Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

The closest I have ever come to getting a tattoo was while reading Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, a novel written with such beauty and detail of the art of tattooing that it’s almost persuasive.


Cyril Parks grows up in Morecambe in the early part of the twentieth century. With his natural gift for drawing, he is soon taken under the wing of the local tattooist (or ‘scraper’), Eliot Riley. Riley is a fantastic literary creation, and if I have any fault with the book it’s that he’s killed off too soon. A smooth tongued charmer, a brilliant tattoo artist, and a raging drunk, he agrees to take Cyril on as an apprentice, then proceeds to get him pissed at his local pub:

Four drinks into the afternoon Riley’s lessons were expanding, philosophically, and Cy was feeling a very dull and blurrish head on him, trying to keep up with his employer’s pace... As stout gave way to spirit, Riley proceeded onto personal matters.

Riley teaches Cyril his trade, and covers him in tattoos as well, but as Riley’s hell raising and drinking worsen, Cyril Parks becomes his guardian angel, the antidote to all the venom. It’s Cyril who gets him out of fights, rescues him from the outraged and the violent, takes him home when he’s collapsed drunk in a gutter. One night the pier catches fire and the looters move in before it finally burns to the ground:

...Riley and six other men sat drinking beer as fast as their oesophagus tunnels could convey it to their stomachs in the Pier Bar. Then just Riley, daft with alcohol and alone, pouring another glass of ale as the fire crept past him on the counter, singeing his jacket sleeve, until, hearing that some skinflint idiot was left inside the now-prodigal inferno, Cy ran in and screamed murder at Riley and called him Eliot and hit him for the first time in his jaw to get him to follow him out.

Riley, of course, pushes his luck too far, and one morning his working hand is mutilated by his enemies, and he is lost to his trade, and then to his life. He drinks himself to death, finally succumbing to a bottle of bleach he has stolen from a doorstep.

Cyril ups sticks across the Atlantic and moves to Coney Island, plying his trade as the Electric Michelangelo. And in the end, I never got that tattoo.

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