Colour – an unreliable memoir by Chris Green
When I was growing up, life was grey. It was not just that the suburban landscape was dull, or that life on the Bleak View estate was grim. These were minor details. Back then, everything was black and white. The sky was grey, clouds were grey, and even rainbows were grey. The street I lived in was grey, the shops were grey, and Greyfriars Grammar School was grey. Our teachers were grey, we sat at grey desks, played grey sports and were beaten with grey canes. We learned about grey kings and queens and wars fought on grey battlefields by grey nations with grey flags. There was not even a word for colour.
I was twelve when I went with my elder brother, Frank, to see The Beatles play at the local Gaumont. It was November 1963. The world was coming to terms with the assassination of John Kennedy, a victim of a grey bullet fired by a grey marksman with a grey rifle. Not that I was particularly interested in politics. I liked pop music. I had never been to a live concert before and had been looking forward to it for weeks.
The black curtain opened and white spotlights flooded the stage. Four figures familiar from photos ran on, and the audience let out a tumultuous scream, which drowned out the opening bars of From Me to You. The Beatles were dressed in black suits over white shirts. The first sign of what would become known as colour came from John’s non-grey Rickenbacker guitar. This was what would later be known as red. Paul’s Hohner bass was also not grey, but what would later be called brown. Small signs, but when you have spent your entire life in monochrome, this was a revelation.
On the way home from the cinema, amongst the black cars, a Hillman Minx with a green stripe passed us. We were spooked. We exchanged expletives and assumed a faster pace.
‘What the blazes is going on?’ Frank said, as a blue-tinged bus passed us. Frank had paled visibly. The grey had drained from his face.
‘Don’t know. It’s a bit scary, but in a way it’s cool,’ I replied.
We moved on down Stevenson Street past the Kitchener Lamp and the War Memorial. Arcs of ghostly white light from the street lamps pierced the grey relief as our eyes searched for further invasions of colour. We passed the Milk Bar. I thought I detected a trace of non-grey in the sign in the window advertising milkshakes. And the mannequins in the window display in Burtons seemed to have an unfamiliar hue. The hot dogs and ketchup from the hot dog van at the end of Straight Street were however still reassuringly grey. Or, I began to feel, as we moved along past the statue of Queen Victoria, savouring the onion tang, disappointingly grey.
When I mentioned the instances of colour to Pete, Pete, Dave, Dave, and John at school the next day, they laughed at me. They thought that I was mad.
‘Next, you’ll be telling us that the school bus isn’t grey,’ said Pete.
‘Or that the Black and White Minstrels aren’t black and white,’ laughed the other Pete.
I was crestfallen. No boy of twelve wants to be ridiculed. I had wanted them to share my excitement. Surely I could not be the only one tuned in to the chromatic awakening.
At lunchtime, I sought Frank out, but he now seemed to be in denial. Perhaps he had mentioned the manifestations of colour to Geoff, or Jeff, or Bill and Will, or Billy even, and had encountered similar derision. Whatever the reason, he made it clear he wanted no part in it. It felt like I was alone in a foreign land.
Over the weeks that followed, I encountered further discrete glimpses of the strange phenomenon. The traffic lights at the corner of Dark Road and Gloomy Place beamed red, orange and blue (or non-grey, non-grey, non-grey at the time, given the absence of a taxonomy of colour). The Belisha beacon opposite the ironmongers in Quiet Street flashed a bold new colour, and at night the street lights down by the railway cutting gave off a phosphorescent glow. A red telephone box appeared outside the railway station, a blue milk vending machine outside Pitts’ Newsagents and a red and cream barbers’ pole outside Reg Oldman Gents Hairdressers.
One evening. I mentioned my sightings to my father who, as usual, had his head buried in a grey Edgar Wallace thriller, but it seemed that he had not noticed any change.
‘You’re not on drugs are you?’ he asked, looking up briefly. He had read an article by Bernard Swelter in the Daily Mail about Indian hemp, or marijuana as it was sometimes called. Swelter described the devastating effect the drug had on one’s perception and the dangers its use by the youth of today posed for society in Britain.
My mother did not seem to see anything non-grey about the oranges in the fruit bowl when I pointed them out, suggested I stopped reading so many comics, and carried on reading her Woman’s Weekly. It wasn’t that my parents still saw everything in black and white that hurt me so much as their dismissive attitude to my concerns. They might have shown some interest in what I was trying to say to them. I made a decision there and then to do badly in my exams. That would teach them.
Although my memory is a little hazy, I recall an item on the six-o-clock news one night about a scientist from New Zealand, or perhaps it was Newfoundland, making the discovery of colour. The report was delivered with little emphasis or ceremony in much the same way as the observation of a small moon orbiting Pluto might be today, but it did come up with some new words to describe the phenomenon. This is more or less the taxonomy we use to identify colours today.
I noticed that sometimes during the summer months the sky took on a blue colour, with a pinky hue in the west towards sunset. One or two coloured flowers popped up around the garden and the lawn was flecked with green. Some of the bottles of Corona in the confectioners on the corner were coloured, the limeade, green, and the cherryade, pinky-red. The sign outside The Brass Monkey public house appeared red and brown and the newsagent’s stall in the railway station had a poster with red letters advertising Titbits. Mostly though things from day to day were still grey.
Television back then was of course black and white. Even John Lennon’s red Rickenbacker was grey on television. And when Liverpool played Everton in the FA Cup, both teams had grey shirts. You could only distinguish the referee because he seemed to be the one nobody passed the ball to.
In January 1965, Winston Churchill died, aged 91, and millions of people including my parents watched his grey funeral on TV.
‘You can scoff,’ said my father, ‘but if it weren’t for Winston you would be speaking German.’
I judged there was little to be gained by pointing out that I did speak German, albeit badly, along with French. Or that for some unaccountable reason the tune to the Greyfriars Grammar School Song bore a striking resemblance to Deutschland Uber Alles.
One night while Frank and I were lying in our beds listening to the whistles and hisses of late-night Radio Luxemburg on our Philips transistor radio, Frank confided that he had seen an arc of multicoloured light in the sky which he had read was caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays by rain. You could tell that he was in the A stream.
‘What are you on about?’ I replied. I was in the B stream following poor end-of-term results. To me, it would have just been a rainbow.
His revelations continued.
‘Also, Jeff told me he’s been to an art gallery and seen an exhibition of brilliant coloured paintings by an artist called David Hockney. They’re on public display. We could go and see them.’ I was tempted to say, groovy, but resisted. Groovy had not yet been approved.
The transformation from monochrome to colour was a very gradual one. One or two items might stand out in an otherwise grey landscape. The next time you passed the same items might be grey again, but other items might display a different colour.
‘Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair,’ sang Donovan, in a hit song at the time.
‘In the morning,’ he added. He seemed to be describing the inconsistency. His true love’s hair was probably grey the rest of the day.
In the summer of 1965, Frank and I discovered a shop in Prospect Street that sold coloured clothes. Imagine, the Levi’s were not grey, they were blue.
We sorted excitedly through the sartorial cornucopia and came home dressed in our blue Levi’s and brightly coloured sweatshirts. Not that our parents noticed anything different in our appearance. Dad’s evening paper remained aloft and Mum merely reprimanded us for being late for tea.
Maybe only young people could see colour. Perhaps that was why The Who sang, ‘hope I die before I get old,’ in My Generation which was climbing up the charts. I bought the LP, which I believe boasted the first-ever coloured album cover. On the group cover photo, John Entwistle wore a red white and blue diagonal checked jacket. The cover was withdrawn hastily and replaced by a grey one, no reasons given by the record company, Brunswick, but Entwistle’s design later would become familiar to everyone the world over as the Union Jack.
