Sunday, April 26, 2015

Fairy post #8 - visiting Nell Bell, faerie elder

Can you find the waterfall spirits?

Fairy Dates:

Workshop: 3rd May, “Baba Yaga, Fair Vasilisa and the Wise Doll”: on a full moon ‘tween Samhain and Mother’s Day, storyteller Jenni Cargill-Strong gives a workshop for women in Brisbane with pianist Lynette Lancini, whose creativity spans movement, wellbeing & music (Muses Trio, Topology, Queensland Orchestra)

Monash Fairy Tale Salon:
13th June, Glen Eira Storytelling Festival,
Glen Eira Town Hall, Hawthorn Road, Caulfield, Melbourne
celebrating 150th Anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Come join us for an afternoon of warm & whimsical commemoration. 

Australian Fairy Tale Society Annual Conference: 
Sunday 21st June 2015, Winter Solstice
“Transformations: spinning straw into green and gold”
NSW Writers Centre, Garry Owen House, Callan Park, Balmain Road, Rozelle, Sydney. (I've accepted an invitation to open, with music, this national gathering of fairy tale buffs from academia to storytelling, fantasy literature and beyond.)

Faerie Report of our visit to Nell Bell 

On 19th December 2014, three storytellers visited Australian doyen of storytelling, Nell Bell,  Westgarth Aged Care Facility. It was the season of Little Red Riding Hood for The Australian Fairy Tale Society, which I call basket bunting: dressing up in berry red & bonnet white, bringing cheer to the elderly. It needn’t be as literal as donning a red cape or cap. Or a splash of gold glitter, if we’re into Lang’s lupine fire-branding Golden Hood. It’s the spirit of giving, of visiting, that sparks the child’s journey to her grandmother. We three visitors were: Anne E Stewart, JB Rowley and me, Louisa John-Krol. Despite our punctuality, Nell was waiting by the entrance. We asked if we’d derailed her time with Happy Hour that filled the centre with raucous carolling. But Nell gleefully waved us past. Her walking frame had become a propeller. 

We wanted to know how Nell became a co-founder of Australia’s first state storytelling guild. Or the second. Nell thinks Western Australia might have pipped Victoria to the post. 

According to The Children’s Book Council, which awarded her the Leila St John medal, Nell Bell is defined by generosity of spirit and love for children. Born in the 1920s, her contribution to children's literature began in the 1940s when, as Assistant Matron of Sydney’s Ashfield Foundlings Home, she pioneered the first story time for 3–5 year olds and ran it regularly. 

Her interest in stories led to further training. In 1975, as a librarian at Preston East Technical School, Nell taught Introduction to History of Literature and Books. That year she toured schools and libraries in China and, in years to follow, visited New Zealand and America. Qualifying for her Secondary Teachers Certificate the next year, Nell started a Children's Book Club, introducing students to literature via storytelling in the classroom. She published an article—The Importance of Oral Literature—in the Education Department magazine.

Nell recalls a literature conference in Frankston in 1978 where she met Monty Kelly and enjoyed inspiring discussions about stories across both written and oral traditions. After that came a gathering at Erskine House, Lorne, where the idea of the Storytelling Guild surfaced. It was also Monty Kelly and Nell Bell who designed the Guild logo, a harp. They wanted to make a connection with the bards of old.

In the 1980s, Nell obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in Children's Literature at the University of Melbourne, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Children's Literature at Toorak Teachers' College (in her essay it’s called Victoria College - Toorak campus). For copies of this essay entitled “Witch Stories in Children’s Literature” dated 15th November 1982, contact me: Louisa John-Krol; its typed format is too faint for scanning but for now can be photocopied & posted via surface mail until I retype it for the web. 

As part of the 1988 Bicentenary, Nell joined a delegation of Artists in Education sponsored by the Australian Federal Government and the JF Kennedy Cultural Centre in Washington sent to America as representatives of Australia. From the 1970’s to 1990’s, Nell mentored many storytellers including the visitors in this report. Anne E Stewart had begun storytelling in 1977; JB Rowley a decade later first connecting with the storytelling guild circa 1989 and me, Louisa John-Krol, circa 1990 in Wonderwings Fairy Shop in Richmond, run by “the other fairy Annie”, Anne Atkins. Both Anne E Stewart and I were among its pioneer fairy storytellers. JB Rowley recalls: “Nell and others used to meet in private homes, such as Julie Halpin's, and we would exchange stories, usually based on a theme. Nell was very encouraging of new 'talent' and I recall going out to a school with her to see her in action.”

