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Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Richard Cooper's 2003 Hoban Adventure 21/28



(The Bat Tattoo)

At Leicester Square station I caught the Northern Line a few stops northbound to Warren Street, which provided me with a nice sit-down for a few minutes. Warren Street station opened out onto the corner of Warren Street and the northern end of Tottenham Court Road: there were newspaper and fruit and veg vendors nearby and a great shining building in the distance. Warren Street looked grey and rather sorry for itself – quite a lonely place to be, I couldn’t help feeling, of a wet Tuesday afternoon. There also didn’t seem to be that many shops in the road, and I wondered if I’d got the right place.

I walked past some nice mews houses, some of which were being used as offices, and a shop that sold nothing but flutes which reminded me a little of the magic wand specialist in the first Harry Potter book. I came past a junction which led to the very Hobanesque London Foot Hospital, which I thought might come in handy shortly, and probably the best view I’ve ever had, or have ever wanted to have, of the Telecom Tower. Tiranti’s was just past this junction on the left of Warren Street. It wasn’t the sort of shop you would ever pass by accident or expect to be there – which isn’t a criticism; London is full of things like that. More surreally, the shop was right next to a pub called the Smugglers Tavern which had a very unusual sign above it – not only was it a ship’s figurehead complete with a mast wrapped with fishing nets and the front end of the ship it would have been attached to, but the figurehead itself, rather than the traditional mermaid or similar female archetype, was a life-size bearded pirate-type bloke dressed entirely in white with a dagger in his belt and a mismatching hat. The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more Hobanesque, so it was surprising that he hadn’t had Roswell Clark nip in for a pint or two after his mammoth spending spree at Tiranti’s. Then again, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

I took a couple of pictures and had my now familiar nervous dither about where to put the quote. While I made up my mind I decided to venture inside and have a look around. From the book’s description I had expected a huge old shop with dodgy dim strip lighting, stacked to the rafters with equipment including many tiny tools and accessories only Tilman Riemenschneider would ever have had a use for, and run by a quick-minded ninety-three-year-old expert in these matters who chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes held in ochre fingertips. I was surprised therefore to find it was a small, quite sparse shop, brightly lit and run by two trendy guys in their twenties. In the ten minutes I was in there about three or four customers came in, bought something and left, so they were obviously doing pretty well.

A shelf by the window lay covered with leaflets. I picked up a yellow one advertising The Society of Portrait Sculptors FACE 2003 Competition, featuring the Tiranti prize of £500 for the best exhibit from a young portrait sculptor, and giving dates of an exhibition of the winning entries. Feeling perhaps a little more confident now that I’d dropped yellow paper all over London (albeit mostly in phone boxes) and that I’d even gone into the shop at all, I felt like a chat with one of the guys about what I was doing, and perhaps in an effort to make myself out to be less of a freeloader I decided to buy a souvenir. Most of the stock was fairly expensive, exclusive stuff, so I settled on a small plastic tub of something yellow for £2.74. TIRANTI, said the label, SCULPTORS TOOLS, MATERIALS, EQUIPMENT. YELLOW WAX PIGMENT, CONCENTRATED, 50g. Granulated wax for easy dispersion, it continued; Very little is needed – add to suit. Pigments can be intermixed to achieve required colour/shade. Also available in red and blue. I took it up to the counter, paid for it, and fumbling with the yellow paper quote attempted to explain what I was really doing there. “Um,” I began, “you may already be aware, but there’s a writer called Russell Hoban, and he wrote about this shop in a recent novel, and…”

The guy serving me eyed me a little suspiciously but his taller colleague chipped in, “Was that Amaryllis Day and Night?”

Night and Day?” I said, pendantically.

“Yeah, Amaryllis Night and Day. I read that one.”

“You have? Great!” I said. “The shop is mentioned in his last one, The Bat Tattoo.”

“Oh, The Bat Tattoo, I know, yeah. He comes in quite often to ask questions and do his research.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s his birthday today, and to celebrate, some of his fans around the world are writing out their favourite quotes from his books and leaving them in interesting places.”

“Oh, that’s a really nice thing to do,” said the shorter assistant, warming to the conversation.

“Yes, and I have this passage here about the shop. Maybe you might want to put it up on your notice board or something.”

“Oh, excellent,” he said, looking at it. “Thank you very much. Yeah, no problem.”

“Well, thank you.”

The taller assistant turned to help a woman who’d approached the cash desk. “About this,” I said to the shorter one, holding up the yellow wax pigment, “I actually don’t have a clue what to do with it, I just bought it because of the shop and because I liked the colour…”

“Yeah!” he said approvingly, as if this was as good a reason to buy it as any other.

“What do you actually do with it?” I said.

He did tell me but to be honest I forgot what he said because I was so happy that I’d had the conversation and the guys had been so approachable. My experience of small, specialist shops, or any shops come to that, especially when the proprietors know you don’t know what they know, has so often been exactly the opposite.

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