It is dark and cold … so cold where I lie cramped and confined in my prison. How long have I been here? I do not know for time has lost all meaning for me now.
In my youth – my prime – I was tall and strong, and I wielded such power. I could lay the mountains low, split the earth asunder and bring down such a rain of fire, but now? Who knows? And how, I ask myself, not for the first time did I come to be here?
When Solomon, the prophet, decreed that all things on the earth should acknowledge the one true god, my fellow genii and I, in our great arrogance, refused and open rebellion soon broke out. Solomon sent his vizier against us and one by one we fell. In time I was thrown down and dragged in chains to lie before Solomon’s throne, but still my towering pride would not allow me to bend the knee. So, the prophet penned me in a copper bottle, sealed with lead on which there was a stamp that drained me of my power and threw it into the ocean’s depths.
At first, I was wracked with fear and swore that, if released, I would shower my saviour with great riches and bury him, metaphorically, in gold and jewels. A hundred years crawled past and fear gave way to despair. Now I promised that, on release, I would crack the very earth apart and reward my saviour with all its buried treasures. Four hundred years then passed, I gave up counting time, and despair was replaced with burning hatred. Now, I swore, if ever I’m released, I’ll kill the first man I set eyes upon.
And so I remain here, cribbed, confined, deprived of my senses. Oh how I long to see, once more, the rolling desert dunes, to smell the spices in the market place, taste sweet honey on my tongue, feel the soft caress of a silken robe and the burning heat of the sun on my upturned face. All that is left to me now is sound. All day long I hear the murmur and the susurration of the sea, the song of whales – their high pitched squeals and bass rumblings that make my prison walls vibrate. I hear at times the click of dolphins and the ‘tap, tap, tap,’ as something, I know not what, explores the outside of my prison’s metal walls.
I jerk awake, (how long have I been sleeping?), to new sensations. I hear the bottle grinding against stones. I have the sense of being dragged across the ocean’s floor, lifted up and shaken violently. I hear new sounds, the muffled mewing of gulls and a voice that mutters and mumbles to itself. Is it mine? And now, oh sweet release, a shaft of bright white light stabs down into the bottle as the seal is lifted.
I shoot from my prison, spiral skywards as a column of smoke and then regain my shape, stretch out my limbs, enjoying the luxury of movement. I marvel at the rush of things long forgotten, the beauty of the sunlight as it sparkles on the surface of the sea, the softness of the sand beneath my feet and the sharp smell of salt. I want to gather up the earth and hug it close.
And there, standing at my feet, I see a, half-naked, fisherman his dripping net draped over one shoulder, shivering with fear and all my anger comes roaring back. All I need to do is lift my foot and I can grind his worthless existence out into the sand beneath my heel.
But, then I remember just why I was incarcerated, I push my anger down, bow deeply and cry out.
“There is only one god and Allah is his name, and Solomon, the wise, is his great prophet.”
At that the fisherman’s mouth flops open, like a stunned fish. He gives me a puzzled look.
“Why do you talk of Solomon the wise?” he asks, “for Solomon has been dead for eighteen hundred years.”
Suddenly, the knowledge hits me like a thunderclap – I am truly free! “Then congratulations, little man,” I cry, “today is the day you die.”
“But why?” he asks, “I freed you from your bottle. You should be grateful and at least grant me three wishes.”
So, I tell him my story, right down to this moment, “but I will, at least, let you choose the manner of your death,” I say. A look crosses the fisherman’s face.
“Oh, great and magnificent genie,” he cries, stroking me with his flattery. “You truly are a great spinner of tales, the father of all liars, for how could someone so large as you fit into such a small bottle? Why even your little toe is far too big.”
“Ah ha little man,” I reply, stung by his jibe. “Watch and marvel at my skills,” and I change into a plume of smoke once more and wind back down into the bottle. Just as I’m thinking what an impressive sight it must have been … all goes dark as he snaps the seal back in place.
Bugger! That is where I’ve seen that look before, it is the look a fox that has found the key to the hen coop might wear. This is how I was caught before. How could I have forgotten that all men are sly … cunning … devious and never to be trusted?
And now he is telling me a tale about a Sultan called Yunan who kills a doctor. I do not know this tale, but pay it little heed as I am too busy cursing my pride and folly. “So you see,” he says as the tale winds its interminable way to an end, “Allah killed the Sultan for killing the doctor and I will punish you by throwing you back. What is more, I will warn all that I know who fish in this bay to do the same if they catch you. May you rot beneath the waves for ever!” At this I panic, I cannot bear the thought of this and so I whine and grovel to him.
“Punish me with kindness as they say,” I plead. “Set me free and I will give you great riches.” He binds me with strong oaths not to do him harm and then removes the seal. The first thing that I do on regaining my true form is kick the bottle far out to sea. As it disappears beneath the waves with an, oh so, satisfying splash, I see him piss himself with fear and I laugh.
There is a lake, not far from the city, fringed with desert sands, bounded by four mountains – a lake that teems with fish. Red fish, white fish, yellow and, blue fish flash and glitter beneath the water’s placid surface. I bring the fisherman to the water’s edge and bid him cast his net. He hauls it in and brings four fish ashore – one of each hue – and I watch him marvel at their size and colour.
“Take them into the city,” I say. “Present them to the Sultan and he will give you a great reward, but beware … do not fish here more than once a day. Now please forgive the roughness of my ways – after eighteen hundred years beneath the sea you are apt to forget good manners.” I stamp my foot, the earth gapes wide and with a, heartfelt, sigh; I sink into its depths.
The genie shifted uncomfortably, tried to stretch the ache from his limbs and failed. ‘Why?’ he thought – not for the first time, not for the second time, not for the nine hundred and ninety ninth time – ‘why did I join the others in the rebellion against Solomon? Why did I allow myself to be captured and dragged in chains before the prophet? How did I allow the son of David to confine me in this bottle and throw it into the depths of the sea?’
He had tried to keep track of time, but had given up some time around the four hundredth year. Fear had given way to despair and despair had given way to anger, an, all consuming, anger that had burned brighter and fiercer as the years of his confinement had rolled by.
It was cold, cramped and dark in the bottle. The genie could see nothing, could feel nothing, could smell and taste … nothing. The only sense left to him was sound – the continual murmur and susurration of the sea, the distant moan and grumble of whales, clicking of dolphins and the occasional ‘tick, tick, tick’ as a crab, or some other oceanic crustacean, explored the outside of his prison with its claws or antenna.
And now there were new sensations – the sound of the bottle grinding against stones, the sense of being dragged across the seabed, lifted and shaken violently. He could hear new sounds – a mumbling voice, the distant mewing of seabirds, and now – oh sweet relief – a bright shaft of sunlight stabbing down into the bottle as the lead seal was prized open.
With a huge sense of relief, the genie shot from the bottle as a jet of oily, black smoke which spiralled skywards. As it reached the clouds he coalesced and took on a solid form – arms and legs which he could stretch luxuriously, a strong body and a fierce face, full of terrible splendour.
Looking down, the genie saw a man dressed in ragged clothing with a dripping net draped over one shoulder standing on the sand at his feet. The fisherman looked no bigger than a beetle, he had only to lift his foot and he could crush the life from him. And then the genie remembered just why he had been confined, he gave a deep bow and cried out, “There is no god but Allah, and Solomon is his prophet.”
The fisherman’s mouth flopped open like a stunned fish and he gave the genie a quizzical look. “What are you wittering on about Solomon for? Solomon has been dead these eighteen hundred years!”
“Then congratulations little man, today is the day you die!”
“Why?” spluttered the fisherman, “I freed you from confinement, you should be grateful. You should, at least, grant me three wishes!”
