John, the trickster god

Tank Green/ December 9, 2023/ Writing Walking

Photo of a pair of glasses resting on top of a rectangular concrete post. In the background is a woodland environment.

Photo of a pair of glasses resting on top of a rectangular concrete post. In the background is a woodland environment.

According to a local folklorist, these glasses were left here by a trickster god named John. He’s been doing it since at least the seventeenth century, although many of the older wise ladies say it started long before that. Nevertheless, the locals have learnt the hard way to leave the spectacles alone, and there is a consistent and verifiable corpus of knowledge as to what happens to the unsuspecting wearer of the glasses covering the last four hundred years.

To be honest, John is a rapscallion more than anything, but his pranks can still be traumatic, especially to the naive and humourless. Nowadays, some of the younger folk enjoy wearing them on a Saturday night, as youngsters from other villages might trip on ‘shrooms or acid, or get blind drunk. The folklorist said that, in 1962, a twenty-three year old mechanic called Bob figured out that the simple mantra “I see you, John!” could break the spell. Since then, the daring youngsters sometimes have a weekend whirl for occasionally genuine shits and/or giggles.

For all intents and purposes, once the glasses have been adorned, the wearer is transported into another realm, visually speaking. The record has it that the realm varies enormously from person to person. Sometimes there is no discernible difference to the present moment at first, and the tricks slowly emerge mildly and inoffensively. For others, they are immediately transported into a place so different from the now, that they never truly recover. Some of them pine to reenter the realm—the glasses only work for a maximum of 73 hours, except in one exceptionally unlucky instance when Gerald had 34 days of balancing on his fingertips against a wall covered with shelf upon shelf of miniature lactating goats—whereas others spend the rest of their lives with phobias and repulsions they cannot recover from. Like Gerald and milk. Never again, never again, not even ice cream.

I listened to the folklorist for hours, and she has promised to send me the book of lore she, and the women of her family before her, have compiled so that I can share the stories more widely. Since the North Downs Way was opened in the 1970s, there have been more and more instances of poor, unsuspecting walkers having more than they bargained for during their hikes. Since John never leaves the spectacles in the same place twice, the locals can’t erect signs telling walkers to leave well enough alone. Hence me doing my civic duty of writing this post.

Of all the stories the folklorist told me, I will choose one for now to serve as a warning to all and sundry: what starts off fun can end up shamelessly. This story involves Imogen, the daughter of a local miller who was apprenticed to her father, in the absence of a son. They were considered a progressive family, by 1848’s standards, and Imogen herself was often full of hubris to be the first woman in the whole of Surrey to wear the baker’s hat. It was this pride, no doubt, which facilitated Imogen’s donning of the glasses, despite knowing full well the perils of doing so.

According to Imogen’s sworn testimony, she found the glasses hanging off a branch of a particularly striking silver birch in Staplelane Copse. She claims to have, at first, simply moved her right eye up to the glasses and taken a quick peep through them. She could not explain why she was later found naked—although her modesty was thankfully saved by a caking of mud—with a crown of mistletoe on her head, violently, and nearly tragically, vomiting from mistaking a yew tree for candy floss. She could only say that it seemed delicious at the time.

So let this be a lesson to one and all. Should you come across some seemingly abandoned spectacles in the woods between Old Simms Copse and Clandon Downs, you would be well advised to leave them be. Oh yes, you may just temporarily experience life as a psychedelic bumblebee, but then again, you might not. You might sink to the bottom of the sea and experience 73 hours of barnacle occlusion to your airways whilst being entranced by perpetually rotating seahorses. You have been warned.

Listen to me read John, the trickster god: