Monday, 2 May 2011

Family tales

My father was a good storyteller. That's to say, he knew what made a good story. He was not always as well-tuned to the needs of his listener and often - very often - told the same story again and again, as though for the first time. He was not, perhaps, the best at gauging the interest of his audience. But he knew what a good story needed. He understood the construction. I don't remember him reading me stories when I was a child, but I do remember him telling them.

Inevitably many of his stories were about his wartime experiences or about his military service, although, strangely, I don't remember him talking much about the war until he was much older. Perhaps he always told the stories and I just did not listen. Occasionally, my father would speak about his childhood, but not often. He lost his mother as a boy and his father remarried. My father felt himself to be an unwelcome appendage to the new family they created. It must have been hard for him.

I remember my father telling me that he used to ride a fix wheeled racing bike around the North Yorkshire countryside - though I have no idea how often this took place. He also sang in a choir festival in St Mary's Church on the clifftop at Whitby. I remember him telling me that on his first day at work at the steelworks, when he was fourteen, the men passed round cigarettes at tea break and he, wanting to fit in, took one as it went by. That was it, he was a smoke from then on, finally quitting when I was in my teens. My mother's childhood was a place she never wished to revisit and one of the few times she became angry with me was when I tried, in later life, to get her to talk about it.

We made our own stories of course, my brothers, my sister and me. My son loves to hear stories about my childhood - particularly anything in which I did something wrong or reckless. We become frozen in our roles of father, mother, child, sibling. He enjoys imagining me as a child. I wonder if he will ever be able to imagine me as a man, separate from my identity as his father. It's something I still struggle to do with my own father: to see him as someone in his own right, free of his bond to me.

These family stories take on the qualities of myth after a while, and indeed they often do involve a bit of fiction, intentional or otherwise. They are a series of Chinese whispers sent through the generations: endlessly retold and refined and redrafted. Home truths and untruths. Someone will embellish, another will mishear or get the wrong end of the stick. Lies will be told too, let's be honest.

Interwoven between the birth certificates and photograph albums and all the other documents of our lives, are the stories we tell and hear: stories about triumph and failure, illness, adventure, births and deaths, comedy, tragedy. These tales are told through the prism of parental pride or sibling rivalry, of course. They are both true and not quite true. They reveal and they conceal.

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