Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Archive for the ‘Body Stories’ Category

Storytelling Starters ~ Hands, legs and sock

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

Tapies footI’ve said it before: storytellers enjoy making links and I personally seem to be doing it more than ever. Sometimes the link emerges through thinking what photos to use for this blog. This week, as you can see from the photos chosen, it’s bits of the body that created an association.  

Antoni Tàpies was a Catalan painter. I’d scarcely even registered his name before last weekend when we went to Barcelona for a few days off to celebrate my birthday. On our last day when we went to the Fundacio Antoni Tàpies, a museum devoted to Tàpies work, I found a lot of his paintings hard to be drawn to. But where he focused on simple stuff – wood, windows, doors, eyes, feet, an old sock, a shoe-print in sand, the sand itself – I felt considerably more at home. Tàpies took inspiration in ordinary things and found them of spiritual value. He felt they are evidence of our common humanity connecting  us to the earth and to our selves.

After we got back to London, we looked back at our photos as you do (we’d been allowed to take photos in the Tàpies gallery as long as we didn’t use flash)  and I found myself linking some of the work we’d seen with a story I’d heard some years ago at a storytelling evening at the South Bank Centre. The event was associated with a huge exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art at the Hayward Gallery and the storytellers were two Australian Aboriginal women

Legs, feet, fingers, thumbs: here’s the story that came back to my mind. It’s one I’ve always enjoyed passing on. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ The Light of an Eye

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

P1070330My photos this week are of a carved head. But it’s painting that’s on my mind as I write. For when I’ve  posted this, I’ll be going to look at a painting.  A message about it arrived this week from the owner of an art gallery in Fishguard, the town where I spent the first fourteen years of my life. He is in the process of selling a number of works by Elizabeth Cramp, a very fine Fishguard artist who achieved a good deal of success while she lived. As he told me in his email this week,  the works of hers that he is now selling include a painting of my Aunty Mali.

Aunty Mali was a considerable influence in my life. A friend of my parents rather than an actual relation, she was a personality, a music teacher, a choral conductor,  a traveller and, wherever she travelled, an informal ambassadress of Wales and Welsh culture. She was also a redoubtable storyteller with innumerable stories to tell. After her death, Aunty Mali became the subject of my storytelling piece, Travels With My Welsh Aunt. It was my tribute to her. When I performed it in Fishguard, the same art-gallery owner, Myles Pepper, who’s now selling Elizabeth Cramp’s  paintings was the organiser of the occasion.

So when I get to Myles’s gallery,  I’ll see ‘a very fine watercolour painting’  which I didn’t even know existed. What will its impact be? Aunty Mali has been dead nearly twenty years. I have many, many photographs of her as well as boxes full of her papers. But a painting? Will it feel too powerful, as if she’s come back to life? Or might it be a disappointment by not being the Aunty Mali I knew?

The prospect is daunting. What will I see? (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Mouth No. 3

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

Last week I promised details of how to vote for the shortlisted candidates (including me!) for the new BASE awards. But there’s no sign yet of the new BASE website with the details. Hopefully it’ll be up by next week, so I’ll come back to the subject then.

Meantime back to Mouth – and Mouth is, of course, central to oral tradition. The phrase By Word of Mouth even won me a bottle of champagne when I came up with it as the possible title for the TV series on storytelling that I proposed and devised for Channel 4 at the end of the 1980s. The series at that point was almost completed. All we lacked was a title. The production company offered the champagne. I remember racking my brains in the bath. As soon as I thought of  By Word of Mouth,  it sounded obviously right.

Don’t children often say it: ‘Tell me a story out of your mouth’? They love the directness of telling and this week’s two stories quite literally add a twist to the telling. They take you back to the fun that you get as a child when some lovely silly adult makes hilarious expressions at you. Combine the facial expressions with a good story and the story gets asked for again and again. This week I’ve got two stories to choose from.

And by the way, I hope you love my photo illustration as much as I do. If you don’t know who its subjects are, go to the bottom of my Blog for details. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Mouth No. 2

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

A few days ago I got the news that I’ve been shortlisted for that Lifetime Achievement Award. More on that subject – including how to vote – next week.

Last week, to introduce Mouth, I offered some sayings and quotes on the subject. This week’s offering is a story in which a butterfly comes out of an open mouth, then goes on a journey and returns. The butterfly, of course, is frequently seen as a symbol of Soul. Yet in several comparable stories of which I’m aware, it’s not a butterfly that comes out of the mouth but some other strange creature that is almost a little manikin.

The variants:

One of the variants is an African tale. It talks of a very sick man who is lying, fevered and thirsty, on the bed in his room. As he falls asleep desperately craving some water, his mouth falls open and a tiny little creature comes out. The creature hops across to the jug of water that stands beside the sleeper’s bed and there takes its fill of the water before hopping back to the sleeper and re-entering his mouth. At that point, the sleeper wakes up feeling much better and greatly refreshed.

Another variant comes from Wales and here it’s haymakers who are taking a mid-day break from their labours, sitting in the hedge at the side of the field, when one of them falls fast asleep. When one of his companions observes a monkey-like creature coming out of the sleeper’s mouth, he calls his companions’ attention and they watch as the strange little being crosses the field to the river that flows along beside the field and takes its fill of the water before returning to the sleeping hay-maker and disappearing back into his mouth.

Why I especially like the Welsh story:

I find the Welsh story very appealing in the sense that it reminds me of two separate occasions in my childhood when I saw hay being cut by hand with scythes, once in the couple of fields that my grandfather owned, once on the smallholding that belonged to my uncle. On each occasion, I remember the haymakers coming together from neighbouring farms to lend their help and at mid-day being brought their mid-day food. On the second occasion, I vividly recall, I travelled home perched on top of the hay-wain, my nostrils filled with the warm smell of the hay. My great-aunt had given me some odds and ends of beautiful ribbon to play with and I clutched them in my hands, feeling their texture, all the way back to my grandparents’ house. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Why I tell the butterfly version:

But it’s the butterfly version I tell. And why? Because of it’s strange, mystic atmosphere. Because I love the visualisation. Because it works on a double level and it’s very much a story about dreams. The butterfly version as I give it below originates from Ireland. Here I’ve adapted it slightly from the version given by Kevin Crossley-Holland in his excellent collection, British Folk Tales, where it appears in the section entitled Enchantment, which I think is very apt. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Mouth No. 1

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Welcome this week to my new blog and website banner. About time too, you might say! My hair has been short and silver ever since it grew back following my four months of chemotherapy treatment in 2010. It’s taken me till now to update myself. Many thanks to those that have helped – Dominick Tyler for the new photo, Olwen Fowler for the new banner, Tim Howe for amending the website and my lovely husband Paul for his constant support.  A big kiss to each of them!

There are numerous excellent stories about Mouth. Next week and the week after I’ll be giving you two of my favourites.

This week, however, I thought I’d do something new, which is to start on the Mouth theme with some sayings and quotations about it. The ones below are all drawn from the stocks of items that I keep in mind for throwing into a storytelling session or workshop where one of them becomes appropriate. Proverbs, sayings, interpretations, quotations: I find they can prove of interest to all types of audience, children and adults. They are like juicy little extras to savour in the tasting.


I especially like this chewy saying:

Stories are not there to be believed; they’re there to be eaten.

And here’s another which suits my taste because, like me, it comes from Wales:

And this story went from mouth to mouth so that one day my Grandmother learned it, and it’s from her that I heard it.

The first saying comes from Michel Hindenoch, one of the storytellers behind the storytelling revival in France. The second is a traditional way of ending a story which was included by storyteller Sam Cannarozzi (who lives in France) in When Tigers Smoked Pipes, his collection of story beginnings and endings which the Society for Storytelling published in booklet form in 2008. A most useful and fascinating resource it is too, even though I say it myself as one who participated in the editing of it. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Body Parts / Hand 2

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

This week, I’ve been struck by the number of Olympic athletes emphasising  that they could never have achieved what they have without the support of the team around them. Working together: that ‘s the moral and it was the theme of my story last week. This week, I’ve got another favourite Hand story with a similar theme. It’s called Five Companions and, in my experience, it works especially well with children. What gets the children is the idea that in one hand – their own hand! – there can be such a diversity of strengths and that when these are combined, there’s no end to what a hand can do. But of course there are two sides to the potential: hands can work for good or for ill. Whenever I tell the story, I try to let that  fact be seen.

Five Companions: the background

It’s not always essential for a storyteller to know where a story began. Sometimes, you hear a good story and never find out where it originated. Sometimes, as time passes, you forget where you got it. And sometimes, if you do check back with your source after many times of telling the story, you realise – as I did with Five Companions that you’ve made a few changes along the way.

