A street level encounter with primary orality

Photo : Dead Betty from viewing.nyc

All sound is inherently powerful. If a hunter kills a lion he can see it, touch it, feel it and smell it. But if he hears a lion, he must act fast, because the sound of the lion signals its presence and its power. Speech is a form of sound that shares this common power. Like other sounds, it comes from within a living organism. A text can be ignored; it is just writing on paper. But to ignore speech can be unwise; our basic instincts compel us to pay attention.


An early attraction for oral situations

I remember being attracted by oral situations and the spoken word from an early age – the way people spoke, their accent and gestures, as much as what they were saying. I was intrigued at how others, especially people older than me, used speech as a magnet to focus our attention.

In exploring the theme of The Oral Tradition recently, certain memories have popped up which show how instructive everyday situations can be in developing an understanding of how this tradition works. After all, when telling a story, it is essential to create an audience who feel compelled to pay attention. Here’s a memory of a card-sharp (or card-shark, if you prefer) from when I was 7 or 8 years old.

An afternoon out in the big city

My Dad was a Radio Officer, originally from Dublin, who’d seen the world with the merchant navy and on cableships. He’d been based in Liverpool near my Mum’s hometown in Birkenhead where I was born, joining an older sister preceding a younger brother. We moved to Ilford when Dad decided to come ashore and found a job checking ships’ radio equipment as vessels arrived on the London docks. As the family grew to five children, my parents tried to give each of us what today would be called occasional quality time. Back then, it was just called a treat. This involved an afternoon out with Dad in Central London. He was a different person one-to-one, very talkative, full of stories about where we were going and things around us. We basically took a short bus and train ride into the city centre, had a look round, visited Hamley’s toy shop, finished up at a Lyons’ Corner House for afternoon tea, and then went home again.

Find the Red Lady and double your money

At one point during the afternoon, though, something unexpected happened. We found ourselves part of a cluster of people around a card table on the pavement, drawn in somehow. Dad stood me in front of him, with his hands firmly on my shoulders. We were in the front row of the crowd so I could see. A man was sliding three cards around on the table inviting us to Find the Red Lady. Very simple, ladies and gentlemen. Three cards, but you watch the Queen of Hearts. All you have to do is watch me carefully – and he pointed his finger at people in the crowd to make sure we understood that we were to watch. Three cards down on the table. Watch me move them around, and follow the Lady. No hanky panky. Just three cards I shuffle around and then stop. Where’s the Lady? First time was easy, and I spotted it. We all did. Then he did it again, and that was easy too. He said he would do it again so people could put money on where the queen was. If you wins, you doubles your money.

Real money in play

A man in a raincoat and hat standing next to me pulled money out of his pocket. The card sharp kept talking – Good man. Here she is, the Red Lady. Now follow the cards. 123. Keep your eyes on the Queen. She’s the one to follow. Then suddenly he stopped. This time, everybody seemed to have a different idea about where the Queen of Hearts was hiding. Where’s the Lady? After a moment in suspension, the player slapped down his money on the table in front of one of the cards. The crowd buzzed. It was a banknote, something I rarely saw, except when Mum was paying the milkman or for shopping. The note was crumpled, discarded almost; just like the cards on which you could see foldmarks and fingerprints as they lay face down on the table top. The card-sharp turned over the Queen of Hearts. There she is, sir. On the nose. Double that man’s money. An assistant handed over the winnings. This man played again, won again, then left.

Suddenly gone, but not forgotten

People were getting excited. The man behind the table kept moving and talking, only stopping when he asked people to find the Lady. It was like being hypnotized. You couldn’t look away. There was quite a crowd around us. Another man played, won, played again, won again. He wanted to go, but people wanted him to play again. He said he’d play, but he didn’t want to be the only one. Others played, but never seemed to win like him. And then, suddenly, it was time to fold up the table and move along. And everyone was gone.

Dad told me, They’ll move around the corner where it’s quiet, because they don’t want the police to see them. I remember the feeling that I had just seen something for the first time in my life. The man was a card-sharp, Dad explained. The trick worked because there was a whole team working together – the man behind the table, but also some of the players, plus lookouts, in case the police came. And that man kept talking so people would have to stay and listen.

What impressed me, though, was the flow of the man’s speech. He seemed to know exactly where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get there. He also always knew where the cards were in the game. We all got it wrong at least once or twice, but he always knew. And he only stopped speaking in that instant when he wanted people to choose which card to put their money on.

The art of the storyteller

Walter J. Ong is a master of orality, particularly through his Orality and Literacy : The Technologizing of the Word. This passage could be a description of what I saw in that street scene all those years ago:

In oral delivery, though a pause may be effective, hesitation is always disabling. Hence it is better to repeat something, artfully if possible, rather than simply to stop speaking while fishing for the next idea. Oral cultures encourage fluency, fulsomeness, volubility. Rhetoricians were to call this copia.

Ong 2nd edition p. 51

The card-sharp had the fluency that Ong describes. He mastered the pause, the art of repetition, the ability to focus attention, just like a storyteller.

Needless to say, the whole family heard about the incident. I tried the trick with a pack of cards at home, and realized just how hard it was to pull off, because moving the cards while keeping the verbal flow going at one and the same time was beyond me.

Many years later, as a teacher of English as a foreign language using storytelling and teaching learners how to tell stories, I often have flashbacks to the card sharp and what I now see as a genuine encounter with primary orality.

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