Saturday, 31 December 2016

Level Head

December 31

 Last day of the year. 
My only new year resolution - 
to get better at dealing with death. 
There's been too much bad news this year- 
The world is getting more chaotic, too many people have died. 
Imagine the dead person smiling looking at you, the living, saying 

'Use your time well'

 - a level head, balance and cheerfulness is the best thing.

Thursday, 29 December 2016


 Crowd is a teaching performance piece  that can be remade  on new groups.
I originally made it over 4 weeks with 30 BA dance students at Laban, Deptford during September/October 05 and  with students at E15 acting school a few months later

We gathered movement material from observations of public behaviour at train and bus stations {for the Laban version the performers spent an afternoon observing and gathering gestures and fragments of behaviour of corporate people in public spaces at Canary Wharf). These fragments were brought back into the studio and shared through show and tell.
Over four weeks, working every afternoon/ we made a performance from this material by moulding it into repeatable rhythmic patterns and structures based on a 36 beat bar/phrase ( which can be divide into bars of 2, 3, 4, 6, 9 and 12 giving many possibilities of different speeds. This 36 beat phrase with all its variations and polyrhythms ran throughout the pieceso the dancers wereproviding there own sound to the piece. The sound of bodies working
We translated the found movement into action, rhythm, gesture and facial expression and breath into voices and  song, taking the mundane gathered pieces of behaviour and recreating it firstly authentically and naturalistically, then fitting it into the 36 beat rhythmic structure. The work involved working very closely together, building dialogues using simple forms, such as call and response - to complex polyrhythms involving the whole group.
Crowd eventually ran to about 20 minutes and was performed in a traditional theatre settings and  outside as a piece of public art by the GLA building, Tower Bridge.

Crowd aims to:
1. Develop a sense of listening to each other, small groups within the whole and the whole group
2. Develop an ability to work with complex rhythms  in a relaxed concentrated musical way
3. Develop a sense of how to use everyday movement as a basis for dance
4. Bring together a conscious analytical thought process with a more intuitive improvisatory approach to performance
5. Helped the performers develop their sense of working together and  performing to an audience

Mad People

In a world where anyone who does not toe the line is dismissed as mad, the balance needs redressing. By 'mad people' I just mean outsiders -

mad people- 
trying to make the impossible possible
by doing so 
they invent new paths,
I’m attracted to their  doggedness 
but disturbed by their mess and inability 
to work lightly and cleanly with the  world as it goes
as it swings and wings its  way.
Often the mad ones just wear their chaos openly and don't care.
Its the ones that pretend everything is neat and hunky dory 
The ones that  think themselves normal
The ones that judge others, call people weird, they are the  weird ones;

THE RIVER. From mountain to sea by violin

For someone starting to play the violin


A Piece about  a  journey along a river from mountain to sea for open strings and bowing on the violin

1 E string  
The bubbly tinkly stream high in the mountains 
quick jerky bright rhythmic bowing

2 A string
The sharp mountains become rounded hills
rhythmic bowing but a bit slower, a bit smoother

3 D string 
The hills become softer, mostly smooth but  the water flows round some big rocks
longer, smoother bow strokes

4 G string 
Slow River on flat plain, smoothly meanders to the Sea
Long, slow, smooth calm bowing
The piece finishes on a very long smooth quiet bowed G

1. When the musician learns some  violin notes with the left hand, they can add other notes on the scales of E minor (eg E-F#-G), A minor(eg A-B-C), D major (eg D-E-F#and G  major (eg G-A-E).

2.The pupil is always  a ‘musician/performer’ who has chosen the violin as their instrument, not a pupil, student. Confidence to play for others and ownership of their craft is always encouraged.

How real is your fiction ?

 How real is your fiction ?
How deluded do you dare be?

Essence of Ham ( A Theatah Exercise)

A theatah exercise, hold up a phial full of imaginary liquid- that liquid is ...

Essence of Ham
Most Efficacious!

Directions for use:

  1. think of something that is worrying you
  2. place three drops of Ham Essence on each wrist
  3. wait 23 seconds for it to be absorbed
  4. Start to rant at  the people around you, whatever is on your mind using voice, gesture song and any means necessary. Start you sentence 'and another thing ... ' keep going for at least 2 minutes. Sometimes the essence will last longer, or keep going until you have expunged all bile from your being  

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Celibdache conducting Ravel's Bolero

