At a loose end last weekend, I decided to do something I rarely do: engage in some of the activities London has to offer. So often, I cycle around the city not thinking about where I’m travelling through or what I could find to occupy and entertain myself if I actually paid attention.
I mean –- it was due to a Facebook advert that I found this event; I didn’t buy Time Out or actually look online for listings -– but I was pleased with myself for not lying in bed watching Geography Now on YouTube (my latest obsession).
It’s called The Crick Crack Club, and it’s a storytelling event not dissimilar to The Moth, but for fiction. I had never heard of it before, but this is its thirtieth year. The Club currently runs a series of events at the British Museum, in a huge subterranean auditorium, where world-class storytellers tell the old classics. The Iliad, the Ramayana and Beowulf are all upcoming events: it’s a pretty international selection.
The one I picked was on Irish folk stories.
The storyteller was Clare Murphy, and she had big brown hair, wide eyes, was dressed in black, and had a wonderfully expressive face. ‘Stories are psychic nourishment’, she said, and before she started the first story she said, ‘see you on the other side’ – as if she, herself, wasn’t going to be present for the next forty-five minutes.
The first story was The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne (Gron-ya), dating to the 10th century.
This one was funny. It had dumb men thinking with not-their-brains, star-crossed lover, derring-do and a main character who sucked his thumb when he was stuck because he’d once used it to eat a magic salmon of wisdom. It had pathologically stupid Greek pirates who died in the dozens for their pride and arrogance. But the audience nonetheless gasped in horror when we reached the denouement.
I learnt about the Fianna — a band of merceneries pledged to Fionn mac Cumhaill but who’d go to Diarmuid Ua Duibhne (Ger-mid oh Div-ney) if they thought he had a better argument.
I learnt about Brú na Bóinne — a real place standing today — where the god Aengus Óg lived. He saw everything from there, and when his foster-child Diarmuid was in danger he’d pass between worlds like shedding an overcoat to rescue him and Gráinne.
I learnt about a geis (gy-ass-ah): an oath or bargain. I might have a geas always to offer hospitality to a certain family and their descendants. You might have a geas never to eat a certain kind of animal. These oaths aren’t always magic, but they tie into something almost as powerful: social standing. Break a geas and lose your reputation.
The second story was the Children of Lir.
I learn about the Tuatha Dé Danann — the old gods who once once inhabited Ireland but slowly, over time, were absorbed into the landscape, until they were just hints and half-breaths in the hills.
I learnt how to pronounce Aoibh (ee-fa), Aodh (ay), and Fiachra (fee-kur).
I learnt how hazel wands can transform women into whispers of air and children into talking swans if they’re wielded by those with power. I was drawn into a world where druids are summoned as frequently as doctors and demand as much respect.
And I learnt and loved how the story started like a fairy story that matched what I know, with a man choosing one of three sisters to marry, but how it went in an entirely different direction thanks to jealousy and lust and greed and depression and despair.
Murphy’s style was just so visceral. Thoughts — be they anxious ruminations or singular decisions — circle like ravens in the mind. Evil stepmothers curl their tongues around spells. Stories spill out of people like liquid.
Three children are cursed to spend 300 years as swans in the freezing Sea of Moyle, and it got so cold that the seawater froze and stuck their thin, flat feet to the rocks. When they pulled them free the skin came off too, and we all know how wounds feel in salt water.
Although I sat alone and spoke to no one, the event reminded me of one of my best memories.
In around 2008 a dozen or so of my friends and I borrowed one of our parents’ houses and spent a week there, writing. One evening, we walked through the countryside and found a barrow – a man-made mound containing Neolithic tombs – and climbed inside. We sat there in the dark, holding hands, while one of us told the entire story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As the sun set, its rays shone into the opening to the barrow. My friend stood in the entrance, illuminated from behind, as he told the story.