Today we went to the pantomime. Oh yes we did. Even James, who has been slightly phobic about pantomimes ever since Cinderella at the Wycombe Swan in 2013, when one of the Ugly Sisters took a shine to him and flirted outrageously throughout, to the extent that we were stopped several times as we left and asked whether James was part of the cast.
One of the children – a real reader – is going through a phase of being completely unable to cope with anything bad happening to any character in the books he reads. No matter how certain the situation is to end happily, he becomes seriously and genuinely distressed. We read Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat recently and every bedtime was marked by howls of misery as Gobbolino, searching for a home, found himself unwelcome yet again. I turned to Morris Gleitzman, an author who’s reduced me to tears of laughter. We did brilliantly – glace cherries in green curry, unfamiliar Australian slang, the germs on Colin’s handkerchief – right up until Luke’s diagnosis. I’d forgotten that it wasn’t always laughter than made me cry in Two Weeks with the Queen. And as for Alice – he was so frightened for her when she fell down the rabbit hole that we haven’t yet managed to get as far as Wonderland. It happens with films, too – we all settled down to watch Paddington recently, complete with open fire, marshmallows and milk chocolate digestives on a tray, and the poor child was traumatized for life. Happy endings are no comfort to him – the fact that everything is going to end well, and that, in his heart, he knows everything is going to end well, doesn’t take away the fact that the characters suffered when they suffered. Paddington was scared. He was alone. And Nicole Kidman wanted to kill him. It didn’t help that I used to work at the Natural History Museum and have, in the past, explained to the children exactly how the creatures in the display cases are stuffed.
So I approached the pantomime this year with a certain amount of trepidation. Our seats were bang in the middle of a row, which ruled out a discreet exit. I resolved to keep Child Deepfeels next to me, but there was a tall woman with big hair in front of our youngest and a short and excited member of Chiltern Gateway Club behind James, who is rather tall. Thus began a game which was part musical chairs and part that riddle where you have one boat and one wide river and a fox and a chicken and a sack of grain and have to make sure that everyone can see the stage. In the attendant seat-shuffling Child Deepfeels and I lost each other (and made some good friends – No, your children must be able to see, says the carer accommodatingly. No, you must be able to see, I say to her charge. Why can’t we both see? adult and child demand simultaneously, and thus it was arranged.)
The pantomime was truly hideous, in the best traditions. The jokes were dreadful and the Dame’s costumes could have supported a cast of their own. When a string of toilet rolls was thrown from the stage, I completely misunderstood my role as an audience member and threw it back, thus incurring the wrath of Wishee Washee, who later made me the subject of a concerted and targeted water pistol attack. I still don’t know what I was meant to do with the toilet rolls, but my children and the Gateway Club were thrilled to hysterics at
having one of the characters off the stage and in their midst. (I’m still not speaking to James, who was dying to have a go with the water pistol).
And Child Deepfeels watched as the Princess was kidnapped and Aladdin reduced to poverty and his mother humiliated, with total glee. I can tell you now that he will still be holding an apple next to his watch and declaring he has an Apple Watch come New Year. And I expect we’ll still be laughing.
You see, I had forgotten that the thing that makes pantomime simultaneously unspeakably wonderful and unutterably dreadful is its total avoidance of any kind of doubt, and any kind of emotion beyond a general agreement to laugh. There’s nothing to prove, just a set of conventions to which we all sign up. Oh yes we do. There couldn’t be a safer place to witness jeopardy (or to catch hypothermia).
But we do not have the luxury of treating the world in which we find ourselves as a pantomime. There’s a horrific fascination in witnessing Donald Trump’s latest outrage, just as there was in watching Boris Johnson’s buffoonery. But we are not living in a pantomime. We cannot simply boo the baddies and root for the goodies, yelling He’s behind you from time to time. Child Deepfeel’s sense of injustice and the misery of others was neutralized by a secure narrative in which everyone knew the rules and stuck to them. We can, and do, create that narrative for ourselves, and make it possible to read the news again, by using this simple proforma:
[write in your concern with the world here] is the fault of immigrants/ women/ social justice warriors* [delete/amend/add as suits your own prejudice].
It was wonderful to enjoy the theatre without fielding Child Deepfeel’s distress. But it must not become a habit. Paddington was scared. He was alone. And Paddington was a refugee.