When I heard this topic suggested by Anne and Alberto, I was intrigued and also not sure how I might go about presenting it to the group. Where to start? Storytelling has come to mean such a lot of things!
My first thoughts had me reflecting on the heritage of oral storytelling, particularly the variety of traditional stories we grow up with. I also started thinking about people I know who are great at the skill of telling a spoken story. Then my mind jumped to how all modern entertainment, including films, games, t.v. and adverts all use storytelling to deliver a message or way of seeing the world. Finally, I found myself pondering the many ways that psychologically, spiritually and culturally, we tell ourselves stories all the time, about who we are, where we come from and what the meaning of this often confusing thing called life is.
I had no clue how to weave these thoughts and more into a brief intro. Instead I chose to start the session with the beginning of a poem called The Storyteller by Mike Jones. I followed this with a couple of simple questions, trusting that the group would perform its usual magic and inspire each other and me into deeper reflections which we could then connect through. The following blog is a testament to the group’s magic which I was right to trust, what great storytellers they all are and how yes, I am truly grateful to know them.
There’s this great story a friend told me. We were sat around the fire; it must have been past midnight; we were all a little drunk and it was so dark and quiet when you stepped away that you could believe the fire was all that was left in the world. She’d been trying to get on to this story for hours. We kept going off in all directions, as a word or a phrase reminded us of some other story, and we looped off over all the stories that story brought to mind. Eventually the momentum faded and we fell quiet, hearing the crackle of the fire for a moment before she said ‘So, anyway’, and the loop started up again. Before long we were laughing so hard at her not being able to get this story going that we couldn’t hear her talking. In the end she gave up, and we had to beg her to tell it. We knew it would be a good one. Hers always were.
You couldn’t have blamed her for taking her time once she had our attention, but that was never her style. She would barrel through a story like a Hollywood stunt driver, making a show of carnage while always in total control. Once she reached full speed, she knocked back interruptions and dodged tangents until we arrived, breathless, at the punchline.
After that it became one of the stories that interrupted other people’s stories, whenever a word or a phrase reminded us of it. If she was there, we’d ask her to retell it; if she wasn’t then someone else would do their best, and the rest would pitch in with forgotten details, and it wouldn’t be the same. I’ve heard friends who never met her retell it third hand. One day it will work its way back to her, dressed up as the new teller’s personal anecdote. It became part of how we understood the world. When something like it happened to you, you didn’t need to tell the story: just mention hers, and everyone understood.
What was it about? Not a clue. Can’t remember. And besides, it was the way she told it.
During our last session, I was interested to learn that most people chose to speak about a relative. When Jolene asked us to mention a storyteller, I immediately thought of my dad and then Ellie, and Alberto, my companions in our breakaway group, both referred to relatives too. These sessions are a great chance to hear about other people’s lives.
It was quite an interesting exercise to think back, in my case over eighty years, to the stories I enjoyed then. Dad made up stories about two children who did all sorts of amazing things, with the same names as my older brother and myself (amazingly!), but who always survived. I can’t remember any of the actual stories now, but I think my dad was very inventive in keeping up this series of tales.
Thank you to the group for giving me that opportunity.
Today’s session was mind blowing. We discussed ‘great story tellers I have known’. The group had many storytellers to talk about and the whole session was incredible.
I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one great story teller in my life. I have chosen two. They are my mum and Maya Angelou.
I have chosen to tell you about my mum as she was the greatest and told the best stories passed down from generation to generation. Mum had the voice for storytelling. She would take on different voices for each character and would mesmerise you with the expressions she would use. I remember all mum’s stories and those I don’t have fortunately been written down. She came from a culture where most story telling was oral. They would sit around the fire with full bellies in the warmth of the Jamaican heat and great grandma would wow my mum, her sisters and brothers with her tales. Not all mum’s stories were pleasant, they would mostly be true stories and often scary.
Mum has now gone to a ‘better place’.
I am now that story teller.
I know why the caged birds sing and And still I rise are two of my all-time favourites written by Maya Angelou. She was a phenomenal woman who told stories and wrote poems that move you to another level. She tells it just the way it is, taking you on her journey. She draws you into her moment, making you feel as though you are standing alongside her. You feel as you are almost a witness into her world.
When I had the pleasure of meeting her many years ago when she paid a visit to England, she was beautiful, brave, serious and funny. Maya Angelou has a way of making her words dance on the page. She comes alive and you are immediately drawn in.
Maya Angelou, I salute you, ‘And still I rise?’
My grandmother (born 1885) used to chuckle as she told us her favourite stories of her life growing up in Blackburn. Her parents were from Ireland and she described her father walking up and down at home as he played the tin whistle and the fiddle. One of her brothers got into trouble for taking the violin down where it hung on the wall and sawing it in half “to see where the music came from!” She loved music and dancing: as a child it was exciting to dance at the end of the street when the organ grinder came on his travels. A little older, wanting to look her best when going out to a dance, she “borrowed” a little stuffed bird from a glass display case belong to her mother, to wear on her hat! Unfortunately, it rained on the way home and she had to own up about the bedraggled bird she’d sneaked back into its place. She was daring too: trying out her friend’s bicycle, she rode off down the hill but had to do a crash landing to avoid going into the back of a horse!
