There’s nothing like a bad pun to get things off to a good start.
‘How was your train in?’ the interviewer asks.
‘Ah, well -’ I begin, ‘hopefully I’ll be training here soon enough!’
I pause in anticipation of the inevitable roar of laughter.
It takes longer than expected. The interviewer cocks his head slightly to one side, like an owl that ultimately decides a particular worm is, in fact, too disgusting to eat.
‘Oh,’ he says.
Perhaps the joke wasn’t clear. I make sure.
‘Train! TRAIN!’ I mime the choo-ing of a train, and then the chewing of the brain that takes place when knowledge is ingested.
‘Yes,’ he says.
A pause. Then -
‘Please - have a seat’, he gestures with a veiny, hairless palm.
‘Many thanks,’ I respond assuredly, moving on from my underappreciated gag by decisively placing my posterior into the outstretched hand.
‘What?’ he asks.
‘Hm?’ I say.
‘No.’ he shakes.
‘Ah. The chair.’
He nods sadly. I apologise generously and move from hand to seat.
Things are going well.
‘This is my colleague - Ermingsworth.’ He introduces a seated and commanding woman next to him.
‘Pleasure!’ she barks treeishly. I nod at her curtly, suspicious of this outsider to the interaction.
‘And I am Smith,’ he gestures to himself as if he is about to sing a breathily intense acoustic reinterpretation of Miley Cyrus’ eternal classic ‘Wrecking Ball’. He refrains - for now.
‘Excellent, excellent,’ I speak out commandingly, dominant and at ease in the room.
‘So, to get things started, I’ll just give you a rough outline on how this interview will proceed -’
‘I’m going to cut you off there, Smith my boy,’ I interrupt assertively, ‘for I’ve heard this organisation is full of dynamic action takers, and there are few more dynamic takers of action than myself. Just this minute for instance - you were touching on the format of the interview and other meaningless necessities and I decided, no! Time to take action! Let’s get things done!’
I slap the back of my left hand into the palm of my right, and clench it into a fist finger by finger then finally thumb. Conviction writ large through medium of limb.
‘Hm’, Smith wonders.
‘Haha!’ cries Ermingsworth.
‘Next question,’ I demand, rolling up my sleeves and placing my legs on the pot plant in front of me. I am expertly demonstrating that I am not to be trifled with or even custarded.
‘Well,’ Smith recommences, ‘this will be a rather short, introductory set of questions just to make sure you’re comfortable -’
‘Comfortable, ha! Do I not seem comfortable to you?’ I remove my tie hurriedly and begin unbuttoning my shirt. If it’s comfort they want, then they shall have it! I produce my old mahogany pipe from my back pocket.
‘Please, Smitherson’, I ask, ‘do you perchance have a light?’
‘No,’ he writhes uncomfortably.
It takes me several minutes to light my tobacco, due to the airless nature of the room no doubt. Eventually, after an abyss of silence in which I swim free and easy, I achieve my goal.
‘See,’ I gesture, ‘I am persistent and tenacious and I like getting things done. Comfortable, too.’ I unloosen my belt, puff out a great hoop of smoke and belch loudly.
‘I like the cut of your jib!’ Ermingsworth screams.
‘How dare you, it’s not for sale!’ I retort.
This woman is quite evidently dangerous. I must mind myself.
‘Right, well, this is all most unusual,’ Smith quibbles.
‘Indeed - I am quite an exceptional candidate.’
Smith nods in ponderous agreement. Ermingsworth lolls her head back and moves from side to side in a great rush of delirium.
‘I think,’ Smith glances at his watch, ‘that we only have time for one more question.’ He coughs nervously.
I knew I was good, but I have clearly blown them away in my 2 minutes in the room. This is unprecedented.
‘Go ahead, Smith, old chum.’
‘What would you say is your greatest weakness?’
I am struck by his sincerity and honesty. This is an astonishingly direct line of questioning for a professional interview - Smith has shown great emotional depth here. It shows me that this organisation does not seek to simply know the excellent job I would undoubtedly do - they also seek to know the very fibre of my soul.
Amidst the chaos and concentration of the interaction, I am suddenly alone in the forest of my own subconscious, kept company only by my dreams, my hopes, my regrets, my frustrations. The trees move softly in the breeze, as all my thoughts agglomerate into one whole and then, just as quickly, diffuse one by one into the sky.
I fight back the tears, and find myself back in the room.
Then I speak poetry and wisdom true- ‘Well, I’m something of a perfectionist.’
Smith looks up from his notepad, bewildered. Ermingsworth stops her to-ing and fro-ing for the briefest of moments as if she has caught the final notes of some beautiful aria.
This brings the interview to a close. We have shared something special here today - it is palpable to all three.
I have learnt from my earlier error and when Smith extends his hand, I do not sit, but rather nuzzle it in a professional display of warmth. He looks down, presumably deeply moved.
‘We’ll be in touch,’ Smith nods sympathetically. Ermingsworth has commenced a slow-motion macarena.
‘Excellent,’ I murmur, and move gracefully into the night.
I often wonder what kind of bald man I’m destined to become.
