Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Archive for the ‘True tales’ Category

Storytelling Starters ~ Being Special

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

Last week it was a Symposium focusing on refugees. This week it was a dinner event in honour of five Disability Activists from Uganda, Tanzania and Bangladesh. Each occasion has given me much cause for thought, widening my sense of the special importance of a person’s own life story – and how much more that may be so when that person has been up against it in their life.

Thursday’s event was organised by ADD International, a charity I’ve supported for a number of years. ADD links with disability organisations in Africa and Asia to identify and give support to people who can become leaders in their own communities. To the organisation’s great delight, five of the Disability Activists they work with had been able to travel to the UK this week to attend meetings and publicise their work. What had helped make this possible was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which has been happening this week in London and the fact that one theme of this year’s gathering has been disability issues. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Stew

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Last week this blog was a pot-pourri. This week it’s more by way of a stew.

Item 1:

Item 1 must be my new book which will be out in only four days’ time. Storytelling and Story-Reading in Early Years will be available to buy on my website and I’ll say more about it here next week. I do hope it encourages early years staff and parents (and what about grandparents?) to realise that, next to food and love, stories are vital to the growth of healthy children. In fact, they are part of the food and the love. It seems that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, agrees. A few days in advance of this year’s World Book Day, in a piece in the Sunday Express that was in turn reported on the BBC and then re-reported in the Guardian, she described how much joy it gave her as a child that her father had read stories with her. She went on: “Reading to our children and our grandchildren is something we can all try to do every day of the year. Not only does it give us pleasure but it leads them on a voyage of discovery and enrichment that only books can bring.”

Item 2:

Item 2 has to be about the personal tale. On the 10th March, the word ‘storytelling’ appeared in another piece in the Guardian. Of course, it caught my eye. The piece reported former President Obama’s senior adviser, Eric Schultz, having told the New York Times: ‘President and Mrs Obama have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire. Throughout their lives they have lifted up stories of people whose efforts to make a difference are quietly changing the world for the better.’

And why was Eric Schultz saying this now? Because, evidently, there’s a possibility that Barack and Michelle Obama might be on the verge of signing up to present a series of high-profile shows on Netflix. Hence the connection with storytelling: ‘As they consider their future personal plans, they continue to explore new ways to help others tell and share their stories.’

On Tuesday this week, the Obamas’ possible plan came back to my mind during a visit to St Peter’s School in Hammersmith. As twice before, I was there to do a day’s storytelling for their Arts Week and it felt very encouraging  that lots of the 300 children I saw in the course of the day remembered those previous visits. Until this year, however, I’d never made a conscious choice to tell a personal story in any of my sessions. This time with Years 5 and 6, it was a spontaneous but very conscious choice. I was planning to tell two main stories, each somewhat scary in its way. One was going to be that Indian story about the barber and the ghosts that I recently told in this blog. The other was going to be the strange and thought-provoking story by Richard Hughes, The Glass Ball. (You can find it in my blog for November 29th, 2014.) A story about war – and, yes, the Year 5 and 6 children were very aware of war from the TV – it begins with the ever-present fear war brings of being trapped and hurt or killed and the wonder of it when peace is found.

£8.50 (£10 inc UK postage)

On the hop, because I’d be telling these two scary stories and felt suddenly aware of the scariness ahead – I began with the story that comes first in by book of personal tales, A Long Run in Short Shorts. The experience, as I explained, had been a bit scary for me. For as I’d started down that hill in Wales, on my own and, as daylight darkened, not looking forward to shaded places on the road back home, I’d initially been very startled by the sight of those two strange men coming up the hill towards me. Jowly faces, thin bare legs, very short shorts, knobbly knees: who could they be and why would they be coming up that hill towards me at that time of the evening? And would I have to be following them on my way home?

