Monday, 23 October 2017

Adult Fairy Tales And Fairy Godmothers by Steve Gladwin

The phrase adult fairy tales has - shall we say - certain connotations! So I was surprised when the main things an Amazon search turned up were colouring books of the 'no longer even trying to be about mindfulness' variety, as well as collections of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson and worthy academic tomes by the likes of Jack Zipes. We are far better served on the subject of fairy godmothers, with what appears to be no less than 45 pages of entries. 

Should you search for ‘Fairy tales for the older generation’ however, the only entry you are likely to find is my friend Elinor Kapp's book, Tales From Turnaround Cottage This makes its very uniqueness all the more significant.

Because you see dear reader, I do have a fairy godmother and it is this same lady. We have known each other for 17 years, during which she has given her home as a sanctuary when my late wife and I were conducting our early courtship, helped me over her subsequent death, offered help and sage advice and essentially given me everything but three wishes, during many trying times. And – to my great pleasure and honour – she chose me to shape and edit her memoirs and some of her stories.

And now my dear fairy godmother has written her third book and if it isn’t actually about being a fairy godmother, well it sort of is as well, and I want to tell as many people about it as I can. I don’t usually do plugs – I’m almost alarmingly bad at my own – but in this case I believe it to be important, not to massage my friend’s ego or accelerate her sales, but because I truly believe that what Elinor has done in her book is not only unique but hugely necessary.

I am grudgingly sliding down the slippery slope towards sixty. In days gone by this would almost be an invitation to book your sun lounger well in advance and for your employers to start the collection for the gold watch. Seventy was considered old, and eighty ancient, with the chance of ninety highly unlikely.

How things have changed now. People in their eighties complain if you call them old and there are those truly irritating expressions like ‘you know eighty is the new seventy?’ Wherever you are on the sliding scale towards certain eventual death, probably the last thing people would think you’d want or appreciate would be a book of fairy tales. Still in so many people’s eyes Fairy Tales are still for kids just as much as Harry Potter books, whatever covers you put on them. But we storytellers, and those initiated in the dark arts of tale telling know the truth. Fairy Tales have never been just for children. They are for us, my dears and they always have been. It’s just we that have chosen to forget it.

I'll always remember the gimlet-eyed grandmother so wonderfully played by Angela Lansbury in Neil Jordan’s revisionist version of the Red Riding Hood legend, ‘Company of Wolves, adapted from Angela Carter’s book The Bloody Chamber. She it is who warns any young girl who might listen about men who are hairy on the inside as well as the outside.

By lucky hap, as Lord Percy might say, my friend Elinor is a huge fan of Angela Lansbury and so it seems a great opportunity to draw these two threads together.

Elinor’s book is called Tales from Turnaround Cottage and its sub title and therefore the essential thrust of this blog, is ‘Fairy Tales for the Older Generation.’ It collects together about twenty of the stories she has written and told as an eminent retired psychiatrist and psycho-therapist, as a textile artist with two books of words in the English language that have been derived from textiles to her name, as a storyteller with Cardiff Storytellers and from the yearly retreats at Ty Newydd Writers Centre with Hugh Lupton and Eric Maddern, where I first met her, as well as at least one or two she has created especially for friends. Some of the tales in the book are directly connected with textiles and threads, and three of them have been previously published in our recent book on loss and change, The Raven’s Call. To put it simply, a whole lifetime of life, work, disappointment, delight and heartache have gone into both the tales and especially into the character of Helena Brown, the book’s fairy godmother.

Soul Ship

Of course I recognise my dear familiar fairy godmother in Helena – it’s not exactly rocket science to do so. I’ve known her a long time, recently read early versions of some of the stories, and I was with her at Ty Newydd when she read out the first version of The Shrewish Wife.
What came over to me most last week however, when I finally settled down to read the copy she had sent me, was the sheer humanity of both Elinor the storyteller and Helena the character. And there is mischief there too and wit and just the right amount of whimsy in the form of some very resourceful and sometimes quite erudite mice. There are characters from all ages and walks of life carrying all the baggage humanity is inevitably saddled with. And of course who better to record and flesh out some of these people and their stories than a retired professional with a good kind heart and a faith despite everything, in the very humanity she might - like so many of us - so often despair of.

