Language & autism (4)
Language & gender (4)
Selective mutism (3)
Developing children's communication (8)
Children's emotions (5)
Children and introversion (2)
High sensitivity (2)
Language & maths (3)
Improving adult communication (3)
Children and ICT (2)
Children & sleep (2)
Improving storytime & assembly (2)
Building vocabulary (3)

Bad Breath!
Understanding mood swings
The silent phase of EAL
Overcoming stage fright
Food poverty/language poverty
Children and trains
Speech sounds
Nelson Mandela tribute
Combating low self-esteem
Children and colour
Men and childcare
Non-verbal communication
Language and autism
'Small talk'
Children's behaviour
Music and feelings
Spelling problems
Describing children accurately
Sharing books with children
Singing and language

Don’t call me ‘Mellow Yellow’: or daring to be colourful in a world of adults who prefer to wear black. With help from Liz West, The Spice Girls and Joni Mitchell!

Date posted: Saturday 2nd November 2013

When I was 15 I went to see David Bowie at Greens Playhouse in Glasgow. Bowie was at the cutting edge of Glam Rock, so naturally before I set off for the gig there was a lot of discussion about what I should wear. There was general agreement that I should wear my favourite clothes: bright red shirt, lilac crew neck jumper and black flares. My choice of footwear caused great concern: “You can’t go to a Bowie concert wearing brown shoes with black trousers! Everyone on the planet knows that black trousers require black shoes. You will look so naff!” I was a bit of a rebel rebel in those days, but I must admit that my friends’ opprobrium had rattled my confidence. After all, Glasgow was notorious for being full of hard guys. What if I stuck out and got beaten up for being outrageously dressed? Though I was quite small for my age, I knew how to handle myself, so took my chances with the brown shoes/black troosers combo. Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane and the Spiders from Mars were incredible. Everyone was standing on their seats and I couldn’t see a thing, so I stood in the aisle for the entire concert. If anybody noticed my shoes, they let it go.

As luck would have it, it was snowing quite heavily as I stood in the queue outside the venue, so everyone’s shoes looked white. When I got inside, it was pretty dim, and all of us were transfixed by the flashes of outrageous colour onstage as Bowie rapidly changed costume after costume. (I’m reliably informed that in the bars of Glasgow you can still hear heated arguments about whether or not Bowie’s stripping down to a peach-coloured loincloth was a bridge too far? ) Hey, the 70s may have been the decade that style forgot: when dressing like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Austin Powers was the height of cool, but at least we loved our bright colours. Only Johnny Cash was bold enough to dress from head to toe in black (though there is no documentary evidence to show whether he was prepared to risk it all by wearing a pair of brown brogues with his black strides.)

I loved bright clothes then, and I wear them now, though you may be relieved to know that my days of combining red with purple are well and truly over. Yet between 1997 and 2003 I went through a period of only wearing black at work. At the time I was heading up Luton’s Traveller Education Support Service, working with Travellers who would arrive suddenly in the town and park up in their caravans wherever they could find an open space. We also supported children whose parents worked as part of travelling circuses and funfairs.

I always wanted to look smart: to make a good impression with my new clients, and later in the local schools where we would try and find places for the children. As some of these temporary sites could be quite muddy, (and we could almost 100% guarantee that it would rain whenever the fair arrived in town), I thought wearing black would be the best way to look presentable and professional. So for a good few years my work wardrobe consisted of five black Marks and Spencer polo shirts, two pairs of black M & S trousers and a grey jacket (naturally from Marks and Sparks). I don’t need to mention the colour of my shoes. Since my footwear faux pas on the mean streets of Glasgow, I wasn’t ever going to risk looking like a proper narner again.

Dressing like I was heading for a funeral was usually acceptable to my clients, until one morning I knocked on a caravan door and was greeted by a rather disgruntled looking Irish Traveller man. “Let me guess… you’re either a priest or a Johnny Cash tribute act. If you’re trying to be like The Man in Black, then it’s too early in the morning for ‘The Folsom Prison Blues’. If you’re a priest, can you tell us when they say mass in this town? If you are neither then please go away.” (Actually the last request was worded quite a bit more strongly than I’m letting on.)

