Tell us that one again, Dad! (a song for childhood heroes, part 4; where did you go?, part 2)

For World Book Day, the kids at my little girl’s school had to go in as their favourite literary characters. And due to the French influence on her parents’ part, she, our daughter, chose Asterix; she came runner-up, in the ‘costume of the day’ comp, to one of her classmates, who’d turned up as a very impressive Cat in the Hat – that hat was something else.

World Book Day fell just about right this year, for me, as not only have I come to truly believe that each and every one of us is a storyteller – you may recall a blog post of mine a couple of months ago where I state that “Stories guide us; our world is in narrative form” – but also that – while not meaning to state the obvious – some of us are simply better at storytelling than others, either via the written or the oral word – were that not the case, of course, we’d all be writers and journalists, or public speakers and actors… or, God forbid, lawyers and politicians… But then, being either of the latter is to be a different kind of liar, isn’t it; it has nothing to do with the kind of embellishment we expect from real narrators.

And that’s what this blog post’s about, storytelling, or storytellers, of the oral word: speakers; those amongst us who are able to capture an audience and keep it, by possessing that extra-special something few of us really own… character?

You may recall another blog post of mine a few weeks ago concerned with the death of the childhood hero; that is, our eventual learning of his/her true character off-screen, which I’ve since come to think of as ‘part 1’ in a quadrilogy. ‘Part two’ came your way as the “death of family deaths”, meaning the television character we may have grown up with. ‘Part three’, I posted only a week or so ago, in which I lament the loss of ‘character(s)’, both on screen and street, the eccentric neighbour, for example.  And so inspired, was I, by some of the responses to that third blog post, along with the thought of my little girl and co. acting out their favourite literary character roles for World Book Day, I couldn’t resist returning to the idea of the storyteller one last time, by way of closure.

The quadrilogy represents four of numerous subthemes running through my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J. And to conclude my little study, I’ll state that the two greatest contributors to the death of these concepts, in our ever-changing world, are possibly political correctness and social media. But for now, I’d like to take a step back to a couple of those wonderful responses I received, which indeed inspired me to take the theme one final step further.

Author, Kelly Boyer Sagert, talked of a neighbour lady, 90 years of age at the time, who, attending a bridal shower, had her photo taken with a blow-up doll on her lap. The neighbour’s daughter’s a bit of a character, too, and once led a protest march against a radio station that had banned a song derisive of President Nixon – I like to believe we writers could make all this up, but I often wonder. And yes, these people are simply neighbours; the poetic muse residing mere doors away…

I see the above two characters in my mind’s eye, and although you might argue they are storytellers more by their actions than their words, I would contend that their storytelling gift derives from their very being, by their very presence – while ever, more importantly, we have the patience to observe and to take note. 

Author, Joan Barbara Simon, really captures the essence of that idea with this question: “Time and time again I notice how we return to our elders to warm ourselves with their stories. Were they better storytellers? Have we now become a spoiled, complacent bunch? Have we, in spite of, or because of, all the communication options available today, lost the gift of communication, or storytelling?”

It’s a fabulous question.

And just read how she describes her one-time muse: “I remember turning up at my gran’s. Sometimes I’d just fly over to London from France for the day because I felt the need to spend some time in her company. We’d (almost always) stand near the kitchen window and she’d give her running commentary on everyone who walked by, interrupting only to sprinkle her remarks with ditties from her own life. These conversations weren’t going anywhere, but when I left my gran, it was better than having gone to the theatre.”  

These conversations weren’t going anywhere, she says, by-the-by… And might I ask whether it mattered, without need for a reply? But when I left my gran, she goes on, it was better than having gone to the theatre. And if ever a line sang harmoniously with the first person narrator of Wood, Talc and Mr.J – Phillip – and his relationship with his gran – or ‘grom’, as he calls her – then that one is it.

She, Phillip’s grom, has invited him to a bit o’ grub in the ol’ market, one evening after clocking out of the ol’ factory:

* * * * *

   At the indoor market, I soon rooted out the old soul: the lady with the audience. She was caressing a hot tea’s pre-war mug the way I would a pint of John Smith’s…

   … ‘Heyup, Edith,’ rang the welcome from every corner.

   And if ever she got the impression I felt left out, she introduced me as her ‘Soul dancin’ grandson’. She knew how to fly my kite: ‘’Stays up all night. Wigan Pier…’

And on vacating the place, Arm in mine, her other fluttered to wholehearted cries of ‘See you tomorrow, Edith’, and had me feeling like the Queen Mum’s bodyguard.

