Rage, lust, power and warmth… So many of our rawest emotions are associated with the colour red. Here, four of our favourite writers to talk about what it’s like when their mood turns crimson.
Stevie Martin tells herself there’s no need to be angry about consistent sexual harassment, but it’s a different matter when she goes to sleep.
There are moments that should make me angry. Sat in a beer garden, snort-laughing at something my flatmate said when my head is jerked back and a man’s unwanted mouth is on my mouth, his hands squeeze my head, he licks my lips and my wine glass smashes on the floor.
Sat on a bus eating a Crunchie, guys are making orgasm noises behind me. I quietly have a cry. I put my Crunchie away, thinking you idiot, crying over a Crunchie. Did they touch you? Well then. Walking home late, a man yells “BOO” in my face and I shake all the way home. Walking home in the afternoon, another man pretends to put his hand up my skirt. Waiting for an Uber, I hide in a doorway from the men who keep stopping to talk to me, looking at my breasts, and I’m frightened. Walking to the Tube, a man follows me down the road making sex noises. Walking up the escalator, a man calmly tells me he wants to ejaculate on my face. I calmly ignore him. Then I go to sleep. I go to sleep that night and push him down the escalator. I go to sleep and his head cracks on the steps, his leg thrust sideways at an odd angle. I go to sleep and nobody helps when I start hitting him, because they’re frightened of me too. I’m hitting him and I can’t stop, over and over and over I’m pounding him and he’s crying and I’m screaming and I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m just screaming white hot rage. I’m screaming “BOO”. I’m screaming sex noises. I’m screaming like an animal, so hard my throat is raw. I wake up, blink the dream away, and my boyfriend makes me toast.
I poke my nose behind his ear, where his hair curls into his neck, and feel safe. We discuss an excellent video of a dog. I unload the dishwasher to find a teaspoon. I go to a festival, and two guys take photos up my little sister’s skirt. A man pats me on the head while I’m sleeping on a bus, and him and his friends laugh when I jump. Someone calls me in tears because a guy chased her down the street just to frighten her. A man rubs his crotch on the Tube while staring at me. They haven’t touched me, just ignore it, put your headphones in and close your eyes. Don’t get angry, don’t get hysterical, don’t be so sensitive Then I go to sleep. And I rage.
Success and confidence were all bound up in one red coat for Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.
It was the summer of 2010, and I was skint, jobless, and staying with a friend in Manchester who had kindly let me crash. Despite my efforts, no-one seemed to want to hire me, so I spent my days fruitlessly trudging from interview to interview in the drizzle (it rained all summer), or walking her dog. I felt lost, powerless, lonely, and a little bit sad too. One day, I met an old school friend who had come up to Manchester to go to Harvey Nichols. She had just got her first pay cheque as a doctor after years of study, and wanted to splurge it on a pair of Louboutins. The red soles for her were a symbol of a new kind of power and status that she’d achieved in the world, a declaration of “I’ve made it”. Watching her drop over £400 on a pair of shoes didn’t make me jealous exactly – I was happy for her – but I just couldn’t imagine myself in a position to even afford basic necessities, let alone high fashion. It was then that I met the coat: Moschino, postbox red, nipped at the waist and flared at the skirt, with a wide neckline. It was the kind of coat that Red Riding Hood would wear when she’s grown up, slept around a bit, become a successful human rights lawyer, and is due to meet the wolf face-to-face in court. It was a power coat. I tried it on and fell instantly in love. It cost over £1,000.
I couldn’t afford it, obviously, but I never forgot the feeling I got when I wore it for just those precious few seconds. I bought clothes in similar shades. Scarlet became a colour I wore if I wanted to project a confidence I didn’t feel. Red demands attention, it says: “I’m here”. Now, years later, it’s as much of a neutral in my wardrobe as black or grey.
I have a career now, and I’m finally solvent. It feels like a miracle. I hope not to feel as powerless as I did that summer ever again. But when I wobble, as we all do from time to time, out comes the coat. Because reader: I bought it. I found my dream coat five years later for just £50 in a charity auction. I took it to Chanel and they matched a lipstick to it. When I wear them together, it feels like I could take over the world.
