The storytelling pocket

NETSUKE HOM. NARRR

And then the cold winter nights, Granny went into her little compartment, tent, in the barricade, and it was storytelling. I was very young then, but I remember my granny well. There were wonderful stories told round the little fire. I remember my daddy sitting around the fire in the middle of the floor, just a stick fire in the middle of the tent, a hole in the roof and the smoke going straight up through the hole. A little paraffin lamp, the cruisie turned down, home-made by my father.

Granny would tell a story, Father would tell a story. Maybe a few travellers passing by would stop and put their tent over in the “Tinker’s Turn’, a place across the burn from the wood where we stayed. […] They would also tell stories and have a little get-together. Our tent was a stopping place for travellers who came down to Argyll, and there was always time for a story.

Now Granny would stay with us all winter in that big barricade with her little compartment. […]

Now Granny was a an old lady, and every old traveller woman in the bygone days never carried a handbag. But around their waist they carried a big pocket. I remember Granny’s –she made it herself, a tartan pocket. It was like a large purse with a strap, and she tied it around her waist. It had three pearl buttons down the middle, not zip in these days. Granny carried all her worldly possessions in this pocket.

Now, Granny smoked a little clay pipe. And when she needed tobacco, she would say, “Weans, I want you to run to the village for tobacco for my pipe.” And she’d give us a threepenny bit, a penny for each of us and a penny for tobacco. The old man used to have a roll of it on the counter, and he cut off a little bit for Granny for her penny. We came back and our reward was, “Granny, tell us a story!”

She sat in front of her little tent, and she had a little billy-can and a little fire. We collected sticks for her, and she’d boil this strong, black tea. She lifted the can off, placed it by the side of the fire and said, “Well, weans, I’ll see what I have in my pocket for you this time!” She opened up that big pocket by her side with the three pearl buttons. I remember them well, and she said, “Well, I’ll tell you this story.” Maybe it was one she’d told three nights before. Maybe it was one she had never told for weeks. Sometimes she would tell us a story three-four times; sometimes she told us a story we’d never heard.

So, one day my sister and I came back from the village. We were playing and we came up to Granny’s little tent. The sun was shining warm. Granny’s little can of tea was by the fire: it was cold, the fire had burned out. The sun was warm. Granny was lying, she had her two hands under her head like an old woman, and her little bed was in front of the tent. By her side was the pocket. That was the very first time we’d ever seen that pocket off Granny’s waist. She probably took it off when she went to bed at night-time. But never during the day!

So my sister and I crept up quietly and we said, ‘Granny is asleep! There’s her pocket. Let’s go and see how many stories are in Granny’s pocket.’ So very gently we picked the pocket up, we took it behind the tree where we lived in the forest and opened up the three pearl buttons. And in that pocket was like Aladdin’s Cave! There were clay pipes, threepenny pieces, rings, halfpennies, pennies, farthings, brooches, pins, needles, everything and old woman carried with her, thimbles… but not one single story could we find! So we never touched anything. We put everything back inside, closed it and put it back, left it by her side. We said, ‘We’ll go and play and we’ll get Granny when she gets up.’ So we went off to play again, came back about an hour later and Granny was up. Her little fire was kindling. She was heating up her cold tea. And we sat down by her side. She began to light her pipe after she drank this black strong tea. We said, ‘Granny, are you going to tell us a story?’

Aye, weans,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you a story.’ She loved telling us stories because it was company for us, forbyes it was good company for her to sit there beside us weans. She said, ‘Wait a minute noo, wait till I see what I have for you tonight.’ And she opened up the pocket. She looked at me and my little sister for a while, for a long time with her blue eyes. She said, ‘Ye ken something, weans?’

We said, ‘No, Granny.’

She said, ‘Somebody opened my pocket when I was asleep and all my stories are gone. I cannae tell ye a story the nicht, weans.’ And she never told us a story that night. And she never told us another story. And I was seventeen when my granny died, but eleven when that happened. Granny never told me another story, and that’s a true story!

Duncan Williamson, The Horsieman: Memories of a Traveller 1928-1958, Edinburg: Canongate Press, 1994, pp. 6-8

Illustration inspired by a japanese netsuke

The narrator would never recite the entire story in immediate sequence

indonesia

The Nyanga epic is not a text performed only at certain times or on highly esoteric ceremonial occasions. There is nothing secret about it; it is to be heard and enjoyed by all the people. Normally a chief or headman or simply the senior of a local descent group, in order to entertain his people and guests, would invite the bard to perform a few episodes of the epic in the evening, around the men’s hut in the middle of the village. Large crowds of people, male and female, young and old, would come to listen or rather to be participant auditors. […] The interesting point is that the narrator would never recite the entire story in immediate sequence, but would intermittently perform various selected passages of it. Mr. Ruerke, whose epic is presented here, repeatedly asserted that never before had he performed the whole story within a continuous span of days.

Daniel Biebuyck and Kahomb C. Mattene, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pp. 13-14

Illustration inspired by shamanic instrument from Indonesia

Two ways of becoming a storyteller in Iran

lesotho-2

[In Iran] [t]he steps a man takes to become a storyteller vary from person to person. […] The storyteller usually learns his craft from a master storyteller. As a student (shagerd), he takes lessons from a master (ostad) whom the student pays for lessons and for providing material. The master himself is a practicing storyteller. The student works alone with his teacher. The stress in training is on rote memorization of the material. The student is taught the literary work Shanama [the “Epic of the Kings”, by Ferdowsi, 940-1020 AD], line by line. […] In addition to the literary work, the student must also copy and learn the tumar, which he receives from his teacher. This tumar is a story outline in prose of the episodes making up the stories he will tell. The student also learns philosophy and religion, and poetry from poets other than Ferdowsi. The period of time of training varies from individual to individual. […]

A storyteller may enter his profession on his own without having gone through more rigorous training. He may simply be attracted by the craft of storytelling, go to hear a number of storytellers, learn from listening to them how the stories are told, pick up the literary work and memorize it, then go off on his own to practice his new trade.

Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 198-199

Illustration inspired by rock art paintings in Lesotho

A Spanish closing formula

cratera_HN

 

And to celebrate they ate grouse and they took a plate and struck my nose. And seeing that, I smeared my shoes with oil and run back to my own soil.

Juan José Orga Díaz, master farrier from Frama, Potes, Santander; Aurelio M. Espinosa, Cuentos populares de Castilla y León, vol. 2, Madrid: CSIC, 1988, p. 199   
Illustration inspired by a classical Greek krater