Friday, 23 February 2018

The Trick in the Tale by Steve Gladwin

Part One - The Cannibal Who Didn't Know Any Better

I'm reading Philip Pullman's fascinating essay collection, Daemonic Voices. He has a lot to say about storytelling and the oral tradition and as an ex-teacher who spent years actually telling stories just to entertain his classes, (something which he points out is no longer encouraged by successive governments), he's in a good position to comment on this. I don't agree with absolutely everything he says about the art of storytelling but it got me thinking about advice I would offer any potential storyteller who wants to tell their first stories either just for fun or with a view to making it professionally. I've been a storyteller for over twenty years now and obviously I've learnt a lot, some of which I will pass on in these two blogs. 

So how do you tell stories? Perhaps the reason why nearly all the books about telling stories concentrate on ways of using the stories themselves rather than methods for telling them is because more than most professions the phrase ‘each to their own’ applies. It’s really up to you, but whether or not you want to just entertain a group of friends or your children, or are thinking to seriously think about it as a potential profession, over the next couple of blogs I'm going to run through a few of the ideas I’ve picked up in twenty years of being a storyteller.

But in this first blog I'm actually going to concentrate mainly on learning to tell one story - the all singing, all chomping classic of the title. Before I do however here are some general points

Before you make any kind of start, decide that however and whatever you decide to tell, you’re going to enjoy it. Worthy storytelling done halfheartedly and parrot fashion is no good to anyone. Tell a story because you want to and that means finding the right story for you, especially the right one to start with. Take your time looking through books etc to find the right story. Any storyteller will tell you that the first story you find to tell, (or if you attend a workshop or something similar, which you might be given to tell), can be important to you for the rest of your life, especially if you do choose to go into it professionally. The first story I was given was  The Juniper Tree, and although it’s one of the darkest of all tales, I still tell it and continue to find the light in it as well as the dark.

The other reason for spending time looking through stories is that not only do you get some idea of the range available, (something which can also be a bit daunting), but next time you go back to that book it will hopefully not just be as someone who’s told one story, but feeling like a storyteller.

It's best to choose something neither too long or too short. About ten minutes is fine, but you don’t want it too unwieldy for a first attempt or almost told before you’ve started it.

Read it through no more than a couple of times, and read it as you’d read anything else rather than thinking you have to remember it.

Now when you’ve done that there comes the most important part. You need to remember the basic sequence of the story and feel increasingly confident that it’s in the right order. Don’t focus on detail yet because if you look at your average folk or fairy-tale, you’ll find there’s hardly any. That’s because the story is everything and all most people want to hear. You can embellish all you like later but for now make sure you know the sequence.

The way storytellers often practice doing this is through a method called the 'bones.' For example say your story has twelve things happen in it and you’ve memorised them.

So for the purposes of this exercise let's take a story and demonstrate how it's bones, which in this case is the one below,

A Fisherman makes a man out of clay.
His Wife warns him that the Clay Man will eat them.
The Clay Man eats the fisherman and his wife and their fishing nets.
The Clay Man meets and eats two girls on the lane, carrying milk  
The Clay Man meets and eats two old ladies gathering blackberries.
The Clay Man meets and eats old man at the river repairing canoe.
The Clay Man meets and eats two lumberjacks and their fallen trees.
The Clay Man sees a little elk at the top of a hill.
The Clay Man tells the little elk he will eat him too.
The Little elk tells the Clay Man to open his mouth wide so he can jump in.
The Little elk runs down the hill, butts the Clay Man in the stomach and he shatters.
Out of the Clay Man’s stomach come –
the fisherman and his wife and their nets, the two girls and their milk, the two old ladies with their baskets of blackberries, the old man and his canoe, and the two lumberjacks and their fallen trees.
As a reward the people make the elk a pair of special golden antlers. 

