Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Palette pimp: Riding in the hood with red

This is my essay on the colour red, which was a lot of fun to research and write. Thanks to the splendid 'eight' magazine and Ink Publishing for asking me to contribute it. These kind of 'think pieces' off the top of your head are always a bit daunting, but the most rewarding, often, when they are done. 

The colour red is crazy. Insane in the membrane. A few crayons short of a set, and not the sharpest pencil in the box. Call the men in white jackets, tell the asylum to get its padded cell ready. Poor old red – ready or not, here it comes, the loony tune of hues, the crime of passion, the time of your life, a twisted melon: lover, fighter, sinner, saint.

The pimp of the palette, the paint box pantomime clown and the visible spectrum's biggest show-off, red clamours for attention, the hue that cries. Red is the most visible and arresting colour for humans in daylight hours, capable of causing discernable shifts in mood and arousal and stirring appetites, passions and emotions. Sporting teams that sport red tend to win more, as do boxers and martial artists. Women wearing red are judged more beautiful and desirable than those in other colours. Men with redder faces get more mates.

Yet red clings precariously to the edge of the visible spectrum, the first or last shade on the rainbow, bleeding into its mysterious and invisible cousin, infrared. Just a few scant nanometres of wave length are the difference between celebrity and anonymity.

Simply red? It's complicated. Red is the colour of confusion and contradiction, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Red is a conundrum, pigment as palimpsest. Red runs thought the fabric of our lives, splashed across literature, staining the vernacular. In a world where red can mean almost anything, does its sound and fury in fact signify nothing?

I was caught red-handed and left red-faced painting the town red when my red letter day saw me walk the red carpet, only to find a red herring. That was a red rag to a bull, the red mist descended and I saw red. That got me red-carded so I hopped on the redeye, drank a red bull and got into a fight with some rednecks.  

Red is life and death, love and hate, sickness and health, hurting and healing, headache and heartache, oppression and revolt, bureaucracy and anarchy. Red is the capitalist, the communist and the fascist, the sailor's dawn warning and afternoon delight. The Red Army marches in Red Square. The crimson gape of the Grand Canyon. Uluru, the big red rock in Australia's parched red centre. 

Writer Saul Bellow - now there's a fellow who knew a thing or two about red's starring role in the grand opera and farce of life. In The Adventures of Augie March, his protagonist sears this image into the consciousness with colour: "The door opened; a woman sat before me in a wheelchair, and in her lap, just born in a cab or paddy wagon or in the lobby of the hospital, covered with blood and screaming so you could see the sinews, square of chest and shoulder from the strain, this bald kid, red and covering her with the red ... She and the baby appeared like enemies forced to have each other, the figures of a war."

Red means danger and evil in the Middle East, macho men in Greece, female reproduction in Japan, Christmas in the West, but in China the East is Red. Red means sackcloth and ashes and mourning in South Africa, and sex for sale in Amsterdam.