2020 Blogs

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

December 2020

‘Who knows where the time goes?’ to quote Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention. I had meant to start a post with these words when I realised that I hadn’t posted anything since August and Halloween was looming large. And here we are now, the Christmas soaps are on – I don’t do soaps – with New Year on the horizon. So, what has happened in the last quarter of 2020?

There was a time when I thought that Bartholomew was going to get another outing. I’d received an email from the head of humanities at the middle school saying it would be a shame if the current year 8s missed the English Civil War storytelling session that I’ve done in the past for them and would it be possible to do it online? I thought about this but couldn’t see a way of making it work to my satisfaction.

  • I do the piece in full costume, which is not much use when Zoom reduces the teller to little more than a talking head – I’m sure that the part of the presentation, halfway through it, where I don the back & breast plate and helmet would lose its effect.
  • The idea behind the piece is that it is the day of King Charles II’s coronation, so Bartholomew reminisces about how he fought for the new King’s father 20 years ago. I really couldn’t see this working with modern technology being involved – how would someone from 1661 know how to work an iPad? ‘Tis witchcraft me thinks!
  • My available equipment is pretty basic – an iPad mini and that’s it, no fancy camera, and no decent mic.

Before I reached my conclusion, I got another email saying that the classrooms should be safe enough for me to run the sessions in school. The only ‘problem’ was that, instead of running 2 sessions in the hall to two and a half classes per session, I would have to perform the piece 5 times moving to a new classroom for each session. I was up for doing it in school and so the date was duly set for Wednesday 3rd November. With 6 days to go, the government announced the second lockdown starting on November 4th. In the end, the session got cancelled so Bartholomew and all his gear have stayed in his box.

So here is a rundown of what I have been doing via Zoom.


  • Southampton – a story from the island of Raasay, (which lies between Skye and the mainland), The Raasay Monster, which came from the book Breaking the Spell by Lari Don.
  • Sarum – an African story about Anansi, How the Lizard Lost and Regained His Farm and a Japanese story, The Two Frogs. The first was from a collection of stories on cassette, the second is in The Violet Fairy Book, both of which I got when Bournemouth Library weeded its stock in 2019.
  • Ringwood – a Japanese story, The Ball of Rice.


  • Romsey storytelling festival – the committee had decided that, owing to the current situation, the festival would concentrate on having professional storytellers telling at paid for events. However, on Monday 5th there was a free taster session with lots of the professionals telling that week in attendance, luckily there were some slots available for other tellers and Dan and I got to tell. As we only had 5-minute slots, I told a piece of local folklore, The Shapwick Monster, complete with ‘country yokel’ accents. I could see two of the professionals on my screen while I was telling, one had a broad grin on her face and said that she had enjoyed the story when I finished, Dave Tonge, (another professional), was laughing all the way through – it’s a great feeling when things like that happen.
  • Ringwood – the theme of the evening was Creatures from these Isles, so I told the story of the Hairy Boggart. If you want to know how this story goes, see my September 2019 post.
Hairy Boggart after an illustration by Pauline Baynes.


  • Southampton – a Norse story, Idun and the Apples of Youth. I had great fun telling this, describing Asgard as being full of farting, dribbling old people once Idun and her apples had been stolen.
  • Sarum – the theme for the night was Darkness and Light, so I told a Canadian Inuit story, How Raven Stole Back the Light, which is another story from the book The Trick of the Tale. As there were only a couple of us telling that evening, (I think we were outnumbered by listeners), I also got to tell an, almost, unrehearsed version of The Suffolk Miracle, which is based on an old folksong, aka The Holland Handkerchief.
  • Ringwood – the theme of the evening was similar to Sarum’s and as Mike was the only person in attendance who had heard the Raven story, I told it again.


  • Southampton – the theme was Bright Futures, so I told an Indian story called How the Wicked Sons were Fooled. In this, four brothers, who are mistreating their old father, are fooled into treating him better by the expectation of a great legacy when he dies. As you have probably worked out, the legacy is a sham, and they get nothing of monetary worth, but they do learn a valuable life lesson.
  • Sarum – a Christmas ghost story from Norway from the book Around the Yule Log. An old lady goes to the early morning church service on Christmas Day, thinking she is late, only to find out that all of the congregation are dead and very unhappy to have a living person amongst them. The story doesn’t have a name, but Mike reckons that it ought to be called The Early Service for the Late.
  • Ringwood – the theme was Winter Weather, so I told a Russian tale in which a stepmother attempts to get rid of her stepdaughter by marrying her to Morozko, Grandfather Frost. It all ends well for the stepdaughter, but very badly for the stepmother’s two natural daughters.

And that’s it for 2020. I’ve run the stats for the year, (OK, I’ve checked the back of my storytelling notebook), and I’ve told stories on 29 occasions. I’ve told a total of 36 stories – 32 individual stories when you take out duplicates – and recorded 7 videos which can be found on the BCP Libraries YouTube channel they are

  • Zippy Who Nearly Choked – a Russian folk story
  • Mrs Rabbit’s House – another Russian folk tale
  • The Three Confused Bears – a reading of my fairy tale mash up
  • The Suffolk Miracle – a ghost story for Halloween
  • A Tale of Two Tails – a Coyote story from America
  • The Dog in the Manger – a reading of the Christmas story from the point of view of the shepherds’ dog
  • The Christmas Service – the Norwegian Christmas ghost story

Who knows what 2021 is going to bring? Probably more Zoom sessions – one good thing about these is we are getting new tellers from across the country joining in as Mike is posting the links on the SfS Facebook page. I’m also hoping I can persuade the library to host a live storytelling session for National Storytelling Week which is at the end of January/beginning of February, I’d also like to break the idea that some people have that storytelling is ‘something you do for kids’ so the stories will be slightly dark and aimed at adults. Whatever happens, let’s hope it’s better than 2020.

Happy New Year

Three Bears, Two Giants, and a Pair of Trees

August 2020

All in all, August has not been a particularly good month. I’m writing this at a time when I should be sitting in a garden near Oxford listening to the likes of Jan Blake, Ben Haggarty, Emily & Nick Hennessy and, Daniel Morden, but of course, thanks to COVID 19, I’m still at home because the storytelling festival is off.

I finished the last blog by saying that the theme for the next Southampton evening was Breaking the Mould. I was wondering what story to tell and, as time went on, I ended up with four possible tales.

  • Robin Hood and the Beggar – this breaks the mould as Robin Hood is not the, ‘rob from the rich, give to the poor,’ hero that he usually is, in fact he is the villain of the piece who tries to extract money with threats of violence. Being from an early ballad, it is also set in Barnsdale forest, (S. Yorkshire), not Sherwood forest, (Nottingham).
  • An African story, The Feast, which deals with the perils of breaking the mould and thinking outside the box.
  • The Three Confused Bears – a fairy tale mash up, (more of this later).
  • A story taken from a Broadside Ballad – breaks the mould as it’s from a source I don’t usually use, (and it’s rather bawdy – not my usual style).

Three days before the meeting, I woke up and the bit of my brain that was thinking about stories finally decided to talk to the bit of my brain that was thinking, ‘Thursday, my parents in laws’ 60th wedding anniversary. ‘ And it finally dawned on me, I couldn’t attend the storytelling session – all that thought and prep for nothing.

I got a chance to tell at Sarum, although we only got the theme the evening before – Greek Myths. ‘Help,’ I thought, ‘I don’t know any Greek myths.’ Not strictly true, of course I know Greek myths, but I don’t know them well enough to tell. While I was pondering the problem, I had an image of two trees, their branches entwined, so I looked up the story – Philemon & Baucis in Stephen Fry’s, Mythos. Fry has an interesting take on the myth which appeals to me. The usual version is,

  • Zeus & Hermes come to the home of Philemon & Baucis and are made to feel welcome – everyone else in the village has given them the cold shoulder.
  • The gods reveal who they are and, to thank them for their hospitality, offer the old couple anything they want. The couple decide that they want to die at the same time.
  • Zeus destroys the village with a flood. Philemon & Baucis found a temple on a hill and become the priest and priestess. On the day that they die they hold hands – Philemon becomes an oak tree, Baucis a lime tree.

In Fry’s version the gods don’t reveal themselves, the older of the two visitors sends Philemon & Baucis up the hill, in the pouring rain, with strict instructions ‘not to look back.’ As they walk up the hill the old couple work out who their visitors were. They reach the top of the hill, hold hands, and turn around in time to see the waters close over the village. Because they have broken the prohibition, they then turn into trees – a bit like Lot’s wife at the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah.

I made some notes and tried to practise the story on the way to work next day, during my lunch hour and on the journey home. Of course, all this resulted in me knowing the beginning really well but being a bit hazy about the ending. Still, by cheating, (I had my note book open by my iPad), I got through to end without too much difficulty.

On Tuesday 18th I logged into Nicole Schmidt’s evening of Wild Women stories. There were a few glitches with the platform but, once these were sorted out, the evening went very well. Nicole told three brilliant stories – you can see a video of them here  https://stream.mux.com/5rafA7qQwPFdCBP00GvJrm01EKYC3bRlHF/high.mp4 and Lois Cordelia showed a video of the art work she had made in response to the stories, you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kszjt_UU6y0&feature=youtu.be Unfortunately, the gremlins struck again at the end – the sound went and everyone sounded like a Dalek – and I missed the discussion session which was a pity – still, we are all on a steep learning curve with this techno malarkey.

The theme for Heads & Tales was Bodily Difference and I decided on The Giant with no Heart in his Body. On the night, Dan told a Japanese story about a blind musician playing to a group of spirits, Nicole told The Armless Maiden, (based on Angela Carter’s version), we had an Indian story, a Greek myth – the birth of Athena combined with the story of her competition with Arachne and the Irish myth of Balor of the evil eye. I must admit that I had a ‘wobble’ during the evening, I kept thinking that my Norwegian folk tale just didn’t stack up against these stories and actually reached the point where I hoped we would run out of time so I couldn’t tell.

I finally told in the penultimate spot, but was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to fit the whole story in. I did, but felt that I’d rushed things and so wasn’t happy with my performance.

