I open the jiffy bag. Sellotaped inside clear cellophane, a man stares out in the manner of Lord Kitchener, demanding allegiance . Distinctive and dashing, with a high collar, his assured masculine confidence exudes Victorian ascendency. He represents a deliberate nod to a bygone age of the ‘gentleman’. Somehow he just about gets away with the moustache. It’s way before the Village People undermined that particular visual iconography.
Now I do remember this little package so I’m not imagining – but in today’s world everything about it seems from another time; a time even before my own boyhood. A monotone lithographic portrait set into a two colour print of turquoise and dingy royal blue . It feels a decade earlier; early fifties. I’m led to believe that this pack actually does come from the fifties, but still, I remember the design well into the sixties for sure. Perhaps they just never got round to changing the artwork; I guess brand identity evolved more slowly in those days. Maybe my dad had acquired old stock, who knows. Whatever the reason, this is the pack I recall from my childhood. The pack I first saw in our bathroom cabinet. The cabinet where adult things were stored.
I have hunted down this distant treasure on ebay in order to confront my crime. The crime of a child is typically transparent. There was no cunning in my actions, although later there was calculated deceit in my choice of where to conceal the stash. Mine was indeed more a compunction than a crime and is, to this day, without obvious motive. The victim was my father, though I’m not sure he was ever aware of my transgression. He is now in his nineties and, writing this, I am wondering if I will spill the beans. But I’m not convinced of his capacity to do much with the confession. It would probably seem like an inane act to him. Would he smile wryly or think… hmm that just about sums up my unfathomable son.
The blades seem not quite as perfect today as they did then. Smaller now I’m an adult; really quite small. The miniature Victorian gentleman’s stare is knowingly aloof, but not forgiving. He dares me to open the packet again – which of course I must.
‘Time to confess’, says the small voice. ‘J’acuse, monsieur j’accuse!’ Suddenly I feel Gillette Man is French.
The bathroom cabinet was a lock-up of secrets; a place where pristine, clinical things were kept. None more so than the multipacks of Blue Gillette Blades. I don’t recall the exact moment I decided to steal the first box, but I do quite clearly remember how it felt to open the packet and reveal the treasure inside. It was something to do with the waxy paper and the precision. These were objects that had no purpose in my world; no practical gain was to be had in taking them. It was the thrill of the new. The rush that comes with transgression. I was coveting a wafer of sharp silver in its delicious double wrap packaging. Mesmerised by the theatrical reveal.
Once laid bare, there isn’t much you can do with a razor blade if you want to maintain its perfection. Make a single cut and it’s virginity is lost. So I always packed them back up with care. Exquisite gifts from the mirrored cabinet. Folding the paper wings into their embrace of steel and sliding each blade back into the box.
Now I had moved beyond coveting, they were potential evidence. Evidence of my crime; smeared with my DNA. Even though I knew nothing of DNA at the time, my instincts were good. Like stolen goods they were hot. Very cool, but too hot to have around. Too incriminating. Yet I didn’t want to give them back.
Their eventual hiding place was arrived at via a process of elimination. My bedroom was small in those days with just enough room for a single bed and a pull down cabinet where I attempted my homework. Mother did the general housework and would be sure to find any secret spot, as nothing was deemed private at that young age. Obviously I couldn’t use my parent’s room so that only left the slightly larger one my older sister occupied in our three bedroom semi. If I was to use this as my treasure island I had to find a place neither of them would look.
They may have had an early version of carpet grippers in those days, but I recall ours being held by crudely fashioned flat headed tacks that kept the carpet in place. These were easily lifted, so I decided upon the classic hiding spot. Not exactly under the floorboards but under the carpet at least. Lift an edge, slide the blades in, and push the tack back into place with a furtive thumb.