I recently reposted a 1971 film black and white of the conductor, Sergiu Celibdache conducting Ravel's Bolero. The film concentrates entirely on him. The piece is a giant crescendo over 17 minutes, from ppp to fff and he goes from very delicate and precise holding the orchestra back to abandon that becomes wilder and wilder, as an increasingly messianic and primal Celibdache steers it towards its massive ending. At  times he swoops to the playful and joyous dancing to the music assured of his absolute power over the orchestra.Towards the end of the piece he veers unpredictably from absolute technician to playful clown.The viewer is not quite sure if he is subject to their will, he is dancing to the orchestra, or he is conducting them. I have a friend who on seeing the  film, said 'I think I have fallen in love- with the most alive (sadly, deceased) man. I am totally smitten after viewing this clip.' Others have found him frightening.
He was knowledgable passionate and uncomprising. His concentration on  the task is absolute, every gesture facial expression, every bead of sweat communicates is a beacon of love directing  his intention, his will  onto the orchestra and the music they are playing.
Although I think he is masterful and inspiring, and even if my gut says they are wrong, I  have  to listen to the voices that find him disturbing. Why do some find him wonderful wild and liberating, but others find him gross megalomaniac and frightening? I cannot deny they're there and I want to understand what they are seeing
The conductor/orchestra relationship is as close to a fascist relationship without being in a military uniform as you can get; one man ( it is usually a man being the leader of over a 100,  where the codes of gender and class privilege are enshrined in the structure, the behaviour and dress is set, which enables Celibdache to  go wild be free and wonderful. His ego is massive. It  accepts  the power granted him and he fully inhabits it.
At times during the film he goes cold looking directly and precisely at some section or person in the orchestra. His look is terrifying - there is something in the coldness and absolute focus and aim of his eye and gesture akin to the hunter or assassin who cold heartedly knows exactly precisely what they are doing.
Maybe those who find it frightening are disturbed by the power structure that allows him to go there, and that destroys any possibility that they might enjoy his performance. I reckon he would find an outlet for his work any way- he transcends the structure within which he works

When I see the film now- I see it as a  something from the past, almost humorous I don't know if the unquestioning acceptance of his genius and power would happen in the same way now. I don't know if he would be given licence to do what he does, but whatever, it is worth seeing now and however one sees, it it is compelling, entertaining and food for thought.

As a postscript -  I did a little light research around him which revealed a feud he'd had when conducting the Munich Philharmonic in the 80s with a woman trombonist who took him to task for sexism when he tried to ostracize her, saying he needed a male trombonist. They both dug in, it was a long feud that went on for years. She won. An account of it is in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink apparently. Does his old school sexism and bigotry negate all his virtues? Does his acceptance of the traditional orchestra structure and his 'maestro' status make him  creepy and neuter his gifts? one of the charming aspects of the film is his playfulness- it is androgynous, that is surprising and charming- maybe later he felt he had to hide behind the masculinity of his position ...

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Quiet Opera

A Quiet Opera

Opera singing was born of an era where large spaces needed filling by large voices, so opera singing training focussed on generating  the huge voice; singers with naturally huge voices are prized and all training is geared to how to produce a powerful yet pure voice. In order to encourage 'real' performances from opera singers, Opera directors often find themselves in conflict with the musical purists - the physical demands  on the singer's body of producing a resonant  and musically true voice are at odds with the directors' demand for a believable true performance. the conventions of opera are from another age. This is why modern opera can be a particularly cringeworthy and pointless spectacle -  it is an archaic artform,  from another age. No architect would design a gothic cathedral now We can still appreciate the beauty, incredible skill  and painstaking labour  that went into its making.  So why is designing a new gothic cathedral or Palace of Versailles now unthinkable and laughable yet composers still believe they can make a new opera from outdated tools? To continue the parallel with architecture (you could do it with any art or practice from painting to commerce, even warfare), the modern architect uses all means at their disposal- materials and technology to design their buildings, yet the opera composer is still working trying to produce something 'contemporary' with archaic practices.  it maybe why much opera seems ridiculous and has become an acquired taste. Opera lovers will defend their beloved artform - Whether you love the intimacy of Baroque opera or the grand transcendence of Wagner, and regard any criticism as sacrilegious, what is  defensible? it could be a) the beauty of the music b) the uniqueness of opera performance. Its  harder to justify the new classical opera either from the point of view ofeither its musical language or performance.

OK, the transformation of drama, plot and raw feeling into live music with high production values and the big set and nice frocks, I can go with that but, just as a contemporary architect makes use of technology to design buildings for now, so the opera composer can use technology. It is not necessary now to blast the audience and fill huge spaces  with artificially huge voices and bad acting. Very few opera singers, are good actors. With the best will in the world its impossible to act truthfully and project your voice to fill a large theatre. We have other options. A whispered opera could be better acted, offer intimate scenes better.  I have to be careful  here- I know the thrill of hearing a really powerful voice fill a large space, yet in terms of  spectacle there is no way that  opera or theatre or any live performance can compete with  the bigness of film, but for honesty rawness intimacy live performance, live events will always has the potential to win out, so why  not make an opera where the singers whisper their words or sing quietly, intimately and then, through film, video and audio technology, the experience can be blown up for its audience and just as exquisite, heart rending and massive as any pompous mega opera.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Santa Diary


          My daughter needed a scooter

           The Santa Diary Nov/Dec 2007

In 2007 I took the plunge and became Santa Claus at various Debenhams  stores. In a vain attempt to keep my dignity I kept a diary everyday. This is the diary.
I needed some money for Christmas to get my daughter a scooter.  And presents for all the nephews and nieces. I saw the ad and wondered, then answered it. I was desperate. I had no work and my mood was low. My self-confidence had disappeared. 
My GP referred me to a counsellor, who referred me to a therapist, on the NHS. We talked about economic survival, he thought I should be able to pay him £75 a session, but I wanted to be able to pay my rent, eat and get my daughter a scooter. I  felt sorry for the therapist. He was delusional- he wanted money that didn’t exist, he saw being Santa as a subconscious desire to place myself in a benign non-threatening impotent father figure role. I denied that was the case and  thought he just didn’t understand acting, he didn’t understand me  and worse still, he didn’t understand the true nature of Santa- poor bloke.

and I needed to get that scooter so I took the job and er…got into my character...

