I saw someone on the tube the other day with a penguin tattooed on her arm. It was quite well done, with shading and perspective. In fact, it could easily have been used as an illustration in a school textbook.
Seeing her made me surprised all over again at how popular tattoos are. They’re basically pen-and-ink drawings or little calligraphed mottoes that are embedded in your skin forever. What seems odd to me is that people aren’t generally all that keen on pen-and-ink drawings or little calligraphed mottoes in any other context. If you asked most people to choose a drawing by a competent but mediocre draughtsman and then display it on their living-room wall for the rest of their life, they’d refuse – especially if it was expensive and involved hours of pain. But if, instead of their living room, the drawing goes on their body, they’re really keen. I couldn’t imagine the penguin lady buying a print of the same drawing and putting it up on her wall.
There’s another kind of tattoo that I find much easier to understand. In a pub in Hackney the other day I saw a man in shorts with a huge lighthouse tattooed up each leg. He was in his twenties and the tattoos seemed to me to be a huge pre-emotive practical joke on his future self. He was basically saying, “You’d better continue to find this hilarious for the rest of your life or you’re fucked.” It was a way of making sure he doesn’t turn into the sort of person he dislikes: i.e. someone without huge lighthouses tattooed up both legs.
The Guardian review got me thinking about these words. In a way I’m surprised they exist, since there is very little in Britain that isn’t quirky, absurd or whimsical.
I was in Derbyshire last weekend, where I visited Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the dukes of Devonshire (the earls of Derby, of course, live in Knowsley House near Liverpool). Here I found that the Sixth Duke of Devonshire had caused the local village to be moved about a quarter of a mile away because he felt it spoiled his view.
I then went to nearby Haddon Hall, where I found that the 600-year-old great hall had a manacle attached to one wall. Apparently, if a man didn’t drink enough at dinner, his wrist would be put in the manacle and the wine he hadn’t drunk would be poured down his sleeve*.
And that’s just two stately homes in the Peak District.
*Has anyone done any research on the effectiveness of sleeve-based penalties? I instinctively feel that even the most hardened criminal would mend his ways rather than have something poured down his sleeve.
On Thursday evening I went to a pub called the Lamb, on Lamb’s Conduit Street. I was sitting in the low bit at the back, beside the door leading to the stairs (and thence to the lavatories and powder room). Kerry came back with our second drinks while I still had about an inch of my first, so she put it on the table next to me and sat down.
She told me that she had found out about the glass screen around the bar. It’s a very old pub which still has a lot of its Victorian features, including a raised frosted glass partition running all around the bar, with each pane on hinges allowing it to be opened so that you can speak to the bartenders. (See the picture below) Apparently it allowed the middle-class people in the left-hand side of the pub to avoid being seen by the working-class people in the public bar on the other side of the pub. Kerry told me this and then said, “It’s called a snob screen”.
As soon as she said these words my beer was knocked off the table and spilled all over the carpet at my feet. It was done neatly, avoiding my trousers and bag and leaving very little spillage on the table. In fact, there was a tidy ring of beer on the table, showing that the glass had been a bit over six inches from the two nearest edges. On one side of this ring, there was a trace of beer running perhaps three inches, as though the glass had been taken up from the side of the table nearest the door. All the rest of the beer was on the floor, along with the glass, which hadn’t broken.
I was frozen in place, waiting for my senses to supply an explanation – which usually follows when some surprising event happens. I thought I’d suddenly realise that I had made an expansive gesture without realising, or that someone had walked past. But no explanation followed. Neither of us had moved, no one had passed, the table wasn’t on an angle.
I went to the bar to replace my beer and told the barman what had happened. “Funny you should say that,” he said. “We’ve had five or six people tell us the same thing in the last few weeks.”
He still charged me for the new pint though.
Of the searches that brought people to my website today, my favourite by far is “grow a beard like Nicholas II”. It’s great that someone out there wants to grow a beard like Tsar Nicholas II’s and is using the internet to find out how. It’s even better that Google thinks my site (this post) can help.
I think that beats “banana piano” and “what looks like a bunch of bananas but isn’t” as my favourite searches leading people here. Perhaps I should run a competition.
