How I Spend It: Charlotte Mendelson on red and blue

The novelist explores her colour obsession

Image: Klaus Kremmerz

It’s probably a syndrome. I’m unpacking the last of the removers’ cardboard boxes – all the precious rubbish that has accreted in my desk drawer, the lovely pointless items I line up on my shelves – and I’ve made an embarrassing discovery. Among the interesting twigs and minor fossils, a pattern – no – an obsession, is emerging. Here I sit like a Labrador, surrounded by favourite possessions, on the brink of a new life, a new home, yet almost every object I have bought or stolen, the fetishes of my writing life – notebooks, spools of old French thread, virgin pencils, bulldog clips, fountain pens, inspiring postcards, a sentimentally important cocktail-stirrer – is red and/or blue.

Toddlers are meant to have strange fixations. If little Mary insists on wearing exclusively yellow corduroy, that’s adorable. If she were an adult, we’d give her a wide berth. Once we are grown-ups, only the weird have colour obsessions. We’re meant to be mature, balanced, drab; favouring a colour borders on sinister. We notice the people who flout this: an elderly man at the British Library whose every garment – tweedy jacket, suede dad-shoes – was a shade of mauve. There’s a regular passenger on the London 214 bus who dresses like a heavily accessorised 1960s Snow Queen; everything, from her hair-sprayed up-do to her high patent boots, is synthetically sparkling white. Women who favour baby-blanket pink are like men who dress in camo: yes, yes, you’re exceedingly feminine/masculine, please calm down. Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning, about wearing purple, is a handy early-warning system. There’s a fine line between Sassy Granny and rampant narcissism; when you see it stuck to a fridge, step away.

I don’t want to be that woman, head-to-toe in a single colour: a character-actor in my own life. Yet, for me, red and blue has become a compulsion, and I don’t know how to stop.

It began with red. Red is stimulating, exciting; a pencil in true strong red, pillar-box, not tomato or raspberry, gives my brain an adrenal push. I gravitate toward red stationery, writing‑jumpers, tchotchkes, art. But red is sartorially dangerous. A dreary red cardigan or clumpy red trainers are klaxons for square people, announcing “I’m sexy, honestly!” Red dresses beg for attention; red trousers are for rugby enthusiasts at quasi-rural pubs. The wrong red, pinkish, or with an acrylic sheen, is horrible: the colour of shame. It’s easy to go wrong.

But I am cussed. So many people say they can’t wear red that, in my 20s, I decided to reclaim it. I’m pale with dark hair, so it suits me. Or does it? I bought so many coats, T-shirts and shoes, and they all seemed to bellow shy insecurity and poor taste.


Maybe the problem was black. It took time to realise that red and black are terrible together: what maths teachers wear to musicals. Slowly I understood that re‑embracing my old school uniform colour, navy blue, would not send me plummeting back to adolescent scruff but could be stylish: the sophistication I’ve always longed for. Deep dark blue is a thinky colour; I chose it for my first tiny study, with Ikea Billy bookcases painted red. That room was like my soul: cluttered, odd, a little bit Beano. I loved it, passionately.

But blue is difficult too: the colour of compromise, convention. It’s black for people who want a change. The best blue, the blue equivalent of red, is Yves Klein Blue, sometimes known as ultramarine, cobalt, Pantone 072C – a touch darker than the beautiful blue of French work trousers; but brighter than work jackets, now exclusively worn by hipsters. Men other than Yves Klein have claimed variants, as if weeing in the corners of the spectrum: Conran Blue, Majorelle Blue. Perhaps it’s time for a woman to trademark a shade. For I have discovered perfection, the optimum colour; it is red-and-blue. 

Red-and-blue is exciting yet soothing, stylish but subtle. Think of navy uniform jackets with red frogging; a blue-and-scarlet bicycle; a Soviet-style book cover in faded indigo and crimson. It’s nautical without being butch; vintage yachtwear, more Sybille Bedford than Roman Abramovich. I’ve bought a pair of circular French earrings striped like the Tricolore, a mad 1980s ring with an enamel sailing boat, red and blue, and an attached golden anchor. I have two pencil pots now, for red pens and blue pens, which make me profoundly happy. There are downsides: my family only buy me red birthday presents, and the primary-coloured furniture I’m gathering for my new home has a distinct whiff of Duplo. But with age comes, if one strives, self-knowledge. What do I like? Who am I? And does it matter that, as I grow older, being true to my taste means dressing more like an eight-year-old boy?

I’ve decided that it doesn’t. In today’s blue skirt and red coat, or tomorrow’s red top, sleeves rolled, and blue cords, I can write novels. I can face the world. I am inspired yet soothed and, tell me, does taupe do that?

Charlotte Mendelson, author of When We Were Bad and Almost English, is working on her fifth novel.


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