Monday, 12 October 2015


Say hello to my little friend.

This is Sid, alias Sailor Boy. He's a smart lad. He can talk, he can laugh, and he can wink at you. Until his tubes perished he was able to cry, and even to smoke a cigarette, when such depravity was still tolerated in public.

Sid is a handmade ventriloquist doll. A doll, not a dummy. Sid, like all vent dolls, doesn't like being called a dummy. It annoys him. If you persist in annoying him he'll get angry. He might pay you a visit late one night. Will it be a real visit, or a dream? You may not be able to tell the difference any more by the time he's finished with you. But don't worry. Just don't make him angry.

I haven't seen Sid for a long time. He agreed to retire many years ago, after his appearance at my son's fifth birthday party upset some people. Mostly parents of the guests. Never mind. But since then Sid's been living in a suitcase on top of my wardrobe. I like to think he's been hibernating, and I'm sure he hasn't objected to being locked in a suitcase for all those years. A small, dark suitcase. Cramped, stifled, imprisoned. Powerless. Driven insane by frustration, boredom and rage. Oh God, I'm sorry Sid. Forgive me. But I was hurt too, remember.

Okay, let's not go there. Let's just say Sid and I have had our differences.

Anyway, I took him out the other night. A friend was having a party, and the guests had been asked to perform something. The friend is a grownup, so I thought there wouldn't be any harm in bringing Sid along. I was wrong.

The first thing I noticed was how rusty my technique is. The second thing was that Sid didn't seem to bear me a grudge for his long confinement. And I was pathetically grateful. He was being very friendly. Almost as if he were the one who needed to apologise. Then I got it. I realised he was being passive-agressive. He was guilt-tripping me. And I remembered why Sid has spent more than ten years locked in a suitcase. I remembered what every vent knows: It's not about the technique. It's about the psychology. Technique is important, of course, but it's not what makes ventriloquism such an enjoyable interplay of illusion, slapstick, psychosis and demonic possession.

I've always been fascinated by ventriloquists, especially those whose act expresses their dread that, like Victor Frankenstein, they've animated a monster who hates them. They've usurped the power of God, and they're paying a terrible and hilarious price. Whether the drama is enacted in a battle of wits with a monkey, or class warfare with a drunken, monocled toff, ventriloquism is both transgressive and playful. Ludic sacrilege. Perfect entertainment, as far as I'm concerned.

But when I began reading books about ventriloquism I discovered something interesting. Every book devoted about three pages to physical technique, describing things like breath control, projection, and "head voice" versus "chest voice". The rest was filler. How to build a doll, how to write a routine, and so on. Then there was the television. I'm old enough to have witnessed some of the elderly music hall vents making the transition to television. And I noticed something extraordinary. The close-up shots on TV were merciless in exposing sloppy technique. With some of these guys, you could clearly see their lips moving. But it didn't really matter, if they had something else. And that's where the psychology comes in.

It's all about conviction. The same process is at the heart of another performative act I'm obsessed with, which is the confidence trick. The deceptions perpetrated by con artists, scammers and grifters are very like those practised by ventriloquists. Both types of performer must convince their audience that something improbable is true. The con artist must persuade the marks they can get something of value. The marks' own greed, and their willingness, therefore, to be duped, are vital. But the most important people for con artists to deceive are themselves. Only then can they project the absolute conviction in their own honesty that's required to make it work. "Would I lie to you?" the scammer asks, and the best ones must believe, unshakeably, that they're telling the truth.

It's the same with smugglers. Talk to customs officers on the drug squad and eventually they all admit the same thing: ultimately they rely on their instinct more than anything else. They stop someone because they just know something isn't right about them. Yes, it might involve an unconsciously learned expertise in body language, or something similar. But there's something else going on, too. The corollary here is that guilt or innocence is a belief projected by the potential suspect. Even if a smuggler is using the most primitive ruse, like a suitcase that's been clumsily equipped with a false compartment, or a ludicrous prosthetic belly, their belief in their own innocence is what enables them to carry it off, and to sail through customs unmolested. The smuggler who believes, "I'm clever, so they'll never find the drugs," is far more vulnerable than the one who believes, "I'm innocent, so why should they even stop me?"

Likewise, a ventriloquist is expressing a profoundly held belief: that the doll is other. The doll is not me. Even if it's just a sock with a couple of dots for eyes, this thing, this object, has an independent life of its own. Without that utter conviction, all the technique in the world is ineffective. It's a mind game. The vent must be as surprised, amused, horrified and embarrassed by the doll as the audience is. And at the same time the vent knows the doll IS them. This willed splitting of the personality can fracture the psyche, unless you accept the simple truth that the fractures are there anyway, in all of us. The personality is an artificial construct. As neuroscience and Buddhism draw closer the consensus grows that you are not who you think you are. Rather, you are, but you're also a lot of other people.

This is all very well, but unfortunately Sid doesn't agree with me. Sometimes the mind has a mind of its own. Sid can't handle the truth. He can't accept that we're two aspects of the same person. That's why he's now back in his suitcase, and I've just put him on top of the wardrobe again.

But I can't concentrate. I can hear him, squirming around, trying to get comfortable. And sniffing. I think he's weeping quietly. And now I can hear him saying something. Let me just listen for a moment…

"Don't mind me," he's muttering, "I'll be fine. Just leave me in here for another ten years. Forget about me. You just enjoy yourself. That's the important thing. Never mind me. I'll survive. Probably."

Damn him. He knows how to push my buttons. I'll have to let him out.

Wish me luck.