Bartholomew goes to War
A long time ago my wife came home from a school governors meeting, “Oh by the way,” she said, “I’ve volunteered you to give a talk about the English Civil War at school.” Now I have done one at the school in the past, but that was when our youngest was in year 8 and he is now 25 and a teacher himself. So I waited but never got the call. I left a flyer with my contact details back in June and was contacted, but in the end it all fell through.
I was, therefore, rather excited when, on the second day of the current school year, an email appeared in my inbox from the new head of humanities saying that she was very keen to get me in for a talk. So a meeting after school to discuss dates and ideas was arranged and I put my thinking cap on.
I’d no worries about doing the talk,
- I’d given a talk about the Civil War to a local history group many years ago and still had my handwritten notes (which I’ve now typed up)
- I’ve already given a similar talk to the school
- Bartholomew already has a backstory which includes serving in the King’s army in the west, see http://iantovey.com/bartholomew-at-war/
What I needed to think about was how to approach the session. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, getting on a bit. Ok … I’m now well past 50! So standing in front of a class of, almost, teenagers and saying “I am an English Civil War soldier” is likely to be greeted by cries of “Oh yeah! Whatever!” and who could blame them. So I hit on the idea of setting the session on the 23rd April 1661, Bartholomew has returned to the Grey Goose after watching the coronation of Charles II and starts to reminisce about his time spent in the King’s army and witnessing the execution of Charles I. This, apparently, ticks several boxes and has been given the green light.
The school also want me to talk about some of the battles and the way they were fought, so I proposed another idea that I’d had. This will involve getting the children formed up into a ‘pike block.’ There are 60 in the first group and 90 in the second, so I’m thinking in terms of 10 ranks of 6 and 10 of 9. Once I’ve got them closed up for action I’ll get them to look about and see what their field of vision is – very restricted if you’re somewhere in the middle! Next I’ll discuss the noise of a battle field and the blanket of smoke making things even harder to see what’s going on. At this point I said, “And them a whole file collapses because a cannon ball has gone down the line and taken everyone’s head off so the people standing either side are splashed with blood and brains.”
I hesitated at this point and said to the teacher,
“How gory do you want me to make this?”
“Oh, they’ll love it,” she replied, “make it as gory as you want.”
“Alright … I can do gory.”
There’s now just under a month to go, the script is written, I’ve started to rehearse and I’m checking my kit and props already. Am I excited? You bet I am!
On the Up
Bartholomew is back, but first a few morsels of news about my other storytelling activities.
I’ve gone onto Bournemouth Libraries relief list and was working at West Howe library the other Monday. A family came in during the late afternoon and asked for some food bin liners, (I really thought I’d seen the last of them when I left the library service last November), as I handed them over the mother looked at me and asked, “Were you at Wimborne the other weekend doing storytelling?” The father remembered that they had heard the Anansi story which means that they had caught the Saturday afternoon session – or at least the end of it. Needless to say I got a warm glow of satisfaction from being recognised.
Madeline and Mike from Heads & Tales have been working on the programme for the coming year and have asked me to do a headline spot in February – 21st two days before my birthday. I was really chuffed to be asked as I will only have been storytelling, seriously, for about a year by then.
The Trick of the Tale
No not the 1975 album by Genesis. Coyote, Anansi and others rub shoulders in a light hearted celebration of tricksters from around the world. Sticky situations abound!
I’m also hoping to do some storytelling to a group of school children that will be spending the night in the Viking long hall at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranbourne; stories of Loki and Thor before bedtime, what could be better?
So what’s been happening with my alter ego Bartholomew? The other evening I had a surprise visit from Isabel, a colleague from my Teaching Assistant days. “Hello Ian, do you still do or are you interested in doing Bartholomew Weever at Parley?” “As it happens …,” I replied and handed her a flyer I’d had printed in case I needed one at the Folk Festival. The upshot was I was booked to perform on Friday 13th! The good news was that they were happy for the session to straddle playtime and for me to perform the extended version of Bartholomew’s story.
For this I needed some new props so I dragged my grandmother’s old blanket box out of the loft. Now I know it’s not ‘authentic,’ but I decided some time ago that I’m not trying to accurately recreate life in the 17th century. If I were I’d need rotten teeth, fleas, lice and possibly a dose of bubonic plague. I’m trying to give the children a flavour of what life was like; the props are mainly reproductions so I’m happy to use a box that looks the part. The first thing I had to do after cleaning it up was repair the base that was coming away. I also wanted a pie and a ship’s biscuit, which after much trial and error, I managed to create from salt dough.
