Telling the tale

Think of this: a girl repeatedly lies and dissembles in order to win the hand and the bed of a rich, handsome, powerful man. She can only succeed in this with the help of a benefactor to whom she promises a share in her success. When push comes to shove, she breaks her promise, and as a result, brings about the death of the one she’s indebted to. She lives happily ever after. Now, would you want to tell this story to young children? Well, would you? But I’m happy to wager you have. And that it’s been force fed to six and seven year olds (and maybe even younger ones) in Literacy hours up and down the country. Because, of course, it’s the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

I realise I’m going all teacherly, but that’s what I did for a living for 40 years, as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, an English Adviser, and, god help us, a qualified (but not practising) OFSTED inspector. I’m glad to be out of it, but miss what was great about being a circus performer, and being a drop-of-the-hat-storyteller in schools where I’d gone to do things more official. What this is leading up to is a set of musings about where poems come from, and why lots of mine are some kind of narrative or other.

Are you sitting comfortably? I blame that Kim Moore and her random remark about reading Ovid (but I’ll be rambling about myth and legend next week). I blame Carol Ann Duffy for writing ‘Little RedCap’.

I blame Garrison Keillor for another quiet week in Lake Woebegon; in this week’s story, Kenny is telling his chilfdren the story of Hansel and Gretel. He’s wondering what new twist to throw in… the narrator says: you can’t disappoint them, but you’ve got to surprise them. And you’ve got to be careful. The surprise of last the last telling must be there again in the next telling. Because, now, it’s now expected. Stories are real, says Keillor. Oh yes.

And I blame the wonderful Harold Rosen, Emeritus Professor son of East End Jewish communists, who wrote and said a great many wise things, but these are the ones I remember:

Any story presupposes the existence of other stories     


We have to invent – yes invent – beginnings and endings, for out there there are no such things   


Sentences end with full stops. Stories do not.      


There are always stories crying to be let out and meanings crying to be let in.

Now if this was a proper piece of writing, I suppose I’d have to unravel some sort of thesis. But it isn’t. I’m leaving Harold’s words to circle around in your head as they did in mine till they start to make some sort of meaning. And yours will be different from mine.

And before I forget, there’s one more thing I have to blame and that’s ‘Old Peter’s Russian tales’ that I was bought when I was 8, and which I still have. Retellings by Arthur Ransome when he was hobnobbing with Bolsheviks (including, I think, Trotsky..corrct me if it’s wrong) in 1915.

Wise fools, simpletons, little tailors, poor shoemakers, kitchensluts, the youngest child, poor peasants, and the clear of heart. These are the survivors and victors in the world of  folktales, those wonderful subversive stories, whose morality runs deeper than the social mores of the romance and the novel. (Why does Rumpelstiltskin die so horribly and why do we feel, somehow, that it’s right?).

They’ve shaped the way I think about stories and about why stories matter, and they’ve shaped the way I see and remember and imagine the world. They bleed into my poems in unaccountable ways. For instance, if it’s woodlands I’m writing about, somewhere at the back of my mind are dark forests and lost children. Also, I’m a stepfather. I’m not sure I like the label. And so on. I was reading a poem that Gaia Holmes sent me in December (I shall ask her if she’ll let me use it in a post)….I wanted to put bread crumbs in it. If she lets me use it you’ll see why.

Myths and legends draw me in, too. I retell them and they retell me. But I’ll write about them and that next week. For this week, here’s a sequence I’ve loosely entitled Narratology. Poem as essay. Thanks for your time. I’ll count the scissors before you leave. If that’s all right.

What stories tell aboutmothers and fathers

that there was, once upon a time:

a farmer/a poor widow/a fisherman/

a woodcutter/ a merchant/

a man who took a new wife for himself;


that they wanted, or needed,

each one of them,

to get their children off their hands,

and send them off into the world

of woods and wishes,

gifts and crossroads,

choices, trials.


That’s how it starts,

and for the twice-married man,

the merchant, the woodcutter,

fisherman, poor widow, and the farmer

that’s where it stops.


And on the story goes

without them, and never says

if they find out  what happens next

or how it ends.


What stories tell about children

that once upon a time

(because there has to be a when)

there was a poor peasant

(because there has to be a who)

(and a why)

who had three daughters

(because there has to be a choice)

and he sent them out into the world

(because there has to be a story)


Of the older ones we hear no more

after they ignore the old woman

at the crossroads in the forest

(because the story doesn’t need them any more)


Best be the youngest of three.


What stories tell themselves

A little girl goes for a walk on a path.

The story knows that you know:

the colour of her hair

the time of day

that the path is by the seashore

is through an English wood

is deep in dark pine forests, silent,

carpeted and soft with needles


the sun is shining

it’s coming on to rain

the day is young

the dusk is coming fast


She must be going somewhere,

and for some reason

the little girl

whose hair is silvery

or dark as chimney flues

or long and straight

or short and rough

who’s wearing red

or rags, or good plain wool

shod in supple shoes

or barefoot and all sore.


Well. There is a wood

and in the wood a clearing

and in the clearing there’s a house.


Or. There is a wood

and in the wood a crossroads

and someone sits there waiting.


What will he, or she, say, this someone

to this long-haired rough-cropped

warm shivering well-fed

hungry little girl?


If you listen hard

you know at every turn

the story knows

more surely

where it



See you all next week xx






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