It's not as if the phenomenon started last week. My Oxford Dictionary defines it precisely as "Hallowe'en children's game of calling at houses with threats of pranks if sweets etc are not given", and that's the 1976 edition. But under this heading comes a baffling diversity of human behaviour.
The first lot arrived at 7pm - a clutch of little girl demons, aged 10, accessories with flashing red horns, luminous incisors and poisoned papier mache apples. They were about as terrifying as carol singers, and were shepherded by a matron in a Kaffe Fassett woolly. I gave them an economy pack of Penguins (biscuits, not books). Half an hour later, two teenagers arrived on the doorstep, made up as for a slightly louche disco rather than a Saturnalia. One had a spectacular crop of spots and a brace on her teeth. "No sweets," she said, pre-emptily. "My Mum says I can't have sweets". The unspotty one regarded me coolly. "Glass of wine would be nice," she said, "And a fag". "Nah," said her friend, "Me Mum'd go mad. But we don't mind money."
After they'd trit-trotted away with my small change jingling in their handbags, I decided to change tactics. Instead of dishing out any more largesse, let them do tricks for me. Sure enough, the doorbell rang ten minutes later. A 5ft youth in a nasty mask stood glumly in the rain. "Trickortree" came his muffled voice. I said: "How about a trick? A silence fell. "I can't do it now," said the mask. "But when you've gone, I could throw eggs at your front door." I gave him a clip round the ear and sent him away.
The last incarnation was frankly sinister, somewhere between blackmail and true Gothic. A man in black civvies stood outside with a fairy and a cat on either side. He held a plastic shopping bag and did a lot of smiling. "Trick or treat?" he enquired nicely, like a shop assistant asking if you needed any help.
"I'm a bit short of treats," I said, "Why not show me a trick?" "Very well," he said, still smiling, "Look at this - whereupon he up-ended the plastic bag, and a large black jackdaw, real but extremely dead, flopped onto the Welcome mat.
"What the hell...?"
"Good trick", he observed, proudly. "That's worth a quid, surely?".
I'VE BEEN keeping a low profile in this paper lately, and all because of Steven Berkoff. The great dramaturge gave a one-man show the other day, which I had the pleasure of introducing. He picked up the audience in his hand, tickled them, fondled them and treated them to his whole range of 72 voices, by turns Chicago docker, Fifties camp, breathy juvenile and ageing panto dame. At question time, one chap disingenuously asked: "What are the things you hate most in the world?" Berkoff's lip curled as he selected a few from his Top 500. "Models who become actresses" elicited a fine head of steam. Mobile phones, ditto. Millionaire Americans, like the divine Ms Kidman, who appear at the Almeida Theatre for pounds 250 a week ("Gahd, they're so braaayve!"). And lastly, climactically, "I hate journalists whose photographs appear on the front of newspapers." Eh? Berkoff nursed a special animus, it seemed, against Ms Joanna Coles, the deeply gorgeous New York-based columnist whose ironical smile has turned up on the front page of The Guardian and The Times. "When I see her photograph, I just want to drive my fist..." said Berkoff, smacking bunched knuckles repeatedly into his open palm, until one imagined the offending newspaper reduced (or returned) to pulp.
The audience roared their approval. Meeting Berkoff afterwards, I wondered if I should mention that my own gurning visage has appeared once or twice on the front of this organ. Better not, on the whole, I decided. I wouldn't want him to think I was fishing for compliments.
IT'S BEEN quite a weekend for dressing up in strange garb and alarming your neighbours. The Milan-based clothing firm of Parole di Cotone have kindly sent me a T-shirt - one of the "Literati Collection" that the makers have dreamed up with advice from the Booksellers Association. They've chosen a dozen texts from an eclectic array of writers, philosophers and mystics and hope to emblazon them, artily designed, on the chests of the nation's sensitive fashion victims.
Now, instead of having "My Mother went to Washington and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" on your front, you can have Nietschze's "One must feel chaos within, to give birth to a dancing star". Or Catullus's "Odi et amo quare id faciam" line, or the first paragraph of Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa discovers he's become a giant insect - although to derive the thrill benefit from this one, it would have to be read at the kind of close range that makes sexual assault virtually mandatory.
The manufacturers explain it in visionary (and charmingly Italian) terms:
"Parole di Cotone T-shirt allow (sic) you to try on your favourite authors or literary characters for size and the Literati Collection aims to set the text free from the printed page, bringing new life to literature."
It's jolly nice of the Milan rag trade to give literature a leg-up in this way, and I took my new bit of apparel for a test-run.
The one they'd chosen for me featured an epigram from Lao-Tze: "What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly." It was illustrated with three rudimentary "Chinese" brushstrokes on it, suggestive of a winged insect. I strode out, be-shirted with Zen wisdom.
At the supermarket, I met Terry from the video shop. "Hi John," he said, scrutinising my front, "Bin doin' some paintin'?". No no, I said with a Mandarin smile, this is a butterfly. Note the profound text beside it. "What the caterpillar calls the end..." he read out. "I didn't know caterpillars thought about things". Terry, I explained, it's a kind of metaph...
"End of a leaf they was eating, yeah. End of a twig they was walkin' on, okay. But caterpillars don't go around speculatin' on mortality, do they?" Hopeless.
Back home, I showed it to the children. "Why's it got writing on it?" asked Clementine, aged three. "I preferred the black one you got from the Kerrang! awards" said Sophie (11, going on 20), "That was coo-ul".
This is about literature, I told them, it's freeing the text from the... "The rest of the world calls a butterfly", read Max (seven, not quite in the Zen marketplace just yet)," What does the rest of the world call a butterfly? Except a butterfly, obviously?". Lord protect us from the ignorance of the young.
I tried the neighbours. "Is it Katharine Hammett?" asked Sally from No.84.
"Thank God she's given up banging on about Pershing missiles".
"All I can conclude about this chap Lao-Tze", said George, the smartarse barrister from No.108, "is that he's a lou-see thinker".
Such philistinism. I escaped to the pub. As I was getting the Youngs Winter Warmers in, a huge darts-player looked me up and down. What d'you think of the T-shirt? I asked. It's supposed to be bringing new life to literature, you know. He opened my jacket, read the legend on my manly poitrine and closed the jacket like a butler shutting the French windows for the night. "****," he said shortly, "- DH Lawrence".