Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beautiful as pearls

The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories (Puffin Books) The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers
If you've been reading this blog, by now you can probably guess what sort of child I was. Lost in a story. Nose stuck in a book, and rude to my mother when she called me to dinner - after all, she interrupted. Tucked away behind the shelves at the back of the school library during lunchtime. And always reading. Nothing ever felt as immediate or interesting or understandable as the life I lived in stories. Real life - negotiating my mother's moods, schoolyard politics and factions, pop culture - was bewildering. I never quite got the hang of it all. But books - now that's where I belonged.

And yet, trying to find a good book is hazardous for a child. You troll through the library, fingers running along the spines. A title catches your eye. You pull it out, and examine the cover, and read the blurb, the first page. And then, holding your breath, you plunge in.

If you're lucky, you'll find a good one. But so many kids' books are awful. Violent books, providing the material for terrifying nightmares. Sentimental books that stick and cloy. Dull books, devoid of interesting words or language play. Books completely lacking in humour or grace. You waded through an awful lot of muck before you found a gem. Yet given how much muck I waded through, I still missed lots of good books, even authors. It startles me. How could I, always on the alert for something interesting or funny or beautiful, have missed Alan Garner or Margaret Mahy as a child?

I stumbled across Margaret Mahy only this year. We were away at Easter, and my daughter needed something else to read. I picked up The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories for a dollar at a grotty book exchange, and we instantly fell in love. This intoxicating collection combines the suburban with the magical. All the stories are delightful, but two particularly stand out. 'The Midnight Story on Griffin Hill' tells the tale of a cross and alienated writer who ends up reading his stories to a midnight audience of griffins. The tears they weep as they listen roll down the hill and fill an old quarry, which becomes a swimming pool for his sons. 'The Singing Bus Queue' sings gloriously as they wait for their bus. Gradually, the whole town comes to listen, so the killjoys have them thrown into prison for creating a disturbance. There, at midnight, they begin to sing in separate cells a song so clear and high that the prison crumbles, and they walk out of the ruins to sing the night away with the whole city, the moon and the stars. These are stories I would want my children to internalise - I would want myself to internalise, in fact. Stories about ages past and suburban bathrooms; stories tinged with sorrow and beauty; stories about exuberant adventures and unfurling secrets; stories marked always by good humour and delight.

The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories, also by Mahy, is overall less moving but more action-packed. My three year old daughter loves the book, and carries it around the house with her. She is particularly attached to 'Don't Cut the Lawn', about a man who tries to mow but is continually stopped by mothers whose babies are nesting in the 'tussocks and tangles' of the long grass: a lark, a cat, a hare and a dragon. She also loves 'The Downhill Crocodile Whizz', about a small crocodile who lives at the top of a very long steep hill, and whose grandmother gives him rollerskates for his birthday. Of course, he straps them on and immediately whizzes down the hill, chased by a growing collection of dogs, children, an old man in a wheelchair, a big brass band in a bus, and the army before he rolls to a stop in the park at the bottom. It's cheerfully chaotic, just the thing for a young child.

The title of Mahy's book The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers is enough to make me laugh, even before one gets to the tale of three little boys, a peg-legged babysitter with an eyepatch, a hook and a bottle of rum, and the illicit party they hold for all the retired pirates in town. The story about pirates rumbustificating is paired with The Librarian and the Robbers, in which a calmly beautiful librarian, kidnapped by robbers, introduces them to the world of books before engineering her escape and inspiring them to mend their wicked ways. Both stories are joyfully ridiculous, beautifully written, and hilarious.

Mahy loves exuberant words and the way they can rumble and roll; she revels in alliteration and metaphor ("The forest sighed and swayed... and the sea murmured as if a crowd of people were turning over in their sleep" ('The Giant's Bath' in Chewing-Gum). Her writing is rhythmic and strong, and some of the more catchy phrases have passed into our household language. Like the Frisbee sisters, we now brush so that we can have "teeth as strong as tigers' teeth and as beautiful as pearls" ('The Chewing-Gum Rescue').

Her writing is strongest when she links the thrilling mainstays of childhood imagination - tree climbing, pirates, robbers and dragons - to everyday experience (brushing teeth, bus queues, bathrooms, grumpy neighbours). Unlike so many stories of adventure or mystical beasts, these stories aren't about 'somewhere else'. Instead, they suggest that a world of possibility awaits the reader in her very own street, bathtub or veggie patch.

The books are wonderful to read aloud. My three year old loves some of the stories, but it is my five year old who is really absorbed. And they will read and re-read these books for years to come. Children of twelve or so will still enjoy the many layers; and even I, at the ancient age of 34, often re-read a story or two before my bedtime with great delight. Mahy is a prolific writer, and you are sure to find some of her books in the Junior section of your local library.

> Margaret Mahy The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1982); The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1986); The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers (David R Godine, 2001 (1978)).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On marriage and morgy-broth

The Mousehole Cat
I recently asked friends to name a story, film, song, piece of music, meal or place which somehow evoked their relationship. I'm helping them prepare a ritual for marriage, so the question was not entirely out of the blue!

But it got me to thinking. Which story evokes my marriage with my husband? And has it changed? We've been together for over a decade; is it the same story as it was ten years ago?

As I pondered these questions, I found myself reflecting, again*, on The Mousehole Cat by by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley. And I realise that it is our story so far.

For on the one hand, our marriage has felt like Mousehole: warm, safe, snug, and battered by storms. We partnered soon after my husband's first marriage ended, and his grief, rage and sense of betrayal swept through the air, lashing at us and those around us. Related conflict with friends and church thundered around. My mother, who had a galloping form of multiple sclerosis, moved quickly through paraplegia to quadriplegia to blindness to, shortly before our wedding, death, and the waves of grief almost washed us away. Early in my first pregnancy, his mother died; and soon after that our grandfathers. When I think back to those early years, I remember a black hole of rage and sorrow and loss, so that we almost foundered; yet we held fast. I cannot but think of the seawall, battered by the Great Storm Cat but keeping the worst of the winds and the seas at bay.

But our relationship is growing out of that deeply inward, protective stage. And yet I am still in the same story, because my husband reminds me of Old Tom. He's the sort of man who will put himself out to help others; the one who hands children food off his own plate, who will forfeit the last piece of cake or his own desires if it makes someone else happy. He gets up in the night with the crying baby. He has structured his work to direct resources into the deeply unpopular field of clergy abuse; he has structured his home life so he can spend good time with his children. He's decent, honest, an enabler; what the Yiddish might call a real mensch. I can imagine him, trapped by winter storms in a small town, giving away what food he has and, when that runs out, risking the sea to catch fish for all.

Like Old Tom's cat Mowzer, I can imagine getting into the boat with him, thinking, as usual, of my stomach and filled with hope for morgy-broth and stargazy pie. I can imagine sitting in the prow as he guides the boat, and singing to the Great Storm Cat, finding the words from deep within which placate the winds and the rain. I can imagine being scared, scoured by water and buffeted by the gale, but willing to risk my life in a boat with my husband. I can see him filling the nets, and turning the boat. And between his sailing and my singing, together, I imagine, we might steer through the storms and find our way home, guided by the candles that fill the windows of our town. Welcomed back, we would feast on morgy-broth and stargazy pie, and celebrate with everyone!

Partnership, sacrifice, songs, community. And stargazy pie. What else could a marriage need?

*For more about The Mousehole Cat, see the post below or click here.