The old man hauled on his worn, smudged overjacket, turned to his wife and said,
‘I wont be a minute Win ‘
He smiled inside as his hand touched the three conkers in his pocket. He could feel their smoothness, and imagine their shine in his mind’s eye. He grinned, knowing what he was about to do.
Vincent had four sons, one of whom, the youngest, had died in the second world war (his mother’s favourite Vivian, known as Bunty). But he still had Edwin, John and Dougie, he thought. He knew that and his heart warmed as he stepped into the cold morning air. He took a deep breath in and the ice-chill filled his lungs. Good clean air. He looked out over his large, ordered garden and worked out where he was going to plant the smooth, glossy autumn orbs. Vincent rolled the conkers around in his hand. Interlacing them between his fingers. It made him remember.
‘Right’, he said, ‘job to do- for me and my boys’.
He picked up his trowel from where he had distractedly thrown it yesterday, and marched off to the first spot he had chosen (too near to the house, probably) but what did he care. He’d be long gone before this beauty reached maturity. He tittered and made a hole in the dark brown earth and pushed the chocolate-brown conker deep within the broken soil.
‘For you Dougie’ he whispered.
He repeated this ritual with the other two conkers, quietly murmuring the names of his other two sons- ‘This is for you…Edwin…This is for you John….’
His sons so much more than their names, he thought, but their names would do for now. He turned back towards his house, and walked homeward towards his wife (who probably by now was baking a 100 weight of fruit buns) and smiled imagining the small green root emerging from the conkers and rooting, rooting deep just like his love for his sons (but he’d never tell them that…..)
That was my grandfather and I now live in the very house that he lived in, and look out each day on the very trees he planted for my father and uncles (now, sadly all dead). This story was told to me when I was a little girl. The history of the conkers. The reason why there are 3 hugely oversized, completely inappropriately chosen, trees in my back garden.
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t heard the story of the conkers being told. It informed my childhood and it still informs my adulthood for I’m writing about it now aren’t I? So it runs deep. And that’s what I want to address in this post. The importance of stories and the stories we tell ourselves and how they inform who we are and what we do.
I don’t know if I would have felt so strongly rooted in the house I live in had I not heard that story. If my grandmother had not sat on the edge of my bed just before I went to sleep and told me the story of the conkers; and it’s interesting isn’t it because I’ve chosen to dramatise this scene for you; I’ve gone back over this related, oral ‘truth’ and re-interpreted it for you in a way that probably; no, not probably, does embellish the actual act itself. When we retell something that means something to us we use artistic licence because we want to bring the listener in. We want to make them part of our reality. and if it’s done orally then the effect is instantaneous. We hear, we feel, we take it in. If it’s via words on a page there’s an extra process of filtration we have to go through.
This story has shaped my life. Living here in this house I can’t escape from my history. This house is so full of stories related to me and my family how could I live anywhere else? It’s in my genes. The house is part of my inheritance.
And now I’ll let you in and explain how I got to be re-telling this story to you today; what inspired me to write about the conkers. One of my favourite podcasts is RadioLab a curious, ever imaginative podcast aimed at curious souls, and they always, aways produce intriguing pieces, and their latest was entitled ‘Inheritance’ (See podcast link at the bottom of this post) , asking the question:
CAN YOU RE-WRITE YOUR BLUEPRINT?
How does what you do get passed down and get retold through your children and the stories you tell?
As novelist Reynold Price states:
‘A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives’.
Stories are how we give our lives meaning. It’s how we shape our identity and as one blogger stated in his blog (Identity and Belonging) ‘Who I am is so much more important than what I do’. Stories are the tools that allow us to interpret what we are experiencing and to do so with individuality and with imagination. We might not be able to override our genetic make-up but we can certainly help ourselves along a bit by the retelling of our lives to our children, with the intention of helping them overcome the inadequacies of the blueprint we have passed to them. We try and alter history to make up for it. All the stories told to our children so they can learn and move forward and be the best possible people they can be. To have what we didn’t have and do what we didn’t do.
Shekhar Kapur the director of the film Elizabeth says , ‘I tell a story therefore I exist. If I don’t. I don’t exist’ . He suggests, in the video at the bottom of this post, that stories are the vehicles through which we develop a connection between ourselves and the infinite world. It’s how we reach beyond ourselves and create mythologies just like my conkers and my grandfather. I’m not alone. I’m part of a story handed down over 80 years. I am part of history and that’s a comfort.
Now, for another story. Are you sitting comfortably? This is a very different tale. Edgy , rooted in a more difficult time within the history of the holocaust.
I had an uncle on my mother’s side, a lovely gentle man by all accounts, who was forced into the German army, as was the case for nearly every man at that time. The story goes, and so goes the story, that X was given orders to shoot the concentration camp prisoners into the huge body pit dug specially for them. Day-in-day-out- human beings were shot and buried, shot and buried. My uncle was a peaceful man and was at a quandary as to what to do. So the story my grandmother told my mother, was that that Onkel X refused, he shot to the side of the prisoners, his bullets glancing off the muddy ground and not in to warm flesh. He went against his orders. And then one day somebody then pointed a gun to the back of his neck and said:
‘If you don’t do this. It’s you. It’s your turn. ‘
This is how the story runs, according to my mother. Onkel X then mysteriously disappeared. He vanished. The family suspected he had been shot for going against federal orders. But nobody is 100% sure….. What actually happened to Onkel X?
And only recently my mother admitted how she wasn’t even sure of the whole story. Had it been made up in its entirety to defend a certain position towards war and what happened at the time? We tell stories to reinforce our beliefs too, don’t we? We embellish to ram the point home? Don’t we? Shekhar Kapur says ‘A person without a story does not exist’ . He says the process of storytelling is a process of contradiction and that the ‘acceptance of contradiction is storytelling and not resolution’.
If that is the case my family and I have to accept that we’ll never really know what happened to Onkel X, that we, perhaps, have ourselves shaped this story so that we can create the form of family with which we want to associate. The truth might be secondary to the storytelling, the perception we want to convey. It’s difficult to tell. And also maybe I have to live with the fact that I never really experienced the warmth from my grandfather that he clearly felt for his sons when he planted those 3 conkers 80 years ago. But what I can say, what I can say with my hand on my heart, is that I’m glad these stories are in my life because they have made me what I am today; a sometime-storyteller trying to tell a story to you. And maybe it’s just the communication of that story that counts.
* SHEKHAR KAPUR ‘WE ARE THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES’:
Do you have any similar family stories that you’d like to share? We’d be interested to hear them.
- NEW ! ‘FRENZY’S FLASH FEATURE’…. Your fortnightly Thursday Photo/Poetry Combo with GREG MACKIE. Starting this Thursday 13th December. Let the Frenzy Commence!
- So pleased to say that Our VISITOR PEEP PAGE will have a resident again in mid January; an abstract artist just starting out LILI MORGAN.
- ArtiPeeps will soon be launching full details of its 10 + poets collaborative poetry project called TRANSFORMATIONS. Details will be posted out this Wednesday (12th). If any poets who are not involved already would like to join us, please do let me know via the reply box on the post or via Twitter @ArtiPeep. Participation is open to anyone !
- Watch Out for our guest blogger KATE GARRETT next Monday 17th December on her involvement with Sheffield Speak Easy and Performance Poetry.
- ArtiPeep is also about to completely revamp the finefocus page into a wondrous, dynamic arts page. watch this space. This will be launched in the new year.
- Oh yes, and there’s always our Xmas collaborative blog 3 poet-3 artist combination due out on the Friday 21st December!
HAPPY DAYS !