The Lovers and the Shark
Two years ago it happened I found myself in a motel swimming pool in New Mexico. I like swimming. I swim quite purposefully and I had the swimming pool almost to myself. Not quite however. At the shallow end of the pool stood a young man and woman, passionately, indeed it sometimes seemed permanently, embraced. I didn't mind this while I was swimming away from them, but as I swam towards them I found myself filled with the embarrassment of someone who is intruding into a private space ... a space which they have no right to violate. My shyness, my wish not to intrude on this couple, alternated with something less charitable—self-righteous indignation. After all this was a swimming pool and I was swimming backwards and forwards, which everyone knows is the proper thing to do in a swimming pool. Why should I be the one to feel intrusive and guilty? I felt like this swimming away from them. Then swimming towards them I began to think—ah but am I jealous of their youth and passion and so on (kicking regularly, surging to the other end of the pool). Yet who wants to be bothered with self-analysis when you are trying to shoot through the water like a silver arrow? As I swam backwards and forwards I began to dream of dressing up as a shark, and gliding, up the pool towards them. I could see myself soundless menacing and ruthless, my skin set with sharp close-set denticles, my silent crescent snarl filled with rows and rows of teeth. The lovers would suddenly see my dorsal fin approaching. They would leap out of the water screaming. I would have the whole pool to myself, free to be a silver arrow to my heart's content. It would be all my space, and deservedly so.
After I left the pool, I found myself haunted, not by the lovers themselves but by the one who had wanted all the space in the swimming pool, this page 6 person usurping the primitive power of the shark, the fin cutting through the water, the huge mouthful of teeth rising up over the back of the boat ... this temporary villain I had contemplated becoming, in order to have all the swimming pool to myself. It had in some ways been a tempting and empowering persona, and one I recognised, although I had never met it in quite that shape before. My temporary shark began to make other sharkish connections. Sharks have been a part of my life for a long time. Though shark attacks are almost unknown in New Zealand, we all know the sharks are there. Parents sometimes warn their children. 'Don't go out deep! There might be sharks!' Of course the children already know. Sharks!
Once, dramatically, I saw a shark caught on a hand line pulled up and left to die on the sand. It was only a small one, but it was a genuine shark. I stood over it watching it drown in the sunny air of a remote North Island beach. When it began to rot away, someone threw it back into the deep water where smaller fish flickered around it for a while, eating what was left, but even then its bones still glimmered mysteriously through the water if you knew where to look. It was the year I turned five. It was also the year I learned to swim. I couldn't write much in those days, but was already a slave to fiction. I talked aloud, waving sticks in the air, conducting unseen orchestras of stories remembered, recreated and invented, stories which I inhabited by temporarily becoming what I was inventing. That shark and the mystery and menace of the glimmering bones and what might have happened—that it might have been my bones glimmering there I suppose—were part of those stories in those days. It was certainly part of the first nightmare I can ever remember having: that my little sister vanished under the water and after a second or two her sunbonnet came floating to the surface. We were living in a caravan in those days. I woke up in the top bunk, crying and bewildered, to find that something which only a moment before had seemed so utterly real had dissolved into nothing. I think it was that same shark, flesh on its bones once more, that came out of the past to inhabit me and swim up and down the motel swimming pool. It's just as well I didn't have my shark suit with me.
I like to swim in deep water. I like to be where I can't feel the bottom and I have always liked that from the time I was very small, but there is always the fear of the shark sneaking up from the darkness below, and grabbing your foot. After you've been frightened of the shark for a while, you begin to tell stories about it, to take it over ... and in odd moments of life, when page 7 you have a little go at being the shark yourself, you recognise an old truth in what you are doing.
A Marvellous Code
I am going to propose that there is a code in our lives, something we automatically recognise when we encounter it in the outside world, something personal, but possibly primeval too, something which gives form to our political responses, to our art, our religious feeling, sometimes to our science and even to the way the weather forecast may be presented as a little drama. It is something eagerly recognised in children, so perhaps there is no first encounter. Perhaps it is already in them. My own experience of it has been that, by giving experience a recognisable structure to mould itself around, it makes it easier to recall and to use. This code makes use of cause and effect, though sometimes it precedes and transcends this necessary relationship. It can be suspected or duplicated but I don't think it can be really dismantled. Broken into bits, it starts to reassemble itself like the Iron Man described by Ted Hughes, and creeps back into our lives patient but inexorable.
I am referring to story, something we encounter in childhood and live with all our lives. Without the ability, to tell or live prescribed stories we lose the ability to make sense of our lives.
