Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Where Corals Lie

Years ago in a project at the Commonwealth Institute as then was, the wonderful Kathie Prince was the musician, I was the storyteller. It was a brilliant time and, for me, one of its most enriching aspects was how much I learned from Kathie. For instance, I learned the involvement with audiences of varying age that can be brought about through little songs where the audience can help create new verses by offering fresh ideas t0 fit in the pattern. Or where involvement is deepened through the use of differently fascinating instruments.

My Sea-Tray:

One lasting inheritance from those sessions with Kathie has been my sea-tray. Kathie used grains of rice scattered onto her bodhran. A  bodhran is a wide Irish drum. I didn’t have one. But keen to be able to make the sounds she made, I thought of a wooden tray with a bamboo surround that I’d inherited from my redoubtable Aunty Mali. It worked. It created the sound of the sea, my sea, the Pembrokeshire sea with which I’d grown up.

Then somewhere along the time-line of my storytelling, I was invited to take part in an Arts Festival in  New Zealand. Just before I went, my sea-tray decided to fall apart. What was I going to do? I’d just have to try and find an equivalent when I was there. So I took with me my little green bag of tiny stones – these are my equivalent of Kathie’s rice grains and all the more effective in creating the sound of a Pembrokeshire sea. In New Zealand are many wood turners who create wonderful bowls from kauri wood, I went around looking – and, with permission – trying out any likely candidates. Nothing worked. Then I spotted what has become my beloved sea-tray propped up on a shelf in a junk shop. I’ve written about it in this blog before, noting the many wonderful responses it’s brought from both adults and children.

The George Ewart Evans Centre:

This last Thursday evening it did its job again when out it came from its protective bag for a session I was doing with adults at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling in Cardiff. For one thing, it suited the title I’d given my session, The Land Where Corals Lie. Where Corals Lie is the name of a beautiful song by Edward Elgar. I sang the first part of it at the start of my session. It helped me introduce the theme of the stories to come which, in one way or another, would be a variety of all about that desire we humans sometimes find it difficult to describe – the desire that lies deep within us to reach new places of beauty and states of fulfilment.

The sea-tray on Thursday also helped me with something I’ve felt more able to identify since the session than in preparing for it. This was a new sense of freedom with what material I’d use and how I’d use it. Perhaps it was that  theme, The Land Where Corals Lie, which did it. But I realised it made me felt able to introduce my stories with more personal talk than usual. First there could be easy references to my father, the place where I grew up, experiences of discovery to which I often return in memory and feeling. Then there could also be thoughts on how such discoveries enable us to reflect that something which, I believe, lies somewhere deep within us all.

The programme:

The variety of material I used on Thursday also contributed to that new sense of freedom. First, the song. I’ve sung songs before but they’ve all been folk songs. This is an art song, one I’ve been working on in my singing lessons. Then in the course of my first story, the St David’s legend about the gravedigger who manages to reach one of the Isles of the Blessed, there could be the throw-away joke that really makes people laugh. (It’s the one about the lazy Council workman who, on his way into his house one evening, is seen deliberately squashing a snail on the pavement and, when challenged by the friend over the road, comes back with: ‘Well, it’s been following me all day.’)

The Peach Blossom Forest story came next and, at the end of it, I read – yes read! – those beautiful lines of poetry written about the story by the Chinese poet Wang Wei who died in A.D. 761. And after that, I read again – yes read in a storytelling session! – one of my own stories that I’d put into my book, A Long Run in Short Shorts. This one was Daffodil Wood It concerns my experience – I must have been about ten – when I walked along the railway track behind my grandparents’ house and, determined to go further than the barking dogs, which is as far as I’d ever been with my father, I continued past the railway cutting and quickly came to a wood full of the most beautiful daffodils. Much, much later in my life, I went to see if I could find it again. Unlike the fisherman in Peach Blossom Forest, I did. And as it happens it was again full of daffodils.

Next came my telling of the Scottish story, The Stolen Child, which I’d found years ago in a wonderful book, Thistle and Thyme. Because I’ve long since relocated it in my mind into a Pembrokeshire setting, and because the story anyway involves the sea, I was able several times in the course of my telling of it to chant some lines from a poem I love by the American poet, Carl Sandburg. I quoted only the first two lines. But the poem in full is as follows:

The sea-wash never ends
The sea-wash repeats, repeats
Only the old strong songs
Is that all?
The sea-wash repeats, repeats.

A dream-story:

Finally, the sea-tray came into use once more to take me and my audience on a sea-journey to Italy to a story from Bologna that was told to me now many years ago by my remarkable photographer friend, Francesco Guidicini. Francesco, a storyteller if ever there was one, told the story as if it had actually occurred in the period when he was a student in Bologna. Actually, as he afterwards revealed, he’d found it in a book by an Italian writer of the medieval period. I didn’t say that to my Thursday night audience. The story is haunting – I’ll tell it here sometime – and I wanted to leave my listeners in the place of dreams which is, of course, another aspect of the land where corals lie.

PS: You can find versions of the first three stories I told on Thursday on my blog as follows. Just enter the dates in the Search Box. 3rd February 2018 for the Gravedigger story. July 28th 2018 for The Stolen Child. 4th August 2018 for Peach Blossom Forest. And my photos this week are, of course, of my beloved sea-tray.

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