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The importance of stories - a postscript

Updated: May 30, 2023

"the currency of human contact" Robert McKee

Yet again coincidences of trivialities have combined to give me a topic for a blog. Four this time.

  • another thought on the Coles Magazine post of yesterday to do with the storytelling aspect that was pointed out by their publisher

  • The latest novel that I have just started reading - Ancestry by Simon Mawer

  • An article about Tom Hanks' novel

  • My photo taking subject of the week - Melancholy

They are indeed all trivial, but they all demonstrate in different ways the importance of story in human life. I even saw one writer describe it as the one distinguishing factor between us and animals. Do animals tell stories to each other? I do wonder - maybe dolphins and whales? In the words of Julian Barnes in his wonderful biography/philosophical treatise The Man in the Red Coat "We cannot know".

Whenever we cannot know we tend to make up a story about it, although we may not tell that story to anyone else. It may just be in our heads. But even if untold it has its effect, influences what we do, what we think about something or someone, how we feel.

"The story is always better than your ability to write it." says Robin McKInley an author of fantasy novels. Which is very true of we ordinary mortals anyway. When I write down what I'm thinking it's never as clever, original, thought provoking or as eloquent as I might have thought it was in my head. So bear with me on this.

But back to Coles - the postscript part of this post. Late at night as I was thinking over what I had written and the idea posited by Medium Rare - their publisher - that "Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make but the stories that you tell", I realise that I had missed out a couple of items in the magazine that did just that and that were worth looking at.

The first is this regular feature whereby some minor celebrity 'reveals' what they put in their supermarket shopping basket. Because it was Reconciliation Week in May they chose an Aboriginal representative, Desmond Campbell, CEO of Welcome to Country. What did he choose? Keen's curry powder, Holbrook's Worcestershire sauce, Pure Australian honey, Coconut milk, Mixed berries and Sara Lee Ice Cream. (I wonder if the named products had to pay?) He included a few brief words about why he chose each product - e.g. - the curry powder - "Growing up in the Northern Territory this was in every family member's household. It was used to make the best curried sausage stews. It's an iconic must-have item for Aboriginal mobs everywhere."

Now to me this is rather sad, but if I'm honest no worse than the custard powder of my childhood. Nevertheless all of the little 'stories' combine to give a picture of a man and a community. The other items in his basket are similarly honest, and relatable to the 'ordinary' people to whom this magazine is directed. Moreover for Coles it presents an image of respect for Aborigines, and an interest in what 'ordinary' people like. What a great company we are - we care and are interested in you - is the message - reinforced by the item at the bottom of the page about a new product that 'can help you minimise single-use packaging waste'. And of course they are interested in you because they want to sell you what you want.

Then there are two items related to the Stephanie Alexander Children's Kitchen Garden Foundation. Alongside her mushroom recipe - mushrooms because they are in season and the Foundation because if you buy mushrooms money will be donated to it - you have a photograph of some of the happy children growing mushrooms. Later in the magazine there is a 'How to' item on compost which publicises an e-book the two groups - Coles and the Foundation have produced on how to compost. It's attractively presented, and again the children are shown doing some of it - along with the inevitable Curtis Stone and designed like a picture-book story. Brief, but informative.

Stories - teaching - kid friendly. And, honestly - useful.

The overall effect of all of these mini stories and the ones I mentioned yesterday, is to create the image of a community with Coles as the benevolent provider and the rest of us as family. "People are persuaded through emotion and not through fact and reason." says Noel of WowMakers and continues with the, I suppose obvious, "Persuasion is the cornerstone of any business activity."

A mixture of beautiful pictures, fatherly/motherly advice and stories of the everyday persuades us to buy. As do so many other ads these days. I am reminded of those Cadbury Dairy Milk ads, each of which tells a sad but endearing little story that makes us feel warm and almost grateful to Cadbury's for the comfort and joy their chocolate might confer. And remember Coles last Christmas ad? - the young lady trying to find her place at a never-ending table of happy people eating wonderful food, finally ending up with Curtis Stone and a Coles ham? It was so good, with every frame a complete story in itself - well a tantalising hint of a story - I remember writing a whole post about it. And if you are educated you can enjoy the story without being sucked into buying that ham from Coles and not Woolworths. Or can you?

I suppose I really just wanted to add my little bit about Coles, and their marketing, but I will just mention briefly my three other 'story' coincidences.

Ancestry by Simon Mawer is a novel that I have only just begun so I can't really say much about it other than it is built around stories about the imagined lives of 'real' people. Julian Barnes and "We cannot know" again. One of my other hobbies is exploring the family history and I even have a website on which I have written some of the 'stories' I found. The first one I wrote was my father's mother - the grandmother I didn't know - who it turns out led a very, some would say 'racy', some might say 'sad' life. Very intriguing anyway, but of course I have the barest of facts to go on, and my late brother did say of my website 'story' that it showed my romantic imagination. Because I cannot know. However, even a few facts will spark the imagination and make one wonder what those lives were really like. Many of them have become very real to me - in my mind anyway. I have also tried to write a memoir for my children, but that too is falling by the wayside and there will be big holes, and little gaps if I ever do finish it because there are things I have forgotten and things I would not want to share because of the embarrassment more than anything. And certainly if we are writing about ourselves we also want to persuade - persuade others and ourselves that we are better and more interesting than we actually are.

Tom Hanks has just written a novel about making a film and the AFR had an article about him, based on an interview he gave whilst here in Australia. People are interested in Tom Hanks. It began with a story that supposedly led him into a 'creative' life. As a small boy his parents divorced and every year he would travel for four hours in a Greyhound bus to visit his mother. As he travelled he gazed out of the window at the passing world and made up stories about the people, and the landscape that he saw. It's a nice story and we probably all do it - and much like the one above about our ancestors. Whether it turned him into an actor or not is another question, and whether Tom Hanks is really like the persona that he has in the world is also another thing. But persona there definitely is - Mr. Nice Guy. 'We cannot know' but we have certainly been persuaded that it is true - and probably it is.

Lastly my photo topic - Melancholy. An abstract emotion not a thing. So like Coles I have to somehow put that emotion into a picture that tells a story. Now what's the story here?

I have rambled too long with only a loose connection to food - but it is there. And on that point there are so many stories about food, which is why it makes such a rich topic to mine. Every now and then I do indeed run out of ideas. I lack imagination, but then serendipity steps in and something comes up. Like the banana and the grapes, or an Aboriginal eating curried sausage stews in the Northern Territory.

When I was a child I devoured books and the stories within, whether they were realistic or totally imaginary. I still love books and filmed stories whether it be in the cinema or on television. Whether they be 'real' or imagined. Stories take us out of our ordinary unexceptional lives, make us dream of better things, other places, other worlds even.

But stories are also dangerous. They can give us unrealistic expectations, making us do things we would not otherwise do, making us unsatisfied with what we have. It's up to us to decide on their truth, or if the truth matters. And we should educate our children to see through the marketing and advertising stories we are told - however much pleasure we may actually get out of them. For it is possible to enjoy the 'stories' and yet still resist what they are selling.


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