Some twenty or more years ago, I worked for the CID. Now, before you go imagining me in (70s reference approaching at speed) the Sweeney jumping over balconies, slapping on cuffs and yelling ‘you’re nicked mate’ I should clarify. I was a temp typist, hired in for a few weeks to transcribe interviews. Plus, this was the 90s (oh my god it’s a time warp). I made tea for undercover detectives in between plugging myself into a set of headphones and trying to decipher the taped exchanges between detectives and their various ‘suspects’. It was, I have to say very interesting. The officers were polite and friendly and keen to keep me around as I typed faster than they could. Their collection of paperwork was an industrial fire hazard visible from space. You might wonder where all this is leading, did I afterwards pursue a career in crime solution? Did I take up origami? No. In fact, what happened was that I learnt that if you are intent upon a life of crime it is probably best not to have a tattoo on your face. No tattoo at all in the facial type area. Especially not a really distinguishable one like say, a scale model sea eagle or a technicoloured oriental dragon or the Vatican in line drawing complete with halo. Please be assured, these descriptions of ink have been altered to protect the guilty.
I was reminded of this nugget of wisdom yesterday when I was on duty in the library. A young woman arrived and I could not hear one word she said, because of her remarkable eyebrows. As she berated me for the various ills of the library service as she saw it, I was distracted by the eyebrows, realising, after several moments, that they were tattooed on. They were not hairy buffers for keeping the rain out of her eyes, they were precision drawn. At the nose end they were slightly bulbous, arcing back on themselves towards her temples like tilted commas. I longed for a mistake in their execution, a point where they had slightly quirked, wriggling upwards to lend her a look of permanent wry consideration. It was a useful distraction from her rudeness and my look of mesmerised wonderment diffused her literary rage. So where am I going with all this? Crime? Library Rage? Punctuation?
Tattoos. They are an art form. I see that. I can see where the skill is. What disturbs me is the transformative nature of them. Tattoos have a duality that is hard to pinpoint. They can make you vanish. Consider someone with their entire face tattooed, their original face, the one their mum cooed at and wiped with a spitted hanky has gone. Done. Boom.
They alter you. Irrevocably. This is probably why people have them, at least the people who go for the epic scale tattoos. If you’re just going to ink yourself in with a pin and a spoiled Biro then possibly that says something else too, something more raw perhaps and unfinished. Tattoos. Hmm. I find them disturbing.
Another tattoo story to help with the proof; I used to go to a hairdresser in town, a little elf of a girl who was very very skilled at haircutting. One afternoon she was cutting my hair and she winced as she moved. I asked if she was ok and she confessed that she was in the process of having a tattoo done. She’d spent a couple of hours the day before having it outlined.
“What’s the tattoo of?” I asked. Without any preamble she slid back her baggy sweatshirt top and revealed the skeletal outline of vast angel wings which spread across her back and up onto her shoulders. The effect was striking. It was a combination of the reveal, the simple grey sweatshirt with its ravelled edges, and then the intricate beginnings of the tattoo itself. She was not quite an angel. The bones of it were there. She was, to my eyes, being transformed. Her back was no longer quite human. The tattooist clearly had skill, both graphic and creative. The wings, even in that early state, primary feathers you might call it, looked gothic and delicate.
I assume that people have a tattoo to draw attention to themselves. It’s a kind of badge or marker. For me the more tattoos a person has the less you can see them. The simple biology of an arm, for example, is obliterated by pictures. You begin to not see the arm, you fall into the pictures and that is where my personal problem lies. My imagination takes over and the tattooed being becomes something other. The person behind the ink starts to be a ghost, a shadow beneath the images and words that they have had inscribed on themselves.
There are, apparently, more people with tattoos now than ever before. Once upon a time ink was a marker for certain social and cultural groups but now tattoos are everywhere and on everyone. How true this is I don’t know as, in the way a pigeon gets its lunch from the depths of the nearest wastebin, so I pecked up my fact from the internet. I felt a pang for the groups; sailors, bikers, the Māori probably, who have been robbed of their cultural marker.
For several days after learning this I began to look around a little more, and I think there are different levels of tattoo. For the most part, the flimsy scribble containing the birthdates of your latest offspring or some curlicued symbol that you’ve cribbed from Chinese or other available calligraphy doesn’t really count. Again, there are the internet statistics on the prevalence of misspelt and mistranslated tattoos. How bad must it be to have a tattoo that you thought read ‘Peace and Oneness’ and in fact it really says ‘Peas and Onions’? You have been altered, a marker has been laid down but Fate has twisted it and it cannot be revoked.
