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. 

Red is true at first light, and a lie at noon. Red rages against the dying of the light and does not go gentle into that dark night – the long wave length that almost renders red invisible is the wavelength most able to survive night's fall, painting the sky in sunset's palette of reds, pinks and orange long after lesser colours have been sent bouncing off the atmosphere and into space. 

Red is a stop sign. Red means run for your life. Red is portent, warning and harbinger, the Red Masque of Death that crashes the party. “Look out Mama there's a white boat coming up the river, with a big red beacon and a flag and a man on the rail,” sings Neil Young on Powderfinger, all blood and thunder. “Red means run, son, the numbers add up to nothing,” his young doomed hero recalls his father saying, as he raises his rifle to his eye and sees black as his face splashes in the sky.

Red is love. Valentine's hearts and flaming arrows, stupid cupid and wings of desire. Red is broken hearts and bruised souls and shattered dreams. Loving him was red, sings Taylor Swift, like driving a Maserati down a dead end street. Red is a she-wolf falling to pieces, and red wants to swing from the chandelier like tomorrow doesn't exist. Lucille having a ball, the bombshell on the Memphis Belle.  

Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light. Red is the love that conquers all, and the love that dare not speak its name. Red is Marvin Gaye on long play and Barry White's baritone. Red is the love that hurts and scars, the love that slips from reach, and the love that lasts forever, or at least seems to, with a master of tantric sex on the job. 

Red is moody, mercurial, from Mars. One minute shy, blushing and embarrassed, the next, drunk with anger, rouged with booze, bursting with desire. Red is rash, the lash, crashes, crimson splashes, prickly heat and righteous ire. Red is raw, sticks in your craw, always wants more. Red pulses with anger and throbs with lust. Red's under the bed, easily led, a prisoner of passions, beset by demons, ruled by emotions. 

Red is for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.  “A certain red makes your blood pressure rise,” said Henri Matisse. Red is rosy-cheeked and ruddy, bloody murder and black death, the circle of life and the rust that never sleeps. Red is attack, sustain, decay, release. Ring a ring a rosies, a pocket full of posies, a-tishyoo a-tishyoo we all fall down. 

Red is sublime and ridiculous, a clown's red nose and a lobster telephone, a Shakespearean sonnet, a sunset from Hamlet-- 'this brave overhanging firmament fretted with golden fire', or Macbeth's unchartable fear and loathing, and his red right hand that would 'The multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

Red is delicious and deadly: a rock lobster and red snapper, red-back spiders and red-bellied black snakes, the rooster's comb, the robin's red breast, and the colour that flew over the cuckoo's nest, red fox, red squirrel, red deer, red grouse, red knot, redstart, redwing, red setter, red ant. 

Which red ant? Pedant. Take your pick from the European red ant (Formica polyctena), Texas red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), Imported red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), Indian red ant (Harpegnathos saltator), and Red carpenter ant (Camponotus castaneus), to name but a few.

Red is revelation, the Great Harlot and Whore of Babylon from the Bible's Book of Revelation, astride a many-headed scarlet beast , drunk on the blood of the saints, mystery written on her face. 

Nature was red in tooth and claw, until green, that pretender and usurper, came along with its environmental movement. Green? The gall! The bile! Vile. 

Red is the primary colour that dares to shout its name, first among equals on the colour wheel and over the rainbow. Blue is too busy moping and yellow hasn't been the same since becoming a Coldplay song. Yellow is weaker than a Chris Martin couplet, reeking of wee, jaundice, crying babies and cowardice, weak sunlight on nursing homes. Blue is Mondays and meanies, cold as ice, and besides, all the deepest blues are black. 

Red makes blue green with envy, and tells yellow the future's orange. Red banishes the plangent, finger-picking blues with a comforting binge on finger-licking fried chicken, splurges on burgers. Red creates appetite and stimulates super-sized urges. Just ask Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald. 

Red is cherries, strawberries, rasberries, apples, rose apples, beetroot, blood oranges, cranberries, guava, papaya, pomegrante, bell peppers, chilli peppers, tomatoes.

Red is in the blood, binder of oxygen, Red, in essence, is blood. Haemoglobin. Red cells and iron filings, heavy metal. Red is the communion chalice, the sacrifice and the redemption, forgiveness and absolution. The Lord tells Isiah: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” 

Red is a fairytale and fantasy, myth and legend. The Red Shoes, The Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Rose Red, thorns and pricks and prince charmings and sleeping beauties, poisons and potions, kings and crones. 

Red is lucky, red hot in poker, half a chance in roulette, Red when the chips are down, red-hot favourites on red letter days. Yet red is ruinous, ominous on a ledger, the colour of bankruptcy and scandal, penury and failure.

Buck up. It's a new day and here comes rosy-fingered dawn. Red is inevitable, ineffable, incandescent. Crimson. Vermillion. Cadmium. Alizarian. Pigments that caused wars and  shaped empires, adorned the robes of kings and emperors, worn by tyrants who made rivers of blood flow.

Red is a slap in the face on a crisp winter morning and a mad dog's bite at noon, welts and weals and wounds that time heals. 

Red is maple leaves in autumn, Mapplethorpe's flowers, Ferrari testarosas and little red Corvettes. Red is princes, kings and queens. Raindrops on roses. Red is epic, a saga, Kurosawa and Kieślowski. 

Finally, red is the Sting in the tail.

I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart

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