Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ A story in waiting

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.

All this stuff about stories is especially in my mind right now because next week is March 1st, the day celebrated as the day when Dewi Sant, Patron Saint of Wales, died. The story is that, as he came to his end in the secluded valley where he’d established his simple monastic regime, the valley became suffused with a sweet-smelling perfume and the singing of angels.  ‘Do the little things that I have shown you,’ were reputedly among his last words. 

I still thrill to those words and to the thought of the man who lived so simple a life  yet is  also known to have been highly intellectual with plenty to say on matters of philosophical and religious importance such as the Pelasgian heresy. Probably it’s just as well that we forget the difficult bits and remember the stories that move us, like the one where, as a devout young man, he wished to speak at a massed gathering of monks and, wanting to be heard, put down a white handkerchief on the grass beside it and then stood upon it. For what happened then was that the piece of ground where he laid his handkerchief rose to become a little hill from which he could be seen and heard by everyone, his presence further marked by the white dove that flew down and took its place on his shoulder.

St NonOver the next few days – and I’m back in the land of my birth at the moment – I shall hope to revisit what used to be my regular walk during my teenage and young adult days in St David’s. Around the coast path from Caerfai, you soon come to St Non’s, the place on the cliffs where Non reputedly gave birth to the future St David. Or as my father used to say, for he  had both the twinkling eye of a storyteller and the knowledge of a historian who was aware of the various conflicting stories: ‘It’s one of the places where St David was born.’

Last time we were at St Non’s, looking at the statue that stands near the ancient well whose waters reputedly cure eye problems, we got talking with a groundsman who came along. Obviously the statue is much-venerated. Over the years, I’ve seen how people have left little tokens and personal messages beside it and sometimes even a scarf or a shawl that has been draped round the statue’s shoulders, as if to keep her warm from any cold winds that might  blow over the stone niche in which she stands, her arms outspread. The groundsman told us that, soon, there’d be a new statue. The current one, he explained, had had an accident in which her hand had got broken. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we’re just getting round to ordering a new one from the catalogue.’ 

A catalogue for statues of saints? Now doesn’t that imply a warehouse where the statues are stored after they’re made but before they’re bought? Presumably, prior to being bought and installed, they are as yet undefined, particular name, history and legend as yet unallocated to them. Well, I can’t help thinking of what’s in such a warehouse as a story in waiting.

PS: The leek was once regarded as the emblem of St David. It still is except that, these days, the daffodil is seen as his emblem too. When I was in school in St David’s, the girls generally wore daffodils and the boys generally wore leeks which, before the end of the day, they’d have chewed almost to nothing.

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