Monthly Archives: September 2008

dabbling in identity

Initial desires to riff on m john harrison’s post about nostalgia have been temporarily overwritten by an even greater desire to comment on this picture of Perry Anderson. Gazing at this just now, as the sun breaks through cloud over Johannesburg (more on that soon), I have been overcome by a longing to go back to the night when I dressed myself up as one of Britain’s most famous serial killers, the late Harold Shipman. It was remarkably easy. I trotted down to the Oxfam charity superstore on Kingsland Road and rummaged about in boxes alongside many others, some of whom looked similar to Shipman in stranger ways. I pulled out what I would call a hacking jacket, but I mean by that the type of greeny-browny-creamy chequered wool jacket that male academics in their 50s often wear in provincial English towns. I bought a brown tie, a pair of pale brown corduroys, some brown shoes and, most important I think, a pair of perfectly Shipmanesque spectacles. It was close to Christmas Day and Kingsland Road being what it is was stuffed with stick-on Father Christmas faces. So I bought one of these and dismantled the red and white hat, leaving intact the perfect beard and moustache with elastics to curl around my ears. I powdered my hair, and J printed up an identity card: Dr H Shipman, General Practioner, with a passport photo scooped from a BBC online story. My father, still a practising doctor in those days, lent me a stethoscope. The most important touch was J, who we dressed up as an old woman, complete with thick caramel-coloured stockings around his ankles, fluffy slippers, a kitchen-coat, curlers and hat. Such attention to detail, we even wrote out a will with J’s pensions and savings and small Hackney flat all signed over to me, the Doctor.

We took a taxi to the party, someone’s 40th fancy dress, a few kilometres away in Finsbury Park. The theme was ‘famous doctors’, hence our inspired choice. We paid the cabbie and lurched nervously to the door. It was answered by a tall white man dressed up as the stereotyped African witch-doctor (the sort depicted in Tarzan 40 years ago), though I’ve always wondered which particularly famous one he was wishing to be. He kissed us politely but didn’t seem to recognise who was behind the beard and the curlers. He led us to a room filled with adults largely dressed in normal attire, apart from three real doctors who had come in their green surgery gear and rubber white clogs. People gazed at J and I unable to work out what or who we were until we gleefully announced: ‘Dr Shipman, of course, and one of his victims! You wanted famous doctors after all!’ We were met with largely uncomfortable stares and a sense of disbelief. Perhaps someone smiled, but I remember only a lively Italian man laughing enthusiastically, and coming to congratulate and kiss the doctor and his patient.

Come midnight, I was tiring of people struggling to converse with me, backing away and always finding an excuse to move on; I was irritated by their shock and oh-so-moral glares, which seemed to ignore their own deep failure – to dress up when you come to a fancy dress party. My anger with their inability to step beyond the falsity and hypocrisy of middle class life intensified with remarkable aggression, such that I started to become aware of how easy it was to imagine myself as a real life serial killer. The inner Dr Shipman had migrated from the mini photo, through the wool jacket and spectacles, deep into my skin.

I tapped J on the shoulder and begged him to swap outfits, and we disappeared upstairs into a tiny toilet and pulled off our clothes. Our transformation was quite quick – J becoming the doctor; I, the victim – although I could still feel the dirt of the doctor all over me. We rolled back downstairs, into the main room. Madonna was still screaming her heart out and a line of drunk men and women, arms linked, was making its diagonal way back and forth across the floor, an old routine played out each year for many years. We attempted to join in, to dance away our unpopular selves. I struggled to enjoy myself, and felt sickened by the sight of Dr Shipman spinning and swaying infront of me. And even more sickened to discover that most of the un-dressed-up adults were only just beginning to realise that I was not only not a doctor, but also not a man.

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