This is the story of the Sami people called The Clay Man and the Golden Antlered Elk and you can find it in, among other places, a wonderful collection called 'The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon, Siberian Folk-Tales by James Riordan. I used the basic bones method above but I actually prefer to think of a story more like a washing line. This is because on your average washing line you're likely to find articles of all shapes and sizes, so I like to think of big incidents like a sheet or a shirt with small socks and pants the not so important bits in between. 

Image From The Rutland Reader

This is because your average story has a lot of run-on or repetition, of which this story is a classic example There are also say countless stories in which there are ‘magical three’. You don’t want to be that detailed all three times or your audience will lose focus, so usually you spend more time on the first task or peril, not as much on the second and hardly anything on the third, (or you might, if you prefer, put the latter two the other way round).

Anyway here’s our Clay Man story in washing line form.

A Fisherman makes a man out of clay.
His Wife warns him of the danger.
The Clay Man eats the fisherman and his wife and their fishing nets.
He goes on to the lane.
The Clay Man meets and eats two girls carrying milk on the lane, and eats them.
He goes out into the country.  
The Clay Man meets and eats two old ladies gathering blackberries.
He goes down by the river.
The Clay Man meets and eats an old man at the river who is repairing his canoe and smoking his pipe.
He goes into the woods.
The Clay Man meets and eats two lumberjacks and their fallen trees.
He goes to the bottom of the hill.
The Clay Man sees a little elk at the top of hill.
The Clay Man tells the little elk he will eat him too.
The Little elk tells the Clay Man to open his mouth wide so he can jump in.
The Little elk runs down the hill, butts the Clay Man in the stomach and he shatters.
Out of the Clay Man’s stomach come –
the fisherman and his wife and their nets, the two girls and their milk, the two old ladies with their baskets of blackberries, the old man and his pipe and canoe, and the two lumberjacks and their fallen trees.
As a reward the people make the elk a pair of special golden antlers.
Of course you’ll notice that this almost doubles the ‘bones’ count and you may even be out of pegs! Also as you get closer to the end there’s less run-off.

Thanks to Wikipedia

With this story I also encourage a lot of audience participation, so I’ll need some help with the noises the Clay Man makes like so –
Slurp. Pop. Slurp. Pop. Slurp. Pop.
The slurp speaks for itself but the pops use that mouth popping sound I’ve never been able to do, so I have to get the audience to do it for me!
I also get them to join in with the following after the Clay Man has helped himself each time.
‘But it wasn’t his fault, because he’d only been created to do one thing and that was to eat. BUT HE WAS STILL HUNGRY.
So here’s the story frame as it stands now.

A Fisherman makes man out of clay.
His Wife warns him of danger.
Slurp. Pop x 3
The Clay Man eats the fisherman and his wife and their fishing nets. Yum. Yum.
‘But it wasn’t his fault, because he’d only been created to do one thing and that was to eat. BUT HE WAS STILL HUNGRY.
Clay Man meets two girls on the lane, carrying milk
Slurp. Pop x 3.
He gobbles them up. Yum Yum.
‘But it wasn’t his fault, because he’d only been created to do one thing and that was to eat. BUT HE WAS STILL HUNGRY.
The Clay Man meets two old ladies each carrying a basket and gathering blackberries.
Slurp. Pop x 3.
He gobbles them up.Yum Yum.
‘But it wasn’t his fault, because he’d only been created to do one thing and that was to eat. BUT HE WAS STILL HUNGRY.
The Clay Man meets an old man at the river repairing his canoe with pine tar while smoking his pipe.
Slurp. Pop x 3
He gobbles him up, and his pipe, and his canoe. Yum Yum.
‘But it wasn’t his fault, because he’d only been created to do one thing and that was to eat. BUT HE WAS STILL HUNGRY.
The Clay Man meets two lumberjacks eating lunch in the forest, by their fallen trees. One has peanut butter sandwiches and lemonade and the other cheese and pickle and coffee.
Slurp. Pop x 3
He gobbles up both of them, both the fallen trees and their sandwiches and drinks. Yum Yum.
‘But it wasn’t his fault, because he’d only been created to do one thing and that was to eat. BUT HE WAS STILL HUNGRY.
The Clay Man sees a Little Elk at the top of the hill. The Little Elk is embarrassed because he hardly has any antlers yet.
Slurp. Pop x 3
The Clay Man tells the little elk he will eat him too.
The Little Elk tells the Clay Man that he’s only young and he wants to do it right, so if the Clay man could please open his mouth wide so he can jump in.
The Little Elk runs down the hill towards the Clay Man's open mouth.Yum. Yum.
But at the last minute he lowers his new little antlers. He butts Clay Man in the stomach, whereupon he shatters.
Out of the Clay Man’s stomach come –
the fisherman and his wife and their nets, the two girls and their milk, with not a drop spilt, the two old ladies with their baskets still full of blackberries, the old man with his pipe and his canoe, and the two lumberjacks and their fallen trees and their uneaten sandwiches and drinks with not a drop spilled.
As a reward the people make the elk a pair of special golden antlers. 
Ever after he will be known as ‘The Golden Antlered Elk, slayer of The Clay Man.

