The Griot of Cowley
When I started investigating my family tree last week, I was doing it purely for me and trying to solve some of the family mysteries that have rattled away in my brain for years. I hadnt considered the impact it would have on Steven. To say he’s even more excited than me is the understatement of the year.
Steven is interested in people. He also loves stories. Put the two together, especially when it involves people he knows and he can find a hook, and he is in seventh heaven.
By Sunday morning, I’d reached the family layer of my great grandparents. The tree template allows you to upload photos of the people you discover. I don’t have many photos from my parent’s generation – the two main photos I have are the group photo from my wedding and the same from my parent’s wedding. I enlisted the help of the support worker to take zoom shots of the many heads from these photos and once uploaded, I did crop jobs so they would all fit into the profile picture spaces. I like the end result, although the randomness of the photos plays havoc with the visual timeline. For example, the photo I have of my cousin was taken when she went to collect her MBE. She was in her early 60s. Yet the photo of her dad, my Uncle Albert, was taken during the war and he is probably in his late 20s.
Come Sunday evening and Steven wanted to see what I’d been up to. He was instantly hooked. Each photo and story eliciting yelps of excitement. It’s always fascinating watching Steven store stuff on his internal hard drive. He has a look of intense concentration and the odd jerky head movement, which I take to be him filing the information in its rightful place. The look is the same when he’s trying to retrieve something from the hard drive. The 8th hit of The Pet Shop Boys is readily retrievable but locating the name of the keyboard player from Martha & The Muffins may bring about a few jerks. At one point during the narration, Steven put his hand over my mouth. I guess I was going too fast for his download programme.
Steven only needs to be told something once and it is set in stone, to be remembered forever. An hour of telling family stories on Sunday night and he’ll never forget them. Not being able to read or write, verbal stories are Steven’s preferred (only?) mechanism to be part of an historical story. His inner library is vast. The Bodleian stored inside a blue sweatshirt.
Each night since Sunday, I’ve heard Steven rabbeting away to himself in bed for hours. “Mark Neary’s dad is called Grandad John. Grandad John worked with big dogs. Grandad John’s brother’s name was Stanley. Uncle Stanley went on an aeroplane to Australia and never came back to Southall”. I told him that story just the once. Similarly, ” Mark Neary’s mummy was Nanny Beryl. Nanny Beryl’s brother was called Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie had a bacon and sausage shop in Southall. Then a new man came to the shop and Uncle Charlie drove massive lorries”. Although it may sound, and may transpire, that after one hearing, Steven will just tell these stories by rote, I can tell they have done something to him. Whether it’s about belonging, whether it’s about connection, I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s because they just strike him as dead good yarns.
In the final episode of Roots, Alex Haley went back to the village of Kunta Kinte. Seven generations had passed. Whilst there, he met the local griot. A griot is a tribal, oral historian. After listening for hours, Haley was finally reunited, 200 years later, with his great great great grandfather. No written records. Simply the oral narrative of an elderly man.
That’s how Steven does it. He’s the griot of Cowley.