Chris Powling looks at four new story collections
No printed page can do justice to storytelling as a performance any more than a script gives adequate experience of a play. What it must do, though, is suggest something of the activity’s out-loudness, of its engagement with an actual audience. Mary Medlicott knows this in her bones and it shows in Time for Telling (Kingfisher, 0 86272 804 5, £8.95), a collection of stories from … well, from just about everywhere. Whatever culture they’re drawing on, all her contributors are keenly aware of their place in an essentially oral tradition – hence, here and there, the hint of dialect and of direct appeal to an infant and lower junior readership ‘listening’ in its head. There’s an invitation, indeed, to go further:
You may … prefer to stick to reading the stories aloud. But if you do want to try to tell one, please feel free to make it your own. You might find yourself cutting one bit, embellishing another. You will certainly want to use your own words.
Invidious, then, to mention particular tales and tellers, some new and some well-known, since on these terms everything in this generous, open-hearted book, with its warm, bright illustrations by Sue Williams, works a treat.
Cutting, embellishing and making one’s own comes entirely naturally to Kevin Crossley-Holland whose Tales from Europe (BBC, 0 563 34795 3, £9.99) were first written for the School Television series ‘Zig-Zag’. As such, though rooted in that verbal territory which linguists call ‘secondary’ oracy, they nudge juniors towards full-blown literature with language so fresh and bright few would dare compete with it:
This falling snow is like an old man. It keeps forgetting itself, and wandering sideways. It doesn’t really want to touch the ground. And now that the sun is shining, hazy, away in the west, the flakes look so frail you can almost see through them …
Thus begins the tale of the sword in the stone but the unexpected angle of approach is typical of retellings so assured that the author can paraphrase Browning, shorten Andersen or distil a Greek myth with equal bravura. My own preference is for the Northern tales since the glint in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s prose can become a little dewy the further South he moves but it’s clear throughout how shrewdly he’s calculating his impact.
I wish I could say the same of Neil Philip’s Fairy Tales of Eastern Europe (Liber, 185734 000 0, £11.99). As a first publication from Liber Press, it’s very much a showpiece – beautifully designed and produced, with splendid illustrations from Larry Wilkes in both black-and-white and full colour. The stories themselves are varied and fascinating. What bothers me is the language in which they’re told. According to the introduction, the ‘earthiness’ and ‘sense of the realities of peasant life’ which runs through them will help ‘paint an historical backdrop to the drama of today’s news bulletins’. Really? Consider this:
But the King began to grow tired of this behaviour. He called up the Useless Wagoner and gave him a terrible scolding. But it is vain to seat a dog at table, and when the devil gets into a man he stays there; so it was labour lost to drive the Useless Wagoner to work …
… and so on, describing a world in which it’s possible to ‘repent bitterly’, an old wife can call her husband ‘good-for-nothing rogue’, a capital city is ‘hard by’, a fire is something you sit ‘before’ and a layabout is a person who ‘never and never did anything but frolic in the tavern’, to take a few examples at random. Here, surely, is a classic case of Folkspeak – that curious malady which so afflicts anthologists who overdose on the English into which their sources were first translated that ‘lo and behold’ they end up writing in a style fit for an Edwardian clergyman. A pity … because in many ways this is an auspicious debut from Liber Press who it’s clear will produce books much better than this one. Neil Philip, let it be said, already has.
At first glance, One Moonlit Night (Pont Books, 0 86383 627 5, £12.95) has an odd shape and layout. Half-an-hour into this collection of 26 Welsh folk tales, though, and everything has fallen into place – including the dustjacket which gives equal billing to T Llew Jones who first retold them, Gillian Clarke who wrote this English version and Jac Jones who produced the grey-tinted vignettes beneath each title and the bold full-colour plates throughout. There’s not a false note anywhere. For instance, should the originator or the translator take credit for the following:
According to legend, no one since that day has searched for the crock of gold, and it still lies under the stone, waiting to be discovered by a boy with yellow hair and blue eyes. One day, such a youth will come and, as he sets foot on the stone, it will move back easily revealing the treasure that Merlin hid there so long ago.
What colour is your hair? Are your eyes blue?
Opposite, as a pay-off, is a picture so simple and powerful it reminded me of the work of Charles Keeping.
In short, the Welsh Arts Council who commissioned the book ought to be hugging itself with glee. Since the text, arranged in a double column on each page, is already halfway to autocue format I suggest an immediate approach to a Welsh TV company- unless, that is, the BBC’s ‘Zig Zag’ gets there first.