There is no blue without yellow and without orange
– Vincent Van Gogh
The significance of colour to GCSE English Literature examiners matches the significance of a singular rote regurgitation to students that sit GCSE English Literature examinations: ‘hierarchy’. To the latter cohort, this structural reality informs the characters and themes in most texts studied, the increments within either of those areas quite probably foreshadowed by that very and other prevalent device – somehow: it will be teased out like Curley’s wife’s hair to lay flopping or dead on the page; and to the former cohort, this structural reality resides entirely in pens. Marking pens. The colour of these marking pens, to be precise.
In the hierarchy of examining and examiners there is a clear increment in proficiency and status, either to be perceived or actual, and it is colour-coded. Starting at the beginning, it is pencil and grey for assistant examiners finding their fledgling assessment feet. Once on the first rung of apparent proficiency [one has to stress apparent because another kind of flopping can actually happen at any point on the ladder] they move to the higher use of a red pen. Senior examiners, who also mark in red for their prime papers, are further up the hierarchy and thus use a green pen to monitor and mentor the AE’s reds. At a later stage, SEs use a superior purple pen to correct and alter all previous colours, righting wrongs and circling conclusively with authority. Continuing up on the refining climb, a black pen supersedes all that has made its prior errant judgements, until – in another one of those students’ favourite applications of a premier literary device: the ‘cyclical’ – the pencil and its smooth grey usurps the black and thus again all that was judged and standardised and corrected before to probably infer some deeply socialist principle of caring assessment.
Not that any of this matters to Big Al.
For Big Al, colour is a moveable feast. It is moveable by the paradox of being absolutely fixed for Big Al in that he couldn’t on the one hand give a fuck what anyone else might think about his choice of colour in the clothes he wears [or in the defined 60s era of its once prevalent fashion], but also on the other by the actual movement in the visually psychedelic momentum of the colours he wears over the defined period of Marking Review or especially on a singular day within this. Just looking at Big Al on a particularly vibrant evening, colour-wise, is like taking LSD.
Any night out eating with Big Al after an intense day’s examining in the basement emporium of the Palace Hotel in Manchester can attest to the hallucinatory impact of his sartorial selections. Sunday produced a particularly robust appreciation of Big Al’s dress sense in the lively debate engendered by the other drabber dressers with whom he socialised in that collective downtime, especially the linguistic groping for a precise semantic grab of the hue he was wearing, this too aping more students’ fashionable analysis of the writers’ craft as a semiotic jamboree of intention, where declarative verbs and past participles replace the empathetic or aural touch and feel of an author’s voice.
‘No, it’s apricot.’
‘Kumquat!’ Trish shouts thinking she’s nailed it.
Kev smirks and you know what’s coming next: innuendo like an Exocet, smut at the speed of sound, a pun pummel.
‘Cum what?’ he asks in mock offense, the tone of voice as spellcheck on his own exegetic suggestiveness. ‘Don’t be so disgusting.’
Kev is smirking even more now, this fruit ensemble not about to commandeer the thinking in his head,
‘It’s Queen’s Snatch,’ he declares triumphantly, no one quite sure which colour chart he is accessing.
We all stare in bemusement, though Big Al is staring back in anger, still piqued by the accusation earlier in the evening that his marking pace was like a tortoise on tranquillisers.
‘It’s not my idea! John whispered it in my ear. I’m just repeating what he said.’
John looks up hurt at the slight on his character and the blatant affront of the lie, but doesn’t bother to argue, subdued by the imperious weight of Kev’s banter and the laughter from the rest of the group.
‘It’s Sharon’s fruit,’ Tom suggests knowingly and convincingly. For a moment, there seems to be a resolution, the hiatus in word-painting seeming to be a confirmation of Tom’s decisive naming. And the fact he is just pocketing his smartphone.
‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ I pitch in, prodded from the quintessence of my usual quietude and deference into this aberrant outburst of miserable contrariness.
‘It’s fucking yellow,’ I assert in a withering rejection of all that has preceded.
‘Yellow?’ everyone asks in a chorus of communal disbelief and bullying.
‘Yes,’ I state calmly and assured and then rising to walk over and stand behind Big Al before slowly removing his blazer from the back of the chair and raising it up for everyone to see, like a sun rising above the horizon. In that instant of glaring revelation, there is another joint response, this time in affirmation and clear regret at the orange tangent they had all taken, with a babel of murmurs ‘yes he’s right’ and ‘yes it is fucking yellow’ and ‘how could we have got that so wrong?’
Trying as ever to not appear smug in the victory of my incisive observation, I offer the group a precursor rationale for their tangential colour references.
‘You’re all still overwhelmed by what Big Al was wearing last night. You know, when we lost him for about ten minutes in our walk to the Beef and Pudding restaurant?’
By its very nomenclature, an ‘apocalypse’ cannot creep, but the slow awakening to that instant of recalling ecstasy is a joy to observe as the nodding heads of their sudden comprehension seems like a collective of Churchill dogs on amphetamines.
‘Oh yeah!’ they all shout in that moment of crystallised if colloquial clarity.
‘As you are no doubt now remembering,’ I continue, ‘we lost Big Al at that corner where the nightshift workers are revamping the Metro tracks. When I went back to look for him I saw Big Al up the line wearing a construction helmet and working a jackhammer, breaking up the concrete around the old lines. It was hard to spot him at first as he blended in with all the other guys in their Hi Vis jackets. As the foreman explained after I’d managed to convince him that Big Al was meant to be coming with us to dinner, they’d all thought he was one of the expected but late agency employees helping out that night. When he’d walked by the site in his luminescent orange suit, they simply grabbed and put him to task – all hands to the deck when labouring against the clock on a night shift.’
‘An easy mistake to make,’ Kev pitches in with another smirk on his boyish face.
‘Not really,’ Phil counters, a surprise interjection considering his hitherto contemplative quiet, but a blunt refutation as he is no doubt still ruffled by Kev’s earlier smear that Leonard Cohen was a better singer-songwriter than Bob Dylan, a red rag to the bull of Phil’s huge regard for the latter. None of us had felt entirely convinced that Phil’s impromptu singing of Cohen’s The Sisters of Mercy in an assumed copycat monotone had entirely won the argument, but I think most of us were prepared to acknowledge the moral high ground of Phil’s genuine passion over Kev’s mischievous prodding.
‘I agree Kev,’ I say, because he is right. The only leeway in defining the puissance of Big Al’s orangeness on that night – and by extrapolation, its luminous resemblance to a builder’s Hi Vis attire – is whether you think in artistic terms it is more like the relatively small and yet dominant focus of that colour in Claud Monet’s Impression Sunrise, or the actual dominance of that colour in Lord Leighton’s Flaming June. But I wasn’t about to ask Phil which of these he would choose. There wasn’t time. The night was already drawing to a close and I could no longer consume infinite flyers and instead went for the literal one.
However, before I mouthed my usual on y va I did offer one dissenting view of those builders’ handling of our colourful colleague.
‘It did seem wrong,’ I conclude, ‘that having snatched Big Al from his surprise overtime on the railroad, all the workmen shouting out how they hoped he would get safely back to Guantanamo Bay was a damn cheek. I mean, even Kev wouldn’t crack a joke out of a serious situation like that.’