Colours by numbers

On first meeting, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jane Yardley is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I arrived at her West London home to find her rifling through her CD collection, cryptically commenting on each track for the photographer and his assistant.

"Ah yes, sea-green," or, "White... and dots. White dots!"

It’s hard to avoid thinking of ten-year-old Annie in Jane’s debut novel, Painting Ruby Tuesday, who "knew better than to make statements like this out loud. People backed away. People made ‘loony’ gestures when they thought you weren’t looking. Or sometimes even when they knew you were."

Jane is, however, eminently sane. It’s just that she’s one of the tiny percentage of the population with synaesthesia. As Annie explains, "We see things in colour that aren’t. Not just music. Numbers. Letters. Days of the week. People’s names."

For Jane, not only do numbers and days of the week have colours, some of them have personalities as well: "So three is rather bumptious and hostile, rather sneering. Two is shy and retiring."

It can be hard to put a name to this experience, and those who admit to it are often greeted with scepticism. "I first heard the word synaesthesia driving round the North Circular about ten years ago," Jane says. "There was something on Radio 4, and I didn’t even know how you would spell it. I’d never heard it being scientifically investigated before, and it was very peculiar. They were using the term ‘these people’, and I’d never been ‘these people’ before. They said, ‘Of course, the first thing we have to do is check that these people are not just making it up.’"

It can get stranger still. In The Man Who Tasted Shapes, neurologist Richard Cytowic explains that he was prompted to investigate the condition after a dinner party at which his host apologised for the fact that "there aren’t enough points on the chicken" - he meant the sauce was too bland. For some people, taste and smell are triggers, in the same way that music, letters and numbers are for Jane Yardley. The word synaesthesia means a mingling of the senses, coming from the Greek for "sensation" (aisthesis) and "union" (syn).

Clear as mud? Well, it might comfort you to know that the phenomenon confuses scientists too. With debate raging among psychologists and neurologists as to whether the colour associations are learned, or a leakage of sound data into bits of the brain that usually deal with vision, or some kind of shaping of the brain in response to environmental factors, only one thing’s for certain. Extensive studies have proved that synaesthesia does exist. It’s absolutely involuntary, and associations are not on the banal level of "blood" being a runny red word, or "cloud" a fluffy white one. Nor do they appear in the mind’s eye; they are quite distinctly out there. Jane compares it to a severe migraine, during which the sufferer might see blackness, or perhaps shapes such as dots or ziggurats. With synaesthesia, however, there is no pain, although in extremely rare cases people find they have to avoid very loud noise, such as heavy traffic or wild parties. This is not the case with Jane, though, for whom it’s always been "a life-enriching experience, to use that hackneyed phrase. I don’t have any problems. Except I get confusion, so if two names are the same colour, I muddle them up. I can’t distinguish between the names Fiona and Catrina."

When she was doing her maths A-level, algebra posed a problem, as she found it easy to mix up letters and numbers. "R and the number two are the same colour, and three and S. I can’t immediately see the difference."

Curiouser and curiouser. But Jane thinks it’s much more common than scientists have suggested. "They say one in 2,000, but I don’t think this is true. First of all, there are gradations. They’re talking about coloured numbers or letters. Coloured hearing is rarer. Scientific research is based on volunteers who respond to advertisements. If they don’t know they’re synaesthetic, they’re not going to respond."

When she was growing up, in an Essex village very like the one in Painting Ruby Tuesday, Jane was "an imaginative, dreamy sort of child". There wasn’t anyone else with whom she could discuss her strange sensory experience. Nobody else talked that way about music, or words, or numbers. Since she wrote her novel, she’s been delighted to meet lots of other people with synaesthesia.

Painting Ruby Tuesday has a dual narrative, the sections set in the past telling the story of Annie as a child, whose neighbours have an inconvenient habit of being brutally murdered - including, devastatingly, her beloved fellow synaesthete, the beautiful Mrs Clitheroe. In the present, the adult Annie has to deal with a difficult marriage and an alluring ex-lover, and make the decision whether or not to follow her scientist husband to New York. Past and present collide when Jenny Clitheroe’s old photograph album turns up in a most unexpected place, and Annie begins a quest to uncover exactly happened in the summer of 1965. Yardley is in no doubt that her own synaesthesia was a great inspiration.

"I had a relationship for a long time with an American, who was fascinated by my synaesthesia. Absolutely fascinated by it. So that’s when I began to think, maybe this is interesting. That was the trigger, I hadn’t intended from the start to make the story about a girl with synaesthesia but I was thinking about the Beatles and the Stones, and I wanted a title to work towards. Tuesday for me is ruby red, so the song ‘Ruby Tuesday’ always had a resonance. Then I thought of ‘Paint it Black’, and I knew it would be Painting Ruby Tuesday. And I knew what it was about. I thought, of course she’s synaesthetic."

It was a subject which Jane found very easy to write about. There’s a lovely scene where Annie watches Mrs Clitheroe interpret Mondrian’s painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie for the piano. Chuck Berry and Beethoven’s Fifth morph into exhilarating shades of green and red, until, "Mondrian’s shining lines skyrocketed into the music, yellow as taxis." Jane smiles, "That was just laid down, and never needed any editing."

