Monday, 20 February 2017

Bigmouth strikes again

If you don't know me in real life or on Facebook you may not have gleaned that, like a giant dag clambering onto the back of an ancient, rickety, cobwebby and dust-encrusted bandwagon, I went and got myself tattooed last year.

That's been an interesting thing to do, not least because of the way it flushes out a huge range of reactions and responses in people on a spectrum of those whose opinion I care about through to those I don't. Of the latter, my absolute favourite, a gift, a blessing, was a man who said to me, ponderously, portentously, very loudly, Euuuurrrgh, I really don't like tattoos. Of course I replied, well then Bob I advise you not to get one. ZING!!! I thought with joy of this:

thanks Stephen Potter wherever you are now

 But my topic now is not the weird things people said to me (or visibly didn't say) whilst undergoing freakouts of various degrees of intensity at the sight of something I'd done to my own body. Instead I want to write about what I picked for the tattoo and why, and a hint or two of the trains of thought it's set in motion.

After giving it far more consideration than is at all cool (because, of course, as I soon discerned, the only right-on way to get inked is entirely on the spur of the moment, no thinking it through or cautious planning and selection of the imagery, that sort of thinking betrays a highly uptight awareness of the future beyond the day after tomorrow) I decided to overthink one element and then to consciously relinquish control over and planning of the remainder, in favour of chance, impulse, and adopting someone else's suggestions.

I chose a tattooist (female, local, with a portfolio that indicated graphic competence, and working in a nice studio that looked and smelt reassuringly like a classy hairdressers' salon) and I brought her some words and asked her to weave them into the design of a "classic" tattoo. That was my entire instruction to her. I kept repeating the word "classic". She suggested a rose and I said, yes that sounds good. She suggested colours and I said, good I like those colours. She did a drawing and I didn't ask her to change any part of it. When she showed me the design I had a lot of misgivings, including how big and bright it was. But I didn't say this and I let her do what she'd planned. After an initial period of thinking "oh shit what I have I done?", I'm deeply pleased with the result, not just with how it looks but most importantly with how I feel about it - I very much like the quality it has of being a blend of modes and perspectives. It's pure decoration combined with pure reference, and there is no other relationship between these elements than that which is now permanently and uniquely embedded in the skin of my left arm.

I decided early on that I'd use a line from a song by The Smiths. This decision doesn't reflect everyday lifelong devotion to The Smiths, rather, it's an acknowledgement that having not yet outgrown or gotten tired of The Smiths, and having periodically returned to them in a way that I've done with very little other music, the affinity is durable and as likely as anything else I could think of to remain that way in the long term.

My initial choice - Is it wrong to want to live on your own? - is the first line of "Sheila Take a Bow". After thinking about it for a while I decided against it: too intense, too involved. Next I thought of the opening lines of "This Charming Man" - Punctured bicycle, on a hillside desolate - and decided against this also: too obscure and inevitably requiring of me a commitment to a lifetime of explanation.

So I set about working systematically through the Smiths corpus and collecting possible candidate lines. In doing this I found out something interesting about Morrissey's lyrics: they're hard to detach from the songs. At face value they lend themselves to the aphoristic or epigrammatic quotation, yielding so many ringing phrases, but taken out of context in this way those phrases are often shorn of the critical distance, the wit, the supple and cool irony in which they're embedded, coming to look an awful lot like the gauche wallowing in misery they're so often and so stupidly accused of being. In this if in little else, Smiths songs resemble Jane Austen's novels, which also appear to be stocked full of glittering one-liners and quotable quotes, but when you pluck a phrase out of context and slap it onto, say, a tea-towel, it comes to mean something almost diametrically opposite to what it meant in its original setting. This isn't a criticism or a praise of Morrissey's lyrical mode, it's just a feature of it. (Contrast with Jonathan Franzen's remark in his introduction to Paula Fox's novel Desperate Characters that you could extract almost any sentence from Fox's book and in it find in miniature the structure of the entire novel.)

So I compiled a list of lines and got it down to three. The first runner-up, a line from "Handsome Devil", I let go mostly because it's too long: There's more to life than books you know, but not much more. Although there is an element of misanthropic credo in this line that I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to commit myself to: it'd be a bit like Oscar Wilde, finding it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue china.  Likewise, the next runner-up, Still ill, was too short. So there's an element of happenstance in the final choice which I find both comforting and disconcerting.

Bigmouth strikes again is not specially a favourite Smiths song of mine (the songs that are is perhaps a good subject for blogging another time) but both the title and the song capture a feeling I've had a lot in my life: the sense that I've said something right, but unforgivable and reprehensible. Said much more than I needed to, with too much regard for the attractions of saying what I wanted to, and not enough regard for the impact of unrestrained verbalising upon the normal people, sweet and defenceless as they usually are (Bob excepted, of course). I knew when I chose those words that the tattoo could become a self-fulfilling prophesy, might make me think of this tendency to blurt as a hallmark of my personality rather than as just an unfortunate error I sometimes commit. It hasn't unfolded that way though. Rather, it's made me more sceptical of any attempts I make to apply a label to myself. So far that's what it's done: I look forward to finding out what else it'll say to me in the minimum of eight hundred years of life which I anticipate to still lie before me.


Anonymous said...

Not really relevant to your new ink (which looks fantastic) but I'm glad that you're blogging again.

lucy tartan said...

Thank you Mike, and for my part, I had a great time yesterday reading through the last year of your fantastic blog. Onya x