A Misleading Question
Many years ago I read for the first time a novel by Noel Streatfield called Ballet Shoes, possibly the book for which she is best known. It is a story for and about children; about three girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, who took this surname because they were all adopted by a kindly archeologist, Great Uncle Matthew or GUM. It tells of their childhoods, as part of an oddly random but united family obliged to make a living. The living they make, in their various ways, is on the stage. Some years ago when I was working as a librarian in the National Library Service I found another novel by Noel Streatfield called The Whicharts, which tells the same story as Ballet Shoes, but tells it for adults. The three girls are now revealed as half-sisters, all illegitimate daughters of a charming but irresponsible, well-born Englishman. They are cared for by a woman (the Sylvia of Ballet Shoes), who had page 8 loved him deeply in spite of his facile character and who grows to love his daughters as if they are her own. He dies leaving them in difficult circumstances and in an effort to make a reasonable middle-class living, the girls become involved, as in the children's book, in life on the wicked stage. The story pursues them through childhood and adolescence, tells us how the girl who corresponds to Pauline in Ballet Shoes is seduced, I think by a theatrical director, and how the one who corresponds to Petrova actually locates their mother after their loving guardian dies, and finds herself shyly welcomed by a woman as odd and adventurous as she is herself. The family in this book is not called the Fossils, but the Whicharts (a name which also involves a play on words however, coming as it does from their mishearing of something in the Lord's Prayer, Our father, which art in heaven... words eloquent to children who had been told, on debatable evidence I must say, that heaven was where their father was). I was fascinated by all this new information which suggested that Noel Streatfield certainly knew more about the family than she had revealed in her children's book and I gave The Which-arts to a friend of mine who had enjoyed Ballet Shoes. She read it and, feeling betrayed in some intangible way, became angry. 'It just made me wonder how much truth we tell children?' she said. 'How much should we tell?'
She was asking leading questions, but questions which are also misleading. It is an old debate with many answers. For instance I don't think Noel Streatfield would have been allowed to tell everything she knew about the Fossils in a children's book back in 1936, though she certainly would be permitted to tell more today, since our interpretation of childhood has altered since then. However, as an adult reading Ballet Shoes I am now always aware of that ghostly other story, that extra truth, and something about the nature of my adult experience makes me think that The Whicharts is the truer story. I think Ballet Shoes is a better book for what it is than The Whicharts for what it is, and yet for all that I feel I have unfair knowledge, for I can't help including what I know of the adult story as part of the truth of Ballet Shoes. I say to myself, 'This is what was really happening, but we couldn't tell the kids.' Unlike my friend I don't think Noel Streatfield should have either insisted on telling the full truth or not told any of it. No one tells the full truth anyway, and children's literature would have been the poorer for not having Ballet Shoes. Nevertheless, I have never forgotten my friend's question, and there is a dislocation in my feelings about it all—a sort of page 9 puzzlement which I am perhaps unfairly trying to get rid of by passing it on to others.
How much truth do we tell children? We certainly encourage them to tell all the truth themselves. I impressed on my children what my mother impressed on me, that we should always tell the truth. (Funnily enough, now they're grown up I quite often find that I wish they wouldn't tell so much, and I know my mother often wishes I would shut up.)
How much truth we choose to tell children is an important question, but not a fair one. How much truth should we tell grown-ups for that matter? After all, children often want to know about things and adults often don't. Many people want to protect the innocence of childhood but isn't it also a pity to disturb security and innocence in adulthood? Sometimes we just don't like to see people living happy lives for what we perceive as wrong reasons. We tell them the truth, as we see it, and if they choose to ignore it, we tell it again and try to force them to listen to it. This poor single word 'truth' has to bear a heavy burden. It is not fair to ask one word to do so much work when, unlike Humpty Dumpty, we exploit our labour force. We don't pay words extra when we ask them to carry a heavy weight on our behalf.
Fact and Fiction
I was born in 1936, the year Ballet Shoes was published, and from the time I was very small I was encouraged to listen to stories. I began as a listener, and then, since I wanted to join in that particular chorus, I put together stories of my own as I have already mentioned, telling them aloud to walls and trees. Because I couldn't write, back then, I learned them by heart, as away of containing them, but I went on to become a reader, and very shortly after that learned to write and began to set them down in notebooks complete with titles and a few illustrations. I began as a listener, became a teller, then a reader and then a writer in that order. Later still I became a librarian, which in some ways is the ultimate result of this evolutionary process, since a lot of library work is concerned with orderly containment. (But I must advise you to beware a little of my description of myself which is automatically starting to gather the elements of a romantic story around it.)