So the genie told the fisherman the story of his confinement. “When I was first confined,” he continued, “I promised that, whoever rescued me would be showered with riches. A hundred years passed and I promised that I would open the earth for my rescuer and reveal all of its treasures. Then four hundred years passed and I grew angry, so I promised that I would kill the man who set me free, but I will, at least, let you choose the manner of your death.”
The fisherman looked shocked for a moment and then a sly look passed over his face. “Oh great and magnificent genie, I think that you are, truly, the father of all liars. How could someone as large and powerful as you fit into so small a space – even your little toe is far too big to fit!”
“Prepare to be amazed, little man,” boomed the genie in a smug voice, “watch and marvel.” With that he turned back into the column of smoke which wound its way back down into the bottle. He was just beginning to feel pleased with himself when all went dark as the lead seal was snapped back onto the bottle. ‘Bugger! That’s how I came to be confined last time,’ remembered the genie, ‘all men are cunning, devious and definitely not to be trusted.’ To make the genie’s position even more uncomfortable, the fisherman began to regale him with the story of a King called Yunnan who was killed after having the doctor who cured him of leprosy, executed.
“So you see,” said the fisherman as his tale finally wound its way to its ending, “Allah killed Yunan because he killed the doctor. And because you threatened to kill me I’m going to throw you back and warn everyone who fishes in this bay to do the same if they catch you.”
The genie was, by now, in a panic, he couldn’t face the thought of one more day at the bottom of the sea. “Please, please,” he begged, “punish me with kindness as the saying goes. Set me free again and I’ll see that you gain a great reward.” Having sworn strong oaths not to harm the fisherman, to the genie’s relief, the bottle was un-stoppered once again. Being, finally, free the first thing that he did was to kick the bottle out to sea, where it sank without a trace after a very satisfying splash. To his great delight, he saw that the fisherman had pissed himself with fright and he laughed.
“Follow me, little man,” said the genie, and he led the fisherman around the outskirts of the city. After a short walk, they climbed a mountain and found an area of desert bounded by four mountains. In the middle of the desert was a lake full of fish – red fish, white fish, blue fish and yellow fish. On the lake’s shore, he told the fisherman to cast his net; the man caught four fish – one of each colour.
“Take those to the Sultan and he will give you a great reward, but first promise that you will not fish in this lake more than once a day. I beg you to excuse my lack of manners – I have spent the last eighteen hundred years on the seabed and have forgotten how affairs are conducted in the world of men.”
With that, the genie stamped his foot, the ground split open and with a great sigh of relief he sank into the bowels of the earth.
I’m writing this while suffering the effects of a horrible cold. I’d managed to avoid catching my grandson’s while looking after him and caught this one from my wife. However, as she, probably, caught hers from him, one way or another I’ve ended up with it. Still, as they say, Christmas is a time for giving and sharing and, as it is now Christmas Eve, storytelling has gone into hibernation for the rest of the year. So what has been happening in December?
On Thursday 5th I drove out to the Crane Valley Golf Club as I’d been booked to tell some stories at the Wimborne Rotary Club’s Christmas meal, which turned out to be an interesting gig. The club’s president had attended one of the Sting in the Tale events in July and, knowing nothing about storytelling, had been bowled over. He had approached one of the festival organizers who was not available on the night in question, but he had recommended me. The email inviting me to perform left the choice of material to me, but did warn that there would be some elderly people in the audience, so I suggested two possible programmes
Some spooky tales – keeping up the tradition of Christmas ghost stories
A couple of local ‘legends’ as a starter followed by Stone Soup, as the version I tell is set during the Christmas period
The title of ‘Stone Soup’ piqued the president’s interest – he didn’t know the story – so we went with option two.
After a traditional Christmas meal – the first of three meals out for me that week – and the loyal toast, I started my performance. The first of the local legends was The Shapwick Monster and I started by reminding the audience that, although they might think that they know the story from the poem on the wall of the Anchor Inn, in storytelling there is only ever one ‘true’ version of a story – the version that you are currently listening to. At one point in the story I say that the oldest inhabitant of Shapwick, Owd George, claims that when he was younger he had travelled as far as Dorchester, (about 20 miles as the crow flies for those of you outside Dorset). This got a laugh from the audience, which showed that they were paying attention and is always gratifying when it happens.
I got a similar reaction during Stone Soup. Having set the story up – a miserly chef, who wouldn’t give a stale crust to a starving beggar, is planning a royal Christmas feast. He allows a poor man into his kitchen to ‘cook soup from a magic stone’ because he only wants some water and to borrow a pot. The poor man starts telling a series of traveller’s tales and at the end of the first asks,
“Have you got a pinch of salt to spare?”
“A pinch of salt? Wait one moment.”
Cue a second ripple of laughter. Playing to an appreciative audience who aren’t used to storytelling was an interesting and rewarding experience. It’s true what they say; half of a good storytelling session is the audience.
Wednesday 18th found Dan, Jess and myself in the studio theatre at Poole Lighthouse to see Robert Lloyd Parry, (aka Nunkie Theatre), performing Dead Man’s Eyes, a couple of ghost stories by M R James. A View from a Hill, the first story of the pair, isn’t one of James’ most famous stories and isn’t particularly scary – the second story, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, has a really scary ‘jump’ moment. However, the evening was summed up nicely by my friend’s teenage daughter who was seeing her first Nunkie production. “I like the way he started with an unsettling story and finished with a scary one.”
If you have never seen one of Robert’s performances I can thoroughly recommend them. His set is simple – a chair, a table with a jumble of objects, including a decanter of whisky, all lit by four candles. His conversational style of telling draws the audience in and, combined with the candlelight, really ratchets up the tension.
Next evening there were more ghosts as we were performing A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at Heads & Tales. This is such a well-known story, if only because of the Muppets version, but it was interesting to hear it being told by five different storytellers as each one brought out different aspects of the story. Some tried to stick closely to Dickens’ style, some (myself included) were happy to tell their section in their own style – Mike, who told the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come section, nearly had us in tears as he told of Tiny Tim’s death.
I was telling The Ghost of Christmas Present section and found myself adapting my performance as I was listening to the preceding sections. The section starts, ‘Scrooge was woken by a particularly tough snore’ and I found myself thinking, if I use the chair, (I usually tell standing up), I can stretch out as if I’m asleep and do the snore first – so I did. I also added (at the last moment) an image that had come to me while I was rehearsing during the previous week and described the ghost – a gigantic figure wearing a dark green robe – as looking like a cross between the Jolly Green Giant and Brian Blessed, cue more laughter.
In January we are having an evening of stories inspired by pantomimes, or containing themes used in panto, so I may perform one involving cross dressing or a Robin Hood story. In February we are performing part of The One Thousand and One Nights, why not come to the Elm Tree in Ringwood on the third Thursday of the month and find out just how good storytelling is?
Thanks to my stint in the Middle School, 2019 has been a good year for storytelling. I’ve been keeping a record since I started telling at Heads & Tales in January 2018 so here is the breakdown.
2018 – I told stories on 14 occasions, the total number of stories told was 28 and if you strip out repeat tellings, e.g. performing a set twice at the Folk Festival, I told 22 different stories.
2019 – I told stories on 30 occasions, 29 different stories were told total of 51 times.
2020 – Who knows, why not stick around and see?
A Happy New Year to everyone and, to all you storytellers out there, may your year be full of stories and the opportunities to share them.
Skeletons by Firelight & Dragons
I’m going to keep this short as we are now well into December and the events that I’m writing about are fading, rapidly into the mists of time.
