I don’t have a tattoo, and I’m almost certainly never going to get one.
Not because I don’t like the idea of them. Not because I don’t think they look good. It’s because of what happened with my bedroom wall.
When I was fourteen, my parents allowed me to redecorate my bedroom. It wasn’t that much of a job, all told, as posters already covered two of the available four walls, and I was saving a third to pin vinyl record sleeves to (in preparation for the time I’d saved up enough lawn-mowing money to buy a record deck on which to play them.)
But the fourth wall, the wall above the head of my bed, was mine to do with as ever I pleased.
Like a number of boys my age, I had recently read the novel High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. At the time it had seemed to me tremendously adult, and it spoke about all of the things I thought were most important in life. Love. Music. Women. Mixtapes. Refining your tastes with clinical precision. Speaking about them at interminable length. Temporarily bamboozling people into thinking you’re somehow impressive.
I have no idea what I’d make of the book now but, at fourteen, I wanted to live in it.
There’s a quote in there. I don’t know what page; I don’t recall what it said – but it was about the importance of music and it ran to half a page. That. That half a page. That’s what I wanted up on that fourth wall. That’s what I was going to paint on it.
I had it all planned out. I had decided on the typeface, the line height, the spacing. I had printed it out twice – once onto a single acetate sheet, and again at double size across four acetate sheets (because I had had to buy a whole pack and had absolutely no use for them other than this).
I had arranged to borrow an overhead projector from school. Ordinarily, it’s not the sort of thing that pupils can just take home with them but as the teachers knew better than I did that I had practically no capacity to misbehave (and would probably return the thing cleaner than when I took it) I was allowed to loan one for the weekend.
My curtains were drawn, the acetate was lined up just so – I was all ready to go.
Only, there was a problem. Something I hadn’t considered. Every time I stepped up onto my bed to starting tracing the projected words, my shadow got in the way.
I tried kneeling on my bed and stretching up to paint it from beneath (couldn’t reach the top; was pressed too close to the wall to see anything properly). I tried standing on my bookshelf and leaning in from the left (kept toppling; had nothing to grab); I tried standing on my windowsill and leaning in from the right (too far to reach; couldn’t paint left-handed).
Every time I thought I’d found a suitable position, as soon as I raised my hand to paint, my clenched fist would end up obscuring the exact bit I needed to see to trace. I battled on with a word or two, but the resulting letters were so chillingly crooked and spidery, it looked more like the dying message of a hostage than an inspirational quote.
There seemed to be no way around it. My dream of painting a twenty line passage from High Fidelity on my bedroom wall was dashed.
So what did I do?
I painted it in leopard print instead.
The choice to go for the snow leopard palette was more out of necessity than design. I had only bought black and white paint for the quote, but I do remember feeling that there was something much more refined about a greyscale print. I felt it would mark me out as something of a sophisticate among my peers. There was a manly, brooding quality to the leopard that I liked – something slightly primal and sexual too – but the muted colour scheme made it less imposing, less brash, so as not to sour the mood of any cocktail parties I may eventually host.
I had people round too. Friends, family, neighbours, prospective buyers. People saw it.
Suffice it to say, the effect of this wall was so toxic that I had to move house three times before I was sufficiently distant from it to persuade anyone to take my virginity.
Quite what possessed me to do it, I couldn’t tell you for sure. Partly it was because I already had a leopard print bedspread and had yet to understand the concept of tasteful understatement. Partly it was because I was in love with the band Kenickie, who were among leopard print’s most visible advocates in 1998. But largely it was because I should never, ever be trusted to make decisions by myself – especially ones that are hard to cover up.
I picked up a copy of High Fidelity again when Ben Folds and Nick Hornby released an album of collaborations, Lonely Avenue, in late 2010. I was curious to remind myself of that quote, the one I had picked out all those years ago. The one that spoke to me so deeply.
I leafed through the book for twenty minutes, but I never found it. Or, if I did, I didn’t recognise it.
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – From Above
from “Lonely Avenue”