As an author, school visits help build an audience. They encourage new young readers, they build bridges with parents, they add to the cultural life of the nation. The Society of Authors has pages of guidance on how to conduct a successful author visit: from ideas, to legalities, to the basics of what and how to charge.
Sadly, my visit today is not author-related. I am sat with other parents in a class of six year olds, undertaking practical activities pertaining to the literary work ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’
The session is being led by a visiting lady who has dressed as Goldilocks. We have yet to read the book itself. Instead, an initial activity – making and stuffing a small cuddly toy bear – has already stoked the kids into dangerous overexcitement.
The mums file back into the classroom after our mid-session coffees. As usual, I am the lone male parent. I am held back by a tap on the shoulder from Goldilocks.
“Could you help out when we resume?” she asks. “I need someone for the bear role.”
I am chuffed by this. Aside from the fact that a story might calm everybody down, I’ve done quite a few readings etc. recently, and I reckon that my authorly experience will lend weight and gravitas to this key character. Plus I have recently grown a magnificent beard, which will help me emphasise the fierceness of the dialogue.
“Of course,” I say.
“Great,” says Goldilocks. “The next activities will be outside. Join us there. Your costume is in that bag.”
She indicates an enormous bag. I unzip it cautiously. Inside is a life-size bear costume.
I stare at the bear costume, then at the retreating form of Goldilocks, then at the bear costume again.
Nonplussed, I extract the bear costume from the bag. It consists of an all-in-one bear body suit plus a bear head. I look at the bear head. The bear head looks at me. I am on my own in the library, with nobody to whom I can articulate my deep aversion to wearing bear costumes.
With a plummeting heart, I begin to fumble with the bear costume. I have negligible experience in bear costumes, and this one seems both much too small and much too big at the same time. There is a peculiar smell about it, as if it were last washed in the days when actual bears roamed the forests of Britain and that its previous occupant was, indeed, a bear.
“Oh I’m sorry – I didn’t realise you were changing.” A teacher has entered the room and glanced at me as if it were the most natural thing in the world to wander into the school library to find a man sporting half a bear costume and a full expression of dismay.
“Could you just…” I begin, but she has already withdrawn.
The word ‘changing’ exacerbates my alarm. It dawns that I may have been expected to remove my own clothes before putting on the bear costume. I have now struggled fully into the bear suit as best I can. It is excruciatingly hot. Nevertheless there is no way that I am going to fight my way back out in order to remove my clothes. I have collected a reasonable press file over the years; happily no cuttings yet commence with the phrase: ‘A man, naked except for a bear costume…’
Defeated, I put on the bear head.
Everything goes dark. After a momentary panic, I discover that some visibility is possible via a strip of mesh concealed in the bear’s mouth, at my eye level. I step forwards and backwards a couple of times, to try to get acclimatised to the situation.
Very little acclimatisation seems possible. Sweating, I edge my way to the door. Then I lumber through the primary school, dressed as a bear.
The sun beats down as I emerge upon the playground. It appears to be deserted, but shouting noises, muffled by the bear head, are reaching me from the playing field. I make my unsteady way in that direction.
I round the corner, to be confronted by the class of six year olds. I stand before them in my bear costume. They stand before me, their little jaws dropping. If I am going to disguise myself as a bear then at least I am determined to make an impressive show of it, although the father within me cautions against scaring the kids too much.
“It’s Mr. Marsh!!!” shrieks one of them. “It’s your dad!!!” cries another. “Hey!!! Mr. Marsh!!!”
A tsunami of six-year old children surges towards me.
“He’s got the bloody costume on the wrong way round,” I hear one of the teaching assistants hiss. “Oh God – look where the tail…”
Her words are lost as I am engulfed. I feel arms grabbing my legs and bodies swarming around my back, attempting to hug the bear. Several pairs of hands are clawing away at the bear head, trying to pull it off. I can dimly hear the teacher appealing for calm, but now every bit of me is being pushed and pulled in some sort of bezerker frenzy. The mums are pointing and hooting away and using their phones to take photographs.
“He’s hungry! The bear is hungry!”
A child starts force-feeding the bear, stuffing leaves and twigs into its mouth. This is where my eye-hole is, so I am now completely blind. A small hand thrusts up inside the bear head itself and gives me a fat lip. Something, presumably a child, is clinging on so hard to my left leg that I am in danger of falling. I can hear Goldilocks and the teacher trying to restore order. But the children are in a bear-baiting world of their own. I make pathetic ‘please be kind to the bear’ noises, but to no avail. They are not giving up. I remove the bear head in defeat, blinking in the sunshine, sweat pouring down my face.
“Yay!!! Mr. Marsh!!!” My act of submission appears to satisfy the children.
When calm finally descends, I put on the bear head once more, in order to take part in the activity. It involves me standing under a tree in a bear costume. In my paws I hold a basket, in which are the ingredients for porridge. The children seem to enjoy their activity, and my role is concluded.
I plod back across the playground and through the school. I change out of the bear costume.
Later, I am given an evaluation form for the session. The first question reads: ‘Please state whether the event met your expectations.’
You can buy my latest book on Amazon (and in all good bookstores). (‘In the grand tradition of British comic novels’)