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FRANK COTTRELL BOYCE: »OPEN THE CASTLE GATES!«

15th ILB - SECTION INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN´S AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE - OPENING SPEECH


The opening speech was held by Frank Cottrell Boyce on September 9, 2015, 9.30 a. m. on the main stage at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

 

 

I love stories.

So I’m going to begin by telling you a story.

I wrote a book called Millions about two little boys who find a bag of money.  This is actually a very old story. Danny Boyle - who made the film of Millions - had already made a film about three friends who find a bag of money.  They try to keep it secret but they argue and then … kill each other.

There’s another film called A Simple Plan about two brothers who find a bag of money - belonging to a drug dealer …  they try to keep it secret but they argue and then ... kill each other.

One of the greatest films and books of all time is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - it’s about three old men in the Gold Rush. They find a gold mine and try to keep it secret but guess what …

And going way back before all these is a story by a man called Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote a book of stores called the Canterbury Tales back in the 14th century.  

My favourite one of these stories is The Pardoner’s Tale - which I first came across in a comic book when I was about eleven.

It goes like this …

 

The story happens in a little town in Italy - one of those towns on the top of a hill, with walls around it,  surrounded by olive groves.  Peaceful and beautiful and one of the best places to live in the whole world.

There are four young men in the town who are the coolest.   They spend all day playing dice and singing songs and drinking wine.  They’re the happiest people in the happiest town.

But …

It’s the time of the Black Death - a terrible plague is ravaging Europe.  Everyone in the town is afraid.   And one of the young men dies of the plague.  The other young men are really sad …

 

How are they going to get over their loss?

If it was you now … you might say, we will always remember him.  We’ll build a memorial. We’ll study medicine and learn a cure for the plague.  We’ll help other plague victims to honour his memory.  We’ll look after his family.

But this was the middle ages.  They had different ideas about how to make themselves happy.

These four young men decided that the thing that would most cheer them up would be ….

 

REVENGE!

They would get over the death of their friend by going out and

KILLING SOMEONE ELSE!!!

But who could they kill?  The rats that brought the plague? Not exciting.  The doctor who should have saved him.  Well it wasn’t really his fault.  The mayor who let the plague into the town?

NO.

They were more ambitious than that. They decided that they would kill …

DEATH!

They would go out and find death and kill death.  IS this a good idea? Is this story going to have a happy ending?

The four friends have some drinks. They get their swords and their clubs and they RAMPAGE around the town looking for Death.  Do they find Death?

No. They go all over the town and they never find death. But right at the edge of the town - sitting by the city gates - they do find a little old man.  And they think to themselves … this man is very old so obviously he’s going to die soon.  All we have to do is sit here, wait for Death to come and get him,  then jump out and kill Death.   Meantime let’s have some more drinks.

So they sit with their bottles of wine, watching the old man.  And the old man sees them watching and says,  “What are you looking at?”  They say,  “You’re really old so … no offence … you’re going to die soon. But when Death comes to get you,  we are going to kill Death.  So you’re a lucky old man.”

“Thank you,” says the Old Man,  “but in fact you don’t have to wait.  Death has told me he’s going to come and get me this afternoon and right now he’s down in the olive grove having a nap!”

So the four friends say “Thank you little old man” and they rush into the field.

It’s Italy.  It’s lunch time. Pranzo.  The sun is shining.  And there, lying in the field, in the deep cool shade of the olive grove,  doing absolutely nothing at all,  just lying there is ….

A huge pile of gold coins.

The friends see the money and they forget about their friend, they forget about revenge,  they forget about death and plague and everything.  They just have one thought in their heads … WE ARE RICH!!! And they start to divide up the money. 

Then the first man says … wait,  this is the greatest day of our lives.  We should do something to celebrate. I’ll work back into town and buy some wine.

And the second man says … you would do that?!? You would trust us to split the money evenly. Not run off with it all while your back is turned?! That is so beautiful. Give me a hug.

