John Walsh: Tales of the City

'I've been approached by the US film industry and asked to write for them. Hurrah! Fame, riches and women await'
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The Independent Online

There's something heart-sinking about seeing Santa Claus raising a bottle of Coca-Cola to his lips. Such a floridly Falstaffian old party would surely survive his all-weather global gift-dispensing circuit on a tidal wave of malt whisky, chased down with glasses of Taylor's '52 left on hearthside tables by sentimental parents. The current TV commercial dramatises the red-coated endomorph's relationship with a little girl, who grows into a winsome girl, becomes a mother and ends up as a silver-haired granny (still drinking Coke, rather implausibly, throughout) while the irritatingly jovial figure of Santa never ages or changes. He's always been there (the advert suggests) - we invented Santa, and he's now been around a whole lifetime. Lots of people actually believe it. It's one of the great fake historical inventions, along with the myth that Scottish clan tartans existed before the 19th century. As a Santa website explains it, "The Santa we all know and love was created for Coca-Cola in 1931 by Haddon Sundblom."

Wrong wrong wrong. The original character was much more interesting. He started life as a figure drawn by Thomas Nast, a Bavarian-born American cartoonist working on Harper's Weekly. In January 1863, while the American Civil War raged on (the Confederates had won the Battle of Fredericksburg a month earlier), Nast created the figure of Santa as a spiritually uplifting figure in a white beard and Stars'n' Stripes coat, handing out toy puppets to stricken Union soldiers. Nast drew on several European traditions, especially the life of St Nicholas, a fourth-century Byzantine bishop and a legendary figure in his flowing beard and robes, who wandered from town to village for reasons that remain inscrutable, dispensing gifts to children who chose the right end of the naughty-nice spectrum.

Nast's German ancestors' fascination for folk tales inspired him to give the ambulant bishop a retinue of elves and dwarfs, busily employed in making toys in the Arctic Circle. All this image-making was hijacked by the great Norman Rockwell for a Saturday Evening Post cover in the 1920s, and reinvented by Mr Sundblom in 1931, using his vastly corpulent self as a model.

It's nicely ironic, though, that the big man's originator should be Thomas Nast. For he was the father of the modern political cartoon, relying on scabrous and startling images rather than lengthy captions. His wit was barbed, he took no prisoners and, while sticking up for ethnic minorities like American-Indians, he was a shameless bigot; he really hated Catholics and the Irish. It's rather nice to think that the snuggly old sweetie Father Christmas was brought to life by the 1860s equivalent of Dave Brown, Peter Schrank or Steve Bell. If Nast had been more like them, would he, as the years passed, have pictured the spirit of Christmas growing into a ghastly consumerist folly, exploiting his labouring elves, overworking his reindeer and grinding the faces of the Cratchit family? I'm afraid that if he had, the Coca-Cola people would have given him a wide berth.

***

To my surprise, I've been approached by the US film industry and asked to write for them. Hurrah! Global success, fame, riches and the love of women lie within my grasp - all because of an e-mail from out of the blue.

"We were wondering," it read, "if you might be interested in co-writing a book called Black Eternal; a supernatural fantasy about an English Prince/Nightclub Owner/Vampire who scans the centuries and revisits his own eternal companion, only to discover that he is afraid of his own heart."

Well, gosh. It's not every day someone asks you to write a book and tells you the plot - especially when the plot seems an odd conflation of Dracula, Casablanca and The Black Shield of Falmouth. "Some of the biggest publishers in the UK and the US," the e-mail continued, "are now considering it for publication." What? Even before the thing has been written? "The manuscript has been adapted from the screenplay," it explained, "but we feel that the writer needs another author's perspective and experience."

Well obviously. Any Hollywood studio that's having a spot of bother bringing to life a story about a vampiric nightclub-owner with an entry in Burke's Peerage would naturally think of me. My long experience among the undead, my London-Irish perspective on the English aristocracy, my misspent nights at Nells and Boujis - it all adds up to a unique, phenomenal data-bank.

The rest of the e-mail was taken up with a "progress report" about Black Eternal - how Jude Law's agent has asked to be kept informed about it, how Kate Winslet's agent called "personally" and was "very friendly and enthusiastic" about the movie (which of course hasn't been made yet), how everyone from Roman Polanski to the president of Miramax has asked to see the script, how Angelina Jolie's agent wants to be "kept informed of any attachments", like a human vacuum-cleaner. Gradually it dawned on me that, dammit, I wasn't really being offered a million-dollar contract to "novelise" a hit movie; I was just being told, in a sneaky way, about the number of Hollywood contacts a New York agency could boast, how they've got Colin Farrell's manager on speed-dial and Rachel Weisz on vibrate. I'd been suckered for a whole five minutes.

I've made a start on the book anyway. My hero is a cross between Prince Harry, Peter Stringfellow and Vlad the Impaler. It'll make all our fortunes, mark my words.

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