There were a couple of glitches – well it was Friday 13th! I arrived in good time and tested the PowerPoint presentation for part 1, the school’s laptop read my data stick and it worked perfectly. Then I tried my gizmo for advancing the slides, it wouldn’t talk to the computer and didn’t work. I also found that the laser pointer that is built into it didn’t show on the whiteboard. Not a major problem as I could sit by the laptop to control the presentation and point to images on the whiteboard which was placed close by. There then followed a classic ‘crossed wires’ moment, I had asked the teacher, “Is it a touch screen?” She obviously thought I was referring to the laptop and replied, “No it’s old fashioned.” Partway through the presentation I leaned across to point something out on the whiteboard, accidentally touched it and moved onto the next slide. What was worse, I did it again later on.
Bartholomew’s story after the break went well. I was a little worried as parts of the story have been rearranged, parts have been cut and new bits inserted, plus I also had to break off several times to pack items into the box and talk about them as I did. Luckily storytelling has taught me not to treat the story like a script that has to be strictly adhered to but as a framework. As it happens, I did remember everything and managed to feel quite relaxed as I performed – even during the conversations with characters that were not physically present.
There were some lovely interactions that day. When I held up my onion bottle and said it was named after a vegetable, so what did they think it was, several children called out ‘broccoli’. [Broccoli wasn’t introduced into the country until the 18th century] I was also asked why I called the gold coin that I showed a guinea, so I explained that it was minted from African gold which had been brought to England by the Guinea Company. At the end of the session the teacher told the children that she hadn’t known about guineas as had learned something new herself. It’s always gratifying to hear this.
Now that I have more time on my hands I’m hoping that word will spread and that I might pick up some more bookings, not just revolving around the 17th century, I’m happy to turn my hand to any period. Or I could just sit in a classroom and tell stories.
Folk Festival Frolics
Last weekend was Wimborne Folk Festival and the town was rammed with people enjoying the music, the dancing and the good weather. It struck me, as I wandered around on Sunday, that only in England could you have in one part of town a group extolling the joys of being a ‘friend of Jesus’ while, in another, a pagan ‘obby ‘oss is cavorting round doing phallic things with a pole every time it meets a woman.
The most important thing about the weekend, for me, is that I’ve now performed in front of complete strangers who aren’t also storytellers.
Saturday’s performance was in the Sensory Garden at the Wimborne Model Town. This is a great outdoor venue with a large wooden throne for the storyteller – which I didn’t use in the end as I like to move about and act things out when I tell.
The set was called Trickster Tales From Around the World and consisted of
- Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby (North America)
- A Tale of Two Tails (a First Nations Coyote story also from North America)
- The Bag of Beans (a Japanese story about a trickster hare)
- How the World Got Its Stories (an Anansi story from Africa)
I had 13 in the audience to start with, half of them friends and family, but only a couple of them had heard me storytelling before. There were about 23 at the end, but being an open air venue the audience was fluid. The only thing of note – I didn’t spot this but got it from Dan afterwards – was that during the performance a couple dressed in church t shirts arrived with some children and stopped to listen. All was well until halfway through the last story when I started to talk about honey beer – leopards enjoy a drink as I’m sure you all remember. At this point the couple got up and hustled the kids away. Kit Pearce recorded the performance and took some photos so watch this space.
Sunday’s set was based on songs from English and Scottish Popular Ballads (aka the Child Ballads) and was
- Robin Hood and the Butcher (ballad 122)
- The Famous Flower of Serving Men (ballad 106)
- Tam Lin (ballad 39)
I did two performances; the first was in the Secret Garden behind the library. This is a rather out of the way spot next to a busy walkway so the acoustics weren’t good. The audience was tiny, eight – I nearly got them to introduce themselves like The Police did at one of their early gigs. There was Dan (my youngest son), Jess (his girlfriend), Holly (my daughter), James (her boyfriend), Mike from Heads and Tales, Chris M (a colleague from my library days) and an unknown lady and her son. I was a bit nervous about the second story as I had to sing during it. Luckily it all went well and gave me a chance to get performance under my belt with a benign audience.
The second performance was back at the Model Town and although the audience wasn’t huge – consisting mainly of family; those from the previous performance plus Neil (my eldest), Beckie (his wife), Pippa & Matt (grandchildren), Sue (my wife) and a smattering of strangers – the performance was more memorable for me. For instance, halfway through Robin Hood I noticed a man arrive and stand at the back of the audience space. At the end of the story he started to move and I thought that he was going, but I was wrong as he found a seat and sat through the rest of the performance. An older couple, sitting to one side, got up at the end of the first story ‘They’re off,’ I thought only to see them move to a more shaded seat. And a young boy, sitting with his father, didn’t want to leave at the end of the second story when his dad suggested that they move on.
