A white chicken and a silver wheelbarrow

I looked out the window just now and THERE WAS A WHITE CHICKEN standing beside a silver wheelbarrow in our garden… Of course I wished – it almost hurt – that I had followed my instinct and painted it red, like in the William Carlos Williams poem. I had wanted to do it this spring just in case a white chicken wandered along. And then it did wander along and I wasn’t ready. Is there a metaphor somewhere there…. ? 

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A Dinka name for red

Medici con l'Africa Cuamm Dinka cattle-1Earlier this week I went to a party where I met a woman from South Sudan. Her name, she said, meant “dark red” in Dinka. Was it common in South Sudan to name people after colours, I asked. It wasn’t uncommon, she said. And is her name just for girls? Yes, she said.

So is there an equivalent, maybe “dark blue” for boys, I asked, happy as always to be chatting along a colours theme. And she started to laugh. And she giggled until little tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “The Dinka are cattle herders,” she said as if in explanation, and giggled again. I didn’t quite understand. “My name is the name for a kind of cattle colour…. (another shudder of laughter)… and no cows are dark blue!” And then we both laughed until we cried at the delightful image of dark blue cows grazing in an orange desert.

It was a lovely, funny reminder of how colour names are caught up in culture. Continue reading →

Colour, chemistry and scarlet geraniums

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.