Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Kith and kin

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ Towards Eternity

April 1st, 2017

Here is a poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s one of her poems I’ve been reading a lot of late, and it’s especially in my mind right now. On Wednesday this week, my nephew, Tom Pelham, died of a rare form of cancer. He was just 36 years old, a young Baptist Minister, and he leaves behind his wife and three lovely young children, grieving parents and family and countless friends. I can think of no consolation except that he is no longer in pain. Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ An Inspirer

March 25th, 2017

Harold RosenMonday evening saw a celebration of  Harold Rosen, the inspiring educationist who passed away in 2008. Harold Rosen was unique. His wit was dry, his language succinct. He spoke the truth as he saw it. He did not appease. At an important debate in the Society for Storytelling in its earlier days , the question at issue was whether the Society should exclusively support the traditional tale or whether it should also represent other forms of story such as the personal tale or the written story. Speeches were impassioned – I made one myself. Then Harold stood up. Both as an eminent educationist and as a respected Patron of the SfS, what he was about to say felt extremely important. What he did say was brief. At its centre was the pungent point that the desire to establish boundaries usually arises ‘from those that wish to patrol them’.

End of story. The truth in Harold’s remark was clear as daylight. Thinking about it anew this week, the question it addresses feels extremely apt for our world right now. As Donald Trump plans physical boundaries against Mexican immigration and paper walls against Muslims, the question is going to remain critically important. In this day and age, does America really want to be patrolled? Does it want to be patrolled by Trump and his chaotic team? But Harold Rosen’s thinking forms an equally pertinent and powerful challenge to much current educational and social strategy here in the UK. The value now given to league tables and targets, the stifling emphasis on exam success, the narrowing effect of these viewpoints on what and how children are taught: all these would have been anathema to Harold Rosen. Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ A helping hand

March 18th, 2017

The day was bright and the school, inside, looked fresh and clean with several new classrooms and corridors added from last year. Four little scenes remain in my mind from the day.

A storytelling day: four memories

P1070779Most striking was the boy that came out front to describe his visualisation from the story I’d just told his class. It was the story (recounted here last week) where Kaa the Thunderbird expresses his jealous anger for Earth Mother Nokomis whom he believes is more loved than him. What I won’t forget is this boy’s conviction as he painted his word pictures of Kaa and Nokomis at the beginning of the story. I could see he really had seen them, especially when he described Kaa with his strong claws gripping the edge of the mountains and his ‘electric wings’ outspread (and then as he quietly added, turning to me, ‘you know, the electricity that comes from them’).

Funniest was the response of the oldest class when I wondered if any of them remembered my visit last year. All over the room there was nodding assent as one girl spoke out, ‘Is it you who told us that story of the glass eye?’ Ah yes, I thought, I’m not surprised they’ve remembered that one. (It’s the gruesome story included in my posting for February 13, 2016). 

Most thought-provoking was the boy who, as his class was coming into the hall, was described to me by a member of staff as someone who is always causing trouble and who simply cannot concentrate. This boy made at least four sensible contributions to questions I asked and he listened throughout.

Most dramatic was the moment when, on the first of the two sessions in which I told The Great Rain,  all the pots of daffodils ranged on the window ledges behind me landed with a whoosh and a clatter on the wooden floor, pots and flowers and water and all. ‘Whoo!’ was the response from all in the room and not just because of what had happened but because of its timing. To introduce the story, I’d led the children in making rain with clicking fingers and tapping hands, and by now I was describing the storm that was brewing as Kaa’s rage mounted to the point of exploding. The strong gust of wind that blew those daffodils over must have been fully aware of where the story had got to!

Of course, after such a day in a school, the storyteller thinks back. Did I choose the right stories? Can I judge their effect on the children? Will anything have been remembered by the children or their teachers?  And what kind of difference would I like to have made?

As it happens, thinking those thoughts from Monday, I feel conscious of what is perhaps a new aspiration that comes from the totally different kind of day I experienced this Wednesday when I had my second cataract operation.