The book is set in an imaginary version of the Sussex which Elinor remembers so well and this - with its regular route marking of the many rivers, landmarks and byways, adds an extra voice to the narrative and adds to its particular storytelling magic. Even the cottage itself is a character and actually tells the final tale. For Turnaround Cottage, you see, used to be a working mill and even though it has fallen into disuse over a number of years, it has never quite lost the habit of turning which way the wind takes it. And as the four winds themselves have that combination of personality and sheer attitude you can only find in the best stories, and will, either when called upon, or simply off their own bat, regale the visitors to the cottage with the story which most suits them. It may not always be the story the visitor wants to hear – but will certainly be the one they need!

The visitors and the needs they bring to Turnaround Cottage are what threads the book together and the weaving of thread as well as the grinding of corn and the sometimes unpredictable attitude of winds, are recurring themes that the book is never far away from.

Those characters we meet in the process of the threading and the grinding are those familiar ones from life, people of all ages but with a special emphasis on the old, vulnerable and misunderstood. There are families to be reunited, lovers to mourn and redemption to find. And always behind each story - whether it be the desperate plight of the mother in 'The Wind of the Dead Man's Feet, who buys her children back from the dead by sacrificing her own life, or the delightfully comic, but stiletto deadly tale of Arachne Le Noir, the not so charming widow - is the kind and benevolent Helena and her own hopes for a happy ending in her own life.

Charles and Elinor at the book launch in Cardiff

Reading Tales from Turnaround Cottage made me realise how a whole huge proportion of society are not catered for by the idea of the fairy tale and perhaps by fiction in general, whose stories, needs, faded hopes and aspirations, have remained unheralded and unsung.

Well, no more. And among the many wonders of the collection is its suitability for all ages, something the author makes quite clear. Elinor has four grandchildren and she wants them to be able to read and enjoy the book as much as their parents. To further help the age group it is particularly aimed for, it is in what Douglas Adams might have called, 'big, friendly letters'. If there has ever been a collection of tales which is truly inter-generational then surely this is it. 

Which brings me back to the question of why older people supposedly don't need fairy tales and their like, when its clear that they need them quite as much as the childhood they can all too often revert to in their later years. Memories and faces may become jumbled for familiar things but we also know how therapeutic poetry can be for people suffering from dementia and mental health issues. 

So why not fairy tales. In his seminal book The Uses of Enchantment', the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim posited the then fairly ground-breaking theory that children need the lessons in fairy tales - the bad as well as the good, the cruel as well as the kind - in order to make their way more easily through life. In recent years there has quite rightly been concern about the amount of fairy tales children get to read either in the classroom or at home.

But no-one, (I presume) ever wonders whether the elderly should be given a opportunity to re-discover the fairy tales of their youth, whether they are lost in the mists of memory or just recently retired. And yet surely the lessons - both hard and gentle - which they first learnt as children remain relevant and might still offer a great deal of comfort.

Perhaps what we needed was a book like Elinor Kapp's Tales From Turnaround Cottage'- a book of fairy tales for older people which encourages them to step back into the wonders of all of their ages and delight in them anew. 

Tales from Turnaround Cottage is published by Diadem Books and you can see the editor in chief Charles Muller above with Elinor at the book launch in August.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'



Penny Dolan said...

What a heart-warming story, not only of Elinor Kapp's book of remarkable re-tellings, but your tale of her kindnesses to you and your late wife. Steve.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Penny. Feels appropriate too to have just returned from Ty Newydd where all three of us met.

Penny Dolan said...

Ty Newydd - another dream of mine! Glad you had such a good time.