And all the time the first man is walking way,  the second man is waving and saying, “I love you my best friend” but as soon as he goes out of earshot he says, “I LOVE YOU … you idiot. As if we would ever split the money three ways.  There are two of us and one of him. When he comes back we will kill him. Then instead of being rich we will be VERY rich.”

Meanwhile the first one is saying “I LOVE YOU TOO … you idiots. Why would I ever share the money with you two? I’ll kill you both and then instead of being very rich I will be super rich.”  He buys the wine but not a nice bottle. A bottle with a screw-top lid.  Then he goes to the Apothecary and buys a bottle of rat poison.  He pours the poison into the wine and puts the lid back on.  He goes back to his friends and shouts,  “Hello! I’m back …”

And they say, “Hello … bang … punch … stab … you’re dead. Ha ha ha!”  And they kill him there and then.  And they celebrate by …

So … they did find Death after all.  Or maybe Death found them.

 

That’s an old story.

 It was nearly seven hundred years old when Chaucer wrote it down. 

So the first little thing I want to say to you is this … writers are always asked about where their ideas come from and one really good place to find really good ideas is … other people’s ideas.   People have told that story down the ages using drug dealers and princes and gold miners and I tried it with children in Millions.  If you take an old idea and add a bit of yourself, it becomes a new idea.  Why? Because in the alchemy of storytelling,  every one of you is the Philosopher’s Stone.  You are the magic ingredient that turns lead into gold, alive into dead.

 

BUT there’s something else I want to say about this story. 

When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his version,  it was already an old story. He got it from France.  But you can find very old versions of this story in Tibet and in India.

I recently heard a version of this story from Zaire in Africa.  In that version three men ask their chief where death comes from.  They all have different ideas. One says it’s a punishment from God,  another says it’s microbes,  the other says it’s bad spirits. They’re challenging the chief you see … seeing if they are cleverer than he is. If one of them should be a better chief.  He tells them to go hunting int the woods and they will find what causes Death.  He hides a big box of money in the woods.  One of the men finds it and … well you know what happens.   They find Death and he carries on being chief.

 

This story has travelled all around the World.

And it has travelled through Time … at least seven hundred years.

And this is true of all the great stories. For instance nearly every RomCom you ever see is actually a remake of Cinderella, or Cendrillon,  or Ashenputtel - a story whose oldest version comes from China.

But how do stories do this? How do they get from place to place? How do they stay alive over hundreds of years? How do they keep making themselves look new?

It happens because no matter what language we speak, how rich or poor we are,  whether we were born a thousand years ago or whether we were born this morning, whatever race or religion we are … we are  we. We are us. We have next to our hearts the same hopes and fears.

The hopes and fears that our in these stories.  Our strengths and our weaknesses. 

Think of what’s in the pardoner’s tale …

Fear of dying

Desire for money or power

Fear of losing money or power

Worry that our friends are not really our friends

That they want our money and our power ..

It’s not a pretty picture but it is a true one.

And the truth about ourselves is sometimes not pretty.

Take the fear thing for instance.

 

This Summer I walked all the way along Hadrian’s Wall. This is a Wall that was built in the year 122 by the Emperor Hadrian. It’s nearly ninety miles long.  It cuts completely across England from Coast to Coast.  It was the Northernmost limit of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was a very international thing.  The Emperor Hadrian wasn’t Roman. He was from Spain. And the troops who manned the wall came from different parts of the empire at different times.  Some came from Spain. Some came from the Balkans. Some were from Italy. Some were even from Turkey.  Their job was to keep the barbarians out of the Empire.  On one side of the wall were all the benefits of the Empire -  bath houses,  villas. You can read their letters.  They managed to get olive oil and oysters and figs and wine all the way up to this cold, windy Northern border.   On the other side of the wall were just Scottish savages,  maybe some of them were wishing they could get in.  In some of those places even today it’s hard to get good olive oil and wine!

