To follow my current thoughts and experiences as I navigate the world of storytelling read on. For earlier blogs follow the links
July has been a busy month, so buckle up, this could be a long ride. To start with, I have attended my first live storytelling event since COVID started, (thanks for getting the tickets Dan & Jess). The Crick Crack Club had an evening of animal stories at the Earth house in Cranborne. The most memorable story for me was an Inuit creation story, told by Nell Phoenix, which involved Wolverine – the god, the man, the … wolverine – and a mud filled muskrat. I’ll just say that, in order to clear the mud out of muskrat, Wolverine puckered up and blew into a certain orifice sending it streaming out of muskrat’s nose and mouth and leave the rest up to your imagination.
Here’s what I’ve been doing on the telling front.
Southampton: – The evening turned out to be a bit of a Curate’s egg. If you’re not familiar with the story, a young curate was once given a boiled egg for his tea by an elderly parishioner and found that parts of the white were undercooked and watery. When asked how his egg was, he avoided embarrassing his host by replying, “Good in parts.” We started with a technical hitch – Mike, who hosts the Zoom meeting, was having problems which made him sound as if he was talking underwater through an old sock. So, he turned the hosting duties over to me while he shut everything down and rebooted. Dan had problems joining the meeting – he had to try with three different devices before he was successful – and halfway through my first story, my iPad decided to shut Zoom down and then restart it. Oh, the perils of technology! On the plus side, we did have someone listening in from Toronto.
The theme for the evening was Old People, so I decided to try my hand at another Greek myth and told the story of Eos and Tithonus. Eos begs Zeus to make her lover immortal but neglects to ask for eternal youth at the same time, so Tithonus gets weaker and feebler as the years go by. In the end, to escape his annoying buzzing voice Eos turns him into a cicada.
As there were so few tellers, we all got to do ‘seconds’ so I did an unrehearsed version of a Duncan Williamson story I heard via Ben Haggarty. It’s based on a song known as The Cow that Ate the Piper and was performed with awful Scottish accents.
Sarum: – The theme was Fire and Water, so I decided to retell my story of the Little Mermaid of Honfleur. For the full version and an explanation of how it came to be written see my March 2019 post.
Heads & Tales: – The theme was journeys and we decided to have a face-to-face meeting in the open air. Maddie suggested the Jubilee Gardens in Ringwood and so seven of us met there. The gardens are secluded, so we wouldn’t be disturbing anyone – the fisherman who plonked himself down by us after we had started doesn’t count – but they are right by the A31 which runs through the New Forest, so we had to compete with a constant stream of traffic.
Only four of us told stories – I told the story of Coyote and the Little Tune, which comes from the book, A Trick of the Tale. We did, however, have a long discussion about how we want to do things in the future. The consensus was some online meetings and some ‘live’ meetings with the possibility of some sort of show that we can take out to spread the word about storytelling. After the meeting, I saw an email that went out to library staff about ‘opportunities for storytelling’ at an event, then my heart sank when I read the words ‘so if you want to spend some time reading stories.’ I so wanted to reply in capital letters READING FROM A BOOK IS NOT STORYTELLING!
The big news is I’ve done my first live telling since lockdown started. Sting in the Tale had been asked to provide storytellers for a series of events being run over the summer holidays for children that receive free school meals, and Maddie & I were asked if we could tell at Walford Craft Mill in Wimborne at a craft activities day. The suggested brief was crafty stories or stories about milling/millers. Now the only stories about millers I know are Chaucer’s miller’s tale and the reeve’s tale, neither of which are suitable for young children. So, I decided to treat crafty as meaning cunning or clever and set about prepping too many stories to give me a bit of variety through the day. The set consisted of:
- The Mouse’s Marriage – a Japanese story I’ve heard Dan tell. I set the story at a time when the mill was still working and had the mice living in the cellar. I even managed to work in a horrendous pun – so much flour came down into the cellar that the mother mouse became a master baker and came runner up in Mouster chef. Needless to say, it went straight over the kids’ heads, but did cause some of the adults to smile.
- The Bag of Beans – another Japanese story about a trickster hare, it’s been a couple of years since I last told this story.
- Rabbit’s House – on the basis that the fox and the Cockerel are both very crafty. While telling this story, I got the kids to join in with the animal noises.
- The Frog – an Italian story which I relocated to the Wimborne/Ferndown area.