November’s storytelling adventures started with a visit to the Earth house at Cranborne’s Ancient Technology Centre on Saturday 2nd for the Crick Crack Club’s last performance of the season there. Clare Murphy, (a storyteller I haven’t seen before), TUUP and Tim Ralphs presented a series of stories celebrating the Day of the Dead. To add to the atmosphere created by the firelight there were several jolly looking skeletons, looking as if they were enjoying a good party, and an altar dedicated to the memory of departed loved ones.
At the start of the interval, the audience were invited to write the name of a departed family member on the slips of paper provided to add to the altar. I decided to write two – one for dad, who died last year, and one for my maternal grandfather, as I’m sure that sitting in bed with my sister listening to him was what planted the storytelling seed, (even if, like parsley, it took a long time to germinate).
I enjoyed the evening’s stories; especially one about the reanimated bones of a, long dead, witch doing gruesome things to a sleeping fisherman’s heart in order to grow herself a new body. In the end it all ended well with the witch and the fisherman spending the rest of their lives together.
Then on the afternoon of Thursday 7th I donned the old 17th century gear as Bartholomew got a rare outing at the Middle School to tell the year 8s about his experiences during the English Civil War. I’d tweaked the things that hadn’t gone so well last year and things ran a lot smoother. At the end of the afternoon I was chatting to the head of humanities who said that several children who had been in the second session had sought her out at the end of school to talk about what they had seen and heard. One girl had commented, “I don’t think they could move fast in that armour, it looks heavy.” This had interested the teacher who remarked that the girl had seen numerous pictures of soldiers in armour over the weeks she had been studying the war with no comment. It was only after watching me strap on my back and breast plate that she thought about the practicalities of moving and fighting while wearing it. A good example of why sessions like this are so useful in supporting the curriculum.
Thursday 21st was Heads & Tales. This month we had a ‘themed open mic,’ (although we don’t actually use a mic), i.e. anyone was welcome to tell a story from the Arthurian canon. I’d chosen to revive the story of Merlin and the Dragons – in which the coming of Arthur is foretold, as it could be subtitled – so got to kick the whole evening off. There was an ‘Oh no!’ moment, (thanks Nicole), at the point where the abducted Merlin has a bag pulled off of his head and is confronted by Vortigern’s henchmen and a very sharp sacrificial knife.
The evening continued with Mike telling of Arthur’s birth and the sword in the stone – he also rounded the evening off with Arthur’s death and the return of Excalibur to the lake. Raff told the story of the knight with two swords, Janet told the story that Chaucer based the Wife of Bath’s tale on – a knight ordered to discover what all women want. Dan told the story of Lancelot and the maid of Astolat – in his version Lancelot is far from a chivalrous, gentle knight – and Nicole told the story of Parsifal. Sadly Maddie, who had proposed the theme, didn’t get to tell her version of Gawain and the Green Knight, so she’ll be headlining with it sometime next year. A date to look forward to, talking of which, December’s meeting will be a group retelling of A Christmas Carol.
Water spirits, Handkerchiefs and Sleeping Ladies
If I can misquote The Moth Radio Hour, October has been a story worthy month. On Saturday 5th Dan & I drove out to Romsey to catch a couple of performances at the end of the town’s first storytelling festival. The venue –King John’s House – was wonderful; it’s part medieval hunting lodge, part Tudor house with bits of the original structure left exposed. One of these is a bone cobbled floor, made by hammering the leg bones of cows and horses down into the ground leaving the knuckle ends exposed like cobble stones. Fascinating, but at the same time slightly creepy. The performance space was in one of the upper rooms which has been decked out for a late medieval/early Tudor banquet – I kept thinking that I’d love to do a Bartholomew performance there.
The programme that evening consisted of Sarah Rundel telling Gawain and the Green Knight (5:00 – 7:00pm), followed by Katy Cawkwell telling Tristan and Isoult (7:45 – 9:45pm). Two very different stories told in very different styles – Sarah’s performance was very energetic and expansive, Katy’s was much quieter and restrained, (although, as Dan pointed out, Katy moved around the performance space more than Sarah). Both performers have told at Heads & Tales – Katy was the headline teller the night I made my debut back in January 2018 – all in all a great evening’s entertainment – and at £7.50 to see both performances, a bargain.
On Saturday 12th after a week of almost non-stop rain Dan, Jess and I sloshed our way through the mud at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranbourne to get into the earth house. This was for one of the Crick Crack Club’s evenings – TUUP, along with the keyboard player and percussionist from Trans Global Underground were performing Melusine: Children of Sweet Water. The story followed the fates and fortunes of three sisters, transporting the listeners from Scotland to medieval France and beyond through a spellbinding mix of words and music.
Thursday 17th was Heads & Tales and a chance, at last, to tell a story. Mike had advertised the evening as Mists or Mellow Fruitfulness – autumnal stories or something spooky for Halloween, (guess which one most of us went for). I had thought about trying to tell one of my supernatural stories, or one of the spooky stories I have told in the past but, in the end, I decided to tell a story based on a night visiting song. These usually take the form
girl and boy are separated, (he’s either at sea or fighting a war on some foreign shore)
one night the boy turns up unexpectedly, but has gone before dawn
girl then learns that her boyfriend/lover has died.
I decided to adapt The Suffolk Miracle which I had heard on the album Sweet England by Jim Moray as this song has a macabre twist at the end. The story behind this song goes
girl falls in love with an ‘unsuitable’ boy so her father sends her away
boy turns up and says “I’ve come to take you home”
they both ride back on the same horse and on the way home he complains about a sore head
she ties her Holland handkerchief round his head
when she gets home her father tells her that her lover is dead
she finds his grave on ‘yonder mountain’ (in Suffolk!) and, when she uncovers the body, he has her handkerchief tied round his head.
I wasn’t too sure as to what a ‘Holland handkerchief’ is so Googled it and discovered, amongst other things, that it is an alternative title to the song. I also found out it is song no. 272 in the Child Ballads, so I looked it up.
The original version has some nice details, but has one major weakness – when the girl is sent away, the song states that the young man dies of grief – a bit of a giveaway that robs the ending of its impact. In this version, the two fathers have the body exhumed from the graveyard and they find the handkerchief. When the girl is told of this she also dies of grief. I, therefore, decided to use the details of the original song and fit them into the structure of Jim Moray’s version. I also gave the characters names, set the story at the outbreak of the English Civil War and made Mercy’s father a Puritan and William’s father a Royalist.
The evening was really enjoyable; there were 14 of us – 3 new faces – with 8 of us telling stories. We had 2 from Japan, (Dan’s was based on an urban myth dating back to the 1950s), an original ‘Hammer Horror’ style story set in an English country village and a creepy piece of Appalachian folklore, (which claims to be true). There was a New Forest ghost story, one from Scotland and a gardening story, as well as my Suffolk Miracle.
And how was the story received? At the point where Mercy’s father informs her, after her return, that William had been hung as a Royalist spy 6 weeks ago, several audience members were heard to mutter, “Oh no.” The ending, where Mercy discovers William’s body and her handkerchief round his head got a similar reaction – result.
I was chatting to Kit & Mike at the end of the evening about an odd experience I had writing a short story last year. “You ought to put that in your blog,” they said – so here it is. To put things into context, my Dad went into hospital just before Christmas 2017 and was still there in the following February when Sue and I went to Malta for a week. I was determined to write something while I was away and, having seen a tiny pottery figurine known as the Sleeping Lady in Valetta museum, decided to write about it.
On the Friday, (my birthday), we were on a bus heading for the Gozo ferry so I was telling myself the story – I always do this before committing anything to paper. It turned out to be about a potter grieving for his dead wife and, all the time I was thinking about it, I felt as if I was about to burst into tears. Later that afternoon, while we were on the return crossing, I got a phone call from my sister to say that Dad had just died.
