I’ve been to three Story Nights in the last week or so – three in seven days. That’s a lot of story to take in, but also a chance to reflect on the breadth of this thing we call telling. On one night I travelled to the Lake District, to Brigsteer Village Hall, with a small group of Liverpool Storytellers, for “Stealing Thunder”, a monthly story-night hosted by Emily Hennessey where the main offering was a long telling by Vergine Gulbenkian. The following night it was one of our own Story-nights, with two longer stories from Stephe Harrop and Clair Whitefield and on the following Wednesday, as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival, Liz Weir brought together her own stories with those of other tellers and music for the first anniversary of storytelling nights at the St Michael’s Irish centre.
What struck me from this rich array of telling was that the terrain of story has been extended to encompass two very contrasting tendencies. One I shall call the Literary. Literary storytelling is very elaborate; the tellings are very sustained, the effects complex and the context often challenging. Clair’s story is, she explains, the result of a lot of detailed writing and those with ears for such things will detect subtle rhyming and poetic scansion in parts of the telling. It begins near the end of the narrative and then cycles back to the beginning of the events to explain the circumstances before passing its beginning, recovering a reference or two and proceeding to its conclusion. Vergine’s story was in fact several stories all nested within each other and involved an actual story-book which she had brought to show to those interested.
There is something of the post-modern about the Literary. The book in question has its last pages torn out, as the story, which is also one of those within the story-nest, is involved with a belief that it would be unlucky to tell the ending. One of the other stories is of experiences from Vergine’s great-grandmother, whose book it was. And in Stephe’s story one of the protagonists, well, two, just walk out of the story near the end, as though story was a straightjacket that could not contain an authentically happy ending. In all of these tellings there are filmic effects, narrative shifts and the occasional absurdity, or knowing wink at the audience. If you are a reader or a film-buff none of these effects and strategies will be unfamiliar to you. For others, weaned on traditional stories, traditionally told, the effect can be a bit disconcerting.
Liz Weir, by contrast, offers many stories, maybe a dozen in one evening and each is compact, direct and unironic. If the Literary plays tricks with time and sequence, and refers to or arrives at a familiar present, the Folk (as I shall call it) only deals with “Once”. “There was once….” This is not the historic past but the foregoing time when things were not as they are now. The Folk is about folk-memory and its components and there is a flavour in each telling of a story collected (or in one case created by a class of school-children from lessons learned from Liz) and shared anew. The stories are not nostalgic though – the past was often hard and cruel and its consequences harsh. If they end positively it is with a flourish of common humanity or a gasp of realization. In all this they come from a long tradition of which one past master is Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826).
Hebel has come back into public view, outside his native Germany, thanks to the attention of W G Sebald who wrote a chapter about the writer in a recently published book. Hebel’s “Treasure Chest” is now available in Penguin Classics. It may seem odd to link Hebel’s stories with the tellings of Liz Weir since he is so avowedly a writer, but this is just the area where writing and telling converge and where many, if not most, of us pitch our story-telling. Hebel’s tales are maybe found, recovered, invented, recounted, but they always strike a chord of familiarity. Some are very short but something that is not quite a moral, more a kind of spur to reflection on life, is always the kernel of the narrative. This is what we get from Liz Weir’s tellings, a sharing of experience and wisdom, and a point of reference for moral or ethical consideration.
It may sound as if I’m favouring the Folk over the Literary, but in fact both are essential features of a wider landscape which is Story Now, as we are telling it in 2016. They are not in opposition and for listeners they invite complementary skills of discernment and understanding. Most contemporary story falls somewhere between the Literary and the Folk (and probably other co-ordinates, like Song and Epic, for example). The Literary is flourishing in the current climate as a place to experiment with the representation of hard present realities, and the folk will always be there to remind us that we always need something we may call “verities”.