An actor/playwright for many years, then a storyteller, Vivian French had three books for children published in 1990, so she went on writing. Of the books she's written the one she likes best is The Robe of Skulls, the first of The Tales from the Five Kingdoms. Recently Vivian has got back to her theatre roots. She had a play on tour earlier this year, and was very proud when it sold out at the Traverse in Edinburgh. In this post she discusses Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.
Vivian French on Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
As a child I was allowed to read anything I could get my hands on, with no reservations. This was lucky, as growing up in Cheltenham in the 1950s was exceedingly dull, grey and boring; burying myself in a book was the only way to escape. My parents had a huge collection of wildly random books, and I worked my way steadily along the shelves. I still remember the effort of struggling through Edgar Rice Burroughs' Thuvia, Maid of Mars ('Upon a massive bench of polished ersite beneath the gorgeous blooms of a giant pimalia a woman sat...'), but I loved Juliana Horatia Ewing's Lob Lie-by-the-Fire, even though it reduced me to floods of tears. My father's ancient copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales had such spine chilling woodcut illustrations that they gave me nightmares, but I kept going...
And then I found Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and a whole new world opened up. Right from the beginning I was hooked. The language drugged me, and I sat curled up in my corner muttering to myself. 'He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel and the really truly twirly-whirly eel.' Up until that moment I had had no idea that a 'real author' could play with language like that; I was strangled and constricted at school by Correct Grammar, and the Correct Use of English, but here, astonishingly, was an author who actually made words up just for the sound of them. (Although not as many as I originally thought; it was a while before I found out that when the whale says, 'Change here for Winchester, Ashuelot, Nashua, Keene and stations on the Fitchburg Road', he was talking about real places, but in a way I found that even more impressive. Had Kipling actually been to Ashuelot? I wanted to know. Alas, no one could tell me.)
I was thrilled by the way the stories were directed at me, the reader; as instructed, I never forgot about the suspenders, and I was ridiculously pleased to be called 'Oh my Best Beloved'. Rudyard Kipling made me realize for the first time that there can be a genuinely personal connection between a book and the reader; I felt he was writing for me, and me alone. What's more, the stories made me laugh out loud. (SPCK stories, such as Mrs Ewing's, are SO not a matter for mirth.) 'The Beginning of the Armadilloes' was my favourite for ages: Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog and Slow-Solid Tortoise outwit the Painted Jaguar by confusing him with words, not by being tough and strong in the arm. As the wimpy sister of two brothers who liked to throw their weight around, I got much encouragement and food for thought from this.
As I grew older my favourites changed. 'The Cat that Walked by Itself' taught me (should I even use the word 'taught'? - it was more a process of osmosis) that there can be a kind of glory in being different, but that you have to be prepared to pay a price for it. If you are prepared to pay that price, however, you can wave your wild tail and walk on your wild lone, and all places are alike to you. A recent quick straw poll revealed that the story my acquaintance remember best is 'The Elephant's Child', but I have to confess that that was never one of my favourites. I adored the sound of 'The great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees', but I felt vaguely uncomfortable when it came to the many repetitions of 'satiable curtiosity'. As an adult I realize that I felt patronized; if I could understand 'the precession had preceded according to precedent', why couldn't I be expected to understand 'insatiable curiosity'? Particularly as Kipling himself explains that it means asking ever so many questions.
So - how do I feel about the Just So Stories today?
As someone who spent many years as a storyteller, I know that I owe a massive debt to Kipling for awakening my interest in language - in the use and manipulation of words to create an effect in the exactly same way that a musician uses notes. I still love his humour, his imagination and inventiveness, and his skill at telling a tale, but there is no denying that he was writing for a time very different from our own. It's sad, but I can't cope with some of the stories now. 'How The First Letter Was Written' grates, as does 'How The Leopard Got His Spots'; but 'The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo' is just as much fun as it was when I first read it over 50 years ago. 'Make me different from all other animals; make me, also, wonderfully popular by five this afternoon.' Fabulous!!