I was really there at the end of the last story with those magical transformations
The audience reaction was the best I had over the weekend. The boy’s father said at the end, “That was good, he doesn’t listen to me for that long.” The older couple also came up to say “Thank you,” the lady adding, “I was really there at the end of the last story with those magical transformations,” which is why I tell stories – moments like these are priceless. If only we could get over the majority of adult’s attitude that ‘storytelling is just for kids.’
If you’ve never seen live storytelling I’d urge you to check out a session, you don’t know what you’re missing.
The Sting in the Tale
Saturday’s set will be trickster tales from around the world and, with the exception of one story; all are ones that I’ve told at various times in the library. All I need to do is check the timings and decide on the running order, then make a snake out of toilet roll tubes. If you want to know what the snake, and a rope, are for come along to the model town at 13:30 and listen.
The Sunday set is titled Ballads Without the Singing and is based on songs from the Child Ballads. If you’re not familiar with these Francis Child was an American professor who came to the UK in the late 19th century to collect folksongs. However, unlike other collectors such as Cecil Sharp & Ralph Vaughn Williams he only collected the words and recorded every version that he could – even if the singer could only remember fragments. His collection English and Scottish Popular Ballads, (aka The Child Ballads), ran to 10 volumes and contained 305 songs.
Putting this set together has been an interesting experience. Volume III has a lot of songs about Robin Hood and I have toyed with the idea of doing a complete set of Robin Hood stories. However he doesn’t always come across as a hero in some of the songs. Several of them run along the following lines
- Robin Hood meets a [insert tradesman of choice]
- Robin and the tradesman get into an altercation and blows are exchanged
- Robin starts to lose the fight and blows his horn
- The Merry Men arrive and issue the tradesman with a strongly worded cease and desist order
- Robin then invites the tradesman to join his Merry Men
There is even one song in which Robin tries to extort money from a beggar with threats of violence. When the beggar refuses to hand any over Robin threatens to shoot him so the beggar beats Robin to a pulp. Three of the Merry Men turn up and Robin sends two of them after the beggar to drag him back, because he can’t decide how to punish him – it is even implied that death is an option. The two thugs (I can’t think of a better description for them) catch the beggar but decide to rob him first. As a result they also get beaten up for their pains. The song ends with Robin angry that the beggar has got away but secretly relieved that he wasn’t the only one to take a pasting at the beggar’s hands.
In the end I’ve plumped for Robin Hood and the butcher as there are three versions to work with. I was a bit wary as Hugh Lupton does a great version of this story as part of The Liberty Tree with Nick Hennessey, (I’d definitely urge to check it out if you get the chance), but I think I’ve managed to put enough of my own spin on the story to carry it off.
The main story of the set is Tam Lin. I love this story as I can really get my teeth into it – it’s got passion, magical transformations and ultimately redemption. There are also 15 versions of it in the collection as well as a poem by Robert Burns and numerous written versions, an embarrassment of riches! It’s also the story that got me this gig. My one concern is that the storytelling sessions have been advertised as ‘family entertainment’ and some parts of the story are a bit dark and a little bit naughty. So I may have to prune some bits out, or tone them down, depending on how many children are in the audience and how old they are.
As I’m doing the same set in two different locations I could end up telling two different versions of the story during the course of the afternoon. One of the joys of storytelling is that every performance is different as you are not working from a set text like an actor does.
So here I am ready, keen and hoping for fine weather and a good turn out – watch this space.
Things Fall Apart
I really didn’t want to use these posts as a place to moan, but sometimes things just go so badly that you need to get them off your chest.
As I mentioned in the postscript to the last post my father died on the Friday 23rd February. We couldn’t pick up the doctor’s death cert from the hospital until late afternoon on the following Wednesday so couldn’t register his death until the Thursday morning. Having spoken to mum on the Wednesday morning I made an appointment with the registrar’s office and Sue arranged for us to stay at her parents on the Wednesday night to save driving an extra 100 miles over the two days. We woke up on Thursday morning to Sue’s mum saying “Bill the radiators are stone cold and there’s no hot water.” Their boiler had packed up and so we couldn’t start the day with our usual shower, (SPOILER ALERT – this was the week of the ‘Beast from the East’).
