The Transport Museum is great if you love having exactly sixteen seconds to admire each display before being surrounded by a crowd of feral, elbowing families, who envelop you like something out of World War Z. Probably best to avoid the museum unless you happen to be a nostalgic, history-loving giraffe. Especially since a large proportion of the exhibits are displayed on shelves fifty feet in the air (I mean, I know Glasgow has a few issues with car theft, but surely that’s excessive).
The Transport Museum has a penny-pressing machine. We can never pass one without taking home a souvenir. You place a pound coin and a penny into the slot, and turn a wheel to press the penny into a flat oval embossed with a little picture, and description, of the place you’re visiting. Yes, they’re tacky little pier-side trinkets, but time’s fast march will transform them into priceless treasures, especially once my partner and I are in the ground being pressed into flat ovals of dust and gloop by the inescapable might of bio-chemistry. Depending on how good a job we do raising our children to be sensitive, sentimental beings, there’s every chance they might try to flog them on Ebay the second we’re dead.
I sat in an old tram with my young son as my partner busied off to the machine. As she stood fishing in her purse for coins, a jolly German giant approached her and asked if he could trouble her for a penny. He was a stout, rotund fella with a perma-smile and a big beard, whose giganticness was more horizontal than vertical. Imagine a Tolkein dwarf who’s red-cheeked and merry after his first four vodkas of the night.
I didn’t know the gent was German at the time, you understand. He wasn’t kitted out in lederhosen and loudly apologising for the war or anything like that. I inferred his nationality later in the timeline of this story, information I could’ve imparted to you in a more natural and fluid manner, but doing so would’ve robbed me of the use of the deliciously alliterative phrase ‘jolly German giant’.
The jolly German giant took the wheel of the machine straight after my partner had picked up her flattened knickknack. Before placing his money in the slot he spent a full two minutes staring into the mechanism with wide-eyed wonder, spinning the wheel around and around, and acting for all the world like a child who’d been turned into a man by a haunted speak-your-future machine at a Coney Island fairground.
“What the hell is wrong with that guy?” I asked my partner as she joined us on the old tram.
I shook my head. “Fucking lunatic.”
I noticed he had a high-tech camera fastened to a strap around his neck. He lifted it up and snapped a picture of the machine, before peppering the wall-of-high-shelved cars with a barrage of clicks.
We walked outside and boarded the tall ship. On the decks there were four little barrels filled with water, each with a tiny brush sticking out of them. As my son seems to have inherited my partner’s mild OCD and love of cleaning, he was more than happy to lift out a brush and start swabbing the decks pirate-style, a task he would’ve doubtless spent the whole day engaged in had we let him. I could feel my partner’s eyes boring into me and sending me a stern, unspoken message: ‘See? That’s how you pick up a brush, you big swine.’
The wee guy looked adorable in his shorts, sandals and jaunty bunnet, as he attacked the grime of the deck with a single-minded zeal. I was felled by his cuteness. “We’ve got to get a picture of this,” I said. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The jolly German giant appeared at our side, his camera raised like a rifle. Before we knew what was happening he’d snipered off a shot. Click! He gave us a wide, beaming grin. “He looks like a little sailor,” he said, shaking his head at the adorableness of it all before bounding off down the deck. He wasn’t whistling, but he was walking like he should have been.
I stood frozen to the spot, certain that something awful had happened but unable for the moment to articulate it.
My partner nodded.
“I mean, should we be bothered by that?” I asked.
“I don’t know…” she said.
“He should’ve asked our permission,” I said, the sound of my son’s swishing adding a staccato rhythm to my thoughts. “Which we wouldn’t have given.”
My partner winced. Then tilted her head back and forth. Then shrugged. “I guess it’s okay. I mean, I don’t think he meant any harm.”
I felt uneasy. At worst, I’d failed to act to protect my son’s safety and interests. At best, I’d allowed my authority as a parent to be usurped by a stranger. My own social conditioning had rendered me static and mute: wanting to preserve the status quo, not wanting to cause a fuss, always aiming to be cordial and polite. Irritation twitched in my toes, sparking a chain-reaction of nerve-signals that rocketed up my leg and culminated in a controlled explosion of anger in my belly. My chest tightened. A lump formed in my throat. My brain had bees dancing across it. My lip curled into a snarl, and before I could make a rational and considered assessment of the situation and calmly decide my next course of action, I was already striding down the ship in the direction of the departed German.
“I’m going to find that guy,” I called back.
“Oh, Christ, Jamie, not again!”
