#20: Making mischief

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Mischief is your topic today. It’s defined as ‘playful misbehaviour’; a specific brand of naughtiness that often touches danger or malice. Mischief is entertainment that usually comes at someone’s expense; the child stuck in a tree, the person hit by a hurled egg. Today, you can either write about mischief, or just in a mischievous spirit; either way, play around.

In children, mischief means knock-and-run-away, whoopee cushions, or the toddler working in the medium of tomato ketchup on a pristine wall. My own little brother (hello Kristian) was supremely mischievous as a baby. At the supermarket he would smear the contents of his nappy along the handlebar of our shopping trolley. At home, he dropped sugar cubes with plastic flies into our tea. We spent some evenings in A&E, watching doctors pull surprisingly large things out of his nose. Family pets do similar damage; even the occasion when your dog eats your new walking shoes can be raw material. This poem starts with a ball of yarn and a hill, which can only end one way – and turns into a brief meditation on a playful and cat-like God. The poet can turn any jape into a epic – Alexander Pope famously did it with nothing more than a lock of hair being cut.

In sixth form, mischief became less innocent. Someone put a raw egg into the pockets of the school dandy, then slapped him smartly on the thigh so that the yolk ran into his elegant trousers. It was an act of homophobia, though most of his classmates didn’t see that; a small act of exclusion and mockery. ‘Mischievous’ boys would twang bra straps, or try to grope girls in the corridors. Perhaps you have been the victim – or the mischief-maker – in similar circumstances. From the child smearing jam on your laptop, to the curious cat soaked in a fishtank, mischief creates both entertainment and anger.

In adulthood, it is more loaded. You ‘make mischief’ by telling a man that his wife was seen with someone else last night, or by stirring up an argument. It is a euphemism for the immoral or illegal – some lads were making mischief down by the railway lines last night. In the north of England, Mischief Night was a time of licensed disorder – fireworks in dustbins, cowpats in letter boxes, eggs thrown at house doors, or honey on the door knobs. It was slightly anarchic: just on the edge of damage, just on the cusp of child and adult. Just on the edge of funny.

Many cultures have mischievous deities or demigods, like the Vikings’ Loki, a shape shifter and wise fool. They carve out a safe space for the unorthodox, the genderqueer, the unruly, the in-between or over-the-top. They make mischief; they break rules and challenge authority. You can do the same by cramming the whole pantheon into a punfest like this. Or go dark, but surely not as dark as Ted Hughes did with the greedy Native American trickster, Crow. Joker in Batman is a trickster; so is Anansi, the mayhem-loving spider of West African folklore. Some Anansi stories begin like this, as we might begin a poem:

“We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.”

Akan oral tradition

Take this theme and run with it. We could do with a little playfulness; don’t worry too much about where it takes you. Just let it go.

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Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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