Last weekend I was at my friend Francesca’s house. There were four of us there, drinking wine, talking and listening to music on her boyfriend’s iPod, which was on top of the bookshelf. (Incidentally, Francesca is the only person I know who orders her books by colour.) We were sprawling around on the sofa or the floor, because we are bohemians and the Man ain’t gonna tell us where to sit. On the other side of the room sat a MacBook, slightly open but in sleep mode, the white light on its front breathing peacefully in that way MacBooks have, and which contributes more than it ought to our collective desire for them.
A song came on from one of Johnny Cash’s American albums – maybe American III. I suddenly had a great urge to listen to Hurt from American IV, and I asked Steven if he could put it on. He said that he didn’t have it on his iPod, only on his laptop. And then, suddenly, the untended laptop on the other side of the room roused itself from sleep (but without turning its screen on) and played Hurt. We stopped the music on the iPod and listened to it. When the song finished, the computer resumed its silence, and soon the light on its front was softly breathing again.
This sort of thing occasionally happens to me: an event that is completely inexplicable and very powerful in the moment, but which isn’t verifiable and – crucially – doesn’t make a very impressive story. Nonetheless, this one happened.
Hurt is about a man who has ruined his life with heroin. The bit that affects me most is where he sings, “If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way”.
When I feel particularly depressed, I sometimes imagine that twenty years in the future I have done something unforgivably terrible and some supernatural agency has given me the chance to put it right, and I’ve been allowed to go back to the part of my life where the trouble began, and start again, put it right.
There’s a particularly unlikely true story on Giles Milton’s blog today about a former US gang member who repeatedly went out alone and talked huge numbers of Japanese soldiers into surrendering in World War II. Its theme of a lone man convincing vastly superior enemies to surrender reminded me of this Telegraph obituary of John Pine-Coffin:
In 1963 he was in Nassau when he was ordered to investigate a party of Cuban exiles that had infiltrated Andros Island, part of the Bahamas. His seaplane landed in thick mud and Pine-Coffin decided that his only chance of reaching dry land was to strip off.
On coming ashore, plastered in mud and wearing only a red beret and a pair of flippers, he was confronted by a party of armed Cubans. Mustering as much authority as he could in the circumstances, he informed the group that they were trespassing on British sovereign territory and were surrounded.
The following morning, when the Royal Marines arrived to rescue him they were astonished to find him and his radio operator in a clearing standing guard over the Cubans and a pile of surrendered weapons. He was appointed OBE.
Cuban surrenders are naturally much less impressive than Japanese ones, but the extra elements of nudity and a silly name help to redress the balance.
Just when I thought people had stopped searching for “what looks like a bunch of bananas but isn’t”, it happened again. Will this phrase dog me for the rest of my life?
The good news is that the staff in Pret a Manger have finally learned to understand what I mean when I say ‘Bakewell’. They’ve been selling Bakewell tarts for over a year now, but – until today – whenever I asked for one the person serving me (in my Pret, they’re almost exclusively girls from South America) would always just smile or giggle in a confused and polite way, as though I were making a joke that she didn’t understand, and then not give me a Bakewell tart. I got used to just pointing at what I wanted and maybe doing a small mime. But then today I was too far away to point, so I had to ask for it by name. I got it on only the second asking. Perhaps it was because it was a man serving me. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, this is good news.
The bad news is that yesterday’s good review of my book has unaccountably disappeared from Amazon. At least I have been able to console myself with a legitimately ordered Bakewell tart.
Over the last few days there has been a mini-epidemic of people coming to this site because they Googled “What looks like a bunch of bananas but isn’t?” (WordPress tells me some of the search terms people use to come here – and they were all getting to a piece of flim-flam I wrote called Labour-Schmaving.) Perhaps only the first of them was genuinely looking for the answer. The rest have probably come because I mentioned the search on FaceBook.
Anyway, if you were that first person and you come here again, I’m afraid that the answer to your question is “nothing”. It’s disappointing I know, but there it is.
To make you feel better, here is a link to a BBC news story about a group of students who have turned some bananas into a piano:
N.B. You might be tempted to think that this banana piano is something that looks like a bunch of bananas but isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s something that looks like a bunch of bananas but is a bunch of bananas but also (apparently) functions as a piano. If that’s what you were looking for then you need to be more specific with your search terms.