So what I’m left asking myself is, ‘were the overwhelming feelings of sadness I felt that morning a premonition of what would happen later that day?’ The odd thing is, when I wrote the story down next day the feelings from the day before had gone.
The problem with going on holiday with a smart phone and an iPad is that people can still contact you; you are never out of reach. The advantages of going on holiday with a smart phone and an iPad are … I think you can all see where this going. I was checking emails while we were down in the Basque country and found one from our local middle school, did I have any time between now and Christmas to do a rerun of the English Civil War talk for the new Year 8s? You bet I do; so sometime in the near future Bartholomew will get another outing. I’m already thinking about how to improve the presentation.
Not having any opportunity to tell stories recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, with a view to finding more to tell. I finished reading the Violet Fairy Book and British Fairy Tales, mentioned in my last post, while away and, as a result, have added another ten to my repertoire.
The British Fairy Tales book was a bit of an odd mix as it contained stories from Ireland and Scotland. I suppose the publishers were thinking about Great Britain in general and just used ‘British’ as a form of catch all shorthand. However, there is one story – a variation of The Gingerbread Man – called Johnny Cake. Being unfamiliar with the term I looked it up and discovered that Johnny Cake is a corruption of Journey Cake which is a form of corn meal bread cooked in a pan. It derives from Native American cuisine and, as the story features a bear and a wolf, I’m not convinced of it being a ‘British’ story. American, yes – British, no. In a similar vein the first story, Fifty Red Night Caps, involves a man falling asleep on his way to market and having his stock stolen by monkeys.
I’ve also been thinking about stories more deeply. One of the new stories can be summarised as
A Lincolnshire farmer takes possession of a piece of derelict land and while deciding what crop to plant discovers that it is the home of a Boggart who objects to his plan.
The farmer agrees to split the crop and makes the Boggart decide whether it wants the bit growing above the ground, or the bit below. “No going back on your decision.” The Boggart picks the part growing above ground so the farmer plants potatoes.
Next year, the farmer asks the boggart the same question and, remembering the previous harvest, the Boggart picks the bit growing below ground. The farmer plants barley.
Next year the Boggart says, “We are planting barley and on harvest day we will start reaping from opposite sides of the field. We keep what we reap.” The farmer panics as with his long, strong arms the Boggart should be able to reap far more than him. In the end, the farmer gets the blacksmith to produce lots of long, thin iron rods which he plants among the barley in the Boggarts half of the field. When the Boggart fails to reap much – he has to keep re-sharpening his scythe – he goes off in disgust telling the farmer that he can keep the land and the crop.
On the face of it, this is an amusing tale about a farmer using his sharp wits to keep his crop, and I have come across versions where the Devil is the farmer’s opponent. However …
I recently read a very thought provoking book, The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World, by Hugh Brody. The author is an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples and has argued, in various courts, that the stories these people tell are equally valid in claiming land rights as a signed and sealed legal document. The book mainly deals with his work and travels among the Inuit of Canada. In one of the chapters he examines the story in the book of Genesis and argues that it deals with the rise, and the ‘curse’ of farming.
Once Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, god curses them, stating that they will earn their bread ‘by the sweat of their brow.’ They obviously didn’t have to work hard for it before.
Cain, the world’s first murderer, is a farmer. His brother/victim, Abel, is a hunter and god considers his sacrifices to be more worthy than Cain’s, which leads to the jealousy and, ultimately, the violence.
Brody then examines the tensions between nomadic hunter-gatherer societies and ‘stable’ farming communities.
Farmers see hunter-gatherers as feckless, i.e. they don’t work as hard as us. Under good conditions, hunter-gatherers don’t have to work hard – one successful day can yield enough food to sustain a family for three days. Bit of a no brainer really, (my comment).
Farmers see hunter-gatherers as rootless, i.e. they keep moving around and don’t have permanent settlements. Hunter-gatherers do travel on a seasonal circuit, but they stick within very strict boundaries – they don’t encroach on the territories of neighbouring groups. They also restrict family sizes so as to minimize their impact on their environment. Farmers, on the other hand, keep having children – more people to work the land – so keep having to move into new areas to increase the amount of land given over to agriculture in order to support their ever expanding population. It is, in fact, the farmers who are forever on the move.
Farmers see nomadic societies as ‘primitive’ and therefore worthless and expendable, because they don’t have complex political systems. Complex political systems are not needed by nomadic societies. Brody also points out that, although not entirely absent, interpersonal violence is rare in hunter-gatherer societies, (see Cain & Abel).
Ultimately, farmers see nomadic hunter-gatherers as being ‘in the way,’ i.e. they are occupying the land that ‘we’ want and need. Sadly this attitude was not confined to the dim and distant past, look at the way that the Australian Aborigines and the American/Canadian First Nations peoples were treated in the recent past, (and are still treated today). Consider, also, the recent comments of Brazil’s president Bolsonaro that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have ‘too many rights’ and that the forest should be opened up to farmers, loggers and miners – in other words profits are more important than people.
Fairy and folk stories contain nuggets of truth – Little Red Riding Hood warns about the dangers of straying from the path and talking to strangers. Warning children that, if they go too near to the pond, Jenny Greenteeth will pull them in, drown them and gnaw on their bones, is far more effective than, “Don’t go near the water or you’ll fall in and drown.” Given all the above, is our simple little tale
A highly embroidered folk memory of the tensions between Neolithic farmers and the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers they replaced?
A tale of rampant capitalism riding, rough shod, over everything in its path?
Or am I over intellectualising a simple folk tale?
I’ll leave you to decide.
Old Books and Black Dogs.
To be honest, I didn’t think that I’d have anything to write about for a while. The schools have only just gone back after their summer holidays, there was no August meeting for Heads & Tales and no other opportunities for storytelling have arisen. But … but …
In my last post I said that I need to expand my repertoire and that’s just what I’ve been doing through the mysterious workings of serendipity. I was doing a day’s relief at Bournemouth Library a couple of weeks ago and they were weeding out and disposing of some old stock. In the pile of stuff to be disposed of were two collections of spoken word cassettes – does anyone else still remember cassettes? One contained three tapes with stories from India, Russia and Japan. The other, a two tape set, had stories from Africa and Mexico. Not wishing to see this material lost, I took a punt and rescued them. What state would the tapes be in – mangled? worn? tangled or broken? What would I play them on as we got rid of our cassette players at home some time ago?
I remembered that when I inherited Dad’s camera there had been a small cassette player in the camera bag so I dug it out when I got home, slapped in one of the cassettes, pressed play and … nothing. So I tried changing the batteries and … result!
And here we have another one of those quirks of fate. The first story on the Russian tape was Vasilisa the Beautiful – a longer version than the one I have read which incorporated elements from another Russian story I’ve come across. Now episode 31 of the Bone and Sickle podcast that I’d listened to only a couple of days earlier was about Baba Yaga and what story did they cover first? Vasilisa the Beautiful, using the version I was already familiar with. It’s a sign so I now have a workable version of it to tell.
I’ve also added the following African stories to my repertoire
Ekun and Opolo go looking for wives
The King’s drum
How the lizard lost and regained the farm
And from India
How the wicked sons were fooled
The Tiger, the Brahman and the Jackal – a hilarious story that I’m dying to tell.
But that’s not all. As a result of the weed I’ve also picked up a volume of Hans Christian Anderson stories, Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book, (from which I’ve learned a Japanese story called The Two Frogs) and British Fairy Tales by Amabel Williams-Ellis. This last book has illustrations by Pauline Baynes, I love her illustrations for Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooten Major, and she also illustrated C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books.
I’ve recently finished reading Mark Norman’s Black Dog Folklore – check out his excellent The Folklore podcast – and it inspired me to write Black Dog a new short story, the first since February last year. Here’s a link to it, why not give it a read and let me know what you think of it.