Did I miss my bright clothes? Truth to tell, on some dark and dismal winter mornings I hankered after wearing something a bit cheerful to brighten up my day. My colleague gave me some great advice, “Just because a woman wears black doesn’t mean she’s completely covered in black.” This seemed a bit cryptic, so I dug deeper. “Well perhaps underneath all that dark clothing she’s wearing something a bit more colourful.”

Of course! Why didn’t I think of that before? So I dashed off to my favourite outfitters and stocked up with a set of the most colourful socks I could find. (Documentary evidence doesn’t tell us whether Johnny Cash wore coloured socks…)

Not long after that I was being interviewed for the post of Luton’s first advisory teacher for children with speech and language difficulties: working in early years settings and primary schools. I thought the interview was going well until the point towards the end when you are invited to ask the interviewers questions. Usually I’m stumped for something sensible to ask, but I was armed with a question that I thought would show that I was a man in touch with his feelings and his sensitive side, and therefore just the sort of person fit to be with little children and the staff who care for them: “Is it alright for me to wear brightly coloured clothes? I’m sick of black, and my colleague suggests that little children really respond well to colour.”

That was potentially a very bad move. Everybody on the panel was wearing either black or grey. There was a silence as they all exchanged glances. One of them started writing furiously. It was my future boss who spoke for the group: “Michael, you can wear what you like, as long as it’s comfortable: because we hope you are going to spend a lot of time playing with children on the floor. Oh and by the way, steer clear of yellow: I don’t think it’s a good colour to be seen in.”

The job was a goodun.

As I strolled into the shirt section of Marks I felt like a blind man whose sight has been miraculously restored. I was dazzled by their rainbow hue of colours: everything from pale blue through to grey. I’m an M&S man through and through, and I felt a yellow streak appear on my back as I walked across Brent Cross shopping centre into Next: to check out whether they had some really colourful kit for me to invest in. As I bought five brightly-coloured polo shirts I told myself it was for the good of the little kiddies of Luton. There was a special offer on in the store: buy five polo shirts and get one free. I had almost the complete range of colours, except for black and yellow. Sometimes life throws up difficult choices: should my free shirt remind me of the bad old days of black, or should I take a chance and choose one that makes me look like a canary/banana/Norwich City supporter/bowl of custard?

What’s wrong with yellow? Nothing: I’ve just never liked it. Now I know that sounds really strange, particularly coming from the man who, like most teenagers in the 70s, used to wear the most garish colour combinations. I just can’t bear the thought of wearing anything yellow. I’m fairly certain that everyone has a favourite colour, and possibly one that they react against as well. Colour affects us. It’s powerful stuff. Colour influences and reflects our mood, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that children love to talk about colour. So on the first day in my new post I went to visit the nursery class in one of the schools I used to regularly visit as part of my previous job. Several of the teachers commented on how bright and cheerful I looked. The Head even asked me whether I was heading off holiday. And my career supporting quiet children got off to a great start when a very shy little girl in the nursery volunteered, “My daddy’s got a shirt like that. My mummy hates it. I love yellow. Ducks are yellow sometimes.”

Liz West: all things very bright and beautiful

So there it is: colour provokes strong feelings, and we’ve all got something to say about it. This is maybe why artist Liz West is being so successful. Her installations are much-visited and provoke very strong reactions: not because they feature animals sawn in half and floating in tanks of formaldehyde, but because they all feature very strong colours and very strong light. I love them: even the yellow ones. I’d love to take a group of children to visit Liz West’s installations, and listen to what they (and the adults with them) have to say. I’m also intrigued to find out what people make of Liz West’s obsession with The Spice Girls.

What I do know is that in my training workshops we always talk about what colour means to us. I have a large collection of rolls of wrapping paper (for a very good reason: they are used to cover shoe boxes as part of our ‘All About Me boxes’ project.) But it’s rare that the roll of yellow paper gets chosen as a favourite, (to date the top choice is blue stars on cream by Emma Bridgewater, closely followed by Iced Gems and anything with pink in it.) And on my mark making course, and the one about supporting children’s developing language, and the one called ‘Bring Storytime to Life’… in fact any course where I can justify using pots of Play Doh as props, the pot of yellow dough is rarely opened.