After my personal tale, I went on to the barber story and then suggested a minute’s visualising to the 60 or so young people before me. A scene from the barber story was what I proposed they choose. And when, after a minute or so had elapsed, I invited anyone who wanted to report what they’d ‘seen’, quite a lot of children put up their hand But only one  described a scene from the barber story. All the others for whom there was time came up with something personal, something a bit scary that had happened to them. It was a real reminder to me of the power of the personal story and the importance of including our own lives in the wider context of storytelling. It was also a lesson to me to perhaps make more time for that kind of telling with that age-group in future.

Item 3:

The third item in my stew again involves reference to a Guardian piece (you can tell it’s the paper I read!) This was the three-page obituary of Stephen Hawking that appeared there on Thursday. Written by his colleague Sir Roger Penrose, the majority of the piece was about Hawking’s scientific thinking and the extraordinary advances he made in the science of space.

Alas, I understood only those parts of the tribute that referred to Hawking’s life and personality. But the stuff about his science brought back to mind the last session of my day at St Peter’s.

That last session was with the 7 to 9 year-old in Years 3 and 4. It included a telling of the West African story, How Sun and Moon Got Into the Sky. You know the one? (If not, you can find it in my blog archive for January 14th, 2012.) Briefly, it tells how Sun and Moon once lived down here on earth. They were married and in the house where they lived, Moon used to do lots of polishing (for of course, these were the olden times before female emancipation) whereas Sun used to go out to chat with his friend Water. On one occasion, Sun inquired why Water never came to visit him and why he, Sun, always had to go and see Water. Water’s response was to enquire whether Sun had enough room in his house for him. ‘After all,’ said Water, it’s not just me. There’s an awful lot in me. (Fishes, sharks, seaweed … the story gives lots of space for participation).’

So Sun went and extended his house. (Again, the idea of extensions gives plenty of room for contributions). Finally, the invitation was confirmed. Water would come to tea. On the appointed day, Sun and Moon were ready. They heard Water coming. But of course the results were truly world-changing.  As Water flooded into the house with all that was in him, Moon followed by Sun had to run upstairs and climb out onto the roof. But even that wasn’t going to be enough. Soon Moon was saying, ‘I must go, I must jump.’ And when she did, Sun said, ‘Wait for me!’ So that’s how they both got into the sky and, of course, they’re still there (though some of us do say that, in the immensity of space, they still meet whenever there’s an eclipse and others remark that they had lots of children, namely the stars).

The response to this story on Tuesday amazed me. How much those children knew about space! It all came out in questions and comments. Wouldn’t Water have got evaporated by Sun when Water came to the house? How did Sun and Moon manage to jump into the sky considering that gravity would have held them back? Considering that Sun is so massive, how could Sun have had a house big enough to live in here on earth?

Naturally, the awareness of science those children showed, together with their capacity to think about it, came back into my mind yesterday when I read the obituary of Stephen Hawking in the Guardian. What an astonishing mind he had, a mind as big as a planet. And reading about him, I felt very aware that all that thinking had to have started somewhere. Conceivably the challenges provided to a modern mind by an ancient West African story can help such thinking to begin.

PS: Illustrations this week speak for themselves. Hope you enjoy the stew!

Storytelling Starters ~ Making peace

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Two linked stories form my blog this week. One concerns the ancient Welsh cycle of stories, the Mabinogi. The second was reported in the Guardian newspaper on 25th November. The theme of both is the redeeming of lives from the terrible destructions wrought by the human need to take revenge. The link is provided by a place in Pembrokeshire, my home county, which is commonly known as Narberth today. It’s Arberth in Welsh and in the Mabinogi. And the reason the link has come about is because of a very good book which I’d like to tell you about as an introduction.

Introduction:

The other day I was in the London Library checking the New Books shelves when, among the larger tomes, I spotted a slim, red-covered book with The Mabinogi on the spine. ‘What can this be?’ I wondered. ‘Too slim to be the stories or a commentary on them!’ Well, my goodness, the book turned out to be a fantastic new version of the Mabinogi in poetry written by a poet called Matthew Francis and recently published by Faber & Faber.

