Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Mouth No. 3

Last week I promised details of how to vote for the shortlisted candidates (including me!) for the new BASE awards. But there’s no sign yet of the new BASE website with the details. Hopefully it’ll be up by next week, so I’ll come back to the subject then.

Meantime back to Mouth – and Mouth is, of course, central to oral tradition. The phrase By Word of Mouth even won me a bottle of champagne when I came up with it as the possible title for the TV series on storytelling that I proposed and devised for Channel 4 at the end of the 1980s. The series at that point was almost completed. All we lacked was a title. The production company offered the champagne. I remember racking my brains in the bath. As soon as I thought of  By Word of Mouth,  it sounded obviously right.

Don’t children often say it: ‘Tell me a story out of your mouth’? They love the directness of telling and this week’s two stories quite literally add a twist to the telling. They take you back to the fun that you get as a child when some lovely silly adult makes hilarious expressions at you. Combine the facial expressions with a good story and the story gets asked for again and again. This week I’ve got two stories to choose from.

And by the way, I hope you love my photo illustration as much as I do. If you don’t know who its subjects are, go to the bottom of my Blog for details.

Story 1: Twist-Mouth: some background

My first story this week is Twist-Mouth. I used to get told a version of it as a child. Years later, when I came across a written version in The Andersen Book of American Folk Tales and Songs, published in 1990, I felt uneasy with it. I think I realised that even as a child I’d been aware that it could be interpreted as making patronising fun of physical difference and abnormality. Re-reading it now in this opening week of the Paralympics – and especially after the fantastic openness and  positive approach of the opening ceremony – it has struck me again that what is wrong about the story is that it links congenital disability with stupidity and makes fun of both. In the story all except the youngest son John (who is the one that gets sent to college) are people who have congenitally twisted mouths. When John comes home and becomes the only family member who can blow out a candle because his mouth is not twisted, his father compliments him, ‘What a blessed thing it is to have a college education.’ With that, for me, the joke turns doubly sour and the story becomes one I could not tell. 

My unease made me wonder if I could find a way to tell the story differently. In the version I’ve come up with – which, I confess, I’ve not yet had a chance to try out –  the family is not ‘The Twist-Mouth Family’. They’re just an ordinary family playing a joke called Twist-Mouth on the youngest brother by pretending that, while he’s been away, they’ve obtusely forgotten how to blow out a candle and need him to be the one to do it. Whether it works or not, you must decide. I think I’d be telling it to quite young children.

Twist-Mouth: your props

The only prop you need is your face, with the emphasis on your mouth. First, you should get ready by practising blowing upwards with your bottom lip outside your top lip. Then practice blowing sideways with your mouth twisted to the left. Next practice blowing sideways with your mouth twisted to the right. Finally, practice blowing straight ahead – as if you were blowing out your birthday candles.

Twist-Mouth: the story

In the days before electric light, there was once a father and a mother who had three children, the youngest of whom was called John. When John got old enough, he was sent to college and when he came home for his first vacation, his family prepared a feast to welcome him home. What John didn’t know was that they’d also plotted a little joke for the end of the evening.

At the end of the evening, the mother said:

‘Father, will you blow out the candle?’

‘Yes I will,’ was Father’s reply.

‘Well, I wish you would,’ said the mother.

So Father blew. But when Father blew, he blew upwards and however often and hard he blew, he couldn’t blow out the light.

Then Father said, ‘Mother, will you blow out the candle?’

‘Yes, I will,’ she replied.

‘Well, I wish you would,’ said Father.

So Mother blew. But when she blew, she blew downwards and she couldn’t blow out the light.

Mother spoke to her daughter. She said, ‘Mary, will you blow out the light?’

‘I will,’ said Mary.

‘Well, I wish you would,’ said her mother.

So Mary blew. But when she blew, she blew out of the right of her mouth and she couldn’t blow out the light.

Then Mary spoke to her brother and said, ‘Dick, will you blow out the light?’

‘I will,’ said Dick.

‘Well, I wish you would,’ said Mary.

So Dick blew but when he blew, he blew out of the left of his mouth and he couldn’t blow out the light.

Then Dick said, ‘John, will you blow out the light?’

By now, John was looking very puzzled. But he said, ‘Yes, I will.’

‘Well, I wish you would,’ said Dick.

So John blew and he blew straight and of course he blew out the light.

Then the father clapped his son on the back and laughed and said: ‘What a good thing it is, son, that you’re going to college.’

Story 2: The Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog: some background

My second story is one of the many similar stories which make use of the same basic idea of changing your mouth-shape. One of the best known of these stories is The Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog of which my good friend Pat Ryan wrote a version for my 1990 collection,Time for Telling, which was subsequently republished in two paperback volumes, one of them entitled The Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog.

The Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog: the story

In The Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog, you have a boastful little toad-frog who goes round creature after creature rudely demanding to know what they eat. Cow, opossum, Big Brown Bear and racoon all give their respective answers. To each, Toad-Frog shouts back ‘Amazing!’ or ‘Disgusting!’ before hopping and skipping and jumping on his way through the Big-Wide-World. He’s only stopped in his tracks when he comes to Alligator who replies: ‘I just love to eat Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frogs. Have you seen any about?’

At this point, the Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog’s eyes get very very big and his Big-Wide-Mouth gets very very small and he replies in a very very small and squeaky voice that he’s never seen such a thing. And then he scarpers.

As Pat Ryan tells the story, its moral is that it sometimes pays to keep a Big Wide Mouth shut!

The photo:

My photo this week (for which many thanks to my husband who took it) is of my great friend, storyteller Sally Tonge, and her great friend Lucy Wells. A few years ago by amazing chance, I happened to come across the pair of them strutting their stuff – they were doing their Fruit and Veg show at the time – at the Really Wild food show  in Pembrokeshire. They’d come down from Shropshire to do it and I was in Pembrokeshire on holiday. I had no idea they’d be here. They obligingly made these wonderfully silly expressions to go with their brilliant outfits!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo is of my great friend, storyteller Sally Tonge, and her great friend Lucy Wilson. A few years ago by amazing chance, I came across the pair of them strutting their stuff – they were doing their Fruit and Veg show at the time – at the Really Wild food show down in Pembrokeshire. I had no idea they’d be there. It was amazing to realise this was them!

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