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Home » The Beguiling Power of the Well-Told Tale: Sue Bolton at TEDxSWPS (Transcript)

The Beguiling Power of the Well-Told Tale: Sue Bolton at TEDxSWPS (Transcript)

Sue Bolton – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

I have the best job in the world. I’ve been teaching English here at SWPS for the best part of 30 years now. And I spend my working life introducing new generations to the stories of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte. But it very nearly didn’t happen; I only just scraped through my teacher training, with the help of a little bit of bullying and the threat of a bit of physical violence.

Have I ever told you that story? Possibly not. It was my second teaching practice in South Yorkshire, and things weren’t going well. My tutor had come to see a lesson, and it was make-or-break time. It was a year-10 group. On this side of the room, we had Denise and Tracy, worldly, tough young women – 14 going on 40. On this side of the room, we had a group of wriggling boys who spent all of my lessons thumping each other and breaking wind, and they were 14 going on 4, and I had no idea what to do with them, whatsoever.

My tutor appeared. Denise immediately took on what was going on: “Now then, Miss, is that your inspector?” No point in trying to fool Denise, so I said, “Yes, Denise.”

“It’s important, isn’t it, Miss?”

“Yes, Denise, it’s important.”

“Don’t worry, Miss. We’ll give you a good lesson.”

I thought, “Oh.” At which point, she elbowed me out of the way and hissed across the room: “Here, you lot, that there’s her inspector at back of room, and if you don’t give her a good lesson, I’ll do you.” I thought “I can’t let this happen,” but I did, of course I did, course I did. And the lesson was fantastic. Forest of hands up, every question I asked, and the tutor was really impressed: “Well done, Miss Charlton. You’ve cracked it at last.” And that was it; I was away.

Now, I’ve told this story many times. I like this story. It’s one of my favorites. And one of the reasons I like it is because it was a tough time. Lots of great things about that time, but it was a tough time. But in the story, the difficult things – the humiliations, the despair – they’re all edited out. And it reminds me of everything I loved about that year in Sheffield.

So, telling a story can often make sense of a messy, difficult experience by shaping it and extracting the good things. I very quickly learned that not only is it comforting to be able to do that with difficult experiences, sometimes when you’re in the middle of one, knowing that there’s a story ahead can help.

Another difficult time for me was when my daughter was very little; I wasn’t very good at the baby and toddler phase, at all. And there’s one particular day when things had been very trying. She was learning how to feed herself, and at the end of the day, something went not quite right, and I saw pink yogurt flying through the air, and it landed in a perfect arc across the glass door of the dining room. Aah -deep breath – clean up the yogurt – clean up the baby – get the baby to bed – eat my dinner, thank goodness – oh, I’m tired, I’ll sit on the sofa. But I stumbled. Another arc of pink yogurt lands on the sofa. The sofa’s made of cane, so it continues through the sofa, and lands – splot – on the carpet.

So I go and get a bowl of water and detergent, and I put it down on the carpet, and I think, “How am I going to do this?” And as I step back and my heel catches the edge of the bowl, I just have time to think “This isn’t going to be funny now, but it’ll be a funny story tomorrow.” And then flooded the dining room. Now, I told this story to my parents, and my mother said, “Well, isn’t that remarkable? All that yogurt in one day.” And I said, “Well, actually, if I’m honest, no, it, it, it – I think I’ve probably conflated two yogurt-related incidents here.”

And my father gave me a look, and he said, “So, it’s not true, is it?” And I said, “Well, yes, of course it’s true. It just didn’t happen on the same day.” And he said, “No, that’s not really very honest, is it?” And we often argued about this, and we never agreed about it, but of course he’s right, he’s right. That the very thing that makes story valuable to us – the way it shapes, the way it edits – can sometimes be dishonest.

Story can be misleading, it can be distorting. And this is something that this man discovered. Story sometimes has a way of insinuating into places where it shouldn’t really be. I often think of this when there is some dramatic human-interest event that’s splashed across the news-media, something horrible and shocking, such as a murder or a kidnapping.

And you may remember the story that Christopher Jefferies found himself involved in. A young woman was murdered in a flat of which he was the landlord. And the story was all over the newspapers, and because it was shocking, because it was a human-interest story, we somehow expected it to behave like a story does; we wanted, the next day, the next chapter. And of course, life is too messy for that, it doesn’t find itself into nice neat chapters and scenes. And so there’s a gap in the story. But the editors want to keep the readers on board, and Christopher Jefferies found himself walking into the gap of that story. You see him in that photograph: he’s surrounded by journalists, he’s surrounded by photographers because he was around, because he looked slightly eccentric.

