Facts from a book about the way we see the world

Why tigers are green, and toffs are BLUE… and beige is a BIG no-no. Just three colourful facts from a book about the way we see the world

  • Paul Simpson has gathered facts about all the colours in the rainbow for a book
  • British aristocrats gained description ‘blue-blooded’ because of pale skin
  • Deer and other creatures on which tigers prey see orange as green 



by Paul Simpson (Profile £14.99, 352pp)

When China reclaimed ownership of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, one of its first acts was to paint all the red postboxes green, thereby removing a world-famous symbol of Britishness.

When the Australian government wanted to discourage smoking in 2012, they ordered cigarette companies to use Pantone 448C for their packets — the shade of brown had been voted the most unattractive and off-putting colour in existence. And when the U.S. property market was analysed recently, researchers found that houses with yellow front doors sold for $3,000 less than comparable homes.

Paul Simpson has gathered facts and stories about all the colours in the rainbow for an interesting new book (file image)

Colour is everywhere, in and on everything, and affects just about every aspect of our daily lives. Which is why books like this are such a joy — they have free rein to go wherever they want. Paul Simpson has made excellent use of the opportunity, gathering facts and stories about all the colours in the rainbow — and several that aren’t.

In fact he even reveals a curiosity about the rainbow itself: the only reason we think it’s got seven colours is because that was Isaac Newton’s favourite number.

As schoolchildren we all learned ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ to help us remember ‘red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet’. But when you think about it, indigo and violet are just two different shades of purple. Newton could have gone for six.

In fact the Pirahá and the Candoshi peoples of the Amazon make do with no colours at all. Not specific ones, anyway — their languages only have words meaning ‘darker’ and ‘lighter’ — which might be preferable to what happens when trendy paint companies such as Farrow & Ball get busy with their descriptions.

Apart from the infamous Elephant’s Breath, they also have shades called Potted Shrimp and Danish Lawn.

Some people struggle to tell colours apart. One in 12 Caucasian men is red-green colour blind (compared to one in 25 African men) —but only one in 200 women.

The confusion over the photograph of a dress that went viral in 2015 might have had a lifestyle element to it: research suggests that those who saw the dress as white and gold were more likely to be early risers, while those who saw it as black and blue tended to be ‘night owls’.

Animals can be colour blind too — deer and other creatures on which tigers prey see orange as green, which is why the big cat blends into the surrounding vegetation.

Each of the book’s chapters focuses on a different colour, meaning that wonderfully diverse elements get thrown together.

Within a few pages, for instance, we learn that Nottingham Forest originally chose red as a tribute to the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (who’d visited Britain just before the club was founded).

The same chapter includes the battlefields of World War I. Before the conflict they’d never been known for their poppies. The red flower only became common in that region because bombs brought the seeds to the surface, where they were fertilised by nitrogen in the explosives and the blood and bones of slaughtered soldiers.

THE COLOUR CODE: WHY WE SEE RED, FEEL BLUE AND GO GREEN by Paul Simpson (Profile £14.99, 352pp)

Associations change over time. British aristocrats gained the description ‘blue-blooded’ because their skin, which remained pale due to the toffs never having to work outdoors, showed their veins more clearly. These days, however, you display your wealth by having a permanent tan.

It’s impossible for us to look at something without being influenced by its colour. I once wrote a book about walking the London Underground system overground, and whenever I do talks about it someone always asks: ‘Which was your favourite line?’ The truth is that every line goes through such a variety of areas (rich, poor, glamorous, boring) that none of them have a ‘character’ as such.

But the famously colourful London Tube map tricks our brain into thinking that the lines are all different. Of course it would be nonsense to say that the red Central line is passionate, or the yellow Circle line is cowardly, or the black Northern line is depressing. (Actually . . .)

Pink seems to meet with widespread approval. Jayne Mansfield loved it so much she dyed her pets that colour, while Barbara Cartland rarely wore anything else. ‘No Englishwoman should wear beige or brown,’ pronounced the author, ‘because it makes them look like a baked potato.’

Meanwhile, pink cherry blossom is so strongly associated with Japan that, during World War II, kamikaze pilots pinned it to their uniforms before setting out on their final journeys.

Elsewhere in this delightful book we read that the classic rock band Deep Purple was named after a Bing Crosby song, that some divers avoid yellow because they think it attracts sharks (it’s known as ‘yum yum yellow’), and that Rangers FC once had to abandon an orange away kit because it was seen as ‘needlessly provocative’ by Catholic Celtic fans.

But perhaps the ultimate proof of how much colour means to us is shown by the Siberian authorities’ response when pollution in a coal-mining area caused black snow to fall. They painted it white.

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