It's All In The Way You Tell It
How do you account for your interest in storytelling?
Probably some of it came from Mum’s side. Did you ever meet her?
Only once, at your place, but I can’t remember exactly when or what the circumstances were. She was very small, and dressed in black.
That was her. A small woman, with not much substance to her. And the black clothes, she often wore them, but she may have been in mourning for someone. They called that get-up ‘widow’s weeds’. But she wasn’t a widow, just wore black.
Now, even though us boys knew our mother well, there were things I discovered about her that were a complete surprise. It seems she had a reputation of sorts, and I was startled on one occasion to hear the details. It was a real surprise. We were somewhere or other and got to hear a report from some of the family, the Polish family, the Wischnowskys. Mum had gone off with them to some celebrations in another town, I think it might have been somewhere up the line. I didn’t go — it wasn’t on the Leyland side of things — but Mum went along with all her Halcombe lot. And to me the startling news was that this little old lady, this small woman, had got up at this celebration and entertained the whole lot of them. She stole the show, bowled them over in fact. That’s what we heard. This news was strange to us. Our mother, an ENTERTAINER! We didn’t ever see that side of her at home, it was hidden, suppressed, not what we knew. But it seems she had the ability to impress a crowd — a real celebrity in the eyes of her family — had them rolling on the floor — hilarious. It was astounding to hear my mother described this way. Then I found out that when they had a bit of a family shindig — a wedding, a birthday — they’d put her up on stage as Number One! ‘Get Mrs Leyland. She’ll entertain
Did she get a bit of a boost from a glass of wine?
She’d have a tipple at a celebration, but we didn’t have that sort of thing in the house. One of my father’s sayings, almost a motto as far as booze was concerned; ‘No Booze In The Leyland Household!’ His reasons were plain to see, and when he had an entertainment there were those that got a bit out of order. I heard that some of uncles also banned booze, and that went back to the great-grandfather who may have had problems.
Was your mother’s language at home flamboyant?
She was an entertaining talker, and could tell a story. It was in the breed, so I got a bit of it.
But I also got another angle on it. In those days there was a friend, almost a family member — I think she was Scots — a great friend of Aunt Florrie, her name was Maggie and she was totally blind. 100%. But she was very shrewd. Clever. And what this Aunt Maggie — that’s what us boys called her, Aunt Maggie — and what she did was make up for her absolute blindness by using her shrewdness. She couldn’t see a thing, but she saw everything, she missed nothing.
One day she took me aside to have a word. ‘Pete,’ she said, ‘I’ve been listening to your mother for many, many years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s a great big damned ‘have’. She’s not what she seems. She can embellish any story and make it believable. She can polish it up and make it more outstanding.’
Maggie noticed how good Mum was at spinning a yarn. Maggie, in spite of her lack of sight, she saw right through my mother. And over the years we’d discovered that whatever Aunt Maggie said, after she’d given it her consideration, was guaranteed to be 100% accurate. You never fooled her with words. She really listened, and she could tell where the facts ended and the make-believe began.
Apparently storytelling is something the Polish people can do, and do well. They could make a story very convincing, very colourful. So it’s in that family, to tell it well, entertainingly, to embellish it if they think it’s necessary, to give it a stretch or a twist, for the sake of a good story.
Listening to good stories is always a joy, and things that happen bring some back to my memory. I've got one hate at the moment, and it's a blowfly that keeps whizzing around, kicking up a fuss, and I need to get a swat to deal with him.
I caught a couple of flies with the vacuum cleaner today.
That'll slow 'em up. But there is a story about blowflies that Dad told, about when he was installing milking machines. The job took him all over the district, and he'd sometimes be at a farm for a day or two because he might have to put in foundations, and build a shed for the machine to go in. The farmer's wife would cook the meals, and he'd sit down with the family — accomodation and food was part of the deal — and the problem was there was a constant battle going on with blowflies, they were a real pest, particularly on that farm with all the cattle and horses nearby.
There was one young woman there — part of the family — and she stuck in Dad's mind because she had a way of dealing with these flies. And he found out she'd become locally famous for her method. She'd knock them down while the buzzed about, and do it with the edge of a knife, not with the flat of the blade — the flat didn't worry them at all— it would stun them a bit, knock them aside, no use at all. No, she'd hit them with the edge on, and not with the blunt back edge — no — she got them with the sharp edge, she'd slice them in half in the air!
That's a true story?
Yes. Dad actually saw it.
And with you, it’s always got to be 100% true.
See, that’s the Yorkshire side of me, from Old Phil. He wanted accuracy, bare bones, just the facts, and as far as my memory allows, that side of me comes through too. Sometimes my memory’s a bit dodgy, but I want to say it like it is.
So this storytelling thing, it’s all to do with the way we are. It’s always impressed me in life that you inherit all sorts of attitudes and behaviour. So I’m very much what the Leylands and the Wischnowskys put on me, and into me.
I used to think about it a lot, why are we the way we are? What makes us? And I’ve concluded that you inherit a very big part of who you are.
Those are the facts. You can take it or leave it. Like it or lump it.