastodons

God sighing and yearning with tremendous creative yearning, in that dark green mess

oh, for some other beauty, some other beauty

that blossomed at last, red geranium, and mignonette.

I cannot now remember why that did not find its way into the book, because it was certainly one of the first quotes and poems I remember writing down. But it was ousted at the last minute, perhaps for copyright reasons, by a letter from John Ruskin to Winsor and Newton, and it is good to revisit it now.

A wonderful show of purple

Standard

Purpura. PHOTO: Traditions Mexico

A reader called Hamid Zavareei has just left a comment on this blogsite to say that there’s a brilliant slideshow about purple on the Traditions Mexico website. And it is wonderful. Really shows the beauty of those remote beaches in Oaxaca, and the extraordinary quality of that most simple of all natural dyes – the shimmer and life of it. I wish I had taken pictures like that when I was there in 2001. But I was too caught up in the whole purpleness of the escapade, in the unlikelihood that we were really there, against the odds, with a man whose name I had read in an academic paper written 10 years before, and that he lived near one particular marketplace. That day we got the only available boat in the village, driven by two teenagers who were actually supposed to be painting it (that’s why it had been left behind). I was also caught up in my desire to stop the two teenagers from hurting the shellfish.

Mexican dyed yearns. PHOTO: Tradition Mexico

I don’t know who the people at Traditions Mexico are, but they have some great photos. And when delving into their earlier albums I found another interesting slideshow from 2007, about cochineal. You can see what the little bugs look like on the opuntia cactuses, and what great buildings (many of them in the city of Oaxaca) were constructed from its profit. You can find that one here.

An ochre mine in Gloucestershire

Standard

Ochre miner at the Wick Quarries - PHOTO: THIS IS BATH

29 days after my pledge to write 500 words a day: I am not quite on track – that would mean I had already written 14,500 words which would of course be wonderful. But I have, perhaps 5,000 words more than I would have had I not thought, every day, that I had to do it, like it or not. And some of the images and incidents are keepers, especially the ones I wasn’t expecting.

Today is a “writing day” which meant that I was out in my garden in the sunshine at lunchtime reading a book for research, and taking notes, when neighbours passed. They had lunch guests, would I like to join for a gin and tonic? It took me two minutes to close the door of my house, and be round there.

Our neighbour has always promised to take me to the ochre mines at Wick, in Southern Gloucester. He is very amused that I went round the world to Australia to find ochre when there was perfectly good material five miles away from the place that would later be my home. He said that in the old days you used to see the workers finishing their shifts at five o’clock and they would look yellow-white as ghosts, their features and clothes clouded in dust. He also said that the red tarmac on the Mall in London was coloured with pigment of Wick. There is, apparently, a letter from King George V, thanking the men of Wick for the redness of his road.

It is apparently now a nature reserve. And there’s some good local research on its history. I must visit soon. I can’t believe I haven’t been there before. But first I have 500 words to write.

500 words a day

Standard

I’ve just been signed up onto a “Summer Novelists’ Club” run on facebook by friends at Columbia College in Chicago, with the target being 500 words a day, starting today, May 16th. We had a couple of weeks warning though I didn’t use them very fruitfully. The aim is to finish on August 28th, which somebody has calculated is in 106 days time, meaning theoretically 53,000 words of the first draft of a novel will have been written down, ready for improving. I love these kinds of numbers. It makes it all seem so very possible. No, it makes it all seem so very easy. My first 568 words sped by this evening. Which is just as well because I got the beachball of death on my mac, and had to type them all back in again. Second time round they came to 504 words. Hopefully means that I’m editing on the way, rather than just forgetting. It’s not all about words of course, but it is, usefully about sitting down in front of a blank bit of screen at the beginning, and making it into a slightly less blank bit of screen at the end, hopefully with a few useful or interesting images or moments somewhere in the middle.

Turquoise

Standard

PHOTO: Robyn Jay

Oh dear. So much for New Years’ Resolutions (see last post from, ahem, four months ago). Today I have just added another page from my archives (Turquoise) and made some private resolutions to do this better and more often. A reader wrote to me a couple of days ago asking if I had any photos of the textiles I wrote about in Colour, and whether I could put them on this blog. That thought did pass recently (and briefly) though my mind quite recently but then I realised they are all either slides or prints, which means they have to be scanned individually.

“Why on earth would you do slides and prints when you could take pictures in digital?” asked a young person in the office of the environment charity I work for, looking with total astonishment at the folders of slides as if they came from another century, which they almost do.

That said, in Chicago last month I saw, to my delight, some quipus (Inca message strings, dyed with cochineal and other dyes) and do have the pictures on my digital camera. So perhaps that will be a good start.