Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Macaronic

Last Saturday evening, I told the myth of Taliesin at an event at the London Welsh Centre, part of this year’s Bloomsbury Festival. I chose the Taliesin story in honour of Menna Elfyn, the renowned Welsh poet who’d had the slot before me.


Taliesin was one of the founders of the huge poetic tradition which remains one of the central features of Welsh culture. By the 13th century (he lived in the 6th) a fascinating legend had arisen about his birth and the way he gained the mystical powers he displayed as a poet. In the legend, they are specifically magic powers and I chose the story as the central part of my programme because, to me, they are the special attributes of all good poetry. My sea-tray (pictured right) helped summon up a sense of the ocean on which the baby Taliesin is said to have floated for one hundred years.


In further recognition of Menna, I adopted  two particular forms for my Taliesin telling, the first being the macaronic style which appears in some Welsh folk song. Where the macaronic style is used, lines in Welsh and English are interleaved. I made use of it here to reflect the way in which, in her readings, Menna moves smoothly between the Welsh words that she’s written and sections in English from the many translations that have been made of her work.


The other form I employed was Question-and-Answer. This is a common form in folk-song and ballad and I hoped it would give a distinctively Taliesin energy to my performance of his legend. So the story unfolded: questions in Welsh and the answers in English. The questions conveyed the listener’s apprehensions and the urgent desire to know what happened. The answers described the events.

My experiment

I was pleased with my Taliesin telling and with my slot as a whole. It proved one of those magical, memorable evenings and, for me, particularly special because, in the course of it, I took the opportunity – which I’m about to take again now – to try out one of the short personal tales that I’ve been writing this year. My rule in writing these particular tales became that all of the ones I chose to write would be ones I have previously told either socially or in performance or workshops. In the event, almost all that got written were ones I’ve told on numerous occasions. I became riveted by the process of seeing what was happening to them as I engaged in writing them down.

But more of that another time for the transition from ‘told’ to ‘written’ was absolutely fascinating to me, all kinds of interesting questions arising about how much you include, how much you leave out, and all of them questions which are absolutely germane to the storyteller’s art.

Here meantime is the story I decided to read as part of my performance last Saturday night. As you might imagine, it was quite an experiment on my part. Storytellers don’t read; they tell! So I didn’t know what I would make of myself or what the audience would make of me. Nevertheless, I did it. And from the forty stories I’ve written and that have finished up as a collection I would now dearly like to publish, I chose this particular one because it reflected my theme of the evening. It’s called The Magic. The audience last Saturday night approved. I’d love to know what you think.

The Magic

They are a happy couple. He has a benign and wizened face and, behind his thick specs, his eyes are invariably smiling. She’s younger, I think, and laughs less than him but it’s clear that she really loves talking. When she’s sitting at the till in their shop, for instance, she never ceases a conversation in which she’s already engaged while she rings up the till for someone else. I am beguiled by their shop and the way they run it. The variety of stuff is one reason. There’s a wonderful sense of disorder, birthday cards next to bags of flour, newspapers set out on the top of the freezer, a box of mangoes or avocadoes bang up against the tiny space on the counter where customers have to find enough room to place the things they wish to purchase.

It was only a few years ago that I realised that they are in fact married. In times past I used to see him the other side of the street, running another grocery shop further down Acre Lane towards the centre of Brixton. That other shop was even more stuffed, even more higgledy-piggledy. When I went in, which wasn’t often, it used to give me the thought, ‘This must be how Jamaicans like it.’ I recognised the style. It felt like shops back home in Wales in my childhood like the one my Uncle Dyfed ran, informally in a room in his farmhouse. Satisfyingly disorderly like childhood itself, it was a neighbourhood centre, crammed like a place in which you can play and with a sense of welcome like times gone by when you look back and see them bathed in sunlight.

One of the times when I went into his shop on the other side of the road, I was on my way home from a day’s storytelling and feeling very weighed down, my work bags heavy with all kinds of gear for getting and holding children’s attention, cloths and beads and soft toys and shells. Also I was carrying a stick that I’d taken with me that morning for the purpose of introducing a particular story I thought I might tell and also for possible use in a game I employ for developing children’s imagination. The stick – I think it’s still somewhere around in the house – was mostly smooth but gnarled in places in that stick-typical way where strange faces and animal shapes appear when you look, as if they really live in the wood.

Already the stick had made the day special by offering me new titbits of story as children and adults gave their reactions, holding it and passing it round. At Waltham Forest at the railway station, for instance, on my way to the school that had booked me, the ticket collector had stopped me, drawing me back as I went to go through the gates. ‘That’s a snake, that is,’ he declared, all excited, pointing at the stick and then taking it from me and slowly turning it round, examining it minutely with soft, gentle fingers. ‘See the snake-head?’ he asked handing it back. ‘Yes,’ I smiled, ‘I agree. It looks like a snake to me too.’

Now I was feeling hot and tired and extremely keen to get home. But I knew that first I had to buy milk. So I was struggling towards the cool cabinet, squeezing my way round the over-packed shop and past the one or two customers there, when the shop-guy suddenly stopped me. Reaching out to my stick and peering at it closely through his specs, he began to tap it with his finger. Then he looked up and smiled. ‘That’s magic,’ he said. ‘That stick you’ve got there is magic. See what it’s got in it?’ I nodded in response and he nodded back. ‘Yes,’ he said, nodding again, ‘that’s magic.’

It wasn’t easy to get to the till. My bags and my stick were in one of my hands and in the other was the bottle of milk and a few other items I’d remembered I needed. On my way, I must have lost my grip on the stick. Suddenly it tilted and fell with a very loud clang bounced against the metal stamp-machine that was one of the curious things in the shop. The stick made such a loud clang as it struck the metal, that it sounded like the start of a community rite and seized the attention of everyone there. The shop-guy lifted his head from the till and laughed. ‘See,’ he said. ‘It’s working.’

He meant the magic, of course, and he gave me the realisation that not many words ever need to be said when something that has been already agreed reveals itself to be obviously and palpably true.


Next Week:   More on Storytelling in Education? We’ll see.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply