Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Return to sender

You give a person a present. The person later  dies and in the process of sorting that follows, the present you gave is offered back to you because it had come from you in the first place. This has happened to me more than once. It happened again this week. What came back on this occasion brought enormous delight for several different reasons, primarily that some of the books involved can now become presents all over again. Among the bounty were the following:

Time for Telling1 copy of Time for Telling (the book of children’s stories from around the world that I compiled and edited back in 1990)

1 copy of The River That Went To The Sky (the book of African stories I compiled and edited in 1995) 

I copy of By Word of Mouth, the 43-page booklet on storytelling which accompanied the four-part TV series of the same name I devised for Channel 4 in 1990

There were other things too in the pile. But these three meant a great deal to me.

Time for Telling:

Time for Telling had proved hugely popular when it was published and is evidently still being much used today both here and in other countries. (I know this from the twice-yearly records I receive from ALCS of photocopies people have made from it.) I myself ran out of copies of it quite a while ago for it’s not been in print for some time either in its original hard-back form or in the two paperback versions it afterwards became, The King With Dirty Feet and The Big-Wide-Mouthed Toad-Frog. Now I’ll be able to give the hardback copy that’s been so thoughtfully returned to me as a gift to one of the precious young children who have since come into my life.

The wonderful thing about Time for Telling is that the stories it contains came from working storytellers and were specially written down for the collection by them. Telling these stories, they had made them their own. Pomme Clayton, Duncan Williamson, Patrick Ryan, Amoafi Kwapong, James Riordan, Eric Maddern, Jane Grell, Helen East … what a roll-call of persons who have proved important and influential in the storytelling world. In my own work as a storyteller, I then saw the effect their stories as they had written them down for me were having. Many teachers  I came across were using Time for Telling with their pupils. Indeed, one school I visited had turned their entire October Book Week into a Storytelling Week in which children explored how to tell stories and then practised performing them to each other, to whole classes and in assemblies. Time for Telling was their starting point.

The River that Went to the Sky:

The River That Went To The SkyThe River That Went to the Sky proved equally important to me personally. Subsequently re-published as Tales from Africa but also, alas, now long out of print, it had grown out of my own love for African stories and friendships with African storytellers. I remember meeting the Malawian storyteller, Kasiya Makaka Phiri, at a festival of storytelling at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and subsequently persuading him to write down for my book one of the stories he’d told there. Kasiya was such a gentle and engaging storytelling with a marvellous sense of the rhythm of words. At the time I met him he was a refugee from Malawi and fearful of what might happen to him and his family. When I asked him if he’d write his story down for my book  – it was to become the title-story  – he was understandly nervous about trying to do it. It’s far from an easy thing to do. I’m so glad that he did it.

Then there was Gcina Mhlope. Brilliant, dramatic and hugely engaging, she was both actress and storyteller in one incredibly lively person. She had the loudest Xhosa click I’ve ever heard. The story she agreed to write for me was one of her traditional South African tales. 

And so the book gradually took shape with stories from, among others, Inno Sorsy and Amoafi Kwapong from West Africa and Hassan Erraji, the engaging storyteller and drummer from Morocco. By the end, all parts of Africa were represented in it.

Until this week, I also had no spare copies. I look forward to making a present of the one that’s now come back to me.

The challenge:

Books are personal things in their creation. So are stories. And the writing down of stories that normally live on the tongue can prove difficult for both the writer and the editor. Many complex questions arise. Do you fix the story too much when you write it, thus inhibiting the individual flexibility of its potential tellers in the future? How can you make the story engaging on the page when you’re inevitably now losing the directness of telling, the impact of voice and the multiple effects of facial and bodily expression? How do you provide the kinds of flourishes that engage the person who encounters the story while not letting the story become too literary?

DSC_8659_DxO_rawBy Word of Mouth:

Also a challenge at the time of creating it was putting together By Word of Mouth, the 43-page booklet that accompanied the Channel 4 TV series of the same name that went out in 1990. I had proposed and devised this series because of my eagerness to show and celebrate what was then going on in Britain by way of what became known as the Storytelling Revival. But how was it possible to cover all that was happening when there was only a very small budget and filming had to be centred on London? With articles from a wide variety of people including Grace Hallworth, Beulah Candappa, Alida Gersie, Liz Weir, Heather Sharpe and Hugh Lupton, the booklet made it possible to widen the sphere of reference. The fact that the booklet became Channel 4’s best-selling booklet up to that time says a lot about the appeal of storytelling.  

And the rest:

That was by no means the sum total of the bounty that came my way this week. Also there were copies of my father’s two books, the historically detailed St David’s and Dewisland on which he started work directly after his retirement as headmaster of Ysgol Dewi Sant, the secondary school in St David’s, and Twice to St David’s, a more informal series of perspectives on the place and part of Wales he so loved.

Quite a rich haul for one week, hey? But it leaves me now struggling with how to phrase a thought developing in my head about the nature of gifts. Stories, I’ve always felt, are a gift. A gift from the past to the future. And now I’m experiencing something about how a gift you’ve given can also become something that gets given back to you, thus regaining the potential of being recognised as something that can become a gift to someone else. Yes, that’s storytelling too.  

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