- Anansi and How the World got its Stories – any excuse to break out the toilet roll python again.
- The Woodcutter and the Unicorn.
I did four sets during the day and told the Mouse’s Marriage three times, The Bag of Beans and Anansi twice, Mrs. Rabbit’s House four times, and The Frog and The Woodcutter & the Unicorn once each. The last story usually gets a reaction when the unicorn is revealed but, this time it didn’t get one. However, when the woodcutter manages to solve three problems with a single wish, I heard a boy in the audience say, “Oh, he’s really clever.”
I had a sore throat by the end of the afternoon and had to cope with my newly acquired backdrop periodically breaking loose and flapping about in the wind, but the look of joy on one girl’s face as she listened made it all worthwhile.
Something Old/Something New
May was a bit of a quiet month regarding storytelling as Sarum’s meeting coincided with Sue’s birthday, so I only got to tell twice. And, as time ran away with me as May turned to June, this will have to be a double length post – or a one and two thirds length post if we are being strictly accurate.
Southampton: – the theme of the evening was A Time to Dance, so I decided to retell Kate Crackernuts. Kate saves her, royal, stepsister from her mother’s curse and prevents a prince from being danced to death by the fey folk by being loyal and clever.
I first told this story a year ago, (May 2020), at Heads & Tales and decided to give it another outing to a, slightly, different audience. Although it’s an interesting challenge to find new stories, it is also nice to revisit some old ones – especially as it can give you the chance to improve things. This will be a bit of a theme in this post.
Heads & Tales: – there is an old expression, “cast not a clout ‘til May be out,” i.e., don’t wear fewer clothes until the June warm weather comes, so the theme for the night was Casting Clouts. I decided to play a bit fast and loose with the theme on the basis that clothes have to be made before they can be cast off, and so I told a Norwegian version of the story usually known as The Three Aunts.
A servant at the royal palace is hated by her fellows – she works too hard for their liking making them look lazy. As a result of their backstabbing, she is expected to spin, weave, and sew a shirt for the prince producing work finer than the Queen’s. She is helped in her tasks by three ugly old women, who only ask that when she marries the prince, she will introduce them to him as her aunts. The girl does marry the prince and at the reception introduces him to her ‘aunts.’ To his horror, they explain that their deformities are due to years of spinning, weaving, and sewing. The prince, promptly, forbids his wife from working again – a great result for her.
Southampton: – Great Escapes. A couple of weeks before the meeting I saw a video of Megan Hicks telling a story called Davy and the Devil. It was such a good story that I had to tell it myself, (some stories just get under your skin and demand to be told). To see the video, look for ‘Megan Hicks at the National Storytelling Festival’ on YouTube, Davy and Devil starts at about the 12:47 mark.
Sarum: – I decided to retell the Russian story, Mrs Rabbit’s House as the theme was Humans & Animals. Mrs Rabbit spends the summer building a house, much to the amusement of fox. However, when the snow comes with the winter, fox feels the cold and wheedles his way into Mrs Rabbit’s house. Next morning he kicks her out and claims the house for himself. Dog, wolf and bear try to help but run off when fox pretends to be something bigger than them – a wolf, a bear and a tiger. Eventually, cockerel tricks fox into thinking that hunters are near and he runs off, leaving Mrs Rabbit to reclaim her house.
The audience was bigger than the last time I told it, (May 2020 again), and I think that the performance was better for that.
Heads & Tales: – I had several possible stories for the evening – the theme was Trees. I had considered The Woodcutter and the Unicorn, an old favourite, or A Thorn in the King’s Foot from the Duncan Williamson collection. In the end I decide to retell the Ancient Greek story of Philemon and Baucis, I’d first told it at Sarum back in August and only had 24 hours to learn it in. This time I had a month to work on it so was much more confident about it and was able to inject more of my own ‘flavour’ into it. After I’d finished, Paul, a storyteller of long standing, commented “Beautifully told Ian,” which, I must admit, gave me a bit of a glow.
As things on the COVID front are easing, ever so slightly, there are more opportunities for ‘live’ storytelling so there are a couple of exciting things coming up in the near future – watch this space.
A Night on the Tiles
The other evening at Southampton Story Club, (there will be a full report at the end of the month), Dan outlined a Japanese story about a craftsman who wants to turn bad luck away from his workshop. To do this he removes a roof tile and replaces it with a tile moulded with the face of an Oni – a demon/troll from Japanese folklore. Unfortunately, the tile is bigger than the others and it stands proud of the roofline, casting a shadow into the workroom of the fan painter who lives opposite. The workman in the story averts the ill luck, but the fan painter’s work is badly affected by the shadow.
