Folks, what defines humanity? As in, what makes us different from animals? What stayed the same throughout thousands of years of evolution? If you are thinking ‘tools’, you’re wrong – gorillas use sticks to get to food, so do elephants and various other species. Having a conception of the self? Well, crows recognize themselves in mirrors, so that’s a non-starter, too.
Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place. Because, as this weeks wonderful book ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Cassia St Clair (amazing name) says – we’re human because we love the colour red. Yes, indeed. All throughout history, humans have admired, craved and despised certain colours – though the focus of the attention has shifted. But ever since we became human, we as a species were obsessed with the colour red.
(We still are. I mean, I’m wearing red lipstick as I write this, and that’s surely not for the ease of use, as my mug proves.)
So what this book does is have an in-depth look at the relationship humans have with colours. The author goes over each colour one by one, which makes for short chapters and ideal reading on the tube. It’s a great book to pick up and read for a bit, and it’s full of weird stories throughout the history of humankind.
(if you remember the Salt debacle, you’ll know that I am not always a friend of this story telling technique, but St Clair makes it work. That and the fact that each page of the book is coloured in whatever colour she is talking about, which looks great and gives you a visual clue. It also made me realize how insufficient my vocabulary is when it comes to colours – or do you know what ocre is? Mauve? How they differ from gold or light brown or lilac? You’ll know after reading this book.)
So I’ll give you some of my favourite stories that I learnt from reading this book – I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.
- So you know the famous Hermes orange boxes? Turns out, that wasn’t a neat decision made in the marketing department after consulting focus groups and doing testing. Nope. The colour dates back to wartime rationing. After a while, only orange packaging was left for the Hermes boxes, so that’s what they went with. They stuck with it ever since.
- Speaking of – it’s orange because of the fruit, not the colour. (though the colour is, of course, named after the fruit.) Before the orange made its way to Europe (via China and the Middle East), the colour orange was known as shade of red.
- Which brings me to the most mind-boggling fact: for the longest time, humans didn’t have a word for the colour blue. I’m not kidding you. It seems so obvious to us (especially since blue has quickly become the most popular colour for most people), but it took us millenia to figure out what to call it. Homer, for example, speaks of ‘wine dark seas’, which just sits wrong with us. The ocean is obviously blue, or green, but if it is wine coloured, something surely has gone wrong. Turns out (at least according to some scientists), that Green wine wasn’t red, but blue. Kid you not. Their ground water was alkaline, perhaps sufficiently so to change the colour of wine from red to blue.
- On the subject of ‘food that didn’t always have the colour it does today’ – carrots were selectively bred by Dutch Farmers to be orange. It was not a marketing thing, or even a nutritional thing – the farmers wanted to celebrate their royal house, the House of Orange, with it. Before the patriotic farming intervention, carrots were white.
- Oh, and if your food lists E120 as one of the ingredients? Sorry to break this to you, but that means your food contains crushed bugs to give it a lovely red colour. Better check that strawberry yoghurt in your fridge.
- Not a fact, but a fun quote: “God gave women red hair for the same reason he gave wasps stripes.” As someone who once sported ginger hair, I approve of this message.
- In other ‘female hair colour’ news, blonde prostitutes can charge a premium based on their hair colour. It’s weird, but true.
The book also introduced me to three amazing humans (amazing in different ways)…
- Rosetti was an Italian composer int eh 18th century, which in itself isn’t that interesting, but this story is: When his wife died, he buried a book of his poetry with her. (aww). Years later, he disinterred her to retrieve it. (what)
- Daisy Fellowes was a British society diva (Clementine Churchill had some Opinions about her). She apparently threw the most amazing parties in London during her time, mostly because she only invited paris of mortal enemies. How fantastic is that.
- But my all-time favourite story is that of Han van Meegeren, who was accused after the Second World War to have collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of the Netherlands. The prosecution figured they’d have a pretty solid case – Van Meegeren was known as an art dealer who sold a Vermeer painting to Goering himself. In a twist that nobody saw coming, Van Meegeren claimed during the trial that instead of helping the Nazis accumulate priceless art, he was actually subverting them – by forging the masterpieces and selling them to the Nazis. Van Meegeren, in his own words, was a hero, not a collaborator. His proof? He used a chemical ingredient to mix the colours – phenolformaldehyde – which wasn’t invented until several centuries after Vermeer’s death. Van Meegeren was the guy who swindled Goering.
- (He also did a bunch of other forgeries, which ended up in museums, so don’t feel to good about him.)
And finally, two other stories that I cannot let go:
You know how nobody knows precisely what exactly went down during the Medieval Ages, but the Art they left behind points to ‘something fucking weird’? Well. To stick with the theme, they had some really weird rules, as well.
Medieval artists and craftsmen were not allowed to make green. Kid you not. As every child knows, green comes from mixing yellow and blue.
And for whatever reason, people in the Medieval Times thought that mixing two colours together was impure, and therefore forbidden.
Secondly, dazzle ships! They are one of my favourite things about the First World War, because they look so completely weird and otherworldly and yet, they work!
The idea is not to hide the ship itself, but to make it hard for the observer to understand where the front of the ship is and in which direction it is travelling. Obviously, those are the two most important things to know if you plan to torpedo a ship, so the thought behind the stripes and geometric forms painted on the ship is to confuse the onseer.
But don’t they look fab, as well?
I hope I made you want to read this book. There’s plenty more stories in this book – and you’ll start to see the world with different eyes. Can’t recommend this enough!!