Originally written for Exeunt
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with us and the Word was us. And the Word was stories, and stories have endured.
It’s a drizzly Saturday afternoon and I’ve stopped dead in the middle of the Tesco over the hill from my house, clutching a carton of eggs and staring into middle distance. I’m not generally given to public drama, but Neil Gaiman has just uttered the words “I’d been thinking a lot about death and the fact that people’s stories go with them when they die”, and I can’t tell if I’m more amazed that he’s just said it – that precise collection of words, that musing – or at the accumulation of circumstances that’s led to it.
It’s been two days since I saw Rove; I’m feeling somewhat exhausted and the weight of things I need to do (writing this amongst them) is pressing on me, so I’ve set out for a head-clearing walk to the shops with an audiobook. Not a usual habit of mine, but music doesn’t feel right today; today I just want someone to tell me a story, to talk to me and expect nothing in return, and I’ve been looking forward to Trigger Warning – Gaiman’s new collection – as it’s his first in a little while. So here I am. In Tesco. With my eggs, and the jolting force of coincidence.
In October, I started thinking about people’s stories going with them when they die, as my neighbour (and her stories) quietly did just that. Last weekend I started collecting stories from my friends. I asked them for ones that they had never read or written down, while I sat opposite with a voice recorder and a look of happy expectation. What I received surprised me; made me smile and, in one case, made two of us cry. What I was given was far more personal than I had anticipated, and far more meaningful for it. Some of it hadn’t really been told before.
Stories are not just the way in which we piece ourselves together; making sense of the vastness of the world and our small place in it. They are also catharsis.
Rove, is catharsis. It’s cleansing and memory and music and painfully, achingly full of love. J. Fergus Evans has plenty of stories. What the J stands for, for starters, and why he’s started going by his middle name. Where his family are from and why everything about this piece is so embedded in place, or the loss of place. How his grandparents met. How they lived. And died.
And through it all he mines, and we follow with perhaps more curiosity than desperation, for truth. For the truth of who he is and the true story of what was.
Mingled with folk songs from his own family and from that of Rhiannon Armstrong – the musician creating the sometimes comforting, sometimes unsettling, clawing, scratching, wriggling under your skin violin accompaniment – Rove is a collection of family stories that I will not write down because they are meant to be told. And even if the emotional journey is one that we witness rather than participate in, Evans is narrating the simplest of truths; it’s only there until it’s not. Something all of us feel, and fear, about our family.
Here’s the song I associate with my mum. Neither of us are blessed with a good singing voice, but hers always sounded so sweet when she sang me to sleep with this. It makes me feel small and safe all at once and yes, it is a great big, unapologetic ball of cheese. Much like Evans and Armstrong’s songs, it won’t have the same emotional resonance with you personally; though theirs are delivered with such wonderful intimacy that that’s easily overcome. But you’ll have a song of your own, that was sung to you. That you sang. Or danced to. Or once hollered off a bridge with someone.
It wasn’t until my friend’s daughter was born that I realised what my song was going to be – and it wasn’t the one my mother sang to me. It’s this one; about wanting to go to the fair and being in love with a cobbler. Utterly applicable to the life of a two year old Swedish toddler, naturally, but it’s what she’s heard from me since she was three months old and I don’t know, maybe someday she’ll remember it and sing it to her children. Or think of it and feel like she belongs somewhere.
Listen hard and remember, Evans tells us. I think I disagree a little. Listen to stories often, listen well, but live. Tell them alive, let them change and make more of your own. The truth of what was, such as it can be, isn’t out there, or in them; it’s in us, as long as we tell it on. Without that; everything dies, Mr. Mulder.