I have various private theories which strike me as true. That fire is the birth of consciousness. Or rather, when people first tamed it, gathered round it, spent evenings staring at this stuff that held their gaze, whose patterns shape-shifted their way into our ancestors’ cognition, that these pauses from forage and hunt – this down-time from th’anthropocene hustle, communing with flame, wondering as we blink through the reels of after-image – these intervals represent our first grappling with the awareness, as we think, that we’re thinking.
Maybe, round the fire, someone starting humming, or got up and mimed the throes of a just-speared aurochs. Smeared the juice of a berry on her finger or banged a stick on a hollow piece of wood – instead of delousing a neighbour’s scalp, they tried a different sort of grooming. More conscious, social.
Another theory: an old lady stopping in the middle of the pavement and looking back is like an aged elephant hanging at the rear of the group, the matriarch saving the calves by presenting her wrinkled hind to the jackals testing the herd’s perimeter. So, next time, don’t get annoyed having to sidestep the old girl clamped to her Zimmer frame; when she stops and turns back, she’s doing her evolutionary duty. In a word, autogerontopachydermicide.
Or my theory that the contagiousness of yawning is a response evolved to protect the group from all falling asleep at once. Yawning wakes you up. When someone yawns and you find yourself yawning in sympathy… well, you find yourself. A group of mammals helping each other to survive by triggering and thereby linking their sympathetic nervous systems. Unconscious grooming. I like to think of it as ‘Me Too’ in a good way. Someone from the circle yawns, another bestirs herself to stoke the fire, and the sabre-tooths slink away, unsated. Shared awareness keeps you from being food. Stops you being chewed, dude.
The biggest personal theory I have is that I created a word. Or rather a meaning, that propagated outward and added a little to our propensity towards the dumb. If the human dance is a sea, then I helped to introduce a toxic little nubbin of unbreakdownable plastic into its social swirl.
When I was 13, I delivered newspapers. I’d see the same headline 50 times, every morning between 7 and 8. Elvis is Dead when I was just starting. A couple of years after that, Brezhnev is Dead and later, Eric Morecambe is Dead. Now it would be Bowie, Lemmy, Mark E. Smith, Coco Schumann but, hey, that’s progress. As Kafka says, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Notice I said “says”?
The back pages, which I’d also see 50 times as I folded each newspaper, were given over to columns of adverts: back-pain relief, ventriloquy manuals, pamphlets on crystal healing and palmistry, whoopee cushions, sneezing powder, bodybuilding methods (Guaranteed to make your lady friend go wet at the knees), remedies for wedding-speech nerves, discreet rubberwear, soothing tinctures for bicycle rash, guides to good writing. I replied to one of these small ads once: an offer of 750 stickers, 1½ cm by 3½, with my choice of wording. I specified black lettering on a white background. Delivery within 28 days. Capital letters. 6-point Times New Roman, typeset by hand. And the phrase I chose, to be printed on every one of these 750 stickers? ‘Slap my buttocks with a red-hot poker’.
In that pre-graffiti age, these stickers became my tag. I plastered Slap my buttocks with a red-hot poker all over, helped by similarly annoying 13-year olds who thought the slogan’s hilarity self-evident. On buses, trains and lampposts, on school desks, ‘No Parking’ signs and across the foreheads of shop mannequins, on windows, bird-feeders and (my particular favourite) prams. I soon had my local urban space covered, and even got another set printed, this time in limited-edition white lettering on a gold background, which I gave out to some of my more diligent distributors, as a way both of widening ‘meme-reach’ and of offsetting the risk of my being outed as the primum mobile of the enterprise.
I realised I’d achieved what the marketing department of Nike® would nowadays call ‘cut-through’ when fellow students started saying, as an expression variously of surprise, disbelief or sheer pubescent frustration, “Well, slap me!” Other manifestations, like “You could’ve slapped me with a brick/stick/feather/truck,” never really caught on, but it was when my younger sister, Chalice, paradigm-shifted to a noun form – saying of one of my friends, “He’s a bit of a slapper,” – that full lexico-viral immanence was attained.
“Slapper”, an essentially meaningless epithet, could be applied to anyone in any context. Someone overdosing on Bacardi® at a party was “a total slapper”. Or a sanctimonious neighbour holding your football to ransom. “She’s not gonna give it back, the slapper.” A ferrety shop assistant or a pensioner fumbling in her purse ahead of you in the queue. “Oh, get a move on, you crumbly old slapper.” The term’s vagueness and versatility meant it was quickly overused within my circle of suburban teenage idiots, but it was perhaps this very connotative slipperiness that gave “slapper” the legs to adapt to a wider usage, especially when this process was aided by the Proustian mental kick of people seeing it on stickers everyfuckinwhere.
I have no way of knowing when it was fixed, this meaning of “slapper” as a female whose behaviour has been judged morally questionable. Somewhere along the line, connotation became denotation, and the word was pressganged into that body of language which, while appearing to denote a certain kind of person, in fact shows the quality of mind of the person using the word rather than any supposed characteristics of the referent.
Go to any dictionary of slang: “Slapper: derogatory term for a sexually active woman (first recorded: South London, late ‘70s/early ‘80s).” So, in terms of a theory that strikes me as true, I do feel in part responsible for erecting at least a small supporting pillar in the temple of misogyny. A persistent little self-replicating virus, helping to contribute to a public space that would’ve been maybe a touch less crass and unreflective without it. Just another guy, getting in on the act, being the voice, sticking their [ahem] in. A meme that was really just me-me. Or metwo.