I Can Sing A Rainbow

“Pink and orange and red and green, yellow and purple and blue..” Do any of my older readers remember this faintly irritating novelty hit which I think originated with Cilla; there was a 1965 album of the title with the Scouser songstress posing in PVC mac with umbrella, and a signing performance on tv for the deaf. In retrospect, I guess this was my first public introduction to synaesthesia though then I thought nothing of it; the silly song just got stuck in my head for 40 years. Then about four or five years ago I was diagnosed as synaesthesic and people came to look at me like something in the zoo: “Is it true you see words in colour?” I do : I always have.
And I took it for granted that everyone else did, too.

My Collins dictionary gives two definitions: “1. a sensation experienced in a part of the body other than the part being stimulated” and “2.The subjective sensation of a sense other than the one being stimulated. EG a sound may evoke sensations of colour.”

I experience both conditions; I am a connoisseur of the first one, something I’ve always known as remote or transferred pain. My teeth hurt if my feet are sore. Physical pain drives out mental angst so that dental treatment makes me immensely cheerful. Anxiety brings on relentless yawning and a severe burning sensation in the eyes; tiredness induces frightful itching of the back and around the waist. Seeing or hearing someone tearing cotton wool makes my flesh crawl and shrink like a melting snail. It must be inherited: both my parents were like this and so are two brothers.

And we all saw numbers, days of the week, letters of the alphabet in colour. A is green, B is blue, C is yellow. Monday is black, Wednesday crimson, Friday gold. 13 is leaf green, 7 is tan, 1 is black. So on and so forth. I was amazed when I found this was not universal. I used to know a trainer of perfume sales assistants who had reduced the tenets her art to a laconic and very basic synaesthesic dogma: “Look at the liquids in the bottle: the pale ones appeal to blondes and the dark ones to brunettes. Get on with it!” My own perception is more complex, tending to group the perfume families by colours. Again, to me this seems so inevitable that I wonder if I am indeed truly synaesthesic: orientals are purple (what else could they be?) florals are white and silver; gourmands maroon and magenta. But then within this general grouping, there are individual differences: Shalimar is an orange oriental within a purple group; Fleurs de Rocaille is a turquoise exception to a white family. Myself, I think it looks highly odd written down, but entirely clear and instinctive inside my head.

Maybe this is why that sometimes the change of the seasons can feel uncomfortable, even painful: I find the beautiful spring a bit threatening – l love what I see and feel; but there are days when the almost unhinged spurt of vegetable fertility seems more than a liitle sinister. One almost hears it, like the snake-like rustling noises on those old-fashioned natural history films of accelerated plant growth, prompting uncomfortable memories of Virginia Woolf hearing the birds singing in Greek. Whereas the slow decline of autumn is soft and lulling; winter a slow ponderous thud. Scents make sounds too: they crackle, fizz, boil, bubble like lava and susurrate like silk. Mitsouko unrolls thickly and damply like a bolt of green velvet spread over the counter; Creed‘s Bois du Portugal plumps up and sighs like an precious antique chair of great depth and comfort; Fracas froths and foams like can-can petticoats or pink champagne or raspberry jam on a slow rolling boil.

It’s like that corny old ’70’s advert for cooking fat:

“The pleasure of cooking
Is listening and looking”

In my kitchen days I learned there was something in this: cooking by eye. Noting the changing colour of food is the best guide to knowing when it’s done without prodding with knives and skewers. Take a good look at the colour and consistency of your scent, as well.

Perfumes have a definite texture: grainy, velvety, silky, sequinned, furry, hard, soft, squishy- squashy, molten, gauzy, powdery, feathery. And of course they don’t always correspond in a logical way: Malle‘s revelatory Une Rose is certainly a wine-dark carmine but the texture seems more metallic, even marmoreal, than soft and petally. Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier‘s sublime Tubereuse is not creamy white, but a rich glossy chestnut, with the texture of a well-worn sable, satin-lined.

“Listen with your eyes…
And sing everything you see..”

There’s Cilla again, still at it. We can all learn something from her.

Image from abcnews.go.com

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