It's the way he tells them...

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Storytelling is alive and well among teenagers - in and out of school. Michael Wilson spins some strange yarns.

Sessions with visiting storytellers usually fall into two categories. First, there is the "performance", whereby the storyteller will draw upon his or her repertoire of largely traditional stories and entertain the audience. Second, there is the "workshop" which usually centres on the storyteller sharing his or her skills.

Both these types of session are extremely worthwhile - indeed I regularly use them myself. Nevertheless, they do have a disadvantage: they both place the storyteller's expertise at the centre, leaving little room for full recognition of the skills and knowledge that the students themselves bring to the classroom.

It seems that there is a need to create circumstances in which professional storytellers, with all their specialist expertise, unlock the students' own repertories of stories. This is particularly the case at secondary level.

Let me tell you a story. I was working in an inner-city comprehensive and had just finished a storytelling session with a group of 14-year-olds. I had been talking a little about stories, but mainly telling them, for about an hour, and was reasonably satisfied with the session. As the students filed out, I was approached by a small group. "Do you know that story you told about that bloke? Well, I know one like that," said one. "And I've got a riddle to tell you, " said another. And so on. The storytelling continued for a further half hour.

This happened in 1990 on one of my first secondary school visits, but it could have happened at any time, because the experience has been repeated many times since in schools throughout the country.

It is often assumed that teenagers aren't really interested in storytelling and that they consider it too babyish. When they do tell stories, these are thought to be insignificant tales full of violence and crudity. What I discovered on that, and subsequent occasions, was exactly the opposite. Teenagers are active and vibrant storytellers with large and varied repertoires, many of which are highly traditional in character. If there is any cynicism towards storytelling from teenagers, then this is often because adults have defined storytelling as an activity for younger children, so that teenagers keep their stories largely private.

Rather tentatively and haphazardly at first, and later more methodically as a serious research project, I began to collect on tape those stories that teenagers told me. Within a couple of years I had collected almost 500 stories of varying length and complexity. Within that collection there were legends, ghost stories, personal stories, "urban myths" (or contemporary legends), riddles, folktales, humorous stories, and others. Some of the stories took 10 seconds to tell, others up to 10 minutes. Some stories exist in many variants across Britain and Ireland, while others are specific to locality. Some are clearly modern versions of much older stories, while others are quite innovative. Either way, these are not stories to be seen in isolation, but tales that should take their rightful place among a range of other storytelling traditions.

Here is an example, a story told by Allan, a 12-year-old from a youth club in north Devon, during a Hallowe'en party: There's this man about 30-years-old, his mum and dad live in London and his gran, she's died. She's very very, very rich and her leg is golden, because it is a false one and it's 24-carat gold - that was how rich she was. She could just afford to throw money away. And in her will everything went to him. He was very rich and he started to gamble, just a little bit of money, but it grew and grew until he had a massive problem and he couldn't stop and he gambled away all the money and then he dug up the grave and dug up the leg and sold it, then he gambled away all the money.

So he decided to dig up all her rings, she had about five on each finger and that was every finger she had it and even on her toes, bracelets around her leg and neck and everything, she was so rich. And he dug her up and sat her in the chair, and her eyes they're all rotting out, there weren't any eyes, just the sockets, and her leg, and her hair is all rotting and he goes: "What's happened to your eyes Grandma?" The ghost said "All rotted with time."

And he goes: "What's happened to your hair?" "It's rotted with time."

"What's happened to your face and skin?" "It's rotted with time."

"What's happened to your leg?" "YOU'VE GOT IT!" As with many stories in the teenage repertoire, it is one with a supernatural theme, irrational. The uncertain, the horrific and the distasteful act subverts the values of adult society. However, as well as Allan's display of undoubted verbal artistry (notice the repetition of key phrases and formulae, the economic progression of plot, the use of repeated words for emphasis and pace) his story is also very traditional. It is similar to the story of "The Golden Arm", collected and published in 1890 by Joseph Jacobs in his English Fairy Tales, which tells of a man who robs the grave of his wife and steals her golden arm. His wife's ghost returns to avenge the theft and Jacobs concludes his tale with the man addressing the apparition: What hast thou done with thy cheeks so red?" "All withered and wasted away," replied the ghost in a hollow tone.

"What hast thou done with thy red rosy lips?" "All withered and wasted away."

"What hast thou done with thy golden hair?" "All withered and wasted away. "

"What hast thou done with thy Golden Arm?" "THOU HAST IT!" Although this is a good illustrative example, it is by no means an isolated case. Time and time again, teenagers show that they are eager participants in a thriving and complex oral narrative tradition.

These are stories that are told for a variety of purposes as social currency in both semi-formal situations and in everyday exchanges, offering opportunities to play with language and reality. In all cases there lies a vast treasure chest of resources for the teacher and storyteller alike that, if given the respect and recognition it deserves, will readily unlock itself.

The story of the vanishing hitchhiker is one of the most enduring legends within the teenage repertoire. A 12-year-old boy from Bradford told this version, full of contemporary trappings, but with the central image a mainstay of traditional ghost lore.

It was a dark and misty, rainy night. Twelve o'clock midnight. It were belting it down. And this man were walking down the road with this yellow raincoat and yellow hat.

This woman came down the road with a red Escort convertible and said, "Pop in, love, you're going to get soaked out there."

She said, "Where do you want to go?" and he just pointed and said, "Down there."

So she took him to this pub, it's called the Bedford Arms. And he got out and went in.

This woman said, "he looks a bit mysterious," to herself. So she went in and looked for him and she couldn't find him anywhere.

She asked the barman. She said, "have you seen that man come in with the yellow coat and yellow hat?" He goes, "Yeah, he went in the taproom. Every night he comes in, but he disappears. he got knocked over on that road and he always comes down every night."

Natasha, a 14-year-old from Dorset, told this story in which a ghost takes revenge for the theft of a body part from a grave. Though this version, with its quiet ending, is unusual, the tale is widespread. In an adult education class, a woman told me that she too knew the story from her own adolescence in Michigan: There was this boy and he was given some money by his mother to go down to the butcher's and buy some liver.

So he went down and saw a funeral procession on the way and he thought, "Well, if I just buy some magazines I can collect the liver on the way back from the body." So he goes down and gets some magazines with the money.

He comes back and he goes in the graveyard and luckily everyone had gone into church 'cos it had started raining and they hadn't covered it over - the coffin was just there. So he opened the coffin and cut the liver out and put it in a plastic bag and took it home to his mum.

Anyway, his mum made it into a liver and bacon casserole and his family had it for tea that evening, but he said he wasn't feeling very hungry, so he had a boiled egg.

Later that evening he was in bed and heard: "Johnny, I want my liver, I'm in the graveyard."

And he thought, "Oh, I must be dreaming." And a bit later he heard: "Johnny, I want my liver, I'm on your doorstep."

And he was frightened. He hid under the covers. Then he heard: "Johnny, I want my liver, I'm on our staircase."

And he was really frightened and he was hiding under his sheets and he was hoping that he was just dreaming it. Then he heard: "Johnny, I want my liver, I'm by your door now."

He was really frightened, now hiding. Then he heard: "Johnny, I want my liver. I'm by your bed."

Then he heard: "Beurrgh, Johnny, I love you, I've got my liver."

And in the morning his parents found the boy dead with his liver cut out.

Michael Wilson is honorary research fellow at the Department of Drama, University of Exeter. His Performance and Practice: Oral Narrative Traditions Among Teenagers in Britain and Ireland is published next month by Ashgate. He is also a schools' storyteller under his Equity name, Mike Dunstan. Details: 01837 840643. The Society for Storytelling publishes a directory of storytellers and can be contacted at PO Box 2344, Reading RG5 7FG. It is organising a conference with Wandsworth Council, It's the Words that Count, on November 5. Details: 0181 871 7037

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