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

When the eloquent voice and gesture of some grey wrinkled old man…

burkina

In these distant islands [the Hebrides], where men live slowly, and live long, probably because they do not live fast, –in queer rude hovels built of turf and boulders, where men of fourscore years have spent the most of their quiet lives, –in these quiet still pools in the current of life, old thoughts accumulate like gold-dust in a Sutherland burn, and there they are preserved.

There on winter nights children, with wondering eyes and mouths agape, sit in the ruddy light of the peat-fire, under the grey canopy of smoke, and listen breathless to these weird old myths. They cease to be ragged, bare-legged lads and lasses, with shock heads of dark or flaxen hair, unkempt and unshorn; they hear how the bold herd fought the dragon, and won the princess and the kingdom, and their spirits are up and doing like him. Potatoes and milk, wooden noggins and good horn-spoons cease to exist; while the golden basin and the giant’s stores are spread before them by the eloquent voice and gesture of some grey wrinkled old man.

And when the story ends, and the fire burns low, and they coil themselves up to rest in their cribs lads and lasses dream on, and so they dream till they grow up, and grow old, and the old tale becomes a part of their quiet lives. The child’s dream of romance is the bright spot in a dull round of hardship and toil, and the man never forgets it while he lives.

John Francis Campbell, “On current British mythology and oral traditions”, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 1869-1870, vol. 2, pp. 331-332
Illustration inspired by a drawing on a pumkin from Burkina Faso

Now form an intrinsic part of his life

rockart_SA

As has been stated, [among the Skidi Pawnee of North America] these traditions, along with the rituals, are regarded as personal property. They have been paid for by the owner, and consequently, according to his belief, now form an intrinsic part of his life. As he tells them he gives out from himself a certain part of his life, levying a direct contribution upon its termination. Thus, as one middle-aged individual exclaimed, ‘I cannot tell you all that I know, for I am not yet ready to die;’ or, as an old priest expressed it, ‘I know that my days are short. My life is no longer of use. There is no reason why I should not tell you all that I know.’

George A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. for the American Folk-Lore Society, 1904, p. xxii
Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Northern Cape, South Africa

Something peculiar and special to those who ponder and reflect

FIGURAS_HN

Tales which those of note pass round during discourses on moonlit nights and amid the breezes of the late hours of the night and the fragrant odours of the flowers –the inclusion of them in sermons, and their consideration from every aspect in the viewing of accounts of those former ages, is something peculiar and special to those who ponder and reflect.

From “A History of the Western Sanhaja” by Shaykh Sidya Baba (deceased in 1924) of the Awlad Abyayri (Mauritania), from H. T. Norris, Saharan Myth and Saga, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, p. 161
Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Who gives much tribute of words

kamon

[S]hé-mutúro wábinwa/who gives much tribute of words: this is not a praise, nor is it to criticize the individual who speaks too much, but refers to one who gives tribute in words, one who is helpful because of his skill as a judge and speaker.

Daniel Biebuyck and Kahomb C. Mattene, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, p. 80 note 143  
Illustration inspired by a kamon, a symbol used by the samurai

Not a figure of speech

ancestro

 

If, then, the griots, active today in towns and villages of the Sudan, are still carrying on all the popular culture of African tradition and making the ‘illiterate’ masses perfectly civilized and cultivated people who are conscious of themselves and respectful of others, we must fear what will happen when their voices are no longer heard, for their sons and [grandchildren] now attend the European school and the family profession is no longer handed on.

As for the loss resulting for Africa and for the world we can only measure its importance if we are also aware of the importance of this heritage. For too many foreigners and African who are modern and ignorant, it is only a question of a few unimportant tales. […] However, on looking closer in certain areas of Africa, a very diversified literature is to be found, including different categories [and not only ‘tales’]: epics, cosmogonic myths, adventures, popular comedies, love poetry, oratory poetry (funeral, war, marriage, praise), ritual dram and religious songs, not to mention of course all the sayings, tales and fables, riddles and proverbs. All this forms a whole just as vast in importance and quality as the mediaeval literature of our ‘douce France’. [….]

Every person of French culture should be asked to think for a minute about what a voice this would create and the fresh spring which would be dried up, if by misfortune, this ancestral heritage were lost and with it faith, history and poetry, grandeur, wisdom and experience. It is only after such reflection that one can wonder whether in the name of economic development and European-style education it is right to deny the African of today his foundations in his fundamental original culture.

Theodor Monod said in 1934, not without humor: ‘The African did not come down from a tree yesterday’. Hampaté Bâ warns us today: ‘with the death of each old man, a library is burn’ and it is not a literary figure of style that he means!”

[As far as I know, this is, with its context, the first instance in which this much-repeated sentence was put in print, surely in the French version of the journal, which was published simultaneously to the English one. Kesteloot’s short article deals with the epics of West Africa. The English version is somewhat pedestrian, the last sentence meaning “he doesn’t mean it as a figure of speech” –Ed.]

 

Lylian Kesteloot, “The West African Epics”, Présence Africaine, vol. 30, 1966, pp. 201-202
Illustration inspired by a sculpture representing an ancestor from Indonesia  

Stories go to work on you like arrows

ARACNIFORME_HN

 

I think of that mountain called Tséé Ligai Dah Sidilé (White Rocks Lie Above In A Compact Cluster) as if it were my maternal grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.

(Benson Lewis, age 64, 1979)

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p. 38

Drawing of Anansi, the spider from the Ashanti people