By listening one could always learn something new, and something which would last a lifetime. Duncan says, “Traveller storytellers knew they were telling something that would be remembered years after they were gone,” and “this is the way with all Travellers;”“they gave you the tale which would never be forgotten so they will never be forgotten.” The primary teaching of a story thus is the respect of memory for the teller when he is gone.
Linda Williamson, about her husband, the storyteller Duncan Williamson, who was one of the Travelling People of Scotland, in Linda Williamson, “What Storytelling Means to a Traveller: An Interview with Duncan Williamson, one of Scotland’s Travelling People”, Arv: ScandinavianYearbook of Folklore, vol. 37, 1981, p. 75
Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Ivory Coast
… how stories give shape and substance to the world and how they give it meaning and value; how they bring us close to the real world by keeping us at a distance from it; how they hold people together and at the same time keep them apart; how they are both true and not true.
J. E. Chamberlin and Levi Namaseb, “Stories and songs across cultures”, Profession, 2001, p. 25
Illustration inspired by a Turkish banner
A striking number of political prisoners who wrote memoirs –and this may explain why they wrote memoirs– attribute their survival to their ability to “tell stories”: to entertain criminal prisoners by recounting the plots of novels or of films. In the world of the camps and the prisons, where books were scarce and films were rare, a good storyteller was highly prized.
Lev Finkelstein says that he will be “forever grateful to a thief who, on my first prison day, recognized this potential in me, and said, ‘You’ve probably read a lot of books. Tell them to people, and you will be living very well.’ And indeed I was living better than the rest. I had some notoriety, some fame . . . I ran into people who said, ‘You are Levchik-Romanist [Levchik-the-storyteller], I heard about you in Taishet.’
Because of this skill, Finkelstein was invited, twice a day, into the brigadier leader’s hut where he received a mug of hot water. In the quarry where he was then working, “that meant life”. Finkelstein found, he said, that Russian and foreign classics worked best: he had far less success retelling the plots of more recent, Soviet novels.
Anne Appelbaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, London: Allen Lane, 2003, p. 352
Illustration inspired by a popular drawing from Ivory Coast
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
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