I was never a ‘party person’. The idea of appearing on stage in any kind of show or taking part in anything remotely theatrical was repellent to me. Apart from developing a reputation as a public speaker by accident (related in an earlier blog article) I have managed to avoid such events for the most part. On one occasion though, again by accident, my role-playing became real in an unexpected way.
A fancy dress party with a historical theme was to be held at a remote location somewhere in south west London. I say ‘remote’, because London is one of those cities large enough and with a varied enough texture to contain within it areas that might be considered ‘remote’. This was in the early 1990s, too long for my partly-senile memory to retrieve an exact location: it was to take place in an old house in a forested area, possibly Sydenham Woods. Attendees were supposed to dress up in mediaeval or Renaissance gear and stay in character throughout.
I loathed the whole concept - at least, I loathed the concept of me having to take part, but various social obligations had backed me into a corner and so I was going. Naturally, given my bent in other aspects of life, I was going as a monk, wearing a simply brown cassock and bearing a large wooden cross on a necklace - suitable penance, I thought, for whatever sins had led me to being trapped in such circumstances. But the trick was this: how to get to Sydenham (or thereabouts) from Highgate in North London, in such a costume.
Eventually my companion and I decided that the best way would be to drive there, but I didn’t have the necessary courage to progress through Central London dressed as a mediaeval monk, even inside a car. So we arranged that she would drop me off in the woodland just outside the party venue, and that I would quickly throw my cassock over myself behind a tree and walk the rest of the way, thus making a suitably humble entrance in full character.
We got lost a couple of times on the way. London has grown organically over almost two millennia and was never laid out with a plan in mind: to call it a ‘labyrinth’ would be too clichéd and wouldn’t quite do it justice. It might be better to poetically refer to it as a city that has grown up like a bramble patch rather than in a carefully cultivated way - tendrils of one era have interwoven with the outreachings of another. Sydenham Woods (if Sydenham Woods was indeed where this all took place) contained the ruins of an old Victorian folly, and was split apart by the derelict Nunhead to Crystal Palace railway, the old tunnel of which was home to dozens of bats. Cox's Walk, laid out in the 18th century, lined with ancient oaks, wound through the largest remaining part of what was once the Great North Wood. This spooky area we found at last, and, drawing close to our destination, I was dropped off in accordance with the plan, and quickly changed into the flowing brown cassock with vast hood.
As my companion drove off, I threw up my hood. It was a chilly evening, and quite dark: a single lamppost cast a lonely glow over a small patch of roadway. I clasped the large wooden cross and held it up in front of me to avoid it clashing against my waist as I waded through the undergrowth back to the road.
At this point, another vehicle drove by. As they saw me staggering out of the trees, my archaic cross held before me, there was a screech of brakes, a faintly heard heretical expletive, and then the roar of acceleration as the car took off, veering wildly across the road before it shot out of sight. The noise startled me in the half-light; it didn’t occur to me for a few moments what had happened, or what a vision I must have been for those passers-by. I hadn’t intended to create such an effect, the whole thing was purely utilitarian from my point of view. I wonder to this day what those people in that car must have thought, or what stories my sudden appearance from the darkness of the trees must have inspired.
Avoiding the theatrical, being simply expedient as writers, we can accidentally create surprising effects. It all depends on one’s point of view.