She’s not alone in finding inspiration in her condition. Synaesthesia has cropped up in art, music and literature since the early 19th century, but it was in 1872 that it found a voice that couldn’t be ignored. Arthur Rimbaud’s incendiary sonnet Voyelles quickly became a synaesthete anthem, beginning with the line, "A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue - vowels."

The jury’s out on Rimbaud himself, however, with critics claiming that there is insufficient evidence that he actually was synaesthetic. In his biography of the poet, Graham Robb suggests that the inspiration for Voyelles more likely came from a few too many evenings spent illuminating his mind with the delicious and duplicitous "Green Fairy". He quotes Rimbaud’s friend, lover and attempted murderer, Verlaine, as saying, "He couldn’t have cared less whether A was black or white." It was a purely intellectual endeavour, an exploration of universal harmony of the kind that swept through fin-de-siecle France in the wake of Baudelaire.

Perhaps the most famous literary synaesthete of all is Nabokov. In Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing, David Harrison explains that not only Nabokov but his mother and his wife had coloured hearing. His son Dimitri saw colours which sometimes seemed to be a mix of those experienced by his parents. Nabokov described his own coloured alphabet in his autobiography, Speak, Memory: "The long a of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanised rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites."

Pretty daunting company for a debut novelist, and that’s without taking into account artists and composers such as Kandinsky, David Hockney, Messaien and Scriabin, all of whom have claimed, or been claimed, to be synaesthetic. On Radio 3 recently, composer David Matthews spoke of writing his new cello concerto as a kind of "striving towards the colour blue", explaining that "E flat with the colour blue is one of my few colour associations".

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jane believes it’s important to keep herself and her work firmly grounded in the real world. "I learned to understand quickly that it is a marketable commodity. I write comic novels. I hope they’re intelligent comic novels."

Painting Ruby Tuesday is indeed a comic novel, but one which is elevated by the music which flows through it, and the unusual and original descriptions of Annie’s coloured perceptions, and how they link to memory and coincidence. A phone number is retrieved from the depths of her mind by the similarity of the digits to the colour of autumn: "I can hear beech woods crisp with bronze sixes; rich, mulchy eights. Birches and their golden fives."

Despite its illustrious history, synaesthesia isn’t the sole preserve of artists and musicians. For Maria, a bookseller, "Wednesday and three are green. I’ve tried to rationalise it. I know I had coloured dominoes when I was a child, and that the threes were green. But I think they stick in my mind because the colour came first, and the dominoes matched what already existed." Janice, an advertising executive, finds that, "Friday, for example, has always been white. These colours are just there, and they never change. So Friday will always be white." When Yardley’s publicist, Prue, admitted that she thought of numbers as masculine and feminine, Jane was quick to say, "Well, that’s synaesthesia."

Given her utter passion for art and music, it’s surprising that Jane’s own background is in science. She works for a small Japanese pharmaceutical company, flying around the world, bringing together specialist doctors and co-ordinating clinical trials on patients. Painting Ruby Tuesday, in fact, was written on aeroplanes and in hotel rooms in America, South Africa, France and Japan.

It’s hard to resist the notion that the adult Annie represents a little bit of wish fulfilment on behalf of the author. Annie’s a successful musician, who writes scores and teaches students. It was important, Jane says, to write the character not only as a child, but as "an adult who hadn’t quite grown up, who still had that quirkiness. And also whose interest in popular music had produced a career, despite her father saying it would never come to anything."

Jane’s teachers used to tell her that there was no point in filling her head with pop music. Now she feels like shouting out loud, "There is, I’ve written this novel!"

Regardless, Jane exudes the aura of a rock chick manquee, and had "a whim" not drawn her into the world of the biological sciences, I suspect she could have given Marianne Faithfull a run for her money. But she is no new-age space cadet or Sixties acid casualty. "I’d be far too scared to try anything like that," she says, and besides, with her synaesthesia she probably doesn’t need it. Nevertheless, "Pink Floyd is the music that runs through my veins," she says wistfully. I resist the temptation to ask whether Pink Floyd is, in fact, pink.

She says that she’ll always write about music, but that Painting Ruby Tuesday will probably be the only time she tackles the subject of synaesthesia. It was a great disappointment to her that she wasn’t able to use lyrics from the Stones songs which run through the novel, but copyright is owned by the notoriously litigious Allen Klein and his company ABKCO, and they weren’t budging.

So far, Jane’s loving her writing career. One day, she hopes to see someone laugh out loud while reading one of her books on the Tube, "Or better still, miss their stop. I suppose you could say that I’d like to seriously inconvenience people!"

Meanwhile, she’s editing her second novel, Rainy Day Women. This one’s about teenagers, who, she warns, may not be quite as endearing as Annie. The cover mock-up features a photo of her younger self, looking a dead ringer for Jane Asher. And there’s a third book already in the pipeline. All in all, things are looking rosy.

If it wasn’t for fear of falling foul of ABKCO’s legal eagles, Jane Yardley knows exactly how she’d sum up her intensely colourful life, "I know it’s only rock and roll...!"

Painting Ruby Tuesday is published on Thursday (Doubleday, 12.99)

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