I wish I could remember more of her stories, and more of the detail as she built up to the punchlines. Maybe her tales of mistakes and mischief had the strongest impact on me when I heard them as a child. Maybe I found it reassuring to hear that grown-ups had got into trouble when they were young too!
I think this photograph, taken in a Blackburn studio, is an early one of her. I’ve been told that people often went to have studio portraits taken when they reached 21. I can’t be sure, but I can see the resemblance and she looks to me like she was finding it hard to keep a straight face! And oh, what a hat!
I do not remember my family being good at story telling. My maternal grandmother was the only grandparent I can remember well and sadly she had dementia. She repeatedly told us the same story of when she went to school alternately in the morning or afternoon and worked the other part of the day sticking labels on the bobbins of sewing cotton that the local mill produced. At family gatherings my mother’s sister Mildred and her cousin Annie would be “good company” “telling the tail from thread to needle”. Putting a lot of detail into the stories and talking about people and places I did not know, so they did not hold my attention.
On becoming a mother in 1971 I decided to go to an evening class for flower arranging leaving my new born with his father. The tutor invited the class to join the local flower club where I met Barbara, a very good story teller. She asked me to help her decorate St Clements Church for the re-dedication by the Bishop of Manchester after major building work dividing the church into a worshipping area and a church hall. That started a friendship spanning just short of fifty years, despite our age difference of almost twenty years.
We worked together with flowers, completing a City and Guilds’ qualification and visiting flower shows, until she retired to North Wales in 1987. We kept in touch and she would often recount stories from her childhood in Firswood where her father had been a master butcher, and Bolton where she spent her holidays with her adored grandmother Kate, who had stock of phrases such as: “He had all the grace of a cornered rattle snake”, “Stop crying Barbara, your bladder is too near your eyes”, “What can’t be cured must be endured.” I and many others of her friends and family were always telling her she should write all her tales down.
At Christmas 2020, the eldest of her two sons gave her the present of “StoryWorth” where Barbara writes a story each week on a topic she and her son have decided on. These will then be printed in a hard back book together with any relevant photographs after fifty-two weeks.
Barbara has risen to the challenge at the age of 92 of mastering a new iPad to send in her weekly memorable stories. She has kindly included me on the recipients’ list so I can receive her weekly very engaging tales.
It was reassuring to hear Jolene say that she had been a bit unsure about this subject, and what she could say about it. I had had the same thoughts. The only name I could think of was Dave Allan, the Irish comedian, who sat on his high stool and told such wonderful relaxed stories in his lovely gently lilt.
In spite of her reservations however, Jolene read us the start of a great poem about the telling of stories and once in the small group with Linda and Jamie, things fell into place, as they so often do when we meet together.
Several people had mentioned that they thought of their grandparents or other members of the family being good storytellers. Both my parents lost their parents when they were still children, so I never knew any grandparents who seem often to be the natural custodians of family stories.
We had a discussion about the difference between oral storytellers and written storytellers. Linda had had a neighbour who was an expert at both. We agreed that as well as content, a good story had to have good delivery, and the tone and accent of the speaker was very important. Some accents are definitely easier to follow and can be almost hypnotic and the tone and pace of the speaker has to engage you as a listener. Some writers are excellent at literature but that doesn’t always make them good storytellers.
Jamie is very interested in classical stories which now are more often written down to be read, but originally would have been oral stories passed down from generation to generation.
That led to a very interesting discussion on how similar stories popped up in many different ancient cultures, when travel would have been limited, and therefore how and why did these stories get to resemble each other? Maybe because some of them were about natural phenomena (for example the sun, the moon, storms and the natural world) and they were a way that older cultures were able to explain what was inexplicable by other means?
So, we may have been a bit short on ideas about storytellers we may know, but the discussion was very rich on what stories are and what they achieve.
In a break from the usual remit of the sessions this week instead of reflecting on an aspect of our own story the focus was on other people’s stories which we had found memorable. The exploration of this topic revealed just how important “story telling” is in our lives. Very loosely stories fall into one or other of two categories; ones that are an essential true account of actual events and those invented for entertainment or other purposes.
In the first category are the often-re-told stories of family and friends. Their value is not so much in the “facts” as these are to a degree altered over time either with embellishments or omissions but more in the bonding of relationships by the experience of mutual memories. Another of this type of story are the reminiscences of past generations, especially those of older friends and family, which can be very evocative of former times and events and also sometimes reveal more of the teller’s personality to the listener. As someone very interested in History, I particularly value these stories. Specific ones I recall are one by an old gentleman whose name escapes me but who used to play the piano during the interval at St. John’s Church bingo night. At one little party there to celebrate one of his significant birthdays he told me his memories of the general strike of 1926 when as a young man still in his teens, just having left school and started work, he joined a march of strikers along Hyde Road in Manchester.
I also well remember my gran recalling the story of the day she had quit her job in domestic service during the first world war which indicated something of her stubborn and rebellious nature.
Oral stories have an additional value over written accounts in that they can more easily convey the atmosphere surrounding an incident or event and the emotions of those involved.
Finally, there have been many great entertaining tellers of stories such as Dave Allen and Peter Ustinov. My particular favourite however was Ronnie Corbett when he sat in his big chair; I have been known to repeat his story about a baby polar bear quite a few times!