Friday 11 May 2012

Maurice Sendak - my tribute for BBC Radio 4 'Last Word

A story about a boy called Maurice

Once upon a time in Brooklyn there was a boy who found himself. He found himself to be ill, he found himself to be afraid, he found himself to be Jewish. He lay in his bed and he read and drew; and he drew and he read and his head was full of the sound of pictures, the look of words.
He was afraid of everything: the vacuum cleaner, the news of that man Lindberg’s baby being kidnapped. He was even afraid of his mother.
Every now and then his aunties and uncles came in to see him and they leaned over the bed and pulled his cheeks and said, ‘Ache nebbish. I could eat him.’
Eat me? thought the boy, yes, they could.
Why wouldn’t they, with their big eyes and their big teeth and what with them cursing each other as they sat playing rummy, gin rummy and poker:
Chap a chaliera, ch’addich im loch
Such terrible things they would do to each other.
Maybe they could do that to him.
But when they left, they would squeeze him tight and say
Ess, bensh, sei a mensh!
Eat, pray, be good.

And he wanted to be good, he wanted people to be good to him, and sometimes it looked as if this would be.
Once he was sitting and the radio was playing and a sound came out of it that made the world beautiful. A music he had never heard.
What is that? He asked.
I want more of that.

When he felt strong, his mother and father would take him to Manhattan and he would look up and down the canyons, he would look up and down the buildings and if he was good, but only if he was good, they would take him to FAO Schwartz, the biggest and best toyshop in the world.

But if he was bad, they would go nowhere and he would sit at the table with the corn flakes packet and the ketchup bottle and the pickle jar and he would make the canyons on the table, looking up and down. Up and down.

Your brother says we should burn camphor for him,  his mother said to his father.
Bubbemeisse! Said his father, old wives tales.
My sister says the shmalts in the soup goes to his chest, said his mother to his father.
Meshugas, said his father, crazy stuff.

The news wasn’t good. It was terrible. It was worse than terrible. All the photos had been killed.
Who could do such a thing? How could there be a world where every single photo from the heim, from the old country, could be killed?

So he had been right all along to be afraid.
How do you know you’re not next?

So the boy decided he would be a man and he would look for reasons to be alive.
He looked everywhere.
He found more of that music.
That was a good reason.
He found some poems.
That was another.
He found, he found that there were things you could say to your mother and there were things you could say to your father so that once you had said them, made it better that  you had said them.
And there were things you couldn’t say.


You don’t have to say everything.
You could go tell someone else and kvetsh about them to him.
And he did find someone
And it was everything.
If he had shpilkes, the nerves – he could tell him.
If everything was dreck – bad – he could tell him.
If he was in mittandring – in the midst of awful stuff – he could tell him
And do you know, he thought, it’s just the same the other way around.
I listen when he has shpilkes, when it’s dreck for him, when he’s in mittandring.
This is good, he thought.

And so it was in the midst of all that, he found that his pen and his pencil could make faces and feelings.
All he had to do was sit long enough in one place and he could do it.
And he did it and he did it and he did it.
With the pen and the pencil he could tunnel into his mind and find how the world was a place that kept forgetting how to love
With the pen and the pencil he could ride the subway back to his cot-bed in the apartment in Brooklyn with the sound of his aunts and uncles playing cards and his mother telling him he had been bad, his father saying that there was no mazumme in the shmatte trade, there was no money in the rag trade.
With the pen and the pencil he could go out into the world and some people said to him, Maurice, you’re good. You’re not just good, you’re very good.

Which was nice.

And some people said he was bad because he was a child-scarer.

Which wasn’t so nice.

But hey, as his father, said, so they call you pisha! (so they insult you!)
That’s their problem

And it was.

Broadcast BBC Radio 4 Friday May 11 2012
Hear the recording here: The Sendak piece is the third item in the programme: