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…. ? 

Faith in Conservation reissue

In January 2003 my husband, Martin Palmer, came home to the little cottage we lived in in the Peak District, and said that as part of the World Bank funding of some projects with his charity he had to write a book about what it was all about. They were going to publish it later that year.

He showed me the first draft of his history of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), the charity he had set up with HRH Prince Philip eight years before.

It was nice, I said, and obviously it was amazing for the short amount of time he had available. “But if the World Bank is going to publish it, couldn’t we write a better book, an engaging one, full of stories that people would actually enjoy reading?”

And he smiled, as if that was what he was hoping I’d say, and asked me if I’d put a bit of time into improving it. “And maybe rewriting,” he said hopefully.  Continue reading →

A deadline, thundering ahead

ImageThis untitled ink and watercolour sketch by the extraordinary Californian artist Martin Ramirez somewhere between 1948 and 1963 seems to sum up my week.

I’m spending every waking hour at a desk with a train of a deadline thundering noisily past the window.

This little person doesn’t have toppling bookshelves full of wonderful art books though (and nor do they have a wonderful swiveling chair which arrived on Monday, and which distracted me for several happy minutes, until I felt a bit woozy with all that turning.) Continue reading →

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 →

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

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

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. 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.