So, perhaps he’s the one who did it. And he was demonized, he was vilified. And it took, of course, the police some time to discover – to find the true culprit. And in the meantime, this man was put through a terrible experience. So, story will shape and sometimes it shapes in a misleading way. And one of the ways in which it shapes is it’s particularly good at telling us who to blame, telling us who is responsible. And this becomes very problematic when it’s happening in the context of a society where there are divisions, where there are divides and grievances between communities.

A society, such as, to take an example from close to home, Northern Ireland. Now, that’s a society where the telling of stories is important on both sides of the sectarian divide. Now Irish history is hugely, hugely complex; it goes back centuries. The roots of the trouble in Northern Ireland go back centuries and centuries. But both sides have stories, stories that edit, and stories that simplify, and stories that appear to make sense of all of that complexity.

On the Nationalist side of the divide, there’s a whole mythology that has developed out of the events of the 1960 Easter Rising in Dublin. The Loyalist side of the divide, they have this story: This is King Billy, and this mural commemorates the Battle of the Boyne, 12th of July, 1690. And the images of King Billy are often accompanied by the slogan “Remember 1690.” And the 12th of July marks the beginning of the marching season in Northern Ireland.

Now, things are much better in Northern Ireland than they were, and the moment, the significant moment there, of course, was the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. But last year, there were riots during the marching season, over the parade and where the parades could go and couldn’t go. I’m particularly interested in the young man on the right of the picture, there, who is out there defending his rights to commemorate the anniversary of King Billy’s victory.

But look at him. He doesn’t remember 1690. He doesn’t remember the troubles when they were at their height in the 1970s. And the Good Friday Agreement, I don’t think he was even born when it was signed, but he knows the stories. And I have a colleague who teaches history and politics in Northern Ireland, and she, on a daily basis, encounters students such as this young man. He knows the stories, he knows the mythologies; he identifies with them very strongly. But he doesn’t really understand what they mean, he doesn’t understand the history, and her job is to try and make him have some idea of what that history means, and what that allegiance that he holds, and what identity he has – what it actually means.

Now, of course, this isn’t unique to Northern Ireland. If we think of somewhere such as Bosnia and the Bosnian War, you don’t have to do much reading about the causes of the Bosnian War to start bumping into stories. Not just the event of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, but stories. And there’s this one that I kept coming across: Sinan Pasha burns the bones of Saint Save in Belgrade in 1595, and that is still talked about now, as a memory: a representative of the Ottoman Empire burning the bones of a Serbian saint. Now, these stories, they don’t cause conflict, of course they don’t. But they somehow perpetuate it, they somehow get in the way of these issues being resolved. They take the history – the complex, messy history – and boil it down into something simple and hard, that can be handed on from generation to generation to get in the way.

So, is story then just something that is poisonous? Well, yes, it can be. But the wonderful thing about story is that when it’s in the hands of anyone who understands how it works, it contains the antidote as well. Now, if you think about the end of Apartheid in South Africa. After a long period of division, of grievance, of violence, of atrocity, a few inspired individuals came up with this idea: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where victims and perpetrators of atrocities are brought together, and at the heart of that process was the telling of stories. And the idea that if the stories can be told, and listened to, and acknowledged and treated with respect, then, perhaps, there can be some progress. And this process is still happening in Africa.

I’m particularly interested in a project that is taking place in Uganda, in Northern Uganda. This is the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre in Northern Uganda. And groups of workers from this project are going around the villages of Northern Uganda and listening to the stories of people who have suffered the most appalling atrocities at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army. And they’re discovering things that no one had even heard about, things that hadn’t been recorded at all. And they’re listening to the stories and allowing people to tell their stories.

People such as this woman, Nekolina Nakot. She watched the Lord’s Resistance Army beat her father-in-law to death, and then beat all her children to death. And the project has given her the opportunity to tell her story, to be heard, to be listened to, to have her experience listened to with respect. And I’d like to read you her words: ‘”When I share my experiences, it will at least make me feel some ease of heart. It will make me feel better knowing that my memories are kept somewhere.” And the hope is that by listening to these stories, they won’t become boiled down into that horrible, little, hard piece of grievance that can be handed on from generation to generation.

That perhaps when the next warlord comes along, he won’t find a reservoir of hatred that he can draw on, because some of the poison will have been purged. The wounds will still be there, but hopefully, they’ll become cleaned wounds, rather than wounds that will carry on, festering. So, that’s my very long answer to my father, who accused me of being dishonest in my storytelling. And when he died in 2012, we needed to put together the tribute for his funeral. Now, how do you do that? How do you sum up a life? Well, it’s obvious really, isn’t it? We gather together the tales, the anecdotes, the mythology, and shared them with everyone who came to the funeral. So, I think in the end, he and I got our story straight. Thank you.

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