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