When I was just a wee girl my Grandad would tell me stories. Not everyday stories from books, you understand. Instead he would weave glorious, rich, tapestries of Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson straight from his head and into my ever-ready ears. Inevitably, these same tales of Three Wee Pigs, Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks would appear at school or in a library, presented to me in book form. Whenever this happened I’d contest the facts and insist my Grandad’s version (which changed every time he told it) was in fact the truth.
As I grew older he told me tales of herding his uncle’s cows down St Leonard’s Bank to graze on the North Inch, of his mother dying and my great-great-Auntie Ella winning the fight to take him from a cruel, alcoholic father. He told me of his days spent with Big Moncrieff, cycling to Spittalfield and one day meeting a lassie who dropped stones down his jersey while he sat on a dyke. (My Nana, of course). I gazed on in wide-eyed wonder as he painted vivid images of him and Geordie Baird, his best friend, ducking behind a fence in the South of France as bullets whizzed past their ears. At them getting split up, and then him, being taken off to Prisoner of War Camp, not knowing if his pal was dead or alive.
I know about the old German officer, Bulldog, who’d send him to solitary for swapping his wooden clogs for a smoke, but who’d stand waiting, days later when he came out, ready with a bowl of soup, a hunk of rough Polish bread and the aforementioned hard, wooden clogs. I know he spent 4 years as a P.O.W and that he was marched on foot, home from Poland, liberated three weeks late because news that we’d won hadn’t reached his camp.
I know my nana was the absolute love of his life. That his best summer in his 88 years on this planet was the one he spent babysitting me, my sister, brother and two cousins. All five of us piled into the passenger seats of his old Simca, cheering wildly if he overtook someone and demanding daily that he tell us the story of the man who threw his head into the back of the fire.
My Grandad was, and is, my hero. On the surface, if you quickly glanced in, he was an unremarkable man. He went about his days, not a rich man, not a boastful man, in an ordinary manner. If you’d asked him he would have told you that his was a plain, happy, contented life. But for those of us who know his stories, he was far from ordinary.
As we all grew older, he would keep cuttings from newspapers and his beloved national geographic and pull them out for us when we went to visit. These were stories he’d read and thought we would enjoy (for people under 20, this is the equivalent of “sharing” directly to your pal’s timeline). We shared books, both avid readers, and waited patiently while the other one finished before we set about dissecting it into its best bits.
When my son was born I was 21 years old. We were all sitting in the garden one warm summer’s day, blanket spread out on the grass, eating tomatoes straight from the greenhouse. Cain was about one, toddling around, eating ladybirds and picking daisies. My Grandad got his old knees stabled, sat down on the blanket beside me and explained the importance of passing on stories to this next generation. Not just his stories, but my stories and those of my friends and the people I had met and the things I had read and seen. He told me never to "haud back” on a good story.
Over the 35 years that I was blessed enough to have him he told me stories that were real, that were heartbreaking and heartwarming, that were wild with imagination, colourful with different voices and bold characters. Sometimes we didn’t know if a tale was true or straight from his own gorgeous head. Often they were a mixture of both and at no point did that matter.
Every night, until the one he told me he was a big boy and could read his own book, I read to my son. He had a page story (from a book) and a made-up story (from my head). Next month he is 21 years old and we still exchange books and stories and colourful tales. I don’t cut papers but I do send links and he will see my tale of a graffiti emblazoned castle, and raise it with a village in South America that rises from the skyline in a blaze of painted faces. He is a lover of stories. His best friend is an amazing story teller; it doesn’t surprise me one little bit that Cain has remained steadfastly attached to Sonny B, an outrageously, gregarious boy.
Me, I love a story that finds a few arms and legs every time you tell it. Never let the complete truth get in the way of a better version. My friend Jack despairs of me. He swears he has heard me tell the same story 100 times and never the same way twice. I have no issue with this at all.
You see, my Grandad was right about most things and he was certainly right about this. In this world where we have become accustomed to information overload, where we carry the tales of the world around in our pocket, every book, newspaper cutting and fairytale that ever existed and a whole mountain of nonsense on top of that, we have somehow forgotten to pass on the stories that count. We can regale the complete wardrobe of Beyonce’s world tour, recite chapter and verse Nigel Farage’s latest diatribe and in 140 characters or less, describe the reasons why a nine year old boy should be axed from a talent show.
Well, enough I say! I will tweet, I will facebook, I will even google+ but I will not sit back and watch the remarkable lives of the people around me, the people who live in my city, drink in my pub, raise families alongside mine and build entire lives on incredible tales, go unnoticed. Enough judging, enough with the “rings of shame” and pages of “what were you thinking”. I want my celebrities to be truly talented, my politicians to do the job they were elected to do (get off of twitter Dave, and run the country, there’s a good lad) and my newspaper headlines to be either shockingly truthful or truthfully shocking.
Because as long as the pseudo-celebrity and the wannabe celebrity and the loud brash shouting of the few takes over every corner of our lives we will never stop to look at the fantastic people and tales that are right here under our noses.
Like my old Grandad, at first glance we are simple people, leading humdrum lives. But scratch the surface of most people’s existence and you will find that there is a story to tell. From functioning alcoholics to teenage strippers, drum playing monks, multi-millionaire businesswomen, coffee roasting mothers, event commanders, smart single mums, commonwealth swimmers and old prisoners of war, people are generally amazing.
And so, If you’ve been trying to work out what this is here. A blog or a website or what. Don’t. It’s not really any of those of things. It’s just a story. The internet is the modern day equivalent of a camp fire and I’m going to sit down and tell you the big, bold, gorgeous story about my city, the fantastic people who live and work in it and all the amazing things that happen here.
Who knows what else might happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.
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2017-06-08 Gary Henderson