A Diary

Monday 19th November DAY 1

Debenhams is deserted. My first day as Santa in Debenhams, Hounslow. Santa’s grotto is an open plan grotto is tucked away on the 2nd floor next to the restaurant and opposite kitchenware. “We’re not big on Santa in Woking.” Said Chris the manager. That’s what they said at Debenhams, Uxbridge.  There are two big escalators in the centre of the store. I like the escalators because Santa is on show there- he can see and be seen.

If I sit very still on Santa’s throne, people do not know I am here, they think I am a dummy. Until I wave at them and give them a hearty welcome and bid them a Happy Christmas. ‘Ooh you gave me such a shock’, ‘I’m sorry about that - not my intention -  Happy Christmas to you’. Santa is beginning to sound like Sean Connery.

 A teenage boy was looking through the knives department in kitchenware opposite me unaware that Santa was watching him, and had opened several boxes of knife blocks, glanced around to see if anyone was watching, and was maybe thinking of removing a knife from one, when I bid him “Happy Christmas!” in a loud voice. He stops being nearly a criminal, forgets about the knives and nearly becomes a child again. I feel I have been a useful old Santa and helped to reduce the threat of juvenile crime in the Hounslow area

Some kids still believe. Younger kids, 2-6 usually are thrilled and excited to see you. Older kids will usually play along even if they don’t believe, if, by not dropping the Santa fa├žade, you make them. Am I humouring them or are they humouring me? Or both? Complicity, Ooh theatah

The woman at the till downstairs didn’t recognise who was behind the beard, thinking it was someone who usually worked in the store, and she wanted to pull it. Santa and I were both outraged, I was hurt, but Santa was jovial and rose to “Cheeky, would I pull your hair to see if you were real?”

Menswear is a difficult department for Santa to walk around. Is it because men wearing suits, forced into clothes buying moods can’t handle a man wearing a false beard, boots and a red gown?
Aah, real life. Just Debenhams, Santa, and me. Santa is an old hippy- laid back, a bit bumbling, relentlessly positive and without a trace of cynicism. That degree of disarming warmth can take people to a vulnerable place where the faintest trace of cynicism could be very cruel - it is easy to upset a playing child

DAY 2 [20th November]
I have been here in Debenhams, Hounslow for five minutes and I am bored stiff already. Give me the reindeers and the wide open icy wastes rather than the kitchenware department, DVD adverts for the Pro Chef and bland piped pop. Time to go for a wander. A couple of days in and it is getting easier to wear Santa’s mantle of friendly mirth.

Character- gadget man 45 with anorak and laptop bag over his shoulder, looks at the coffee cups autistically, holding them very close to his eyes as if he has lost his pebble-lensed glasses. 

Santa goes walkabout near the entrance on the first floor encounters a big flurry of kids who want phone photos of Santa. I oblige with some Elvis poses.  

Casually dressed design manager arrives with a photographer to take photos of  Santa’s grotto. I am sitting in the centre of the Santa display and he tries to frame the picture so I am not in it – he wants a shot of the design, but they do not even acknowledge Santa. Bizarre. Maybe I am just upset because they don’t want me in their photograph? Well it is my grotto

Character- The Sales girl who moved the display unit, her action revealing rubbish that has been kicked under the display unit – torn bits of packaging, swept up dust – she pauses wondering whether to clean them up then kicks them underneath the display unit in its new position..

Wedenesday DAY 3 [21 November]
Rules of Santa Behaviour today- 
Move slowly, no sudden movements, 
Wear a mantle of mirth, 
Treat everybody as your friend, your long lost friend even if they are in the distance on the other side of the store.

An Ode to the Road to authentic Santahood 
It is easier to don a mantle of mirth 
Than add padding to increase my girth

Thursday DAY 4
Didn’t write anything in my diary on this day
Is it me, or was it reelly reelly that uneventful?

Saturday DAY 5 
Today I will wave at everyone and chuckle more, and try to draw them to me, in a big daddyish kind of way.
I should definitely have shaved before coming here -I had vowed that I would be cheerful and well in my breaks, but I fear I look a wee bit rough. Ooh I forgot I am wearing  beard- no-one will notice. 
The twin aims for today- keep my voice low and relaxed.

Sunday. DAY 6
Today has been really really slow, like an anchor dragging along the sea bed but failing to grip. Its not been easy to keep up the jollity today – its been quiet here. Feeling very isolated and sad.

Monday DAY 7
Maybe its intentional that they put Santa near the knife department- to keep an eye on the place when its quiet and it is oh so quiet today that thoughts like that arise.

Every so often a voice comes over the tannoy saying , “Security to Section 4” “What”,  I asked “is section 4?” “It doesn’t exist”, I was told but apparently security announcements every so often make the shoppers feel safer.

The Manager said he had been so busy with mega days ( special Debenhams sales strategies)that he hadn’t had time to think about Santa- he doesn’t want to move me because (what’s his phrase?) he didn’t want to ‘lose prime retail space’, so it looks like I am staying put in kitchenware looking at the water filters, oven dishes, oven gloves, knives, wastepaper bins, magic dusters,  juice jugs, ladles, potato mashers, kettles, whisks and the advertising signs that are slightly wonky at the base of the JML display cases. The music is piped through, mostly very bland but now at least its Aretha, but we have had more than our share of bad Christmas fare, dead soulful ballads from sensitive white boys like James Blunt or Daniel Powter or ‘Love’s Eternal Flame’  - ‘Say my name, sunshine through the rain’.

