The storyteller

What makes a storyteller? At what point do we say, this person or that, is a storyteller?
Success, renown, earning a living through story telling? I don’t think so, I know many talented storytellers to whom this doesn’t (yet) apply, they are, nevertheless, storytellers whether they work in prose or poetry.
Recently I realised to what extent I had been raised by a storyteller. I didn’t come to this through an appreciation of his unpublished novels; nor through reading his screenplays or viewing the fiction films he made as an amateur cinematographer; I’ve realised this through viewing the family films, the weddings, the beaches, the romantic trip to Paris with my Mother a year after they were married.
I had a choice to make on the family films, leave them as they were on eight and 16mm, and confine myself to viewing them using the projector we managed to find a couple of years ago, or invest in getting them digitised. I knew I’d made the right choice when the chap who was doing the transfer rang me to say how amazed he was at the quality of the films, how much effort my Dad had made editing the films and adding very rare sound tracks.
But that was not what made me understand that my Father was a storyteller.
It is in the preservation of every single film he ever made, an arc of amateur cinematography that spanned 55 years, from his first roll of film in the 8mm camera I still own today. That first film, practicing with his new camera in the garden of his aunt’s house in Hornsey, filming Anne and her black and white cat in the daylight, then the interior shots, dim and indistinct, an amateur’s first steps, recording the mundane routine of washing up.
It is in the film of my Godmother’s wedding, early seventies, a nervous giggling bride leaving the house with her proud Dad, after the ceremony outside the church whilst the photos are done, the couple leaving in the car, the guests walking away to the reception. The final shot, his wife and child, last in line, walking away from camera, smartly turned out in wedding best.
It is in the shape of every single holiday film, not for Dad a simple record, but always a story, always a beginning, a middle, and an end. Though not necessarily in that order. It is in the use of the theme song from Laurence of Arabia played as a small child runs across a wide sweep of sandy beach.
It is in my Mother’s walk for camera when she was first his wife, obviously told to saunter, stroll, be casual; she slinks, slides, sways across the shot, left to right, right to left, towards the camera with a nervous smile, away from the camera, stopping to look back, over her shoulder, a more secret smile this time. Acting the siren for her director she moves sinuously across the screen illustrating scenes of Paris, of Sorrento, of gardens and palaces.
It is in the massive game of hide and seek played to camera in a mostly empty and echoing Montenegro hotel back when Tito and his Yugoslavia were both still alive. It is in the filmmaker’s determination to get the right shot for his holiday movie, come what may. Alpine meadows faked in the Sussex countryside, scrambling in the Austrian alps represented by southern sandstone, interior shots of palaces, churches and museums completed using postcards when cameras weren’t allowed.
His fiction films are in the Screen Archive South East but it is those family films, those precious, and in many instances previously unknown to me gems that show me his storytelling. He couldn’t let it go, simply record, there had to be structure, there had to be narrative, beyond what was real. It is in the twist, the edit, the intentionally staged, the direction of movement, a soundtrack moment. Reality was never quite enough, he had to impose a different narrative.
He was a storyteller, I know that now.

Walking

He walked, he hiked, he rambled. He trod the streets of a divided Berlin before the wall, he climbed mountains in Poland and Hungary under communism, he learnt to use crampons in the mountains of Austria. High hill and lonely dale, riverside and cliff top he trudged alone or with others. He trod the corridors and spaces of museums and galleries, high forts and grand chateaux, lonely monasteries and wide gardens.
He walked to work, to clubs and societies, to committee meetings, to the bus stop, to the station.
He needed to walk, a day wasn’t any good unless he’d put one foot in front of the other, stretched his legs, walked around the block. Walking was a drug to him, a habit he cultivated, an addiction he stoked with long hours pouring over ordnance survey maps plotting his next move. He slept with his maps on one side and his wife on the other, wedged between domesticity and escape.
He always knew where he was, perfectly positioned in the points of a compass, sure of his next step but always interested in the next meandering path. No walk was quite far enough, another mile, another footpath necessary to get the fix. He took glee in pushing boundaries whether those of landowners or of countries, high mountain passes are rarely marked by security points. He walked the paths of his homeland whether bleak moors, forbidding peaks, rolling down land or the woodland country of the High Weald. He drifted in bliss through bluebell woods in the spring.
He was never in a hurry, though he maintained a respectable pace. Later, he started to wind down like a piece of clockwork with worn springs. At first, a little slower, an imperceptible easing then slower still. He missed busses and trains because familiar walks took longer, he called taxis to take him home whose drivers grumbled about dirty boots on clean carpets. He returned with muddy trousers after falling in the middle of a field. His wife worried, but he still needed his hit. He walked more often on suburban streets but couldn’t give up the fields and woodland.
He slowed still more, he took twice the time to walk than he used to. He walked earlier to gain the daylight, by now he was no longer confident walking at dusk. He lumbered, a shuffling difficult gait, though in his mind he still strode out as he used to, just slower somehow, age and disease greater obstacles than stiles and barbed wire.
Eventually in the evenings he would spread his maps like tablecloths and studying them would pass gently into sleep, nodding over hill and dale, travelling the contour lines of his dreams.

In my heart he walks on, treading woodland paths forever.