Being a librarian forces you to think a lot about truth and to pretend you have got over any confusions you might ever have had about it. You have page 10 a book, it has to go in some particular physical place in the library shelves. It can't really be both here and there. Even if you have a big enough book grant and can afford to buy two copies of the same book and put it in two different places, a book like The Endless Steppe, say, is not quite the same story in the non-fiction shelves as it is in the fiction—where it was rather more likely to be read in our library at least. If you are a librarian (allowing for the general advice we get about putting a book where it is going to be looked for and best used), you have fiction on one side of the library and non-fiction on the other. Ask a child the difference between fiction and non-fiction and the child will often answer that non-fiction is true and fiction is not true. 'That's right,' we say. 'Fiction is not true and non-fiction is.' But sophisticated writers and readers often dispute this simple division, and I'm sure that there must be many librarians like me ... librarians who suddenly find themselves staring around wildly at their library walls (all that knowledge, all that emotion, all that astonishment! What am I doing here at the intersecting focus of all these great fields? I am trying to shelve it!), their own sense of reality terminally eroded by service for others. Making books available in the most sensible way makes us aware that in serving one function we are distorting others. We are standing astride the line of a great dislocation.
Dislocations in a True Landscape
I am used to dislocations. I have more than one running right through me. Dislocation is in some ways an image of the country I grew up in, even if we agree to call it diversity. If dislocation wasn't the source of my sense of things not matching up, of them rushing together and immediately beginning to fall apart, it is to some extent the mirror of them.
New Zealand, the country which is in every meaningful way my home, is a country in the Pacific Ocean but my family were European not Polynesian, and consciously and unconsciously regarded European, and more specifically British, culture as the highest form of civilisation in the world. The result was a big imaginative displacement, for, though there were a few children's books written in and about New Zealand when I was a child, the majority of stories, including those that inexorably fixed me, came largely from Britain with a few, a very few, from the USA.
Coming in from swimming on Christmas Day I would sit with my page 11 sunhat on, reading stories of snow and robins and holly, and though I have never once spent a Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere, those things are now part of my Christmas nostalgia. The imaginative truth and the factual truth may be at odds with each other but personally I still need those opposites to make Christmas come alive for me ... the sunny sea in front of me and the simultaneous awareness of short days, long cold nights and snow of dark bare branches.
But containing and synthesising such contradictions is easy for an imagination nourished on stories in which so much becomes possible. I did indeed grow up with a fault line running through me, but that is a very New Zealand feature when you consider that it is a country of earthquakes and volcanoes. A fault line ran right through the town I was born in so perhaps my disjunction is part of what makes an essential New Zealander of me after all—perhaps the country has imposed its own unstable geography on my power to perceive. I don't mind. I regret it only in the sense that one always regrets not being able to be everything all at once. Dislocations can expose the secret nature of the land. They can make for an intensely interesting landscape, provided one does not come to feel that a landscape full of fault lines is the only legitimate kind. Dislocations made me a world reader rather than a local one: they made me contingent rather than categorical.
New Zealand at the present is celebrating in a small way the development of a more indigenous children's fiction than at any time previously. Having at last got a foothold in the imagination of its writers, New Zealand is now an. innate part of most of its indigenous children's books, which are increasingly free of unnaturally deliberate reference, of the self-consciousness that marked the first attempts to have I am a New Zealander writing about New Zealand as a sort of subtext. There is a certain relieved mood of congratulation within the writing community, and a lot of talk, some of it meretricious I think, about 'relevance'.
I think it is most important that a local literature should exist, so that the imaginations of children are colonised in the first instance by images from their immediate world. I am not in favour of dislocation for the sake of dislocation. But I am curious too about why I should have become such an enthusiastic reader myself when so little of what was immediately relevant was offered to me, and why, later on the rare occasions when I did encounter books presenting my own street and my own idiom, I tended to pass them over in favour of exotic alternatives. Why was it that what seemed truest to page 12 me had nothing to do with the facts and images of my everyday life, which, mistakenly enough, I came to regard as inadequate stuff for a story?
Truth and Desire
'I suspect,' Lang writes, 'that belief and appetite for marvels are regarded as identical or closely related. They are radically different, though the appetite for marvels is not at once or at first differentiated by a growing human mind from its general appetite.' Lang, according to Tolkein [sic: Tolkien], may be implying that the teller of marvellous tales to children trades on the credulity that makes it less easy for children to distinguish fact from fiction; ,though,' Tolkein [sic: Tolkien] says, correctly I think, 'the distinction is fundamental to the human mind, and to fairy stories.' All the same, I think that the appetite for marvels may reinforce some aspects of truth that the fact or fiction dichotomy obscures.