 

All the way through history you will find people building walls like this.

All the time that I was growing up there was a wall through the middle of this city. A wall that split the whole world in two.

There’s a wall in Palestine.  Some people are trying to build a wall around Europe.

 

The one thing you know in this city is that Walls will fall down.

 

People move around.

In some periods they move around more than others.

You are living in one of the great ages of human movement.

There are lots of causes. Some of them good. Some of them terrible.

But that’s the fact.

And History will judge your generation by how you dealt with the challenges and joys of living in a time of great movement.

Were you afraid? Did you try to close the castle door? Or did you open the castle door?

Sometimes people try to define themselves not by their humanity but by their address. By the place they were born. Or by their parents.

In the last century nearly all European countries had governments that thought like that.

Here in Germany there was a very extreme form of that.

One of the things the Nazis did was try to remove foreign stories from children's schools.

The Arabian Nights. Alice in Wonderland. Winnie the Pooh.   Huckleberry Finn.  Pippi Longstocking. They all went.

They were trying to burn the very infrastructure of the imagination.  To destroy the roads that joined our hearts and minds together.

Well that didn’t last.

And when Germany was rebuilding itself after the war,  a Jewish refugee who had made it to Britain in1936 decided to give up her comfortable job at the BBC and go back to Germany and help.  Her name was Jella Lepman and her speciality was children’s books. Lepman wanted to rebuild that infrastructure. She had no budget,  she  blagged and begged books from foreign publishers, laying down the foundations of a library of international children’s books.  She produced cheap editions of books that had been banned, including a version of Emil and the Detectives printed on newspaper.  There are still copies in existence - frail as ancient papyrus.  If you see one you can almost feel the hunger for fun and stories that children must have felt as keenly as the hunger for bread.   In 1951, she organised an exhibition of children’s literature from all over the World, out of which grew IBBY (the International Board of Books for Young People).  Jella’s original  collection of books is now in a beautiful castle in Munich -  Schloss Blutenburg - and became The International Jugenderbibliotek . Go there. It’s the most charming library in the World.  It has pointy towers,  windy corridors and a river aglitter with dragonflies.   Lepman galvanised many great writers to help her - including Erich Kastner, Astrid Lundgren and P.L.Travers, who wrote Mary Poppins. Schloss Blutenburg has only one entrance. It’s a defensive building,  designed to keep intruders out. 

Lepman opened the castle gates and let everyone back in.

She’s some kind of hero of mine.

 

I would like to take a moment to thank all the translators in the World who make us able to hear each other’s stories.  When I was growing up I loved the storey of Emil and the Detectives, which is set here in Berlin.  But the city in the book was so like my own city - with its kids roaming the streets and its electric trains and its policemen - that I didn't notice it was set in a far away country.   I also loved the Moomin books by Tove Jansson. They were set in a country were it snowed and the sea froze. Finland. I didn’t realise that Finland was a real country until I was quite old. I thought she had made it up.  Like Narnia.  But the Moomins - this big family where the Mother knew what to do - they seemed more real to me than the people who lived next door.  So thank you translators. You are the muscle that powers the heart of our imagination.

Another country I heard about but thought was too magical to be real was Mongolia.  A desert place where people go hunting with eaglees. They hunt wolves with eagles imagine.  One of its founders was Genghis Khan - I definitely thought that he wasn’t real - and one of its cityes was Xanadu,  which comes straight out of a fairytale.

Then one day I was visiting a school in Liverpool and there was a refugee family from Mongolia.  They were amazing. And very popular. Especially the girl Misheel. 

Then one day the government deported her family in the middle of the night.

The children in the school were extremely sad. Especially when they saw that she had left her coat behind. They remembered her telling them how even in the desert it could get freezing cold.

I’m going to end by reading you a passage from the book I wrote about her …

 

[Extract from The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce: page 17, line 1 from "I´m afraid ..." to page 18, line 19, to "... be airborn."]


So … learn about each other and fly.