Tuesday DAY 8
Cheese graters, kitchen scales, pest shields and a looped DVD advert for a magnicard. What’s a magnicard? A credit card shaped magnifying glass with a light that you can keep in your wallet. Its about 1min.45 secs long, I estimate after watching it 6 times in 10 minutes as I watch the minutes in the digital display in my phone. 

Yes and the chair upon which I sit (gilded and red) in my open plan grotto – an island in a sea of less-than prime retail space – my chair is truly magnificent. Mmm! 
Muzack … Aaron Neville, a hardened crim, forced to sing crap to pay his lawyers,a tru voice from Noo Awlins with the voice of an angel, sings a smushy song that doesn’t deserve his voice, it wafts across the deserted retail space. Ooh there are so many products surrounding Santa, so many goods.- chip trays, pasta scoops, pastry brushes, grapefruit spoons, automatic hands-free can openers. Who called them goods? Lets call them bads.  They disturb Santa’s sense of self. They are bad. What’s a Santa to do to reclaim his sanity? Close his eyes and visualise arctic wastes, whistling winds, Santa and his wife Sunita, snuggling together under many reindeer skins in front of a crackling warm fire …

Ode to Debenhams
How can I be bored of Debenhams? 
Here on the second floor in my open plan grotto, next to the restaurant, opposite kitchenware. 
Ah kitchenware, applecorers and cheesegraters
Who needs glamour? Sometimes I roam around the retail space,
trying really hard to be cheery, the perfect Santa
 but I cannot deny that sometimes I get pleasure,
 a slightly perverse pleasure when a child looks at Santa and bursts into tears. 
It’s the beard It’s the beard.. Sorry. I am becoming a Debenhamz demon
If I was not in DbenhamZ right now where would I rather be?
There are many finer kitchenware departments I am sure, but once freed from the slavery of desire and ambition you can find happiness and fulfilment any where, and  so I choose to be here
In this DbnhamZ This Hounslow DBnhmZ, 
This Temple of Enlightenment this …  (from the Hebrew root, DBNMZ) meaning ‘Prime Retail Space.’

Reindeer Haemerrhoids. What? I was walking around yesterday, near the 2nd floor escalator, “Why are you walking around  like you have Haemerrhoids,” some one said, “I haven’t”,  I replied “but you should see my view of the reindeers from the sleigh, its not pretty,”  I said and waddled off  before they got the joke. Did they get the joke? I dunno. I waddled  off. Timing or cowardice? 
Its now only 16.22. 1 hour and 23 minutes to go.
I went down the big escalator to spread cheer through moribund departments. The man in menswear wants a four bedroom house with a sauna, but all his friend, the men’s clothing manager from Algeria, wants for Christmas, is for me to keep on smiling. Is he gay or just warm spirited or both? Who cares? I think Santa has won over the menswear department.

Wednesday DAY 9
When a man is tired of DBNMZ, he is tired of life. Oh the places I’ve been – from the Valley of the Kings to the Louisiana Swamps, to the golden strands of Barbados, Copacabana and Marina Beach, Madras with the candy floss sellers and the sea stretched out miles at low tide, the bustle of Hongkong, the dust of Cairo, the killer snakes of Australia and now DBNMZ, not just Hounslow, but last weekend Uxbridge and yonder Woking. 2007 the year I returned to London suburbia and saw the house I was born in. yes this shop is half amile from the house where I was born. Worton Way:I wandered there after work and found the house and knocked on the door.  An Indian woman answered. I thought she was much older than I was, butwe talked for a couple of minutes on the doorstep and it turned out we were about the same age. I didn’t go in the house. I wasn’t invited in and it felt inappropriate to ask. 

2007. This was the year I witnessed the following event: two business men on a rainy morning outside Woking train station, one looks to the sky as the rain comes down and says to the other, “Hmm think I should move to Surbiton.” Yes back in suburbia
So it’s the end of Wednesday, an uneventful day apart from the two girls, about 11 who liked Santa but didn’t really believe in him came up to the grotto anyway, the open plan grotto opposite kitchenware, and sat on Santa’s stool and wanted to pull my beard but I was wary. One of them tried to stare me out and failed  and then tried to shock Santa by telling him about her two year old sister who swore fucking this and cunt that. But she didn’t know that this actor, moi, playing Santa, is immune to swear shock. Then she wanted a free present and wanted to pull my beard. Her friend a slightly taller mixed race girl told me she didn’t believe in Santa and looked at all the pressies in the grotto and then looked slyly at me and wondered if she could half inch them. I was wary, they were scary with a short attention span and eventually they wandered off after I bored them to death.
The boy on the top floor is chatting up the Indian girl from Hong Kong who is showing him how to write Chinese numbers. “That’s well cool”, he says, “I would really like to speak Chinese”, and the  store serving assistant with the limp came by with about forty bars of chocolate in blue wrappers  and put them in the  overstock trolley. 17.38. A few minutes to go.

