Why I had a tattoo at 70: LADY STEEL on why she horrified her husband David and three children – and doesn't regret it one jot!
07:24 GMT, 24 July 2012
Uncovered: Judy Steel reveals her Jaguar tattoo, which she got for her 70th birthday
When my son, Graeme, was in his late teens, and at the high point of rebelliousness, he had a tattoo done on the inside of his forearm. It was a crude etching of a death’s head in a homburg hat, with a cigarette sticking out of its mouth. It was horrible, and horribly visible.
We reacted as most middle-class parents would: shock, horror, recriminations, even shame. I associated tattoos with Nyhavn, the sailors’ quarter of Copenhagen, which I had visited on a holiday to Denmark in the Sixties when it was overrun with tattoo parlours, drinking dens, and brothels. It was a deliciously decadent tourist ‘must’.
We nagged our son about his tattoo over the years, and told him he would regret it. Sure enough, he did, and around the time of his 40th birthday, he had it removed.
So, how then did I, a septuagenarian mother of three, grandmother of eight, wife of a respected politician, find myself with a pink jaguar, with its tongue hanging out, tattooed on to my left shoulder
I blame it all on Jess Brettle, the talented designer whom I met while working as a producer and director for the Rowan Tree Theatre Company.
A few years ago, in 2009, Jess and I were discussing designs for a production of The Ragged Lion, a play about Sir Walter Scott. One day, as she leant over the cutting table, her top rode up a few inches and I caught a glimpse of an exquisitely tattooed butterfly in the middle of her back.
It was, quite unexpectedly, stunningly beautiful and changed my attitude towards tattoos completely. At that moment I made a resolution: I was going to have one done for my forthcoming 70th birthday.
Ten years before I had celebrated my 60th in a more energetic fashion. I was born in 1940 and so turned 60 in the Millennium year.
That was the first year that women riders were invited to follow the Hawick Cornet — a procession of horsemen, and now women, who ride once a year across the Dumfriesshire hills in one of the great traditional festivals of the Borders. So in partnership with my lovely horse Clever Clogs, I joined the rideout as my 60th birthday treat — 34 years after my husband David, as a young parliamentary candidate, had completed it.
Come my 70th year, I had slowed down — and so had Clever Clogs. A slightly less vigorous birthday celebration was called for. I’d spotted Jess’s tattoo six months before my birthday. Six months to deliberate and waver and perhaps even to lose my nerve.
Deciding where to have it was easy. I’d be the first to admit I am badly overweight and don’t like most patches of my skin to be seen by others. My midriff was out of the question. But my shoulders are still smooth and it would be easy enough both to hide — and reveal — the tattoo. I decided on my left shoulder.
Choosing what to have done was more difficult. It had to be something personal, not a design from the tattoo parlour’s books.
Back in the day: Lady Steel on the campaign trail with her husband David in the early Seventies
During the decade that fell between my 60th and 70th birthdays, David had stepped down as Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament and, in 2004, had been made a Knight of the Thistle — the Scottish equivalent of the Order of the Garter.
When he first accepted a knighthood, in the late Nineties, I had been very much against the idea, but this time I was happy for David to be honoured: he deserved it.
However, while I was happy for him to be Sir David, and later Lord Steel of Aikwood, I didn’t much want to be Lady Steel. I thought —– and still think — that the encumbrance of a title shouldn’t be extended to female spouses, just as a Damehood doesn’t affect a husband.
But the Knighthood of the Thistle was something very special, limited to only 16 people and in the personal gift of the monarch. I was both flabbergasted and thrilled when the letter came for him.
Original: Lord Steel's Knight of the Thistle coat of arms, from which Lady Steel got the inspiration for the tattoo on her shoulder
We learned a Knight of the Thistle has to have a banner, a motto, and a helm — a personal emblem which tops an individual’s crest, literally the ‘helmet’ that sits on top of it.
We had great fun thinking about how to make these elements of David’s insignia personal and appropriate. Our motto was borrowed from Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man: ‘The man’s the gowd for a’ that,’ which means something like ‘even a poor man can have a heart of gold’.
We dug up what we remembered of our old school Latin to translate it: Vir Tamen Aurum Est.
But the helm proved difficult. We had to rope in friends and family for suggestions. The solution came courtesy of my friend Janice Parker, the choreographer whose wonderful work Private Dancer will be part of the cultural paralympics. ‘I’m just passing the Jaguar dealers,’ she said. ‘How about a Jaguar’
She knew David’s love for these sleek machines, having seen a procession of second-hand ones pass through the Steel garage over the years. The present model, kept for classic car rallies, is 20 years old.
That solved the design for the helm — and for my tattoo. But I had no intention of mentioning the idea of planting it on my skin to my husband — the devoted president of the Jaguar Drivers’ Club.
Only two people knew my plan: Jess, and my nephew Iain, a designer and photographer. If my husband or children had got wind of it, they might have tried to argue me out of it, to tell me that it was unseemly at my age. I kept my resolve, and I kept my mouth shut.
I made the appointment for the day before my birthday at a tattoo parlour in Selkirk where we live. Friends and neighbours had resented the opening of the parlour a few years before, feeling that it somehow brought down the tone of the area, but I was proud to unhook David’s coat of arms from the wall and to take it down to show the tattooist what I wanted.
He looked quite conventional. He didn’t flaunt his art on his own body. He spoke a lot about hygiene — which was reassuring — and if he seemed fazed by the fact that I was above the usual age for his customers, he was far too cool and professional to show it.
It took about 40 minutes, cost 30, and he did a fine job. As for the pain, it was much less than I expected (my doctor says I have a high pain threshold). I suppose it felt like being pricked with holly leaves, nothing worse than that.
He covered it with a piece of transparent film which I was to keep on for the next 24 hours and he gave me instructions about how to keep the skin supple — Vaseline day and night for a week.
After it was over, it was as if nothing had happened. I walked across the road from the parlour to the Co-op to do the shopping. However, when I bumped into an old friend I couldn’t resist showing it off. He was rather taken with it.
My husband, on the other hand, wasn’t. ‘I assume that’s a transfer,’ he said, and a look of horror spread over his face when I said: ‘No, it isn’t.’ Even now he finds it hard to muster enthusiasm. When he sees me slipping the top of my sleeve down to display it he makes a face at me.
My elder son, drawing on his own experience, told me between gusts of laughter: ‘It’ll take a lot of expensive laser surgery to remove that.’ His siblings Catriona and Rory, then in their late 30s and early 40s, just sighed at their mother’s latest eccentricity. The most supportive person was my eldest granddaughter India, who told all her school friends about it with pride.
Pride: The grandmother of eight said her three children
were unsure but added that her eldest granddaughter was delighted and
went off to school bragging about it
That was two-and-a half-years ago, and I’ve never regretted it. I wrote about the tattoo in my memoirs, Tales From The Tap End, and it’s never been a secret. Indeed, I’m proud to be The Granny With The Jaguar Tattoo.
I’ve certainly become more accepting of other people’s tattoos. I rather like the dolphin Samantha Cameron has on her ankle. A very smart place to have it, very discreet.
My younger and more artistic friends love it; many of my female contemporaries admire it. Men, on the whole, are less enthusiastic. Maybe they regard me as an unruly woman as I once saw my son’s tattoo as the mark of a rebellious teenager.
I wasn’t making any great feminist statement or fulfilling some long-lasting desire. 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.
Judy Steel’s Tales From The Tap End (Birlinn) is available from Amazon.