In his poetry David Grubb often returns again and again to
a certain number of themes: his childhood, his family, certain locations
(including Cornwall, where he grew up), faith & doubt, madness and
dispossession. Although these obsessions are often voiced by the
narrator/author there is sometimes an attempt to give voice more to his
subject, so we may meet a kind of ghost of his mother, listen to a babble of
speech from patients in a psychiatric ward, or the broken cries of a war
In Hullabaloo and Secret Pianos, Grubb
uses a similar technique to tell stories from his time working in refugee
camps and war zones: a clear, straightforward voice (that of an observer or
narrator, sometimes children or refugees themselves) that informs and
describes for the reader what is going on. Much of the horror and violence
is inferred or described quite matter-of-factly, by those not only worn out
violence and war, but also all too accustomed to it.
'The Silence of Children' takes place in a refugee camp. Here is the
beginning of the story:
We are in Rwanda. It is late in the evening. We are waiting for
arrive. The truck will not be filled with food or medicine or
water containers. They will drive into the place that was once
carrying hundreds of silent children.
We know they will come but we don't know when. We have water
for them. We have tents ready. We have a medical
There are already hundreds of other children here. Most are
in the tens
but some of them cannot find sleep. Sometimes a child
starts screaming and an adult will rush to calm them, to
listen. That is easy. It is when a child is convulsed in silent
that one feels so helpless, so guilty, so utterly useless.
Despite the waiting aid, the food and shelter, which is clearly desperately
needed, Grubb feels useless, describing a kind of impotence, an inabilty to
cure the silent screaming of traumatised children he witnesses. It is the
silence which particularly appals him, 'the silent children who have simply
become lost, out of their minds, terror-chilled; human fragments'. Although
'some have names', and 'some know who they are and where they came from',
'others are stuck in a nowhere'.
As a writer, this silence, this inability to use language or words to
articulate is appalling. 'The silence is like fear itself' says Grubb in
another story, 'I Can Do Miracles'. This is a fear he has spoken about, a
fear he has had to face and deal with himself, as he struggles to respond to
some of the horrors he has seen. How, for instance, to even think about, let
alone write about, a mother crucified with scissors on her garden fence? Her
children can take water to her, but if an adult goes near, snipers will kill
them. Is it worth prolonging her life with the water? Should he or others get
shot in an attempt to save her? Should someone kill her out of compassion?
And who will look after the children? Or explain to them what is going on?
Maybe he should shut up and hand out the water and biscuits? Or maybe he can
help facilitate memory and healing?
The first stage is to encourage the telling of the stories that have rendered
these people silent. The silence remains, but there are other ways to tell
Here is a boy
drawing his house that had been set alight. Here is a
dolls to show a doctor what some men did to her.
area there are girls who dance and there are children who
old friends. [...] And there are classes: reading, writing,
Here is one child's story, set as a discreet paragraph of speech within 'I
Can Do Miracles':
'When we had
been running from the soldiers for days we hid in
the trees and
when we saw men hunting for us we went deeper
At night we could hear animals making their noises
we could hear screaming and when it rained the
taller and taller and they were speaking to each other.
And we went
deeper and deeper and stayed there until we began
And when we left the trees we could see at once that
men had been
waiting for us and they rounded us up and did things
to us and
some of the girls we never saw again and they said what
going to do to us and some of us got away and returned
to the trees
and I was suddenly along and went deeper and deeper
and began to
live in another way.'
Having told these stories - and Grubb suggests that these stories are told
'to prove they are still alive' -
it is time to remind the children that there are other stories to
ways to remember life as it once was. There are dances
plays to bring back the colours [...]
And the moon
comes here. And colours. And names. And toys. And
when it rains they all run out into the central yard as if
it was a
miracle. Even some of the silent ones, because the rain
And the singing is about who they are. And there are moments
when there might be
more to come.
For Grubb these stories are both observed personal experience and experienced
personal experience, changed into words. His stories are how he has dealt
with the world around him, what he has made in response to his personal
experience, how he has balanced ideas of authority, truth, confession,
response, reportage, commentary and storytelling.
Good writers can take what they know and draw the reader in. We do not need
to be told by Grubb what he thinks and feels about war and madness, his
writing tells us for him. His writing also tells us what those involved - the
refugees and psychiatric
patients - feel too.
We may not have physically experienced war or poverty or death in exactly the
same way as Grubb, but in a way after reading this book, we have. Good
writing involves us, translates personal experience for us, to become through
the medium of language our
personal experience. By using what he or she knows, by selecting, editing and
re-presenting memory, a writer can transform not only personal experience,
not only words and language, but readers' lives too. I have to confess I
initially resisted being drawn into the emotional and unsettling world
Grubb's stories inhabit, but in the end I gave in and am very glad I did.
These are brave, unsettling and well-written stories that are 'true' in the
most real sense of the world.
© Rupert Loydell