Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The First Rule Of Death Club by Steve Gladwin

There are many different entrances to the land of the dead.

Death is not a thing we joke about, but perhaps we should do it more. A few years ago, through a project called Are You Having A Laugh, I tried a fresh approach with year 6 children in Powys. I spent a morning entertaining them with daft stories and clown routines, before, in the afternoon, telling them three stories, each of which contained a loss of some sort. All I did after I’d told the last story, was to ask the class why the stories I'd told in the morning, and those they’d just heard - were different. This led to the simplest of discussion, after which they composed stories and drawings of the Green Children, (from Kevin Crossley Holland's adaptation) and the sad giants, (An African myth of the Mensi people) they’d heard about. The schools all said how much they appreciated the gentle approach and how easy it would be to take it further in their own work.

Some may be more daunting than others!

Miss Bertram copyright Rose Foran - The Raven's Call 2016
Just recently I have come rather late to a particular party. Now too often such things will follow a familiar and frustrating pattern. You know the sort of thing - you arrive to find only lemonade and a giant bottle of lager so cheap that the bottle could double as a weapon, the buffet has long been picked over and, utterly starving, you reach out for the last piece of raspberry pavlova, (insert personal preference!), only to find that some big bloke with tattoos has first dibs on it. Well yes, I have been to parties like that, but the party I’ve joined has thankfully none of those features because this particular party is ‘reading children’s books’ You, of course, have all been there from the start feasting, on a regular series of tit bits, with a full range of wine and spirits to call on as well as the cheap lager.

As I said in my last blog, I read an awful lot when I was a child and have done so intermittently since. In recent years of course I’ve Rowlinged and Pullmaned, and on several joyful occasions, Almonded, (but more about that in a while). Only in the last year however, have I made a serious return to those towering shelves of childhood with their sometimes dog-eared books. Apart from the usual sources I have been considerably aided by the wonderful Charney and Folly Farm invention of book swaps in which, in return for foisting my gaily coloured flimsy on unsuspecting fellow authors, In return I have come away with a huge bag of swag. Recent adventures have taken me across trackless siberian wastes,  or had me listening to the whispering of grass. I have gone through seven hells of care home and trod the shining sands of Pembrokeshire. To everyone involved, much thanks, but at the same time I have chased books recommended by fellow authors and ones I’ve just happened to come across.

 - while others may seem far more familiar.

There are those which may appear to be well trodden, familiar walkways -
So many of those books - whether given, borrowed or swapped- deal with the theme of loss, - just as my own book The Seven does - and each one deals with it in a different way. Sometimes the land or the ruler is so cruel that it might be a pleasure to die and escape both. Or a character you cannot imagine being dead suddenly and shockingly is. Even in the books where death doesn't lie raw and bleeding, there may be the shadow of the lost sibling or parent.

Death is of course ever present from the moment we are born to grow (hopefully gently) rather than suddenly towards it. However what being a reawakened lover of children’s books, (yes I know - where have I been?), has made me realise, is just how many wonderful and sensitive books there are out there dealing with it. 

In a previous blog, I discussed the idea of an author’s intent - when he or she chooses to adapt a myth or traditional tale - and how it might differ from say a storyteller, who might find the audience who feel that they own that story, sitting unsmiling with folded arms in front of them as they perform. I suggested the idea that as long as the original intent is in some way ‘honourable’, the story can take any amount of ‘mucking about with’. There was an interesting discussion following my blog and I’ve thought about it a lot since. Among the thoughts I’ve had, is of course that it also depends on whether we have anything new to say. When it comes to the theme of death I’ve come to the conclusion surprisingly, that there may be multiple new things to say and ways to express them.

The book I’ve just finished is David Almond's A Song For Ella Grey. Yes as usual I’ve come late to the party, but this time - and perhaps even more gladly - I have come late to the wake.

How do you go about putting fresh clothes on a myth so old that it is part of the land it was born in, as much as the language? Perhaps one way of doing it is to give the story a new birth in a new land.

How do you write something new about love when so many words have already flowed? And how can there be a new way of capturing that particular combination of joy and pain? Perhaps you literally put a new mask on it, so that - as Brecht would have it - both the character and you the reader, peer out not through unfamiliar eyes.

- while there are those which may take an entire lifetime.

And how on earth do you write something new about death when all the grief and tears have been swallowed, washed and wrung out? Just maybe, like David Almond, and so many more of you, you create a world or a feeling so moving and believable, that for the short blessed time you inhabit it, you come to no longer fear it, and when at last you come away from it, and time returns once more to it’s natural state, you are forever changed, and despite all the loss and grief, you would not have it any other way.

The first rule of Death Club is that we talk about it far more than we think and the authors of children’s books do it better than anyone.  

'You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself


1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Lots to think about here, Steve! I must read A Song for Ella Grey...