Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Noticing the Dog-Poo

A Memory Walk is a fantastic thing to do with children. This week I was reminded of its potential while thinking about Dylan Thomas whose work is to be celebrated this coming Saturday, October 5th, in the evening entertainments at the London Welsh Literature Festival that follow my performance of my storytelling piece, Travels With My Welsh Aunt.

Dylan Thomas lived in Carmarthenshire in the village of Laugharne. Back in 2001, I was asked to join with Welsh artist Catrin Webster to run The Boathouse Project. This was to be a week-long project to explore Dylan Thomas, his work and the place where he lived, with Top Juniors and Year 7s from Carmarthenshire schools. Catrin would work with them through the medium of art. I would work with them through storytelling.

The Memory Walk I used with the groups of children attendeding was one of the best techniques I’ve ever invented to prime children’s language and their storytelling. With each new group at the beginning of each day session, I began by talking a bit about storytelling, telling a couple of stories and introducing some of Dylan Thomas’ characters and story ideas. A lot of people liked the thought of Captain Cat in Under Milk Wood, also the grandfather in A Visit to Grandpa’s who imagines every night that he’s driving a cart and horses when actually he’s sitting in bed. The idea of a boathouse proved inspiring too and so did the Voices of the Drowned that also figure in Under Milk Wood. Whose voices could they be today? And when might we hear them?

Voices of The Drowned

The Drowned, some children suggested, would live in shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean. If these were raised, we’d see that the ghost-ships of the drowned are pitted with holes but patched where the ghosts of the drowned have mended them with bits of wood from other wrecks. They’d have repaired them sufficiently to make them float. And the ghost ships, when we saw them, would glint with the gold that the Drowned had salvaged from treasure chests lying on the ocean bed.

The Memory Walk

As we got ready to go out, I told the children that on the Memory Walk, everyone was invited to look around, notice things and wonder what they’d remember. After setting out from the crumbling old hall where the project was based, we headed down towards the seashore through the car park and over the hump-backed bridge. Reaching the high stone walls of Laugharne Castle, we paused. Standing with our backs to the castle we looked out to the estuary. Standing with our backs to the estuary, we looked up at the castle. Some children were already beginning to have ideas about who or what might be in the room behind the modern bay-window that sticks out from the top of the castle walls. Or about the Mud Monsters that might be lurking in the estuary mud.

Making lists

Back in the hall, children were asked to make lists of what they recalled from the walk. If they wished, they could work in pairs so as to jog each others’ memories. Some were a bit slow to get going. They couldn’t believe that – yes – what they had to write down were simply things they remembered seeing – boats, seagulls, dog-mess, litter. I have some of the lists before me now. I’m glad I kept them. Some are pretty straightforward – seaweed, barred windows, dogs (Dalmatian), birds, boats, bench etc. Some contain an unusual item – ‘girl crying’ – that shows they really were looking. Some give evidence of children taking seriously my invitation to add describing words if they wanted. Some of the lists became quite poetic:

Old crumbling castle
Skinny, spotty Dalmatian dog
Glisting, sparkling sea
Marsh with deep puddle and different coloured reds, brown, green and yellow
High and low tides
Different shades of old stones and a modern window
The sky was a bruisy colour
There was dog muck everywhere we stepped.

What resulted felt like achievements. It had been so hard to get the children to look. With scarcely a single exception, they’d started the walk looking down at their feet or embarrassedly glancing at each other. It had required sudden exclamations from me – ‘Oh! Do look at that weather-vane!’ – to get them raising their heads. But it worked. Looking back when all was over, my colleague Catrin’s comment was: ‘They looked better at things after after they’d been on your Memory Walk.’

The proof of the pudding

For me, what really proved the power of the Memory Walk was that – Whoosh! – after writing their lists, they found no trouble at all in getting started on making up stories. It was truly as if priming their eyes and their senses had fired up their imaginations. Ideas poured out. I’ve just been re-reading the stories they created. (They told them first, then wrote them up. ) And I still feel proud of the stories, proud of the children who made them and convinced of the truth of my very deep feeling that, to enable children to become creative, you have to feed their experience. Give them good literature. Give them stories. Give them real things to look at. Give them chances to share their ideas with each other. It works.

The stories

As each session in The Boathouse project came to an end, I made sure to make time for some of the small groups to tell their stories in front of everyone else. In subsequent sessions, I’d then pass on some of those stories that had been  told to other children attending. The story below – just a sample! – is one everyone who heard it especially enjoyed. It’s a story about Merlin and his pet seagull and in my view it’s to be treasured by anyone who cares about the environment. For no-one, surely, could fail to be as shocked as we’d been by the amount of dog-mess and litter on the grassy banks between the walls of Laugharne castle and the sea.

Merlin’s seagull was perched at the top of the highest tower of Laugharne castle. The seagull was watching and waiting. When a tourist came along and dropped a piece of litter, Merlin sent his seagull down. The seagull picked up the abandoned paper in his claws and flew with it back to Merlin. Merlin took it, tore it in two, placed each half of paper in one of his pockets and turned them around inside. When he drew them out, they were already transformed into something else and after rolling them together in his hands, Merlin threw the result down onto the grass, right in front of the tourist who had dropped that piece of litter. The tourist took another step forward and then – UGH! – he stopped and, horrified, examined the bottom of his shoe. “What’s this?” he cried. “Yuk!”

The tourist made a quick escape from Laugharne. But driving away in the car with his family, he heard a deep voice behind him in his car. He had never heard that voice before. It was the voice of Merlin and it said, “NEVER DROP LITTER EVER AGAIN.”

Next year there will be extensive anniversary celebrations of Dylan Thomas. Hopefully, lots of children will hear about him. I’m very glad about this. When Catrin and I did The Boathouse project, scarcely any of the children who participated knew anything about him. If they’d heard his name, they didn’t really know why, only vaguely that he was a writer. Only one single child during the whole week was able to mention Under Milk Wood as the title of a piece that he’d written.

P.S. The London Welsh Literature Festival

Details of what’s on offer across all three days of the London Welsh Literature Festival can be found online at www.londonwelsh.org. Tickets are also available online  at that address or by calling in person at the London Welsh Centre (157 – 163 Grays Inn Road). Or phone the Centre on 020 7837 3722.

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