My birthday is coming up. This has become somewhat problematic over the last few years (but, I swear, this has nothing to do with my age). It actually became problematic many years ago, around the age of five; later, for many years, it wasn’t a problem at all but now, as I say, it has become increasingly troublesome again.
The first time my birthday introduced me to an unwelcome surprise must have been, I guess, my fifth birthday. My first birthday celebrated at school. And my first – and, as it happened, last – encounter with ‘the bumps’.
Do they still do that, the bumps? I suspect it’s a health and safety issue now. It should have been then. For those unfamiliar with this tradition, a bunch of filthy-pawed classmates lie you down on the floor, grab you all over, throw you up to the heavens and back again (the reps in direct correlation to your new age) and then dump you, distinctly unceremoniously, on the floor.
This run at major limb dislocation and permanent muscular skeletal damage was certainly new to me, aged five, and I didn’t like it one bit. But, a week later, I was struck with a (genius for a five-year-old, I’ll willingly confess) plan.
Back then in the UK, Halloween was pretty much a non-event. There might be a spooky story on Jackanory. We might paint a few spiders and cobwebs at school and place them in the corner of the classroom windows. A smattering of children in the village would half-heartedly go trick-or-treating. That was pretty much it.
Back then, Guy Fawkes Night, the 5th of November, was a far superior event (remember, remember?). There was always a big fireworks display in our village on the recreation ground (now more houses) that everyone went to, and we’d have sparklers in the garden beforehand, and something suitably warming and festive to eat on our return.
And whether, back then, this was factored in or not, it always seemed to fall during half-term.
I’d actually been due on the 5th November – and my mother always said if I had been born on that day she would have called me Guy (which, I suppose, may have made any medical or judicial type book-in throughout my life momentarily more light-hearted – “Yes, I’m Guy; yes, my birthday is the fifth of November…” gentle amusement, comic appreciation, etc. etc.) – but I shot out (in the space of about half an hour, she tells me) precisely a week earlier, the 29th October.
A non-date. An ordinary working day. An ordinary school day. Unlike my once potential 5th November.
So I switched it.
Determined to never face the bumps again, from that day on I always claimed the 5th as my birthday, only confessing my actual birth date to my closest friends when I was in Sixth Form.
After leaving school, I happily reclaimed the 29th October (this was the Nineties and I shared it with Winona Ryder, the coolest person on the planet*).
Then, about a decade ago, things started to change again. Firstly, 29th October now seemed to always be in half-term week, meaning more expensive flights and hotels if I wanted to go away; more friends away if I wanted to see them.
This was a little inconvenient, but there was something else. Wherever I went, pumpkins glowed – in fancy restaurants, at country house hotels, in bars. There might be a spooky cocktail on the menu or, most likely, pumpkin on the menu. Inevitably, at some point I’d encounter someone in wholly inappropriate cosplay.
And, should I stay in my own manor and celebrate in Shoreditch (which I’ve only done on a couple of occasions), I could behold the entire ‘Dystopia Now’ Experience.
Shoreditch is, quite literally, hell at Halloween.
In fact, everywhere has become hell at Halloween, and this affects me because my day, my little, ordinary, workaday day, has been swallowed up into it: if it falls on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, it’s basically a theme night.
But, why, I hear you cry, am I not more joyous about this? Surely my fortunate birth affords me endless licence for costume parties, for death-themed hilarity in restaurants and bars, a guaranteed “Let’s all get steaming!” night out?
Well, maybe my age is more of a problem than I realise, but it’s not only that. It’s the fact that we’ve gone so wholesale with it (despite not having the right customs in place like they do in the States) and we’re just not civilised enough to pull it off.
People are scary. People are really scary these days, wound up on timelines feeding hate and bile into every possible thing that anyone ever said or did or thought; ready to take offence, to be inappropriate or deem something else to be; ready to throw acid at anyone who “looks at them funny”.
That’s an ordinary Saturday night out.
Halloween is all the hype anyone needs to ramp this up into a frenzied, febrile, ’Twelfth Night’ type occasion where all bets are off, none of our usual rules apply and everything is tinged with the potential for something unpleasant to happen.
Costumes change people. The actual clothes themselves are scary enough to begin with as most are highly flammable, but the act of dissembling, of becoming something ‘other’ can bring out unexpected behaviours in adults – people are not themselves. They look different, feel different and so act differently too.
Sometimes this can be a great thing; I’ve seen intense introverts shake off their self-imposed restrictions and become the life and soul of the party; I’ve seen macho guys who consciously stake out their hyper-masculinity in every move suddenly embrace their feminine side; but I’ve also seen people who, usually, would never dream of being outrageous, provocative or ‘in anyone’s face’ be exactly that, and, all too often, for this to lead to conflict.
These are conflicted times. We are conflicted souls. The Trump Era has ushered in the age of comic strip politics where every day feels like witnessing some kind of dark circus. We’re in a cartoon where the joke’s on us, where we’re hit with news headlines that feel like daily assaults with a giant mallet. Even if we don’t feel completely flattened by this, most of us are a little, well, on edge, right now.
Living in the city, this edge is frequently ratcheted up a few notches. When we hear loud bangs coming from outside, we scan the skies for signs these noises are coming from fireworks and not announcing the start of some terror attack. If we can’t see anything, we find ourselves checking hashtags to try to find out what’s going on.
And I know I’m sounding more than a bit of a party pooper here, but if I were a murderer, a terrorist, a mugger, a rapist, or just some who likes freaking people out while wearing a clown costume, Halloween would be my night of nights (or, as Halloween now stretches out for the week leading up to it and the whole of the related weekend, it would be my week to wreak havoc against the best possible backdrop for nefarious activities).
I think we need some rules. It’s getting out of control. In other times, this explosion of darkness might be healthy, a sort of mutual bloodletting to exorcise our fears and make fun of them, but violence, death and destruction are present in our lives 365 – maybe, rather than anchoring around that, we should do the opposite and celebrate the light as we head into the darkest phase of the year.
We won’t, of course. And I’m sure, amid all the fun that people will have, there will be some horrible stories coming out of Halloween weekend that make us question the darkness that can lie in the hearts of people.
As a little exercise though, these would be my top five rules for Halloween:
When trick or treating, you can only knock at the door of someone displaying a pumpkin, you should be accompanied by a parent or carer and, if that’s too embarrassing for you, you’re too old to be trick or treating.
Swastikas, Black Face, or any costume that is likely to result in a genital display are OFF LIMITS. Period.
If you are a restauranteur, it isn’t mandatory to weave pumpkin into your menu.
If you are concerned about pushing sugar at children, don’t open the door. No one wants your organic fruit rolls.
And anything Halloween related should only happen on Halloween itself: it should be a one night only event, whatever day of the week it falls on (and that way, I could get my birthday back). One night is more than enough.
I’m not a total Halloween hater. I always carve a pumpkin (on my birthday, usually – it’s one of my own funny little traditions and, depending of how well it weathers, it will usually be on display until 5th November). Kids love it, and, for kids, I do think, for all the sugar, Halloween can have a healthy role in diffusing childish fears.
For adults though, it now creates more of them.
We should leave it to the kids and put away our childish things.
*She still is. Winona Forever!