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.

A wonderful show of purple

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

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

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

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.

Happy 2011

New Year’s Resolutions… I might not make them every year but I certainly think about making them. The one New Year’s Resolution I’ve at least thought about making every year since I was six or seven (and saw a fabulous, tall American-looking woman step onto a curb and call a taxi with Panache with a capital P), is learning to wolf whistle. People have tried to show me over the years – there’s a trick with curling the tongue like a tube, apparently – but so far narry a piercing toot has come from me. Perhaps 2011 is that year.

I’ve had such nice feedback about this little blog (aka collection of random notes) that I might make a bit more of an effort in 2011 to find some emails I wrote to my lovely agent Simon while I was researching the colour book around the world, sitting in various internet cafes to tell him what I was up to. And I’ve also got a scanner now, so perhaps it’s time to put some of the photos up too. We had an intern for a few months at the charity I work at as communications director and I asked her a couple of months ago to scan some of their slides. “Why would you have slides,” she asked, looking puzzled as if she’d never seen one before, “when you could have done it digital?”

Oh, and 2011 is also the year that I’m going to concentrate on writing the first half (why stop at half?) of a story about Italy that I’ve been thinking about for the past four years.

Let this one at least not be like the New Years Resolutions I’ve ignored every year. Let “thinking about” be “acting on” too.

Happy New Year!

The biggest diamond in the world? Ever?

Yellow Topaz with smoky quartz from China. PHOTO: Rob Lavinsky http://www.irocks.com

(more notes from the notebooks in the attic)

There are no pictures of the great Braganza diamond, and nobody knows quite where it might be. But here’s the story, and the mystery.

In around 1790, three criminals were banished “into perpetual exile” in the interior of Brazil. The rule was that they could not go into any big towns – and if they did so, they would be imprisoned for life.

The three men decided to try their luck mining in the Rio Plata area, hoping that a big find of gold might reverse their fortunes and maybe even, with some bribery funds, their sentences. In 1797, after six years of searching (and avoiding cannibals and government soldiers on the way) they came to the river Abaite. It was a drought and the waters were at their lowest levels known in living history.

While panning for gold they were surprised to find, in one of the pans, a stone of excellent heft that weighed nearly an ounce. A clergyman helped get them access to the governor at Villa Rica who consulted a jeweller to decide whether the stone was or was not a diamond. It was decided that it was, and the men were pardoned. It does not appear that they were allowed to keep the jewel.

It was called the “Braganza”, after the Portuguese Royal House of Braganza. However now the stone has disappeared from sight, and it is believed by many experts not to have been diamond but topaz.

Edwin Streeter notes there are other accounts and many possible weights attributed to the Braganza. He tells a story of the German Aulic-councillor Beireis of Helmstadt, who possessed a stone he believed to be a diamond – weighing 6,400 carats. He kept it locked up in a cabinet and spread the story round that he had received it from the Emperor of China. “Nobody of course believed this story, but the strangest part of it was that at his death [in 1809] the stone had disappeared” – even though Goethe himself testified to its existence. It could be that he loved mystery, or it could be that he wanted to save his reputation by preventing the true character of the gem from being known. “It is well to remember that the topaz, which consists of a fluorosilicate mixed with silicate of aluminium is apt to be mistaken for the diamond by unpractised eyes.” (p.45)

A final note on the Braganza, Portugal has not has a King since 1932, when its last monarch, the exiled Manoel II, died at Twickenham, after a day of watching tennis at Wimbledon.

More on topaz on the latest “The Ones that Got Away” page.