I’ve another quirky habit, picked up from years of field work that I’d like to confess to you all.
Picture the scene: I’m standing on an Irish hillside and I’ve just found the most glorious outcrop. It’s glacially polished, each feature beautifully highlighted by a layer of water from a recent rain-shower. Excitedly, I dump my ruck-sack and get out my notebook and pencil and start making notes. I decide this merits marking as a location, so I tuck the notebook under my left arm and pull my clip-board out. This holds a grubby piece of paper held in place by about 6 strong rubber bands. Why six? Well, the memory of sprinting down-wind after a map sheet is still strong. I keenly remember speeding after weeks of work, watching the capricious wind that snatched it away bounce it cheekily towards a big black lake. I smile at the rubber bands and then realise I need to move one to write on the correct spot. My hands are full, what do I do?
Well, I could put the pen down on the ground, but it will be wet. Also I remember accompanying a student on a mapping project once. She put her pen on the ground only to watch in horror as a bored Irish sheep dog rushed over and chewed it up. It was a cute scene as the dog grinned at us, ink dripping down its jaws, but the pen was a £20 mapping job. Bad memories, so I put my pen in my mouth, gripping it gently but firmly, like a mother cat carrying a kitten. I move the rubber bands and then take the pen out of my mouth. Success!
Soon, holding things in my mouth becomes a habit; it’s like having 2 and a half hands. You can hold a lot of things in there: Pens and pencils – easy; compass clino too, but a notebook strains your jaw after a while. I once forgetfully tried to hold a hammer in my mouth, but only once.
Years later, the habit remains. I try to be discrete about it, but various of my belongings do have faint teeth marks in them. One day, absent-mindedly I’ll find myself, smart and besuited, walking from the sandwich bar at work with a cup of coffee, a sandwich and a packet of crisps dangling from my jaws.
I wasn’t consciously inspired by the image of WW2 British Commandos holding a knife in their teeth as they crawl under barbed wire, but it was probably in the back of my mind, a relict of boyhood comics. Drifting off-subject, the term ‘going commando’ has other connotations. It is used to describe the popular pastime of wearing trousers without under-garments (wearing pants without pants, to be transatlantic about it). A doctor friend in the army tells me young soldiers (‘squaddies’) do it a lot. They come into her surgery with a bad knee and are then asked to take their trousers off so she can see their leg. The look of shock and worry on their faces as they realise they’ll be showing her a lot more brightens her day up no end.Image from the Imperial War Museum