A hospital day: a lasting effect

Stones - stepping stonesThe eye surgeon on Wednesday was hugely impressive in a very quiet and straightforward way. He introduced himself clearly and with no sense of self-importance. When I was lying down ready, he told me quite clearly what he wanted me to do but also said that, if there was anything different that was needed as he proceeded, he would tell me and also that if I needed anything, such as to move, I could say so to him.

During the operation, he told me from time to time, quietly, simply and very briefly, what he was going to be doing next. At some point, he said we were now about half way through. And on several occasions, he said, ‘You are a wonderful patient’. I’m sure he says the same thing to all his patients but I found it wonderfully reassuring.

But the thing that affected me most is that, as I sat up when the operation was over, he put out his hand to help me up onto my feet and then, instead of handing me over to a nurse, himself led me out of the operating room and all the way to the waiting room. It was only a short walk. But the experience of him doing that affected me greatly both at the time and since. What a humility of approach, what a kindness.

And what a difference it has made. Following the quiet simplicity of that surgeon’s approach, the particular kindness of that hand is something I will never forget. It helped me back into the day and it has helped me see quite clearly the kind of path I’d like my storytelling to follow.

 PS: My camera takes snapshots and I hope can represent the sort of snapshots you get from a storytelling day. Stepping stones making a path into a wood can, I hope, represent my idea of a storytelling path that I’d like to follow. 

Storytelling Starters ~ Mind as Hold-all

March 11th, 2017

21993900-oriental-umbrella-isolated[1]Links have been a major theme in this blog over recent weeks. And by links I mean the kinds of associations that make themselves felt between stories  and things that crop up in real life. But as I settled to think about this week’s posting, I began feeling very aware that, so much of the time, we have to simultaneously hold in our minds all kinds of things which have no apparent connection. Maybe a small link pops up between some of them, maybe no link at all. Yet with or without threads to connect them, we still have to keep these diverse things in mind. Namely, mind as hold-all.

A 100th birthday:

This week, for instance, my mind was full of my friend Ella who, this Wednesday, reached the grand age of 100. On her actual birthday, she hosted a party for about 60 friends and I know we all felt full of admiration as she stayed standing to receive her guests and when it came time to cut her cake, walked across to it without any help of a stick. Ella’s memory and pleasure in life are intact. What Paul and I had made to give her was a Dear Ella book, a small recognition of the many memories of times past and present which she has shared with us. 

Umbrellas:

But meantime I’d  also had to get serious about umbrellas. This was because, this coming Monday I’ll be doing a storytelling day in a London school where their  Arts Week is going to centre on the painting by Renoir known as The Umbrellas. My only regret about the booking is that, since I’ll be there at the very start of the week, I won’t learn what the children will have made of the theme by the end of it. But never mind. What stories to tell has made an interesting challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ The Story Stone

March 4th, 2017

Stone Crop 1Funny that. Whenever anyone has asked me what I’d try and save if my house was burning down, I’ve always replied, ‘My stones.’ In all shapes and sizes and colours, I have so many of them, picked up and brought home from walks over beaches. Yet on reflection, that’s a daft thing to say. If anything was to survive a fire, surely my many pebbles would be the things to do it.

Walking across a favourite Pembrokeshire beach on one of the brighter days this week, I started thinking about stones and pebbles all over again. Heart of stone, stone cold sober … stones are usually associated with coldness. Yet when you handle a pebble, it’s more likely to be warmth that you feel. Besides, the individuality of pebbles – size, shape, colour – warms your imagination. It’s  why I’ve often taken a bag of them on a storytelling visit to a school. For when you look at children looking at pebbles, it’s often as if they’ve never previously seen such things. Quite probably, many haven’t. Given the chance, they tend to look at them with enormous care, noticing their individual features – for sometimes a stone can look like a face, as if it has eyes to look back at you with. Or sometimes it may have cracks or holes that make it look like living things might hide inside it.

Besides, it’s rather nice to imagine that a stone can be alive, can even be hungry and have plenty to say. It’s why I’ve always liked telling children the following story which, as I recall, comes from South America.

The story stone: Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ A story in waiting

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ Word walk

February 18th, 2017

Words are key in storytelling. They create pictures, they make you think, they open doors. So I’ve been thinking about their importance. What follows is something of a miscellany – words I noticed during the week and how and where I noticed them.

