Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Important moments

Looking forward to the Lions v Springboks match in Cape Town today made me think of an important moment for me. It happened in a storytelling workshop I was running in South Africa. The occasion was organised by a wonderful man called Alan Kenyon, alas  now no longer alive.

In one part of the workshop, I asked people to get into twos and share their experience of first leaving home. I was with a young black man who gave me a moving account of leaving his village to go away for the very first time. He described walking along the path that left the village, then stopping and looking back.

Another thing I remember of that same young man is that he also looked up at me and said: ‘This is the first time I have ever looked a white woman in the eyes.’

I wish I could see that young man again right now and tell him how often I think about him and what he said. He was brave to say it. It meant a huge amount to me that he felt able to say it, and that what he said was so honest and so striking.

Another instance of the impact of a person’s speaking has also been in my mind this week. It happened a good number of years ago at the beginning of my storytelling life when I was on one of my visits to an Early Years Group on my regular schedule in my part-time job as a Lambeth Libraries Storyteller. My usual procedure on such visits was to produce a picture-book or two,  then to hold the picture-book up in front of the children as I spoke the words on each page before turning on to the next page.

I’d normally try to make a special focus of one of the two or three books I’d brought. On this particular occasion, my special focus was on a book  that featured the moon.  Each page showed a different night-time scene. A mother saying goodnight to her child before turning out the light in the bedroom. A cat clambering over a rooftop. Two friends saying goodnight to each other as they left to take their own routes home after what had obviously been a night out together. Whatever the scene, it figured a bright moon shining in the heavens above.

My method on each page was to read the brief sentence describing the scene on the right hand page while pointing my finger at the yellow moon on every left hand page. There was a big sense of hush in the room. Then suddenly a tall, lanky, black boy in my audience was leaning forward in his chair and rising to his feet, his right hand stretched out and pointing towards my book as he said the word Moon again and again. Each time he said it, he said it loudly and in a voice that felt like it was being newly forged as he spoke.

Imagine my feeling. Imagine it even more when afterwards, this boy actually came out to the front during the period when I always allowed the children to fetch one or other of the pile of books I’d brought so they could look at it more closely either on their own or in a small group. When this boy came out, I picked up the Moon book again and we went through it together. I was never more moved. The strange thing was that I never saw that boy again. Maybe he’d been found a place at some other group for children with special needs. I don’t know. But it was an occasion I shall always remember.

Unforgettable in itself and utterly singular, it’s now reminded me vividly of the place in my much-loved copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas when Dylan as a boy went out carol singing with his friends. One of the houses they went to was a large one at the end of a long dark road. They stumbled up the drive in the darkness, each holding a stone and silent, ‘too brave to say a word’. At the door of the house, they stood close together and began singing Good King Wenceslas.

‘And then,’ wrote Dylan Thomas, ‘a small dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.’

And when the boys stopped running, the story continues, they were outside their own house wondering if it was a ghost that had spoken. Or perhaps, they thought, it might have been trolls.

It’s probably a matter of wide experience how some memories play an especially strong part in our individual minds. Perhaps they even help form the particular nature of any individual person’s world. Going back to them becomes  absorbing. What is it about them that is so special?

PS: My top photo is of Alan Kenyon, an extraordinary thinker and teacher whom I first met when he came to the first session of a Storytelling Course I was starting at an Adult Education Centre in Lambeth. He was the only person who turned up. But from there we became great friends. And my second picture is, of course, the moon, a phenomenon that appears in so many different shapes and colours and producing so many memories for us all.

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