Nell was the first storyteller to perform at Dromkeen and was Artist in Residence introducing students to literature via storytelling at Methodist Ladies College, Richmond Girls High School and Presbyterian Ladies College. She’s been involved in the Victorian Branch of the Children's Book Council and Victorian Committee for UNICEF. In 1995 she participated in the launch of Children's Week at National Gallery of Victoria. She worked as a storyteller at Camp Quality, Melbourne Children's Hospital and Radio of the Air School in the Northern Territory. To quote “The Harper” (Newsletter of The Storytelling Guild of Vic, Autumn 1997): “Nell has a great love of people and a strong belief that story can show how all aspects of life form a continuing cycle to be celebrated and shared”.

That is how, in 2005, the Children’s Book Council awarded Nell Bell the Leila St John medal for her services to children’s literature. (Presentation did not occur until 2011, when she travelled with her daughters to receive the award in person.)

Another fascinating segment of Nell’s history as a folklorist came to life with a Melbourne journal “Swag of Yarns”, edited by June Barnes-Rowley in some 30 volumes starting 1997, then seasonally between 1998 and 2006, except for two years (2002-2003), when its editors were Peter Dargin and Pat Dargin. Swag's weblink is old and does not evoke the enjoyment of sliding that smooth magazine from its sheath, opening its pages and reading those columns, which carried a wealth of folklore from many sources and times. 

Recently, at the Westgarth Aged Care Facility, Nell participated in Bridging The Gap Through Art. She was pictured in a news report sharing memorabilia with a boy, glasses perched on her pert nose, mouth in full fletch releasing a volley of words. The caption read: “Generation gaps don’t come much bigger than the gulf between elderly citizens in primary care and primary school students”. 
Could those little visitors guess how communication had changed across this woman’s life? How we receive stories has altered irrevocably. Nothing replaces face-to-face, eye-to-eye, mouth-to-ear storytelling that happens orally, sometimes with the warmth of a handshake, or crawling onto a knee, or cresting in the curve of a well crafted phrase, resting in a pause, knowing we can’t press stop,  rewind or fast-forward. It’s tit for tat, since the storyteller has no luxury of revising those moments. Trust on both sides.

Returning to Little Red Riding Hood, reminiscing on our visit to our Grand Mother of Storytelling: the wolf as deceiver or devourer constituted misrepresentation of wolves, as folklorists have addressed. There have also been gender switches, as in the TV series “Once”, where Little Red Riding Hood herself turns out to be a werewolf. Yet, setting aside species and simply contemplating a beastly presence, it’s possible to interpret the threat as another danger, like greed; a fixation on “keeping the wolves from the door”. Could we make do with less material gain, to foster more intangible richness? In childhood I recall the magical conjoining of dreaming and time as one word, Dreamtime. A friend cautions me that it’s a bit dated, which is the case for most of what I love. Indeed ‘The Dreaming’ is a beautiful term, too. Yet Time and Dreaming still form a natural pairing, for without time - or rather its shadow, timelessness - how can we ever dream?

Old to young, our tale's begun
Web-spun, spindle run
Fire drum, the wolf is done!
(Louisa John-Krol)

Hardest part of visiting my fairy storyteller at her great age was not confronting mortality, but trying to comprehend how such a vibrant life could be compressed into that tiny room. How do we honour our elderly? Chronicle their lives? Continue their legacy? Visit?

“I carry inside my heart,
As in a chest too full to shut,
All the places where I’ve been,
All the ports at which I’ve called,
All the sights I’ve seen through windows and portholes
And from quarterdecks, dreaming.”
(Fernando Pessoa)

Visiting Nell Bell, storyteller & faerie elder:

Louisa John-Krol, Jb Rowley, Nell Bell, Anne E Stewart
We tip our hats to storyteller Susan Pepper, who purveys the highly effective “story-catching” with elderly people. With a background in Arts Therapy, Susan was integral to the My Story project at five Uniting AgeWell aged care facilities that employed 30 volunteers as well as two staff members in collecting and collating stories from residents. You can read about her inspiring work here

Related links:

June Barnes-Rowley (JB), storyteller, educator, author
Report of our visit by storyteller Anne E. Stewart
Nell, Louisa, Annie and JB are mentioned in this article at Wiki
This report, above, by Louisa John-Krol

1 comment:

  1. Thank -you Louisa. I have been doing a project near Nells and have dropped in on several occasions to record her stories. I hope I still have a twinkle in my eye when telling at 90 like Nell does. Thanks for all your work on this piece