I’m not a tattoo aficionado by any means, I’m just an interested bystander. For me these kinds of frivolous tattoos are the notes in the margin. The lady with the eyebrows for instance, what is that about? Convenience? If they had been Gothic or Rococo, twisting in black swirls down her face or broken up like filigree then they may have meant more, said more, even if I don’t know what that message is. I think that might be what concerns me, the idea of message, of saying something about yourself and meaning it because it is permanent. I have said that tattoos make you vanish, perhaps the opposite is true and that is what unsettles me. The girl with the angel wings had more to say. Her tattoo was, to my mind, real in the way that a Māori tattoo or Ta Moko, has a deep cultural significance. It says much about being a Māori, a warrior, your ancestors. It tells of your status, your prestige. It’s a ritual and a rite of passage not an afterthought or a doodle.
Ray Bradbury wrote a book called ‘The Illustrated Man’ about a man wandering the universe with pictures inked onto his skin which would animate when observed and told stories of the human condition. Madness. Death. The End of the World. This has fired my own imagination.
When I see someone carrying a large and vivid collection of tattoos I always think of The Illustrated Man. I am drawn to look and wonder at the life stories they are telling, the innermost secrets printed onto skin.
I have a theory that the reason we will munch on a Mars Bar (other chocolate snack foods are acceptable and available; another personal favourite is the Fruit and Nut bar) is that they are consistent. If you nibble a chocolate button it is going to taste of chocolate. Although possibly not button. Hopefully. If you found it down the arm of the chair then I’m afraid I would just chew and not think about it.
So, back to the theory of chocolate. It’s consistent. Nutritionists everywhere need to take note. If its dark it will have a rich bitterness, almost a dryness. If its cheap it will be cheerful and sticky. It might be in brick or square form, easy to snap and carrying a sense of physical strength with it.
If it’s an orange however, you are on dangerous ground. Oranges have only two consistent attributes. They are round (or roundish) and they are orange. I remember oranges when I was a child in (all together now) the 70s and they were globes of unctious and juicy delight. Their flavour had the citrus vitality that seemed to be promised by the orange colour of a felt tip pen I had, one of a rainbow set that nestled in a foldover plastic wallet. Anything this colour would taste of sun and heat, of flowers and light. The juice of these 1970s oranges glittered down your skin as you peeled away each fruity segment.
The oranges I have had in recent years have been, almost universally, sour. Once, in a very short while, you pick a few Navel ones from the selection and they are juice bombs, exploding with flavour. You return, like Rapunzel’s father to the witch’s garden, but the juicy treasure is gone and someone has knitted some dry replicas. I once had three oranges labelled ‘Organic Italy Ovale’. They were fairytale fruits, the like of which I have never tasted, golden and delicious (ahem!) and it appears, as accessible as the apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, as I have never encountered them since.
Apropos of that thought, apples are another case. I have no idea why anyone eats a Cox’s Orange Pippin. Bleugh. My favourites are Egremont Russet, soft and bronze skinned and lush. and the rosy red and green Spartan, bright and crisp and juicy. Sometimes. I have bought a bag of Egremont Russet only to find that they are woolly or dry or wizened, like poisoned fairy tale apples. This is the kind of fruit that puckers your face. Chocolate never puckered anyone’s face, never made them grimace with sourness. You can understand why the witch built her house out of gingerbread. It’s consistent. Plus it is square or rectangular and therefore easier for construction purposes.
I was reminded of the theory of chocolate only the other day when I bought some cherries. I love cherries but these were terrible, their life cycle was hard to furry in less than 24 hours. The handful I grabbed after tea on the evening of their purchase was a grim mouthful, slimy and sour. I realised I ought to have plumped for the oaty consistency of texture and flavour offered by the chocolate HobNob. That’s another point, you can’t dunk a cherry into your tea.
My love of cherries hails from the cherry tree that my maternal grandparents had in the back garden of their council house. Their garden was, in general, a desert wasteland of rose bushes and bare earth bordering the neat lawn with a path down the middle. My grandmother did not tolerate weeds and so the rose bushes were guarded by slug pellets. Tributaries of weedkiller sluiced their way into a surging river of chemical warfare that ran along the side wall and made druggies of the hedgehogs. Actually that might explain some of the weirder behaviour of her tortoise.
The back border however was dominated by a beautiful cherry tree and in the summer my sister Jane and I were allowed to pick the fruit. We made earrings out of it, looping the little stems over our ears and we ate more than we ever collected. They were the epitome of cherry. They had that perfume, ethereal rather than sweet and their delicate red flesh would explode in your mouth. We’d spit the pips out until they looked like a pile of miniature skulls beneath the branches of the tree.
I am not certain nowadays what the alchemy is. I have a theory, part of the theory of chocolate, that those cherries tasted good because they were from the tree in my grandmother’s garden. They were sweet and soft because it was sunny and we were happy. Behind us my granddad would be pegging out his vast tent so that we could use it as a playhouse, a dark gothic canvas mansion. The cherries tasted good sitting on the fold-out campbed inhaling the odd canvas and french chalk scents of the tent itself. The slight whiff of Perth that it held from their recent holiday watching the salmon leap and dodging the midges. Well, it’s a theory at any rate. Perhaps I need another chocolate button to complete my research.