In my own thinking:Key 5 compress

I was making some notes about using props with young children and trying to work out why it’s so useful to do this. For some reason, my mind immediately focused on keys as an example. Why keys? Well, they’re everyday things, they come in different shapes and sizes, I’ve got some very nice ones in my Story Bag and keys appear in several stories I tell.

So what happens when I’m storytelling? Well, get out a key, show it to an audience of young children and ask what it could be for and almost immediately answers start coming.  It could be the key to a treasure box … a secret room … a giant’s castle …the door to your house.

Immediately such ideas come out of individual children’s mouths, the shared world of the audience’s imagination is starting to expand.

On a board outside a local café: Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters ~ How amazing is that!

February 11th, 2017

IMG_20170203_142128_resized_20170210_114149557People who’ve been reading A Long Run in Short Shorts have been sending me lovely comments. Many have noticed how I love coincidences. And they’re right. I do. I’ve been thinking a lot about why. One reason, I’m sure, is that they simply bring pleasure. ‘How amazing is that,’ we say and, suddenly, it feels like the universe isn’t completely chaotic or random (which it certainly isn’t as any physicist will point out). More than that, as one friend put it only this morning on the phone, ‘it makes you feel like there’s a little connecting network in life that pulls us together.’

So it’s what they mean to you that matters. For me, the pleasure and surprise they bring leads, I hope, to a deeper awareness of what I value in life. In this connection, what follows are two tales where coincidence is important. One is a West African folktale – I’ve mentioned it before so I’ll make my retelling  brief. The other is an incident that happened to me in Cardiff last week.

The Three Brothers – a West African folktale

One by one, three brothers receive from their father the money he has kept for them. Each in turn goes off to see the world. Each in turn buys something of great interest to him. Then, after a time, they all decide to head back home. Amazing! It seems that entirely by chance, the three of them meet at a crossroads.

Now what happens? Each shows the others that object of great interest which he has bought in the course of his travels. The objects are a telescope, a prayer mat and a ritual whisk of the kind used back home in religious ceremonies. Read the rest of this entry »

Storytelling Starters – Where Words Can Take You

February 4th, 2017

Walking across Green Park a few days ago, a friend and I were bemoaning how dusk comes too early at this time of the year. Then we cheered up by reminding ourselves that, by now, the days are already drawing out.

CockerelA journey of words:

Cam ceiliog is the phrase that was always used by the mother of my Welsh friend, Beryl. No sooner had the shortest day gone by than she’d be reminding us how, from now on, the days would be drawing out. Cam ceiliog is Welsh for the cockerel’s step, the general inference being that, while the days get longer only bit by bit, we can all be certain that the steps do happen.

On our walk through Green Park, the Welsh phrase caused some discussion. Could there be any connection with the Scottish word, capercaillie which so brilliantly summons up the idea of stepping? Next day – for the friend in question was the renowned translator, Margaret Jull Costa – I got an email from her elucidating this question. Any connection between ceiliog and capercaillie? ‘No,’ she said, detailing the relevant etymologies, ‘no connection at all.’

However, word-expert and word-forager as my friend is, I received another email from her a day or two later. This one referred to the fact that, on our walk,  I’d happened to say that ceiliog, the Welsh word for cockerel, reminded me of Kellogg’s, the company that makes Cornflakes and so many other breakfast cereals.

Ah now! Margaret had pursued this link and was now writing to tell me it wasn’t just me that had seen a connection between that Welsh word for cockerel and Kellogg’s. Someone else had done exactly the same quite a few years ago: none other than the world-famous harpist, Nansi Richards, who died back in 1979. Evidently, during a harp-playing tour in the United States, Nansi Richards had at one point visited the home of Will Kellogg who, at the time, had been looking for a marketing emblem for his company.

And what had he finally chosen? Why, a cockerel. And why did he choose it? Well, according to the story, because Nansi Richards had told him how his surname, Kellogg, reminded her of the Welsh word, ceiliog. So that’s how the cockerel became the Kelloggs emblem and although Wikipedia says the story may be apocryphal, I like it – and even more so  because that same Wikipedia entry led me to another intriguing association. Read the rest of this entry »