Talking further about the appetite for marvels, and his own appetite for reading, Tolkein [sic: Tolkien] then says of himself:
I had special wish to believe ... At no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen or had happened in real life. Fairy stories were plainly not concerned with possibility but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.
I think that, like Tolkein [sic: Tolkien] and many readers before and since, I was filled with an appetite for marvels, and desire alone seemed to me to be a sufficient justification for a story, even though longing for what is not true has been seen as a wicked thing to do, particularly by those readers who also strenuously maintain that we should not disturb the innocence of children by telling them all the truth. I tend to think, since the appetite for marvels appears to be so much part of humanity, that it exists in us for a reason, and that in an odd way it may be connected with truth. My enjoyment of a story certainly did not depend on belief while I was reading the story, for the story generated its own belief, but afterwards I would often try to adjust the world so that the story could be fitted into it. To find something that was page 13 marvellous was wonderful; to find something that was wonderful and true was ecstasy; for it meant wonderful things might be possible for me too.
'The function of the story teller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple, to integrate without reduction, for it is barely possible to declare the truth as it is because the universe presents itself as a mystery,' says Alan Garner, after saying that the true story is religious and adding that he is using the word 'religious' to indicate concern for the way we are in the cosmos. All the vital processes of our lives (like eating and reproducing) are reinforced with powerful pleasure principles. We take pleasure in stories, we desire them, because we need to know about them and to be able to use them. Stories enable us first to give form to, and then to take possession of, a variety of truths both literal and figurative. Once we have part of the truth caught up in a story, we can begin to recognise it and get some sort of power over it. But of course we have to be careful about the way we believe stories. They can make us not only into temporary heroes and wizards, but temporary villains too ... even into temporary sharks.
When I was a small child and read King Solomon's Mines, a book inherited from my father, I knew it was an invention. And when I read in another of my father's childhood books (volume one of an Edwardian edition of Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia), that the earth had once been a fiery ball and that it had dropped off the sun, I knew it was true. The encyclopedia was true and King Solomon's Mines wasn't. Nevertheless, at one time I tried to tell a cousin of mine that the events in King Solomon's Mines were historical facts even though I knew they weren't, trying by powerful assertion, by faith alone, to drag the story through to sit alongside the fiery ball which had fallen off the sun. Well, it wouldn't go. I needed an identical act of faith from other people to give it even the semblance of this other truth, and no one else would agree to play that game with me. I was alone with the story and with my desire for it to be true. It wasn't the only attempt I made to bring a marvellous fiction through into the real world, to force a general agreement that I was in charge of truth and not the other way round. From the time I was seven until about ten I publicly maintained and defended the proposition that I could talk the language of the animals. The immediate source of this assertion was The Jungle Book—not the books but a film of the book, the one starring Sabu and a page 14 variety of real animals. It absolutely overwhelmed me. My mother must have enjoyed it too, because, for the only time in my childhood that I can remember, I was taken to see a film twice. I couldn't bear that that particular story should remain in what I then perceived as the half life of fiction. Coleridge has described works of fiction as acts of secondary creation, and I wanted to make The Jungle Book primary. I wanted to make it as if it had been created by God not by human beings.
In order to achieve this I publicly claimed and tried to demonstrate that I had the powers of Mowgli. Challenged I would talk an invented gibberish that fooled nobody, least of all any passing dogs or birds, and not one of the lively knowing children round me. So I became more and more extreme in my attempts to demonstrate my oneness with animal creation. I ate leaves in public ... all sorts of leaves ... children came up to me in the playground and offered me leaves which I ate indiscriminately. I drank from roadside puddles as dogs do. Of course I was subjected to derision which I deserved for poor judgement if nothing else.
I knew all the time that I couldn't really speak the language of the animals in the world of primary creation, but I imagine now that I wanted people to agree to create the secondary world with me, a world in which I had already given myself a starring role. I also believe there were elements of the story existing in me already, that it was not that Kipling's imagination, filtered through the medium of film, imposed itself upon me, but that something already in me leaped out to make a powerful connection. Certainly at some levels I was powerless to resist whatever it was that came crashing in, or perhaps out. Nor am I suggesting that this susceptibility is a thing to be uncritically encouraged. I do think, however, that it is far from unique and in order for it to be understood it needs to be described. It certainly can be dangerous (after all I could have poisoned myself eating so much vegetation that unqualified way), but the same thing can be said of a lot of human obsessions including patriotism and love and even truth itself ... they're all very risky indeed. Still, having received that story, I think I had to incorporate it, having incorporated it I had to discharge it, and, as I was young and simple, the discharging took a wrong turn—an inappropriately literal one.
