“Let me tell you a story.” How many of you, as I do, recall Max Bygraves on TV starting one of his routines with that phrase? Then (also on what used to be called the small screen, a description that seems entirely inaccurate now) there’s Jackanory and my favourite, the late night, adult orientated Crackanory… Television tells us stories in dramas and soaps – it is our modern-day inheritor of the most ancient art form of all: oral storytelling. Visual art forms are all very well and have their place, but for sheer entertainment nothing in (or out of) this world beats a good story, does it?
When as a race we were still huddled in our caves, waiting for the darkness to pass and the predators of the night to return to their lairs, storytelling began. Fun, relaxation, entertainment, and also in those days our only way of passing on our history – making us human – storytelling was all of these things, and more. We have grown, become more sophisticated, more technologically adept and yet the storytellers remain with us. Books, films, TV, radio, theatre – all depend ultimately on the story and the art and skill of the storyteller behind them. It is a common notion nowadays that the oral storytellers of Ancient Greece, the Skalds of the Vikings, the bards of the Celtic peoples, the singers of the Amerinds and Aboriginal peoples of Australia have all passed on into their own time and into history; that the technologists have taken up the mantle and moved on into the digital era: I am happy to tell you that it isn’t so.
Oral storytelling is alive and well, and in fact now going through something of a resurgence, perhaps as a reaction to the increasing demands of automation and technology. Here in the UK, you are never too far from a Storytelling Club or society if you search on the internet. Facebook has storytelling groups who advertise their meetings, and storytellers earn a living travelling both the UK, Europe and abroad, spreading tales and wonders. There’s a festival every year (Beyond The Border) that is steadily, consistently, growing and for those wanting to get involved there are professionally run courses to teach and pass on the art form.
Welcome to the wonderful world of oral storytelling. In the last three months my partner and I have been privileged to hear tales from China, India, the Punjab, Russia and, of course, Europe. And do you know? As we listened to stories of the travails of a newly married Punjabi bride (she was having difficulties with her mother in law, of course): the moral dilemmas of an Indian Maharajah; the problems of an Italian widow with a difficult son; one thing stood out above all. The human problems and issues faced by the people in these tales were the same as ours, the same the whole world over. More things unite us, the human species, than can ever separate us as peoples and as the storytellers travel, and the stories are passed around and retold afresh, this basic truth about us is made clear. Race, religion, country, politics – all these things become secondary to our connection with each other across the globe as we listen to storytellers passing on the stories of people thousands of miles distant from us and yet so alike when you look beyond the veneer of different customs and habits.
If you get the chance – why not go out and make the chance? – to hear storytelling performed as it should be, take it. You will enjoy the evening, and perhaps get the bug to become involved. I became interested as a result of my own family history. My grandfather’s father was a tinker: he travelled around the Leicestershire/Lincolnshire area, making specialist cake tins for parties at the great country houses of the aristocracy. The tinkers were wonderful people for telling stories as they moved from village to village, town to town, around the country. I wonder if my own love of both written and oral storytelling has come down to me from him? My grandfather I barely knew, but my father too had inherited a love of stories. He worked as a primary school teacher in a deprived area of South Manchester, and spent a lot of time reading stories to the children he taught. And, of course to me. When I had children, I loved reading aloud to them at night, and hope that I’ve passed this love of spoken words down the generation again.
I started writing as a way of telling stories, and a few years ago was introduced to performance spoken word and then to oral storytelling. I don’t pretend to be expert in the art form. But I do know that I have a passion and a new way to fulfil it. My oral storytelling tends to concentrate on old folk tales from Wales. I’m lucky enough to live in West Wales and the region abounds in stories, legends, myths: tales of magic, mystery and mayhem. Thinking about it, that’s not a bad title for a collection of stories – perhaps I’ll use it.
If oral storytelling intrigues you and you live in the UK, search for Beyond The Border Festival. You’ve probably missed this year’s but there will be other one along soon… and for overseas readers there are lots of similar festivals across the globe.
And if you fancy hearing some traditional storytelling from me, then here is a link to a YouTube clip of my telling The Legend of The Wizard of Alderley Edge to an appreciative audience.
Oh, and I have some Cds for sale now too. These each contain about 40 minutes of recordings of traditional stories from Wales, told as storytelling performances. Great fun. Available now through eBay, or direct from my website. Shortly they will be available as downloads. www.willmacmillanjones.com
The Path to Enchantment https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/273245381785
The Tinkers’ Tales https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/273186293042
And a third recording, Tall Tales & Short Stories is being prepared for release right now.