Dr Katy Vaughan’s illustration for The Three Confused Bears

I’m going to end on a positive note and come back to The Three Confused Bears. This is a mash up of Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella and, Little Red Riding Hood with references to numerous other children’s’ stories along the way. I’d written it for a Summer Reading Challenge event at Kinson Library several years ago. As it fits the theme of the current Reading Challenge, I videoed myself reading it for the library’s YouTube channel and Katy from Bournemouth did a brilliant picture for it. You can see our combined efforts here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IZqMrsrP5E

Animal Magic or The Fox, The Dove and The Lion.

July 2020

Although I have now returned to work, in an extremely quiet library, things are still far from normal. On a positive note, the video of me telling the Russian folk tale, Mrs Rabbit’s House, was uploaded to the BCP Libraries YouTube channel on 10th July, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WWdp-jhAvE

I’ve attended, and told stories, at three sessions during July – Southampton, Sarum Storytellers and Heads & Tales – all via Zoom, of course.

The theme for Southampton was ‘Spanish Stories,’ although this was extended to encompass the Iberian Peninsula in general. On the night this was extended further as one person told a story from the Brazilian rain forest, (it was an ex Portuguese colony after all), while Dan’s story, adapted from a Child Ballad concerned a nobleman returning from captivity in Spain. I couldn’t decide whether to tell a Basque story called Tricks and Truths, which I found in a great book called Trick of the Tale by John & Caitlin Matthews or a Portuguese story called The Prince and the Dove, from Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book.

Trick of the Tale
by John and Caitlin Matthews

In the end, I decided to tell the Basque story for several different reasons. Firstly, it’s short so would be easy to slot in if there were a lot of tellers. Secondly, Sue and I have enjoyed several holidays in both the French and Spanish Basque regions. Thirdly, it’s a trickster tale and I love a good trickster tale. Lastly, any story that ends with someone being told by a fox that they are wearing terrible trousers has got to be good. It turned out to be one of those nights where, despite rehearsing the story numerous times, the way I told it was different to all the rehearsals – it’s true, your audience really does affect the way a story is told.

The theme for Sarum turned out to be, ‘Spanish stories that didn’t get told at Southampton,’ so I decided that I would tell The Prince and the Dove which paid off as, on the night, only three of us logged in – Mike, Raph and me.

While I was working on this story, I realised that it had close parallels with a Russian story, King Kojata, which appears in The Green Fairy Book. Both have a prince being given three, impossible tasks, which are completed with the magical aid of a princess. In both stories the prince and princess run away together and only escape capture by a series of magical transformations. In both stories, the prince forgets the princess and is finally reminded of her by a dove. Now, in the Prince and the Dove, the reason for the prince forgetting his love makes sense – she is cursed by her mother who says, “He will forget you,” but in other respects, this story has problems.

The prince has been tricked into becoming a king’s servant and, while travelling to his palace, he meets a young woman. She advises him to enter a certain garden and wait by a stone water tank until three doves come down to bathe. He is then told to steal the feathered robe from one dove and refuse to return it until he has been promised three things. This he does but …… how do you steal the feathers from a dove?

I went back to King Kojata. The prince finds himself at a lake with 30 white ducks swimming on it, on the bank are 30 white, linen, shifts. The prince takes a shift and watches as, one by one, the ducks leave the water, wriggle into the shifts, and turn into young women. He returns the shift to the last duck and the princess promises to help him. That made me think of the Swan Bride – a hunter watches as three swans land on a lake, shuck off their feathers and become women, (there is a great version of this story in Mezolith vol.1, the graphic novel by Ben Haggarty & Adam Brockbank). And then I thought about selkie stories, where seals take off their skins and become human. So, if the doves fly down to the tank, throw off their feathers and become young woman, the prince can steal a feathered robe. This is how I told it and even built in some of my own confusion by having the prince thinking, ‘How do I steal the feathers off a bird?’ before the doves arrive.

For his first task the prince is given a bag of millet, a bag of rye and a bag of wheat. He is instructed to sow them that evening and have three loaves of bread ready in time for the king’s breakfast. The prince asks for the dove’s aid and, in the morning, there are the loaves.

This gave rise to two questions. Why doesn’t the prince cheat? He has three bags of grains; he could just grind them into flour and bake the loaves. Secondly, how can a dove fly off carrying three full bags? It’s interesting that, in King Kojata, the princess enters the prince’s chamber as a bee, but then turns back into human form. The answer to these questions was, relatively, simple. In my version, the king gives the prince an ear of millet, rye, and wheat, so he can’t cheat, and the dove can easily fly while carrying them.

The second task gave me real problems – the prince is ordered to retrieve a gold ring that has been lost overboard during a sea voyage. The dove tells the prince to take a knife and a basin down to the beach where he will find a ship. Once they are out of sight of land, the dove instructs the prince to cut off her head, making sure that he catches all her blood in the basin, and then throw her body overboard. Some time later, the dove, whole once more, comes to the surface with the ring in her beak. It then bathes in the blood and for a moment appears with a woman’s head – the first indication in the story that the dove may be something more than just a bird – then it disappears. My problems with this episode were,

  1. Why does the prince have to cut off the dove’s head?
  2. How does the dove reconstitute itself when thrown into the sea?
  3. How does the dove survive underwater?
  4. What is the bathing in blood all about?

The more I thought about this episode, the more I realised that there is a resurrection theme to it – whether the combination of a dove and blood is indicating something overtly Christian, I wouldn’t like to say. I reasoned that, if it was the ghost/spirit of the dove that returns with the ring, then questions 2 & 3 are no longer a worry. If the dove can only survive underwater in spirit form, then that would explain question 1, while bathing in its own blood, to regain corporeal form explains question 4. I also decided that the dove should fly away rather than just disappearing.

At the end of the story we had a chance to talk. Raph commented that, as it was being told, he had the impression that it was really two stories – one about impossible tasks and one about flight and transformations – bolted together. I mentioned the problems that I had had with the story – especially with the stealing of the feathered robe and with the second task. Mike’s response was that, when he reads a story like that, he feels that something has been left out. Either the storyteller forgot something, and the transcriber didn’t notice, (or check if they had), or the transcriber misinterpreted something and didn’t think to go back and ask. And, as far as people, (except for storytellers), are concerned, once something is in print that’s it. It’s set in stone never to change ever again. In future I’ll be giving more thought to things, like character motivation, in stories.

Heads & Tales felt like old times as we had a guest teller for the evening. Marion Leeper, who was due to visit us in February, just as COVID19 struck, told a tale called The Kitchen Cat. This was a Portuguese version of the Cinderella story interwoven with episodes from her mother’s, colourful and adventurous, life. Afterwards we all swapped animal stories, mostly about cats – although Dan told a Japanese story, The Mouse’s Marriage and Nicole told about a great native American hunter and a gigantic skunk whose spray was capable of laying waste to huge swathes of land.

I told The Twelve Huntsmen from the Grimm’s collection, but gave it a modern twist – an example of changing a story because I wanted to, not just to make sense of it. To prove that the king’s huntsmen are women, his advisor – a talking lion – tells the king to have 12 spinning wheels in his room next time he calls for them. “They won’t be able to resist them,” says the lion. The huntsmen are the king’s jilted lover and 11 other girls. Now, the idea of spinning wheels as a test just seems a bit old fashioned and sexist to me so, I decided to update things. Now, the king is told to have copies of Bella, Grazia, Hello and Vogue in his room, as well as some little silver dishes with chocolates and glasses of prosecco, (it’s just as sexist, I know). It got a laugh, and Maddy suggested 12 Hoovers for next time the story is told.

The theme for the next Southampton meeting is Breaking the Mould – trouble is, I’ve now thought of three possible stories. Decisions, decisions …

It’s All in The Preparation.

June 2020

I’m going to start this month’s post with the news roundup – some of it’s good, most not – before discussing how I prepared my latest story.

I’ve finally had confirmation that the Oxford Storytelling Festival has been cancelled and, because they don’t know if there will be one next year, they have decided not to roll the tickets over but to give refunds. Also, Monday 15th was the day I was supposed to be giving the next Great Fire of London talk to the Dorset Blind Association.

On a positive note, the Romsey Storytelling Festival will be going ahead between 5th – 10th October. Final details are to be announced later so whether it will be a ‘live’ festival using open air venues/large buildings where social distancing will be easier or, take place in cyber space using Zoom, or something similar, who knows.

I’ve sat in on two storytelling sessions this month, Sarum and Heads & Tales.

Sarum had a select few in attendance with four tellers – Mike, Janet, Raff & me. I told two short(ish) stories during the evening, The Fairy’s Midwife and The Changeling. Janet remarked that she liked my version of the changeling as it isn’t violent – the changeling is forced to talk and reveal itself through trickery when someone starts to brew beer in an eggshell. We ended up discussing other versions of this story that are around. Mike had recently read a version where the changeling is beaten until it reveals itself, and Janet knows one in which a red-hot poker is rammed down the changeling throat! I’d also come across a Breton version that afternoon in which the queen of the dwarves, not the fairies, had stolen a woman’s child – in this version the changeling is also beaten until the real child is returned.

For Heads & Tales I decided to tell a story based on the folk song Riddles Wisely Expounded, which is the first in the collection usually known as the Child Ballads. This story has an interesting gestation as Dan has always maintained that the song couldn’t be turned into a tellable story.

I had tried to adapt this song a couple of years ago and, having looked at the five versions in the collection, made some notes. The different versions can be summed up as follows.