Thursday DAY 10
The last day at DBNMZ Hounslow, the last day next to kitchenware, my last opportunity to list kitchenware- I estimated the were probably about 500 different lines of stock in this kitchenware department - deep muffin tins, pizza crisper, Swiss roll tin ( a pause to have my photo taken) garlic magipress, water filter refills .. Aah DBNMZ, Temple of Enlightenment, Prime Retail Space, containing nothing but goods, more goods and more nothing. So how to be happy all the time in this Place of  Nothing? The problem with nothing [maybe its just my state of mind], is there is nothing there but nothing and nothing to react to so nothing to look at for inspiration or stimulation. DBNMZ you are a hard nut to crack.
So where’s Santa to get his mirth from? Close his eyes and visualize those icy wastes, the howling wind and snuggling down with Sunita Claus under many reindeer skins in front of a crackling warm fire …Acting.

Why do some kids find Santa scary? Or is it the parents?
We had one child about 3 in a buggy who, from a distance, looked excited to see Santa, but as soon as mum saw Santa, she said loudly, “She’s scared of Santa”, and they steered the buggy down another aisle of goods and out of view.
Some children find the beard frightening, maybe its because its too mask like. It often depends on whether they know the figure of Santa, and if they do the experience of seeing Santa can be completely magical. If not they wonder, “Who is this stranger pretending to know me?” and that’s scary.
But being warm full of mirth and soft-voiced, soothes a nervous child. 
An 8-month old baby girl carried by her dad has just come by. She sat on my throne and looked around in wonder at the open plan Christmas grotto opposite kitchenware and was comfortable there. The mum turned up and saw that the baby was really comfortable. Relaxed parents have relaxed children. Dad took photos of her there on the chair - on his iPhone, the first iPhone I had seen. Thus ends Santa at DMBNMZ Hounslow. Onto Woking…

DBNMS Woking 
Saturday DAY11
9.13 Waterloo, The train for Woking,  a Hazlemere train is due to depart at 9.15. It left 5 seconds early. Do all trains to Woking leave early? That’s a creepy idea. The place where the trains always leave early. Not that creepy -maybe I’m just bored.
10.45. Santa’s grotto in DBNMZ Woking is a plywood box on the lower ground floor in the corner behind carpets and the three-piece suites, kitted out with the same decorations as DBNMZ Hounslow-3 different presents. Under a Christmas tree, fake of course, a gilded fireplace above which there is a slot together reindeer’s head hanging on the wall, lots of flashing lights, some huge fat mocked up Christmas  books. Is it wrong to expect your place of work to stimulate the imagination? I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space. [Hmm] Imagination or delusion? Napoleon complex or what? Magic is what works and I’m not working. 
So its about 2.30ish. The throne upon which Santa sits is a bit unfortunate and with its roaring lions head on the front legs, and slightly sinister baroque stylings seems designed to scare kids. The frame is gilt and the seat and back is covered in bright red cloth and has a large cushion. Its really uncomfortable and much higher than the leatherette stool that the child has to sit on. I imagine it must have been designed by someone with only half a mind on the job. Like me now. I’m getting better at being Santa. They want to know who I am. Suzanne, the floor manager started asking me “I was Les the Egg man on ‘In Suspicious Circumstances’ with Edward Woodward on Granada,” I proclaimed proudly.  She was really impressed – She knew who Edward Woodward was. What else have I done that she might be impressed by? Our worlds do not coincide, I think, as I sit being Santa in my grotto on the lower ground floor near the carpet of the month display.  The carpet of the month is a plain beige carpet, reduced from £45 a metre to £17.99.

Sunday DAY12
So the second session on Sunday ….Nothing… And now the third session. I didn’t write anything for the first session and I really am feeling numb numb numb, still we haven’t had any terrified crying children today. Is it something I am beginning to do? Or what?

Why I wrote the Santa diary.  I had to justify to myself that it was somehow worth doing [It doesn’t matter, you dove, my brother said inventing a past tense of dive, to rhyme with cove]. I have always thought that listening and responding was all that was important but in a situation like this it is necessary to find resources and responses in yourself, because, being Santa at DBNMZ there is not a lot to respond to AND its difficult to justify counting the seconds to my departure at the end of the day. I feel there must be a better way of using my time.
 So what is there to respond to? The lovely potential for play. Children believing is magical. Kids too old to believe, but playing along is magical. In Uxbridge, a boy in England tracksuit came towards me  “How are you doing SantAGH? I’m going to see a film”, “ What are you going to see?” I asked. “Beowulf.”, he said and walked off. I thought maybe he was going to pull my beard or mug me.

It is very dreary when, in order to be real, you have to stop pretending. Or believing in pretence. I always thought that you create reality through play  Play is all. If you can’t play, life becomes dull, life becomes disillusion. 
Some parents want to drill a sense of play out of their kids as early as possible. 
Some parents choose to bring up their kids scared. Like the ones who came by just now. They didn’t have tickets and didn’t want to say that they didn’t want to pay for tickets so they preferred to say that their kids were too scared to see Santa. But the kids weren’t scared. The parents were too busy and mean.
“Imagination brings forth the form of things unknown,” but its dangerous for me to stay too long in dull places, like Debenhams, Woking because there is nothing for my imagination to respond to. Maybe its my fault, maybe I am listening wrong, maybe this place is actually deeply fascinating I just hear negatives so I throw negative energy back out again, amplifying it. You can choose what you listen to. To listen for the positive even in the deserted ground floor of  Debenhams, Woking. You can blot out the carpet of the month promotions, or bland tannoy sales announcements or the human behaviour of toeing the corporate line and listen( by listen I include more than sense of hearing) to the sound of the people and engage with that. Hmm.

