Posts Tagged television

Listening

Yesterday, I was watching one of the nostalgia television shows that seem to be rife at this time of year. A children’s show of the 1990s had a phone-in game, where clues were given and a phrase had to be guessed by the young callers to win a prize. One rule: the phrase had to rhyme.

(Yes, those UK folk who remember such Saturday morning ‘wackiness’ may well know ‘Wonky Donkey’. Even if you weren’t there, does the name give you the idea?)

The presenter admitted that he would often go crazy into the camera lens, yelling at the audience, because each caller seemed not to understand that One. Little. Rule.  Kids called in and then just said anything, with no chance of winning because they just weren’t keeping to that simple statement. Were they not listening?!

It struck me then, just how apt this question is.

How often are we listening, really? We hear soundbites on the news and think we know the whole story. Someone tells an anecdote and we cast our own imprint onto it, subtly changing the tone, so that if we tell it in turn, it’ll be just that little bit different. Chinese Whispers in the everyday.

My partner is regularly frustrated by those who call Emergency Services demanding help, and yet on the basic request for their address, start shouting anything but – including ‘Why aren’t you here yet?’ Because they haven’t given the address, as asked. Such a little thing, subsumed by fear, lack of control, and sheer animal panic.

And yet, we always do know best, don’t we? It’s hard to shake the confidence of some people. You’re told a story that you know isn’t quite true, but when you try to correct the teller, it’s you who’s wrong (even if you were there at the time). The person who wouldn’t give their address may well report that the call-taker was stupid for not knowing (somehow) where he was, or what he wanted… despite this being impossible.

Modern technology doesn’t help. With the constant ‘What is your status?’ demand of social media, our interior monologue is constant, like the film noir voiceover as we narrate our own stories. We are the centre of our worlds, and therefore can’t comprehend data that we don’t understand, fitting it instead somehow into our worldview – even if that makes it very different to the truth. Despite the fact that the world is so complex, understanding any one tiny particle of it is a task in itself. Impossible to sum up in 140 characters.

It sometimes feels to me as if the world shifts with the telling (and mis-telling, and re-telling) of each story. Why does my recollection differ so drastically from what I’m hearing? Why is my knowledge of those ‘facts’ so different? Why does my side of a conversation seem to change in midair, as the response is so unrelated?

Ultimately, one crucial facet of the skill of listening is determining the motivation behind the story, the manner in which it’s told, the goal of the teller. What are they trying to achieve, what feelings do they want to evoke, reactions, emotions? As I said, each person colours their own tale to suit themselves. That’s part of the story. Different words carry different meanings to different people, after all.

We’re told (by Roman historians) that the ancient Bards used amazing mnemonic skills to recall verbatim the ancient sagas, passing on tales, family lineage and history, without tempering it in the slightest with their own personality, not even in the inflections of speech. This is a skill indeed (if true), and one which I think we have largely lost, despite our insistence sometimes on ‘proper’ versions of tales.

But then, I would question the value of such retelling. Is that not the other extreme? From randomly changing a story to not changing it at all? Everything changes, evolves, moves. Our understanding of history is coloured by our modern lives. Is anything we listen to truly neutral? And how valuable would it be if it was?

Part of my original Druid training was to simply listen. The simple part: to go out to a wild place in Nature, and do nothing. Sit and listen. Or walk and listen. Just hear – the birds, the trees, the small creatures, the shouts of children, aeroplanes far overhead. To feel myself in that picture of sound, my place within it, observing while being part of it.

Then the difficult bit: to listen when in the full flow of the everyday world. On train station platforms, in offices, on streets, in marketplaces, at home. The television, the radio, songs. What am I listening to? Why? What does it mean – no, really mean?

A child, screaming in a supermarket. Do you hear his words, what he wants? Or just the noise, as you will him to be quiet?

The simple phrase ‘I’m fine’ from a friend… who clearly isn’t. What are they trying to say, in the tones around the words?

A retelling of a much-loved story – Robin Hood, for example, or King Arthur. Are you hearing the flow of this story, or feeling it shaded by what’s gone before, your own experience of the tale, frustration at perceived errors?

This blog post, like most things I write, is in the hope of inspiring. Not guilt, not at all – we’re all guilty of the above faults, that’s just part of being a human in the world today. But without going back and re-reading, how much did you take in? How much of me did you ‘hear’, over the voice in your own head providing commentary? Were you judging my words, providing your own similar experiences, laughing or disagreeing? The tale is being told, here in black and white as I type. It’s being coloured by you, the reader, as you ‘listen’ to my virtual voice and make it your own.

Listen then, lovely readers, as you go about your life today. Feel the stories going on around you – and your part within that larger flow of time and space. Such a simple thing. Yet such a challenge.

What do you hear – and what do you understand?

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To Live Your Story

Stories have always been at the heart of my life. From the earliest days of having them read to me, to learning to read myself… and then I was off and running! I’ve often been accused of being a ‘book addict’, but my argument is that it’s at least a non-lethal addiction, and certainly less expensive than some alternatives.