Could it be that we subconsciously associate yellow with a terrible moment in rock history, when arguably the greatest female singer/songwriter of all time was entertaining 500,000 fans at the 1970 Isle-of -Wight festival? The atmosphere at the gathering was already tense, as thousands of fans without tickets (or unwilling to pay the £3.00 entry fee), were clamouring at the corrugated iron walls to try and force a mass entry from their encampment on the hill above the festival site (aptly nicknamed Desolation Row). After singing about Woodstock, an intruder appeared on stage and grabbed Joni’s mike. The crowd started jeering, and once our hairy interloper was carted off stage Joni started crying. The jeering continued. It’s not every day that you see one person tell a crowd of half-a-million strong to be quiet and behave themselves. As Freud pointed out (Emma Freud, that is) maybe it was the collective trauma the post-Woodstock nation suffered as a result of this outrage against our goddess, that turned us against the colour yellow. Look at what Joni is wearing and listen to her final song to see for yourself what the connection might be.

Joni Mitchell: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

After the workshop’s over: talking with teachers about colours, so children can talk about them too!

After the workshop’s over: talking with teachers about colours, so children can talk about them too!

Take care out there.


To see more photos of Liz West’s amazing installations, visit

Sign up for Michael's weekly blog post by clicking here!

Share this post!

8 responses to “Don’t call me ‘Mellow Yellow’: or daring to be colourful in a world of adults who prefer to wear black. With help from Liz West, The Spice Girls and Joni Mitchell!”

  1. Julie Barton says:

    When our children were teenagers, we scheduled an appointment for a family portrait. We were told not to wear yellow because it does not flatter our skin tones.

    Otherwise, I say wear yellow and be proud of it!

    Your blogs are so much fun to read. How long does it take for you to write each of them?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Julie!
      I think that punk taught us in the UK that clothing conventions, like ‘blue and green should never be seen’ are just conventions. I love it when children take an interest in colour, and are allowed to wear colourful clothes.
      I was going up an escalator on the tube (subway) in London once, and everyone was wearing either black or grey, apart from me (red fleece) and an Indian woman (bright blue sari).

      I’m glad you like my posts. I have a notebook with ideas, that are often sparked off by a song, or something from YouTube. Then I link that to an idea I have about communication. I chip away at it during the week and then have it all finished by the weekend.
      Edmund, who looks after my website, puts it all together for me on a Saturday morning.
      I was on a long haul flight to Bangkok recently, and I was listening to their music selection, and Janis Joplin was on there. This got me to thinking about one of her songs, so my next post might be about that. However I got lost in Bangkok when a taxi driver dropped me at the wrong place, so I might write about that instead!
      Best wishes

  2. Carol Adams says:

    Love your blogs; always something to think about. Yellow is my favourite colour but I would never wear it – makes me look ill. When working with the children I try to wear something bright or eye-catching. The children certainly notice – especially the girls. I was also recommended to wear a bright red lipstick so that children focused on your mouth. Perhaps not appropriate in your case although I do have a green wig you can borrow.

    Funny story about the Spice Girls: at the height of their popularity we took my young daughter and a group of her friends to see a Spice Girls tribute act as a birthday treat. They had a great time, especially when ‘Ginger’ got my daughter on stage during the closing number to join in. A year or so later my daughter made a comment about this night out that made my husband and I realise that she thought she had seen the real Spice Girls. My husband and I gave each other worried looks but kept quiet. We did own up when she was in her late teens, but it was like a child finding out Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

    Looking forward to a bit of Janis Joplin

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Carol
      I have a lot of fun writing the posts.
      I had a real surprise when Liz West contacted me via Twitter yesterday. I have added some great photos of her work onto the bottom of my post. You just want to get inside those big rooms that are bathed in bright colour. I think colour is so important for all of us, and particularly for children. I love showing them how to mix colours.
      Adults certainly have strong views about wearing yellow, unless you are a Norwich supporter. The Brasil football kit is yellow, and looks great.
      That’s a great story about the Spice Girls. My daughter was a big fan, and in a funny way I think they did a lot for girls’ confidence, which is important.
      Thank you for replying
      Best wishes

