It was the great writer, Terry Pratchett who wrote, “Our ability to make other worlds made us human.”
And it was another famous Terry, my father, who came along with me to Toastmasters this week and taught me how to give a speech. Dad’s what I call ‘a natural orator’. He doesn’t have to try hard to speak in public the way I do! When I get called upon, I waffle and panic, whereas my father is ever smooth and unflappable.
Invited to speak for a minute, my father knew to go straight for the jugular.
Asked to speak on his past, he started out with a killer first line. “My childhood was dictated by Hitler.”
Way to bring the audience to a standstill, Dad! People strained to hear what happened next.
We, as a species, are wired for ‘story’.
Mankind first developed ways of communicating 150,000 years ago, and ancient peoples found explanations for everything that happened in their natural world. Those ideas found their expression via tales of the imagination.
Suddenly, the world was a story.
“Homo Sapiens became Homo Narrans, “Story-telling man”; the rest was literally history,” said Terry Pratchett.
The story-tellers’ ability to spin tales sent the human race on a path that led us to our modern existence.
Before you can change the world, you have to be able to dream up a picture of a new, better world. Who better to manufacture dreams than the story-tellers?
My father told myself and the other Toastmasters about the time that he was seven when war was declared. Hitler was sending planes to bomb England, and all the women and children had to be evacuated from the cities.
Dad was sent away from his parents in Hastings. As an only child, this was ‘hard on him and his parents’.
His mother, ‘Nan’, stayed elsewhere. She was Head County Borough Organizer of the Women’s Voluntary Service and they were busy working the equivalent of full-time jobs, weaving camouflage nets for tanks and military equipment and helping in other practical ways. Dad’s father wasn’t called up for service because he ran the power plant that supplied electricity to the whole district.
Dad went on and told us that instead of being sent to a ‘billet’ (to live with a family in the country), he was given the opportunity to go to St. Albans. At that time you had to be eight to get into the well-regarded grade school, he was only seven. Nan went with him for the entry level test.
“Spell cat,” they said.
Dad slowly spelled, “K. A. T.”
“Yet, I went to St. Albans!” He told us, and everyone laughed. Dad got a good round of applause as he returned to his chair.
Want to know more? Of course you do! Young Terrence wasn’t to return to live with his parents for another five or six years until after the war ended. Dad still, to this day, doesn’t know how his mother got him into the exclusive school that sheltered him throughout the war. But he had a good education and endured no hardship there. Though by all accounts he missed his parents terribly, and they, him.
As I say, asked to speak ‘on-the-fly’, Dad reached for his personal stories. He wove a tale about his childhood in an imaginative way that included us, the audience, and took us there. We escaped the room in the memorial hall and the winter day and went ‘somewhere else’ with him.
That’s the essential trait of a good story-teller. What is a story other than a window to another place?
The ability to spin a good yarn has long been a respected talent. It was humankind’s ability to conjure other realms through story-telling which has given us our fiction, and our mythology.
In 587 B.C. the alphabet reached the Jews, and their writings would become the best-selling book of all time, the bible. In another two thousand years, the first printing press would be created by Guttenberg and then the power of words would spread over the whole world.
Between the first human civilizations and the year 2000, they say nearly five ‘exabytes’ of information were created. Now the same amount of information gets churned out every couple of days. Probably more.
Whenever my family gathers together, we play cards, and we sit around my father in the evenings. We listen to Grandpa’s stories; we absorb his unique contact with the past and our family’s history. We listen to his memories, his jokes and his old-time songs, the lyrics which he reads from a notebook, all written painstakingly by hand in his peculiar style of capital letters. We sit to be entertained and to share our family’s past in such a way that the tales bond us together as a group and ensures we won’t forget who we are or where we came from.
Story comes through as important rituals in many cultures.
Consider the age-old Maori tradition of the ‘Mihi’, when two factions meet, they stop and each person has the floor and the chance to give their Mihi and in that way say who they were and where they came from. This personal story sharing had a peace-serving function, creating ties with other territories through the discovery of shared friends and relatives.
That’s the real power of story. We need each other to survive. Stories weave us together.
Even today, humans are still very much Homo Narrans, “Story-telling Man”. In the global community, a story is still a powerful form of currency today. Still valued. Still responsible for our humanity.
And my father, who after his impromptu tales this week was warmly praised for his ability to ‘tell a story’, will always be welcome back at my Toastmasters club!
Dad is a Story-teller.
I am too.
How about you? What story-telling traditions abound in your family?
Tell me what you think in the comments…
Yvette K. Carol
“Lots of animals are bright, but as far as we can tell they’ve never come up with any ideas about who makes the thunder.” Terry Pratchett.