I’m feeling picky. I notice the slot-together reindeer head above the fireplace in my grotto has been put together hurriedly. There are three main pieces of board (1/4” ply?) running nose to neck, with cross pieces every few inches that slot into the longitudinal piece to make it 3D but it has been put together so hastily that it is wonky faced like it has had a stroke. A reindeer with a stroke.
 AND they haven’t ironed the cloth across the entrance to Santa’s grotto, I noticed this on the first day but haven’t remarked on it til now.  It hasn’t niggled me. I’m feeling picky

Still, some people love the grotto. A grandmother and mother came by recently to check out Santa’s suitability for their nervous 3 year-old  daughter and they approved.

Some Good and Bad Things about Santa’s Grotto.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is that it is cosy compared to the carpet department outside.

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is that it is tucked away in the corner of the carpet department.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is Suzanne the floor manager who loves being Santa’s accomplice (although she bristled at my suggestion she needed a pixie costume; (‘I’m a manager” she sniffed.)

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is the beige carpet, white floor and leatherette stool.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is that it has lots of twinkly lights.

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is that the design team only tried a bit

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is that at least they tried a bit.

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is that if you look up, you see a damaged false ceiling with broken plastic tiles and a concrete void above the neon lights.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is Santa’s big chair.

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is the terrifying roaring lions on the legs.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is the cardboard shiny red and gold stars above head level.

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is the badly drawn fire in the fireplace.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is the real firewood in front of the badly drawn fire in the fireplace.

A BAD THING about Santa’s grotto is the pinkish red plastic imitation gravel outside the door.

A GOOD THING about Santa’s grotto is the real cast iron fender round the fireplace.

Yesterday there was a scary dad when I went on a walkabout- I asked this little girl what she wanted for Christmas and Dad goes harshly at her ‘tell him! Tell him then! go on tell him!” She cowered, bullied, and retreated from her excitement into a scared shell who will hate Santa for the rest of her life

Its nearly 4 – half way through the afternoon, 2 days to go and Suzanne and the shopping assistant in bedding have decided that this Santa needs fattening up so they have been stuffing pillows down me. So I have retreated back to the grotto after they have decided on the right cushion to give me a realistic looking stomach.

Ho ho back in the grotgrotgrotto sitting  back in the hot suit,  in the big Santa suit on the Santa seat. Nuffink like a bit bit bit of a lit lit literation.
I am a little disappointed in the Woking Santa suit- its not nearly as good as the fine cloak that Hounslow provided; and the beard and wig - not pure white, hot and very unrealistic. The wig has a very seventies fringe, the hair matches the off white of the beard but not the cuffs on the suit, which is made of thin material. In Hounslow there was a huge cloak, made of thick weighty cloth, with a white waist cord. Here the cloth is flimsy and cheap, there is a horrible pair of trousers that comes to just below the knee, looking like furry red pedal pushers, the tunic is shapeless. At least the Santa costume in Hounslow opposite kitchenware had some gravitas. Here it is just silly and cartoony. That’s what I think. But that’s just the way it is. You win some you lose some. Santa and I will survive.

So Edie [my daughter] came to see me as Santa with Vicky and Nicky. I had just gone on tea-break and the coffee machines in the canteen were not working, just as well because a sales woman burst in who had hotfooted it from the ground floor and said “Santa you’ve got visitors! How long will you be?” “3 minutes”, I said, I put my beard back on and prepared to get back in there. My phone rang, so I took my beard off again. It was Vicky - they had arrived and were waiting for me outside the grotto. Santa hurriedly waddled his way back to the grotto where there was a little girl called, I think, Bailey who took one look at flustered Santa with a beard and burst into tears. Edie, with Vicky and Nicky was watching a little aghast. Not only was dad wearing a beard, he was pretending to know this little girl and stop her crying. Edie was a little confused.  Bailey would not come into the grotto because she was too upset, so Vicky started saying in a loud voice, ‘we’ll go into the grotto. Edie’s not scared” I looked at Edie. She was not quite scared, but she was uncomfortable. I went into the grotto to get Bailey’s present and gave it to her outside. She cheered up and left, but Edie was by now very wary of both me as Santa and entering the grotto, this flimsy box in the corner of the carpet department, but she came into the grotto, looked around and said “Flashing lights!” approvingly. She sat on the big book and Vicky and Nicky took lots of photos. She ended up liking Santa, and sat on his chair. Nicky looked vaguely horrified by the whole event, but for Vicky it was a photo opportunity and she snapped merrily away.
What is wonderful about Edie and maybe all two year-olds is her complete trust - once she saw that the situation was OK and we were OK, she was OK and happy to be here but I will remember that look on her face along time. It seemed to be saying “Dad what the fuck are you doing, dressed up like that? Why the beard? And the cod Scottish accent?!” “Darling, you are to young to understand what drives me to do this, too young to understand the depths of my anxiety for you and my existential and economic insecurity” 
When I mentioned it to Edie later, she said she loved Santa and the flashing lights. Parental oversensitivity.

