The 2013 Advent Calender: For the 25 days of Christmas, I will be blogging each day about a miscellaneous thing I love. Not necessarily a big thing, not necessarily a small thing and not in any order.
My late father owned rooms full of books–dusty, leatherbound tomes of religious text–but I struggle to remember him ever really reading anything. Once every couple of years, he would re-read the Narnia series, often when he was ill. He had a fierce love of Sherlock Holmes and had read every story. Jeeves and Wooster were a favourite, although he listened to the radio dramas rather than read them. When I come to think of it, both my parents were quite similar in this respect. Books and reading were considered noble ends in our household (we didn’t have a TV or internet) but they didn’t really do much of it themselves. Their bookshelves were full of books with religious or political slants–biographies, essays, worthy records of missionary work. It never occurred to me as odd until writing this very sentence that one of the shelves in my father’s study contained the biography of Hitler (and, quite traditional and arguably ‘sexist’ though he was, the biography of Margaret Thatcher, who he greatly admired). The biographies on my mothers shelves were mostly nurses who had ministered to the ungodly in the wildernesses. And then, in amongst these, the odd flashes of departure. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. An early edition Magician’s Nephew. A tattered paperback Lord of the Rings. (And Redwall–my mother and I read through every one of Brian Jacques books until I left for university, and there’s now a pile of seven or eight unread books that will sadly no longer grow following his death this year.)
But this isn’t a post about the stories they read. It’s a post about the stories they–or rather, my father–told. When I was young, my father made up stories. On weekends, when it was acceptable to not rise before 10am, I would go to my parents bedroom and beg a story. My father used to make them up on the spot. They focussed around a bear who lived in the woods, and went by the name of Bulgy Bear. He lived in a treehouse with two companions, Crispin (who, I think, was a talking doll) and Matthew. I believe there was a skulking villain by the name of Fox. They would often get in trouble and find themselves up before the Beak. Of course, Matthew was me, woven into the stories. When my nieces and nephews were born, he told the stories to them and Matthew had vanished, to be replaced by interlopers bearing new names. Bah humbug (I say, with pique, though of course the Bulgy Bear stories existed long before me, with the names of my brothers and sisters. I was not the original.) The stories magpied happily from plenty of other sources. The Beak is directly from Wodehouse. Crispin I’m not too sure about, but it was a name my father always obscurely loved, and it was only by a narrow escape that I wasn’t named that at birth (along with Jasper, another favourite, and Justin, which was originally my first name and not my middle name, until a builder was the tenth person to refer to my early birth as ‘just-in time, haha!’, my mother put her foot down, and they were swapped.) And as for Bulgy Bear? Well, he’s straight out of Narnia, hotfooting it from Lantern Waste, out of the wardrobe and into my childhood stories. The Bulgy Bears appear as nothing more than a throwaway line in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as sleepy bears who hibernated away the eternal winter, and pop up later in Prince Caspian to declare him king, but so used to my father’s stories am I that reading Narnia I feel a strong sense of C. S. Lewis having stolen his intellectual property. I’ve never really thought about whether my own desire to tell stories comes from Bulgy Bear. I usually attribute it to other things–my voracious reading, being bought a typewriter with which to write novels. Perhaps I don’t connect them because, once, I decided to put Bulgy Bear down on paper. I coaxed my father into giving me the bones of a story, and wrote it out. But somehow, written out, it lost all the magic. The story could only go one way, it only had one direction. On Saturday mornings, the plot could go any which way, especially if I piped up to guess what was going to happen. One day the woods in which they lived could be near a town, the next somewhere else entirely. It could be summer at the start of the story, and become rapidly winter when snow was required. And of course, Matthew wasn’t a character in a story, drawn with firm lines. He was me, sat cross-legged on the bed, adventuring through the misty woods with a talking doll and a grumpy bear.
— As I finished this post I was struck by a sudden memory of my father’s other favourite book: Brendon Chase by BB. He took it upon himself to read me the book, one chapter per week, on a Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure we ever finished it, but I have read the book. Its the archetypal ‘messing about in woods’ story. Has anyone ever read it?