Hand Me Down Stories

When I went to Primary School, there used to be a name whispered in the corridors and classrooms that all of the kids knew: Annabella.

Annabella was the name of the ghost of a girl who was said to haunt the girls’ toilets. If I recall the story correctly, it was a girl who was supposed to have hung herself in there. This may be a recurring theme, as when I went to Secondary School there was a story of a boy who had hung himself from the bell tower.

What dark imaginations the young have. The thrill in being scared.

But that latter school story was more vague, the boy-ghost being anonymous. In my junior school the ghost had a name.

My wife went to the same primary school as I. She says that out of the few cubicles in the toilets, there was one whose door was always closed. All of the girls knew not to use it, because if you went in there Annabella would ‘get you.’ 

This was the story when we were pupils there, in the seventies to early eighties. The story came flooding back when, around the time of the Millenium, a niece of ours who went to that school mentioned, almost in passing, that the toilets in her school was haunted by a ghost named Annabella. The story lived on. The name lived on.

Well I thought it was great! Even more so, when, sometime later, I discovered an online conversation between people who were former pupils of the school back in the sixties, who were also talking of Annabella. For thirty years that story had been passed on to each new, fearful, generation starting at that school. I started thinking that maybe the story went back as far as the school did, back to the fifties. After this post was shared on Facebook (I’m adding this section to the original post)  I learned from a former teacher that yes, indeed, the legend of Annabella was known when she started working there-back in the fifties. The passing on to each new wave of school pupils only came to an end when the school became victim to time and planning and was demolished.

I wonder about the person who first started the story. (Of course, assuming it is just a story.) Did they have any idea of the legacy that they had created? That the story they had given life to had continued to live right into the following decades, outliving its creator’s time there? Perhaps, also, outliving its creator’s time here? 

And why Annabella? It’s an unusual name. I’ve never, ever, met an Annabella. Where did they get that name from?

The name was made popular by a poem by that dark writer Edgar Alan Poe, Annabel Lee, in the 19th Century, taking this more familiar form in the 20th.  It tells of the death of a beautiful young woman, who the narrator/poet still loves, beyond death, and who sleeps by her tomb near the sea, dreaming of her.

Was it an unusually erudite young child that made up this story to scare his or her peers? Surely it wasn’t a teacher? Although I do like that thought.

Whoever it was, the story caught the imagination of those fertile young minds and grew legs. It outlasted the inventive mind that toiled there. That unknown person moved on, leaving Annabella behind. When I was there I tried to introduce the story of The Black Hand for the boys toilets. It never caught on.

I like the idea of stories being passed on. Taking on a life of their own in the constant retelling and shaping.

You may remember the post I did last year about the book East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon. 

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This is a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales. I shared these stories with my children, who thoroughly enjoyed them. Not long after, I read a piece by a Native American, telling of the many tales, both myth and history, that were passed on orally among his people. It got me to thinking about the old stories in our culture. How many of these are passed on today? How many are known? Or, would it be fairer to say, how many are being lost? I have begun to collect together some of the stories I invariably find in the things that I read. Some of the folklore that is connected to the various places that I visit in this group of islands that I live in. Some of the legends and stories that were told from each generation to the next centuries ago, later collected together in books such as The Mabinogion, and The Tain.

Tales and ideas, also, that were brought from various other places, Celtic, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and were added to the melting pot to find expression in our own cultural flavour.

I have been selecting stories that I think that my children would enjoy. Stories of heroes and magic, animals and, yes, ghosts. But adapting and writing them in a way that makes them more attractive and entertaining to their modern minds. Explaining things that long ago, in their conception, the people of the time knew and didn’t need explaining. For example how Faery folk were not sweet little winged Tinkerbell types. Or how dogs from the Otherworld were white with red ears.

I think that these stories gain something over time,something quite powerful, in the retelling, the re-sharing. Thinking of all the people who have listened to them, people unknown to us, living in different times, yet enjoying them all the same. Being touched, and then passing them on. Breathing new life into them.

Stories that began orally-their creators, and then the authors who first wrote them down, now lost to us.

As happened with Annabella.

It is with this sense that I regard my family history. Yes, we can all uncover, (only so far) names and dates. When a person was born. What they worked as. Who they married. When they died. The bare facts.

