Day 45 in the Night Garden. How have I survived six weeks in this dreadful place? I ate the last of the Pontypines yesterday, and already I grow weak with hunger. I must leave soon to forage food. Worst of all, the Haahoos have discovered where I’m hiding. Their monstrous shadows wash across the windows of my refuge. I hold Macca Pacca’s corpse to the window and wave his skeletal hand on a stick, but they are becoming ever more suspicious. Why doesn’t he venture out with his soap? Why isn’t he washing faces? Because I ate his heart in a cassoulet. Once — long ago — I would have been cruelly shamed by my crimes, but all morality dies in this place. I survive by becoming one of… them. Yes. My name is Iggle Piggle. I am a monster. But it was the Garden made me this way — the Garden. I now wish only for sleep — perchance to dream. Dreams are my haven from these waking horrors. As I drift, I hear the words, as though whispered from the deepest parts of my skull…
The night is black
And the stars are bright
And the sea is dark and deep.
Take the little sail down
Light the little light
This is the way to the Garden of the night.
Iggle wiggle diggle wiggle woo. God help me. God help us all.
I’ve been making good progress on the book in the last two weeks, so I’m allowing myself a wee break to write about collective nouns. I love collective nouns. There’s something about them, at once melancholy and sweet — an innocence — that I find utterly beguiling. We all know prides of lions and herds of cows, but the rare ones are better, because they’re strange and odd and upside-down. In his heartbreaking new album Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave sings about a charm of hummingbirds. A week or so ago, researching a story about birds, I wrote of murders and murmurations, wakes and gulps, springs and flings, scolds and pantheons.
A good collective noun needs to personify some characteristic of the collection, rather than simply iterate what the noun is or does. My favourite collective noun is a drift of swifts — the sheer simplicity of the rhyme, the soaring swing of the swifts as they zip around the house in the sheerest of circles.
In the new book, I wrote of a pocketful of jackdaws. I didn’t think a thing of it until reading the chapter back, later on, and wondering where it had come from. Then I decided to ask people to make up some collective nouns of their own. This was only a few days after Trump had been elected, and around a third of the responses were basically ‘a bastard of Trumps’ or similar. Here are some of mine, on the left, and my favourites from the folk who joined in on the right:
A pocketful of jackdaws
A compass of clouds
A misery of clowns
A duplicity of toads
An orchestra of bees
A clarity of cats
A spindle of witches
A philosophy of starlings
An orbit of angels
A kerfuffle of mice
A haunting of pike
A cathedral of jellyfish
A parley of pirates
A calamity of bats
A knot of weasels
A panic of pigeons
A snippet of crones
A juice of pumas
A punnet of fucks
A scuttle of rats
A tangle of sparrows
A sundial of shadows
A shower of seedlings
A murmur of dreams
A wheeze of bagpipers
A choir of carnations
An apprehension of streetlights
A bribe of winkles
There were many more — I couldn’t include them all. There’s something in a good collective noun that elevates the noun itself, or reveals another side of its nature. Some of these are so obvious they should fit into daily use — ‘Pigeons exploded in their panics, clattering about the station roof’ — and others are more abstract. There’s no particular reason, for instance, why ‘a juice of pumas’ should work, but somehow, it does — ‘One by one, a juice of pumas slipped from the gloom and gathered near the tracks.’
What are your favourite collective nouns? And what would you invent for a new one?
On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.
I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small – and all the mice running away.
He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)
After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.
Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.
Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.
The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.
A sheesha is a mirror, and you probably all know about the Brothers Grimm; throughout the 19th Century, brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm collected and published folk stories from across Germany and beyond. Their books preserved many – if not most – of our classic fairytales. When they feel so intrinsically European, hard-wired into grey stone and rain and winter, it’s crazy to discover that threads of those same tales have existed in India for centuries. In retrieving and retelling the original stories, Peter’s show gives the Grimms an Indian incarnation – or, more accurately, reflection – and hence the titular sheesha.
Just like people, stories evolve as they travel, building on a core, becoming something new, fitting themselves around each new place. The same elements are plain to see in the fairytales of both cultures – family discord, revenge, blood, luck, magic – but Peter’s stories explode with language and laughter. His characters flit between between Punjabi and English – sometimes with translations, sometimes without – and the seamless interplay of both languages is dizzying, dazzling, mesmerising. The stories balance violence with humour, using voice and movement and body language and expression to conjure holy men and jealous sisters, gods and donkeys, poison and pakora, loom shuttles, bloody shawls and magic mango stones.
It was an electrifying show and an inspiring night. By the end of the performance, my face ached with so much smiling and laughing. I can’t do it justice; hunt down Peter Chand and hurl yourself headfirst into his stories.
I’m fascinated by the evolution of stories, and it was a delight to chat to Peter after the show and hear more about how he’d found and developed the show – and how the show had then evolved again, changing around him with each new performance. His medium is more dynamic than mine, but that idea of evolution is something I can understand; it’s there in my inability to let go of written work, returning to it time and time again, even years after publication, tweaking and cutting and expanding, improving, building towards something ever new. We also spoke about his performance style, which is both relaxed and spontaneous – at one point he said “Bless you” to an audience sneeze without breaking the suspense – and he was kind enough to give me some advice on how to improve. I’ll never be a storyteller of his calibre, and that’s not really where I want to take my work – but I absolutely strive to read and perform my stories with greater confidence, and it was useful to talk to a master! Peter also put me onto Festival At The Edge – the country’s oldest storytelling festival – which I think we’ll try and attend next year.
As a tangent to all this, my friend (and real-life Lovejoy) Ben Piggott claims there are actually only two stories:
- Boy/girl leaves to find fortune
- Trouble comes to town
I’ve tried, but I can’t think of a story worth its salt where one or both of these sound hollow. And yes, they’re vast catch-alls, but that’s okay, because they’re also entirely true.
For a number of reasons, I’ve stalled on the novel redraft since discussing Freedom. As of today, I think I’ve found a way back into the light – but I need to brew on it for a couple of days, so that’s for another post. For now, here’s an illustration from The Old Woman In The Wood.
We don’t have a TV aerial in our house, so when we watch anything, it tends to be on DVD. One of the films we sometimes watch with Dora is a frankly astonishing 1980s compilation of classic nursery rhymes. The rhymes are sung by a raft of top folk singers like Martin Carthy, while the stories are acted out in a combination of puppets, animation, or against nascent green screen technology. Taken in one sitting, it’s like Alice is having a nightmare. WHILE in Wonderland. The whole collection swings between the trippy and terrifying, but there are a few surprisingly haunting songs in there. One in particular has stuck with me; it’s an old song, but I don’t think I’d heard it before watching the film. It’s called ‘Soldier Soldier, Won’t You Marry Me?’. It’s a duet between a young lass and a soldier, and it goes a bit like this:
For I have a wife of own…”
It’s really sad, isn’t it? It reminds me of Alan Garner. I sing it to Dora every now and then – it’s one of the few songs she doesn’t try to sing along with. She prefers to listen. It feels curiously grave. And what happens next? Does the sweet maid pine after the soldier, or pick herself up and find another man? I feel like she needs vengeance. I’ve been imagining another verse:
And the sweet maid shot him down…..
It doesn’t make the song any happier, of course, but the soldier needs comeuppance.I haven’t yet decided whether I can sing it to my daughter.