The story gives us shelter from the storm
by Keith Payne
There’s a wonderful conversation between John Berger and Susan Sontag recorded in 1983 that you can see on Youtube as part of the Voices programme. They are sitting either side of a small table, a glass carafe between them and each of them listening intensely to the other. They listen and respond, building layer on layer their experience of story. There is so much to quote from this conversation, so much that we are given access to with the sense of overhearing these great thinkers of the 20th Century as they pat back and forth their ideas of story, life, who we are and who we could be.
One particular quote from Berger that has always stayed with me is his contention that not only is a story a physical experience: the teller’s mouth and throat, their guts and the echo chamber of their diaphragm. The listener’s ears, the reredos and tympani in the inner canals of the ear where the story echoes as it reaches for our auditory cortex. And of course, the room where we are all sitting as the story is being told; the walls that hold us, the warmth from the fire. And in this body, and in these bodies, we are according to Berger, safe and protected. We are at home in the story, and while the story is being told, we are protected from all that happens outside. The story gives us shelter from the storm.
Shelter is something most of us can take for granted. A place to live, a place to be, a place to return to every evening. The absence of such a place is a horrifying possibility. Edward S. Casey writes: “We rarely pause to comprehend, much less face up to, what sheer placelessness would be like. Even when we are displaced, we continue to count upon 'some' reliable place, if not our present precarious perch, then a place-to-come or a place-that-was. While we easily imagine or project an ideal (or merely a better) place-to-be and remember a number of good places we have been, we find that the very idea, even the bare image, of no-place-at-all occasions the deepest anxiety.”
It is perhaps for this reason, that Seán Ó Súilleabháin and Séamus Ó Duilearga of the Irish Folklore Commission sent 50,000 primary school children home to ask the eldest person they knew to tell them stories, recipes, sayings, curses or cures. These were written down by the children and by 1939 Ó Duilearga could tell of over 350,000 pages. These pages are now part of the National Folklore Collection, one of the largest folklore collections in the world.
And now, in 2021, it is time once again to go home and ask for stories. Though this time, not necessarily from the eldest member of the community, but the newest. Neighbours from Ghana and Gambia, Nepal and Singapore, The Negev, Lagos and Warsaw. Neighbours whose stories show how much we all have in common, and show that the instinct to make art is universal. It is in these stories that we’ll all find a home.
Keith Payne is the John Broderick Writer in Residence 2021. Recent collections include Broken Hill (Lapwing 2015), Diary of Crosses Green (from the Galego of Martín Veiga. Francis Boutle 2018), The Desert and Second Tongue (from the Galego of Maria do Cebreiro and Yolanda Castaño, Shearsman 2019, 2020).