“Keep the wee guy safe,” I said, suddenly wishing I’d had a pair of shades to hand. It felt somehow very cinematic, despite the fact that I was a red-faced, disgruntled, pot-bellied lanky-pants, and not Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We don’t put pictures of our son on-line. Obviously, there’s a stranger-danger element. Once a photo hits cyberspace, even if it’s only shared with people you know on Facebook, you lose custody of it. Facebook is like a many-tentacled space octopus, its connections and degrees-of-separation almost impossible to chart or quantify. You never really know who’s watching, or why.
And then there’s the old-fashioned argument: that if tens, hundreds or thousands of people have ready access to your memories then those memories cease to feel as special. Better to have complete ownership of, and the exclusive distribution rights to, the unfolding storybook of your children’s lives. Better to have sets of physical photobooks to flick through as a family in the years to come, in the knowledge that only the people closest to you have been privileged enough to see them (‘But wait, Jamie, aren’t you ceaselessly blogging about your son’s life as it unfolds, I mean, isn’t that even more of an intimate thing to share than a set of photographs; don’t you think that makes you a bit of a hypocr…[imaginary opponent struggles against the onset of a chloroform knock-out, as I press the soaked rag to their mouth]’ “Shhhhh, shhhhh. Sleep now, shhhhhhh.”).
Lastly, look at how celebrity impacts on celebrities: the paparazzi, the flash photography, the front-page scoops and four-page spreads. It turns a lot of them into arrogant, conceited assholes. Facebook is doing a good job of donating a big box of celebrity-lite crowns to the masses; it’s like an on-line Hello magazine for the less significant, allowing people to become pseudo-stars in their own social circles, if not society at large. Look how narcissistic we’ve become. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! What challenge? The challenge to post even more pictures of yourself on-line than you did yesterday? Yeah, but SOCIAL ISSUES, SOCIAL AWARENESS, SOCIAL JUSTICE, stop pooing on our parades, you meanie, we’re trying to save the world with these pictures of ourselves… and if we happen to look kind and successful – and smoking hot, incidentally, if we do say so ourselves – while doing it, then all the better!
There’s no way to know exactly what effect being displayed to the world from the moment of birth will have on our kids. In any case, I’m pretty sure The Truman Show was meant as a cautionary tale. We’re out. When he’s old enough to consent to having his picture disseminated to the world at large, then he can make that decision for himself. Although if some movie producer were to offer us £1m for our son to have a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, we might have to re-evaluate our stance on the matter.
Back to the boat.
I scoured every inch of it: my nostrils flared out, my swagger in full swing. Up stairs, down stairs, through dark and noisy lower decks, behind this, in front of that, here, there and everywhere.
Just as I was about to give up and resign myself to failure, I spied the jolly German giant sitting upon a bench on the shore, just about to tuck into a sandwich. I crossed the gang-plank and strode towards him, all of the possible scenarios of our imminent meeting playing out in my mind: me calling the police, me punching him, me throwing his expensive camera into the sea, me throwing the German into the sea.
“I know you’re an amateur photographer, and you didn’t mean any harm, but I’m going to have to ask you to delete the picture you took of my son.”
I turned and looked him in the eyes. His jolly grin was gone. “Of course, of course,” he said, setting down his sandwich and groping for his camera. My anger was gone. I was reasonably certain that the sandwich-gobbling snapper wasn’t a nonce, but at this point it didn’t matter. Still, even with right on my side, it was an immensely awkward conversation. I had to reassure this guy that I didn’t think he was a paedophile while at the same time making it clear that I thought he might just be a paedophile. Schrodinger’s paedophile?
“You understand, we don’t even post pictures of our own son on Facebook.”
“It’s your choice, I’m sorry, I should have asked you first. I did not mean to cause distress. I will of course delete it,” he said, fiddling with the buttons on the camera.
He was cordial, sincere and deferent. All the same…
“I don’t want to sound like an asshole here, but could I watch you do it? Could you show me?”
He showed me. I had sounded like an asshole. Buto nly because I was a Scottish guy using the word ‘asshole’ and not the more colloquially appropriate ‘arsehole’ or even ‘bawbag’.
“Thank you,” I said as I got up and walked off towards the boat again. I patted my pockets. Still no shades.
As I re-boarded the boat, I realised something important: I’d spent so long scouring the decks for the jolly German giant that I had no idea where my partner and young son were.
What a fine job I did of protecting them.
PS: The picture the German took wasn’t very good. It was snapped at a weird diagonal angle. That proves one of two things: 1) he really was a paedophile, or 2) he was just a really shite photographer.
Or both I suppose.
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