After almost 20 years living alongside one another, Phil and I have an intricate network of small day-to-day understandings.

We know each other’s opinions on a great plethora of issues. And we know that on certain subjects there are accepted viewpoints. Set pieces, if you will.

On June 22nd, the moment the longest day is over, he says: “That’s it, now, Darling. The nights are drawing in.”

It drives me nuts every year.

Watching a a wartime detective story, with the same comfortable habit as putting on a pair of old battered slippers, Phil will pick up any inaccurate detail in the backdrop.

He always does. It’s a routine.

In early Summer (oh, how impossibly distant that time seems) the hover flies appear. They are yellow with black stripes (or is it black with yellow stripes?).

Phil always says the same thing as children eye them nervously, certain they are those horrid wasps.

“Ah, that’s the 1968 Identification of Stinging Insects Act”, he’ll declare.

“……Which has a number of provisions, but the main one is that insects larger than one-quarter of an inch in length must be clearly labelled in yellow and black stripe or a variant thereof to denote their capacity to inflict a sting.”

“Prior to ’68, of course, bees or wasps could be any colour they wanted.”

“Sadly,” he concludes with a flourish, “it does not specify that ONLY stinging insects can use this identification. So hoverflies have exploited the loophole.”

He’s right. Hoverflies have donned the yellow-and-black livery as a defence. You don’t go near them because what if they had the same armoury as those lurching poison-wielders, the terrors of the outdoor picnic, the wasps?

One can look jolly fierce, just by donning the right garb.

Once, when I managed a theatre/arts complex for a part-time mum living, there was a night when the usual Security firm were not available.

There had been a buzz in the area for the previous days and it was eminently possible that police assistance might be necessary at some point during the evening’s proceedings.

Phil arranged for his mother to sit the children and donned a suit of black clothes. And – crucially – he got his mobile phone earpiece and put it in his ear, threading it down through his jacket, for all the world as if he were security for Madonna herself.

And he spent the evening shadowing me.

He didn’t have to do anything. He just looked suitably fierce, sported the earpiece, and the waters parted.

Sometimes being not oneself can be quite liberating.

Oscar Wilde turned a few conceptions on their heads in his time. “Man is least himself”, he said once, “when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

A wealthy city on the water, tight-knit and incestuous, chose going incognito as a routine part of their leisure. Merchants who traded the world over from the port of Venice must occasionally have found the weight of their responsibilities oppressive.

How liberating must it have been, then, to walk out in a mask? To be nobody or somebody or anybody, to shed one’s identity utterly and talk to others wearing the same cloak of partial invisibility?

The Venetians began wearing masks as part of their Carnevale. There are records of mask wearing from the thirteenth century onwards, linked with Lent and Easter: in 1268 the Venetian Council passed by-laws to stop masked men pelting the Venetian ladies with perfumed eggs.

For Venice, anonymity was too delicious to be restricted to a small festival. Bu the eighteenth century, mask-wearing at public events lasted for six months of the year.

And then, two years before the nineteenth century’s dawn, the Austrians arrived.

And the Carnevale departed.

The masks were too powerful and unsettling a symbol to drift into obscurity. They have permeated our culture.

It is interesting that Edgar Allen Poe should choose a masque as the symbol of people who chose to ignore reality, and to shelve compassion in favour of creating a gossamer-thin sanctuary to hide from pestilence.

One of Poe’s greatest works, The Masque Of The Red Death, shows aristocrats partying while the country suffers. He chooses to send Death into the centre: and Death, too, appears in costume, masked horrifically.

But Death is not incognito. Rather, the tall figure who walks into the Masque recalls grim reality, and effects a revenge on the callous aristocrats who would ignore the plight of tens of thousands.

Cloaking our outer appearance: it can defend us against many things, from the swat of a child’s hand at a picnic, to having to accept the consequences of our own actions.

But as Poe most expertly illustrated: there will always come a day when the disguise must slip.

And remorselessly, reality will stalk in.

Written for Side View’s weekend theme ‘Things Aren’t Always What They Seem To Be’ which you can find here


48 thoughts on “Incognito

  1. Your husband sounds like a character, Kate. I laughed out loud at the proclamation of the beginning of winter, because my parents have a very similar routine going. Every time my father says ‘the depths of winter’ it drives my mother crazy. So he says it even more!

  2. Dear Kate, All through your piece I thought, of course, of Halloween and the wearing of masks. Children “assume”/”take on” the traits of the mask–the superpowers of Superman, the climbing skill of Spiderman, the charm of the fairy princess, the magic of the witch or wizard.

    Adults, too, wear a sort of mask when they wear a uniform. I wore the “uniform” of a nun–the habit–for eight and one half years and I can remember during that time that each morning I felt I “put on Christ.” I donned his simplicity and compassion.

    Fire fighters, police, soldiers wear uniforms that help define them and assure us that these men and women will help us.

    I’m wondering if there is an invisible mask we each can don that will assure others of our compassion and understanding. What do you think?

    1. Lovely comment and yes, I can agree with this in a way, as a nurse. It is not always the clothing that gives the ‘mask’ – it can be situations where one clicks into role, subconsciously. .

      1. Thanks Dee and Pseu. Really interesting question. People do jump to conclusions when they see certain clothing because, like all marketing, we are conditioned from a young age.

        As a teacher I would say that though our clothing signposts compassion and understanding, it is our non verbal language which either reassures or does otherwise. I think a lot of people are good at using this to portray a persona. But me, I’m hopeless. What I’m really thinking comes out every time, whether I try to mask my reactions or not. I need a mask for privacy’s sake!

  3. The things folk closest to us say ring through our heads when we think of them. You’ve hit a nerve there Kate!

    I love that bit about the insects and being clearly labelled!

  4. So, he thinks a lot about hoverfly and wasp guises, does your husband? There are loads of repetitive phrases that occur in our house, from both me and mine – but the things that occur most often are my odd impressions (cats maiowing, birds cheeping, etc)… and I’d bet he wishes I’d shut up!

  5. MTM said one of his phrases this morning, and I laughed when recalling this piece. (I read it early this morning but can rarely compose a coherent comment then.)

    I wonder how much of this is my fault in my own life. People cannot perpetually wear masks. Yet, I have kept ‘friends’ around for years who were other than how I chose to see them. I guess the mask was over my own ability to decipher others. I’ve corrected that now. Finally. But, it is hard to look back over some of that wreckage, even today.

    1. Oh Andra, like you I have believed masks for a long time: it is amazing how people can not let them slip for half-lifetimes. What a jolt when someone shows their true colours. Very painful.

  6. Who WAS that masked man?

    I always laugh at the mini masks for Batman, Robin, Zorro, etc. . . .
    Seriously? You can’t tell who it is? πŸ˜†

    Great post . . . and I’m wearing a cyber mask . . . so you know I’m telling the truth.

    1. I expect that Oscar Wilde was correct only some of the time.

      Being incognito gives us the courage to let our hair down, be ourselves, and tell the truth . . . but it also gives us the courage to let our imagination run wild (from hither to yon) while creating all manner of yarns and fabrication.

  7. I have reached the age when I have to be careful about repeating my knee-jerk-reaction sayings, for fear habit will be construed as senility! Still, the temptation is always enormous to react to certain situations by launching into one’s familiar saying or joke. A comment about spring having arrived fills me with the urge to do that ‘spring has sprung the grass has riz’ routine. I must replace the item on my repertoire. It is a challenge to find good substitutes, all up-to-date like.

  8. Wonderful posts and response to challenge…dare say, is there more reveal during Hallow’s Eve when we put on a different mask? One wonders if the personality that surfaces within “character” is closer to the truth?
    I adore a unique hat for I think it is a bit like the half-mask; incognito just enough to feel a touch mysterious.

  9. So funny the pretend security guard – haha – my husband has been known to pretend he is the local park ranger, going up to people camping illegally in their vans and telling them they should be camping elsewhere πŸ˜‰ I love masks!

  10. I wonder, Kate, if all the masking made Venice a better city in any way.

    This also reminds me of the movie that you mentioned on one of your posts…was it “Inventing Lying”? After watching it, I considered how manners and charm can be another version of masking the truth. Sophistry is a mask of logic. On and on.

    Hopefully this comment is not unmasking my ignorance, shallowness or lack of culture! πŸ˜€

    1. Not at all, quite the reverse. Charm is a veneer, I totally agree. Those who are being charming realise, I am sure, that they are not being genuine. CHarm can be used to keep people at arms length just as a mask does. And Venice? A city with a thousand histories. And a dark side.

  11. We Wear the Mask

    WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,β€”
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask!

    ~ Paul Lawrence Dunbar

  12. This was so rich a post, I hardly know where to begin commenting! I loved reading about Phil’s gig as a “Secret Service Man”. Perceptive of him to see the power of a small ruse! Venice has always fascinated me with its intrigue and mask-wearing.

  13. Good on Phil for the earpiece during his Security gig, that was genius.

    My dad does that thing the day after the longest day too. And it drives me nuts too.

  14. I think I’ll probably read again, and think about this for a while, Kate. I love the way this reads on so many levels. The historical, the social, and then there are all the little psychological inferences niggling in between that make this an absolutely delicious, deeply introspective read! Debra

  15. I saw Phil as a Man In Black, Kate, …but without that Gizmo for wiping memories, . I so wish I had one though…I could get up to all sorts, and wouldn’t need a mask at all… I think the mask of the Internet lets us be/show ourselves to others much more than every day life… Lovely post, and even more lovely is the ‘feeling’ shining through between the two of you…. xPenx

  16. We al wear a mask, in all areas of life…..the real testand proof is whether we ever find that specail someone whom we feel safe enough just to be ourselves with!

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