Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Dates to Remember

Two significant dates are in view. March 1st is St David’s Day. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s an important day for people in Wales and for Welsh people outside it. It’s the time to pay special attention to the gentle Patron Saint who as he was dying urged those around him ‘to do the little things’. Gwnewch y pethau bychain. I think what St David said is important, namely attending to the detail of people’s needs in the world around you. Which I hope includes valuing the part stories can play.

A great story for St David’s Day is the one I call The Door in the Mountain. To find it, please look back in my Blog Archives to my posting for February 2012. When you read the story, you’ll see it’s not only got daffodils in it – and of course daffodils (or leeks) are the St David’s Day emblem. In the story, a single daffodil becomes an apt symbol of wonder, living on in the mind long after the real daffodils the little girl finds have gone brown and withered and died.

World Book Day 2013

A week later on March 7th comes World Book Day 2013. This day gives a chance to celebrate what books do for all of us who have access to them. Fact or fiction, they can take us into worlds we might never otherwise reach, transcending time and place and our own physical selves to enable us to see things from other points of view. I hope it also prompts us to remember organisations like Book Aid – for there are still too many people in this world who do not have access to any books (or Kindles or the Internet).

One of my best stories for telling makes a bridge between St David’s Day and World Book Day. The kernel of it was told to me at a Local Legends workshop I led in St David’s. The rest developed around that kernel as I told it and retold it. I recently wrote it – not the story itself so much as my experience of telling it. I hope you enjoy what I wrote.

The Reading Statue

‘Miss, I’ve got a story,’ said the boy with an impish look in his eye. ‘Can I tell it?’

‘Yes, do. Go right ahead,’ I said.

The boy was about eleven years of age. We were in a Local Legends workshop in my own old secondary school, Ysgol Dewi Sant in St. David’s. As he launched out on his story, I realised I’d never heard any of it before despite the years of my St David’s life.

What the boy said in essence is that if you go down to St David’s Cathedral, walk round to the West Door and look up, you’ll see in the wall above the door a statue of St David. (Actually, so far as I can discover, it’s no more than a bare-headed anonymous monk).

‘A-ha,’ I said in an encouraging tone when the boy had got this far. The group he was in was quite a large group of pupils and, with storytelling and children, you have to encourage them on. You don’t want them to get shy and stop.

‘Well, you know he’s reading a book in the statue?’

‘A…ha?’ said I with upward inflection.

‘Well, Miss, if you go down there at midnight, Miss, they say you can see him turn a page of the book.’

‘Really?’ I responded with interest.

‘Yes, Miss, but it has to be when there’s a full moon, Miss.’

‘Oh really?’ said I, ‘and what do you see?’

‘Well, you see him lifting his right hand and then he turns a page of the book.’

‘Amazing. He turns a page of the book. And what happens when he’s turned all the pages and the book gets finished?’

That’s how the dialogue started and although I’m remembering it many years later, I’m confident that’s how it went, it made such a deep impression.

I also know that it was at this sort of point that a kind of ferment broke out in the workshop, the kind of imaginative chaos where you know from the looks on the faces around you that the children are also beginning to see some interesting scenarios in the possible situations now being conceived. This is how mind can bring things to life. So I felt certain from the mood that I felt around me that one of those intensely productive moments had now been reached from which all kinds of other stuff would surely arise.

Already in this particular workshop, one story which developed before the end of the session – I got the children working in groups – concerned a church warden who, according to this small group of girls, lived in the cottage beside the stream that runs through the valley at the back of the Cathedral. At midnight one night he was looking out of his window towards the great West door. In the moonlight, he spotted St David lifting his hand and turning a page of his book. This happened fifty years back, the children informed me.

Another group of the children came up with a story about a friend of theirs – they named her Caroline – who’d been taking part in a concert in which the school choir had been performing. At the end of the concert, which had gone on a long time, Caroline had realised that she’d left her jumper behind in the room at the back of the Cathedral where they’d been changing their clothes. So, telling her friends to wait for her, she rushed back up through the nave to fetch her jumper. But by the time she’d got it and returned to the door, she realised that her school friends had gone. She searched around, it was midnight, and as she passed the West Door, she heard a strange noise above her. When she looked up, she too saw St David turning a page of his book.

After this promising start – and it was accompanied by a whole lot of discussion, including about matters of truth – I began to realise what a gift I’d been given by the rosy-cheeked boy who had told us his tale.

Before long, I’d begun spreading his story, together with the variants that had emerged in that original workshop, in the course of my work. Inevitably, I began hearing a lot more ideas in response, some in the form of additional tales, some in the form of further discussion. One idea I heard several times concerned the possibility that if you cut into the stone of that statue of St David, you might find the real St David living inside the stone shell. Often, too, there’d be animated discussion about precisely which book he is reading. On one such occasion in Bedford, far away from St David’s, I was intrigued to hear a completely new branch of story one group of the Bedford children informed me that one of their classmates on a holiday to St David’s had actually arranged for him to get a new book. Out walking with her parents at midnight because she’d been unable to sleep, the girl concerned had heard a great sigh from the statue as she passed below in the moonlit darkness and, upon enquiring what might be wrong, had heard him say, ‘I’m bored with this book.’

So the story I heard from an eleven-year-old boy became one I’ve retold dozens and dozens of times. It’s a story that delights me. I’ve told it in schools, I’ve told it in performance (it makes adults gurgle with pleasure about the ways in which children think) and I contributed a written version of it to a book for children about March 1st, the day when St David is celebrated. All this arose from one magic moment when a child with an impish look in his eye took the risk of sticking up his hand in a workshop and said, ‘Miss! I’ve got a story. Can I tell it?’

Like a well-made blanket?

And here’s a question to end with. 

Why is a good story like a well-made old blanket?

Answer: because it can help keep you warm on a very cold night.

This week, I discovered the truth of that thought. On an extremely cold and windy Pembrokeshire night, we pulled out an old blanket I’d forgotten we had. Imagine my amazement next morning when, as I was folding the blanket, I saw pinned to a corner a little note in my late Aunty Mali’s hand. It said: Washed. June 1924.

Now there’s a story!

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