Things are in Tents
I had a horrible feeling that this month’s post might end up carrying on July’s cloudy theme – all because of an email. I’d been contacted by Ferndown Middle school asking if I could go in and tell some Greek myths to year 5. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘I’ve just been to the Big Greek Day, I’ve recently read Mythos – Stephen Fry’s take on the Greek gods – and Heroes, the companion volume, is sitting on the bookshelf waiting to be read. Then I checked the date that they suggested … it was the day we sail to France! I replied, saying I couldn’t make that day, (and explained why), and suggested two alternative days that week. Unfortunately, this was just before they broke up for the summer holidays and I haven’t had a response, so I guess that the gig’s lost. Luckily there are positive things to write about.
July’s Heads & Tales evening was fun. The theme of the night was what was the first story you read or were told? Mike expanded this as he opened proceedings by adding, what was the first story you told? Now this gave me a bit of a problem as I explained when it was my turn to tell,
the first story I remember reading would be Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby which I performed at Heads & Tales in February,
the first story I told would be the Anansi story that I performed at Heads & Tales …
the first story I remember hearing was from my maternal grandfather, (aka Dan), while sitting in bed with my sister and Nan. It was all about Ian & Andrea, (me and my sister in case you haven’t worked it out), going into the woods and meeting four dwarves called Humph, Bumf, Sneezy Wheezy and Vo-doh-deo-doh. Unfortunately, that’s all I can remember – all the subsequent versions with Neil, Holly & Daniel and now Pippa & Matthew have been made up by me.
Luckily I could remember another of his stories – an amusing incident from early in his naval career, i.e. sometime in the early 1920s, which, I’m glad to say, did raise a chuckle from the audience. Which was good as that night would have been his 114th birthday. I also managed to tell a very short local legend – The Shapwick Monster – at the end of the evening. Daniel has started to tell the odd story now and told a Japanese folk story, The Crane Bride, as it is similar to the Swan Bride which he remembers reading in school.
On the 25th July I went to hospital for my hernia repair. While I was being admitted, the surgeon asked if I had any questions so I mentioned the Sting in the Tale event on the Sunday. “Of course, I wouldn’t consider it if you have to cut me open,” I added.
“What does it involve?” he asked.
“A five mile trip to the venue, which I’ll get a lift for, and sitting down to tell some stories.”
“If you feel fit do it,” he replied.
“What, even if I’ve been cut open?”
“Yes.” Result … as it was, although they found some residual scarring, they managed to do the repair with keyhole surgery.
So on Sunday 28th, well dosed with painkillers, I got a lift to Wimborne and Daniel and I made our way to the twin tepees on Willow Walk.
To be honest, the audience could have been bigger – about half of us in the tent were storytellers. As I couldn’t stay for the whole event, I went on first. The audience, (excluding tellers), was about 50/50 children and adults so I told the Brer Rabbit story and the Coyote Tale of Two Tails. I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t just the children who were laughing as I told them. Daniel told another Japanese story, The Mouse’s Marriage, and had the audience rolling in the aisles, (I’m not jealous – really).
Later that afternoon I told Tam Lin, the story I’d been planning to tell since I booked my slot back in June. If I’m being honest, I think this was a mistake. The version I usually tell is rather dark and involves seduction, pregnancy and an attempted herbal abortion – not at all suitable for children. So I ended up telling a heavily modified version and, therefore, wasn’t 100% happy with my performance. Thinking about it afterwards, there are other stories that I know that would have been better. I’ve come to the conclusion that
I need to learn more stories – watching the likes of Taprisha, Mike and Paul plucking stories from different parts of the world out of the air is awe inspiring,
I also need more ‘child friendly’ stories, i.e. short stories with few characters.
Looks like I’ve got my work cut out.
Heads & Tales have no August meeting and I’ll still be sunning myself in Biarritz when the September meeting takes place. So by October I’ll probably be crawling up the walls!
Clouds and Silver Linings
They say that ‘every cloud has a silver lining,’ which means that if you look at things from the opposite view point, every silver lining has a cloud. So what has brought on this rather gloomy, Eeyoreish introspection?
Let’s start with the silver linings. June’s Heads & Tales was due to be a retelling of the saga of Egil Skallagrimson by Nicole Schmidt – maker of the Mythos podcast https://www.mythospodcast.com/. Unfortunately, due to a particularly pernicious summer cold, Nicole had to cancel at short notice. This left us with an unexpected ‘open mic’ evening, which meant that those of us that told stories got more time than usual. I was, therefore, able to tell the story of Thor and Loki travelling to Utgard to challenge the giants that I’d told to a small audience at the Wimborne Minster Folk Festival earlier in the month. I hadn’t planned to tell it as it would have taken too long to tell as part of a ‘normal’ evening, so that was an, unexpected, bonus.
During the course of the evening Mike asked if anybody had any sets/stories that would make up an evening later in the year. I’ve volunteered to do my ‘Ballads Without Music’ set either as a shared evening or a full evening by working on a couple more of the Child Ballads. Then there is the Sting in the Tale festival, https://www.wimbornehistoryfestival.org.uk/sting-in-the-tale-a-festival-of-stories/, coming up at the end of July. I’m booked to perform as part of the Showcase Sunday event on the 28th, (and to watch Jason Buck performing later that evening). I was also planning to volunteer at a couple of the other events which would, hopefully, be good for networking. All pretty positive, so what’s gone wrong?
At the beginning of May I was diagnosed with a hernia – no biggie, I’ve had one before and the repair was pretty simple. When I tried to book an appointment to see a surgeon the earliest date I could get, at Bournemouth Hospital, was August 13th (Poole & Wimborne hospitals have no availability) – this has already been cancelled and put back to the 20th. As Sue has access to private healthcare through her work we consulted the provider and they got things moving. My operation is now booked for July 25th, three days before the Showcase! If everything goes to plan, the repair will be done by keyhole surgery so I’m hoping that, given a lift and enough painkillers, I’ll be fit enough to perform on 28th, but if there is a problem – caused by the earlier repair – they will have to open me up, so there’s no way I’ll be able to perform, either way I won’t be fit enough to help at the festival.
I also received an email from the Middle School informing me that their librarian would be returning to full time work on July 1st. So no more storytelling to the year sixes, which I have to admit I’ll miss, (although I am pleased for the librarian). There is a tiny glimmer among the grey as they want to book me to do some storytelling in the school next year to help reinforce their English and History teaching.
So here I am, keeping my fingers crossed for the 25th – by the time the next post goes up who knows what will have happened?
Thought it would be good to finish with something positive. I was looking for a picture to go with this post without much success, until yesterday (Saturday 13th July), which I spent at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranborne where the Crick Crack Club were running a Big Greek Day. While I was queueing in the Viking longhouse for refreshments I spotted a painting on the wall – Thor lifting the cat from the story I’d told at Heads & Tales the other week – a gift from the gods?
Wimborne Folk Festival 2019
Last weekend was Wimborne Folk Festival and I’d been booked to do three storytelling sessions in the garden of the Model Town. On Saturday and Sunday afternoon my ‘Trick of the Tale’ set
Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby
A Tale of Two Tails (Coyote)
The Bag of Beans (a Japanese story with a trickster hare)
Anansi the Spiderman – how the world got its stories
Sunday morning’s set, ‘Myths and Magic,’ comprised
Romulus and Remus – founding of Rome
Merlin and the Dragons
Thor and Loki visit Utgard
On Friday it chucked it down with rain which was a little disconcerting as I was supposed to be performing in the open air, luckily the weather improved as the weekend progressed.
