Someone asked me the other day when I had been most afraid. In most cases, this is when someone says ‘Don’t panic’, a sure way of inducing absolute terror. I wondered if it might have been when, suffering from acrophobia, I nevertheless climbed a sixty-foot lighting tower at the Weeley festival in 1971 to find out why the security guard up there wasn’t answering his walkie-talkie (he was ‘asleep’, which is a polite way of saying that he had taken a great number of drugs). But that was actually done in a spirit of wanting to conquer the fear of heights. It did the trick until I realised I’d have to come down.
But actually, it was at a children’s party. In the college where I worked for nearly three decades, I learned early on that there was a Christmas Party for the children of staff. In a helpful, I-do-a-bit-of-impro way, I volunteered. The man in charge told me that there was one thing that the children of the staff enjoyed, and that was the Arrival of The Green Man. Apparently, he had to threaten to chop down the Christmas tree before Santa arrived. That sounded like fun. So I went to see the man who had taken on the role for a few years, an engineering teacher called Griffiths, who was, as perhaps his name implies, a rugby-player from Wales. Would he be the Green Man again, I asked politely. The blood promptly and mysteriously drained from his face. He mumbled something about having had enough, done it for a fair few years, someone else’s turn etc. Okay, I said.
I went to see my friend Graham, the Art teacher (now a very big name in the art world). I invited him to play the role of the Green Man. Graham does not say No to role-playing. He gave his assent. He signed up. Leave it to him.
At that time, most of the staff were under 35 (the wheel has come full circle now, in fact), and the majority had children between the ages of 4 and 9, which was roughly the ones who were expected. I boned up on Christmas games, prepared to be the genial host, and also met Santa, a wonderful man with a ready-made white beard. ‘You know about the Green Man?’ said Santa. Yes, I did, I said: that’s all under control.
About sixty children booked up for the event, which was right at the end of the Christmas term. It was a Saturday afternoon, and their parents seemed unduly happy to drop them off. In no time, I had them playing musical chairs, hunt the kipper, and other staples of Christmas parties. They were a bit boisterous, but, as we would now say, Hey.
At about 3.45, a diminutive child asked me when the Green Man was coming. ‘Not long now, I expect!’ I gave a wink. The child went off and gave the others a wink, too. The room – a refectory – in which the jollity was taking place had huge glass windows. The children, bored of the games, began to run from one side to the other, shouting something like ‘Where’s The Green Man?’
Now Graham takes everything seriously (this is why he is a well-known artist). I gave someone the signal to indicate that he was on. He arrived in style. He was wearing his son on his shoulders, to increase his height, and he had tied most of a Christmas tree to him by sturdy maritime rope. He was also wearing a wetsuit and a balaclava and carrying a sharp axe. He roared into the room, and I should say that Graham, although not tall, is muscular.
It took the sixty children about ten seconds. They piled into him like a freight train. They stripped away his son, his balaclava, the bits of Christmas tree, and they unpicked the rope, which was tied ultimately around his waist, and began, those of them who were not in a five-body-deep heap, to pull at either end, with the aim of pulling him in half. A seven-year-old danced around with the axe. All I remember is literally thrwoing chidren to one side and the other, to rescue those at the bottom of the heap, and also The Green Man himself.
‘You didn’t tell me about that,’ I said to the Welshman later. He smiled. I was still thinking how close I had come, in the second year of my career, to presiding over a mass suffocation. ‘Fear’ was an understatement.