Dave and Dave Too went on a trip to London and came back with excited stories of models in multicoloured miniskirts on Kensington High Street, boutiques in Carnaby Street selling satin shirts in rainbow patterns, and flashing neon signs in Leicester Square and Marble Arch. Pete and Pete went on holiday with their parents to Cornwall and came back with animated tales of surfers with brilliantly coloured boards and bodysuits. And golden sands with red, yellow and blue deckchairs. When I challenged them about their earlier scepticism, they laughed it off.
‘You’re just jealous,’ said Pete.
‘Because your life is so dull,’ said Other Pete.
They were right. I did not have the same opportunities as Pete or Other Pete. The day trips on grey buses to towns of historical interest or museums, or visits to ageing relatives were not by any means stimulating. I resolved to do even worse in my exams to spite my parents.
Every month new colours were reported, Prussian blue, vermilion, old gold and purple. You could now buy coloured paint sets with a huge variety of colours and grey paint sets began to be phased out. The new prismatic kaleidoscope sounded the death knell for the black and white kaleidoscope, which had amused children for decades. Cinemas even began to show films in colour. The Pink Panther and Goldfinger spring to mind.
I began going to Bleak View Youth Club with Pete and New Pete, or Dave, Dave and Mike. The youth club had the regulation grey coffee bar serving grey coffee, a grey snooker table with grey balls, and a black and white pinball machine. The dazzling new outfits that Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda wore on Friday nights when the club held a disco, however, offered glimpses of colour. Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda danced to Tamla Motown chart songs under red, gold and green flashing lights. This was the most concentrated display of colour that I had ever seen.
Radio Caroline and Radio London began playing songs by Pink Floyd and Cream. The Beatles brought out a tune called Strawberry Fields and Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze. The Lemon Pipers had a hit with Green Tambourine and Donovan showed he was still on the case with Mellow Yellow. Even The Rolling Stones who had earlier wanted to Paint It Black caught on and brought out Ruby Tuesday.
Psychedelia took colour on a roller coaster ride. Suddenly everything sparkled with vivid radiant colours, mesmerising patterns and fantastic swirls. Things such as coal, the very essence of blackness, might now be turquoise or tangerine, coral or amber. Colours shifted and undulated, changing constantly. Surfaces appeared to ripple or breathe. An object that you were focussing on might go through the whole spectrum of colours before your very eyes. It was a frightening time for many, especially the elderly who might have had seventy or eighty years of achromatic life.
The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band encapsulated colour in musical form. It was cool that EMI chose to release the album on June 1st, 1967, my sixteenth birthday. It was timely too that, my parents were away for a long weekend having won a Daily Mail competition to see the D-day landing sites, and convenient that Frank was away on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition in Snowdonia. We played the album over and over again on my new stereo record player. That weekend we read the news, saw a film, woke up, got out of bed and read the news again, oh boy.
‘Think how good life is going to be,’ I said to Sue, as we lay under my green and purple quilt having enjoyed our own historical moment.
After the psychedelic years, which completely saw off the grey world of yesteryear, colours settled down to create a more or less regular palette. Television was now broadcast in colour and programme producers made the most of this. Presenters were obliged to wear yellow and pink jackets even for weather reports. Colours were solid and stable and reliably identifiable; red was red and blue was blue. There was no longer a mix-up when Liverpool played Everton. Ford cars came in colours like Daytona yellow, radiant red and mistral blue. The British Standard Institution (BSI) colour standards were established. Paint colour cards became available in DIY shops. In the 1970s, colour became a precise science.
Had colour become the new grey?
