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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Lydia and the love of Ink

Of all the strange fashions and things that have changed over my moderate span on this fair earth none fascinate me quite as much as tattoos. When I was a kid (in the Seventies) tattoos were generally correlated with being a rough bugger. The sort of tattoos that you saw back then were old school blue ink ones, usually fuzzy, and with declarations of love for (i) mother (ii) salty Susan (iii) football team/ England/British Bulldogs (iv) Elvis. The final tattoo cohort was typically middle aged women who had been daft enough to try and do their own whilst bored in a maths lesson with a sharp compass and some India ink.

During my years of being a doctor my exposure to tattoos has expanded to rival that of a dedicated tattoo artist. Working in anaesthesia and theatres I tend to see plenty of exposed flesh, and indeed on ITU my referrals have their own collection of ‘ink.’ And there is still a vast variety of colour and style. The cringe worthy ‘suck here’ tattooed above the pubic bone, with a helpful arrow pointing southwards, makes an intermittent appearance. Odd Arabic/Chinese/Indian script seems to be getting more popular, much to my bewilderment, as does tribal Polynesian tattoos around biffed up biceps (which looks OK, to be fair).

And I think as Tattoos have improved in their style, colour and frequency their use as an indicator for general rough-ness has diminished. Don’t get me wrong—there is still a usage for the well-established teeth-to-tattoo ratio in judging people, but on a whole more and more younger and younger people have them now, and are perfectly decent types.

I’m trying to think when it all changed. I recall great tattoo stories as a kid being the chatter of the playground. One about a mate’s mate’s brother’s mate bumping into a half-ogre skinhead in Leeds city centre, and the skinhead saying ‘Ask me my name, go on, ask me!’ The terrified mate’s mate’s brother’s mate wisely did this, and the skinhead pulls down his lip and displays his name tattooed inside his lip. Presumably it was Bob, or Sam, or more likely Gaz/Baz/Daz rather than Tarquin or Horatio.

Facial tattoos also were a source of childhood delight—nothing displayed your general psychopathic ruffian status more than a fetching web on your neck and jaw, or a tear tattooed on your cheek, or LUFC (Leeds United Football Club) on your forehead. This notoriety was compounded by the perception that facial tattoos were illegal, that you could get arrested if you had them.... I know, we were young and also believed the student-getting-chloroformed-and-waking-up-without-kidney one as well.

Perhaps it was late Eighties to early Nineties when it flipped over. I seem to recall that average folk were beginning to get ‘inked’ then. More women were starting to have butterflies/roses/celtic patterns, often around ankles and lower backs. Celebrities too caught on, and I think as those images filled the magazines it became far less stigmatised. It slipped from the realms of alternative culture/heavy metal/goth into the mainstream. Interestingly I think the alternative fashion side reacted by becoming more extreme in the tattooing—advancing from small areas of tattoos to sleeves and whole backs.

And I don’t know whether its desensitisation, or maturity, or mid-life crisis, but I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to them. Of course, when I was 20 and full into grunge (with my parka, long hair, earrings, Mudhoney t-shirt) I went to have one done. Quite a funny story, actually. I went with my buddy, Giles, who is pretty much straight as they come. We decided to have a bit of ‘flash’ work—a yellow smiley face (we used to wear the badges as teenagers). On our backsides. So I ask for mine the size of a ten pence, and 30 mins later it’s done. Giles, looking pale, asks for his smaller. Smaller than a 10p? Like a penny? To be fair, he had to have a patch shaved off to do it.

Anyway I digress, as ever. Not content with my crap tattoo, that is, after all, only just better than having ‘Elvis’ on my arm, or Horny Devil (complete with a well endowed red imp) on my deltoid, I’ve been contemplating some major ink. This could be regarded as an atypical move by a consultant anaesthetist, but as long as it isn’t across my face like the leopard-dude I should get away with it.

But what to have? You wait until 41 to do it properly and you can’t just have any old crap. It has to represent or symbolise something. Anything circular or tribal won’t work—my physique is said to be the bastard offspring of Gandhi and Casper the Friendly Ghost. All my interests are ultra-geeky—options of daleks, spiderman or Gandalf have met with a medusa stare from the wife. I don’t like writing on tattoos—part of me worries that ‘Ross is great’ will not come across well in High-Elven, and when I think of names I always remember Jonnie Depp and ‘Winona Forever.’

I think I’ve boiled it down to a few options. A good friend had a dragon done, so I kind of feel that one’s out. I like Coy Carp ones—mainly for the colour; and I like the image of a phoenix (as it unites my comic, fantasy, and symbolic interests). Phoenix is slightly ahead—if I was really cool I’d get it done like Battle of the Planets....

So anyhow, I’ll probably be still working up the nerve in ten years time, and in the interim I’m embracing middle-age and growing a moustachio in November in aid of men’s cancer. Far less permanent if it all goes horribly wrong.

