Tag Archives: colour

Fireworks – gateway to winter

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Every year, I resist the approach of winter.

There is always a morning, early in September, when I step outside the back door to find a delicate web stretched between the stems of dying plants in the garden, with a small black-and-brown resident lurking at the centre – the first autumn garden spider. With it comes a definite chill in the air – and from that shivery moment on, I am trying to hold back the encroaching darkness simply by force of wishing it may not be so.

Sadly, my wishful thinking is not powerful enough to halt the carousel ride of the earth around the sun. Like every other helpless human, I’m just holding on tight while the great wheel keeps turning. As I watch the light fail earlier each evening, and pull ever thicker clothes from the back of the cupboard, the link with summer months gets more and more tenuous.

Compensation comes in the form of autumn colours, of course. The beauty of this season easily rivals that of spring. But there’s no escaping the fact that the golden leaves are dying leaves, a last flash of glory before bare branches are exposed to the frost.

It’s all very depressing – that is, until 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night. This time when the annual extravaganza of firework displays takes place is always the moment when, finally, I agree to face winter head-on.

Red, green, gold, silver and, best of all, purple flashes defy the dark skies. A blazing bonfire defies the cold wind. Every fizz, boom and whistle gives a two-fingered salute to gloom.

Even better, Guy Fawkes Night gives permission to think ahead to sparkling fairy lights, scented candles and hot mulled wine – all the warm, comforting accompaniments to Christmas. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

This year, I’ve bought a bright red winter coat. I shall wear it for the first time to our local fireworks display, and stop wishing for summer.

fireworks


Photos from https://unsplash.com/@jammypodger7470 and https://unsplash.com/@kazuend

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Name that colour

history of green

Can you imagine having names for only three colours? In this book about the history of the colour green,* I read that the ancient Greek language had simple names for only black, white and red. Other colour words were available but they tended to describe the quality of a colour (such as ‘dark’ or ‘pale’), or the kind of emotion it evoked, rather than naming plain green, blue and yellow.

My first thought, reading this, was to feel sorry for the poor old ancient Greeks, that their language was so impoverished. Fancy not being able to say that the sky is blue or the sun is yellow!

On second thoughts, though, I wonder what is the real point of any of these words? They’re useful when a quick identification is needed – when a witness says that the suspect was wearing a blue shirt and drove off in a yellow car. But the categories are too broad to do justice to the thousands of different shades that an artist might want to name, so we subdivide ‘blue’ into navy, cobalt and ultramarine, to name just a few.

Image: Bob Embleton

Image: Bob Embleton

The grass is green, right? Sometimes, on a country walk, I pick one stalk of every different type of grass I can find along the path. There are usually about a dozen varieties, and the range of colours they represent is astonishing – from brown, through purple and green, to creamy yellow. I call them ‘green’ only because I’m not looking closely enough. I’m just being lazy.

There’s something else, though. Very often, when we talk about colour, we’re really talking about its cultural or emotional meaning – what it signifies to us rather than just which part of the light spectrum is being reflected from the surface we’re seeing. Even when we remark on how blue the sky is today, often what we mean is that it’s making us feel cheerful.

Lots of our colour-talk is about symbolism or deeper meaning: we think of autumn colours, Christmas colours, nautical colours, tropical colours. Red stands for danger, purple for majesty, green for renewal.

When I’m trying to write short forms of poetry (cinquains and haiku), I usually feel that a colour-word is a waste of a syllable unless it ‘means’ something else – for example, if it’s used synaesthetically, like this:

grass cutting
all along the roadside spills
the scent of green

Yet I’ve noticed for the first time that D.H. Lawrence is remarkably bold in his use of simple colour words like green, blue, yellow, black and white. Far from avoiding them because they’re clichéd, he repeats them – creating intensity, layer upon layer. So, describing fresh snow, he says it is:

… white and white and only white
with a lovely bloom of whiteness upon white
in which the soul delights and the senses
have an experience of bliss.

This is not just a description of a white landscape, but of whiteness. It’s an experience, not a colour.

The ancient Greeks were on to something, you know. However many colour-words we have, three or three thousand, it’s the inner quality that matters, not the surface reflection – what we feel, not just what we see.


* Green: The history of a color by Michel Pastoureau, trans. Jody Gladding (Princeton University Press, 2014)

Just one colour?