Time passed. On finding after a while that there was no comment, no ramifications, no thunderous accusation, the mind of this criminal longed for further excitement. Was repeating the act merely satisfying the same craving, or had I a longing to be found out? I can’t answer that but, regardless, my plundering of the bathroom cabinet became ever more frequent and greedy. How many blades did father think he was using? Surely he would notice at some point? If he did he never said and thankfully he never grew a beard. He must have continued to buy blades. I fed my habit and added to the hoard. It was like money in the bank.
At some point I must have grown tired of this. Perhaps the carpet began to undulate with the accumulation of blades I hid under it. No doubt I became interested in other things. As an adult I occasionally have pondered this odd behaviour. Admittedly it was only a petty crime, but I do wonder what Freud might have had to say about it. I also wonder what the new owners of my parent’s house thought when they lifted that old carpet years later.
As an adult I have, on occasion, looked for some reverberations in my later life that might provide a motive. The best I can come up with relates to computer graphics.
In the mid eighties I was a demonstrator for a video based computer graphics system, presenting to industry professionals at media shows and the like. The world was by and large unfamiliar with such technology. Almost without exception, the audience would be wowed by the ‘instant colour graduation’ routine.
‘So I click here’ (clicks on colour palette.. let’s say deep blue)
‘then I click here’ (white perhaps)
‘and then click here’ (oh I don’t know – something similar to the first colour)… and hey presto; a perfect, shimmering tonal graduation instantly appeared on screen. The kind that used to take ages to achieve using an emulsion, film based process (typically employed for graphic overlays of captions and other such tele related stuff).
That little trick now seems profoundly trite and uninteresting; anyone can do it in photoshop with just a quick tutorial, but in those days it was amazing. It amazed me too. I felt like an explorer who had journeyed to distant lands and brought back something exotic and forbidden to bamboozle and astound his tribe. In the trade show context, I was a medicine man rocking up with my mysterious Pandora’s box of dodgy elixirs.
The look of computer graphics attracted me in the early days for precisely this reason. It was new, it was shiny and could achieve the immaculate in a way which denied any trace of the human hand. It was alchemic. And there, I feel, is the parallel. I was fundamentally drawn to the razor blades and their perfect packaging in the same way as I was drawn to this smooth computer generated graduation.
In the quest to make things look ‘realistic’ computers are now ever more required to produce images which appear distressed and imprecise, some might say subtler, but in the early days of CGI that effortless perfection represented the shock of the new. The birth of a flawless way of making things.
If you have grown up with computer technology you might not understand this epiphany, but if you are a tad older, and interested in the appearance of things, you will recall a world where such perfection was hard won. The razor blades to me as a boy were that perfection made real; to all intents and purposes an actual trove of treasure, beyond function; beauty for its own sake.
In retrospect, I see that the blades represent the achievement of an old way of manufacturing. Those processes associated with factories and smoke, ‘heavy industry’ and the skill of the hand. The astounding new technology of all things computer generated has assumed this mantle and headed off apace, but what hasn’t evolved so rapidly is ‘us’ and our emotional being.
Here in the present, although the humble razor blade might seem mundane to some, to me it remains as magical as ever it was because of the associations I bestow it from my past. I’m thinking that the on-screen colour graduation, though less tangible and admittedly now bland at first glance, might, in time, prove to be similarly profound. Something to meditate on – quite literally perhaps.
Listening to the radio this morning I heard a phrase ‘from hands to head to heart’. It was being used to describe societal evolution. First we made things with our hands and then we refined them via our intellect. That’s the ‘head’ bit. It is generally accepted that in the future machines will perform ever more of our manual and repetitive tasks for us. Though robots may indeed take over our practical functions, we hold as unique our sense of what it is to be human; to care; to genuinely empathise. Our ‘heart’, so the theory goes, is the bit that can’t be replicated or replaced by androids.
Holding on to our uniqueness may be a deceit, but for now I’m going with that as an idea. Let the razor blades stay in their box and let me imagine them. In that way they transcend their intended function and become the hero’s of my personal narrative.
Neil Armstrong Jan 2018