So my last day of being Santa at least for this year, maybe never again, who am I to judge whether its been worthwhile? Is it, as Dr Taylor suggested,

a choice to dumb down, not take myself seriously  and be a benign bumbling and impotent father figure
has it been an interesting opportunity to
a) examine belief and trance in children? (really?)
b) act a character and test its believability in a low stress environment? (hmm, may be …)
c) learn how to speak to children? Children prefer a higher voice than a lower voice but what they like most, whether its high or low, is a relaxed cheerful welcoming voice. Its tension they pick up on most. (yes useful … )
d) Observe the horrible ways some parents coerce their kids. (its about learning to be a parent)

The truth usually lies somewhere between the extremes of an argument.

We cannot leave DBNMZ Woking without mentioning the strangely disturbing small security man with the hollow eyes who avoids eye contact and hellos when you sign in and who saw that I was taking a book and my mobile phone  under Santa’s cloak said to me “No personal possessions on the trading floor (did he say ‘trading floor?’ or something similar – ‘store floor’ maybe.) He leans against the balustrade surrounding the escalators in the centre of the store and scrutinizes the movements of customers, looking for irregularities in their rhythm and dynamic that might signify criminal intent. “Shoppers have a way of moving, crims have a way of moving’ .He might say. He gives me the willies. He’s a hard nut. He has been taught to resist the charm and friendliness that makes Santa tick, in order to maintain maximum objective security awareness. I’m sure he thinks I have stolen electrical goods hidden in Santa’s voluminous tunic. He won’t get much for Christmas. 

 So what have I got out of this apart from a few pennies to buy Edie’ scooter and afew otherChristmas presents? 
Santa has taught me that it is possible to exude permanent merriment whilst being depressed. 
Santa has taught me how infectious it is to exude permanent merriment. People children and adults, like it. The opposite is also true – people get nervous and suspicious if you do not exude permanent merriment.
So Santa has taught me that you have to consciously apply it and reapply it and it sticks a few grains more each time

Rereading this, I had forgotten how much I had tried to remain cheerful and half in-character in my breaks at Hounslow. Here in Woking I have been unnerved by time keeping lapses – I know I am at fault – that saps me, the security man and miserable faces, and because here there is a grotto where I am hidden from the public much of the time - In Hounslow it was simple – Once  in the store I was in character all the time, and I was discovering and cementing the Santa persona. Here, in Woking I had the character already established, I was bored and have let my cynicism and depression seep into the character, so he is still cheery but people see sad behind the cheeriness - an unnecessary depth of character -DBNMZ Woking is not the place to get multi layered. people want simplicity and things drawn in big simple clear lines when shopping.  Despite my inadvertent complicating, I still had my moments of sublime innocent merriment with customers and children- I got better at just turning it on. In Hounslow nobody would have suggested putting a pillow round my waist to fatten me up- no-one dared approach me – Santa was simpler and maybe stronger here in Woking. Suzanne and the women from soft furnishings have spent some time finding the right cushion for me and eventually have decided on a velvet and silk blue stripe cushion by Jasper Conran - they deemed it the ideal cushion for Santa’s tum. [So we finish at Debenhams, Woking on a cosmetic note. Am I taking being Santa too seriously?]

I will take the world as seriously as it takes itself so if and when it laughs at me, it laughs at itself.

Then followed a two week pause where I nearly forgot about being Santa
Then on the 18th of December I got a phone call from Hanna, e Santa’s agent from Exeter –Help! Santa’s been sacked! Can you go back to Debenhams, Woking for everyday until Christmas, starting tomorrow morning?
The diary resumes …

He had got himself sacked, how or why, I was not told but when I asked about the previous Santa I was told a couple of half stories, accompanied by smirks and smiles. In one story he had insinuated to a child that Santa was gay and the parents complained, in the other he had behaved ‘inappropriately with some salesgirls in the canteen. The man in carpets said he was a nice friendly keep-everyone-happy sort of Santa, but the signs are that he got fed up, flipped, got himself sacked, and left very swiftly.
The grotto was a mess. Bits of crumpled paper littered around, and a half consumed plastic bottle of pee coloured pop lay under the throne. I went to get changed. The costume had not been mended since my first stint as Santa – the zip was not mended and there were about six safety pins to take its place, it was not washed or folded – another sign that he left in a hurry. The beard smelt really rank, the same smell as the costume but stronger –Mostly BO, mixed with a cheap aftershave and a sickly sweet whiff of a petuly like perfume. I did not want that on my face. It was gross. Fortunately there was a new Santa wig and beard set.
Why am I back in Santa’s grotto? I have been plunged back into a place I thought I had left behind.  

So in this 2nd stint as Santa I am much clearer about the line between myself and the character – when I drop it and when I put it on: off the trading floor with other staff who I know and out of earshot of customers, I am myself and don it when with customers, on walkabout or with customers in the grotto.
Santa Scripts and Strategies:
  1. Treat everyone as a long lost friend
  2. Wave at people on the other side of the store
  3. Walk slowly
  4. Chuckle to yourself a lot
  5. Be really friendly and really happy
  6. Vocally, think a cross between Sean Connery and Billy Connolly

Script bits for Santa in his Grotto
Well hello welcome! Welcome! welcome! Do come in, make yourself comfortable. Sit yourself down and lets have a wee chat.
Whats your name? (Answer)
Do you know what you want for Christmas? (Answer)
So you’ve told me what you want for Christmas, now you have to do something as well, because that’s the way the magic works – I do something, you do something and we put the two things together and then – abracadabra! - your lovely present.

