The lady vanishes
There is an anonymous quote that I have come across in several versions, but this is my favourite: ‘When you are young, you think everyone is looking at you; when you get older you are disappointed to find that no one is looking at you anymore; and when you get even older you realise they were never even looking at you in the first place.’
Although it is the common lament of women in middle age and upwards that they are invisible, I think there is a lot to be said for invisibility on a personal level (with the massive exception of when you’re in a shop, bar or restaurant, of course!)
In fact I now can’t imagine why I ever wanted to be an actor, because I’ve realised I hate being watched. This explains why it took me five goes to pass my driving test, and why I avoid driving if Mr Verity is in the car. Observation alters, and I begin to crash the gears, forget to indicate, and sail past my turnings.
It also means that the music exams I put myself through for the discipline of having something to aim for are terrifying ordeals. Give me the anonymity of a choir any day, where there is no risk that you will ever have to go it alone.
Someone who understands very well the benefits of being invisible – and how to achieve this state – is Philip Pullman. Several of his characters are past masters at merging with their surroundings. Here is the witch Serafina Pekkala using her powers to eavesdrop on a private meeting:
‘This was mental magic, a kind of fiercely-held modesty that could make the spell-worker not invisible, but simply unnoticed. Holding it with the right degree of intensity she could pass through a crowded room or walk beside a solitary traveller without being seen. . . . She was ready. . . . She opened the door and walked in. A dozen or so people were seated around a large table. One or two of them looked up for a moment, gazed at her absently, and forgot her at once.’
Similarly, the secret of Miss Marple’s success is the invisibility, in fact the apparent insignificance, of the old.
I’ve realised that a desire for invisibility influences where I sit in any gathering where the house lights don’t go down: a class, a conference, a presentation. I head for a corner at the back: from this vantage point I can see the maximum number of people, but be seen by the fewest. The same goes for business meetings: in the middle of the long side of the table, as far from the Chair as possible (this can totally backfire if you have a democratically-minded Chair who wants to plonk herself in the middle of the long side, and then you are trapped in her force-field!). Now this of course puts you at a disadvantage if you want to contribute, but since most business meetings seem to consist of people stating the bleeding obvious or repeating what previous speakers have said, it’s best to sit somewhere where feeling exposed won’t put pressure on you to speak even if you have nothing to say. Anything meaningful you do want to put out there will have to be worth the effort.
Of course there are many middle-aged and older women out there who have always been looked at and always will be. It’s impossible to ignore the redoubtable Iris Apfel or Zandra Rhodes – perhaps I should keep a shocking pink wig about my person for when I’m waving my £10 note around at the bar.
But the best thing about being invisible is the complete and utter freedom it affords you.