It’s traditional when you leave a newspaper that your colleagues will rustle up a mock front page reflecting, in less than reverential tones, your contribution to the title. The page from my last paper hangs in my study and features your correspondent as a Butlin’s redcoat, a Klingon, a trainspotter and, on two separate occasions, a nudist.
What can I say? The paper was a tabloid, fun to read but a tough place to work. You lived or died by the byline count. So from the nearest Oxfam shop I purchased an especially sorrowful anorak and bottle-bottom glasses to, cruelly it seems now, infiltrate the loco-loggers at Glasgow’s Central Station and then wore nothing at all to infiltrate a naturist club in Pencaitland, East Lothian.
The other occasion I was in the scud was to illustrate a non-story based round a survey which asked: “Would you go to work naked for a million pounds?” The paper wanted a top Scottish TV personality to disrobe. Jim White, the sports presenter, was going to do it only to change his mind. The deadline approached; there was nothing else for it. I got my kit off again.
My children laugh at the photo of me as a ’spotter; my wife laughs at the ones of me naked. Personally, I think the funniest shot comes from the day I ran off to join a circus in Paisley where my face was painted white, a red ping-pong ball was jammed on the end of my nose and I was made to wear a too-small hat and too-big shoes. I always wondered why the kids never remarked on the photo, but now I know: clowns, as far as they’re concerned, are terrifying.
Right now, I can see why. Peely-wally, perma-grinning pranksters are seemingly at large. They’re jumping out from behind trees, chasing children, causing fear and alarm. It started off as a “phenomenon” which is no time has turned into a “craze”. It began as “clown sighting” but has quickly been upgraded to being about “killer clowns”.
My kids have not as yet spotted any clowns hanging round their school but that almost doesn’t matter: the clowns are in their heads, their fevered imaginations and their nightmares. It’s no laughing matter being woken up at 3am and urged to check under beds for horrible harlequins, jaundiced jesters and psycho-Pierrots.
All this clowning around kicked off in America in August with South Carolina the first state to despatch police officers with an identikit description of a man with a crimson conk and burst-sofa hair attempting to lure children into woods in Greenville County.
Since then copycat clowns have caused malevolent merriment in a further 23 states. There have been more than 100 sightings, a dozen arrests and school closures in Texas and Alabama. Cops, overwhelmed by the “clownpocalypse”, have “begged” the FBI for help, according to one of the more excitable reports. The panic has even reached the highest office in the USA with White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirming that law enforcement was taking the threat seriously.
Now the craze, driven by social media, has spread here. A helpful map published yesterday detailed 21 cities and towns where clown-related incidents have been reported, all the way from Aberdeen to Plymouth. You can imagine some nondescript, nothing-ever-happens places feeling a bit irked at being left off the map and local toerags being determined to put that right, buying up the Halloween delivery of clown costumes to lurk behind Weatherspoons or their crummy statuary and shout “Boo!”
But it’s the real clowns I feel sorry for. What have they ever done to deserve such a bad rep? “The people doing this crazy stuff are not clowns,” says Randy Christiansen, president of the World Clown Association. “They’re taking a good, clean, wholesome art form and trying to distort it.” The leading authority on custard-pie entertainment is trying to put a brave face on the incidences of rogue clowning. “This is a yearly thing for is,” he adds. “With Halloween, it happens. We just try and stay positive because we’re about bringing joy and happiness and giggles and hope.” Nevertheless, you wonder if clowns like Christiansen can survive the craze.
When did clowns become scary? They never were in my childhood. Admittedly Billy Smart’s big-top spectacular wasn’t so much of a must-see as an all-there-was. On rain-lashed bank holiday afternoons we would have watched anything. But, before we knew any better, the squirting-flower routine was the acme of sophisticated humour.
The first circus I saw live was in Stonehaven, circa 1971, an epicly resourceful affair with a cast of five. Everyone did eight jobs. The woman in charge of the ticket-kiosk turned up later in fishnet tights spinning barrels with her feet. The man fired out of a cannon in the first half of the show had changed into his clown’s costume when we emerged gasping from the sweaty tent at the interval and the sight of him puffing on a fag between sips from a can of Tennent’s Lager to steel himself for the next act is one that will never leave me. Indeed, I’m absolutely convinced he was the inspiration for the greatest Simpsons character ever, Krusty the Clown.
I blame the horror writers. Bored with their monster creations, they suddenly turned to clowns. Little wonder then that Stephen King is urging calm. “Hey guys,” he tweeted, “time to cool down the clown hysteria – most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”