I was a little perturbed when I reported to the festival’s information tent to collect my performer’s wristband to find that I wasn’t on the list. I checked the programme to prove who I was – I wasn’t there either. To make matters worse, I’d left my phone at home (doh!) and Sue couldn’t get a signal on hers so we couldn’t show them that I was listed on the website. Luckily, the festival is very relaxed and they gave me a wristband with no quibble.
I began to relax when I met the manager of the Model Town and he greeted me with, “You were here last year.” And when I explained about not appearing in the programme he replied, “Well you’re on mine.” By 3:15 it was clear that it wasn’t going to rain, but it was very windy, as the storytelling area is surrounded by trees I decided not to try and compete with the ambient noise and chose to use the indoor venue – there were advantages and disadvantages to this. On the positive side the room the room was quiet and dry, if it rained, on the negative side there was a door to negotiate. Last year, I had noticed on or two people drifting past the performance space, they’d stop to listen and, when the story ended, come and find a seat. This time a couple of people came to the door, looked into the room and then walk away.
On the whole I was pleased with the three performances. Saturday’s audience was about 18 strong – with quite a few family and friends. One member of the audience was a boy aged between 2 and 3 and, to be honest, I was surprised that he lasted for the whole of the set. While I was talking to a couple of friends afterwards one of them remarked that he sat ‘wide eyed’ through the whole performance.
Sunday’s weather was fine and the wind had dropped, but I did have to compete with a noisy flock of rooks and a couple of blackbirds in the morning. My first audience of the day was only about 10, but the afternoon crowd fluctuated between 21 and 42, (Dan kept count for me). It may just be my imagination, but it seems to be the adults in the audience who get up and leave, taking their children with them, at the end of a story. As I was packing up a man, sitting to one side of the performance space, called out, “Thank you, that was great.” As an added bonus, on the following Friday my ‘usual’ year 6 class came into the library and one of the boys remarked, “I saw you at the Folk Festival; your stories were good,” (he’d been in the audience on Sunday afternoon).
I also managed to get to see Mythago dancing this festival. As you can see from the photo’s they tend towards the ‘dark side’ of the Morris tradition. Having said that, as they were running back into position at the end of one dance, one of them high fived a young lad with Down’s syndrome who was sitting in the front row of the audience – the look of joy on his face was a picture!
Next month – 27th July to 3rd August – Sting in the Tale, see www.wimbornehistoryfestival.org.uk are running a storytelling festival in Wimborne. I’ve got a slot booked for Showcase Sunday on the 28th, I’ll post the performance time when I know it.
Trust me I’m a storyteller
I’m looking forward to performing three storytelling sessions at this year’s Wimborne Minster Folk Festival.
Saturday 8th June 15:30 – 16:15 & Sunday 9th June 15:00 – 15:45
A Trick of the Tale
Brer Rabbit finds himself in a sticky situation; Coyote gets an extreme makeover while Anansi the Spiderman searches for enough stories for the whole world. Join Ian in a light hearted exploration of trickster tales from around the world.
Sunday 9th June 11:00 – 11:45
Myths & Magic
A she wolf brings up divine twins, fighting dragons bring down a royal tower and giants take on the gods in three very different stories from Roman, British and Norse mythology. Hear how Romulus and Remus founded Rome, Merlin predicted the coming of King Arthur and Thor & Loki visited the giants for a very unusual trial.
All three performances will be in the gardens of the model town and hopefully the weather will be as good as last year. For more details visit www.wimbornefolk.co.uk and follow the Timetable and Family links.
I’ve been looking for something eye catching to wear while storytelling, so asked Katy, an artistic colleague from Bournemouth Library, if she could make me a badge. “I’d like a dragon on it with this text,” was all I said. She came up with this and I was pleased to give it its first outing at this month’s Heads & Tales.
If you want to see more of Katy’s work you can follow her on
YouTube: Katy Vaughan Art
I’m still storytelling at the school, with the year sixes proving to be a very enthusiastic audience. As they came in last Friday one of the boys said, “I’ve been looking forward to this all week!” I finished telling The Giant with no Heart in His Body after the Easter holiday and was gratified that they could remember where we had broken off two weeks before. As I got towards the end of the story I took a chance and worked myself into it while describing a wedding feast.
“The wedding feast was magnificent; there were mountains of food and oceans of drink. There were musicians and dancers, fire eaters and jugglers. There were stilt walkers and storytellers – I was one of them, but unfortunately I had to leave early, so as far as I’m aware, they’re still celebrating.”
As the week of 13th – 17th May was SATs week I thought on the Friday before that I’d tell something ‘silly’ to give them a laugh so told them Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It got the reaction I was hoping for, but I’m still never sure whether they are laughing at the story, or my terrible ‘Cletus the Slack-Jawed yokel’ accent. Who cares as long as they’re enjoying it? As their teacher was trying to finish a job off I also told the coyote story from the Trick of the Tale set, (so that’s half of that set rehearsed in front of an audience).
Last Friday I told them Merlin and the Dragons from the Myths and Magic set, I’ve not told this story before and was quite pleased with the results. All I need to do now is check the timings for the Norse story – I had been rehearsing it as a long ‘standalone’ story for an event which fell through so it has grown a lot since I last told it in Kinson library – and I’m good to go. I’ll post a blow by blow account at the end of June.
I find kids fascinating and they never fail to amaze me. As you may have noticed in my last post, I’ve been doing some work in our local middle school, where a typical library session consists of
the teacher reading to the class
a ten minute session to change/renew books
breakout into groups for various reading activities.
Having found out that I’m a storyteller, a couple of the teachers have asked me to do the reading, or even to tell a story instead. So far I’ve told to two different year 8 classes and four times to one of the year 6 classes.
I was asked to perform to the first year 8 class by their relief teacher. They were studying customs, especially customs that may no longer be observed, “So if you’ve got anything Easter or Christmas related …” As it happens, I’d just read Dorset Folk Tales by Tim Laycock, (The History Press), which has the story of the Fordington Mummers and their final performance on Christmas Eve 1827, so I said I’d perform that.
I soon realised that I’d given myself quite a task as your average folk story usually has a couple of main characters and a fairly simple plot. This is a ‘true’ story, i.e. it is based on real events and people, there are five principle characters and at least three other named people plus a description of the mummer’s perambulations around the village. I made some sketchy notes in the storytelling notebook I keep but realised that I wouldn’t be able to memorise everything in the time available.
On the day I adopted a belt ‘n’ braces approach and took my notebook and Dorset Folk Tales. The teacher was happy for me to perform it how I wanted to, so I ‘told’ the story from my notes. It seemed to go well, but with 12/13 year olds you’re never quite sure.
The second year 8 class was also being taken by a relief teacher; they were studying Gothic literature so something with a dark edge was called for. I told them a story that is new to my repertoire, The Woodcutter and the Devil. The teacher and the TA really enjoyed the story, but the teacher wasn’t sure that the class had fully appreciated the subtlety of the trick played at the end of the story.
In a nut shell, the story concerns a woodcutter that sells his soul to the Devil for the money to send his three sons to school. When the ten years of the deal are up, the eldest son – now a minister in the church – gains his father an extra year. A year later the middle son – now a doctor – also gains his father a one year extension. At the end of another year the youngest son – now a lawyer – asks for a third extension, the Devil agrees, but not to another year.
“How about you come back for my father when that candle burns down to the end of its wick?”
The Devil agrees and the lawyer promptly blows out the candle and puts it in his pocket. The Devil is still waiting to collect the woodcutter’s soul.
The following week I decided on a little known story from the Brothers Grimm – Godfather Death. There was a group of four boys lounging against a cupboard giving every impression that they weren’t paying attention.
“There was once a poor man who had twelve children,” I started.
