The Smile of a Madman

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Am I alone in spotting my own face in a photograph and seeing the smile of a madman?  I can never quite understand why the person I see in photographs is nothing like the man I see in the bathroom mirror.  I go to the mirror to brush my hair, clean my teeth, check for extraneous cilial outcrops, before posing for a photograph and I look ok, rational, a relatively normal-looking, middle-aged man and, thirty seconds later, the photographer has turned me into a wide-eyed lunatic with mad hair and teeth that look as though they might have been rejected by a camel.  It is hard to reconcile myself to the fact that I am the person that nobody wants to stand beside in case it rubs off: the man that bathed in TCP.  A photograph is worth a thousand words?  Great, but do they have to be so very jarring?  I would like, just for once, to look like the man who didn’t go through the windscreen; like I haven’t had a mincing machine incident.  I would like not to look like my features have been positioned by a malevolent sprite: not like a dreadful 1970’s police photofit assembled by a man with spatial recognition issues and an out of control crack habit.  I live with no illusion of pulchritude, no desire to be handsome – just the desire to not always be the post-vivisection monkey that didn’t quite get his head through the closing door. 

I don’t know who it was that said that the camera never lies, but he had clearly never attempted to get a passport photo from one of those train station camera booths.  It is impossible to arrange your face in any fashion that does not emerge as rigor.  I am of an age that remembers the first shared visit to the camera booth with the girl of your dreams as a rite of passage.  Of course, when I say ‘girl of your dreams’, it is important that you remember that, at that age, the position was re-cast almost daily, and at half-a-crown a pop, there was a definite hierarchy to who made it that far.  Half a crown bought a visit to the pictures*, a packet of Poppets and 5 Park Drive filter-tipped, with which to cough the film away.  There had to be balance even to the promise of a quick snog behind the closed photo-booth curtain – in my case, usually because the female involved had decided to stay at home to a) treat her own acne or b) not be repulsed by mine. 

I grew up at a time when everybody smoked.  I did not know a single adult who did not smoke.  Those that did not like the flavour of tobacco disguised it with menthol tips – the more they disliked it, the longer the tip.  Those who wanted to affirm their credentials as a ‘proper’ smoker went for Capstan Full Strength – a shorter, stockier tab, unfiltered and made, to the best of my recollection, from a mixture of tar and old socks.  I personally slipped quickly from Park Drive to Silk Cut (a cigarette specifically formulated for the non-smoker) and thereafter, having acquired my teenage smoking stripes, to the ranks of confirmed non-smoker where I have remained ever since.

Breathing in the warm, beery, smoky fug that used to emanate from open pub doors in the winter, however, is a pleasure that I will forever miss – like Bluebird Toffee that you broke with a little hammer, Sherbert Pips and Christmas gatherings captured on the new Instamatic camera with its twenty-four tiny, imperfectly frozen moments, carefully preserved within a plastic shell, and illuminated on occasion, by the four-flash Perspex cube that affixed to the camera at just the right position to temporarily blind you with every shot.  Nothing now matches the once-upon-a-time thrill of the forty eight hour wait for the photographs to be returned from the printers, festooned with stickers informing you that they had all been over-exposed, possibly as a result of either inserting the film cartridge in backwards or some other manifestation of incipient stupidity.  No phone-photo backup.  No two thousand frame safety net on the memory card.  Just twenty four snaps that you could not even review until they came back black, with just the faintest glimmer of a lighted cigarette to one side.  If you went on holiday with a spare film, you were indeed a rich man.

Today there are barely any limits to how many photographs you can take, nor how many you can erase in order to leave just the one in which you do not look like the hairless ape you are.  How far has photography progressed since my youth?  Well, we have digital capture, Adobe Photoshop and self-focusing lenses, but still no easy allowance for the unprepossessing visage and a smile that looks like it should not be let out in public – and still no way to reset the bathroom mirror.

It’s a very strange fact that whilst, with age, one does begin to feel far less angst about one’s appearance – to be honest, much to the dismay of my wife and daughters it has never been very high on my own agenda – one does become increasingly obsessed about ‘looking your age’: about whether you really do look as old as that guy over there, who you know is at least five years younger than you.  In reality, you know that nobody really cares what you look like any more and there is much joy to be had in ‘no longer being a threat’ to anyone below retirement age**. (It is a joy to discover how friendly young women become when you are unlikely to have ulterior motives beyond trying to slip in an odd out-of-date ‘money off’ voucher at the till.  As a man that has never posed a threat to anything beyond a chocolate bar, it is a privilege I have always enjoyed***.)  In as much as it was ever important – and teenage photo’s ensure me that it was – it no longer makes any sense to chase the unattainable.  What comes out of the mouth, what sits between the ears, is all that matters.  Unfortunately the jumbled mess that occupies my cranium does give some cause for concern on that front, but what the hell, nobody’s listening anyway… 

*What we in the UK used to call the cinema – before it became the movies.

**The three ages of man through the word ‘nightcap’:

  1. 15 – 60 – ‘Any chance of sex?’
  2. 60 – 80 – ‘Any chance of a bedtime whisky?’
  3. 80+ – ‘Any chance you might have something to keep my head warm?

***Be friendly.  It is so rare to encounter unfriendly people if you are friendly yourself – unless you are trying to buy a fridge.

10 thoughts on “The Smile of a Madman

  1. The only photos of me that look good are the ones when I don’t know anyone is taking them. Otherwise I have NO idea who that is in my photo.

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  2. Agree. Having an older brother who could have doubled as Adonis puts a touch of doubt in ones confidence to sweep the ladies off their feet and out of their knickers. Also I can still smell as well as see that literal pall -Pall Malls?- of smoke that made a nip into to a pub at midday a gloomy exercise. ‘A pint of Old Smoky filtered through a Camel, sir?’

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  3. I also remember here when there was no such thing as a “smoking section” in the restaurant until now there is no smoking allowed anywhere. I quit over thirty years ago but I know what you are talking about. Everyone smoked. Especially young boys behind the barn. I have been scanning into the computer as many of the old Instamatic pictures as I can.
    Thank you, also, besides the memories, for saying that we are middle-aged. I like that idea.

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