Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tell me a story, Dad!

It's Fathers' Story Week, a time to celebrate and support Dads reading with their kids.

I am (self-evidently) a Mum, not a Dad, but I love the whole idea of Dads reading to their kids (for starters, it saves us mothers reading Where's Spot? 350 times). After perusing the Fathers' Story Week website I started to think about the part that Dads-reading-to-kids has played in my own life.

Both my husband Gordon and I have read a lot to our kids over the years - in fact, I still do, although very soon both of them will be teenagers and they have been able to read for themselves perfectly well for years and years already. I love reading aloud and now that the children are old enough to appreciate the classics I have read my way through such treasures as The Hound of the Baskervilles and King Solomon's Mines (I flatter myself that my dramatic interpretation of Gagool out of the latter book was genuinely nasty...).

Nowadays, reading to the kids is for fun; when they were tiny it was much more purposeful. When my daughter was a baby she was extremely wakeful. Seemingly it was her aim, having made it safely into the world, to stay awake 100% of the time in order not to miss anything, even when she was so tired that she was screeching with exhaustion. If I carried her around the flat or fed her, she would often fall asleep, but the minute I put her into her cradle she would generally bounce back into a state of red-alertness. A very vocal state of red-alertness. In the event that I managed to get her into the cradle without waking her up, the merest creak of a floorboard as I attempted to slink out of the room and get myself a much-needed cup of tea would generally have those baby-blues wide open and unblinking within a nano-second.

Eventually - in desperation - we worked out that the best way to get her to go to sleep was to read to her. The aim was not to perk her up, so this did not mean sitting her on someone's lap and showing her cheerful and stimulating board books. Instead, we read out books that we enjoyed ourselves, so that she could listen to the reassuring cadence of her Dad's (or Mum's) voice, and we wouldn't die of boredom in the process.* I can still remember the "breakthrough" books (no, not the ones that gave her a lifelong love of literature; the ones that got her off to sleep so I could finally, finally have that cup of tea). I read her Captain Corelli's Mandolin and my husband read her Heinrich Harrer's mountaineering classic The White Spider. Twenty to thirty minutes of either of those generally did the trick.

Gordon would sit by the cradle and read something like this: "Fritz led off into the traverse with that tremendous skill of his, fighting for his balance on smooth holdless film, winning his way, inch by inch, yard by yard, across that difficult and treacherous cliff. In places he had to knock away snow or a crust of ice from the rock with his ice-hammer; the ice-splinters swept down the slabs with a high whirring sound, to disappear into the abyss..."

So far as I know, a baby of a couple of months only recognises a very few words, such as its own name, and certainly has no concept of traverses, ice-hammers and abysses. Still, you do wonder whether some of it "went in" somehow. (The "baby" has certainly grown up with a sense of adventure; several years ago she and her father did a via ferrata climb in the French Jura together of which the photographs alone made me feel positively vertiginous. And she has still not stopped complaining that he refused to take her up a more exposed bit.) At the time, however, the main thing was that the baby finally went to sleep, without screaming the place down. I'd say that was a fairly major win for Dads-reading-to-kids.

When I was a child myself, my own father sometimes read to me, and he would also (if sufficiently nagged) re-tell the ghost stories of the great M.R.James for us during long walks and boring journeys. This has been extremely influential on my writing career. It led to a life-long love of M.R.James' ghost stories and my first published material was a series of articles in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter including one about Steinfeld Abbey, scene of MRJ's tale The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. 

The real-life history of the Steinfeld Abbey stained glass also inspired my second novel, The Glass Demon, which features a fictional series of stained glass windows made by the same master craftsman who worked on the Steinfeld ones. All this sprang from listening to my father re-telling stories (I say "re-telling"; from what I remember, he had the best bits off by heart).

The other memory I have is of my father stopping part of the way through reading out The Hound of the Baskervilles because I was doing head-stands on the picnic rug and he wasn't convinced I was listening. I had to read the book myself later on because he refused to continue, but I guess it taught me a valuable lesson about Respecting Literature...

My latest book, Silent Saturday, is dedicated to my father in recognition of the influence he has had on my love of books and of a certain type of book in particular. He is the only person I know whose bookshelves include The Fireside Book of Death and E.S.Turner's Boys will be boys alongside the works of M.R.James, L.T.C.Rolt and Sheridan Le Fanu. Growing up with all those within reach, I was never going to write sweet romantic comedies myself!

Three cheers for Dads, and the books they introduce us to!

Above: a photograph of St. Bertrand de Comminges, taken by my father to accompany one of my articles about the ghost stories of M.R.James. As well as introducing me to MRJ's stories, he provided a lot of the pictures to go with my articles about them.

* This is a real danger with Beast Quest, for which my son had an unreasonable passion some years ago. There seem to be about 7,000 volumes and he made me read them all.

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