It’s not often I get to have a go at writing fiction. As a contribution to the just-published There was a knock at the door: 23 modern folk tales for troubling times, I had a go at updating The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb from Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845 ghastly Struwwelpeter (Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures with 15 Beautifully Coloured Panels for Children Aged 3 to 6). Are you sitting comfortably?
What the long, red-legged scissorman did next
The long, red-legged scissorman was enjoying the feeling of the sunshine on the back of his neck as he weeded. Hairy bittercress, groundsel and ragged robin were eased from the soil and tossed into the bucket at his side. The No.87 bus had just pulled out from the bus stop whose shadow fell close to where he worked, and already mothers with children and other travellers were beginning to gather for the next bus. The bustle of a London weekday looked better, felt less impersonal, when viewed through a low screen of plants. The scissorman leant back onto his ankles and looked around.
Hops, almost ready to pick, and heady with their lupulin aromas, rambled over the fence. Chard, kale and onions stood out in the beds where he worked, further away were mixes of flowers and soft fruits. The sunlight illuminated the colours of the different varieties of chard like stained glass.
Thirty years ago, life had been very different. In the five years before his long prison sentence, the long, red-legged scissorman’s reign of terror became the stuff of legend. His intolerance for what he perceived as being badly behaved children led him to do some terrible things. While his day job as a tailor kept him busy, his scissors also deprived many children of their thumbs, first a child named Conrad, but then, as he became emboldened, many more. “Snip, snap, snip”, his scissors would go, his punishment for children who sucked their thumbs. He really was an intolerant bastard in those days.
Back then, times were different. Children were meant to be seen and not heard. Biting your nails, not putting your knife and fork together after eating, speaking out of turn, were all sufficient grounds for punishment. Then, the long, red-legged scissorman hated kids. He hated everyone in fact. He hated being a tailor. The world was not a place of beauty, of laughter, of kindness. It was an untidy, chaotic and disordered place that needed to be taught some manners. It all caught up with him of course.
Although he was initially celebrated as some kind of hero by commentators who thrived on intolerance (the book celebrating his actions, ‘Struwwelpeter’, became a best-seller), and the right wing media dubbed him the ‘Manners Vigilante’, the public mood rapidly shifted, and his regular de-thumbing of children led to his arrest, trial, and eventual imprisonment. Conrad’s mother lost custody of her son when, rather than being shocked at what had occurred, she simply told social workers, “I knew he’d come, to naughty little Suck-a-Thumb”.
It was a Thursday, a day he still remembered with great clarity. He had been taking a bus journey back to his flat. Recently released from prison, he had chosen not to return to tailoring, but started an Access course with an eye perhaps to going into engineering. His bus pulled into Gresham Lane bus stop, a stop he hadn’t alighted at before. As he stepped out, he realised this was no ordinary bus stop. Around it had been built a garden, a food garden. It was being tended by three people, who were at that moment planting out salads. A bus stop that grows food? Something fused in his mind.
He read the sign on the bus stop. Apparently it was an ‘Edible Bus Stop’, one of eight along that particular route. The bus station at the start of the route was, apparently, the city’s first Edible Bus Station. Local people had come together and turned grim places into beautiful living spaces, producing food that anyone passing buy was welcome to help themselves to.
He sat nearby and watched. He noticed that something unusual happened to the children who came to wait for buses. The garden held their attention, delighted them. Children seemed somehow calmer than at the bus stop near his flat. Their parents did too. He engaged the salad planters in conversation, and soon found himself helping out, planting out three trays of spring onions.
He had come to see this labour as his life’s work: this healing of unloved and damaged places, this bringing of kindness and peace to neglected and troubled corners that most people were happier to just walk past. It somehow healed the unloved and damaged places inside himself, bringing kindness and peace to the corners of his being that he had tried to run away from.
He travelled the land, carrying little more than a notebook and a toothbrush in his small red backpack, visiting ‘Fruity Corners’ in Lancaster, ‘Incredible Edible Tordmorden’ in Yorkshire, with its food gardens up the high street and around the police station, and urban gardens from Glasgow to Brighton, from Penzance to Norwich. In every one of them, in spite of their diversity, their different people and settings, he found the same spirit, the same sense of people coming home to the place, to each other.
He felt something shifting around him. In many gardens, young people came to learn new skills, to be outside, to unwind. Rather than being mannerless wild beasts in need of taming, he came to see them as thoughtful, sometimes lost, souls rather like him, and that he had skills to offer them. Gone, he realised with delight, were the days when de-thumbing young people for sucking their thumbs, or celebrating their misfortune, were acceptable. Yes, he thought, these are troubled times, but our tolerance, our compassion, our kindness, is growing, and is vital.
Ten years later, when he was elected Mayor of London, his vision of the city as a Farm City became that of the citizens too, with houses spread among the vast farm, thriving with intensive food growing and new businesses, a generation of young people now with access to good, affordable food. It became an infectious vision, spreading to cities around the world. He based his policies on the needs of mothers and children, arguing that what worked for them would, by necessity, work for everyone else. He could see the gardens that were growing inside his own heart spread, and take root in many other places.
There Was a Knock at the Door is available to order here. Here’s more information about it:
“Journey through tales that are startlingly modern yet rooted in ancient story telling traditions. From dark encounters with today’s threats, to witty, mordant observations on the human condition,storytelling itself and timeless questions about how best to live, the authors update the folk tale, with several unusual twists.
A foreword from one of our greatest story tellers, Philip Pullman, introduces writing from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, professional tellers of tales and leading figures working at the cutting edge of issues ranging from climate change to reform of the banking system, local neighbourhood revival and a more humane drug policy.
These are modern folk tales for a troubled world because, sometimes, the only way to get out of a terrible mess is by using your imagination. Dive in and read your way to a better place. Published with the New Weather Institute“.