* * * * *

Now, you may have gathered that this character is very much based on a grandmother of my own. And like Edith, my grandmother was more the kind of storyteller to be frugal with language; let’s say she was concise, whereby each word carried emphasis enough to create an atmosphere or cut one in two, both with which she could more times than not ruffle my old dad’s feathers to have him squawking for England, or, conversely, leave him with his chin on the ground. And what’s so special about that? you may well ask. Well, sometimes my old dad deserved it. But only she, his mum, was able to shut him up. It’s rather like Phillip’s dad and grom, who Phillip portrays as being:

* * * * *

   … more an old couple than mother and son, a genuine northern Alf Garnett and missus.

* * * * *

The ‘problem’ is a clash of personalities, but I’d be foolish to give any more of this scene away; I’d prefer you find out for yourselves. What I will highlight is Phillip’s subsequent description of his dad:

* * * * *

   Although my dad had a bit of an Alf Garnett streak, he didn’t resemble him physically – though my grom was the spitting image of Missus Garnett. He looked more like Richard Bradford in his silver-headed Man in a Suitcase days…

   The Alf Garnett thing derived from his having spent most of his adulthood, as far back as I could remember, being unable to get to grips with what he deemed as life’s injustices…

   The good to come out of it was that it rendered him a real-life character…

   Crowds smothered him up in our local, my friends included, since he’d recount a tale like no other; spice it with a unique passion…

* * * * *

With my own dad – as with any real storyteller, I guess – it wasn’t always the stories he told – since we’d beg for the same ones, repeatedly – but the way he told them, like with Phillip’s dad. Again, I’ll not delve into the latter’s endeavours but give an example of my own dad’s passionate ramblings.

One of the plentiful stories to unfailingly shake my stick – an expression I’ve recently picked up and have been dying to use it in a blog post, sorry – was the death of JFK. I never tired of hearing it, all the way up to flying the nest, and then back again for more in such a local as Phillip and his dad frequent – I stated in my previous post that greedy breweries have helped reduce the old fashioned storyteller to a degree: fewer pubs result in the obvious.

There was the Cuba crisis, of course, but still, it’s hard to believe today how a nation might – rather than be taken in by a politician for the wrong reasons – have taken to that politician like one of their own; like family. The story is that on the day of JFK’s assassination, my dad and everyone else on the shop floor, working nights in a steel furnace – Sheffield, home of the Empire builders – instantly downed tools; there was a stand-still. Soon after which they walked out and off home, in a state of shock…

To what extent this story be part-fiction, I’ll never know; every storyteller is allowed to embellish, we demand it. For the great to come out of it lay in my dad’s passion when recounting it, like he was reliving the experience; we caught snapshots in his eyes…

Inspiration for a novel? You bet.

– If I were to look for a scene antithetical to that one, I’d pick on another blog post of mine, in which I state: “Maybe I’ll always cringe when I see four students sitting at the same table of a campus canteen, each of them twiddling noodles with a fork in one hand and flicking through the ‘pages’ of a smartphone with the other”.

Just read how Phillip paints his dad and best mate one evening in that fictitious local:

* * * * *

   In the entrance bar, the unofficial act was equally in full swing: The Two Petes always performed here. And as I wouldn’t put either off, I got behind the taller provocateurs, who’d push one against the other: ‘You tell him, Pete!’ You’d never have believed they’d grown up together, until the roar of laughter, which, they said, often put the artists off in the concert room.

* * * * *

The truth of the matter, however, is that I admit to having followed the line of political correctness when portraying these characters, fearing accusations of just about every ‘ism’ in the book… well, other than dad’s persistent mockery of the French… Why is he allowed to get away with that? And what I found sad, during my endeavours, is that I suppressed – potentially even more – dynamic scenes, in which these thoroughly lovable, harmless, kind and caring, however jokey, characters still hold centre stage…

Kelly Boyer Sagert deems that “political correctness has diluted the creation of some fictional characters”, and going by my own experiences, I have to agree; and that, even to this day, the very people to enforce such policies are those lacking most in awareness. I find it very interesting that a writer of West Indian parents, the wonderful Joan-Barbara Simon, should respond this way:

Why not dare to thematize critical situations but in an inoffensive manner? I remember Love Thy Neighbour, a sitcom about two families, one black, the other white, and all the tension relating to racism in the UK. Very popular. Very funny. No offense was meant and none was taken.”

Has political correctness, then, helped dilute the creation of some fictional characters? And in turn the ‘non-fictional’ storyteller? And do we, as J-B asks, “really need to go back a generation or two to get a good story?”

To compound matters, according to Kelly, “because of the Internet, the world is flooded with so many poorly created yet outrageous characters that it’s” – maybe – “harder to find the gems”. And that we as readers can reach burnout before they are discovered…”

Another interesting point. Are we, then, as modern day geeks, looking in the wrong places and trying too hard? Note from Kelly to herself: “be inspired by my quirky and absolutely wonderful neighbors when I write . . . J

The problem is, however, that Kelly’s neighbours are very old: where will she go when the inevitable comes around?

Or rather, where do you think she should turn, dear storytellers of the written word?


Chris Rose

Your literary, soulful friend

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