Concise, rugged, colourful, sharp: Matthew Francis’ poem makes a vivid new thing of that magical cycle of stories. Wholly written in the present tense and focusing on key moments and scenes, it gives the mind and imagination of the reader an entirely fresh perspective that at the same time pays great service to the marvellous old tales. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ A Surfeit of Stories

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

The life of the storyteller and story-writer has been a fruitful one in my experience of it. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that sometimes there’s a feeling of surfeit. Too many people going by, too much awareness of all the stories they’re part of, too many ifs and buts in every direction. And with all that, not enough time for digesting things and making something of them, not enough real satisfaction.

That’s how I feel right now after two months of hospital appointments when I’ve been one of so many people walking in and out of  the hospital’s foyer or sitting waiting to be seen by a doctor or a nurse. In hospitals, it’s as if the whole world is swishing around you as you try to deal with your own main story yet are aware of being profoundly distracted from what you consider to be your own real life.

That’s how it is. That’s how it’s still going to be for me for a while. Yet over the next fortnight, there’ll be some respite. A fortnight in Wales feels like a blissful prospect providing some welcome fresh air and rest before the three weeks of radiotherapy treatments that will form the last part of the treatment for my breast cancer.

An odd little coincidence

So it feels rather strange that yesterday an odd little coincidence occurred in my life. I love coincidences. They make good stories. I don’t believe they necessarily have profound meaning. The probability factors in the world around us may just as well account for some or all. Yet I do generally think that coincidences have value. The value is simply that they make us notice them. They give us points of meaning and, because human beings appreciate meaning, we realise the value of noticing.

So yesterday I was in Guy’s Hospital yet again for the CT scan which was needed for setting up my radiotherapy arrangements. At the end of the session, I was given the list of dates and times for the fifteen sessions that are to start in three weeks’ time. I looked at the list and then I smiled at the lovely radiographer who’d been seeing to me.

‘I have an extraordinary little story to tell you,’ I said. ‘Seven years ago, I had to have radiotherapy as the final part of the treatment I was given for nasal lymphoma. The last of those radiotherapy sessions happened on October 23rd which is my birthday. So now I’ve just looked at the list you’ve given me for the appointments I have to have this time round. And what do I see? The last date on the list is – guess what? –  October 23rd which is my birthday.’

‘Wow,’ said the radiographer. ‘That’s amazing.’ I agree. It is. But it’s not as amazing as that the sun comes up every morning even when it doesn’t shine through the clouds. Nor is it as amazing as the skill of surgeons and radiographers or the friendship that good friends show. What’s also very fine is a nice cup of tea.

PS: My photo this week is of the South American story-doll I was once given by Kevin Crossley-Holland after I’d edited a paper he’d written for publication by the Society for Storytelling. The doll seems to me to acknowledge not only the multiplicity of the tales which are part of a storytelling life but also the potential burden the storyteller carries in carrying them around.

Storytelling Starters ~ What’s in a story?

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

What’s in a story? Things that are normally hidden? Things of remarkable beauty? Keys to the future? One of my main occupations at present is writing a book about doing stories  with Early Years children. It’s a subject I’ve thought about a lot about over the years because I’ve done so much of it, not only with children themselves but with their teachers and parents too.  Writing the book has been bringing back to my mind all kinds of little tales. Here are three.

Story One:

This story was reported to me by my storyteller friend, Debbie Guneratne. It’s about an incident that occurred to her some time ago during a period when she was in Australia, working in a hospital for children.

One day, she started telling a little boy in the hospital the story of The Yellow Blob. Debbie had heard this particular tale (it’s one I created) on a storytelling course I’d been running. The little boy was a child who didn’t speak and his attention span was very poor. So Debbie was delighted to see that he kept listening intently as he heard how the Yellow Blob lived in an entirely yellow world until one day when he climbed to the top of a yellow hill and saw a blue lake below.

Suddenly at this point of the story, and much to Debbie’s regret, a nurse turned up to take the little boy for some treatment he was due to receive. Debbie was naturally very sorry he hadn’t been able to stay to hear the end of the story. Come the end of the day, however, Debbie was on her way out of the hospital when she heard a voice calling her name. Turning round, she saw the nurse hand in hand with that same little boy standing at the top of the hospital steps.

‘Debbie, stop,’ the nurse called out. ‘He wants to hear the end of the story.’ (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Orientating

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

Spider web cropHow much we take for granted. On 6th June, an update message from BTO, the British Trust for Ornithology, announced that the first of their tagged cuckoos had left Britain two days previously on the cuckoos’ annual migration to Central Africa. I was surprised: when I was a child, the call of the cuckoo symbolised summer to me. So now, with me only just beginning to realise that this year’s summer might have arrived, it felt odd to learn that our cuckoos were already starting to leave.

Cuckoo migrations:

The news of the first of the cuckoos departing has been tinged with sadness for me. David, the cuckoo I’d been sponsoring, had failed to return to the UK this year. Or if he did, we don’t know about it. Last information from his tag, he was still in Central Africa. When no further transmissions were received, BTO had to assume either that his tag had failed or that he was dead.

David was first tagged in May 2012 in his breeding grounds in Tregaron in West Wales. Had he returned there this year, he would have completed five whole annual migrations between Tregaron and Central Africa. In each complete migration, he would cover around 10,000 miles. So if he’d made it back this year, he would have flown 50,000 miles on migration flights alone.

Thanks to my small annual sponsorship payments to BTO, their regular updates on cuckoo migrations have made me more aware than ever before of the extraordinary life of our planet. Learning in such extraordinary detail about the movements of that one species has made me ponder the orienteering that all of the planet’s diverse inhabitants must be doing all the time.

Harsh contrast: (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Fantasy and reality

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Isabella The Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park is now in full dress, azaleas and rhododendrons a riot of colour. As four of us walked around it, one asked ‘Why is it called the Isabella Plantation?’ Well, said I, I think it’s called that after Queen Isabella though I have no recollection of when she lived. Having given that answer, my mind went on to rehearse how Isabella’s husband, the king, had been so besotted by her that he declared he would give her a gift of anything at all that she wanted. What he didn’t yet know was that in Isabella’s secret mind she had a notion of an enormous garden that would be all hers and would be a riot of colour. So she didn’t ask him for a new palace, a priceless painting or a ruby. She told him she’d like a piece of Richmond Park which would be made into a very large garden where she might walk and admire the colours.

Of course, the king was rather horrified. This wish of his wife’s meant giving up some of his precious hunting grounds. But for his beloved Isabella, he’d do it. And so the garden began to become. Of course it has taken many centuries to come into its full glory. But by now it is certainly there and well worth a visit

Fantasy:

So stories come into being. But that one above is codswallop, rubbish, no more than a passing fantasy of mine. An information board in the park explains more routinely that the name Isabella comes from isabel which is a word that means yellow brown in colour. My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says a bit more. Isabel, it says, is a small variety of the Pouter pigeon, so called from its colour. And isabella, it says, means greyish yellow, light buff, and is not associated, it points out, with the Archduchess Isabella and the siege of Ostend (1601-1604). The word, evidently, is also applied to certain sorts of fruits, including a kind of peach and a species of North American grape. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Findings

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Imagine. You’re walking along through woodland and you see a large sheet of corrugated iron with something lumpy sticking out from underneath. You pull the corrugated iron away and suddenly what you’re seeing is a huge plaster model of a man. It looks like it’s been there a very long time, strands of ivy are growing across it, parts of the legs are falling away. Who is this? And why is it here?

Well, the answer to the first question is Sir Francis Drake in the form of a plaster cast of him. The answer to the second is not known. But this last weekend, coming across the bones of the story, I was as much struck by all the unknowns as by what I’d learned of the tale.

