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Saturday 16 August 2014

Colours I See With

Yet another look at Tasker Dunham’s childhood diary

March 15, 1965. Monday. Medical examination at school. Found I was colour blind. Have to go for a test. Also have to have my lugs syringed out.
May 28, 1965. Had my right lug washed out and found I have red/green colour blindness.

I was only three or four, drawing with my crayons at my grandma's house, when I first knew I definitely had a problem. I had drawn a house and some trees, and had just about finished colouring in the grass when Uncle Terence pointed at it.

“What’s that bit?”

“That’s the grass.”

“Why have you made it brown?” I took it to mean I was stupid and started to cry.

“Hold on,” he tried to reassure me. “It’s not too bad. We can make it right.

He shaded over the brown with a green crayon, pressing heavily. “There, it looks all right now.” But it didn’t.

It was not the first time I had got green and brown mixed up. I’d confused them before. To me they looked nearly the same. I had tried not to let on but people kept catching me out. When it came to colours I felt useless.

Later, at school, about seven years old, we were all making a fairground collage to put on the classroom wall. Some other children were busy painting a background of green grass and blue sky on a long piece of paper, while the rest of us were drawing and painting small characters and other objects to paste on to it. I had drawn a little man and, so as not to slice off his arms and legs, had cut around him in smooth curves, giving him his own coloured background to match the collage. Except it didn’t match. Not only that, when I stuck him into place, he looked about half the size he should have been.

“Which idiot put that silly little man there?” snorted Geoffrey Bullard, pointing at it. Everyone looked and sniggered.

“It was Tasker Dunham,” Peter Longthwaite said dismissively.

“Why is 'e stuck in a pile of 'oss muck?” That came from Harvey Gelder whose dad worked on a farm.

“It spoils it,” muttered Wendy Godley, and expertly detached my contribution from the collage, screwed it up, and threw it into the waste paper basket. Everyone seemed in agreement with her. That really wounded me because Wendy Godley was the one person I most wanted to sit next to. She had blonde hair, lots of freckles, an intelligent gaze and could do everything perfectly.

There was little wonder I publicly avoided all situations involving paint, crayons and colours. But there was no escaping the attention of the school nurse, a terrifying woman aptly named Nurse Pratt. After asking me spot the numbers hidden in circles of multicoloured blobs, which I learnt some years later were called Ishihara colour circles, she unfeelingly announced her diagnosis. “You are colour blind,” and put me on a list for further tests at the Bartholomew clinic.

The clinic, in Bartholomew Avenue, was a dreadful place, a square, flat-roofed, single story, unimaginatively designed building in functional Victorian redbrick. It had echoing bare floor and walls, tubular steel and canvas chairs, and a pervasive smell of medical disinfectant undiminished by the relentless flow of freezing fresh air from the always-open doors and windows. Through the years, we had been sent there with fluttering stomachs to queue for injections: polio and diphtheria at junior school, and later the awful BCG tuberculosis jab. It was where the school optician had put stinging atropine drops into my eyes and told my mother I was long sighted and had astigmatism, at which Nurse Pratt had loudly broadcast “You will have to start wearing glasses, and you will have to wear them all the time,” and the other mothers had laughed when I timidly said, “What, even in bed?” It was where Nurse Pratt tested your hearing by going to the other side of the room and whispering “Five five nine”, “Nine five five”, “Five nine five”, what a finely-tuned test that must have been, and then held your testicles and asked you to cough (apparently a hernia test). And it was where, one morning, after a week of squirting slimy oil into my ears, I had them whooshed out with a large syringe of warm water, and then found myself trying to sort pieces of coloured wool into matching pairs, and failing miserably. The shame of it!

Colour blindness is an inherited condition that bears a passing resemblance to a family version of the football pools. If you, your parents, and their parents, all have Xs in the right rows and columns, you get a first dividend. The main difference is that you don’t choose your Xs yourself.

The Xs are X-chromosomes. Women have two of them, one from each parent, and men only one, from their mother. Colour blindness is described as X-linked recessive, meaning that it only manifests itself in the absence of a more dominant unaffected X-chromosome. Because men have only one X-chromosome, then if they get a colour blind one from their mother, they will spend the rest of their lives mistaking grey cars for green, and colouring grass brown. That, at least, is the most common version. There are rarer types in which you can’t tell blue from yellow, or can’t even see colour at all. Actually, this traditional understanding has recently had to be revised in light of findings from the human genome project, which suggests that many different chromosomes, not just the X ones, are capable of causing deficient colour vision to some degree.

I got the colour blind X, as did my brother. We could talk car colours to the bafflement of everyone else. “I really like your green Polo,” except the log book said it was grey. “We'll be in a silver Metro,” except it was metallic green. But we both knew what we meant. Uncle Terence was colour blind too, but had learned ways to cope: how else could he have known I had coloured the grass brown, and try to be so helpful about it? Eventually, I developed coping strategies too. Although I would never have been allowed to become an electrician, I built my own stereophonic record player from a kit, which involved identifying the values of a hundred or so colour-coded resistors. It worked fine. I am all right with traffic lights too, but just in case of problems, red is at the top.

There are some advantages as well. It’s a good excuse for being slow at the pick-your-own fruit farm. Your wife thinks you can’t see the raspberries properly, but in reality your slowness results from a combination of ineptitude and gluttony. Also, some colour blind people can easily spot differences between colour shades indistinguishable to those unaffected - it is said they could easily see through camouflage during the war. Others find you interesting. And you can always play at political correctness.

“What colour does that look to you?”

“I don’t know, what does it look like to you?”

“It must be awful being colour blind.”

“That’s not very nice. I’m not blind.”

“Oh! Sorry … to have a ‘colour deficiency’. ”

“It’s just that my colour vision is not the same as yours.”

Once someone asked me “Tasker, what colours is it that you see with?”

That’s the best way of putting it I’ve come across. I just see with different colours to you.

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