Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Passing it on

Duke Street with Shemi superimposedA set of tall tales that were told by the old Welsh storyteller Shemi Wâd provided the theme of the Research Seminar I gave this week at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling in Cardiff. I loved preparing and giving the lecture.  An added pleasure was when a veritable posse of Cardiff storytellers turned up to join the academics in the audience.

One question that came up after my talk was whether the motifs of Shemi’s stories were shared with other storytellers of his time (he died in 1897) or whether they were special to him. A mixture of both, I’d say. As a sea port, Goodwick where he lived and its twin town Fishguard had plenty of sea-captains among their residents. And, as we all know, stories travel.

Certainly Shemi didn’t get his ideas from books. He was illiterate. The only book in his tiny cottage was a leather-bound copy of the Book of Revelation and, from one of our main sources on Shemi, the eminent Welsh writer Dewi Emrys,  we know that Shemi used it only to strop his razor every other day. When Dewi Emrys was a boy –  for, as a boy, he used to hang out with Shemi – he opened the cover of that leather-bound book and an enormous great cloud of the dust of ages flew out.

How a tradition grows:

Shemi created his own oral tradition. Yet it’s easy to see how other people might have contributed to that tradition both during his lifetime and since. If people of the area got themselves into Shemi’s unique style of thinking and language,  it would be relatively easy, with a large dose of humour, to copy the kinds of ideas Shemi produced with such ease. Here’s an example:

Sheep and cabbage

In one of his best-known stories, Shemi decides to keep sheep in the little garden behind his tiny house. He starts off by purchasing a nice fat ewe. But when the ewe gets mysteriously lost, he decides to grow cabbages instead. One of these cabbages grows so enormous that, when the time to harvest it arrives, Shemi has to get a ladder to it and use a saw to cut it open. And when it finally falls apart, what does Shemi see there inside it? Why, of course, it’s the ewe that went missing. And by then, as Shemi used to say in conclusion, she’d had a lovely little lamb.

…or Pigs and pumpkin

Now when I was researching Shemi for my book, Shemi’s Tall Tales, a lovely man called Mr Jim Nicholas came to one of my performances. Later, I had a long conversation with him in which he recalled  that when he was a boy in school, Shemi and his stories had been the talk of the playground. He told me one of the stories he remembered. It was an intriguingly different version of the Cabbages story above. The same in its structure, it differed in content – and I think it could provide the basis for a great story for Hallowe’en next year.

So in Mr Jim Nicholas’s story, a pregnant sow that belonged to a local farmer went missing. Some time later, Shemi went out to his garden to fetch the carrots he’d been growing to send to the Fishguard show. (Shemi was known as a marvellous gardener.) Outside in the garden, Shemi noticed a hole in the side of an enormous pumpkin he’d also been growing and when he looked inside the hole, guess what he saw? That sow – and, with her, no less than 10 piglets.

escape_from_fijiAttentive children

Further proof of how the Shemi oeuvre of stories could grow came from the children in the Fishguard and Goodwick area. I worked with hundreds of them around the time when Shemi’s Tall Tales was published. I saw the children in their schools. It was a major project. One thing I learned – and it gave me a lot to think about – was that not one single one of them had ever heard of Shemi before. The positive outcome was the enormous fascination with which they responded to everything about him. They simply loved him. They loved his stories. They loved Jack Jones’s illustrations of those stories in my book. And it wasn’t simply love they showed.

The children listened. That’s something in itself. For as Frank Cottrell Boyce remarked in the course of his Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture this year, ‘Pleasure is a really profound form of attention.’ The children did something else that I believe to be important too. In their responses to Shemi’s stories – and I gave plenty of room for this – they showed what brilliant ideas their own imaginations could produce by emulating Shemi. Afterwards, they told these ideas more fully to each other, they made story-maps of them, they drew them, they wrote them. It was further proof (if more proof is needed!) that the illiterate Shemi had the power to entertain, inspire and educate.

This week’s illustrations

The top picture is a clever superimposition of a photograph of Shemi that was used as a postcard during his lifetime on an old photograph of the street in Goodwick where he lived. The street is no longer there. The bottom picture is one of the brilliant illustrations for my book Shemi’s Tall Tales that were made by the wonderful Welsh illustrator, Jack Jones. For these, Jack based his drawings of Shemi on that old historical photograph of him.




Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Passing it on”

  1. Jean Says:

    I love the Shemi stories Mary – thank you for the reminder and especially the one about the lost ewe and the cabbage – i will be telling that one definitely to the lovely residents of the care homes i visit. Jean xx

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Jean, I think the Shemi stories will work well with the people in the care homes you visit. They seem to delight adults as well as children – something about the kind of humour. Lovely to hear from you again, Mary

Leave a Reply