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.

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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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