I’ll leave you with Lydia, one of the greatest proponents of body-art the Muppet world has known.




Friday, 12 October 2012


I flogged one of my books to a lad I know at work, who has limited interest in my soap opera style epic fantasy, but has a missus who loves the stuff. She's a big Dave Eddings fan, and as my book has some similarity to the linear fantasy of the Belgeriad, I hoped she'd enjoy it.

I bumped into him the other day and asked how she was getting along with it. He said she was really get into it, but had to stop reading it one evening as a scene was terrifying her. I was a little taken aback- after all I chanced my 10 yr old lad reading it, and he wasn't fussed about the occasionally visceral scene or two, and he certainly wasn't scared (well I couldn't hear him scream whilst I watched telly downstairs).

It would seem it was an early scene where a Dark-mage chases the heroine Emelia through dark cobbled streets, and corners her in an alley. So, yeah, creepy... but, enough to make you stop reading?? Admittedly it may have just been her excuse, and she thinks it is a bobbins book....

It got me thinking about the nature of fears. It's a topic that comes up a lot in our house; after all, fear is a salient aspect of childhood. There's a commonality to fear with my two older kids, and then a divergence which typifies their personalities. Both had the separation fear, and the fear of loss that all kids have. That's something that lurks inside all of us, I think, that terror of isolation, of loneliness. They had a common fear of me and the wife splitting up. That stemmed (logically) from an abrupt swathe of people we knew separating. So every time me and t'wife get the arse on with each other about pointless stuff (I didn't tidy up, usually) the kids were wailing like drunken banshees about us not loving one another etc etc. All rational thus far.

But it's the differences which fascinate me. Charlie, with his vivid imagination, his heart on his sleeve, has fantastical fears. His fears were of the mythical and supernatural. I can recall him being scared witless by a kids spooky story where a boy gets turned into a doll. And that Dr Who episode where the girl traps a boy in a drawing. He was really freaked by it (actually I get that fear... I was disturbed by it too!!!). His has always been the monsters and the vampires and the ghosts.

Evelyn, ever pragmatic, was first scared of dangerous beasts. Sharks in the sea in Devon; box jellyfish in the English Channel; snakes, lions, venomous spiders in Yorkshire... She's moved on now to disease, after an ill-advised trip to Thackray's medical museum in Leeds. Now I'm continually questioned on a range of dire pathologies by her, whether small-pox is coming back, and how worried she needs to be about anthrax. It's like having a mixture of House and Jack Bauer inside an eight year old.

I think back to my childhood, and my fears were no less rational. I had the standard (for my generation) Dr Who scared moments (the Ruton in Horror of Fang Rock; the robot ventriloquists dummy in Talons of Weing Chiang... in fact anything involving Robert Holmes and his love of Gothic horror on Saturday tea-times). The ghosts and ghouls less so, but I recall one episode of the sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel, wherein people from photographs came to life... and this soldier had no face. I was terrified for weeks after that...

The only fear that remains is one of loss, and I suppose by extension of that the fear of death. These are the common fears of most. As you grow old you become afraid for others-- afraid my kids will run into problems, get hurt, get knocked over, and this eases your own somewhat. But every now and then you get a wrench in your gut about something...

So with all that lingering in the rear of our minds, why do we seek fear for entertainment? Why do we like to be scared? There's a huge market for horror, and by that I don't mean paranormal sparkly vampires, I mean good old fill your pants and spill your drink TERROR. And every weekend people jump off perfectly safe bridges with elastic bands on their back, just to get the feeling of hurtling towards a river four hundred feet below and not dying. We invite fear back into our lives quite readily. Why?

I suppose fear shares the same physiological response as any adrenaline surge: extreme excitement, preparing for battle, fighting, running for your life. But the situations we create now are sanitised, they are safe fear, far more than our ancestors ever could. The invisible spirit on Paranormal Activity isn't going to come out of the TV and drag you across the floor. The bungie rope is going to hold. The parachute will open. The free fall rollercoaster style ride won't splat you all across the bored queue below. And with any buzz, repetition equals less thrill. You can see as a society we seek more and more thrill, more condensed controlled terror, to sate our needs. Everything now is 'extreme.'

Yet,ironically, the fears we carry from our early days never really leave. The fear of loss, the fear of passing away perhaps before you have had time to do what you want or say what you need to. Is there a way of facing these fears, these anxieties, in a sanitised way? I'm not sure there's a way of making it cuddly, or disposable, or easy--but I think that by sharing fears with others, by accepting we all have those basic anxieties in common, we can learn to live with them a lot better.

Hang on... there's a scratching on the window....

(yeah, yeah, Salem's Lot joke... couldn't leave you on too much of a downer