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from The Witches

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By Alya

A photo of Alya Al-Khatib

If you have a child, remember what it’s like to be one or you still are one, perhaps you can answer this: Why do children and their grandparents have such a special bond?

My Papa Dan was my friend and ally. He had huge grey eyes, rosy cheeks and a rotund pot belly, usually with a stripy polo shirt stretched over it like a drum-skin. He always kept good biscuits in the larder and he let me clamber over his 1950s formica table to get them. He’d show me photos from his days in the merchant navy, let me stay up as long as I liked and play outside for as long as I liked. And when my mother became a grandparent, I saw her change from parent to peer too. Maybe that’s why Grandmamma from The Witches was my favourite childhood character.

Or perhaps it’s to do with Grandmamma being Norwegian. You see, when I was little, I had a list of desolate places I wanted to visit. I wished to see the bleak landscapes of Siberia and the magnificent geysers of Iceland. I also wanted to visit the Shetland Islands. So being such an offbeat child, I adopted this kooky Nordic matriarch as my fictional Grandmamma.

Grandmamma is no conventional ‘little old lady’. She smokes big black cigars while she recounts her childhood memories of going out in a rowing boat to explore islands and catch cod and whiting, before frying them on the beach. She seems to have lived a life of perfect adventure. She even lost a finger (we think) in an altercation with an actual witch.

Normally, parents are there to play the authoritarian role. But of course, Grandmamma and the little boy don’t have this person in their lives anymore. He has lost his parents and she, her daughter and son-in-law. They only have each other, and she guides him through life with the light of her own experience. She treats the boy with respect and love. She’s honest with him about life’s dangers, and gives him the courage and knowledge to deal with them head on.

The witches are the paragons of hypocrisy, false image and deceit. Their evil manifests because they know people generally judge others on a superficial level; they automatically give credence to those who look or act a certain way. Grandmamma teaches the boy to see beyond the veneer. She’s honest and outspoken about the consequences of not doing so, even at the risk of being dismissed as a ‘mad old lady’.

The Witches teaches us that terrible things do happen, but with honesty and love even the most vulnerable can find the resilience to get through. When the witches turn the little boy into a mouse, Grandmamma asks him whether he’s upset about his new form. He says: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, as long as somebody loves you.”

Someone taught him very well.

The 26 writing group has worked with The Story Museum as part of its 26 Characters exhibition. The group have produced a collection of poems, and couldn’t resist being part of the gallery of favourite characters.

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