The second remarkable thing you noticed about him – a middle-aged Indian gentleman, stout but trim, and wearing a silk tunic in traditional paisley pattern – was the preternatural sense of calm he exuded. One sensed a feeling of deep peace within him, a resigned acceptance of life and its vagaries. One felt he had something to impart, something wise, something profound; perhaps he was a real Indian guru?
His resigned acceptance of life and its vagaries was made particularly admirable in light of the first remarkable thing you noticed about him, this dapper Indian merchant: his ear hair.
Ear hair, though, is descriptively inadequate. A pair of luxuriant, glossy, dark brown tufts grew, lavishly, from each ear. They sprang from his tragus, the flap of cartilage bordering the cheek, and from across pretty much the whole of his concha, the shell-like part. He had gathered and curled these auricular sproutings into downward-pointing horns, each about a couple of inches long; despite the teasing, there was a sort of ovine modesty about them.
These – shall we call them ear-locks? ear-beards? they’re so unusual we don’t have a word – were, at a minimum, distracting. Addressing him I found myself desperately trying to meet his eyes whilst involuntarily flicking glances to either side; I must have looked successively shifty and boss-eyed.
He, on the other hand, feet widely planted, mouth set in a mild smile, eyes twinkling – just sort of emanated. The overall effect was far more charismatic than grotesque.
After our encounter my colleagues confirmed the same powerful impression. And the same questions about the possible links between an unusual excess of ear hair and gurudom. The East retains its mystery.
We met him at the Messe exhibition centre in Frankfurt, the home of Europe’s largest domestic fabric show. It’s an absurdly huge affair – you can usefully take a taxi from one side to another.
As one might expect, Asian suppliers were dominant. However, the Indians led in the marketing of indigenous, non-Western designs and styles; interesting how India appears to have more cultural resource in this area than, say, the Chinese.
There were many rather wonderful embroidered, dyed and beaded fabrics, quite often inspired by what I think might be described as tribal motifs. The bearded-ear man’s wares were silk cushions, hand-dyed in an ikat style. They had appeal and samples will be ordered.
But I’m now wondering about his ear locks and the sense of powerful but quiet confidence he emitted as we stood before him, confused, even awe-struck. He stood out very clearly from every other exhibitor we came across during two days of trawling a dozen or more football pitches-worth of stands. His cushions were very nice, certainly; but that may not be what really clinched it. And he knew it, from the moment we stood in front of him, bedazzled.
Later that week, for my wife’s birthday, we went for lunch at a fashionable restaurant, the Pollen Street Social. It’s intended to be ‘fine dining’ but with a more relaxed vibe. Whilst we were there this involved playing, amongst other tracks from my boyhood, Are Friends Electric by Tubeway Army.
When one imagines a Michelin inspector one doesn’t picture a fan of electronica, but that hasn’t stopped them giving it a star: a reminder that pretty much everything that used to aspire to cultishness, to being a bit edgy, has now become entirely respectable at nearly all levels of society. Not just over here, either. Only the other day we learnt of the Czech presidential candidate whose face is covered in tattoos (how would it feel to have the world’s first head of state with a facial tattoo?)
The process continues. If you’re not part of the mainstream already, aggressive attempts may be made to get you there. Journalist Suzanne Moore was driven from Twitter for describing a certain sort of Brazilian transsexual as not normal – but in a good way, at least aesthetically (lithely boyish). All very confusing. Helpfully, her good friend Julie Burchill showed us all what an insult really looks like a few days later.
The trend for mainstream oddballing, mass individualism, generic eccentricity, or whatever you might call it, is making the middle of the road so broad that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be truly marginal. Your hipster is a case in point, trying to be creatively different and quite obviously failing. Being always and everywhere connected to everything via various Apple devices can’t help in establishing a distinctive style.
In any event, the effort reeks of fakery, surely the reason the term hipster is only ever used pejoratively, even by hipsters. If ‘to be a hipster’ was a verb it would decline: I am creative, you are fashionable, he is a hipster.
The whole project of being alternative seems doomed: toleration is expanding its inclusive embrace just too rapidly. But if everything alternative ceases to be alternative, what’s next? How will those people who feel the need to establish that they’re different from everyone else manage to do so? I mean, how can you do more in the body-art arena than get a full-body tattoo? Is there any bit of anatomy left that one would be shocked to find pierced? I suppose some form of decorative amputation might be a way forward, and you could put silicon in more places than we do currently.
It’s clear that growing an ear beard will mark you out. However, this surely offers quite a challenge, one that the, er, normal body’s resources are unable to meet. Perhaps science will come to our aid?
Anyhow, it may be that a source of our cushion trader’s strange confidence arose from the fact that, in a world of facially-tattooed politicians, extravagantly-moustachioed accountants and intimately-pierced Radio Four presenters, he remains aloof – and doing quite nice business, thank you.