The Art of Storytelling

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Theirishscouter stood beside a roaring fire in the living room of a 17th century cottage deep in the Wicklow Mountains a few weeks ago. Outside, the rain was coming down in vast sheets, blown across the valley by an icy wind. The valley itself was in almost complete darkness, save for a few isolated yellow dots, where other dwellings clung to the mountainside, between the trees and dry stonewalls.

It was a room well known to the various Scouters present that night. It and the location generally, had played a central and regular role in all our lives from at least teenage years and probably a lot earlier for many.

In the room around thirty scouts sat, happily munching on popcorn and sipping cocoa in the dim light.

At the other end of the room, a small cluster of said fellow scouters observed expectantly as theirishscouter flicked through a back catalogue of ghost stories, in a bid to find the right mix of age-appropriate content for a relatively youthful audience (a newly opened troop – the third one for the group as it happens and new troops do tend to have a younger age profile than average).

The opening tale was of a lonely hunting lodge, several miles from a paved road in one direction and surrounded by miles of rugged mountain ranges on all others. It chronicled some of the strange occurrences that had taken place there on a number of occasions….

*     *     *

We have all grown up through Scouting with our leaders sharing stories. In childhood, it is the mysterious ‘White Lady’ who stalks the corridors of a long demolished hospital, the site of which now houses a hostel. Or the benign presence of ‘Farmer Taylor’ and his dog strolling through his field in the dying rays of the late afternoon sun.

It is the ‘Mad Monk’, the terrifying creature designed to keep errant cub scouts firmly tucked up in bed, lest they consider succumbing to the temptation of midnight antics. It is the ‘Man with the Green Lantern’ surely some sort of hybrid ghost/comic book character dreamed up by a scouter pressed for content around the campfire one night.

The stories may vary, the characters will differ but every group has a stock to share with newer members and they, in turn preserve and share with future generations.

For several years, theirishscouter regaled cub scouts with stories of the covert antics of ‘Mister Tobler’, a shadowy character usually up to no good on the banks and surrounding land of a windswept lake in a corner of North Wicklow. His name attributed to the presence of a bar of ‘toblerone’ chocolate, sitting on the kitchen table in the den one afternoon as a senior sixer made representations on council’s behalf to get some details of the supposed ‘bad guys’ we would be investigating that coming weekend.

In adulthood, the stories become less about made up ghosts and more about shared experiences, close shaves and other war stories from the front line of Scouting. The tale of stumbling into the Luggala estate at midnight, hours behind schedule and being picked up by searchlight wielding security. Or the time two members were left on a platform in a rural French town as the rest of the group swept helplessly out of the station on a TGV bound for the Gare du Nord in Paris. Or that canoeing trip through the Gorge du Tarn on a day that was so perfect in every way it is seared into the collective memory of all who were present. Even six years later, merely thinking of it places one back in rural countryside on a mild summers day…

Ghosts are ever present however. Each visit to a place evokes memories of the last one and many before that. It invariably recalls locations that have changed, individuals who have grown, people who have moved on and some who have passed on. It celebrates friendships that have stood the test of time and sometimes laments or regrets others that have not. Old enemies become friends on the strength of reminiscing. New friends get a glimpse into some of the earlier chapters of your particular life story.

In all our Scouting experiences, stories are the threads that weave us into the fabric of the association’s history. They bind us all together. People who at first glance may have little in common can find common purpose in the work we all undertake and the time we all spend together in pursuit of this idea given voice by a visionary over a century ago, but nurtured and sustained today by each one of us.

Stories inform, educate and teach. They entertain and enthrall. They stimulate helpless laughter as a hilarious past experience is related or recalled. The listener might grit their teeth as a cringe-inducing tale is related. Stories can moisten eyes as an old friend or mentor is remembered and missed.

Sometimes, they generate frustration, even anger. They can be the catalyst for change. They are in many ways the cement that holds together those milestones along the Scouting trail for all of us.

*     *     *

We all tell stories every day, but the presence of a little one in one’s life consciously brings home the importance of stories and storytelling. That book about the airport that junior is glued to each evening at present as he excitedly delivers a noun-based running commentary on what to him is the adventure and excitement of airports and air travel (contrasting with the dull tedium it represents to adults), opens the world to him and helps build his independence. The elegant images of snow-covered villages and forests that populate the book on Christmas that is seasonally relevant this week also excite, and will hopefully fill his mind with images of things he will come to cherish and associate with a happy childhood.

At the fireside in Wicklow a couple of weeks back, theirishscouter was explaining to the assembled group, the challenge of helping a toddler to understand the concept of a jolly rotund man who flies around the World in one night, gets involved in breaking and entering by climbing down the chimney and leaves gifts under a tree for children he has never met.

A sharp nudge from a friend and respected colleague was accompanied by a fierce whisper “Garrett, some of these kids still believe in Santa!” How was one to respond to that, other than to say “Amy, so do I”.

Tell more stories in 2017. But perhaps even more importantly, MAKE more.

Theirishscouter wishes you and yours the very best of everything for Christmas and the New Year.

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