Now oddly enough, at the same time that I was being teased about my claim to talk the language of the animals, I was subject to an equal derision, which once resulted in my being chased home by indignant children, some page 15 of them cousins of mine which seemed to add insult to injury. I publicly asserted that the earth had once dropped off the sun, that I had a picture at home that proved it, and I added on the same authority (that of Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia) that the world would some day, a million years from now, come to an end. I can remember running home with other outraged children after me, turning in at a strange gate, knocking on the door and saying to the astonished woman who answered it that the children were waiting outside to beat me up because I had told them the world had once fallen off the sun and that it would come to an end one day. I was confident that an adult would recognise and confirm the truth I was telling and rally to support it. Whether she believed it or not there was nothing she could do to help me.
Of course if you present certain facts too confidently it sounds as if you are taking personal credit for them, and perhaps I sounded as if I thought I was the one who had caused the world to fall off the sun in the first place and would one day will its end. And I certainly don't want to sound as if I'm whinging because I didn't have the respect I should have had at school. I think I deserved all I got for eating leaves and drinking from puddles, which is not a sign of superior sensibility only of poor judgement, tragically coupled with the will to be marvellous. I totally agree with the person who said that a difficult time at school doesn't necessarily entitle you to write a novel. But what I do want to record is that non-fiction could provoke as much derision, disbelief and resentment as fiction ... and, just to make the situation a little more complicated, nowadays no astronomer seems to believe that the earth ever fell off the sun. The other children were right to suspect this fact, even if they suspected it for the wrong reasons. What I learned as truth back then was another mistake.
Variations on a Divine Gift
Because of the way science has developed over the last three hundred years, we do live in a time when we expect truth to be objectively provable. Measurement is a vital part of our lives today. We live, our children along with us, in a very mathematised society. In the past, before Tycho Brahe, if a minor detail did not fit into a major hypothesis it was easy to shrug it away. The idea that anyone might be accountable to that sort of truth was a foreign one. But Kepler, in computing the orbit of Mars, acknowledged as page 16 significant an error of eight minutes of arc which Copernicus had been able to ignore. Kepler wrote, 'But for us, who by divine kindness, were given an accurate observer such as Tycho Brahe, for us it is fitting we should acknowledge this divine gift and put it to use,' and what Whitehead describes as 'stubborn and irreducible fact' became increasingly important. Like Kepler I believe intricate and accurate measurement is a gift we are given by divine kindness, and that the inventive mind, coming up against stubborn and irreducible facts, has to capitulate and look for richness and amazement within that capitulation. Today 'stubborn and irreducible facts' seem paramount because of the kind of power that attention to such details confers, including the power to make money which often involves the power to get one's own way—very seductive powers indeed. So 'stubborn and irreducible facts' are frequently seen as coinciding with truth, or truth is seen as being the same sort of thing as the facts are and nothing more. It seems to me that deterministic accounts of existence never quite face up to the fact that they don't eliminate mystery but merely shift it into areas where it can be acceptably labelled. And history shows all sorts of aberrations built even into part of the truth we shelve in the 5005. For example, in the beginning of chapter sixteen of his book New Astronomy, Kepler, who thought of accurate observation as a divine gift, absentmindedly put three erroneous figures for three vital longitudes of Mars and then towards the end of the chapter committed several mistakes in simple arithmetic which virtually cancelled his first mistakes out so that he got more or less the right answer. At the most crucial point in the process of discovering his second law Kepler again made a series of mathematical errors that cancelled themselves out allowing him to arrive at the correct result. What sort of truth was operating there? Perhaps something was so determined to be discovered that even mathematical error was forced to yield a true result? I recently read that Mendel cheated in recording the results of his experiments on genetic inheritance in peas and produced a nice pattern that illuminated what currently passes for truth and used to be taught as such in sixth form biology in New Zealand schools. Perhaps something wants to be found. Nowadays it is suggested that even chaos has a structure.
Earlier this century, 1903 to be precise, at the time when there was much thrilling new information on radiation coming to hand, René Blondlot, an experienced physicist, discovered a new ray which he called an N ray, one of the characteristics of which was that it treated substances opaque to page 17 visible light, including wood, iron, silver etc., as if they were transparent. Many notable scientists, particularly French ones, subsequently detected the same ray. But the American physicist R.W. Wood found he was absolutely unable to reproduce Blondlot's striking results. Blondlot and his colleagues then declared that it was the sensitivity of the observer not the validity of the phenomenon that was in question, but by 1905 only French scientists, and by no means all of them, believed in the N ray (though some of them still maintained that only the Latin races had sufficient sensitivity to detect the N ray, that fog had ruined the perception of the Anglo-Saxon observers and beer the perception of the German ones). Nowadays no one believes the N ray ever existed. The Scientific American May 1980, from which I got much of this good information, says that the times had psychologically prepared Blondlot to discover a new sort of radiation. I suggest that one might say with equal truth that he was imaginatively prepared to eat leaves and drink from puddles, but the way in which he did this matched up so closely with accepted reality or behaviour or desire that he temorarily [sic: temporarily] did what I was not able to do—he actually altered perception for a while and won people to his side.