My dad, it must be said, is something of a Health and Safety sort of chap. That is not to say that this was his career before retirement. He was, in fact, an English teacher. Nevertheless my sister Jane and I have grown up with his maxims and mottos on the various danger points of modern day existence.
For instance, he maintains that the highest percentage of drowned people are swimmers as opposed to non-swimmers. This is because, logically, more swimmers are found in the water. They dare to take on that fickle element and they fail. You would assume that staying on dry land would be a counter to this, not so; You could get run over by a horse or stampeded by cows. If you have the window open in a moving car you will get Bell’s Palsy. Beware the rogue scone with its unpasteurised cream, the recalcitrant seafood starter and public swimming pools where you can contract anything from Lyme Disease to trench foot without leaving the reception area. Stepladders should not be used on any day without an ‘R’ in it and only then if you have a team of steeplejacks on red alert.
I used to think that his wariness and, on occasion, pessimistic panic stemmed from a childhood spent inside World War II. Many are the tales he will tell of nightmare evenings huddled in the air raid shelter listening to the bombers overhead on their way to the docklands of Salford. Death stalked the streets back then and might make anyone cautious about retaining their grip on Life.
But there are other tales he tells. These are the ones that involve his childhood pyromania. Yes. I used the word ‘pyromania’, meaning my dad loved to light fires, to the point of arson. He lit fires in all his relatives’ houses, and not necessarily always in the grate. Aunties Alice and Emily might find him tending a small pyre in an unexpected corner of the scullery or parlour on any given afternoon. An experiment with the chimney one morning resulted in his being tardy for school and getting a lift there on the returning fire engine.
Children and fire have always been a dangerous combination. The lure of the flickering flame speaks to us all. My grandmother gave him the matches and the task of lighting the fire in the grate each morning to try and assuage his lust for flame. It worked. To a point.
I doubt she ever gave a second thought to the explosive qualities of the Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup tin. I’ve always seen them as rather decorative, often saving them after I have finished using the contents for flapjack or treacle tart. My dad, when he’d finished his syrup butty, used the tin for, well, blowing stuff up.
He was encouraged in this enterprise by my grandfather, his dad, Joe. My grandfather, on his return from definitely being right in the very middle of World War II in the Middle East, was only too happy to trot down to Taskers, the pharmacist, with his only child, and acquire the kind of substances that nowadays are only available via specialist online suppliers, the purchase of which can get you listed on a very black list indeed and might even get your passport confiscated. In order to obtain these substances my granddad had merely to offer the cash and sign The Poisons Book. Life was simpler then.
A childhood in the 1940s (makes a change from the 70s doesn’t it?!) was a different beast. Alas, my dad was denied the digital and virtual delights of The Sims or Assassin’s Creed as at that point in our history even Television was still something that smacked of science-fiction. There was rumoured to be a set in Little Hulton but no one was certain. The paperback book had only just been invented and was not widely available to anyone who wasn’t T S Eliot. My dad therefore indulged in other more post-war era pursuits. He read Hotspur, played chess and tennis, was head choirboy in the church choir and he made bombs.
Yes. You know. BOOM. In the absence of an android phone and Facebook, he would idle away an hour or two in post-war Britain stripping the zinc from batteries and, using the alchemy of a conical flask and hydrochloric acid, he would make hydrogen. Yes. That one. H. The explosive element one.
If the appeal of hydrogen manufacture waned a little there was always time to tinker with the gas cooker, a syrup tin and some sodium carbide. Another tick in the Poisons Book for that one. Their neighbour Mrs Berry never complained once about his football going over the yard wall, instead she would knock on the door, her freshly nuked hair still smoking and request that he stop blowing things up as it was frightening her hens. Mrs Berry’s hens, the only kind to lay pre-boiled eggs.
These pastimes were all things he had learnt the bones of in Chemistry at the Grammar school. Ah, the Grammar School system, the one they are considering bringing back.
Today, we moan because children don’t get out much. They are chained to their computers and tablets, mesmerised by games. Only in recent days has ‘Pokemon Go’ and its treasure hunt delights prised many a teenager from their swivelly computer chair into the burning August sunlight. We often hark back to a brighter age, where children had a more innocent time and ‘played out’. Sometimes we forget that theirs was a world scarred by global warfare and that they played on the bombsites and derelict buildings of our half dead cities.
Despite all his wary warnings I note that he now keeps his electric lawnmower in the garden. For convenience. It is a faff getting it out of the shed.
“But it’s raining.” I said the other afternoon.
“Only a bit.” was his reply. “And the plug is in a margarine tub with the lid on.”
I should be thankful, I suppose, it isn’t in a Golden Syrup tin.