Sir Francis Drake:

The finding took place in 1999 on Haldon Hill in South Devon. I haven’t had time to find out who was involved, whether it was one lone walker or two or more, or what action they then took. I do know that, whatever the string of events that then occurred,  the massive plaster model turned out to be what had been used in the casting of the impressive bronze statue of Drake that now stands on Plymouth Hoe and also of the other identical statue of him, which was in fact cast first – the one that stands in Tavistock where Drake was born.

How I came to know these facts is that, during a short stay in Plymouth over the weekend, we’d already walked past Sir Francis looking grandly out to sea in statue-form on the Hoe when we subsequently went on a visit to Buckland Abbey. Buckland Abbey, by then no longer an abbey, had become Drake’s home for fifteen years  from 1580 and in it are a lot of items that belonged to him, including his drum. By now alerted to the man himself and having walked past him on the Hoe, we were especially fascinated to come upon the restored plaster model of him as well as a whole lot of information on Drake’s career. The model is enormously imposing, all the more because of the pale cream colour which makes it look rather spectral. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Kith and kin

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Friends can be a great comfort in times of sadness. So can an awareness of nature, especially in a Spring as mild and lovely as this. The visit of two friends from New Zealand who came to stay this week made me fetch out a newspaper story I’d kept from last Friday. The story was from New Zealand. Its stirring headline had said, River is awarded same legal rights as a person.

Whanganui_River[1]The River: Te Awa Tupua

For a very long time, according to the newspaper story, the Maori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island has fought for the recognition of their river, Te Awa Tupua. The court case that ensued has finally ended with the granting of the same recognition to their river as to a human ancestor.  Thus, if someone now abuses or harms the river, it would be considered by the law as equivalent to harming the tribe. This judgement is of great importance in relation to such matters as water pollution. The wellbeing of the river has now been officially linked to the wellbeing of the people.

Wow! If only such a ruling could be extended to all of the world’s natural resources. It put me in mind of a Maori story which has long stayed in my mind. I believe it was my friend and colleague, Karen Tovell (Karen is that right?) who introduced me to it. It’s a story about a tree and it felt specially relevant to me on Wednesday morning this week when I woke to the rasping sound of a chain-saw somewhere in the gardens behind us. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ A story in waiting

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

Garden daffsThis week the Book Group I belong to met to discuss The Vanishing Man, the new book by the art critic Laura Cumming. The book tells an extraordinary double story. On the one hand, it’s the story of a man who thought he had acquired a lost painting of the future Charles I by the Spanish painter, Velazquez. On the other, it’s the story of the painter and the paintings he made. I was especially interested by a section of the book that made me think about what happens to stories.

Laura Cumming lists all the possible things that can happen to paintings which in turn can make life difficult when you’re trying to trace one of them. Paintings can get destroyed by fire. They can fade, they can be painted over. They can repose, forgotten, in some dusty dark attic or be squirrelled away by a possessive collector who does not want the world to know about them. So many millions of paintings, so many possible problems, there’s also the fact that, until comparatively recently, individual paintings did not necessarily have fixed titles. One painting of the future Charles I could get mixed up with another.

What happens to stories is equally variable, equally fascinating. Certainly they can get lost. I remember a story collector who appeared in my TV series, By Word of Mouth, back in 1990. This particular collector used to go over to Ireland each year to work with an old man who knew many, many stories. One year, this old Irishman said to him, ‘I’ve still got lots of stories you haven’t heard. So if I’m no longer here when you come next year, come over to the graveyard and I’ll tell them up to you.’

Countless stories have come into being in the past. Countless more are arising right now. And if they’re emerging by word of mouth rather than in print, they won’t have titles by which to fix their place in the world. It’s an essential part of the nature of stories that they change, get mixed up, merge with another. Besides, stories are stories. Reaching out like the Ancient Mariner, they can get a grip on the listener that far outweighs questions as to where they came from or whether they are true. (more…)