It started with my nephew. Without warning, he started making puppets. I’m not talking about a sock with a couple of buttons sewn on, but beautiful puppets that would make Jim Henson weep with envy. One is named ‘Terrence’ and he performed a puppet show that included fielding questions from the audience. It was quite brilliant. Within moments, I was flooded with nostalgia and my right arm went bolt upright as a matter of instinct. That’s because I know a thing or two about puppet shows – for I was a teenage puppeteer.
I couldn’t tell you how it happened. I had no instinct whatsoever for needlecraft, design or costuming and none of the skills normally associated with puppetry. I didn’t even own a black skivvy and was way too young to cultivate an effective goatee. If you were designing a puppeteer from scratch, I would be more of a cautionary tale rather than a blueprint. But despite my shortcomings being both bountiful and profound, I built my own puppet.
He was made of foam with blue material stretched across the frame; the end result was something that resembled a disaffected Smurf. The stitching was uneven meaning that the foam was pulled in various directions resulting in a head that would likely frighten small children. It’s fair to say that making a puppet that terrifies children means you’re alienating pretty much your entire potential audience. Having not worked out my design in advance, I was now forced to make the best I could out of the twisted puppetry wreckage in front of me. I glued on some white carpet around the head, made some glasses out of wire and called him ‘Grandpa’.
Despite his hideous appearance that terrified old and young alike, ‘Grandpa’ was quite the hit. Our youth group would perform puppet shows which, in reality, meant kneeling on the floor with your arm above your head for extended periods of time until you thought it was about to fall off at the elbow. It was common that, mid show, due to severe arm-fatigue, Grandpa would start to become quite limp until he was pretty much hanging on the curtain, not moving very much, prompting the other more spritely puppets to question whether Grandpa had experienced some kind of medical episode. In reality, I think they were just jealous.
At some point during my teenage years, I made the obvious transition from puppetry to rock and roll, and left Grandpa behind. For those who might suggest that music and puppetry are not necessarily mutually exclusive – as One Direction so ably demonstrated – I can only say that I tried once to strum a Maton guitar whilst holding Grandpa and the results were not so much musical as they were flat-out disastrous. I put Grandpa aside and for the past thirty years he’s been gathering dust. Until now.
My father is strongly of the view that I should present my puppet to my nephew. I’m reluctant; the simple fact is that my nine year old nephew is making puppets that are greatly superior to anything I managed conjure up as a teenager. I shouldn’t care, but the truth is that I’m not ready to receive constructive criticism on my needlecraft from a nine year old. But my father was determined, and shoved a box containing the mortal remains of Grandpa in my direction.
Time has not been kind to my puppet. I would have thought there was no greater depth for Grandpa to plumb, but I now stood corrected as I gazed upon what was left of my puppet. Then it struck me – when I constructed ‘Grandpa’, my father was the age I am now. In the intervening years, my father has gradually become more and more like the puppet. Just as Dorian Gray had a portrait ageing in an attic; here, my father was catching up to Grandpa. It was kind of a reverse Oscar Wilde effect. Then it occurred to me – perhaps that was the reason he’d kept it all these years. That, somehow, my father and the puppet were inextricably linked.
No matter what I did, it felt like the eyes of the puppet were following me as I moved around the house. In quiet moments alone, I think that I’ve heard the voice of my father before I spin around to see the puppet lying on the dining room table, it’s dead eyes staring at me. Eventually, I surrendered and put the puppet on my hand. It was amazing how natural it felt. But then it started to speak; telling me that it had a bundle of newspaper clippings and a carton of eggs in the car and that I should make sure I took time to collect them. It’s my father that’s speaking. In a sharp turn for the worse, I think I may have started speaking back…
I’m not sure when I’ll be handing over ‘Grandpa’ to my nephew. What his puppet, ‘Terrence’, will make of Grandpa is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Grandpa was about to find himself on the wrong end of a fairly nasty hazing ritual. He may deserve it.
And so it is that the term ‘Master of the Puppets’ is not only the name of a Metallica album but a title passed on from one generation of my family to the next. For me, I’m happy to hand both the title and the puppet over to my nephew. My arm, however, is now stuck permanently above my head. This could be awkward.