Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ The Happy Prince …

The Happy Prince is the new film by Rupert Everett. It took him ten years to get it off the ground and last night was its opening night. We went to see it at the Curzon cinema in Victoria (small and extremely comfortable). The film deals with the last wretched years of Oscar Wilde’s life after he was released from Reading Gaol where he had been imprisoned for ‘acts of gross indecency’. Since homosexuality was legalised, Oscar Wilde could not have been so cruelly punished.

Some of the most touching scenes in the film are where Oscar Wilde is telling stories to children. Early on, it’s to his own two little boys. Later, it’s to two French boys who spend time around him during his exile. The story he tells them is one of his own, The Happy Prince.

I’ve never loved The Happy Prince. Yes, though I’ve only ever read it as an adult, it has always made me cry. Yes, showing the statued prince giving up his two emerald eyes so that the wealth they represent can be given to the poor, it is desirably moral. Yes (nod to my recent new interest in swallows as outlined in recent blogs) it does prominently and touchingly figure the loyal little swallow who flies round the city to bring news of his people to the statued prince and who, eventually falling dead at the feet of the statue, is raised to eternal glory. But for me, the story is grossly too sentimental.

In my own life:

Yet sentiment has its effect. Back home after seeing the film, my mind turned to experiences in my own life of telling stories to children – and I don’t mean in schools but in my own private life. It made me think again about how much, as in the film, those children’s desire for stories has influenced me.

  1. Years ago there was my honorary niece (honorary because when, aged eight, she asked me if she could ask me a very important question and when I said yes, she replied, ‘Will you be my aunty?’) On many other occasions it was simply, ‘Mary, will you tell me a story?’ Or, when that story was done, ‘Will you tell me another story?’ Now she’s about to have her own baby and I am confident that the memory of sharing stories remains important to her.
  2. Also years ago, there was the young teenage boy, by now almost 30 and still a great friend, who often asked me for stories and said after one such occasion, ‘You know when you tell me a story, it’s as if the room goes still.’
  3. Then there was a nephew of mine who, while I was telling him a story, burst in to say, ‘What is this? Is this a tape or something?’ It was a strange thought-provoking response which made me realise how unusual it can be for children today to be hearing a story being told for real right next to them.
  4. And over recent years, there have been two children (cousins of each other, one boy, one girl) who became compellingly eager for stories from me over a number of years. One when aged about six, burst back into the room after he’d gone to play after hearing a story. Looking round the door, he exploded: ‘Your stories are better than my teacher’s at school!’ Then again he was gone. As for the girl, her love of hearing stories I’d tell her gradually changed into a love of hearing them read and then, in turn, reading them to me herself. She became an excellent reader, commended at school for her expressiveness.

It’s not to in any way commend myself that I’ve quoted these memories. With those children, I simply did what I like to do for children: give stories. I think they feed on stories – and the film, The Happy Prince, does show the way that, when you do it, the room goes still and the listeners’ eyes turn inwards to their own imagination. It is the most moving experience – hopefully for the listeners, certainly for the teller.

PS: Thinking about what’s hard to illustrate if you’re not making a film, I thought about the storytellers in my own early life to whom I owe so much. So here they are. First, walking along with my mother,  is my father D.W. James, teller of legends, historical tales and, for me as a little child, some notably daft tales told by the 19th century Welsh storyteller, Shemi Wad, who’d lived his whole life in the same North Pembrokeshire area as us and was still, evidently, remembered by people there during my early years. Second is Shemi himself in a rare old photo I was able to carry with me on the storytelling visits I made to local schools following publication of my book, Shemi’s Tall Tales. Last is my redoubtable Aunty Mali, Miss Mali Evans, to whose extraordinary life and real-life tales I tried to give tribute in my storytelling show, Travels with my Welsh Aunt.

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