initial notes and final storytelling notes.
  • Version A: A lady in the north country has three lovely daughters. A knight, looking for a wife, comes to the house – the eldest girl lets him in, the second makes the bed and the youngest comes to him in the night. Next morning, she says to him, “Now you have had your way will you marry me?” He replies, “Yes, if you can answer three questions.” Each question/riddle consists of two parts, so he actually asks her six – which is cheating in my book. The girl answers them correctly, so the knight marries her.
  • Version B: Three sisters love the same knight. The eldest lets him in, the second makes the bed, the youngest is determined to marry him. The knight says he will marry her if she answers three questions. Here the song varies from version A. In version A the three questions are asked then answered in a block, in version B the first question is asked, then answered. The second question is asked and answered, but then the song skips to, “I will marry thee.”
  • Version C: This version appears to be in Scots dialect. A knight riding from the east – ‘wooing at monie a place’ – arrives at the door of a widow who has three daughters. The oldest is washing, the second is baking and the youngest is at a wedding and won’t be home until ‘late,’ so the knight sits on a stone until they come home. The oldest makes the bed, the second spreads the sheet, the youngest will sleep with the knight. The knight says, “Answer ten questions and in the morning, you’ll be mine.” When the daughter answers question ten with Clootie, i.e. the Devil, the knight flies away in a blazing flame. N.B. as well as meaning a cloth, as in a ‘clootie dumpling,’ a pudding boiled in a cloth, the word clootie also means a cloven hoof. ‘Old Clootie’ is a Scots euphemism for the Devil.
  • Version D: This version has no story and consists only of the questions and answers.
  • Version E: A lady in the west has three daughters. A stranger comes to the gate and waits there for three days, (which sounds rather creepy and stalkerish to me). The eldest lets him in, the seconds sets him on the floor, (helps him down from his horse?), the youngest gets him a chair to sit on. The story then gets bizarre as the knight says, “answer three questions or you shall go with me, answer six question or be Old Nick’s, (there’s the Devil again), answer nine questions or you shall surely all be mine.” I know that, in the past, the words or & and could be interchangeable, either way, this seems like a threat to me. The daughter(s?) correctly answer the questions and the song ends, “and we never shall be thine.”

Looking at my notes, I was faced with differing storylines, 18 questions/riddles with 25 potential answers – some have 3 different answers spread across the various versions – to say nothing of nonsense lines, e.g. ‘Lay the bent to the bonny broom,’ or ‘Jennifer gentle and rosmaree,’ that occur every other line. At this point I thought, ‘Dan’s right!’ and gave up on the attempt.

Last month I decided to have another crack at the song and dug out my notes. Looking at them critically, I realised that, while all the ‘stories’ start the same way – a man/knight comes to the home of a lady/widow with three daughters – they quickly diverge. In versions A & B the riddles are answered to allow a young woman to win a husband. In versions C & E they are answered to prevent something sinister from happening. In other words, I shouldn’t be looking to produce one story from the song, but two. Which is what I ended up doing.

Supplementary notes.

Story 1, (nice): I played around with a couple of ideas for this story. I thought about having the knight ask all three daughters the riddles to determine which one he should marry, this way I could use some of the riddles that have alternative answers. I then though about reversing the situation and have the youngest daughter ask the knight the riddles. In the end, I decided to combine the two ideas and have the knight’s mother asking all three daughters the riddles – even then I had to invent a new answer to one of them. You can read the results of my efforts in Riddles Wisely Expounded.

Story 2, (not so nice): The idea of someone sitting outside the widow’s house for three days I found a bit too odd, but then I found myself thinking, ‘What if it was for one day, on three separate occasions?’ This reminded me of ‘Mullerby Fair,’ an episode from my favourite radio series, Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, in which a family falls foul of one of the fey folk way back in the 17th century so, in revenge for the slight, once a generation he abducts one of their women. I also remembered an episode in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen in which farmer Mossock is informed that the forces of evil cannot cross his threshold unless they are invited. At last, I had something to work with, but there were still a couple of ‘sticky bits’ to get past. Now I’m a regular listener to the Lore and Legend podcast, www.loreandlegend.co.uk in a recent episode Jason Buck, (who used to tell at Heads & Tales before he moved to Sussex), was chatting to Rick Scott. During the conversation he said that, when you are telling a story, you create the world and the rules. I also recalled that in folk songs, and stories, so many of the otherworld characters seem to have highly individual sets of rules that they must adhere to – folklore is not ‘fixed,’ what people believe in one part of the country is different in other parts. This was enough to get me going, you can read the results in Riddles Wisely Expounded: The Elven Knight – just remember the story was written to be told, not read, it has already undergone slight changes.

On the night, I told version 2, my preferred version – I do like my tales on the darker side. It was good to notice knowing smiles when I referenced the newly forged iron nails and towards the end several listeners were, literally, on the edges of their seats. Afterwards a couple of people said it was good to have a story with a strong female character at its heart – I’m sure I heard the expression, “You go girl,” being muttered in the background at one point. In his summing up of the evening on the groups Facebook page Mike wrote, ‘Ian created his own compelling tale out the differing versions of No.1 in the Child Ballads.’

All in all, I’m pleased with the story I created, let me know what you think.

Bartholomew Blog Supplemental.

March, April & May 2020

Thanks to the wonders of technology, since the lockdown started, I’ve managed to tell stories at Sarum Storytellers, Southampton Story Club and Heads & Tales, all from the comfort of home. Over the last couple months, I’ve told stories from,

  • England: Cap o’ Rushes, King Henry (which I’d adapted from Child Ballad number 32) and Kate Crackernuts,
  • Scotland: The Woodcutter and the Devil – the version I know comes from Duncan Williamson’s book Jack and the Devil’s Purse,
  • Japan: The Ball of Rice,
  • Russia: Mrs. Rabbit’s House,
  • Arabia (?): a story I heard TUUP tell at the Earth House several years ago – to be honest, I don’t know what it’s called, so I call it A Camel and an Apple.