There was no place better than home for Ella Risbridger, until her parents sold the house she grew up in.
You know that feeling, when it’s dark and wet, and you’re hurrying home? And you turn the corner, and slide your key into the lock, and it’s light and warm and safe? That’s the feeling I want. I’ve been looking for it a long time. When I was a kid, I used to take the bus home. My little sisters were already back, gently bickering over Barbies. We had an ancient red Rayburn range to heat the whole house: always bread-dough rising on the back of it; socks drying on the rack above it; and an orphan lamb, safe in a box of straw, tucked down in the open warming oven to revive it. My mum would be making a pot of tea with one hand and a pot of pasta with the other. A sleeping dog on the sofa. Curtains drawn against the dark, and the lamps lit. That kitchen was the safest place in the whole world. And then my parents sold up, and moved away.
I didn’t visit. Their new house was 4,000 miles away. We saw each other in hotels, and I started looking for another home. I tried a castle attic; a Parisian toolshed; the spare room of a friendly butcher. I thought I’d found home in a tiny, two-room flat in London: no new-born lambs, but a boyfriend whom I adored. The flat was always full of people, the windows steamed up from cooking and laughter. I looked round one autumn evening carrying a huge dish of fragrant, garlicky curry and I saw all the people I loved best in the whole city sprawled on the sofa playing Monopoly and thought: ‘This is it. This is home.
But then my boyfriend got sick. And then he got sicker. And then he needed to stay in hospital, and then a different hospital in a different city. It didn’t seem worth putting the heating on for one. It didn’t seem worth cooking for only me. I was cold a lot, and I ate ready meals that tasted like cheap ketchup. One evening I found myself wailing, desperately, “But I just want to go home,” on my cold kitchen floor. And then the phone rang. My mother said, from 4,000 miles away, “Come home,” and so, finally, I did. It had been six years. And although the house was different, and the country was different, and the air was warm and spicy instead of cold and sleety, it was the same. My mother made a pot of tea and the pasta was almost done. My sisters, past the Barbie stage, were comparing Snapchats. A dog slept on the sofa. My boyfriend called from his hospital, and said, “Are you home yet?” And I looked around, and thought: ‘yes’.
It took Anna James years to realise there was nothing sinful about sexual desire.
I grew up in a small fundamentalist church that taught me to fear lust above almost everything else. I was taught that bodies, especially female bodies, were things lying in wait to trip you up with their sneaky, immoral urges. I was taught that you should be on your guard at all times.
I couldn’t even blame the devil, as the church believes the devil is just a symbol of your own sinful nature: you have no-one to blame but yourself if you give in to it. While I was in my early to mid-teens I became convinced that red underwear meant you were one of many words I don’t use any more – promiscuous, slutty, loose – take your pick. I developed this fixation on what different colours of underwear meant after watching the Nineties teen film 10 Things I Hate About You. There was a scene where we were told black panties meant you wanted to have sex one day (which, in hindsight, is confusing from several angles). In a simplistic sideways leap, I surmised red underwear must mean you were already having sex, which to me was terrifying.
I was scandalised by any glimpse of scarlet in the school changing room. I left the church years ago, and objectively know these things to be nonsense, but years of being told them had worked their way deep inside my brain. It took a long time for the way I think about sex, and the language I use around it, to evolve. In the church, women weren’t allowed to teach or speak during services (so there’s something undeniably empowering about writing about lust) and I internalised a lot of damaging language. It took a lot of reading and listening to other, wiser women for me to realise that words such as slut and promiscuity were tools used to police women’s lust, and now I choose my words with more care.
In the end, it took turning 30, some good friends, a few trips to Moulin Rouge (the immersive Secret Cinema version staged last summer), and a lot of soul-searching to make peace with lust and my own sexuality. I still get nervous about buying red knickers, but after growing up being told that my body was terrifying and my voice was unimportant, being able to make a living as a writer, especially writing about gender and feminism, feels like a triumph.
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