Scientific truths, which should be pure and objective, can stagger and sway on their way to becoming recognised as scientific truths, can be as bizarre as the plots of the stories they partly resemble, or the stories that are told about them afterwards. Yet though the scientists who advised the editors of Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia about the beginning of the world had made what I now take to be a genuine mistake, it was a mistake that fixed my attention in childhood, and (it is even tempting to think) enabled me to see something true which stayed true, even when the actual information turned out to be false. If so, the true thing was wonder ... wonder which dissolves into Tolkein [sic: Tolkien]'s desire, an aspect of our approach to truth which our physical systems are anxious to conceal. A perpetual state of wonder and desire (which seems to me the truest state with which to confront the universe) is certainly not the most practical state to try and live in. We are biologically engineered to have the wonder filtered out of our lives, to learn to take astonishing things for granted so that we don't waste too much energy on being surprised, but get on with the eating and mating, gardening, feeding cats, complaining about taxes and so on. We have the power to entertain visions, but operate most practically when life is mainly humdrum. When I first flew in an aeroplane it was an experience of amazement. Now page 18 I think of the flying time (a time when gravity is confounded, when a metal machine filled with people rises more or less safely into the air), as time when I am going to get a chance to read without any guilty feeling that I should be doing something else. To encounter the amazements, partly compounded of fear and beauty, which I recognised so eagerly when I was a child, I now have to give myself the space to achieve a rare and difficult mood, or search through the various disclosures of science and history, or, more frequently, read a story someone else has written.
I've certainly never had any trouble abandoning the falling-off-the-sun theory in favour of the Big Bang and slow condensation out of the stuff of the primordial universe. I know by now that facts, even marvellous ones, slide around, and that people get things wrong, and the truest thing in science is wonder, just as it is in story. And I never forget that story is as important to human beings as science, more powerful at times because it is more subversive.
A Fairy Tale Disguised
If any story I have told has the mark of social realism on it, it is certainly Memory, and in it I have told young readers a lot of truth I personally know about the metamorphosis of a rational human being replete with knowledge, memory and the power to make a cup of tea several times a day, into a demented old woman losing command of all the things in which self respect is traditionally established, and driven to wear a tea cosy instead of a hat.
For a number of years I was in charge of my aunt, and though my aunt and Sophie are not the same person, they are similar in many ways. Many of the happenings, many of the conversations in Memory are directly transposed from my life with my aunt, and if the story lacks the nastiness, the sheer fatigue of response involved in looking after a demented person, it is partly because, though those elements were present, they were not a commanding part of my life with aunt. Because I had a background of story to draw on she never lost her imaginative function. An English reviewer criticised the book because, somehow at the end, Sophie is tidied up rather too quickly, but there are two odd things about this tidying-up. One is that in the real world, once I indicated I needed help, I got a certain amount. The support services were good, partly because I was sufficiently well educated to know where to go and what sort of things to say, and also because I had page 19 been prepared to cope with quite a lot before I asked for support. A district nurse and a housekeeper appeared, once a week things were tidied up quite quickly. In between times things went downhill rapidly, but neither my aunt nor I bothered too much about a certain amount of squalor. The other odd thing is that because Memory is full of factual experiences which are readily recognisable, and because it touches on a condition that, in New Zealand at least, enjoys a reasonably high public profile at present, it may seem to be intended as a book of social realism. However, for me it is a fairy tale of a sort. The fantasy of earlier books of mine is still present, but in the imaginative subtext rather than explicit in any happenings in the story. Because that fantasy is a part of the truth of my own life I cannot truthfully omit it. I didn't set out to write a fairy tale, but in an effort to convey truthfully the quality of the experiences I had had, I found myself telling the story of a young man who, having quarrelled with his father, sets out into the world with no blessing and no money to make his fortune. He meets a strange old woman needing help ... a strange old woman who asks him a question, and, through giving her the help she needs, he answers the question and is strengthened by the answer. His response to her need determines the way he learns just as the kind responses of third sons or younger princes to the old people and animals they meet on their journeys result in them finding their fortunes.