But it is the personal stuff, the human stuff, that gets lost. The meat that is stripped from the bones. I write down the things that I know, the things that I have learnt from my parents, and their parents, however scant it may be. Otherwise it becomes lost. The tragedies, the struggles, the love stories. They all pass forever into shadow, leaving us with but a list of dates.

My children may not be that interested. For why should it be of importance to me, but say, not to my brother? Or to my cousins? But then someone else may come along further down the line-a grandchild. Or a great grandchild, someone who gets it. Someone who is moved and inspired by the things that this little known ancestor, some distant guy named Andy, who used to write a blog named City Jackdaw, has written down, and decides to add to them the things that have happened since those last words were recorded. For they may understand that people without roots become disconnected, drift, become disenfranchised if you like. They may see how important it is to understand beginnings and connections.

They may become filled with a zeal to hand these stories down.

And then we come full circle. Many years from now, someone, somewhere, may be sat in some strange, new world, learning of a ghost by the name of Annabella.

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13 thoughts on “Hand Me Down Stories

  1. I’ve read the story “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” (rather than the entire collection). But it was in another fairy tale collection. Love it.

    I remember older kids trying to scare us with tales of “the Bloomer Man” some kind of zombie guy who would steal underwear and frighten children. I’m not sure who passed those stories on to them. We all told a story of Bloody Bones, a vengeful ghost. Scared me half to death when I was a kid. But we loved telling ghost stories and fairy stories.

    I’m glad you’re sharing stories with your kids. My parents read Grimm’s Fairy Stories to me at bedtime. I loved them. They fired my imagination and made me yearn for the stories of other cultures. These stories reminded me that the world is a big place worth exploring.

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    • Bloomer Man and Bloody Bones sound fantastic. Both worthy to be immortalised in story. 🙂
      Speaking of which, see my reply to PinkJumpers below. My creation lives on ! 🙂

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  2. Great post. I used to read old fairy tales and folk stories to my stepson for his bedtime stories. These days he can read himself, so tends to prefer Horrid Henry stories but his favourite is the BFG and I think we’ve read it to him about 4 times now. He went to school on World Book Day as a Snozcumber.

    A while back I started to write some poems based on fairy tales, with a view that my husband would do some illustrations for it. Still trying to chivvy him into doing it but he is somewhat lacking in inspiration these days!

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  3. A beautiful post. I remember the urban legend stories we used to tell one another at slumber parties, about couples on deserted roads being murdered by a man with a claw for a hand… and other grisly stories. Passing on these stories was much more fun than watching a video or playing an electronic game, had those existed at that time. In today’s high tech society I worry that we may have lost sight of the idea that all of life is a narrative, and our stories are what connect us to one another.

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    • There is a hill I sometimes visit, situated behind the houses on a street that my grandparents used to live. I can still recall a few of us sat there, at twilight, telling ghost stories. Haven’t changed much, have I ! 🙂
      And yes, I agree, I worry that all of this technology is stopping children discovering the delights of reading books.

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  4. Your blog is undeniably a favourite of mine… ‘people without roots become disconnected, drift, become disenfranchised’… what a line! In my primary school toilets there was a vague red hand print (quite possibly the work of a child who thought the wall was a little bare and/or couldn’t be bothered to walk the few yards to the sink!) and there was a lot of stories shrouding this print. I’m now quite curious to see if the tale still lives as strongly as your ‘Annabella’…

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    • I always make a bee-line for your blog too when a post appears on my newsfeed 🙂
      Yes research the handprint story-see if it survives. Reminded me of the images of those ancient handprints in the caves in France. It now appears it was women that was involved in much of the Neolithic cave art that was being done. Google! 🙂
      When I shared my post on my FB, a lot of my old schooly pals commented on it. One girl used to go into the toilet chanting an invocation to get Annabella to appear 🙂
      And guess what? Another girl (a year older) read my comment on the shared link before reading the post and commented:
      ‘OMG-was this the girl who used to be in the toilets, or was that the black hand?’
      The Black Hand!!! My sole contribution to the primary school ghost story movement has survived. And is remembered-by at least one other 🙂
      Ah..I can die now feeling satisfied.

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      • Haha, she doesn’t give up easily!
        I can’t say for certain upon the recent fate of the Red Hand, sadly. I’m certain, though, that my friends wont have forgotten… It was the subject of conversation not all that long ago in a nostalgic frenzy. 🙂

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