  3. Maggie Harris says:

    I can’t believe you have a You Tube of the IoW festival
    I was there see if you can spot me. I’m the tall girl with long blond hair. I can’t remember what I was wearing but it would have been bright colours too!!!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Maggie!!! And I was the 13 year old on Guildford station transfixed by all the colourful hippies heading for the festival!!
      The whole weekend is captured on an amazing DVD called ‘Message to Love.’
      That’s amazing!!
      The festival is as legendary as Woodstock, and though I wanted to be there, it did look very chaotic. Did it rain at all??
      I am writing a series of 12 articles for Early Years Educator magazine, about early language development. I will email you to pick your brains about something.
      Great to hear from you!!

  4. I have a problem with colour. I’m apparently “colourblind” Which means that when someone shows me those dotty circles I can’t see numbers, letters or pictures just….dots. It’s apparently only men who are thus afflicted. For me it doesn’t mean I see the world in monotones I can see most colours just not all, especially if they are close in proximity or tone to each other. I can’t read black type on a red blackground, and dammit I’m not allowed to be a fighter pilot.
    Interestingly this spills over into my language too, as I have real difficulty naming some colours and sticking to the same names at a later date.
    Also it took my wife and I quite a while to realise that when choosing new paints or curtains etc; when I said (eventually) “I really don’t care what colour we choose”, I wasn’t being “male” I literally didn’t have an opinion as apple white and sunflower oat white A) looked pretty much the same to me, even if I squinted and B) more importantly, provoked absolutely no aesthetic or emotional response in me. In a relationship where one shares spaces, best to go with the choices of the person who does have a response to colour then…..rather than me.

    On the plus side it did take me quite a long time to realise that potentially the reason I have such strong reactions to music is that I don’t have much of a response to visual stimuli.My brain has compensated. Music moves me more now than it ever did. Some music makes me cry some moves me in other emotional and intellectual ways. It’s not all positive though:My most unappealing habit is a complete intolerance for some music or the artists that produce it. I literally feel myself becoming angry at music that I decide is vacuous or at music that I really like being played too softly.
    Some music actually makes me furious: That somebody should have bothered….I have horrible musical prejudices
    I am also extremely intolerant of the implicit view held in some circles that Classical music is “real music” and the rest of music may be charming etc but not as “good” as it isn’t as complicated or technically sophisticated.

    I’m always banging on in these responses about sensory modulation and how important background “noise” is. But your (as usual excellent post) makes us all think that colour can be “noise” too. Witness very bland plain classrooms for some pupils with ASC for whom some visual busyness can be, at worst deeply distressing and at best extremely distracting.
    Keep up the good work Michael

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim
      You are in The Curst Sons!! I have visited your website and now I know that you are a mean slide guitar and mandolin player!!
      (I am a mean member of audiences that watch bands like yours!)
      You have made some very fascinating points there (as usual). Is it really fair to say that many children with ASD are disturbed by colour? There is some wisdom going round that they need to be only in rooms that are totally light blue.
      I wonder….
      I would love to see how ALL children react to Liz West’s installations. I certainly don’t advocate hugely bright rooms or those that you call ‘bland’ but I think we should all be sensitive to how children respond to colour and light, and use them as a way of helping children and adults enjoy their environment. The natural world can be a very bright place when the sun shines, and people from sunny countries tend to wear very bright clothes, as I discovered in Bangkok recently, and as we see from photos and film of African countries and India.

      Regarding your response to music, I certainly agree with you about some people thinking that only so-called ‘classical’ will do, and will only play this type of music when children come into and leave assembly. I was always looking for different types of music to get a response.

      One thing I would like to see is children exposed to more live music. They just love it when a teacher plays the guitar and sings (the school piano doesn’t always have the same effect, for some reason).
      Trevor Stevens, who I mentioned in my posts about sleep, worked with me in a special school, and he has a real gift of speaking to children through his guitar playing. Steve Grocott, who I have also worked with, is a mandolin player and he also has the same impact on very young children.
      Best wishes
      PS I’ve just finished this weekend’s post about Janis Joplin and Cat Stevens!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *