Charles Dickens with his one-man-show.
At some point during the twentieth century, we stopped reading stories to one another. Once upon a time – back when illiteracy was normal, and the possession of books, extraordinary – grown-ups would gather to listen to the latest instalment of Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, George Eliot: all the literati of their age. Pubs and living- rooms were given over to this regular ritual, audiences amassed, bound by their mutual interest in ‘what happens next.’ Happily, learning to read in this country is now a basic human right, and literature, available in abundance and at little cost. Unhappily, however, storytelling has been denigrated; it is the preserve of children, and tinged with childishness. It is hard to call to mind situations where story-telling for adults takes place today. Church? Halloween?
Audiobooks are increasingly popular. Is storytelling, then, making a comeback? Sadly I think not, at least, not in any celebrated fashion. Audiobooks are stigmatised. People ‘listen to them in the car,’ ‘buy them for their elderly relative,’ ‘for the less able reader,’ for ‘the lazy student.’ God forbid that one should proclaim the audiobook as their primary means of imbibing a book. The confession that one has listened to rather than read a book is admitted as a guilty secret, not pleasurable pastime. In our culture of discrimination, the audiobook - and storytelling with it - has been relegated to the lower tier of ‘light entertainment,’ the whimsical, the lowbrow.
Is this judgement not a little arbitrary, a little harsh? Talking recently of how he came to be an author, Michael Morpurgo credits storytelling as the very origin, inspiration, and sustenance of his incredibly prolific career.
Morpurgo was a primary school teacher. Admirably, the particular school he taught in required each teacher to close their school day with a session of storytelling. One day, Morpurgo found that the elect story for that day did not in the slightest engage his year six class. Glazed over eyes; fidgeting, endemic. Deflated, Morpurgo reported the dismal impact of this session to his wife, who suggested that he might rekindle interest by writing and telling a story of his own. That night a story was composed and, with great apprehension, Morpurgo told it to his class the next day. This time the half hour passed in deathly, breathless silence. Each and every word was craved and absorbed by his avid audience. “Yes! Success!” cried Morpurgo’s internal voice. Buoyed by the effect his words, his stories had upon children, Morpurgo began his career as a children’s author. One hundred and twenty published stories later, Morpurgo still tells each and every one to an audience before they appear in book form.
When Morpurgo describes his art, he doesn’t speak of the process as ‘writing,’ or ‘penning,’ or any other word that would identify the product as print or text. Rather, he speaks of how he cultivates the story for months and months only in his head and, when at the germination stage, he sits, bolstered by pillows, in bed, and ‘tells it to the page.’ Perhaps Morpurgo thinks of his stories in these audible (rather than textual) terms because he composes predominantly for children, who might well expect to hear rather than read a book.
I wonder then, whether the authors of the past considered that their stories might be heard often as they were read? Not an answerable question, perhaps, though as purely anecdotal aside, Charles Dickens’ zeal for storytelling is well worthy of note. He toured the length and breadth of this country (and abroad), a one-man-show, “telling” episodes extracted from his many novels to all ages, all aspects of the public. The exertion of such an ambitious schedule and performance profoundly blighted his health, but he could not be dissuaded from giving it up. Even at his most unwell, when he couldn’t stand and had to “perform” seated, he continued. Compulsion like that is assuredly no child’s play.