The Golden Antlered Elk by Rose Foran

You’ll see from that final frame that I’ve added the embellishments that make the story more my version, like the slurping noises for audience participation and the drinks and sandwiches which I'd usually get two volunteers to choose. If you should find the James Riordan version or the original Siberian tale, you’ll notice an absence of some of this stuff! You’ll also see here important details like the fact that the little elk is not only very young but rather challenged antler wise!

Having got your tale frame you now need to learn it and there are of course lots of methods for doing that too, but all you need, as with everything else, to do is to follow this very useful piece of advice – ‘if it works for you, it works.’

My preferred method is to learn the first bit of a story and then add a second and then go back to the first bit and add as you go until you have the whole thing, stringing it together also like building a washing line I suppose, which is maybe why the other version works for me.

Even with a story as simple and ‘shaggy-doglike’ as this one you can still add colour, but that colour can come in less obvious forms than the purple of the old ladies blackberries. One of these is the use of a voice for each character; the fisherman’s wife might be quavery, the Clay Man making the very most of his Yum Yums and slurping, (try stopping me!) and the little elk sounding all naive innocence, but with a crafty heart. These are the sort of things a storyteller needs to use to draw up the heart and soul of a story or even dredge up its guts. You might also give the characters lines to speak like the Clay Man might say, 'Little Elk, Little Elk. I'm, going to eat you' etc etc.

And somewhere in the learning process there comes a time when the sense of the learnt and mechanical stops and the natural sense of wearing your new story makes itself apparent. As you become more confident so your story suit begins to come more and more comfortable with you, and more and more you. Now you can stretch your arms out in your story suit, or adjust the trousers and make them looser. Eventually you might even be ready to put a big sweeping cloak over the top of it and go out and kick ass.

Of course before any half successful ass kicking can commence you need to have tried out your story on someone or thing a couple of times, so whether it’s a partner or spouse or pet, or an innocent soft toy who lacks the power to make a swift exit, you need to have a go. You could also record it, but only if you’re comfortable with the sound of your own voice, which many people aren’t, and of course that’s the last thing you want.

But may I push the glories of the great outdoors, especially if you’re lucky enough to live in the country like I do. Within ten minutes I can be beside the river with only a few passing ducks and the odd dog-walker to question my mutterings. If there’s no-one for miles around there’s no place better to exercise your new story suit.

If you don’t have such access it works just as well pacing round whichever convenient room has the stronger floorboards, although it may be best done when your long-suffering nearest and dearest is out.

I could tell you an awful lot more, but I need to leave some for next time I’ll tackle beginnings and endings, building an atmosphere and peopling your own universe and use as my example a far more serious tale. In the meantime my tale-frame should give you all you need to tell someone my own version of that Siberian cannibal classic, The Clay Man and the Golden Antlered Elk, or adapt your own from the same frame. Have fun with your washing line.