These elements are recognisably fairy tale elements I think. Yet something like this fairy tale really happened in Christchurch once. A gang of rather derelict young people took over a house in which a demented old woman was living. Neighbours called in the social workers who found she was actually being looked after, though admittedly in a rough and ready fashion. She was being fed regularly and bathed, talked to and cared for. Her unlikely companions had grown fond of her, and after all there was no one else to look after her and nowhere for her to go, as all appropriate homes had waiting lists. I was told this story when I was already writing Memory by a social worker to whom I had described the book. And the first idea of the story came to me, as so many ideas do, from a haunting image seen from the window of a car in the early hours of the morning. Driving home through an empty city at about two a.m. I once saw an old man coming out of a supermarket car park pushing an empty trolley. The image stayed with me until I found a place for it.
Now I am not trying to suggest my story is true because it contains its page 20 share of irreducible facts, or even particularly good because of them. I mention the facts and associated anecdotes because they are eloquent in their own way, but just as much of the truth of this story, supposing it has any, lies in its form which seems to me to come from folktale, which has combined with many other things to give me a code by which to decipher experience. I used it in part to interpret my experiences with my aunt, so when I came to tell the truth, as it were, about those experiences, I could not do so without conscious and unconscious references to folktale. Memory has been described as tackling the subject of Alzheimer's disease, but it seems to me that it doesn't so much tackle it as recognise it, for the story is not in essence about Alzheimer's disease but about a magical encounter between two unlikely people, both of whom are possessed, in different ways, by a dissolving rationality. It is intended to be a serious story composed of many different sorts of truth, yet if I was asked to give a quick answer to the question 'Is it true?' I would have to say, 'No it isn't true.' All the same I have tried to make it tell part of the truth at least.
And so at last by fading paths I come back to a different sort of story ... to the shark who wanted all the swimming space to himself.
The Great White Man-Eating Shark
As I have already indicated, an initial incident, true in the most literal sense of the word, began to hook itself into many others, some past, some present, some fantastic, some commonplace, but all a part of personal reality. The imaginative process involved is not so much an instantaneous flash of inspiration as an act—a series of acts—of synthesis, the ideas and associations forming a network, rather than a linear account, a network in which the spaces between the cords are as important as the irreducible knots that hold the whole thing together.
Fantasy writers are not noted for their adherence to truth. In fact often their books are seen as being ways of deliberately escaping from what is true into what is not true. However, to quote Angela Carter, imagination severed from reality festers, and writers of fantasy are often anxious to demonstrate that they are tied into real life in some way and to claim that they have a part to play there too. We may claim to deal with abstract truths rather than mere facts, or perhaps that we deal in metaphor. But behind the printed page crouches the story, looking out at us between the lines that have temporarily page 21 caged it, making it stand still so that it can be considered. First stories were approximations to history and science, though nowadays science and story are seen as separate and maybe even antagonistic, science being an outer adventure while story is an inner one, if I may anticipate something Walter de la Mare said about story which I will quote later.
As I thought about my temporary sharkness, it suggested a simple story which I would find entertaining to write. There are a lot of different sorts of sharks, many of them quite harmless, but I wanted to evoke the most sinister of all ... the great white man-eating shark. I wanted there to be no misunderstanding about just what sort of a shark it was. This reminded me of a piece in Russell Hoban's novel Turtle Diary.
One of the narrators, Neaera, herself a writer for children, has read of an attempt by a rich man to photograph a great white shark.
Eventually they found a great white shark which they attracted with whale oil, blood and horse meat. It was truly a terrifying creature and they very wisely stayed in their cage while the shark took the bars in his teeth and shook them about.
She then goes on to say that socially the rich man was out of his class.
The shark would not have swum from ocean to ocean seeking them. It would have gone on its mute and deadly way, mindlessly being its awful self, innocent and murderous. It was the people who lusted for the attention of the shark.
Well perhaps by reading and writing stories I too am guilty of trying to attract the attention of wonderful sharks. Locked in the cage of words I have stared out entranced while wonderful sharks took the bars of my cage in their teeth and shook it, and as I have already indicated I am capable to some extent at least of being a shark myself and worrying at other people's bars. Thinking of my own temporary sharkness I wrote a short story entitled The Great White Man-Eating Shark.
Like most stories I write, I intended it primarily as a story to be told aloud, but it has been produced as a picture book, and tells the story of a villain, a plain boy who happens to be a very good actor and who dresses up a great white man-eating shark (a creature he resembles), frightening other swimmers out of the sea so that he can have it all to himself. He acts the part so well that a female shark falls in love with him and proposes something page 22 approximating marriage. He flees from her in terror. His duplicity is revealed and he is too scared to go swimming for a long time after. This is obviously didactic (but, I hope, ironically didactic), and seems far from true, since we all know that in real life firstly people do not dress up as sharks and secondly that the figurative sharks often go undetected because they don't allow people to see their dorsal fins. But in another way I have told the children all the truth I know from personal experience. Kurt Vonnegut says in the introduction to Mother Night, 'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be.' That turned out to be the hidden truth of my New Mexico swimming pool experience, but would that have been its hidden truth if I hadn't already read books like Mother Night, or if I didn't already know in a personal way that we become what we pretend to be? I did not learn to talk the language of the animals through eating leaves and drinking out of puddles, but I was chased and herded and treated like an animal for all of that.