Image taken from here (used without permission but with grateful thanks).

As a species, we have always told stories. The camp-fire tale is one of the oldest, and most fundamentally thrilling fiction (maybe) out there. It developed into the ballad, the urban myth, the mass-marketed best-seller. And from time to time, great stories are told that really make an impact on the wider world – whether re-telling the Hero’s Journey (eg Harry Potter) or reflecting society back at itself in the form of entertainment: almost a subtle satire, as the Ancient Greeks knew.

The Druids were famed for their storytelling. The Bard, wandering the land carrying the tales of the tribes, as well as forming new histories based on current events. From intentionally formal anecdotes to mythological allegories, he (or she) held the secrets of land and people, and was valued accordingly. The Bard would be welcomed at hearth and table from ancient times up to the middle ages, until the advent of the printing press. And while books are my passion, an imaginative experience inside my head, nothing compares to having a tale told – as live theatre can/not compare to a movie. It’s a skill that is as rare in the modern world as it ever was – true inspiration cannot be taught, it must be experienced and developed.

The popularity of different themes in modern children’s storytelling comes in waves. The ‘Choose Your Own Adventure‘ books of the 80s, I recall, as well as  Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl; Diana Wynne Jones in the ’90s. Then, of course, the aforementioned Potter deluge, itself performing the minor miracle of getting otherwise apathetic kids back into bookstores and libraries. Recently, however, an altogether different trend has been forming.

I’m not sure if it was the first, but when I encountered ‘The Hunger Games‘, I was, like so many others, both shocked and drawn in. From the ancient tale of Theseus, combined with the popcorn, throwaway soundbites of reality television, this story (and now movie) is no magical Potterverse. There seems to be a new wave of books for Young Adults (a relatively new genre in itself) looking at dystopian futures… and, in the process, performing the original role of a ‘viral’ story that passes from mouth to mouth: that of the learning experience.

An ancient tale is pushed into the future, by way of a satire on modern habits. We are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in a given situation – this is hardly a true children’s book, but it carries a clear moral, like any good fairytale. I do wonder if parents know what their youngsters are reading – and I’m amazed (and very glad) that the movie was made at all!

Because these books are teaching young people to THINK. They’re encouraging the ‘outsider’ to take pride in themselves, to use their skills to survive – something that every kid learns early on in the schoolroom, with its political cliques and strange ‘norms’. It may be considered escapist fiction, but these tales are actively encouraging the questioning of authority, the importance of individual thought, and the strength to speak up and act against a failed system. This is almost revolutionary. Not the punk kicking-out of the ’80s, but articulate and active anarchism, in its truest sense.

The news often speaks to us these days of young people in gangs, getting shot or stabbed for trivial reasons, but rarely goes into detail as to the reasons behind it. Far easier to blame ‘society.’ But writers – notably John Wyndham and Roald Dahl again – have always known that in each generation, adults who have distanced themselves from their children (not always by choice) can feel afraid, threatened by the strangeness of these curious, active, questioning strangers in their homes. The Childcatcher still scares us – that somehow warped adult whose specific function is to Shut Children Up (we never do find out what he does with those he’s caught, do we?).

Children challenge, in their quest to make sense of the world. Adults should, but many seem to forget how. Sometimes it may be easier to allow the television to become a nanny, but that won’t be enough. Censors have never understood that banning something, or allowing it to be omitted, simply encourages folk to go looking for what they’re not permitted to see.

Many parents I know today delight in teaching their youngsters, encouraging them to explore, read, play. If you’re old enough to ask questions, you’re old enough to hear answers – but they must be conveyed in a way that enables understanding. Television is a mass-market medium, and cannot always provide this.

But while advertisements and a certain type of children’s television seems to actively encourage being ‘one of the herd’ – having the latest style of clothes, make-up, trendy toys, shoes and so forth – there are these quietly subversive texts appearing. Very well written indeed (far removed from the insipid, unquestioning escapism of a certain glittering vampire series), their voices are being heard.

What stories are we telling, then? With our cynical whingeing (look at any national News broadcast), sense of doom rather than optimism, lack of encouragement to do anything because everything is depressed – in mind, body, spirit and bank account.

Or are we following the example of these children who live in worlds far worse than we could ever realize (I hope)… and discovering our own skills, our priorities, what we need to know and do to actively survive? It’s not about greed, acquisition, consumption – it’s about discovery, true friendship, inner truth, and living life well against adversity.

The world may have gone mad, but the storyteller still walks among us. Are you listening? And what is your  tale adding to that of those around?

Further reading:

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunt, by Andrew Fukuda

The Mall, by S.L. Grey

Wither, by Lauren DeStefano

The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge

And general dystopian fiction of the moment to choose from at Goodreads.

Image found on random search on pInterest (if source available, please let me know to update)

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