My own journey as a storyteller has been enhanced and enriched by the Order of Bards,Ovates and Druids Iona retreat of 1995, the storytelling retreats at Ty Newydd Writing Centre between 2000-2008 with Eric Maddern and Hugh Lupton and multiple storytelling friends, the 'Juniper Tree' storytelling workshop at Bridgwater Arts Centre with Ben Haggerty in 1994, TIr Coch Magical Weekends with Ana Adnan and Professor Ronald Hutton, and the many places and audience with whom I have shared the Clayman.

I'd also like to mention (again!) Channel 4's The Storyteller, if you still haven't seen it and Jane Yolen's Favourite Folk Tales from round the World, the book and series which started it all.  

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

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




Thursday, 22 February 2018

Lists, lists and more lists, by Dan Metcalf

I live for lists. As a former librarian, nothing is so tempting to me as a list – a neat, ordered, chronicle of intentions or accomplishments. It seems to me that as bookish people, we are predisposed to these things – as lovers of literature we long to see things recorded properly and succinctly. I was reminded of this as I spoke to a 8 year old neighbour this morning, who proudly presented me with a list of the books she had read over the half term holiday. Neatly titled, listed and folded up, placed in her top pocket ready to show her teacher, were a list of 5 Roald Dahl books. I congratulated her and was immensely proud myself, not just of her reading ability and love of books, but of her compulsion to list it all down.

My wife, an academic in the field of Children’s Literature, has books of lists. Alphabetical, written in numerous biro colours, she has kept it since the days of our ‘A’ levels. My dad, recently retired and a convert to reading, keeps a list of books although largely so he can remember which ones he has read. He even notes down the plot and gives a brief half-page review. Listing, it seems is in the family.

Many may remember Nick Hornby’s tribute to lists, High Fidelity, and for a brief time among my classmates we emulated the protagonist in making our own Top Five lists, although that was mostly of our favourite films and alcopops. The notion of noting down our favourite movies, songs, albums, bands, or cartoon character crushes (Jessica Rabbit wins every time, obvs) is now laughable as my tastes have changed so much. I recently found lists of the above from my early twenties and they are so cringe-worthy and banal that I cannot begin to reproduce them here. So I find the idea of popular media covering such lists insane. The TV schedules have them as their mainstay; remember the BBC’sBig Read? A summer long season that tried to compile the nations’ top 100 books? (An easily skewed online poll voted Lord of the Rings in at Number One, if you’re interested) Channel 5 seem to have one a week, which surely has culminated with Britain's Favourite Biscuit.(Spoilers: Here's the result) And Desert Island Discs, Radio 4’s 75 year old programme about kidnapping the great and the good and leaving them to die on a rock, asks notable persons to list their favourite songs; I pity the person who records their Desert Island discs in their twenties and then has to endure ribbing for the rest of their life because they chose ‘Touch My Bum’ by the Cheeky Girls “for a laugh”.

In fact, I always thought the format had the lists the wrong way around. Guests (or victims, if we’re taking the whole castaway thing seriously) are asked to tell the presenter (chief tormentor) their seven songs they would like to be washed up with (presumably they dropped their iPhone in the water with their 10000+ songs on it and the island handily has a turntable and electricity supply but there’s me picking hairs again). They also get to pick a luxury item (mine's a fully crewed yacht) and a book.

One book.

You get the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare for free (which will delight all non-Christians appearing on the programme) but get to choose one book. ONE! How in blue blazes am I supposed to pick just one book to see out my days? I’d happily swap my seven discs for books and get to choose just one song (That Golden Rule by Biffy Clyro, of course).

One list that has grabbed my attention since I was in short trousers though (I mean since I was a kid, not since last summer and the unfortunate choice of leg wear at the beach), was when I watched the 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine. It departs from the book slightly in that the plot seems overly concerned with the Earth being driven back to the stone age by a nuclear war, but as that seemed a very real possibility then I’ll let them off (and yes, it seems to be a very real possibility right now, but let’s leave politics out of this for a moment)

At the end, the Time Traveller absconds himself to his laboratory as whisks himself away in the machine once again, seemingly to never return. His sceptical friend Filby and housekeeper enter and see the space that the machine once held surrounded by debris and the Housekeeper notices nothing is missing except for three books that she could not identify. Filby supposes that he took them with him into the future, and proposes the question; if you were heading into a new world and time, what are the three books you’d take with you?

