The history of storytelling… live from Norwich

To Norwich, last week, to the Gothic splendour of Dunston Hall, to speak at the Spring Jarrold literary lunch. I was stepping in at the last moment for Penny Vincenzi, who had been forced to pull out, and the audience of 150 had the good grace not to groan audibly at the understudy.

I suspect I was the light froth between Ed Pearce (biography of Walpole) and Lee Child (big-selling gritty thrillers) and after my own talk, I was struck by that of Mr Child, who has an interesting theory of storytelling.

Apparently anthropologists have determined that language began approximately 200,000 years ago. Child suspects that storytelling began approximately 100,000 years after that. But what, he asked, made humans leap from a language vital for survival (“uh … big bear behind you”) to telling stories about people who might not exist and events that didn’t happen (“there was this neanderthal over that hill, see….”)?

Storytelling, he believes, was, and is essential for survival. If you were sitting in that dark cave with no food, little comfort, and creatures outside baying for your blood, you needed to know that someone had survived the same trials. Hence story emerged. And today any book with a proper plot is essentially giving you the same message. Which is comforting to those of us who would rather read something that kept us up turning pages into the small hours than something that might be beautifully crafted but essentially goes nowhere…

I have another reason to listen keenly to Mr Child. He remarked that my unromantic habit of grumbling when my husband buys me flowers (as it means washing up a vase) apparently makes me the perfect woman. I knew there was a good reason to go to that lunch.

Follow me