(looking at the reindeer head on the wall)
That’s a 3D portrait of Rudolf, he’s out and about somewhere in Woking. He got me here on time this morning and his time is his until the end of the day.

Do you know how old I am? 498 only 2 more years until the big 5 double 0 and then I am going to have a big party and you are all invited. Its going to be such fun.

Yes Mrs Claus, Sunita is back there waiting for me. Sunita Claus. She runs the biggest launderette chain north of the Arctic Circle they have 34 branches from Svarlbad to Siberia. They all have sunbeds during the winter darkness so you can get a tan while doing your washing. Of course that’s not all she does she’s written nine romantic novels in her spare time, mainly about lost explorers finding true love amongst the Lapps and Eskimos.

This suit is made of genuine organic 100% reindeer fur dyed with cranberry juice with polar bear collars and cuffs. Yes it is

23rd December
I am much better at talking to children than I was. If a child is frightened by Santa, ask the parent the child’s name and say hello welcome – if they have a older sibling with them who likes Santa let the fearful one watch and see that all is OK. Children want to be at ease and looked after, they don’t want to be upset and crying. 

And as for the longeurs in between visits to the grotto, how do I cope now?
Reading, writing , exercising or strolling about. I’m much less likely to allow myself to be bored and fed up.
I am reading ‘Trickster makes the World” by Lewis Hyde. How to sum it up in one sentence?
How the trickster figure- in various manifestations from mythic figure to artist, uses and abuses accident, chance and coincidence, sometimes selfishly, sometimes selflessly, sometimes deftly, sometime ineptly to bring about change and growth to the world.
This that you are reading now is the writing
And the exercising? Within the confines of the grotto, the beard and warm costume, exercise cannot be too vigourous. No-one wants a sweaty Santa, in a sweaty grotto. So exercise is very Tai Chi based- shifts of balance and weight, breathing, pushing through the palms of the hand, sending slowly rippling movements through my arms and torso -  all movement slow and smooth.
Writing seems to have moved to more positive territory, less cynical, but maybe more boring. Maybe the more disgruntled me is funnier. I have been so pompous for years in my refusal to accept how the world is. And when I’vedone the writing, reading and exercising,  I’ll go for a stroll around wondrous DBNMZ Woking 

Another Santa Script 
Why is Rudolf’s nose red?
 Well its foggy outside right? What’s Santa to do on Christmas Eve when its foggy? In order to get round all the houses in time its estimated he has to travel at speeds of up to 4000 miles a second. That’s legging it a bit, so I can’t afford to make a mistake or I’ll end up giving a Barbie doll instead of a Ferrari, or a Play Station instead of a purple bike. That’s where Rudolf’s red nose comes in – its chockablock full of the most sophisticated up to the minute navigational aids known to mankind. Rudolf keeps me on track. I’d be lost without him. Literally lost. In all weathers – fog, snow lightning, blinding rain and hurricanes, Rudolf and his Red Nose get me there

 I have just been out of the grotto and sat for a while on a comfy Parker Knoll settee on the trading floor. Its oh so quiet. I’m feeling wistful and this is my second last day. Two days to Christmas, a flat sublet and in need of a splash of paint and some new things, I felt a little better this morning after talking to family- I may not go up to Scotland there is too much to do getting the flat ready, finding somewhere to be and K and E going off to Sweden. And I feel oh so shaky. Its hard to keep track. Ma talked about the picture of the madly galloping horses pulling a chariot over the steppes and used that as an analogy for mid-life. 
Ho hum, I think I maybe a good Santa now
Does learning to be a good Santa inevitably make you a moron?
A  happier moron but a moron no less.

Santa, the natural alternative to Prozac.

A bit of dialogue from today: Me: What would you like for Christmas?
A 4 year old girl: A bike … a purple bike … a purple sparkly bike … anything sparkly really … I love sparkles.

The last, no no no really the last, day, yes it is, the very last day of being Santa. 
“Will Santa please return to his grotto?”, the tannoy  calls out, uncannily whenever I have a break. Whenever it does, I can’t help it, I feel accused hurt and misunderstood. It makes me want to retaliate petulantly.

What’s a fine actor like Jonathan Stone doing being Santa for DBNMZ Woking?
What will I do today? Its wiser to stay put in the grotto today and accept the steady trickle of visitors. I don’t feel like going on a walkabout. Maybe I’ll do a walkabout if it gets too quiet. Its one way to guarantee visitors to Santa’s grotto. 

And at 1.50 I left the grotto for the last time and walked through the ground floor, up the escalator and past lingerie to the store room where I got changed. Just as I was about to leave, after I got changed, the tannoy called out “Will Santa please return to his grotto?”

But I’ve already got the beard off, and If I make the next London train, I’ll get back in time before the shops shut to get Edie’s scooter. “Will Santa please return to his grotto?” No chance.