Some bald men glint wisely - their wrinkled eyes speak laughter, their temperament so calm. They always seem to be engaged in a throaty congratulations to an old friend on the day of their daughter’s birth. A reassuring chuckle wrapped up in a dusty book. I’d like to be such a man one day, but I’ll need to be shown quite how.
Some bald men are gruff, unyielding - their gristle like bristles of brush. I fear these ones and their taste for violence, testosterone slowly fermenting. If I push past one on a tube or a stair, I’ll always receive a ferocious glance. I’ll shudder, apologise, and pray that is not my fate.
Some bald men are smooth like seals, always perpetually moist. They glisten in dark and light, on mushy walks across autumn fields and on summer holidays in Iberian peninsulas. They look like dough kneaded ready for baking - oil painted carefully on. I like them, but don’t envy them, as I pass them on the street.
Some bald men are shrewd like acorns, hardened and close like a nut. Their skulls protrude quite sharply, their heads just a little too small. These ones I am suspicious of - I can never determine their intentions or propositions. A smile can be deceptive. Perhaps another life, that’s me - but this one, I think not.
Of course, there are those who cling to a hair, a wisp like some stubborn tree in a desert wasteland. These men I respect for their hardy commitment to youth, and to doing what they think they must.
The men whose hair migrates down their face to beard then chest then down. There is something untamed and wild in these creatures - one must be a philosopher or barista, or preferably both if you have the time. I admire these ones, fear them too - for I cannot hope to emulate them.
There exist countless other categories of slapheads - too numerous to list here. There are of course those who retain their locks, all coy and eternally young. Slow fade to silvery grey or white, comb kept in back pocket, just in case. A pot of Brylcreem in one hand, Kerouac in the other. I can’t bring myself to envy these men for they are so high above me.
I wonder about these things as I sit in a car or a tree. All the men of the world pass around and below me, with all their various follicles, haired or not, blurring into one. I peek from behind my mirror or branch and see what’s there to be seen. Which baldie is it I’ll become, whose bonce will I possess?
Britain is a concept - it isn’t really there. You can feel its sand slip through your palms, or tread its cobbled streets. You might walks its woods or read its tomes, meet its people, drink its ale. Learn its stories and its myths, play Beatles, Kinks or Stones. Eat tea and scones, touch ancient ground, go on then - meet the Queen. But if you feel you grasp it whole, then you’ve been had, I think.
An island’s boundaries are convincing - nature’s hand is more precise than that of a cartographer. The jagged edges speak to a certain kind of oneness. But I don’t know if millions of multitudes of intertwining experience can form one unified whole.
Nations are notions that help us to bond - make us feel we’re one of the same. We speak the same tongue, share the same past - it means we are kin, you and I. These concepts lead to loud and quiet wonders like bunting and ‘It’s Coming Home’, the Proms and Auld Lang Syne. I am something bigger than myself.
A human need - from tribes to clans to countries. But there is danger here. We assign a rigid set of values to a fluid entity of questionable status, it’s susceptible to break. We start to define ourselves in opposition rather than in solidarity - in British or English exceptionalism, rather than inclusiveness. A closed shop, not street party.
A single Britain is the fiction. There are many - some are spiteful, some extinct, others splendid softly glint. Little recognition today of those multiple truths - the pity, the joy, the horror, the pride. Fascists or traitors, leave or remain - I go to my camp, you go to yours, I’ll see you on the battleground.
What claim can we make for success of the past, what blame can we bear for its crimes? Hypocrisy to only pick one. The past is a dangerous drug. It dilates the pupils and softens the mind and becomes something quite unlike truth. Our memory is selective - we remember what we want.
I think better to focus on the future. Consider broadly what we share, what we have and what we need. Accept those subtler contrasts as symptoms of good health. Recognise true diversity as a means of evolution - to take lessons from others and offer your own in return.
Wave your flag in celebration, not anger or contempt. Be proud of all the Britains - more for what they could be, than what they were or are. Because we are the ones who can go and shape them - we don’t need to sit back and be told.
Walking behind someone slow is always extremely vexatious. I speak not of the elderly or anyone else who has a perfectly acceptable excuse for limited motion - they do not need forgiveness. I speak instead of the shufflers and texters, the moochers and yawners, the scuffers and all of their like.
On occasions when I am trapped behind those such, I follow anxiously behind. Keen not to step on a heel or a trouser, equally eager to overtake and move on.
Judging the moment is the difficulty. There will always be a gap, a brief crack of a window of opportunity. When no person or thing is coming your way, you must take your chance, and speedily accelerate into the available space.
Miss the moment and you are doomed, fated to walk forever at a pace alien to you, one that jars uncomfortably with the natural movement of the limbs and grates discordantly against the true rhythm of the heart.
‘What’s this?’ your left leg asks, baffled.
‘Indeed,’ continues the right, ‘we have places to do and things to be, come on, have at you, make quick at the next turn’.
‘Well - I’m enjoying myself,’ notes loyal chin.
But on narrow pavement or crowded lane, there exists a whole gaggle of individuals looking for that opening. Competition toxic brews.
‘Ho!’ I cry, in offer of contention.
‘Avast!’ shouts another.
‘Again I say, out of the way Susan!’ proffers a third.
We jostle together, cells of the same matter. Water slowly boiling, potential energy turned kinetic - we all crave steam release us.
But it does not. For the shuffler stops to tie a shoelace or buy pansies, and the path ahead remains too hazardous to broach. The gaggle becomes a silent mass of vibration, the mob behind me multiplies, its levels simmering.
The space between us reduces more and more until we are one and the same, but we cannot overtake - custom forbids it until space allows.
The moocher would pause as he raises his head, brushes self down, corrects his cuffs and pulls down his collar. Contented, he decides now is the time to move, to place one leisurely leg in front of the other once more. An amble, a perambulation, a gentle morning stroll. He may as very well be wearing a cravat or a kerchief, such is his cultivated air of a gentleman of ease.
How very dare he.
It’s vicious now, the mass behind. A grandmother brandishes an umbrella angrily, a small child howls in despair. Twin sisters quarrel. Someone’s pet newt has escaped. The man behind me has given up hope, and turns away, his dreams quashed and his notions buried.
‘I’ll meet my long-lost Uncle Pablo on another occasion,’ he mumbles softly, as he slips into regression.
I am not so easily dissuaded. I plow on, inspired by the possibility of showing this cretin what for. He has had his dawdling way for long enough.
Commandingly, daringly, inspiringly, I speak out -
‘Excuse me, mate, um - sorry, mind if I squeeze past.’
I check my watch quickly to demonstrate that I am merely in a rush, careful not to hurt the man’s feelings.
He looks at me quizzical, and moochily shuffles aside.
The hordes behind me barely believed it possible, but seeing an overtake in evidence, they now pour forth. The arrival of spring, a first drop lonely drop of thawing ice joined quickly by its multiplying siblings.
‘Out of the way, you devil!’ cries the grandmother, prodding him square in the nose with the umbrella. The small child howls directly at moocher as he passes. The father, appearing from nowhere, gives him a sternness. The twins bare their teeth. The newt hisses.
The moocher is swallowed whole now by the onrushing tide, a tsunami of humanity consuming and spitting him out whole.
‘Yes, yes!’ I cry, ‘onwards, friends - to freedom, then contentment!’
The crowd roars, and chants my name - I’m not sure how they learnt it.
I am raised aloft on shoulders now, in hope and celebration.
It is in these moments that I see myself true - as leader, no - inspiration. Most won’t have dared to make that first step - I deemed it possible and made it so. Some greater fate awaits me yet - let hordes and newts bear witness.
Once, I interviewed a tattoo Artist as he was inscribing a man named McGregor. It was in my university years - I did not do a proper subject.
McGregor was immensely tattooed and heavily relaxed. He waved at me cheerily as the Artist went to work on his shin, drilling permanent dye beneath his anatomically-correct epidermis.
‘Um, so…,’ I began confidently, ‘how did you get into tattooing?’ The Artist embarked on a detailed personal and family history.
McGregor listened attentively, looking from me to the Artist. He nodded encouragingly as I hesitated or stuttered. His arms were great maps of experience, marked with various branches of his life and mighty oaks of all his people. Ink crawled from his chest to the base of his neck, both legs, but for the right shin currently in action, covered in small embellishments.
The fact that this experience was mundane was exceptional to me. To observe someone as they are imprinted with marks they will carry for life felt intimate. I am sure a bond was forged between McGregor and me. I like to think that when he looks at that particular tattoo of a rose on his shin, he remembers the ginger student who came to visit, and smiles wistfully.
“Why are you smiling?” his partner would ask.
“Oh, no reason…” he would respond, as his eyes glaze over with the weight of memory, and he is forced to collect himself momentarily as the inevitability of aging is once again made clear. Ink may remain under the skin, but the body will die and the cells decompose. No true permanence for us, humans.
I let the conversation flow, not directing it in any particular direction, but simply providing a perimeter. If someone hopped over a wall or crossed a boundary, I would not hunt them down aggressively, but gently, kindly, scoop them up and drop them back in the zone.
I didn’t speak much, is what I’m trying to say.
We talked about Beckham, childhoods all three, pain and love, death and hope. Ink and art, a sense of loss.
Tattooing is a subtle art - to meaningfully carve a fully conscious canvas requires nuance and a firm grasp. There was something in the Artist’s work, a dislocated but intense focus. The brain and hand fully intent, the rest of his being able to maintain the flow of interaction.
We are physical animals with needs that stem. Tattooing is a meeting point for our biology and culture - a physical attempt to show humanity in our nature.
Ink in my gun, ink in my skin.
McGregor knew this without saying, his tacit nods and meaningful grunts said as much. Occasionally, the pain would write itself across his face and he would shuffle or adjust. Largely though, he was at peace.
Slowly, I got what I came for - a series of insights and quotes that could be neatly packaged up into an undergraduate dissertation and wilfully misinterpreted.
As I left the shop, I mumbled my thanks and gave both him and the Artist an amicable nod. The whole exchange lasted less than 30 minutes. I never returned.
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