People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.
We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?
In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.
Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?
Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.
The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:
“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”
Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.” The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.
Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…
…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”
So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.
©Jessica Norrie 2018