That question has played on my mind for 20+ years. Should I take something practical and informative like Nigella’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess? (the burnt butter cupcakes are to die for) Or a DIY Manual? Maybe, if the earth has succumbed to a nuclear war, a foraging book to help me collect food.

Nah. I’ll settle for some good reading material. I’ll probably be clubbed to death by Morlocks anyway so may as well enjoy myself. Here’s mine:

1 – An Omnibus of the Paddington Stories by Michael Bond – If I’m living in a post-apocalyptic landscape, I’d like some escapism and delving into the world of Number 32 Windsor Gardens is my ‘safe place’. The only thing you have to worry about there is Mrs Bird’s temper or running out of marmalade.

2 – An Omnibus of the Mortal Engines Quadrilogy by Philip Reeve – Okay, I’m probably cheating here by choosing an omnibus, but it’s my game so shut up. I love the world Reeve creates in these books but more than anything the characters. If I’m in a ruined Britain (again, you could argue we are already there but let’s leave politics at the door for the moment) I want to take Hester and Shrike with me. Also may be a handy manual in case the human race do accept Municipal Darwinism as their new way of life and begin to mobilise their cities, so, y’know it’s kinda practical as well.

3 – The Complete Y-The Last Man by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra – This graphic novel showed me what real storytelling is; epic, brutal and compelling. If you don’t know it, a mystery illness kills off every male on Earth in the first few pages, all except one goofy responsibility-shy slacker called Yorick and his pet monkey (okay, sounds stupid now I write it down but trust me). It has everything you want from a major summer blockbuster movie – Amazon Warrior Women, secret spies and societies, danger, terrorists and monkeys. Did I mention monkeys?

Okay, I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours. Catch me in the comments and on Twitter (@metcalfwriter)

Dan Metcalf writes Children’s books and can be found at Dino Wars, his new series about genetically engineered talking dinosaurs and a race against time to save the world, launches on 28th April from Maverick Books.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Thoughts on Words and Pictures by Anne Booth

Tomorrow evening I begin 5 weeks of  teaching a weekly, two hours creative writing class to first year teaching students. The idea for the (voluntary for the students) sessions is that they need to gain confidence in themselves as writers before they can teach writing to children, so I need to give them fun exercises to do. I am looking up books, thinking about courses I have been on etc.. I know for certain that I will be bringing pictures and objects in, and I will spend part of today gathering them up.

I will also bring illustrated books in, including the stunning 'Lost Words' .

I think it is very interesting to read how Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane worked together on this. The initial impetus for the book came from the illustrator, Jackie Morris, although Robert MacFarlane was already thinking along similar lines.

I bought the book for Christmas for our family and for one of my brothers, and then heard that there was going to be an exhibition of the paintings.  t I met up in London with an old friend last week and went together to the Foundling Museum to see it and I would highly recommend going.  It was such a lovely thing to go to see, and it was heartening to see so many children in the gallery on a half term trip.

Whilst we were there we also went to an exhibition of Michael Foreman's illustrations to Michael Morpurgo's  book, inspired by The Foundling Museum, 'Lucky Button'.

This touching book about a modern young carer and his relationship with a ghost was inspired by one of the tokens left with foundlings when their desperate mothers gave them up.

So here we have an example of something visual inspiring the words which follow.

