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Very few of us actually likes to be sad. We do like telling other people that we are, though. And we like listening. This conundrum is at the heart of literature, film, opera and dance. We turn to these ways of telling stories because they show us people trying to cope with things that we are wary of: disaster, failure, misery and death. This gives us space to wonder if we would behave better, worse or differently than the people in the story. It’s not exactly therapy but as a method, it holds within it possibilities. When we think of ourselves in the midst of sadness, it often feels as if we are in a place of no alternatives. We are just ‘in’; not going forwards, wishing that what had happened hadn’t happened – an impossible proposition. In a story, we see situations similar to ours and we see people doing things differently from ourselves. This may well be liberating. We are less ‘in’.
But stories don’t end at ‘The End’. Most of us talk about the stories we read and watch. We ask questions about why he or she behaved like that. We might tell others about the predictions we made: ‘I knew she would do that’; ‘I really didn’t see that coming’. Again, all this is about discussing how tight corners, desperate situations, and the like have ways out, paths of possible release.
When it comes to children and stories, those of us in a caring or teaching role with them, are often uncomfortable if we see children crying. Our job is usually to protect them, to prevent them from falling over or being hurt. And yet, here we are reading them a story or taking them to the movies and they are crying their eyes out. Haven’t we broken our pledge to protect them, then?
I would say no. These stories are not the same as reality, no matter how real they appear to be. We are always witnesses and spectators to the action and thought. The kind of upset we get with stories are all about imagined connections. They are all prefaced in our imagination with ‘if I had been there…’, ‘if that was me…’, ‘if she had said that to me…’ and the like. Even if we don’t actually say it, that ‘if’ is vitally important. So long as that ‘if’ – implied or actual – is in place, stories help. Yes, there are some people for whom there is no ‘if’, no suspension of disbelief, and they are people for who will find many borders, limits and boundaries mysterious and difficult. For others, the majority, these moments of sadness in stories are generative. They are moments of growth, moments when thoughts about how to cope with the difficult things of life are alive and active.
I’ve been involved in several books that deal with sadness, one is even called ‘The Sad Book’. It dealt with my feelings about my son’s death. There is no happy ending. He doesn’t come back to life. My first reason for writing it was because I wanted to sort out how I felt. The second was that children were asking me how I felt and I owed it to them to answer them straight. A third reason has emerged as people have started to read the book to each other: it gives people a chance to say what kind of feelings they have, how they’ve responded to loss or how they are handling feelings of sadness. People – often children – can read my words or look at Quentin Blake’s pictures and think or discuss whether they feel the same or different. I know from what people have told me this has often been a release and a relief that when ‘I’ am sad, ‘I’ am not alone. We may have been told all our lives we are unique but there are ways in which we are have common ground too. It’s massively comforting to know that we are not a lone traveller in the midst of a desert howling at the moon, the first and only person to have feelings of loss or regret or failure.
‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ started out life as a kind of folk song, sung by people in American summer camps or British Brownie gatherings. I learned it in the late 70s and because I was performing it as part of my one-man show, the editor at Walker Books, David Lloyd saw me doing it. It was his idea to turn it into a picture book and ask Helen Oxenbury to come up with the artwork for it. This transformation created a set of stories other than the ones in the folk song. Helen created characters, interactions between the characters, new encounters with the obstacles, and a character for the bear. I added some further scenes and sounds, Helen provided a visual postscript of a bear whose shape seems to signify sadness, or disappointment. Mysteriously and wonderfully there are no words for this. Her picture asks people of any age, ‘Why am I sad?’ Children ask me why the bear is sad over and over again, and I always say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ And they know! Their reasons will be different, but they know.
When it came to making the animation for the film that question became crucial. The film needed to voice the characters, and in these words, all sorts of motives and ideas would come to the surface. In these discussions between the animators and me, it emerged that hovering around Helen’s pictures there was a mix of compulsion and melancholy: why did this group have to go on a bear hunt? why did they have to keep going through these awful obstacles? And where was Mum?
Writing stories and making films can be seen as a kind of problem-solving: if I am stuck up a tree, how do I get down? If the ghost of my father has told me to take revenge on his murderer, how do I do it?
The animation tried to solve problems, and pose more questions. We knew that there were would be sadness but it is also full of hope and companionship. I think it expresses the cycle of life in a way that is comforting without being misleading. The characters in the film appear as people who are kind to each other and willing to talk to each other, whilst giving space, when needed, to people who want their moments on their own. I hope that people who watch it pick up on that too.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is on Channel 4 on at 10.05am on Easter Monday and the DVD is out now.