inspiration / life stuff / reading / writing

Is storytelling in the DNA?

My mother would have been 90 today. Although she never wrote any fiction in her life, she was definitely a storyteller.

She filled my childhood with stories of her childhood, over and over, so that my imaginary versions of the settings for many of these tales are still fixed in my head today. She told stories about her parents, her sisters, her school-friends and enemies, her teachers, the neighbours, her pets and other animals, and all the funny, daft, or difficult things that happened to them.

Does that sound familiar? Sounds to me like the basis of hundreds of children’s books.

Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter

One of our favourite reads – Peter Rabbit

My mum grew up in the countryside in Devon and Cornwall. Her teenage years coincided with the Second World War. There wasn’t much money. She was one of five children close in age, and the eldest was packed off to live with grandparents (not unusual in those days). Her father’s job as a gardener was sometimes precarious, as was their home – a “tied cottage” i.e. one that went with the job. So when the job ended, the entire family was without a home. Despite all this, her stories to me were always thrilling.

My childhood was amongst the endless drab concrete of the London suburbs. I had just one brother, with a quite a big gap between us. I longed to live in the countryside. I wanted to live by the sea, as my mother did from the age of 9. I made up stories with lots of siblings, and lots of animals, in them. I still do!

Her stories didn’t stop with childhood. She talked about the jobs she had when she first left school, aged only 14, and the family where she worked as a ‘mother’s help’ (an untrained, unqualified nanny). She loved them and their children and they certainly expanded her horizons in the years she was with them. Then she married and had her first child, and I can just picture – probably inaccurately – the cold and draughty flat they were housed in, because I heard so many tales about it. It was in a badly-converted Victorian villa with a huge garden that sloped down to a stream. There was an overgrown tennis court where my brother learned to pedal a trike, and where sheets of daffodils bloomed in the spring. Mum was horrified when unscrupulous neighbours in another flat picked the lot and sold them!

She was still telling these well-polished anecdotes when she was well enough, earlier this year.

And just as parents are encouraged to do today, she read books and recited poems, to me and with me, from a very young age, and continued to recall them until – well – for ever. We went over favourites such as Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, A A Milne, The Wind In The Willows, Little Grey Rabbit, so often that we both knew them by heart. A shared love of books makes a great start for a reader, and a writer.

A familiar poem from A A Milne

A familiar poem from A A Milne

No one else in our wide family is a writer, but I knew that was what I wanted to do by the time I was five. I wonder if storytelling is in the DNA, or whether it was my mother’s habit of turning everything into a story that first fired my imagination?

7 thoughts on “Is storytelling in the DNA?

  1. Beautiful post, Julia. What a fabulous legacy, connection and homage to your mum you have in your stories. You will obviously miss her greatly this first Christmas without her. . . but the stories you will all remember about her will bring her closer. I bet you made her proud to bits.

    • Thank you. And you’re right, Cas, she loved to see my books when they came out (even if she couldn’t resist a few critical comments!) and was always telling other people about them.

  2. A gorgeous post, Julia. Really touching. I can see my mother’s childhood in the stories she told me, clear as day. One day, maybe I’ll write them!

    • Yes, do that. Why not? I’m not sure I ever will – directly – but some of her impressions, and the politics of haves and have-nots, certainly inform what I write.

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