The inspiration for so many books begins with an image rather than a word. A forthcoming picture book I have written started with an image I had of a blue sky, and the illustrator has taken the words I subsequently wrote, and created a wonderful world.  This happens again and again for authors - there is a wonderful excitement in seeing our words translated into images. I am so happy with the illustrations Sophy Williams, Rosalind Beardshaw, Sam Usher and  Amy Proud  have already  produced to go with my words. In June OUP will be publishing a series of highly illustrated books for 7-9 year olds, written by me and gorgeously illustrated, outside and inside, by Rosie Butcher,

and later on, OUP will publish another Lucy book, beautifully illustrated again by Sophy Williams, and I also have a Christmas picture book with Lion coming out, about Jenny, a shy angel, which has enchanting illustrations by Ruth Hearson.

But now I have two new, exciting projects, both writing texts for illustrators to work with. One idea for a project has come from an illustrator, one from a publisher.

 So I have a new approach now to these next picture books. If I think it is a good exercise to give visual stimuli to inspire my creative writing students, then, I realise, I can also apply it to my own creative output.  I am going to look at the illustrators' existing work, and really think about where their strengths lie before I write my story. Illustrators have to adapt their work to writers' words - why shouldn't a writer adapt their words to the illustrators' styles?

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

School Visits and Book Sales - A Vexed Question by Joan Lennon

When I looked up "vexed question" this is what I found:

Vexata Quaestio. A question or point of law often discussed or agitated, but not determined nor settled.

Which pretty much describes the fit between book sales and school visits down to the ground.  Opinions for and against can run strong.  More and more schools won't even consider it.  What are some of the advantages, disadvantages and methods of making book selling and signing part of an author event?

The pros:
* There's something pretty special about having a book signed just for you - it's a connection - it makes that author your author.
* And for the author, it's a brief but lovely chance to make a one-to-one contact, answer a question, share a smile or a joke.

The cons:
* Books are expensive, and many families are under enough money pressures already without adding one more.
* What about the kid who doesn't get a book - everybody remembers how it feels, being the one left out.  

The hows:
* A local bookshop comes in and deals with it all - providing stock, doing the selling.
* The school deals with a supplier (bookshop or direct with the publisher) and has a teacher or someone on hand for the nitty-gritty.  
* The author carries stock with them and handles the money.

Should book sales and signing be part of an author visit to a school?  What do you think is the best answer to this vexed and vexing question?  Or if there is no single answer, what do you think is the best compromise?  What pros and cons and hows have you experienced?

Let the conversation/discussion/agitation begin!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Monday, 19 February 2018

The new Book Buddy scheme - Lucy Coats

Authors almost always have too many books, and we're not the only ones. I know I do, because I like to keep up with what's going on in my industry (code for I am an inveterate and avid reader). Sometimes I'm lucky enough to be sent them by publishers, most times I buy them, and occasionally I'm given them by kind friends. In my house, they're in piles everywhere, double shelved on the groaning bookshelves, and generally taking over the whole place with their lovely colours and tempting contents. Quite regularly, once I've read them, I give some away to random kids, and to schools I visit. But there are still too many, and now I'm moving house, I need to downsize them considerably. That's why I was so thankful when the brilliant Maz Evans (author of the marvellous Who Let the Gods Out and Simply the Quest) set up the brand new BOOK BUDDY scheme. 

Book Buddy is very simple. It pairs people who have too many books (and who would like to donate them) with schools. It is a sad fact that school budgets are squeezed to the limit, many schools struggle to provide basic supplies to their students, and most often it's book provision which suffers. This is not a state of affairs any of us like, I don't think, and there will be some who argue that the government or local authority should step up and deal with it. They absolutely should, but meanwhile, while the politicians argue, kids are left without access to a school library or books which they can borrow.

I'm am no doubt preaching to the converted when I say that many studies have proven that the act of reading itself enhances intelligence and boosts brain power. But with school libraries either absent or ill-supplied and public libraries closing at a scary rate, many kids are left with little or no access to books in school or at home. We shouldn't need Book Buddy. But we do. So I've signed up to help, and it would be great if you could too. I personally would rather give my surplus books to kids who need them than have them hanging around like unread ghosts on my shelves.

