‘It’s a bit different, but the pay’s good,’ said the woman from the agency. At a tenner an hour, it tripled the going rate. But while I usually washed dishes or stuffed envelopes, this time I was dressing up as a bank safe in the Lord Mayor’s parade. I accepted, unsure if it was the price of humiliation, or a generous rate for my big break in TV.
Four of us were paid to march alongside a corporate float winding through central London. The wooden ‘security’ boxes were designed for visual impact rather than pilot comfort. The three girls who completed the team tried them out for size, but claimed it was impossible to walk in them. They elected instead to sit on the float and earn their money waving for their wages. Despite their tempting example, some misguided macho instinct persuaded me to strap on my box and walk alone.
As the parade got underway, the cramped dimensions of my wooden body suit constricted my natural stride. The supporting rope began to rub through the top layers of my shoulder’s skin. Downhill sections followed calling for bursts of speed I could only achieve by taking fast mincing steps – a comical effect enhanced by the rictus of pain brought on by each crash of my bruised and bloodied knees against the unyielding wood.
As the sun and the strain drew streams of sweat down my ruddy cheeks the reality of what I was doing dawned through a mist of mental and physical pain. A punchable child squealed: ‘What are you meant to be, mister?’ Some giant walking chocolates from the float behind urged me on with the words: ‘Pick your pace up, Safe-Boy! When someone screamed: ‘Look up and smile – you’re on TV!’ I knew I’d reached my nadir. I cast my eyes down balefully. And confronted now by terraces piled high with spectators, my life flashed before me, and anyone watching BBC1.
I consoled myself with lager in the lunchtime break agreeing belatedly with the girls to join them on the float for the return trip. We stashed beer in my grounded box ducking inside its secure walls for crafty swigs when the crowd’s adulation proved too cloying.
But after an hour of waving inanely at thousands of inquiring faces philosophical doubts crept into my mind. An anonymous man, now endorsing nothing, paid to wave at a crowd of people he didn’t know. Why? The existential angst kicked in, then the lunchtime beer. One of the girls suggested we danced along to the jazz band playing behind us on our float. Would this be the final dance on the grave of my tattered dignity or a chance to pluck some minor triumph from the public disaster recorded earlier?
I chose dance. Not well, but with enthusiasm. A few feet tapped, the odd hip wiggled, a family swayed and a madman screamed deliriously. Soon whole sections of the mob swayed happily along to our joyful arrhythmic moves. And while we orchestrated the masses, I searched the sky in vain for a TV camera. But my memories must suffice. For what the cameras recorded, I’ll still pay good money for the tapes.
The Guardian 2007