Emma Cowing: Tramp-stamp takes on acceptable status

A tattoo of a slice of ham and pineapple pizza. Picture: PA
A tattoo of a slice of ham and pineapple pizza. Picture: PA
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WHEN I was 17 years old, I got a tattoo. Looking back, I’m not sure I thought it through.

Determined my parents shouldn’t find out, I had the offending article inked on to my ankle, thus ushering in a ten-year period during which I only ever appeared in their presence wearing knee length socks or ankle length skirts. I looked like an Amish woman who’d just escaped from a particularly busy threshing season on the farm.

Finally, fed up with tripping over my hems and on holiday with my mother in the middle of a hot summer, I came clean, expecting the usual parental admonishments. “Ooh,” she remarked, bending down to examine it, “isn’t that lovely?” So much for teenage rebellion.

Funnily enough, the one thing that didn’t occur to me back then was to delay my visit to the tattoo parlour until I was 70. But perhaps I should have done because Judy Steel, wife of the politician Lord Steel and an author in her own right, has not only gone public this week with her first ever tattoo, etched in honour of her 70th birthday, but appears to be positively revelling in it.

Steel’s tattoo is of a jaguar. A pink jaguar with its tongue sticking out, to be precise, leaping into the air from her shoulder. She calls herself the Granny with the Jaguar Tattoo, and remarked: “It was simply done for fun – a bit of a whim – but there is something quite exhilarating about the thought of a hidden pink jaguar beneath my sensible jersey and anorak.”

Well, quite. The thrill of a tattoo is that it is not always on show, but lurks, hidden, waiting to shock anew every time. And it seems that Steel is part of a growing trend. By which I don’t mean that hordes of grandparents are queuing up outside tattoo parlours from here to Ullapool demanding fire-breathing dragons round their navels or tweety birds on their shoulder blades, but a slightly less tangible trend – that of growing old disgracefully.

Perhaps it is because today’s pensioners are likely to be the last generation that will get to retire before the age of 102, and know they should enjoy it to the fullest if only to make the rest of us jealous, or perhaps it’s because, well, getting older can be rather good fun.

Just look at Bruce Forsyth, still on the telly at the age of 84, who once remarked: “I don’t want to grow old gracefully. I want to put up a bit of a fight.” Then there is the wonderful publisher-turned-memoirist Diana Athill, still writing at the age of 92 on everything from taking valium to the traumas of having just two top teeth, actress Liz Smith, best known as Nana from the Royle Family, who took herself off on a solo cruise at the age of 86, and the outspoken actress June Brown, who at the age of 85 is taking a six-month break from her role as Dot Cotton in EastEnders, but only to write her autobiography.

Just the other day I was out at two friends’ birthdays. One who was turning 37, the other 39. Age was very much the hot topic of conversation, as we contemplated what it meant to be edging into middle age. “I can’t wait to be old,” one friend remarked. “Imagine being able to do what you want and not worry about what anyone thought about you any more?” It was a tantalising thought.

There is a marvellous poem by the writer Jenny Joseph that perfectly sums up the allure of age. “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,” it starts. When one is old, she continues, “You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat, and eat three pounds of sausages at a go.”

It sums up the argument by complaining that when one is younger, “we must have clothes that keep us dry, and pay our rent and not swear in the street”.

And perhaps that is what is at the heart of it. At the age of 34 I quite often cover up my tattoo because I’m concerned about what people might say, and how they might judge me as a result of it. We are the generation that is meant to be responsible, sensible, getting married, raising children, working every hour God sends in order to contribute to our sad and measly little pensions. And while it is all terribly wonderful and fulfilling to live this life, the little rebels inside us, the ones that ran out and got a tattoo at the age of 17, can’t wait until we hit the age where it’s acceptable go and get another one. According to Judy Steel, that age is 70.

Only 36 years to go.