My father died unexpectedly in 1990 - he was only 46 - and my grandfather came to live with my mother and me. He was retired and had lost his wife a few years earlier. He had been a reporter, and would spin me many yarns of his early years covering local stories for a provincial newspaper. My fondest childhood memories are of sitting by his feet at the age of eight or nine, listening to his tales.
Sometimes my mother would chide him.
You're filling the lad's head with nonsense again, father, she'd say, but she would smile as she spoke, and I noticed that she would often contrive to be within earshot, enjoying the tales as much as I did.
Once I was bold enough to contradict her.
They're not nonsense. They are all true, aren't they, grandpa?
My grandfather waved his Daily Mail and answered,
As true as anything you'll read in a newspaper, my boy.
In my youthful innocence, I took that to be an affirmation of the total veracity of his narratives. Looking back from an older and more cynical perspective, I see now that an alternative interpretation is possible.
Some parts of his stories I did not understand, usually parts which would make my mother laugh and say,
Father! The boy's not old enough for that sort of thing. I stored these fragments carefully in my memory, in anticipation of their coming to fruition at a later date.
After I graduated, my work took me abroad, and I saw little of my grandfather in his later years. I was away when he died a few years ago, and I was sorry not to have said goodbye personally to the man who had done much to shape my character. When I returned for his funeral, I found that he had left a package addressed to me. It contained a letter and half a dozen reporter's notebooks, the sort with a spiral binding at the top. The letter read:
My dear Frank
There were two periods in my life which I found truly enjoyable.
The first was the early 1950s, when I was covering local stories for the Nutcombe & District Advertiser during my first years in journalism. That was a golden age -The Festival of Britain, the coronation, the dawn of a new Elizabethan era. It was true, we'd never had it so good. Then came the sixties, a decade of decadence from which we never emerged. I was promoted to covering the doings - or rather the sayings, for few of them ever actually accomplished anything - of politicians, business men, and 'experts' - stories which were supposed to be important, but which I found trivial and meaningless compared to the real lives of real people.
The second was the early 1990s, after my retirement, when I was able to relive the good times again by telling stories of them to you. For that I owe you a debt of gratitude.
When you were young you accepted every word I told you as gospel truth. I dare say that since then you have swung to the other extreme and have decided that grandpa was inventing fairy stories.
We all assume that we know what is meant by 'the truth,' but do we? Lawyers and politicians think that it may be decreed by diktat. Scientists think that it can be proved with geometrical precision. They are all wrong. Before you try to grasp the truth, remember that when you grasp a snowflake it melts. Before you try to pin the facts down, remember that a butterfly pinned to a board is a thing of beauty no more.
What is the old man driving at, you ask? Well, now that I have gone, I want you to remember the stories I told you, and to think again about their truth. To help you, I leave you a few of my notebooks. You will find them difficult to read, but true understanding is never easy.
Farewell, Frank. Thank you for the joy you brought me.
Your loving grandfather,
The pages of the notebooks were covered with manuscript, some in his handwriting, some in shorthand, and some in a private code. Between the pages were some yellowed newspaper clippings, a sheet of paper containing the key to the code, and a few dog-eared photographs.
It took me many months to transcribe my grandfather's notes into plain text. As I did so I was astonished to find that they contained several references to people and events which had featured in the tales he had told me. Not knowing what to make of this, I have reconstructed some of the stories, drawing on his written notes and my memory of his oral narration all those years ago.
Their truth you may judge for yourself, but please try not to crush any snowflakes or butterflies.
16 February 2009