Friday, 21 July 2017
Something that has made me very happy in the past two weeks is discovering the queer, anarchic stories of Pierre Gripari. ‘The Witch in the Broom Cupboard’ was a chance find in WH Smith – a single copy of this handsome, raspberry pink volume fell into my hand and wouldn’t let go. It’s a collection of Parisian fairy tales from the 1960s and I’d really like to thank Pushkin Press for introducing me to this tiny corner of the world in which witches hang around cafes trying to eat children who hide in cash registers, where guitars have glamorous potatoes for best friends, and rubber dolls wear wooden spectacles so they don’t see too much of the future.
There’s a beautiful afterward in which Gripari describes how the stories came to be. He lived in a populous, multi-cultural bit of Paris called the Rue Broca. Everyone knew he was a writer, even though they’d never seen his books in the shops. He sat in the local café and the local kids knew he was really a witch in disguise, so they demanded he tell them stories. Obligingly he reread all the greats and retold them in the cafe – Andersen, Perrault, the Arabian Nights – and when he ran out he had no choice but to tell the local kids they had to help him make up some new ones. This they did, quite happily, and he poured their very strange ideas and suggestions into his tales.
The results are hysterical. They swerve in directions you’d never expect, zooming off through other lands and dimensions, but always coming back to the neighbourhood around Gobelins Metro station. The cosmic is always grounded, so that, for example, when the sun realizes that the North Star has gone missing, he dons dark glasses and a disguise and goes searching where, but the Rue Broca, calling in on Papa Syeed’s café, to ask if anyone has seen the pig who swallowed a star. (They have: two little girls have hidden the pig in their cellar, where he’s softly glowing pink.)
The craziness and occasional rudeness of it all feel so authentic: these are exactly the kinds of things kids would daringly suggest to a writer as they all racked their brains together for the best ideas.
It’s a clever series of juxtapositions: the abstract and concrete, the cosmic and the mundane, the serious and the silly, the near and faraway. Gripari holds them in tension with casual ease and has us hooked on every word, and every whimsical twist. In a story like the one about the witch in the broom cupboard, we’re both terrified she’s going to appear, but we’re delighted by the cheek of the dreadful song that will summon her.
Puig Rosado’s scratchy drawings really help, I think. They’re pulsating with gleeful life. Everyone’s grinning – even the sharks – and the mermaids have actual boobs. His drawings are of the sort that kids would cover their jotters with when they should be doing sums, and so they’re irresistible.
Fairy tales should always be a bit manic, anarchic and rude, and this really reminds us of that. Here’s a relatively recent cycle of urban folk tales that seem as fresh as anything being made up today. I was cockahoop to discover that the hardback is slightly different. It’s called ‘The Good Little Devil’ and contains twice as many stories and drawings. It’s like getting an extra gift – I had to order it at once.
What’s wonderful for me about these tales set in the streets that lie somewhere between the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Natural History Museum, is that this is my favourite part of Paris. The witch who eats little girls with tomato sauce lives in the Rue Mouffetard, which is the long, sloping street from St Germain down to the museum and the park. Last time we were there we came across a band playing old time numbers in the market place. All the locals had stopped what they were doing and had flocked out of their houses, shops and cafes on Sunday afternoon to dance in the street. Old Nannas were dancing with youths, old swingers with glamorous young women, tramps with nuns. You really wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Sultan dancing with a witch, or a mermaid waltzing with a potato and a guitar.
Sitting in the sunny market that August Sunday we knew that we were in a magical kind of place. The old guy with the accordion, whose cd we bought – he was about the right age to be one of the kids helping Gripari to make up stories. In fact, all those elderly dancers could have been the kids of the Rue Broca, hanging out at Papa Sayeed’s café-grocer – Nadia, Malika, Rashida, Nicolas and Tina. All those dancers were little old people who looked like they’d never felt obliged to grow up.
Thursday, 13 July 2017
I hadn't heard till this morning that Michael Bond had died. His stories and Peggy Fortnum's drawings have been an inspiration to me since I was about four years old. This April I bought his very latest Paddington book, while I was in London. I love the fact that he was still writing them and was trying out new things (such as those letters in Paddington's own, and also Aunt Lucy's voice in the last-but-one book!) He was brilliant, and we'll have those books forever. Here's my tribute drawing, I hope echoing Peggy Fortnum's style just a little.
Sunday, 9 July 2017
The bloke sitting next to me at the corner of the bar is watching me writing. Then he says:
‘Don’t let me stop you, but thanks for letting me past earlier, I just had to sit myself down and they’ve taken all the stools away from the bar because of Sparkle weekend and everywhere’s so busy.
‘I notice you’re a writer. What kind of writer are you? Are you a playwright like I am? I’m writing a play and the concept behind it is something that’s never been done before, and everyone tells me there’s a reason for that, and that it can’t be done, but my mind works in such a way that I just think these things up and I can see how to do it. So that’s what I’m writing now. Do you write any particular thing? Do you have a particular audience in mind?
‘A what? A general audience? Yes, I don’t think that’s good enough, really. Me, I write for an intellectually clued-in and politically-savvy audience. A left-wing - a very left-wing - audience who feel the same way as I do about the world and politics. That’s who I write for.
‘Do you go to the theatre much? I went to this play upstairs at a pub in Salford and they said it was written by a woman who writes for the broadsheets and I thought, here we go, it’ll be esoteric and snooty. Luckily they let you take your pint in. Well, me, I never drink a whole pint, but I did that evening. Oh, here’s my polenta chips.
‘Here, excuse me! There’s no knife. Do you think I could have a knife, please? No, serve those others first. In your own time. I’ll just use this fork. I don’t mind.
‘So, I went up to this play and there were jokes but no one was laughing. One man laughed and it was the writer’s husband. He was laughing before the jokes were even said. He knew they were coming up. I went up to the writer afterwards and I asked, Who do you write for? Who do you think your audience is? And she said – wait for this – ‘I write for myself’ – and I thought, yes, lady, that’s your whole problem.
‘Me, I make sure I put at least four jokes into every play. And that keeps them happy. They usually get two of them and the other two generally sail over their heads. I find that you usually have to be a bit scatological, shall I say, in order to get your point across. Do you know what that means? Have you put any scatological jokes in what you’re writing in your book there?’
And then, luckily, Jeremy arrived. I had an excuse to leave.
Walking back to the car Jeremy says, ‘You can tell people you don’t want to talk to them, you know. You can say, I’m just sitting here quietly, trying to write. Please leave me alone.’