Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Remembering

Storytellers know that our personal stories are part of our bedrock as individuals. Not everyone we encounter may recognise it, but we all have them. One of the times they’re most in evidence is at funerals.  Here is where they are shared – stories of our personal connection with the one who has died, stories about that person one has heard and remembered, stories which that person used to tell and, of course, stories of particular incidents involving that person of which one was part.

A funeral to remember:

Yesterday was a time for listening and for telling. The funeral of our much-loved and hugely admired Kenneth Bowen was held in St David’s Cathedral where one of his sons had been organist for some years. The burial was in Fishguard at the burial ground of Hermon Baptist Chapel where, as he’d always said he wanted, he could be buried next to his mother who had died when he was aged just seven.

The funeral tea – and it was a good Welsh tea – was held at the Fishguard Bay Hotel overlooking the panorama of Fishguard Bay which he would have known and admired so many times during visits to relatives in Fishguard over the course of his life.

My goodness, my head and my heart were full. During the service, I thought of my father sitting in the audience when I was part of the concert being given there by the London Welsh Chorale with Kenneth conducting. When the burial was taking place, I thought of the huge importance of Hermon Chapel in the life of my redoubtable Aunty Mali, the person who was responsible for my coming to know Kenneth. Arriving at the Fishguard Bay Hotel for the funeral tea, I recalled that the last time I’d come to that particular place was to give my performance of ‘Shemi’s Tall Tales’ – an appropriate place for it, I thought, as I looked down at Goodwick Beach where the real Shemi used to go fishing.

An address to remember:

What framed all such memories yesterday, giving them context and deepening their meaning, was the wonderful address about Kenneth that was given during the service by the renowned bass-baritone, Neal Davies. Of all funeral addresses I’ve heard, I think it was unmatched in its clarity and breadth, its skill in including the personal experience of the one who was giving the talk into the whole large picture of the life that was being talked about.

At the age of 17, Neal had sung in an Eisteddfod competition where Kenneth had been the adjudicator. Kenneth had awarded him first prize and, afterwards, talking to him, had learned that he’d be coming to London to study music. In his inimitable way, Kenneth had then written down his address and phone number for him and said that he should get in touch if, when he came to London, he needed any help or advice. Such was the kindness of Kenneth and his commitment to his art. For as a teacher, he obviously recognised the potential of a voice and had the ability to nurture it and bring it on.

A career to remember:

What became clear in Neal Davies’ address was the fact that Kenneth’s long career as a musician had three huge parts, each of which earned him enormous admiration: his own huge success as a thrilling tenor, his greatly valued gift as a singing teacher, and in the latter part of his life, his achievement as the much-loved conductor of the London Welsh Chorale. Central to each of those three parts was his love of music and his commitment to voice.

‘Blade and bell’ is a phrase I’ve now heard many times from my husband Paul. It’s the phrase used by one of his singing teachers to describe what qualities of voice he wants to hear. Yesterday, thinking about the qualities of voice the phrase  describes, I realised how much Kenneth’s voice had both. And what great qualities they were, the capacity to give the voice the edge that can cut across everything else, projecting it to where it needs to reach, and the beauty that melts the heart when you hear it, endearing you to what you are hearing. Those qualities of blade and bell were present in Kenneth’s  speaking voice too. Each time when, visiting, we opened the door of the apartment in the care home where he spent the last four years of his life, we’d hear the carrying edge as he saw our faces and knew us: ‘Ah, Paul and Mary! Come in, come in!’ Each time he came out with a snatch of song in our conversation, we’d hear the endearing bell of his voice and want more.

The gain and the loss:

Stories and voice and commitment: those are the things I’ll carry from yesterday into my thinking about being a storyteller. But the loss of them in the person of Kenneth is what I am feeling again right now.

PS: My two photos were both taken by Paul yesterday. The top one looks out at Fishguard Bay from the terrace outside the Fishguard Bay Hotel. The second looks out across Whitesands Bay where we went yesterday evening to muse on the day. The tide was out, just on the turn; the beach was huge and almost empty; and the sky was brilliant with cloud and sun.

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