It’s a stupid thing to do, but pretty much everybody does it. It’s how we spot the tiger in the long grass, how we look for the shorthand tell-tale signs and tribal marks that used to tell us ‘this stranger is safe’ or warned us not to get too close too soon.
In black and white films at least, things were straightforward. Proper chaps wore hats, or as their womenfolk called them at the time, hets. That was some time ago and all of those pointers and signs changed a while back. Most days I wear a tweed coat (one does not say jacket, actually) and jeans along with Goretex-lined walking boots, a combination my father would have found baffling. He was never socially confident enough to wear tweed, and denim was something engine drivers wore in those days. And Goretex hadn’t been invented.
The thing is, I make as many assumptions about people based on what they wear and how they sound as anyone else. People make assumptions about me based on my voice. Most of them assume I used to have some money because of it, which isn’t even vaguely true. Last weekend I was freezing because I hadn’t had much sleep so when I went down to the Suffolk Arts Club I threw on anything warm I could find. A grey sweater with red hearts on it from TK Max. A long Musto stockman’s coat that’s kept me dry since 1991. Same old jeans and boots. And a scarf. And two people I thought knew me a bit said they could see I was wealthy due to the clothes I was wearing. Wrong. Flattering, but totally wrong.
Just as wrong as I’ve been about the audience for the stand-up poetry I’ve been doing. I did my 12th gig tonight, two months into this, at The Grinning Rat in Ipswich. I got there late because I hadn’t even decided to go until about nine o’clock when I finished work and by the time I got there it was almost empty apart from a small group of loud people drinking at the bar. Hurrah, I thought, exactly the audience I like, drunk and shrieking at each other at random. And if I’d made more sensible assumptions I wouldn’t have been surprised when after I’d done my set a woman from the group came over and touched my arm and said ‘thank-you, that was lovely.’
It’s never the sensitive-looking girls. It’s never the artistic-looking men. Always but always it’s the toughest-looking men and to be frank, women, who make eye-contact during the set or at the bar afterwards, who come over making me ask myself ‘what did I say?’ and tap me on the shoulder or physically stop me leaving the pub. And just as I’m thinking ‘how do I get out of this and what was it I did that’s got me into this?’ they say odd things I’m not expecting.
‘We need more spoken word. Are you coming here again?’
‘You’re like me,’ from a skinhead with a pit bull terrier.
A silent thumbs-up in my face that I thought had been going to be a punch.
I’ve had a tough-looking rockabilly girl massaging my shoulders while I drank my pint, then giving me 20 minutes on why her relationship was so troubled. She didn’t want me to do anything about it, she just thought I was the sort of person she could speak to, after my poetry that I don’t even think is real poetry, just smart mouth and anguish and a couple of rhymes. Almost therapy, at times. You see what I did there? Smart mouth, as I said.
And they touch my arm. This is what I really don’t get. It’s always the same. Apart from one tap on my shoulder to get my attention (I really thought I was going to get punched that time) and one hand on my chest to stop me going through the exit (that wasn’t much fun in expectation either) huge blokes and hard-looking women come and do the same thing: they both touch my left arm (always the left one) above my elbow. Always. I don’t get it.
A lot of the stuff I do is about being upset. With a couple of the poems I sometimes have problems with a couple of lines if I’m thinking too much about why I wrote it in the first place. Maybe it’s therapy. I’ve certainly noticed that when I start to feel ok about things after being dumped (again) I can’t think of much to write about. But it gets through to the wildest, toughest looking people, people who don’t have voices like me, people who I thought from the way they looked would hate what I do, standing in front of a microphone with foppish hair and a voice like mine.
And more fool me, judging people from first impressions and appearance. Just more fool me. These strange, tough-looking people who look as if life hasn’t been its kindest to are my biggest fans. So I’m going to try to stop being an arse and wait to see what people are like before I judge them. The same way they have the grace to reserve judgement on me.