Woody Allen anticipated that things were about to change when in 1979 he chose to film Manhattan, in black and white. No movies had been made in black and white since the advent of colour. Martin Scorcese followed a few months later with Raging Bull and David Lynch with The Elephant Man. The Police, the biggest band in the world at the time, began to film all their videos in monochrome. I began to notice that objects became ever so slightly tinged with grey, and colours on the TV began to flicker from colour to greyscale. Sometimes when I drove home, the street lights along Kubrick Way shone a ghostly grey and some of the red-bricked houses on Issigonis Street appeared grey-bricked. The Conran Shopping Centre, which had been seen as the quintessence of colour, suddenly seemed a shadow of its former self. Once again there was confusion when Liverpool played Everton. In one game, the referee scored a hat-trick.
My private life reflected the change. My wife Tracey initiated divorce proceedings and I had problems over access to our three daughters Amber, Jade and Magenta. My solicitor, Mr Cash of Bisbey, Creamer and Dunt was not optimistic about my chances of securing a favourable arrangement while I lived in a bedsit in Lower Back Street. I suggested to him that it was better than being homeless, which I probably would be if I had to continue to come up with the huge mortgage repayments on the family home in Diamond Drive. Meanwhile. Frank was doing well for himself. He was a successful chartered accountant, but I could not stay with him or even ask him for a loan to tide me over as I already owed him a large sum of money.
Mr Cash pointed out that my recent arrest for Possession of a Class A Drug with Intent to Supply might not go down well in the divorce hearing. I didn’t need to be reminded. As if this was not enough, I owed my dealer, Razor, several hundred pounds. Things did not go better with coke. I was also in danger of losing my job as a sales rep for Spectrum Kaleidoscopes, as I had recently been arrested for drink-driving.
‘Have you at least sorted out your alcohol problems?’ Mr Cash asked. ‘Because that is not going to help our case.’
‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be on my side?’
To add to this somewhat hopeless prognosis, when Mr Cash discovered that Tracey’s solicitor was Mr Chancer of Hanson, Nidd and Chancer, he threw up his hands in horror. I thought he was about to pass out.
‘We don’t stand a chance,’ he whimpered. ‘We may as well throw in the towel. Mr Chancer is the best divorce solicitor in the county,’
Following each visit, I sank further into the depths of despair. Each time I went to see him, he seemed more negative and his office appeared greyer. Even the Hockney prints he had on the walls appeared drab.
In November 1980, Ronald Reagan, a veteran of black and white films was elected President of the United States. Margaret Thatcher, with a black and white aspect and a grey agenda, was a year into her first term as Prime Minister. Between them, they seemed determined to reverse all the changes of the previous twenty years, if not reduce the world to black ash. Was the reactionary political swing a sign of the bigger picture, or was the resurgence of grey symptomatic of peoples’ disenchantment with self-expression? Was George Orwell right? Was freedom slavery? Was the world now rejecting colour? Were the physical demands of colour too much for nature to support? Perhaps it was a combination of these.
It was December and for several days familiar features like panda cars, post boxes and pub signs had flickered from colour to grey as if colour was a lightbulb about to blow. My red Cortina had been parked out in Lower Back Street through the gloomy autumn and lacked its usual sparkle. I had been invited to attend an exhibition to celebrate Twenty Years of Colour at the Royal Academy. Kaleidoscopes were one of the features of the exhibition. I had started early, driving through the night listening to Abbey Road to remind me of better times.
I did not read too much significance into the mug of grey coffee at Watford Gap; they probably always served grey coffee. Or the black cabs that kept passing me as I approached Brent Cross. Cabs had always been black, although it seemed that many of the other cars on the North Circular were black too, like a funeral cortège.
It was 7.30 in the morning as I walked around Piccadilly Circus. The statue of Eros was still bathed in green light. Christmas lights were everywhere, although some of them seemed to be flashing grey. Devoid of family, I was devoid of Christmas spirit. With my personal life in deep crisis, I felt that things could not get worse. It is dangerous to think this way. I looked up at the circling neon display and ‘I read the news today, oh boy!’ Huge red capital letters announced BEATLE SHOT IN NEW YORK – MORE TO FOLLOW. It took a few moments to take this in. Which Beatle? Why? How? What was going on? I had been listening to their music not half an hour ago. Suddenly all the Christmas displays faded to grey and everything around me changed to black and white. The grey circling text read JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD IN NEW YORK.
