An old wallet of photographs surfaced recently from an era of my life I otherwise have no tangible reminders for, including a set of very poorly exposed snaps taken one bonfire night. The subject of the photographs is the burning of a human-sized alien effigy in the small garden of a pebble-dashed house somewhere in the largely unlovely environs of Hemel Hempstead. It was to this pebble-dashed house I’d go every other weekend following my parents’ divorce, where I’d try and make the best of the new arrangement that had seen me acquire a step-mother and two step-siblings. To be honest, I’m not sure I did always try and make the best of things during those visits. I suspect I often had a face on me like a slapped arse, raining on various parades like a passive-aggressive sprinkler, and radiating generally my very deep displeasure at the new arrangement and all that led to it.
One of my more positive strategies for getting through these weekends, which I would otherwise find to be both stultifying and rage-inducing, was to invent stuff; I’d write plays for my step-siblings and we’d perform them. I’d invent entire fantastical worlds to escape into, taking my step-siblings with me, who little suspected I was only using our adventures together as a tool for tunneling my way as quickly as possible from one side of the weekend to the other. I was a storyteller and I was the clown, and like a clown, my smile rarely reached my eyes.
It’s different now, but back then, Bonfire Night was a big fucking deal. I loved fireworks. I loved boxes of fireworks, those colourful collections of cylinders, cones and coiled discs with their twists of blue touch paper and ‘hope-over-reality’ nomenclature promising extraordinary spectacles but rarely delivering them. Dad liked fireworks too and could always be relied upon to take the moment seriously and put on a good show – a bit of risk, a bit of showmanship, a precious annual ritual making daring little boys of all of us.
I do not recall why I decided to create a green alien guy for Bonfire Night. I suspect the effort I gave this task was directly proportionate to my effort to bend my dad’s new family to my will, or rather I was seeking to re-make that pebble-dashed house in my own image – to make it look more like somewhere I could reside more comfortably. I can absolutely recall making the guy, sticking together two old lampshades for the head, and papier-mâchéing over them. I remember where I made it too – in the narrow strip of landing outside the front door of the first floor flat I lived in with my mum and stepdad, making the whole building stink with the smell of metallic green spray paint.
My stepdad was suitably perplexed. Why go to all this effort to make something that was destined to be burned in a barrel? I’m not sure I ever gave him a satisfactory answer. I probably went sulky, feeling criticised and misunderstood. The answer lies in the act of making itself (is the answer I didn’t give at the time), the restorative and mediative process of bringing something into being; the satisfying wet slick of the papier-mâché, the delightful pop and wobble of all those ping-pong ball eyes as I skewered them one-by-one onto their antennae of wire.
And it was a monster, of course, a happy fiction dragged from the unreality of 1950s b-movies and creaky episodes of Dr Who, and made-over as concrete and tangible in my personal quest to put things into the world that were larger than life – to do away with what was mundane, to summon into being freaks and creatures and monsters and ghosts. It was never just that house in Hemel Hempstead I wanted to re-configure in the image of my imagination, it was everywhere else too.
When the time came, the alien burned very fast in his barrel. Looking at these blurry photographs today, I worry about the Chernobyl-levels of lung-corroding toxins produced by setting fire to something as caked in paint, varnish and plastic as my alien guy. There’s likely scientific data somewhere that dates the opening up of new hole in the ozone layer due exclusively to this extraterrestrial immolation.
In common with all those tantalizing boxes of fireworks, the burning of my alien was a great big anti-climax, not least because it didn’t achieve any kind of seismic change to the reality of my weekends at dad’s house. It didn’t make me more popular with anyone, more likeable or more interesting. They probably thought I was just showing off. In truth, I probably was.
But making something is always a magical act – lead into gold, straw into gold, two old lampshades into a monster.