We got to the register office in Portsmouth with no problem and registered the death. As we now had the ‘green form’ that gives the hospital permission to release the body we also made an appointment with a local firm of funeral directors. It was while we were at the funeral director’s that it started to snow, but not seriously. We dropped mum back at home and decided not to stay for a quick cuppa. We left Gosport at 3pm on a journey that should have taken an hour. At 5:30 we were within 350 yards of the end of the motorway when everything ground to a halt – the New Forest had become impassable. At 8:30pm Hampshire Police declared it a major emergency and called in the Army to assist, 3 diggers finally arrived at 1am and started to clear a route. Everything was fine until we reached Ringwood, but the last 6 or so miles was on untreated roads which hadn’t had much traffic, in freezing rain. We finally arrived home at 2am and I then had to shovel snow off the drive so that we could get the car off the road. The one spot of relief was the cup of hot chocolate given to us at 11:30pm by some locals who were walking up and down the carriageway dishing out hot drinks to us stranded motorists.
As there was more bad weather forecast for the Friday and, according to our daughter, the trains in and out of London were still badly disrupted, I never got my birthday present. This was a two day storytelling workshop in Shoreditch run by Ben Haggarty from the Crick Crack Club which I’d really been looking forward to this, but at least I got a full refund, given the circumstances.
Monday 12th was dad’s funeral which was tough on the family. I had been asked to do the eulogy by mum and managed to keep it together. Still it did give me the chance to say ‘bloody’ in church in front of 4 vicars! Dad’s ship, HMS Formidable, had suffered a Kamikaze attack on the day before dad’s 20th birthday – his action station had been on the ship’s island so he had been looking down on the plane as flew down the length of the fight deck before making its final attack. After it was all over he had commented,
“I’ve been through the Blitz; we’ve had bombs, we’ve had incendiaries, we’ve had landmines thrown at us but it’s the first time I’ve had the bloody plane thrown at me as well.”
Another result of the disruption caused by the bad weather was Kinson Primary School cancelling their Great Fire of London session. Plus both grandchildren went down with chicken pox – not at the same time but one after the other – so ‘Grumpy’ duties have been fun recently.
So life hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses at the moment, but I’m determined to end this post on a positive note. I’m not doing a storytelling session at Wimborne Folk Festival in June … I’m booked to do three, (watch this space).
This post will end up being uploaded long after some of the events it refers to for reasons that will become clear later.
On the Bartholomew front things are still quiet. Kinson Primary School has booked a session for March – I’m just waiting on them confirming the date. I have suggested to them that I could give the new format a run out; this would involve doing the PowerPoint presentation before break. The classroom would then be ‘dressed’ to resemble the Grey Goose tavern while the children are at play and I would have longer to get into my costume. To this end I have extended Bartholomew’s story so I should be able to talk about all of the props as they are packed away prior to Bartholomew and Abigail fleeing to the Moorfields camp. If they go for the idea it should make a pretty interesting story. I haven’t heard anything definite yet from Grovelands Primary in Walton-on-Thames (Bartholomew is nothing if not willing to travel).
So what’s been happening on the performance front in general?
Jan 25th – the Burn’s night supper went very well, the food in particular was excellent. As usual I had over prepared, talking to Emmanuelle during the meal I asked how long they wanted me to do and was told ‘about 15 minutes,’ so I quickly pruned out a couple of the poems. I started with the Address to a Haggis – there were one or two stumbles over some of the more obscure Scottish words, but on the whole it went OK. I had got to the end of the penultimate poem and had said ‘I’ll do one more’ when someone called out ‘do two’ – so I did. Mark and Emmanuelle were both happy with the evening and several people came up to me afterwards to say thank you and how much they had enjoyed the performance.
Feb 3rd – the family decamped to Derby as my nephew was getting married. A couple of weeks before the wedding I’d got a surprise phone call from Stuart asking if I’d do the reading during the service, which was very flattering.
Feb 15th – Heads and Tails at Ringwood. There was no professional storyteller this month so the whole evening was ‘open mic’, the theme was Love, Lust and Laughter. I ended up performing two stories during the evening – Tam Lin & His Heart’s Desire (aka The Woodcutter and the Unicorn). Tam Lin was the last story before the first break and after it Mike, who runs the club, asked if I’d be interested in doing a set at Wimborne Folk Festival in June? I just about restrained myself from biting his hand off. So now I’m turning my mind to a set built around the Childe Ballads and other folk songs. I really want to do Long Lankin as it’s so creepy in some versions – definitely not one for the kids, although I may also be able to do a children’s set as well over the weekend. The one fly in the ointment is that the proposed evening is Friday 9th June and Sue and I already have tickets for a show in Poole that night!
So why is this going up so late? Well, I’m writing it in my usual manner – long hand in a notebook – sitting in a hotel in Malta. So I won’t be able to get it typed up and uploaded until the beginning of next week (26th Feb) after I get back.
Postscript: there was a further delay as on the afternoon of the 23rd Feb, while we were on a ferry coming back from Gozo; I got a phone call from sister to say that dad had died that afternoon. I’ve therefore spent part of the last week travelling backwards and forwards to help mum register the death and sort out funeral arrangements – putting up posts being well down on the agenda.
Storytelling debut 22nd January 2018
I was tempted to start this post by moaning about how badly 2017 ended, but that’s not what they’re about. Let’s just say that, since I ceased working for Bournemouth Libraries at the end of November, both of my parents have been admitted to hospital. So, to quote Robert Burns (more of him anon), ‘the best laid plans of mice and men …’
On a positive note I’ve finally made my debut at the Heads and Tales Storytelling Café last Thursday. The evening started with a wonderful selection of stories told by Katy Cawkwell, the last of which, Iron Teeth Eaten Heart, was a gruesomely dark tale from Siberia, if you get the chance to see this take it. The last 40 minutes of the evening was an open mic session at which newcomers (like me) are allowed to go first. I’d decided that, given the location of the main story, I’d tell the Russian folktale that I’d used with a school group at the start of last year and my experience demonstrated the difference between storytelling for children/schools and adults.
When I first read the story I took it at face value – odd things happen, but it’s a fairy story so what do you expect? When I told it in the library the children listened in polite silence, but on Thursday … The story starts with an absurd situation – someone tries to claim that their cart has given birth to a foal. When I got to this part the audience began to chuckle, the laughs coming thicker and faster as the story progressed. Looking out at the audience at one point I noticed that the professional storyteller was also laughing, and she thanked me for my story at the end of the evening. That’s it then … I’m hooked.
So what’s coming up in the future performance wise? Well on Thursday (25th) I’m reading some Robert Burns poetry at a Burns Night dinner at La Fosse, a very good restaurant at Cranbourne (see I said we’d come back to him). I’m particularly looking forward to this as payment is dinner, so my next post could very well be a restaurant review.
As for Bartholomew, I’ve had two enquires about Great Fire of London talks but whether anything comes of them I’m not sure. Unfortunately, in an age of ever shrinking budgets there just doesn’t seem to be the money in schools for such sessions any more.
Remember, remember 6th November 2017
I was sitting at the library enquiry desk the other Monday when one of the old ladies from the Brendon Care group came up to me and said, “You were very good last week … I didn’t understand what you were telling us, but you were very good.” A bit backhanded, but still a compliment … I think. And what had earned me this curious accolade?
The previous Monday I had performed my Guy Fawkes piece for them. I’d kept it light and steered well away from the sheer gruesomeness of hanging, drawing and quartering – unlike the BBC’s Gunpowder (which I’ve still got to watch). It’s an interesting piece to perform as it involves playing two characters, Guy Fawkes and a secretary to Sir Robert Cecil and involves a costume change part way through – OK I change doublets, but in true Shakespearian tradition once you’ve changed nobody recognizes you.
I start the piece at one table, with a few props, as Guy Fawkes gives a (very) potted history of his life up until he is recruited to take part in the plot.
Then I switch to a second table where ‘M,’ as he calls himself, from Cecil’s spy network is preparing a report about the discovery of the plot and the fates of the conspirators. Now there are a lot of names to get my head around – 13 plotters to start with – so remembering everything is a bit of a nightmare. I’ve therefore discovered that the easiest thing to do is … cheat. The style of the performance makes this easy.
To start with Guy receives a letter outlining the plot and naming the conspirators. This means that I only have to remember that extra bits that I slip in while reading out the letter. Secondly ‘M’ is preparing a report and what do you need when preparing a report? Notes! I therefore have several sheets of notes and a handwritten copy of the fateful Monteagle letter on M’s desk. “Simples,” to quote a rather annoying meerkat.
So how did the day go? The new shirt and britches that I was wearing for the first time were comfortable and, at least I’ve got to use them, (just need an excuse to wear the Dutch coat). I did, however, have a bit of a heart sink moment just before starting. Guy Fawkes was born in Stonegate, York, so I do this bit of the performance with a Yorkshire accent. As I was getting ready to perform I realised that one of the Brendon Care volunteers hailed from Yorkshire, luckily she didn’t take offence at my efforts. I think I remembered everything – I’m not aware of any gaping holes in the performance. Better still, everyone enjoyed it … even if they didn’t always understand it.