Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Dark reflections

For me, as surely for others, it was a shocking moment. We were at the Radio 6 Late-Night Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. What was on offer was the characteristic Radio 6 mix of classical and pop music.

One of the performers was Cerys Matthews (who, like me, happens to hail from North Pembs). She came out on stage in trouser suit and fedora and began with some Tudor songs she said she’d dug out of original Tudor music albums. The second song was a lively jig and the words she sang to it were Welsh. I don’t know where those words originated: they sounded like a traditional folk-song, or maybe Cerys had made them up. In any case, they really suited the music and, judging from the applause, the item went down well with the audience. But in the lull before Cerys’ next song, a great rendition of Blueberry Hill, a voice shouted down from the top balcony and what it said was: ‘Your language is dead.’

Why? Why would anyone want to say that? Can anyone feel so challenged by another language, another culture, another people, that he or she would want to see it dead?

The answer, sadly, is all round us in the world at the moment with minorities in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere threatened with cultural and physical extinction. This week, I’ve been ever more aware of the feelings and situations involved because of starting to read Avelum, the fifth and last work of the Georgian writer, Otar Chiladze.

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on A Man Walked Down the Road which I’d come across by chance. In an indirect way, that earlier work by Otar Chiladze was about the plight of the country, Georgia, when it was obliged to live, subsumed, as part of the Soviet Union. Avelum is grittier. Also translated by Donald Rayfield and set in the 1980s before Georgia gained its independence, it is openly concerned with the condition of a nation and culture that is not able to be in charge of its own soul.

Its first chapter ends with this extraordinary sentence: ‘But if what the eye can’t see is missing from the soul, too, then life really isn’t worth a toss …’

Like Georgia, Wales exists. How can its reality, its history, culture and language, not be accepted and valued, including by that man that shouted down so loutishly from the top balcony of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps there is in some people an anger, even a jealousy, that anything should exist that is different. Yet surely all of us must value what we are and where we are without wanting to swamp and take over where we are not.

A story comes to mind. It’s an old Chinese story I know as The Peach Blossom Forest.

The Peach Blossom Forest:

A fisherman was out on his local river. Entranced by the reflections in the water on this particular day, he began rowing upstream to look for the source of the river.

Soon he saw he’d come into a peach-blossom forest. So beautiful were the colours and reflections, that he rowed further and further, higher and higher, until eventually he came to the start of the river. He observed that its source waters fell from a rocky cliff and in the cliff he noticed a chasm, a narrow passage-way that went back through the rocks.

After the fisherman had managed to squeeze his way through the chasm, he found himself looking out at a beautiful land. He saw habitations, fields and people working the land and when he walked towards them, they were as astonished to see him as he was surprised to see them.

The fisherman was well received in that unknown land. He was fed and given a place to sleep and on subsequent days – for he stayed on in that place – he learned that the people he’d found had been there for hundreds of years after fleeing from invasion. They had made what they felt was a good way of life.

The fisherman loved the place that he’d found. But after some while, he was filled with a longing for home. He must now leave, he confessed to his hosts, but then he would like to return. ‘Yes,’ his new friends agreed. Of course he should go to visit his home. ‘But please,’ they asked him, ‘do not tell your people about us.’

Sadly, the fisherman did not keep the promise he made not to tell. At home when he got there, he was questioned – he’d been away for so long – and when eventually he was brought before officials who wanted to know where he’d been, he could no longer avoid describing the journey he’d made.

The strange and probably fortunate thing was that, although great searches were made after that, no-one was ever able to find the chasm through the rocks which the fisherman had discovered or the people that lived beyond it.

We all have something we might call a soul and it’s with that soul that we may come as close as we can to finding or creating whatever our ideals are, our ideas of what is good and dear and true. Surely each one of us, whoever and wherever we are, have the right for those ideas to be respected.

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