Ochre, Saffron, Gamboge, Indian Yellow, Orpiment, Cadmium. Yellow is the colour of summer and the colour of money. It’s the colour of New York taxis, TNT, sunflowers, cowardice, fire, yellow-stars and the earliest pigments found in Palaeolithic cave-art. Dangerous Pursuit of Yellow explores the contradictory associations of yellow and its highly volatile nature. It is a book about nature and art, kitchens and bedrooms, about yellow-fingered munitions-workers in the Second World War, a tenth-century Chinese poet, Frida Kahlo, Dana Schutz, and about the bright, volatile, fading colours of family memory.
‘Those little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it – the Luftwaffe will bomb you out of existence.’ Lord Haw Haw I The Shifting House The drill: strip off, don thick white overalls, check for contraband – cigarettes and lighters, matches, jewellery, powder, lipsticks – anything that might cause a spark. Only married lasses could keep their wedding ring, taped over with sticking plaster. We looked a sight, nothing to write home about, in makeshift, knotted turbans – hairclips not allowed – slathering barrier cream into hairlines, faces, hands. In the lines to cross over to the Clean Side a sudden hush, as if we’d heard a pin drop. II On the Clean Side When I was told I’d been recruited for Filling I thought that’s nice; it sounded better than Explosives. I wrote my mam that I’d been put on filling shells. She was pleased, saying I’d always had light hands for cakes and pastry. I didn’t let on, found lodgings in Darlington. I was assigned to workplace 29 in Sector 7A. When I walked in, the whole place smelt sweet, like York in the rain, only it was cordite being prepared for bullets. On first shift each week the Blue Band read the rules. No Talking – you could hardly hear above the drill of the machines but it was bleak as prison, working in silence. We packed shells with fulminate of mercury, sodium thiosulphate, lead azide and placed the detonators. You’d to keep your workbench spotless. Strong Discipline, Absolute Routine, Precision. No. Margin. For. Error! I learned slogans – A Concealed Mistake Is A Crime. Total concentration is the best way of killing time. III The Fundamental Things Apply In February 1942 we’d been on earlies so Audrey and me arranged to meet one Friday for High Tea and the pictures. When it was our turn in the queue a chap behind us started whistling and his pal called out, Well blow me, if it isn’t a pair of Aycliffe canaries! We went beetroot, under yellow stains that all our scrubbing couldn’t hide. Audrey dug her hands deep into her pockets. You pay, she whispered and I did because my fingers were only a little brown. We were all right in the dark with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. I wanted her to leave Laszlo, return to Paris with him, even though you knew she couldn’t. When Rick put her on the plane with Laszlo not himself, I sobbed and couldn’t stop. Next morning I could hear A kiss is still a kiss as the Blue Band asked us to stand. I knew immediately. There’d been an accident on lates – two hundred pounds of fulminate exploded. Edna, Irene, Alice and Phoebe gone, instantly. We’d a minute’s silence. IV Mad as Hatters We needed cheering up that Spring tramping in through unseasonal snow, pathways sludged to mucky brown, so when rumour of a visit to beat the King’s goes round, we’re gathering snow in May, buckets and shovels to the fields, in a rush to lay a white carpet on top of the slush for Churchill visits the Angels today. Gladys Stoddart, demurest by far, is chosen to greet him. We’re in the line-up praying Winnie’s been warned not to light up as she gives him a kiss – and a whopping cigar! V The Mixing Shop Jean volunteered for Sector One – I was never brave enough, the ‘suicide group’ their nickname. On second shift they heard a blast. White faces peered out, saw a carrier girl stumbling blindly on the dirty side. Propped against the shop door lay the mixer lass, her hand blown off, the white magazine suit ripped open, her body torn and bleeding. The foreman caught her last words, Oh my poor bairn, my poor bairn. VI Waving the Flag Doris had to escort the detonators to be tested. She’d to walk slowly waving a red flag, thirty yards in front of chaps wheelbarrowing the batches. Workmen repairing the roadway thought it a huge joke leaning out and resting on their picks calling out all kinds of darkness never knowing just one spark could have blown them all sky high. VII The Lighter Side We’d knock off, clatter up to Heighington and let our hair down on the journey home. I remember one young lad, green as willow, got in our carriage after his first day. Well, we’d high jinks, bumping into him and jostling him into the middle. Then Hannah Dixon calls out, Eeh pet, does your mammy know you’se out? We shrieked, his little face was scarlet and someone starts up singing, Mammy, mammy, how I love you, how I love you. We join in singing and blowing pouty kisses. A big lass plants a lipstick smacker, gets him in a dancing hold, then grabs him by the belt and yells, Come on Johnny, give the girls a treat, show us your maiden’s prayer! At him lasses! We all pile on, wrestle him down and grab his legs. Someone gets his shoes off, a tussle for his trousers and they’re hoyed around. That’s enough ladies, keep the poor lad decent! It was Olive Moreland rescued him, but not before his trousers had been hung out the carriage window. VIII The Final Blow News of Hitler’s death came over on the wireless and made the morning papers. Like wildfire spreading, everyone was saying it couldn’t be much longer, daring to believe it really was the end, so whether someone was lax we never knew, but the worst blast of all happened that morning of May 2nd – they heard the explosion in Darlington. We lost Alice Wilson, William Mitchell, both single, James Brunton, Isabella Bailey, William Hobson, Christopher Seagrave and Edmund Smith, all married, and Elsie Barrett, widow. the cruellest blow; six more days and they’d have made it safe. IX Now the Blinking War is Over When it ended I was very sad. We had our photos taken, section by section No more ROF for me Once we’d partied for VE day and toasted lost friends, it was tidy up, wait for decommission You can tell the blinking Blue Band Where to shove the blinking pass
‘There is a brightness to her delight in the physical and natural world; a warmth to her memories of people and of places.’
‘In a word – yellow – sunlight, poison, warmth, bitterness – is all that the mind of the poet can discover in concentrated memory, imagination, research. A vivid, original collection of poems.’