The story of the Five Companions originally comes from Burma – and, to be honest, I did have to look back through my files of printed sources of stories in order to check that fact out. When I read through my copy, I immediately saw that I’d adapted the tale in one or two ways. I’d made small changes to some of the characters’ names. I’d also given more emphasis to the fact that hands can be responsible for bad deeds as well as good ones.

Five Companions: a hint on telling

Before starting the story don’t reveal that this is a story about your own hand. Let that be discovered when the story has ended. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Body Stories / Hand

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

As Olympic gold medals mount up for Britain,  my favourite body-parts story has come back to my mind. It’s a story about the way the different body-parts connect and how all of them have to work together. But they cannot function properly as a unit without the operation of thought. I don’t know if the story has a title (told stories rarely do!) but here I’m calling it Give Me a Hand.

Give Me a Hand: the background

Where I heard Give Me a Hand was at an Australian Aboriginal storytelling concert at the South Bank in London some years ago. The concert was an event to accompany a major exhibition of Australian art at the Hayward Gallery.

The Dreamtime paintings of Australian Aboriginal painters are bold and beautiful and very earthy.  They feel very connected to the earth we inhabit and at the same time they give a very real sense of what makes the Australian earth unique. Listening to the stories at that South Bank storytelling, it began to feel like the stories themselves were creating the landscape.

The two storytellers were women on that special occasion. What ensured that I’d never forget it was that, towards the end of the concert, they suddenly announced that they were now going to hold a public mourning event. At first, I had no idea what this could possibly be. Members of the audience were invited to come up on stage if they wished to join in and then the keening began. It  had a spine-chilling quality which at first I found extremely uncomfortable. I felt terribly excluded from it. Then I began to understand.

The mourning, as the storytellers explained it, was for those members of their peoples whose bones had ended up in museums in England. Their wish was that the bones be taken back to Australia so they could be properly buried. Suddenly I realised what this was all about. To the museums that held them, the bones were of archaeological and anthropological importance. To the Aboriginal peoples, they were the remains of real people – remembered relatives such as aunties, great-aunties and great-grandparents.

So here’s the story, Give Me a Hand. Of course, when I heard it, I imagined it happening in the Australian bush as conjured up in the Dreamtime paintings. The words of my telling may not do that for you. But however you visualise it, I think you’ll agree that the story is striking. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Body Stories/Amazing Eyes

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

In many sports, keen eyesight is crucial. Reading last week about the Tour de France, however, it was interesting to come across something Mark Cavendish was quoted as saying – that beforehand he ‘sees’ every kilometre, every bend on the course. It’s visualisation, of course. The very thing that storytellers do! Yet with sportspeople as with storytellers, seeing with the inner eye must be matched by the experience of the physical eye, its accuracy and its alertness.

Eye stories make one of the themes that I love. I remember talking about them with storyteller Kate Portal who never made her blindess a bar to her making her way to the Drill Hall Workshops I used to run with colleague Karen Tovell. Did Kate dislike eye stories? Did she mind people telling them? No, she answered. She was quite emphatic. She enjoyed collecting such stories herself. Why wouldn’t she be interested? It was an important theme for her – to think about how people see and how people such as herself find ways to replace the act of physical seeing. What she disliked was people becoming mystical about blindness, as if it was a special blessing.

A good story about eyes:

My story today is one I refer to as The Crab with Magic Eyes. I came across it in a most useful book, Twenty Tellable Tales, by American storyteller and storytelling teacher, Margaret Read MacDonald. The book has been in my library of story books for a very long time. Published in America in 1986, it contains strong simple stories that are good for telling to a wide age-range of children and also to adults. The way it sets them out is tremendously helpful. The style looks a bit like poetry: refrains and repetitions are indented which make it easy to see the patterns.

In her notes in Twenty Tellable Tales, Margaret Read MacDonald says she began telling The Crab with Magic Eyes (she entitles it Little Crab and his Magic Eyes) after hearing it told just once at a festival by storyteller Augusta Baker.

Her version, she said, had probably changed from the one she’d heard. She didn’t know where the story originated although she herself had traced similar tales in various languages, including German. In a similar way, my version has also changed a bit from the Margaret Read MacDonald version. On checking the book, I see I’ve particularly adapted the rhyme used by crab to make his magic eyes work. The change is marginal. But storytellers have to settle on what works for them.  The right rhythm  is crucial. (more…)