Yesterday I took the train from my workplace (Elephant and Castle) to my tattooist (Greenwich, or more specifically Maze Hill) in order to book an appointment, as one of the rituals of acquiring paid employment for me these days is to waste large chunks of my income on permanent additions to the body I’ve been left with by genes and circumstance.
On my return from this brisk, slightly disorienting visit to Living Image Tattoo, I found two things: one, that the train passing from Greenwich station to Deptford headed directly into the setting sun – a ball of red and orange balanced precariously on the skyline of the incoming city – and gave me the powerful sensation that I was living inside a poem, and two, that it being the season of short sleeves on the Underground once more, I was back to catching people trying to read my tattoos without me noticing.
The woman I caught examining the tattoo on my left inside elbow (“every time i let myself lose, i have won“) gave me an embarrassed look (she was wearing a mustard-coloured duffel coat and had the keen expression of someone who knows she is intelligent but hasn’t often been told that she is attractive). I merely rotated my arm so that she could read it, and said, “Is that better?”
She nodded at the tattoo in a worried fashion as if reading something that she would be examined on later, and looked away. I am used to a variety of reactions to my tattoos, although happily since moving to London the majority of them have been salutatory or curious rather than, as in my more provincial hometown, abusive. Once, at the Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus a woman in the queue for the toilets during an interval struck up a long conversation with me because she was curious as to the meaning of the opposite number in text tattoos: the right inner elbow, which reads “anything you do to me, i will learn to enjoy“.
As almost every one of the more visible text tattoos I have can be interpreted in a number of ways, I’m usually at ease with explaining them to strangers, but this woman was so inquisitive and so delighted in hearing that it came from a story I’d written (I didn’t dare tell her it was a lurid piece of Torchwood fan fiction!) that I grew nervous and was eager to get away…
This latest appointment will “deface” (as my mother so disdainfully describes it) my upper left arm, and the inside bones of my right wrist. The left arm is to be an image, although of what I wish to leave a surprise as I rather enjoy surprising my friends with tattoos (I also enjoy buying them tattoos as birthday presents, when I can afford to). The right wrist is a quote from my best-beloved series of books:
As with all my text tattoos there are myriad reasons for this specific sentence fragment. First, context - which will contain spoilers for The Ghost Road - this is part of a slightly longer sentiment:
I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking ha.
The Ghost Road, Pat Barker
The words are written by Billy Prior, the protagonist of the series (or one of them), in reference to all his fellow-soldiers on the WW1 Western Front who are compulsively keeping diaries, scribbling poems, sending lengthy descriptive letters home. His theory is that by turning their sufferings into stories they are granting themselves some notional escape from the near-inevitability of their death and (subtextually) their total lack of control over the situation they are in.
For this reason, first, the quote is a good one for a tattoo: I have been keeping diaries for fifteen years now, and can attest to the power of writing down events in turning them into manageable fictions rather than unmanageable horrors (even if I have quite obviously never experienced anything so mind-destroyingly dire as the young men at the Front). The claiming of safety created by story is a powerful delusion, and in part it is an accurate one, for in fictionalising our traumas we remove them from the forefront of experience and turn them into someone else’s problem.
Secondly, Prior is a character with whom I have a great deal of sympathy. Vicious at times, intelligent, belligerent, underestimated, “neither fish nor fowl” both in terms of sexuality (he is bisexual) and class (educated working class, exceeding his parents but acutely aware that he does not “pass” for the middle classes’ requirements), suffering from PTSD and utterly disdaining his own misery, he is filled with conflict so acute that he develops, for a time, a protective split personality.
Prior’s bitter, bitter cynicism and fatalism expressed in the four words are what draws me most inexorably to this quote: ha bloody fucking ha. It is very English, to make humour out of one’s own pain, and the statement – dry and without mirth – speaks of so many layered-on emotions it’s almost impossible to unpick them all.
He has been wrestling with himself over the morality of what he is doing, and with the knowledge that his desire to return to the Front is for what others might deem squalid, ungallant reasons. He is, whether he chooses to accept it or not, afraid of going forward, and unable to go back. He continues onward because he has been given no choice, but strove, fought, and argued to have that particular choice removed from him. He seeks both annihilation and survival, experiences both vicious self-loathing and a strange freedom in the terror of oncoming combat, and embodies in ha bloody fucking ha an unspoken, unneeded torrent of words. Billy Prior has fought for his right to surrender to the decisions of people he does not trust; he has everything to live for back in England and pushes towards death. He remains, even in the midst of the “bloodiest conflict in human history”, at war with himself.
And he acknowledges this, the absurdity of his mental state and the absurdity of the war, his anger and his resignation, in four words:
ha bloody fucking ha
Not only is this a tribute to my favourite series of books, and my most-studied period of history, but it is to me at least the phrase which best reflects the combination of nihilism and dark humour with which I find it most sensible to live my life.
I’m looking forwards to it.