This is a book that I’ve been dipping in and out of for about a year.
These stories are like the box of very expensive chocolates that our friend, Gail, gave us for Christmas. I don’t always trust manufacturers claims about the passion and individuality of the chocolatiers who’ve created their products, but that was a savour-one-flavor-a-day box that lasted right into the second week of January, because each chocolate was an individual treat.
Munro demands a similar kind of reading attention. For a start, these are long stories. They build gradually, revealing blended layers of ideas, memories, scenes, history and character. I can’t rush one: I want to pay attention to every aspect of it. How patient a narrator she is, and yet how concisely she explains geography, history and language. In her hands, these elements are not just a backdrop, they are story.
The high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope. The word hope, as used in the local geography, is an old word, a Norse word – Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic words being all mixed up together in that part of the country.
Taken alone, this could be called trivia. Read in context, it does more than orientate me to another era: it sets a tone and the mood. And we do need to know these things, they give weight to the characterisation. These are stories of clear, clean prose with hidden depths.
What makes them a little different to the usual Munro style? The first half of the collection are stories drawn from Munro’s investigations into her family’s history. She begins in Scotland, traces their journey to Canada, then relates some of the events that happened there.
Munro says in her Foreword:
I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories.
She describes this process as, ‘a curious recreation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.’
True is a word I would use to sum-up this collection. The voices, the situations, and the events all feel authentic. The things that happen are domestic, often mundane, yet Munro draws our attention to their importance in the shaping of these told lives.
The second half of the collection is loosely biographical. For anyone wondering how to use their own experiences in their writing without creating a memoir, always a tricky undertaking, then this collection provides an interesting approach.
I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things that they had not done in reality…In fact, some of these characters have moved so far away from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.
‘These are stories.’ Munro states. I can only agree.
Old Spike Milligan, that mixed bag of indulgence and genius, lands on my lap: another hand-me-down from a nostalgic neighbour.
Never turn away a book without a flick through, think I, accepting the poor old thing. ‘Thank you,’ I say.
My neighbour nods. ‘I think you’ll like it,’ he says. ‘There’s not many pages. A useful book for keeping in the bathroom.’ I’m beginning to feel a bit Milligan myself, as I wave goodbye to my neighbour.
I put Spike down beside Middlemarch, the reading I’m supposed to be doing ready for my Autumn class. Six-hundred and eighty two pages versus ninety six.
As for the ink taken, well, no comparison between the densely printed Elliot and Milligan’s book. Half of his pages are given to cartoons – one of which depends for its joke on facing a blank page, and many more are poems.
Judging by the state of my copy, Spike’s been company for a few baths since he was published in… 1963, would you believe? The cover is battered, and the glue on the spine has got brittle: most of the pages are either loose, or hanging by a corner to the rest. I can’t imagine passing this one on again. What am I to do with it?
Do I like Spike Milligan? I’ve never read him, though he seemed to be on the tv a lot when I was growing up. Did I like him then? I’m not sure.
I like my neighbour though, so I flick through the pages again. The paper is yellow and brittle, but I find this:
Things that go “bump!” in the night,
Should not really give one a fright.
It’s the hole in each ear
That lets in the fear,
That, and the absence of light!
I’m not sure whether I can do that. But I know I’ve got more chance of something like it if I’ve got access to Spike’s writings and drawings.
So, that’s it, then. No chance of slipping this one in amongst the recycling. My neighbour may not be a reader, but he knows a keeper.
I am a home for tired books.
It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on. It is the way all storytellers learn about life.
A dragon dragged past the window, tail flailing as Sam turned the pages of his bed-time book slowly, hanging out the moment of sleep in favour of chat, life, and narrative. Sam was winging stories across the duvet. Pictures came to life in his voice.
It’s months since the last time I was asked to mind him for the evening. ‘He might decide to read to you,’ his mum had said, quietly, before she left. Now, here we were with the chosen book, and my voice, for the first time, was stilled.
Sam read. A few words we had to spell out together, and Sam paused to try it out, then he went back to the beginning of the sentence and read it again, with colour and feeling. He was not just reading, he immersed himself in that story’s world.
When we had turned the last page of the book, and Sam was ready to sleep, I crept downstairs, hugging the memory of those moments.
We’re at a local fete. Lots of people drifting round stalls, greeting, sipping tea and eating cake in a sunny vicarage garden. The story teller wanders in. He wears a big woolly hat and bright, Caribbean style beach clothes. He carries a drum. Heads turn, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
He settles on a low stool under a broad leafy tree, crosses his legs around the drum and taps out a soft, regular, rhythm. Children pause and turn to look.
The Story-teller speaks, just loudly enough to be heard above his drumming. ‘The Mosquito,’ he says, ‘had a beautiful yam.’ An audience begins to form. With a gesture, the Story-teller encourages them to settle around his feet.
His drumming builds into a crescendo, then dies away and he says, ‘The Mosquito boasted about his beautiful yam to everyone. They were so impressed that they all came to his house to taste some.’
His audience has expanded to include adults, standing. A few are parents, waiting within reach, but they’re listening too, to the story of a boastful mosquito.
The Storyteller slaps at his drum and calls out in the neighbour’s voices, ‘Let us in, Mr Mosquito, and share some of your wonderful yam.’ His drumming softens and, he tells us, ‘Mr Mosquito was terrified. He stayed behind the door pretending to be out, but the neighbours wouldn’t go away.’
The Storyteller pounds at his drum and raises his voice. He says, ‘They said, “We know you are in there, Mr Mosquito. Why do you not answer us?”’
The Storyteller drums soft and fast, and his voice drops. ‘Mr Mosquito said, “Zzzzzzz.”
“What?”’ The Storyteller calls out above the heavy beating of his drum. “What is that you say?”
The Storyteller pauses, and into our silence he loudly sibilants, “Zzzzz.”
We are all wide-eyed. I am vaguely aware of the fete, busy behind us, but, what is going to happen now?
Our understanding of the shape of a tale is something we practice from the moment we learn to communicate. Once we can begin to say, this is what I want to do, or this is what I have done, or even that he or she did to me, we are putting together narratives. If we’re lucky, someone has already been regularly reading to us, or even telling us stories.
The traditional stories I grew up with, European tales, were sculpted for the page. Stories from other cultures often don’t work in the way we’re used to.
Kulchalee, The Storyteller, drew his story to a close in one line: ‘And that is all Mosquito ever said again.’