Ian McMillan: Painted into a corner of my own making

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The phone rings; I answer it and the voice on the other end sounds trendy and hipsterish. I picture the speaker having a quiff that points to magnetic north and glasses with thick artisan frames. “We’re designing a new range of paints,” he says, “and we’d like you to come up with some Yorkshire names for the shades.” I accept the job because I always accept every job I’m offered and I sit down with a blank sheet of paper and try to arrange the letters of the alphabet into some kind of colourful sense.

Yorkshire colours. Now, how should I begin? A bit of alliteration, maybe. Guiseley Green? No, that sounds like a detective in a black-and-white film. Bradford Blue? Nope, sounds like a racehorse. Should I try to be poetic and extravagant? Malham Tarn by Moonlight, maybe. I know the image I’m trying to conjure up, but the trouble is that my idea of what Malham Tarn by Moonlight looks like might not be everybody else’s. Imagine when you’ve got it on the walls and it turns out to be more like High Tide at Bridlington in June; that would count as a failure, in paint name terms.

It’s harder than it seems, this naming of paints. Maybe I’m trying to be too clever, not something I often get accused of, to be honest. I check the brief the advertising firm emailed me: “Simplicity is the key,” it reads. “Simplicity and memorability. Simplicity, memorability, and brevity. Simplicity, memorability, brevity and clarity. Simplicity, memorability, clarity and precision.” That’s a lot of keys. That’s more keys than Armley.

I’ll build the name of the colour from scratch. Red. I could start with that, just the one word. Then, like a recipe, add a bit. Reddish. A bit red. Quite red. Any good? Not really. Screw the paper up, chuck it in the overflowing bin. Maybe I could personalise it, like I was inventing a range of flat caps: Ian McMillan Red. Again, it’s too vague. As red as my socks? As red as my neck? As red as my left eye after I accidentally poked it with a biro?

Maybe I’m being too literal in including the usual name of the colour in the colour name, if you get my drift. In other words, just because I’m trying to describe red, the colour needn’t have the word “red” in its name. Car names are a good example of this; as a boy I was fascinated by car names simply because I liked the words. My dad used to drive a Ford Zephyr, and it was years before I found out that a zephyr is a slight breeze, and then he drove a Ford Corsair, and a corsair is a kind of pirate. None of these names really told us anything about the car and yet they fitted the car perfectly.

So I’ll just think of a Yorkshire place name for the colour Red. Tong. That sounds good. A tin of Tong, please. 
Matt or gloss? Yes, it seems to work, almost. It could be part of a series of different reds, going from Tingley to Tinsley to Tong to Tring, except 
Tring isn’t in Yorkshire. Shame. I’ve spilt some Tong on my shirt. I’m going out to paint the town Tong. Tong sails in the sunset. Tong rag to a bull.

It’s easy, this paint-naming lark.