Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Old ghosts

My first copies of Storytelling and Story-Reading in Early Years  arrived this last Monday. It was very exciting opening the box. The book has a pleasing look about it and I felt delighted to have copies actually in my hand. Since it arrived, however, what’s been very odd is how much thinking it has prompted in me now that I’ve seen it in print.  On Thursday evening, I took an opportunity to speak about this.

It was a meeting of our WIPs group. (WIPs stands for Works in Progress: it has got nothing at all to do with whips except that meetings do provide the opportunity to whip ourselves into action.) There are eleven of us. We include singers, pianists, poets, artists, writers, a composer and a sculptor. Some do more than one of these things. This week one of four available slots was for me, a chance not just to wave my new book about but to reflect on what the writing of it had meant to me. From this vantage point I could see it had raised some old ghosts.

One of the ghosts took me back to the early days of what is now recognized as the Storytelling Revival.  During those 1980s, it felt like an ancient art was being rediscovered. Storytellers then coming forward had grown up in fascinatingly different traditions of story, many from other countries. A troupe that especially fascinated me,  Common Lore, combined stories with music and drumming from many different lands. The compelling rhythms of their music and the fascination of such a wide variety of backgrounds among their performers had me gripped.

At that time and subsequently, that word ‘multicultural’ was being much used. Numerous times, I remember, I was rung up by schools who asked, ‘Do you do multicultural?’ Now here was a challenge. I tell stories from all over. But I can’t and won’t be cast as ‘multicultural’ (by which, I think, enquirers often meant ‘black’). I do have a culture behind me. I’m Welsh (Welsh-speaking father, English mother). But I was desperately keen not to be typecast. I love literature and stories from all over the place. I definitely didn’t want to become known as ‘a Welsh storyteller’.

Books were another issue to be confronted. In the earlier days of the Storytelling Revival, books were anathema among some storytellers. Top of the tree were storytellers who’d gained their stories by oral inheritance. Admitting to getting stories from books was decidedly infra-dig.

Then again, another kind of typecasting began to prevail. Or was this only in my mind? I don’t think so. I certainly used to pick up an impression that, in the storytelling world, storytellers who regularly worked with children, especially small ones, could not be as highly regarded as those who worked primarily or entirely with adults.

So now perhaps you can see my drift. Developing as a storyteller involves coming to terms with prejudices in other people and in oneself. I love books. I get stories from books (and from other people too.) I have always worked with children (including very young ones) but also a lot with adults. Indeed, what got me into storytelling in the first place was a very part-time job on the now-defunct Lambeth Libraries Storytelling Scheme. This involved some oral storytelling but mainly reading picture-books to children and I’d taken that job on because I used to review children’s books for a couple of newspapers and journals and I wanted to find out more about what sorts of books children best respond to.

So to be honest, in many ways I was a misfit as a storyteller. Perhaps I still am. For, of course, I’m also female. A few years back I gave what was called a Provocation at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling in Cardiff. I called my talk Animus, Anima, Animation. In it I tried to confront the genderisation (is that a word?) I perceived happening in storytelling as elsewhere – the sense in which some sorts of storytelling (community storytelling, working with children) were being seen as a kind of mothering and associated with women whereas the real stuff, the high art, was being associated with men.

Things have changed. They needed to change. There are now as many performance storytellers who are women as there are men and there are also men who have established their reputation through doing important storytelling work in community situations.  Yet even as I recognise these drifts of change, I think there’s still an important way in which we storytellers must challenge ourselves. For perhaps the toughest prejudice of all in regard to storytelling is about what sort of person is allowed to call himself or herself a storyteller and in what realm of society. Professional storytellers are one thing – and, as one of them, I say thank goodness for us and our work. But storytelling exists and must be encouraged elsewhere too. It’s part of the reason I feel happy to have written Storytelling and Story-Reading in Early Years. I want to see storytellers in all walks of life across the land, including in family homes and nursery schools.

PS: Top photo is of the booklet that accompanied By Word of Mouth, the Channel 4 TV series I devised that was aired in January 1990. Bottom photo is of a real signpost in some woods in North Pembrokeshire. Looking through my photos today, it felt like a joke I couldn’t resist. For in a world where I suppose we all have our hang-ups, it’s somehow nice to know that trees can get hung up too.

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