Carolyn Steedman

  • Spoken History by George Ewart Evans
    Faber, 255 pp, £9.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14982 0

There is the idea of the story-taker, the necessary collaborator in the act of telling, the one who listens, shapes the narrative by assuming that there is something there to be told, who takes the story, not as appropriation, but as part of a deal, so that the outcome – an entity, a story – might be placed there, in the space between the listener and the teller. The presence of the story-taker wards off the question ‘So what?’ According to William Labov, a story-taker from a tradition quite different from the one George Ewart Evans represents, a sociolinguist rather than a folklorist, that is the response that every good narrator is continually evading: ‘when the narrative is over, it should be unthinkable for a bystander to say “so what?” ’

The story-taker was first identified by the branch of folklore studies that has recorded and transcribed children’s narratives over the last forty years, though he appears as timeless as the huckster or the trickster, a man without place or history. In fact, he began to assume professional status at the end of the last century, when folklorists started to collect and analyse the stories of country people in a systematic way. Later, in this century, sociolinguists like Labov, pursuing linguistic complexity in the face of theories of linguistic inadequacy and linguistic deprivation, recorded the verbal accounts of adolescents, complex New York street-fighting stories of the Sixties which, when transcribed and analysed, asserted a grammar of Black American English. Some accounts that appropriate the clinical practice of psychoanalysis to narratology suggest that since the 1890s, the story-taker’s purpose in the consulting-room has been to give back to the analysand the story of his or her own life, welded into chronological sequence and narrative coherence, so that at the end of it all, the coming to psychic health might be seen as the reappropriation of one’s own life-story. The most familiar modern professional story-taker is probably the oral historian, with tape-recorder placed discreetly to one side, prescribed smiles and nods of encouragement: ‘Can you tell me a bit more about that?’ Such professionals really do tape and take away the stories they hear, though it is the social anthropologist rather than the historian who experiences the dilemmas of possession in the starkest of ways. In publishing Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman in 1981, Marjorie Shostak had to reflect on the propriety of making a book out of the words of a woman whose world did not encompass literacy, nor an understanding of the production and consumption of texts.

These were not George Ewart Evans’s problems over the past thirty years, in which he published ten accounts of rural life and folklore, told largely in the transcribed words of the many men and women he spoke to, particularly in East Anglia and in the Glamorganshire valley in which he was born, in 1909. For most of these accounts, as he reminds his readers in Spoken History, he sought out people born in the 1880s and 1890s, and they certainly knew what he was doing among them, taking notes at first and later using a tape-recorder. As the first generation of consistently-schooled rural poor, they possessed a sophisticated understanding of the meaning of books and the purpose of making them (though the literary furnishings of their imagination are not really discussed by Evans, anywhere in his corpus).

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