Monday, August 11, 2008

Tales of the city

As children my brother and sister and I were surrounded by storytellers amongst our parents' friends: David, a musician, favoured horror stories told in sepulchural tones (the Slavic folk tale of Baba Yaga was a particular favourite); Martin, a nurse who eventually committed suicide, used to tell us gory stories about decapitation in road accidents; Ian, who died in Amsterdam last year, had been a rocker in Hastings in the late 1960s and regaled us with tales of pitched battles with mods, Quadrophenia style; Uncle Mike, now completely estranged from our family, invented a character called Rufus, who lived by the railway lines in a cardboard box. Probably the most consummate storyteller, and my favourite, was "Doody M", who went on to write scripts for Coronation Street.

Every so often I will read a short story somewhere and realise I have heard it before: M clearly pillaged everything he had read for material. When in my teens I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" (1922), I realised that I had already heard the entire story, in almost perfect detail, at the age of 8: in a marquee, at a wedding in a place called Jerusalem Croft, sitting on M's knee and wearing a green dress with white hearts which my mum had adapted from the previous year's gala outfit, and sporting, for unintended comic effect, a sling because I'd fractured my arm falling out of a tree earlier that day.

M, who lived in London, became my hero because he was a writer: he published several plays and had work performed at the Hampstead Theatre. I started writing to him when I was about 15 and treasured his letters. I sent him my pathetic efforts at short stories and was devastated when he sent back a thoroughly critiqued, marked up copy of one of them - about a murder in a block of flats - with the word "cliché" appearing frequently in the margin.

He told me about his small triumphs in getting the BBC interested in his work (once writing hubristically "Frame this letter!") and I told him about whatever small triumphs I could possibly have had at 16. But it fell apart when my dad, who took a close interest in M's letters to me, told someone he'd met who worked in the media about some great secret that M had told me not to divulge. M sent me a furious letter denouncing me as a traitor. I saw him once after that: I visited his flat in Elephant & Castle. After an awkward cup of tea, he had to go out and was very uncomfortable about leaving me there alone waiting for doolally Auntie Jane, who was late to pick me up. I said to him "I won't pry" and didn't, but after that we never spoke again.

Thinking about it now, he was a somewhat cynical man (I remember him singing/sneering along to an embittered folk song, "When you're tired of worldly toil/Shuffle off this mortal coil") who expected more from me than I could give and was unreasonably hysterical in his reaction to what he saw as my betrayal, which was in fact my dad's; but at the time I was very upset about it. I prefer to remember the amazing stories.


Mummy said...

This made me feel very, very sad for all sorts of personal reasons I won't write here.

Thank you for sharing it.

Macnsoulsister said...

I think that is very very sad as well. It is good to have a mentor of sorts in your teens - such a shame it all ended so abruptly.

LottieP said...

It doesn't make me feel sad, strangely; a bit sorry perhaps, but I don't take his behaviour personally: it was always all about him.

It seems to be the case that if I am ready to write about it, it doesn't really hurt anymore: it's no longer private.

Claire said...

Gosh I had no idea about the letters and Errant reading them...What a fackin' liberty as Catherine Tate might say. What was the great secret that E took it upon himself to divulge?

LottieP said...

Actually I can't remember - it was some extremely important, top secret project he was working on.

Fackin' liberty - that has made me laugh heartily. It's true! Who did he think he was, reading his 15year old daughter's correspondence?