I want to go back to Heads & Tales in March to correct a mistake, and thereby improve, one of the stories I told. The theme for the meeting was advertised as Family Lore – family stories, dysfunctional families, stories of redemption. I had decided to tell Cap o’ Rushes, which is a sort of English Cinderella. It starts, like King Lear, with dysfunction – a rich father throws out his youngest daughter because he thinks she doesn’t love him enough. It ends with redemption as he finally realises just how much she does love him.

Mike started the evening off with a ‘true’ story, set in WW2, about his father and grandfather crossing the county boundary one winter’s evening to enjoy an extra half hours drinking time in the pub, thanks to differing licencing hours – and what happened on the snowy bike ride home. This reminded me of a wartime story my father told me, so I started with this. It was only when I was talking to my mother a day or two later that I realised that I’d got some of the details wrong. So here is the correct version.

Tales from an Anderson Shelter 1.

My father was 14 when the war broke out and he served as an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) messenger before being called up and joining the Navy in 1943. At the time he was living in Clayhall an area on the edge of Gosport not far from the submarine base at H.M.S. Dolphin, an army barracks (my grandfather was based here when he met my grandmother), and the Naval hospital at Haslar. Not too far away, on the Gosport side of Portsmouth harbour, were the Navy’s oil fuel depot, victualling yards, and several ammunition depots. So, what with these and Portsmouth Naval Base on the other side of the harbour, Gosport saw its fair share of bombing raids.

One evening the air raid sirens began to sound, warning of, yet another, raid. My father and his family – his mother, sister, and younger brother, (his father was away serving in the army) – left the house and trooped down the garden to the Anderson shelter. As the shelter’s doorway was only wide enough for one person at a time to enter, they formed a queue with my dad at the rear. Before everyone was in the shelter, a German bomber dropped a landmine, (I don’t know if it was a 500 or 1000Kg bomb), in an adjacent street. There was a huge explosion, and everyone pitched headfirst into the darkness of the shelter.

As my father picked himself up off the floor, he realised that the front of his shirt was wet and warm. Naturally, given the circumstances, his first thoughts were, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been hit!’ Just as he was about to panic, my gran demanded, “Where’s my cup of tea?” When a light was finally produced, dad was very, very relieved to discover that his shirt was soaked with the missing tea, not his blood.

So, what does the future hold? More stories, more Zoom meetings, more of the same really.

Interesting Times

March/April 2020

‘May you live in interesting times,’ is supposed to be an old Chinese curse and, let’s face it, at the moment we are living through some very interesting times. When I wrapped up my last post, I was looking forward to March as I had

  • Wednesday 11th, an afternoon presentation on the Great Fire of London for the Dorset Blind Association,
  • Wednesday 11th, an evening talk with Kit at the Skinner Street United Reform Church.
  • Wednesday 18th, a repeat performance with Kit for the Friends of Poole Museum,
  • Thursday 19th, Heads & Tales.

Then, later, I had 3 more performances of the Great Fire talk booked for Dorset Blind in July, August and early September and a possible opportunity to perform the Arabian Nights again at the Romsey Storytelling Festival in October. I was also due to attend the Oxford Storytelling Festival at the end of August.

The Great Fire of London talk on the 11th, the first I’ve done since July 2018, went well. This branch of the Dorset Blind Association is small, they only have 12 members and 10 of them turned up. I had decided to cut down on the number of props that I use as I was going to have to pass them round, which would have taken ages if I had used them all.

Bartholomew’s props (from a talk at Kinson Library) far too many to hand round.

Now I must admit that eye contact is something that I usually find uncomfortable, but it’s something that I’ve schooled myself to do, especially when storytelling. So, it was odd looking out at the various members of the audience and getting no reaction from them because they couldn’t see me doing it. There are also a couple of places in the performance where Bartholomew asks the audience a direct question. These normally get a good response from children, (they are more than happy to call out answers), but adults can be rather reticent, and this audience seemed to be more reticent than most. That said, I’m sure that they enjoyed the talk because, after it, two members of the audience asked me for my contact details as they are members of other groups that they thought might be interested in hearing the talk.

Buoyed by the afternoon’s success, I decided that Bartholomew really needs a new hat – the one that I use was made from thick carpet underfelt by a friend over 40 years ago. So, when I got back, I ordered a new knitted cap from Historical caps.

That Wednesday evening, we had a sign of things to come. When I helped Kit with his talk last year, we had a large, enthusiastic, audience. This time there were six – and three of them had come to help with the refreshments. We did the talk anyway and those that were there enjoyed it. Afterwards, we concluded that, as the last audience was elderly, they had probably avoided coming out because of the Corona virus.

After that – as you’ve probably guessed – everything fell apart. Kit emailed the following day informing me that the Friends of Poole Museum had cancelled their meeting on the following Wednesday. Then Heads & Tales was cancelled and then … the lockdown started.

Having said that, I have still been able to tell stories. We did hold March’s Heads & Tales meeting, a week late, via Zoom. Mike also runs the Sarum and Southampton storytelling clubs and has shared the Zoom log ins for their meetings, so I’ve been able to ‘attend’ more meetings than I usually get to. I’ve also recorded a couple of stories for Bournemouth Libraries. The first, Zippy Who Nearly Choked, has been uploaded to YouTube – just put the title into YouTube’s search function. At the time of writing the video has been viewed 180 times, my biggest audience ever!

Since the lockdown started a lot of storytellers have taken to the internet, either via Facebook, Zoom or YouTube. In some respects it’s got a bit overwhelming, you could, if you wanted, spend all day every day watching storytelling from all across the country, (if not the world), but I have to admit I do have some reservations. As a teller, I miss the eye contact and the interaction with the audience – looking at a series of tiny images on a screen in a Zoom meeting just isn’t the same. And it wasn’t until the April Heads & Tales meeting that I realised that not everyone appears on the screen – my iPad only displays 9 people at a time and it wasn’t until someone ‘off screen’ spoke that I realised they were there. There can also be sound issues – either low quality or the audio drops out leaving gaps in the story. I also find it frustrating when there is a lag between the audio and visual feeds – or the picture freezes but the sound continues. However, if it’s a case of putting up with these glitches, or not telling at all, the first option wins hands down.

What the future holds, who knows. The chairman of the Society for Storytellers emailed all members stating that all storytelling festivals this year have been cancelled, but the Oxford festival has said nothing. I did email them and got a reply that they are still hoping to go ahead. Whether they do or not in this currant climate, who can tell … I’ll just have to wait and see.

An Epic in an Evening

February 2020

I seem to have spent a lot of time this month in the company of a fisherman and a genie, thanks to An Epic in an Evening – the annual co-production between Heads & Tales and Southampton Story Club. The epic in question was the Tales from the Arabian Nights, and I was telling the second part of The Fisherman and the Genie, a.k.a. The Fish of Four Colours. The whole of this section was split between four tellers and ran as follows.

  1. The Fisherman and the Genie (Nicole): A fisherman brings up a bottle containing a genie. When released, the genie threatens to kill the fisherman. Using guile and cunning the fisherman tricks the genie into re-entering the bottle and traps him (again).
  2. The Sultan Yunan and the Sage Duban (Mike): The fisherman tells the genie a story of the sage Duban who cures the Sultan Yunan’s leprosy. Unfortunately, this gives rise to jealousy in the court and the Sultan has him executed, with dire consequences for the Sultan.
  3. The Fish of Four Colours (me): The Fisherman releases the genie on the promise of a great reward and is taken to lake containing red, white, yellow, and blue fish. He catches one fish of each colour and presents them to the Sultan. Odd things … on second thoughts, very odd things, happen when they are cooked, and the Sultan decides to investigate. He arrives at a palace and finds a prince whose legs have been turned to stone.
  4. The Enchanted Prince or The Prince of the Black Isles (Dan): The prince tells his story.

I was interested to see how the story was presented across different versions of the text. The first one that I read was in Tales from Arabian Nights, an American version first published in 1913. My copy, which I’ve had since I was a boy is a 1966 reprint.

Tales from Arabian Nights based on a translation by Edward William Lane, edited by Frances Jenkins Olcott. Published by Whitman Classics 1966.

This presents the stories as indicated above but has a couple of oddities. For instance, the, leprous, Sultan Yunan is described as a Grecian King. Duban, in this version, cures the leprosy by placing the medicine into the hollow handle of a golf club – in all the other versions I’ve read it’s a polo mallet.

The version that Paul, our organiser, sent out presents section one as usual. Halfway through section two it introduces another story, the tale of King Sindbad and the Falcon, told by Yunan. Here we are entering into Russian Doll territory with a story within a story, within a story. This then runs straight into the second half of section two and onto the end of section three with no break.

The version on sactredtext.com starts at the beginning and runs straight through to the end of section three without a break. However, the story of Yunan and Duban is omitted and, only receives a passing mention.

Now, although I was only working on one small section, I did read the complete cycle a couple of times, just to get the overall picture of how everything fitted together. It was while I was working on the story that someone posted a question on the Society for Storytelling Facebook page – “How do you learn new stories?” One of the answers, “Try retelling it from the point of view of another character,” struck a chord so I went off, had a think, and came up with The Genie and the Fisherman, which you can read by clicking on the title. I showed it to Dan, who commented, “It would make a good first-person narrative.” So, I went away, had another think, and came up with The Genie – click on the title to read it.

So how did the performances go? There were nine of us slated to tell, most of us from Heads & Tales, two from Southampton.

  • Paul – organized the performance and acted as the narrator
  • Mike – the story of why King Shahriar became a misogynist + the story of Yunan & Duban
  • Nicole – The Fisherman and the Genie, part 1
  • Me – The Fisherman and the Genie, part 2
  • Dan – The Prince of the Black Isles
  • Christobel (Southampton) – Delilah and the Anklet, (an Arabian Cinderella)
  • Tess (Southampton) – The Woman and her Five Lovers
  • Maddie & Janet – The Ebony Horse

We had over 20 for the first session in Southampton and apart from some of us over running – we were supposed to have 10 minutes each – it went well. Nicole had been struck down with a cold, so Paul covered her story. Tess’s Woman and her Five Lovers was a revelation and there was a hilarious moment in Maddie & Janet’s Ebony Horse – after a prince singlehandedly defeats an army of 10,000 men, Janet had the Sultan declaring, “Quick, get the historians to write this down, we can’t trust the storytellers to get it right!”

The Ringwood audience was bigger – about 24. This time it was Tess who was ill, so Paul & Mike performed her story as a two hander. On the whole, the evening was slicker, but I found myself cutting out some of the detailed descriptions of the young King’s palace – a pity because those extra details, which bring the story’s world to life, are the bits that I really enjoy. I was, however, able to make an ‘improvement.’ In the first performance, after the fisherman receives 400 gold Dinar for his fish I said, “That night the fisherman and his family ate well.” While running through the story on the afternoon of the performance I had an idea and the line became, “That night the fisherman and his family had indigestion from the richness of the food they ate,” (cue laughter).

This might not have been the last performance of the epic, as Paul has suggested that we might take it to the Romsey Storytelling Festival, in October.

March’s Heads & Tales evening will be a performance of The Kitchen Cat by Marion Leeper, from Cambridge – a new take on the Cinderella story. I’ve got the first Great Fire of London performance for Dorset Blind and I’m helping Kit with his new presentation – all in all it’s a busy month ahead.

It’s All Gone Quiet

January 2020

If you discount the fairy/folk stories that I’ve been telling to my grandson

  • Hansel & Gretel,
  • 2 Russian tales – Mrs. Rabbit’s House & Zippy Who Nearly Choked,
  • The Johnny Cake – see September 2019’s blog for an explanation as to what a Johnny Cake is,

January has been a quiet month with only one opportunity to tell at Heads & Tales. Our meeting night, Thursday 16th, coincided with some terrible weather – it was blowing a gale and hammering down with rain – as a result of which only seven of us braved the storm and turned up and only four of us were telling.

The theme of the evening was Pantomime, either the stories that pantomimes are based on or stories with themes that crop up in pantomimes. I had decided on either, Robin Hood and the Butcher, (Robin Hood appears as a character in Babes in the Wood), or The Famous Flower of Serving Men, (has a young woman cross dressing as a man). As it happens, Raph had also prepared a Robin Hood story, but luckily it was a different one to mine. The first half of the evening consisted of,

  • Me telling Robin Hood and the Butcher – because I was telling it to an all adult audience that I know well I could play up some of the naughtier parts of the story,
  • Raph telling Little John and the Beggars – Little John’s staff ‘miraculously’ causes a one armed beggar to regain his missing limb, a blind beggar to see and a dumb beggar to talk,
  • Maddie told the story of Puss in Boots, after which there was a short discussion on why ogres are so stupid – is something to do with their size or is it genetic?
  • Mike told an updated version of Cinderella in which her godmother, (who fancies the father), lends Cinders her Vespa to go to the ball on and the prince finds his true love using the crash helmet she leaves behind. At the end of the story Cinders rode off on the Vespa with the prince riding pillion.

The second half was more of a free for all so,

  • Raph told a story about a Swiss thief being sent to steal various items from the ruler of Turkey,
  • Maddie told a story that she uses with children giving us all the chance to join in with some thigh slapping, coughing, sneezing and seeing who could give the wicked wizard the most convincing evil laugh,
  • Mike told a Japanese story about a young boy who meets Yuki-Onna (the spirit of the snow storm). This was a beautifully measured and quiet telling that had us all mesmerised,
  • I decided not to tell the second story I’d prepared and told The Tiger, The Brahmin and the Jackal instead, which got some good laughs. Interestingly, Mike had told this story on the Tuesday; his version is slightly different as the Tiger and Brahmin argue over the Tiger’s lack of gratitude after it is released from a trap. I must go back and check my source.

Next month Heads & Tales tellers will be performing twice as it is time for … (cue fanfare of trumpets) … An Epic in an Evening. We are performing a selection of stories from The Arabian Nights. I shall be telling the second part of The Fisherman and the Genie, (aka The Fish of Four Colours), and Daniel is telling the follow up story about an enchanted prince. If you want to catch a performance, or both, we will be at The Art House, Southampton on Thursday February 6th, 7:00pm for a 7:30 start & at The Elm Tree, Ringwood on Thursday 20th at 7:30.

There are a couple of things for me to look forward to coming up. I had a contact via the website the other day – a genuine one for once, I mean am I likely to want to become a bitcoin miner? And why send out six copies of the same crappy email? I thought robots were supposed to be clever! Ok rant over. The contact was from the Dorset Blind Association who have booked four Fire of London sessions, so Bartholomew will be appearing at Bournemouth, Poole, Blandford and Dorchester between March and September.

Also, I’ve had an early birthday present as Sue has bought me a ticket to the Oxford Storytelling Festival at the end of August. It will be my first storytelling festival and the line-up of tellers is amazing, definitely something to look forward to.