(A Daily Post daily prompt)

Local Color: Imagine we lived in a world that’s all of a sudden devoid of colour, but where you’re given the option to have just one object keep its original hue. Which object (and which colour) would that be?

water-abstract-water-turquoise-repeating-image

I can’t really call this a nightmare scenario, because I dream in colour! But the idea of having my surroundings suddenly drained of so much beauty is certainly distressing. One object in one colour – how can anyone choose?

Leaving the object aside for one moment, the sensible choice of a colour to keep would be red. The colour of blood, the colour of danger, can’t be ignored. It screams, ‘Pay attention!’ Who can forget the little girl in the red coat in the monochrome world of the film Schindler’s List? Red is bold and life-enhancing in so many ways. I have a red leather jacket, which I love. Red adds ‘zing’ to life.

Perhaps, though, red is too stimulating, too overwhelming, to be the only colour allowed. Instead, the one I would choose to keep – the colour that never bores me, that ‘calls’ to me wherever I see it – is turquoise. I’m drawn to every shade of it, from palest aquamarine to deepest peacock. The sea could lose all its other hues – grey, green or ‘ordinary’ blue – as long as there were still some tropical turquoise waves to be seen.

If you insist, though, that I may keep only one object, the choice is maddening. It has to have some kind of emotional significance attached, and it has to be something I’ll see regularly, that I intend to keep for the rest of my life. It can’t be just an item of clothing or my living-room curtains (however proud I am that I made them myself).

My blue topaz and diamond engagement ring might qualify, or the turquoise-glazed mermaid that my mum made in pottery classes when I was a child. Even the turquoise cut-glass decanter that I rescued from a charity shop, because I just couldn’t leave it behind, is still one of my favourite ornaments.

My choice, though, has to be to keep the aquamarine and silver ring that I bought for myself after my dad died. It reminds me of his blue eyes and of a calming pool of water that promises refreshment on a hot summer’s day.

So that’s my final decision – I think. Or would I always be hankering for a splash of red…?

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Perfume and Baudelaire

‘Some perfumes are as fragrant as a child,
Sweet as the sound of hautboys, meadow-green;
Others, corrupted, rich, exultant, wild…’

From ‘Correspondences’, Charles Baudelaire, trans. James Huneker

The poetry of Frenchman Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) was recommended to me by a friend who told me to look out for examples of synaesthesia, an experience in which the different senses are intermingled. In ‘Correspondences’, the poet seems to be describing this mixture as he hears the sound of the oboe and sees the colour green while smelling the light, fresh fragrances that he associates with children.

Baudelaire is well-known for the inclusion of scents in his writing. I can think of no English poet who focuses so closely on fragrance (though ‘Elegy 4’ by John Donne is one in which it plays an important part). Most of the perfumes he evokes, though, are not of the sweet and childlike, meadow-green variety. He clearly prefers those at the ‘rich, exultant, wild’ end of the spectrum—those we might classify as oriental.

The poem ‘The perfume flask’ (Le flacon) describes ‘some old box / Brought from the East’ which, when opened, releases an intoxicating odour that has been powerful enough to survive years of enclosure. It’s an intriguing perfume but, however lovely it once might have been, it is now decayed, associated in the poet’s mind with darkness, phantoms and death. The image of the ‘ghosts of long-dead odours’ that sleep in a chrysalis and, once disturbed, ‘make faint flutterings as their wings unfold’ is as macabre as it is fantastical. The colours—‘rose-washed and azure-tinted, shot with gold—are mesmerising but I, for one, would be eager to shove these weird winged creatures straight back into their exotic box and slam the lid, locking it tight.

The picture of a nightmarish fluttering thing, released from captivity after many years of slumber, reminds me of the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter novels—scraps of Lord Voldemort’s shattered soul encased in antique objects for years, and still dangerous. I even wonder if J.K. Rowling (whose university degree was in French and Classics) was at all influenced by Baudelaire in her depictions of the dark side of human nature.

My friend warned me that this writing stems from a strange and troubled mind! Just as sights, sounds and smells are mixed together in it, though, intermingled with its deep sadness is a keen awareness of beauty.

So, those rich perfumes in ‘Correspondences’…

‘Have all the expansion of things infinite:
As amber, incense, musk, and benzoin,
Which sing the senses’ and the soul’s delight.’

I wonder which was stronger for him in the end—the delight or the darkness?