“Oh no!” said one of these boys in a concerned voice.
“So imagine how he felt when his wife gave birth to a 13th child.”
“Oh no!” he said again.
Later on in the story the Devil appears, so I deliberately described him the same way as I had the week before. As I was describing his dark suit of clothes, red cape and natty little pointed beard I heard one of the boys muttering, “It’s the Devil” – they obviously had been listening.
The day before we broke up for the Easter Holiday the class was in the library with their usual teacher. I had a five minute slot at the end of the session and announced that I would tell a local story. “Is it true?” asked one of the girls. An expression used by Mike, from Heads & Tales, popped into my head; keeping a straight face I said, “All stories are true … some of them even happened.”
As the class were lining up to leave, I was gratified to overhear a conversation between two of the boys – “I liked last week’s story, with Death in it.”
I’ve also had a weekly storytelling slot with one of the year 6 classes. I decided to tell my woodcutter and unicorn story first. As I sat down, I noticed a group of four boys sitting to my right – they’d been moved and told not to sit hidden by the library desk so my impression was that they could be ‘trouble.’ I wanted an arresting start to the story – the traditional ‘Once Upon a Time’ is a short hand way of saying ‘this story is set in a place and time that didn’t really exist.’ However, I feel it’s been so overused that could risk the response, ‘Oh it’s a boring fairy story.’ So I went with, “There was a time long, long ago when magic was real and, if someone met a talking animal, they wouldn’t bat an eyelid.” I looked around the class – they were all looking at me in silence and when I got to the big reveal, “he realised that what he could see, tangled up by its mane and tail was … a unicorn,” there was a sharp intake of breath from the four boys.
A week later the class trouped into the library and the four boys plonked themselves down where they had sat the week before. “Can we have the story of the woodcutter and the unicorn again?” one of them asked. I told them Tom Tit Tot instead, starting it “This story is at least four hundred years old, who knows, maybe William Shakespeare told it to his children.” When I got to the part of the story where the imp tells the queen that, if she can’t guess his name, she will have to live with him in the forest, I saw several faces light up and one girl mouthed ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ So just to confuse them, I had the queen guess Rumpelstiltskin on the penultimate day. “No, who’d have a stupid name like Rumpelstiltskin?” replies the imp. At the end of the story, after the imp has vanished, I posed the question, “so what will the queen do in eleven months’ time when the king will expect her to spin five skeins of flax again? If you’re good I’ll tell you next week in part 2.”
As they arrived on the following Friday there was a chorus of, “Do we get part 2 of last week’s story?” I asked what they could remember of the previous story and was very impressed when one of the girls told a very good version of what I’d told (a potential storyteller there). I asked them if they’d thought I’d been telling Rumpelstiltskin, about half a dozen hands went up – interestingly they were all girls. The story I told them was a shortened version of Pig Nut, by Jon Buckeridge, to hear a full version of this – it starts the same way as Tom Tit Tot – listen to the Once Upon a Time episode of the Folklore podcast www.thefolklorepodcast.com
My last session with this class was the day we broke up for the Easter holiday. I started to tell them The Giant with no Heart in His Body, a Norwegian story that I picked up during last November’s storytelling workshop. We’ve left Ash Lad under the giant’s bed with the fluff, cobwebs, mouse droppings and a chamber pot, when we meet again I’ll be interested to see what they remember.
The Story Behind the Story
Before I get into the main theme of this post, I had a ‘Bartholomew’ moment the other day. I’m currently helping out in the local middle school’s library while their usual librarian is away. One of the teachers came in with a class of year 8s and someone mentioned Mr Tovey and acting. ‘Oh where have you seen Mr Tovey acting?’ asked the teacher. While I was responding that it would have been a month or two ago when I came in to talk about the English Civil War, one of the girls called out ‘Victorians.’ At this point one of the other girls turned to me and asked, ‘Didn’t you come to Parley?’ I had, four years ago, when I’d run a Victorian School Day there – it obviously made a great impression.
There was a lot of disruption as 2017 blended into 2018. What with taking voluntary redundancy, mum going into hospital, (and making a quick recovery), and then dad going in a couple of weeks later never to come out there was a lot going on. As a result of all this work on my novel came to a grinding halt – although, if I’m being honest, things on that front were already starting to slow down. What was worse was that I also lost the inspiration to write in general.
However it was at this time that I took up storytelling as a serious ‘pass time,’ so my love of words – and writing – has continued. The difference is now my writing has changed. I no longer write with the idea that, one day, people may read my words. I’m now producing an idealised version of something that people will listen to, (although some people have commented in the past that my stories were always rather conversational in style). It’s rather refreshing to stop worrying about trying to produce a ‘polished’ piece and to know that things can, and inevitably will, change as time goes on. I’ve already noticed that some of my pieces already have big differences between the written and the told versions.
At the storytelling workshop I attended last year Ben Haggarty spoke about ‘the tyranny of the text,’ the idea that once something is written down that’s it – it’s pinned down like a butterfly on a Victorian entomologist’s collecting card. I had an interesting experience of this several years ago when a class from a local school visited the library. They were studying Greek myths so at the end of the session I read them the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. I’d hardly started when one girl in the class, aged about 8, informed me that the story I was reading was ‘wrong’ – because it wasn’t the same as the version that the teacher had read to them a couple of days ago.
So where is all this leading? I thought it would be interesting to demonstrate how a story grows when freed from the page.
Last year Sue and I were visiting Honfleur in Normandy. As we were walking down a small lane I spotted a plaque fixed to a wall.
Now my French is not very good but I’ve read enough folklore to realise that la petite sirène is French for the little mermaid. So I photographed the plaque and when we got back to the holiday let I transcribed the inscription. I also tried a couple of internet searches to see if I could find any references to the story and drew a complete blank. And there things stayed until recently, when I started to wonder what the story was. So I typed out the transcript and ran it through Google translate which came up with this – more or less, some of the text has been changed from the literal translation for clarity’s sake.
One day, a desperate seafarer [fisherman], who dreamed of meeting a soulmate, goes out to sea and throws out his nets. He falls asleep and is awakened by the sound of the waves. He pulls in his net and discovers a little mermaid who looks at him with a smile.
After mooring his boat at the site of the current boulevard Charles V where the sea came to bathe, he is so happy that he cannot help but take her home in the rue Haute through a small alley that carries today the name of “the little mermaid”.
Miracle: once the door of the fisherman’s house closed, the little mermaid turned into a beautiful girl.
Not much to go on, so could I make anything of it and get it into a tellable story?
The first thing I needed was a name for the main character. Now in English/Scottish tales the everyman character is usually called Jack – think Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, Jack of all trades, Jack the Ripper (OK maybe not that one). So it seemed like a good idea to call him Jacques, I know it translates as James but it sounds similar. I also wanted a description for the mermaid and remembered a carved gable end I’d photographed in Bayeux earlier that holiday.
So after a couple of days thought what I came up with can be read here, just remember that this was never intended to be read, it’s to be performed out loud to an audience. By the time it gets performed it will have changed, extra details are already being added the more I think about it, but the core of the story will remain the same. Let me know what you think.
Postscript: I performed the story last night at Heads & Tales and yes extra details were added even as I was telling it. I’m pleased to report that the audience seemed to be enraptured and it got a good reception – one member of the audience (another storyteller) even described it as a nice way to round the evening off.
Two for the Price of One
This post will be slightly different to my run of the mill posts and may even be longer than usual. This is because I have two events to report on, but as they are/were two weeks apart I thought that, rather than put up two posts in quick succession, I’d write it in two parts, but post it as a single piece after the second event. Needless to say there is nothing doing on the Bartholomew front.
Event 1:- Tristan and Isolt, Southampton.
