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A bag of ribbons . . .

A busy few months of working on a picture book has meant I haven't posted anything for ages.

Today I escaped my self-imposed confinement to have coffee with the lovely author Sue Copsey:

Somehow, the subject got on to colour and she noted that I have a particular palette I use in my illustration work. In actuality, whatever paint tube that still has some life in it, gets used up first - both Gordon Harris art supply stores being a half hour drive in either direction from home. But it led to me banging on for a good few minutes (apologies, Sue) about having synaesthesia. I'm now going to bang on some more. If you have never heard of it, synaesthesia is a condition of sorts, some may call it a malfunction in the brain. However, I've yet to discover any downsides. I'm more than happy to be a sufferer and certainly don't want to find a cure for my affliction anytime soon. Research suggests it is a lack of blood flow to one particular area of the brain that is responsible for the effect. That sounds like me!

In essence, synaesthesia is a cross-wiring of the senses. Perhaps a maladaption, perhaps a gift.

It affects me in several quite specific ways. Firstly, I see numbers in colour. The colours one to nine have decidedly fixed colours and are repeated in every combination thereof. Each letter of the alphabet also has a colour as does a particular word. Within words the letters themselves change shades or hues accordingly. It's very hard to explain. Simply put, although I see numbers and words in black on the printed page, I simultaneously see them in colour. Every word spoken and every person's name and every piece of written material occurs this way for me. The name Kate for example is distinctly and solidly mauve which is tricky because the small 'e' on its own is emerald.

The name David is always pale yellow verging on light gold. The number four is always a medium shade of chocolate brown and the number eight is cobalt blue. Monday is most definitely a tint of orange and Tuesday is a soft grey-green. Don't ask me why, it is just so.

Until about fifteen years ago, I honestly thought that everyone did this. A university professor of creative writing, suggested after reading part of a short story I had written, that it reminded him of a line from Nabokov's, Lolita - 'the air, despite a steady drizzle beading it, was warm and green'.

High praise indeed, but I had absolutely no clue what he was on about. Nor, do I claim even a slight similarity to that towering talent of literature. I can't even remember now what I'd written, but that comment struck a chord and I went looking. Quite a bit of googling later and it turned out Nabokov was a very famous synaesthete. A veritable poster boy for the thing. I was a little shocked.

I'd always done this, seen words, letters and specifically numbers as colours. Didn't everyone?

In short, no.

Synaesthesia affects a very small portion of the population and is an inherited condition. Out of four sisters, only two of us have it, although we both disagree about the colours allocated to the numbers one to nine. A common source of dispute between sufferers apparently. In my case, I have some other related benefits associated with synaesthesia which are enormously helpful in my line of work.

I have a photographic memory. Every day I snapshot things I've seen for future use. Images and vignettes are stashed away for a later date. It's all in there. Stored. Violet janthina snails against iron sand. Golden tendrils of seaweed, the muted greens of tussock grass, the whisper pink inside the clasp of a shell, silver leaves in early grey light. I sort of 'collect' shades in my own internal Pantone library for future application. Sometimes I feel like a walking paint chart and in fact I've often thought that would be the ultimate job. Naming paint colours. Somebody must do it.

My synaesthesia gives me other extra-sensory abilities. I structure numbers into landscapes. Actually I don't do it consciously, my brain just does it automatically. There is literally this dimly lit topographic landscape in my head and every number appears on it. I don't see them specifically until I zoom in to the right mathematical answer, but I know they are there waiting for me. At this point I realise I may have lost you. Days are structured the same way, as are weeks, months and years. Now, that's my calendar landscape and it is separate again. It is kind of a graph, but not. Really more of an invisible scaffold which rises and falls and I locate time within it. By this time you know I'm properly barking. Bear with me. Music also makes me see colour, but not quite as strongly as written and spoken words. Certain smells trigger an instant colour reaction. I'm not so attuned to taste and colour though, I just like eating.

I have no idea what started this, but I do know from research that at some point in early language development a cross-pollination of sensory impulses can occur in some children. I was attuned to colour very early on. A particular vivid memory for me is that aged about four I was laying on the floor of our hallway with my feet up against the wall, twirling the phone cord around my fingers and rattling off a list of every colour I could name. My nana, Lavinia, on the other end of the phone was going shopping at the haberdashers and the big question was: what colour hair ribbons would I like?

I especially remember asking for maroon and bottle green as they seemed like the most exotic colours I could name. It was the seventies. To her credit she arrived that very afternoon with a large white paper bag full of ribbons, both thick and thin. She had opted to get me a pair of ribbons in every colour they had. I was thrilled. That night I dreamed vividly of ribbons of colour swirling against a dark sky.

I'd like to believe picture books of the time contributed. It upset me enormously that the colour kittens in the Golden Book of the same name, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen had no green: No green paint! . . . because nearly everywhere they liked to go was green, Green as cats' eyes, Green as grass, By streams of water, Green as glass. Later, I gravitated to school journals because of the colours on the covers. Who, as a seventies child growing up in New Zealand can forget the inspired styling of 'The Hungry Lambs' and 'The Sweet Porridge' series? In the book corner when I started school Eric Carle's, 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' was a revelation. To think someone had actually cut bits of coloured tissue to make pictures. Amazing. I remember tracing my fingers across the final page with the big butterfly reveal, over and over again. Thanks to cuisinaire rods, maths was the absolute best. Especially those crimson ones, although the white 'number ones' annoyed me and still do, they were just plain wrong. I can't tell you why. On second thoughts I can, because 'one' is never, ever white. The ultimate were the SRA laboratory cards for improving reading comprehension.

I adored them, mainly because they were (you guessed it) colour-coded.

Illustration from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

The hues of that era were also intense and more than a little trippy. In the 1970's there was no holding back - orange bench tops, red bathrooms, lime curtains. My mum had a sharp eye for colour and always put together great outfits. One particular ensemble in turquoise, purple and mustard check could easily have doubled as picnic blanket. As a six year old I had a tan vinyl zip through pinafore with brown apple & pear pockets stitched onto one side and worn with a canary yellow skinny rib, a plum coloured raincoat and two-toned purple & red leather Mary Janes. So there you have it, a bit of psychedelic colour weirdness. Perhaps it had an influence in that I was visually saturated in strong, bright colour. A more likely scenario is that I remember these things clearly because I'm synaesthetic. Either way, it is something that I've come to appreciate more over time.

An interesting documentary by the BBC about this condition is called 'Derek Tastes of Earwax' and is worth a watch if you are so inclined. It can be found on youtube. And a few links about synaesthesia:

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