But the story of the shark is a joke and that is how I expect it to be enjoyed, as a joke and only as a joke. It is only in the context of this occasion that I am bothering to tell of the experience compacted in it, offering it as a joke at my own expense and also as a part of a network, to a child who may one day read Mother Night or other books whose titles I can't guess at, and appreciate the truths in those books because they already know them. My own experience was real, funny, momentarily sinister and salutary, all at once, but someone else in that swimming pool on that day might have seen a different, a more anguished truth, might have realised that the lovers were saying goodbye, or that they were meeting after a long separation, or that they were honeymooners, or that the thought of being together without touching was unbearable to them. A thousand other stories were potentially there in the swimming pool with me, but my story was about the person who chose to become a shark.
Oddly enough, as I sat with Turtle Diary open in front of me seeing tenuous connections between my own childhood memories of sharks and my New Mexico fantasy, and Tolkein [sic: Tolkien]'s speculations about desire, and the rich man lusting for the attention of the shark, I glanced at the opposite page where I was absentmindedly reading these lines:
People write books for children and other people write books about the books written for children, but I don't think it's for the children page 23 at all. I think that all the people who worry so much about the children are really worrying about themselves, about keeping their world together and getting the children to help them do it, getting the children to agree that it is a world. Each new generation of children has to be told, 'This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.' Maybe our constant fear is that a generation of children will come along and say, 'This is not a world, this is nothing, there is no way to live at all.'
I can believe this but I think Hoban has told only half the story. After all we don't simply tell children what is and is not true. They demand to be told. When children write and ask me, 'Do you believe in supernatural things?' they may be asking me to confirm that a story like The Haunting is literally true. But mostly they are asking, 'Just where am I to fit this story in my view of the world?' They want to be told what sort of a world it is, and part of giving them the truest answers we can give, also involves telling stories of desire ... once there was a man who rode on a winged horse, once there was a boy who spoke to the animals, and the animals talked back to him, once there was a girl who grew so powerful that she was able not only to overcome her enemy but to overcome the base part of herself. Beware or the wolf will eat you and then you will become part of the wolf until something eats the wolf and so on. It is a gamble because we cannot tell just what is going to happen in the individual head when the story gets there and starts working. We can only predict statistically as we tell our children about hobbits or atomic fission, or that the earth fell off the sun, or about photosynthesis or that there was a loveable old archaeologist called GUM who once adopted three little girls. Perhaps that is why I was so fascinated, long before I began to think on these subjects, by a line in Borges' story 'Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius'. He writes about a land brought into existence by a sort of assertion. 'The metaphysicians of Tlon are not looking for truth, nor even an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.'
I also believe that what I am looking for is truth, which by now I confidently expect to be more amazing than anything else.
These days it seems to me that when I look at the world I see many people, including politicians, television newsreaders, real estate agents and free market financiers, librarians too at times, dressing as sharks, eating leaves and drinking out of puddles, casually taking over the powerful and
dangerous images that the imagination presents, eager to exploit the fictional forms that haunt us all, and sometimes becoming what, in the beginning, they only pretended to be. I once read that subatomic particles should not be seen as tiny bits of matter so much as mathematical singularities haunting space. I believe that inner space is haunted by other singularities, by stories, lines of power along which our lives align themselves like iron filings around a magnet defining the magnetic field by the patterns they form around it, and that we yearn for the structure stories confer, that we inhabit their patterns and, often but not always, know instinctively how to use them well.
World Without, World Within
Walter de la Mare has this to say:
The mere cadence of six syllables A Tale of Adventure instantly conjures up in the mind a jumbled and motley host of memories. Memories not only personal but we may well suspect racial; and not only racial but primeval. Ages before history had learned its letters, there being no letters to learn, ages before the children of men builded the city and the tower called Babel and their language was confounded, the rudiments of this kind of oral narrative must have begun to flourish. Indeed the greater part of even the largest of dictionaries, with every page in the most comprehensive of atlases, consists of relic and records in the concisest shorthand from bygone chapters of the tale whereof we know neither the beginning nor the end—that of Man's supreme venture into the world without and into the world within.