Friday, 25 January 2013

Colours by Graham Buchan

Read by Alex Milner

The job description on Danny Bannerman’s new business card was very straightforward: it said ‘Writer’. Not that Danny really needed a business card. He had a few regular clients who kept him in enough work, and he lived simply and inexpensively, so it wasn’t as if he had to actively market his skills. In fact he hadn’t thought of getting a business card at all; it was just that one afternoon he had half an hour to spare before his train at Victoria Station and there was a machine on the concourse which produced them. It was really just to amuse himself that he followed the machine’s instructions in designing the card, choosing the layout and selecting the colours and the fonts. When it came to filling in the line for the actual job description, for a moment, he considered ‘Wordsmith’, but immediately thought that that was really too pretentious. So he put ‘Writer’, and the whole process concluded with the machine coughing out his new emblems of identity. Fifty cards for four quid. Now he wondered who on earth he would give them to.

Danny was reluctant to describe himself as a writer even in convivial company, because it immediately raised expectations. "Oh, what do you write?" people were sure to ask. And he knew they would not be properly satisfied unless he responded with novels, or journalism, or film scripts. There was no doubt in his mind that he was a writer, but it might take some convincing other people. Because Danny - let’s be straightforward about this - Danny was the man who invented the names for the colours of household paints. If you had just splashed Umbra all over the walls of your new, freshly renovated Victorian semi in up-market Islington, it was Danny who had named it Umbra. As he had Atlantic and Hessian and Malibu. Danny applied words to colours - hundreds of colours - and that to him was being a writer. He had the knack of being able to go through the colours on the manufacturer’s sample charts and christen every single one of them. He didn’t just use descriptions relating to the physical world like Rust or Hay or Polar, but also mined the terrain of human emotions. Thus a mid pastel blue was Repose, a particularly dense green he named Jealousy, a frighteningly intense red was Rage. But didn’t names with negative connotations like these limit sales? Not a bit of it. Just as one of the supermarket chains had found their best-selling confection was the one they called Death by Chocolate, it seemed the public rather liked dangerous labels attached to mundane products.

Household paint manufacturers were the most regular employers of Danny’s naming skills. They had been coming to him every year for a decade or more. But there were other products he had also blessed. A volume motor manufacturer had a new off-road vehicle. Stoic, Danny named it. And their little urban runabout? Scurry. The family saloon? Statement. The advertisers loved him. ‘Time to make a Statement’, ‘In a Hurry, time to Scurry’ ran the strap lines. Danny had been offered work by some of the major advertising agencies but had always turned it down. Apart from having a deep suspicion of trendy media-land, he knew that advertising meant you had to come up with copy, in other words whole sentences, phrases or jingles. He was strictly a one-word man. A colour, a shape, a product. There was, somewhere, a single word which encapsulated it, and Danny knew where it was.

In the past, in the very beginning, he had worked in sentences, paragraphs even. It all started back in 1977, in the era of punk. Danny had scratched a living writing reviews for the music weeklies. His girlfriend at the time, Gloria, fronted an all-girl punk band. They wore lashings of mascara and black leather and pins and zips and ranted proto-feminist anthems like ‘Slit it up’ and ‘Gonna bite your knob off’. After one gig Danny was back-stage with the girls, unwinding with cans of lager and a few joints. Gloria was worried. The band thought they were close to a record deal, but no-one liked their name. ‘Glorious’ didn’t quite cut it in the fractious world of punk. It wasn’t threatening or abrasive enough.

"You’re good with words, Danny. What should we call ourselves?"

"Oh, I don’t know," he mused. His guard was probably down, perhaps he was a bit too pissed, but, possibly remembering the exquisite blow job Gloria had bestowed on him that very morning in their squalid Notting Hill squat, Danny offered,"How about..... Spunk Mouth?" As soon as he said it he braced himself for one of Gloria’s vicious punches to the side of his head, but instead he was relieved to see an expression of dawning recognition pass from one girl to another.

"Yeah...." said Trace.

"Like it..." said Josie.

"Spunk Mouth..... fucking right," said Hannah.

"You dirty git," said Gloria, "that’s brilliant." When they finally got home she repeated the exercise from the morning, only more slowly and with more love.

Scam Records immediately responded to the girls’ change of identity and they recorded an album. It rapidly achieved high sales and notoriety. The lyrics were confrontational, violent and sexual by turns. And Spunk Mouth gained that truly rare accolade; the peak of all anti-establishment rock ambition: a number-one single whilst being totally banned by the BBC. ‘Shit me, shit you’ was heard in every club in the country. Punks everywhere danced to it, spat to it, puked to it, yet it never received a single official air-play.

By 1979 Gloria had retired on her wealth and went off to run a horse sanctuary in the Welsh Borders. Danny continued his occasional reviewing and living hand-to-mouth. But as the punks gave way to the New Romantics the man from the record company remembered Danny. There were more groups needing to be named. Thus was born Charm Offensive, New Dream and The Last Eclipse. Danny had the naming knack. He upped his price and decided that this was how he was going to make a living. But by the late eighties the music being produced bored him stiff and, perhaps unconsciously, he reflected this by choosing ever shorter names for the bands which played it. Thus he offered Letsa, Slice and Zit. He parted from the record company when he insisted that their new signing should be represented by nothing but a full stop. In fact they became Digby Jones and the Strange Reptiles.

But other naming tasks were coming his way. There were other sorts of product. Danny named his first ice-lolly in 1987, a perfume in 1988, and a revolutionary lawnmower in 1990. There was always one apt word.

On the train home he took the business cards out of his pocket to study them again. He had an urge to distribute them to the other passengers. No, better not, he thought, they might think I’m a weirdo, or a novelist. As the train rattled past Streatham he thought back to the seventies. Spunk Mouth. What a fantastic time it had been. Sometimes he had toyed with the idea of looking Gloria up, but he knew that times, and people, change.

There was a girl sitting opposite. If he had wanted to start a conversation, maybe he could have told her that he was once the boyfriend of Spunk Mouth’s lead singer. But the girl wouldn’t have known what he was talking about - she was far too young - and for certain she would have thought him a pervert. Her jacket was a bright purposeful blue. "Purpose," thought Danny, "nice one." 

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