If you're interested in finding out more, you can do so at book -- and if you have a local school, do encourage them to sign up too. The more the merrier!

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review 
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Haunted Attic by Lu Hersey

Moving is traumatic. I know, because I moved this week. For me, the trauma wasn’t so much about the upheaval or change of neighbourhood –  it was dealing with the bodies in the attic.

Not my attic - way too interesting...

Somehow the loft had accumulated a number of dead relatives, and I had to clear everyone out. There weren’t any actual bodies of course (sorry to disappoint) - I’m talking about family history. Sentimental attachment. Guilt. More guilt. People’s entire lives in a few boxes.

I hate dark, spidery loft spaces, and have a fear of death by falling from a loft – so over the last 20 years, I’d been shoving things up there just to get them out of sight, thinking I’d deal with them later.

Bad idea. The day comes when you have to confront them all, and that time is when you move house. The loft had to be totally emptied, so I was forced to clear out the ghosts. All those things you get landed with when people die, the detritus left from other people’s lives.

Years ago, I had to translate a chunk of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the reign of Alfred the Great (an interesting man, who didn’t just burn cakes) as part of my English degree. It was about a visitor to Alfred’s court from somewhere in Scandinavia, telling them about the customs of his people.

King Alfred

When someone died in his community, all the dead person’s possessions were piled up in a big heap in the middle of the village. Then everyone raced to take what they wanted before the rest was burned. Alfred probably recorded this to make a point to his courtiers - that inheritance isn’t a foregone conclusion.

However, since King Alfred chose not to introduce this custom over here, we still end up dealing with our dead relatives’ possessions. If we’re lucky, these will include useful things, like treasure and property. Sadly, not in my attic. 

My grandmother was up there, confined to a box of photos of her family, a moth-eaten patchwork quilt, a horseshoe from her wedding cake, a few sad letters relating to the death of one of her children, and more on the death of my grandfather. My grandfather was divided between the photo box, and a collection of watercolours in varying degrees of awful.

An unknown dead relative from the attic, and his horse

 My mother took up a lot more attic space. After my father remarried, I got landed with all the photos ever taken of her, her books, all her dreadful paintings, and a collection of letters (which I’ve never read) between her and my father when he was away on National Service.  And all the letters she wrote to me when she knew she was dying. 

My mother with me, a long time ago...

So what we’re talking about is a lot of things you can hardly bear to look through, and leave you feeling like an emotional wreck when you do, but you feel obliged to keep. It’s all that is left of them. And that makes it very hard to get rid of.

Worse, my dead relatives were just the tip of the loftberg. There were all the paintings my children did at school. Four children can do a lot of paintings over the years. And they get a lot of school reports and bring home a mountain of school work. Two very large boxes and a trunk’s worth to be precise. Fortunately, my two youngest showed up to laugh at their old stuff and share the best of it with their friends online, and we managed to more than halve the quantity after some harsh quality control.

Lastly, there were the ghosts of my own past. Photos of people I’d forgotten existed, letters from old boyfriends, and piles of folders of ‘ideas’ (mostly pieces from magazines and old journals, all yellowing around the edges, and frankly the easiest thing in the loft to bin.) There were old computers I thought might still hold info I needed, old tvs that ‘might come in useful’, and tins of paint. Enough to paint entire mansions in a range of out-of-date colours.

My stuff was the easiest to deal with. I junked it all, entirely guilt free because it was mine to junk. My relatives were the real problem. In the end, I squeezed them into a few boxes, and the charity shop benefitted from the rest. Maybe other people will like the some of the terrible paintings. I thought about burning all my parents’ letters, but my youngest daughter persuaded me to keep them. So now they’re in a box marked ‘archive’ – and they’ll become her problem one day.  

But part of me is still tempted to dump all of it. Along with all the guilt and the sadness. As it is, I’ve spent much of the last year writing a book about people in a Mesolithic type environment who aren’t overloaded with stuff. In fact they own nothing.

It’s been very therapeutic...

Lu Hersey