The 1980s were experienced in black and white as the world lived in fear of nuclear annihilation. Music and cinema were effectively outlawed and television showed endless repeats of seventies sitcoms in black and white, cold war dramas, and post-apocalyptic documentaries. All the time I was in rehabilitation, and the years afterwards when I lived on the Rank Ditch council estate, life was grey. The flats were grey, the pubs were grey, the indiscriminate masses that populated the estate were grey, and the burned-out cars on the waste ground behind the derelict garage were grey. The schools were grey, the graffiti was grey, the cellophane factory was grey, and the broken shutters on the neighbourhood charity shop were grey. The sky was grey, the sports field was grey, and the cannabis plants in the allotments at the back of the council offices were grey. The Asian stores were grey, the mosques were grey, and the hooded muggers who roamed the covered walkways were grey.
Towards the end of the decade, occasional hints of colour began to appear, a roundabout in a children’s playground, a floral display in the civic gardens, the amber letters above Sainsbury’s supermarket. The new examples of colour were hesitant, discreet, almost apologetic. They did not have the promise or the conviction that colours had in the 1960s. Vauxhall tentatively brought out a new range of the Astra in midnight blue, dark blue, beige and brown. Dulux came up with a choice of pastel colours, which were effectively shades of off-white. Cinema Paradiso and Wings of Desire, both shot in a mix of black and white and colour, were screened at the cinema.
Colour became a little bolder in the spring of 1989. The New Labour rose on the billboards, a Happy Mondays t-shirt, a new age travellers’ bus in a lay-by; little signs were everywhere. B & Q reintroduced colour charts, and if you searched around, you could buy glossy magazines. Liverpool playing in their red strip beat Everton in their blue shirts in the FA Cup Final in a thrilling encounter, which saw other clubs bringing in team colours. The London Underground map was once again displayed in colour, and the Tate Gallery reopened. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in November, television was being transmitted in colour and I was able to watch the celebrations with my new friend, Scarlett.
Over the last decade, there are strong hints that grey might be returning. It has not been acknowledged in any formal way. but in subtle ways, colour is disappearing. Electrical goods, phones and computers are now only manufactured in black, grey or white. While car manufacturers classify the shades of their new models as steel blue, silver frost or desert mist, new cars in the showroom are all basically grey. Grey installations have almost eliminated paintings in the art world and colossal grey edifices have been springing up in capital cities to create dark silhouettes on skylines. Recently for weeks on end through the summer months, the sky has been covered by a thick blanket of grey cloud. If I run a search on google for green, it comes back with ‘did you mean greed?’ The change seems to be gaining pace. A hashtag trending on Twitter last week suggested that senior members of the Cabinet were going to put a bill before parliament which would outlaw colour completely. I don’t believe everything I see on social media, but the way things are going, you never know. It would be consistent with other clampdowns on freedom and pleasure.
I spoke to Frank last week for the first time in thirty years. We seemed to be able to put some of our differences behind us.
‘We could meet up for lunch,’ I suggested. ‘At The Yellow River Café, perhaps. They serve up a mean red curry. What do you think?’’
‘I don’t like spicy food, Chet,’ he said. ‘What about a traditional roast at Grey Gables? Or we could have a grilled steak at The Black Horse.’
Some of our differences, but not all.
It could be that the pendulum will swing from colour to monochrome and back for the foreseeable future. Possibly for all eternity. Perhaps that is just the way it is. There might even be a scientific explanation for it. Bellini’s Balance or the Pantone Principle, or something like that. Frank will probably know. I’ll ask him next week when we meet up for supper at The Dark Net, the new fish restaurant that’s recently opened downtown.
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