Professor Adrian Poole: What ideas ‘the green light’ sparks for me

Trinity College English Professor Adrian Poole offers his interpretation of The Litmus 2021 prompt: ‘the green light’, why he and author Ali Smith chose it, and the myriad possible stories that lie therein


“Green”? “Green” is good but “Green Light” is better!’

It was Ali Smith’s brilliant idea.  We had been mulling over the theme for this year’s Litmus. It was some time last summer. The first year of The Litmus had gone really well and the idea of ‘In Common’ had worked wonders. What next? The pandemic was still raging but we were out of lockdown, for the time being.

There was hope in the air. And green is the colour of hope.

It has other associations of course. If you’re Irish, you may wear it with pride. Not all its connotations are positive, it’s true. We talk about being ‘green with envy’. A father in Shakespeare puts his daughter down when he tells her she talks ‘like a green girl’, too young to know better. And fruit that’s green may not yet be ready to eat. But even these last two imply something positive, something to do with the future, even if it’s ‘not yet’. 

But when Ali exclaimed the words ‘The Green Light!’, they pointed my thoughts in two different directions.

One was towards nature, towards everything to do with the natural world, towards our precious environment, towards climate change. And how can the word ‘light’ never make us feel better, unless it’s blinding or dazzling? No, taken together, ‘green’ and ‘light’ make us feel warmer, brighter, more hopeful. 

So too if we go in the other direction towards something man-made, one of the great modern inventions we now take for granted. Believe it or not there was a time before traffic lights. Of course the earliest motor cars went barely above walking pace. But still, they could bump into people and things and each other. So could trains. And the technology involved isn’t simple. The first traffic light installed in Parliament Square in December 1868 exploded two months later, and the police officer who worked it was killed. They are rarely as dangerous as that nowadays. But still when traffic lights fail, the consequences can be disastrous. Chaos ensues. People start shouting and cursing. They may even resort to violence.

And of course the terms have developed a rich metaphoric life of their own. We can say to a friend in a heated conversation: ‘You’re driving through a red light!’ We can tell the same friend that a parent or teacher or boss has ‘given us the green light’, to go ahead with an adventurous plan. 

Two very different contexts then, in which the words ‘green light’ resonate, the natural world and the man-made. And yet there’s no way of separating them, they are so entangled with each other. Look at the whole climate crisis. Is this the world of green showing us the red light? What riches there are in our language, especially when we put them together, in a phrase like ‘the green light’.