On Thursday 7th February five of us from Heads & Tales – Mike, Maddie, Raph, Janet and I – decamped to the Art House Café in Southampton where we joined Paul in a second performance of Tristan and Isolt. Southampton Story Club meet in the upstirs room of the café, a really intimate venue (and incidentally one that Dan performed in as a singer/songwriter back in his uni days) – they also do a very rich and sticky peanut, chocolate and oat slice. I counted ten in the audience, not including the six of us performing. So how did it go?
I realised that morning that I hadn’t thought about my section of the epic since the last performance – in contrast I’ve been thinking about and practising my solo set for months! So I did a quick run through and was a little worried when I over ran by about five minutes. Not a lot I could do about it except make sure I was a little more ‘slick’ in my delivery on the night. My section came fourth, just before the interval and I must admit I was a little distracted at times during the three preceding sections. However, it was a different story when I got up to tell my section.
I’m sure that having got one performance under my belt helped me to relax. It also helped the performance to be more dynamic – at the point where Isolt raises Tristan’s sword to kill him I was there with her, standing as if I were holding the sword. The jokey asides all got laughs and a complete stranger patted me on the back when I sat down at the end. I was convinced that we had all over run our time slots, but when I mentioned it to Mike he said no, we’d all come in at about twenty minutes. I believe that the next epic in an evening will be based around the Arabian Nights.
Event 2:- Heads & Tales, Ringwood
When Maddie emailed in autumn 2018 asking if I was interested in headlining for the February Heads & Tales meeting I jumped at the chance and didn’t take long to say yes. I decided on an evening of trickster tales as I would be able to reuse the set I performed on the Saturday at last year’s Wimborne Folk Festival. At 45 minutes it was five minutes too long for one half, but I intended to start the evening with the first couple of stories and finish it with the last. I could therefore slot other stories in between to make the time up. This meant that the set would comprise of
Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby
A Tale of Two Tails (Coyote)
The Bag of Beans (a Japanese story)
Anansi the Spiderman and how the World got its Stories
Other stories in the frame were
5. St. Agnes and Bolster the Giant
6. Half a Lie (a story I’d come across on the Folklore Thursday Twitter feed)
7. Stone Soup, a version of which has been on the brew since May 2017.
The running order I decided on was 1, 2, 3, 7, interval, 5, 6, 4.
Now I’m not the most tech savvy of people so timing performances has always been a bit hit ’n’ miss and involved checking the time on my watch, telling the story, and then checking the time again. Not very accurate. Then the other day I finally worked out how to use the stopwatch function on my phone, (like I said, I’m not very tech savvy). I was therefore rather shocked to discover that the first half was now running at 46 minutes. I’d need to lose six minutes otherwise I’d be cutting into the open mic session at the end of the evening – definitely something to be avoided. I therefore decided to lose The Bag of Beans.
The set now resembled a classic Yes album (e.g. Close to the Edge or Relayer) with each half having two short stories and one long one. I arrived at the Elm Tree in good time to find Janet (aka Bluebird) setting up a backcloth which she ‘just happened to have in her car,’ so much nicer than standing in front of a blank wall. Starting the set at 7:30 I was disturbed to find I’d reached the end by just after 8:00. I haven’t got a clue what happened, maybe I tell a little faster when I’m ‘in the zone,’ maybe telling to an audience compresses time in some weird way.
I therefore added a story about Bartimeus the blind beggar that I’d recently read in a collection by the Scottish storyteller Duncan Williamson – it’s not strictly a trickster story, but is a great example of what Granny Weatherwax from the Disc World novels calls ‘headology.’ At the end of that I was still short by a couple of minutes so did tell The Bag of Beans.
The second half was also short by a minute or two, but as that would give the other tellers more time I wasn’t too worried. At the end I got a couple of nice compliments. Janet said she enjoyed my imitation of a drunken leopard. And Maddie said she enjoys hearing me tell stories she knows because of the extra details that I put in. She also added ‘I like the way you colour in your stories.’ So now I’d better go and sharpen up my metaphorical pencils ready for next month.
Coins, Swords and Dragons.
No prospective outings for Bartholomew yet, but I have picked up a few more props, (yes I know!) This purchase came about after watching an edition of BBC4’s Digging for Britain. One of the finds being discussed was a clay pot containing a hoard of several hundred silver coins which had been found by a metal detectorist. The ‘youngest’ coins in the hoard had mint marks that dated them to 1643 and the fact that they showed little or no signs of wear led the experts to conclude that they had been buried not long after being minted – i.e. during the English Civil War (no wonder I took notice). The oldest coins were dated to the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) and were, therefore, nearly 100 years old when they were deposited. The ‘face value’ of the hoard was about £13 – approx. one year’s wages for a working man of the time, so it was probably something the owner could ill afford to lose.
This got me thinking about other coin hoards I’d read about. One found on the battlefield at Naseby consisted mostly of Charles I (again), but also had coins dating to Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603). A hoard found in Dorset some years ago consisted of coins from James I (1603-1625) with some from Mary I’s reign (1553-1558). Growing up in the pre decimal age it was not uncommon to find coins minted by George VI (1936-1952) in your change or even coins from his father’s reign – George V (1910-1936), I’m sure I also handled the odd Edward VII penny in my youth. As the expert on the programme said coins are legal tender until withdrawn so unless the coinage needs an overhaul, e.g. going decimal or this modern trend for shrinking the size of coins, they will remain in circulation.
Charles I silver half-crown (2 shillings and sixpence)
They will sit in Bartholomew’s purse whenever he gets an outing and will give me something extra to talk about if I ever get asked about money.
On the storytelling front things have been going well. In December we had Heads & Tales version of the Quidhampton mummer’s play. I was playing the Bold Slasher and Dan the Turkish Knight. Reading the blurb supplied with the script I saw that the Bold Slasher usually wears a red, military tunic. It so happens that one of the doublets I wear as Bartholomew is grey lined with red, so I turned it inside out giving a good approximation of a soldier’s red coat.
The evening was good fun – Father Christmas was struck down with lurgy so Kit stepped in at less than 24 hours’ notice to play the part. Raph, who was playing King George, arrived wearing a chainmail shirt. We had a quick run through and then performed it for real. What none of us realised was that Paul, who was playing the doctor, had filled his medicine bottle between rehearsal and performance so that those of us who ‘died’ during the play got sprinkled with cold water in lieu of ‘Opliss Popliss Drops.’ We finished the evening with some storytelling games and an open mic session during which I got to tell a rather spooky tale about a Scottish piper and a pair of haunted boots – one of the stories I picked up on the storytelling course in November (see last post).
This month’s session was an epic in an evening – the story of Tristan and Isolt which six of us told between us. I managed to jump in early when the parts were up for grabs and bagged the section where Tristan fights a dragon. I soon realised that it was over 3100 lines of poetry and when printed out ran to over 50 A4 pages; all of which had to be condensed down to about 20 minutes.
I spent several weeks reading it through and paraphrasing it, I also carried out some judicious pruning – I mean who needs a 2 page description of the cut and style of Isolt’s clothes or Tristan’s for that matter? I tried a run through the week before, set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes and started to tell the story. When the timer went off I’d only just finished the fight with the dragon. Back to the drawing board!
On the night I managed to get it down to 22 minutes. I really enjoyed getting to hear how my part fitted into the whole story and how each of the tellers handled their sections. Next month we get to perform it again in Southampton, (Thursday 7th February at the Art House). Then on the 21st I get my first headline evening at Heads & Tales. I’m performing a set of trickster tales from around the world. Expect an evening of talking animals, giants, saints and a bit of bloodshed, but to quote Kenny Everett, “it’s all done in the best possible taste!”