After telling this tale, Dan screen shared some images of roof tiles with Oni faces. Mike then brought up Google streets and showed some houses in Southampton that have dragon shaped tiles on the roof gables. This reminded me of a house that stands close to the entrance of Hampton Court Palace. It has turrets, dragon tiles on the gables and is very overgrown at the front – I couldn’t share photos at the time as they aren’t on the iPad I use for Zooming.
When I first saw it, I thought it would be a great setting for a folk/horror story, but what would the story be? At the time I was still working for Bournemouth Libraries and our branch was plagued by a particularly lippy boy, and so he became one of the main characters in the story. Giving him a rather nasty ending was so cathartic.
And so, I wrote, Like Lambs to the Slaughter, if you would like to read the results click here.
Fools, Gods & Demons
April was a bit of an odd month as Sarum, (2nd Tuesday), and Heads & Tales, (3rd Thursday), fell in the same week which didn’t leave a lot of time to prepare between sessions. I also made time to sit and listen to some stories this month. Two performances by Robert Lloyd Parry, (aka Nunkie), A Warning to the Curious on Friday 9th and The Fenstanton Witch, on Friday 23rd, both stories were written by M R James. On Saturday 10th, Jason Buck, and Janet Goring, (aka Bluebird) were telling stories about the Fae folk and giants – highly recommended.
Southampton: – as this session was held on April 1st the theme, naturally, was Fools. I’d come across a story in Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book which fitted nicely, so I started to work on it.
An old man discovers a treasure and is worried that his gossip of a wife will give away his secret. He takes her with him to dig the treasure up and, on the way, convinces her that a series of bizarre events have occurred. When the wife, eventually, gives the game away and the authorities come to claim the treasure, the old man denies all knowledge of it. His wife contradicts him saying, “you found it the day you caught the pike in the tree and the hare in the river.” Everyone regards her as a fool and her husband is left to enjoy the treasure in peace. Lang doesn’t say where the story is from, so I did some digging and found an online source that said it is probably from the Ukraine.
The evening was going well and only Mike and I were left to tell. Mike asked if he could go next as two of the stories, he had thought of telling had already been told – Gary had managed to weave them both into a single story – so I sat back. The story that Mike started to tell was set in Italy, the wife was quiet, the husband was the garrulous one, especially when drunk. As the story progressed, I got that sinking feeling – I could see where this was going. The payoff was different – bread rolls growing on trees, fish living in the grass & catching sausages in a river – but it was, to all intents and purposes, the same story. ‘Help,’ I thought, ‘what am I going to do?’
As luck would have it, I had also been thinking about a story I had adapted from a 17th century Broadside Ballade. A night watchman is scared out of his wits by the sight of a fire breathing creature while on his rounds in London. If I tell you that the ballade is called ‘Shameless Joan or The Old Woman of Finsbury who went through the City upon all four, with a lighted Candle in her Backside and scar’d the Watch who was amaz’d at that dismal sight,’ I think you can work out what was going on. It’s always good to have another story up your sleeve.
Sarum: – the theme was Spring, so I decided to tell the story of Persephone and Hades, based on the version in Stephen Fry’s book Mythos. It was a quiet night; when I first logged into Zoom only Mike and I were there to tell, and there were three people listening. All of them had their mics muted, (which is usual), and their cameras off which I found really weird as I was getting no feel as to how the story was going – how I miss telling a story to a ‘proper’ live audience.
Iona and Tom joined after Mike had told his first story so, while Iona got her thoughts together, I got to tell a second tale, as I’ve already said, ‘it’s good to second tale up your sleeve.’ This one was from Africa – a king gives his people a great feast, I added that it was to celebrate the coming of spring to make it relevant to the night’s theme. The only condition is that every man attending has to bring a calabash full of palm wine which will be added to a communal pot. An old man, who has no palm wine and is too cheap to buy some, decides that one calabash of water won’t be noticed and so takes that. Unfortunately, when the wine is served at the end of the evening, it transpires that every man has had the same idea resulting in a pot full of water!
Heads & Tales: – an evening to celebrate the reopening of pubs. I decided to retell my mash up of Grimm’s Bearskin with the Russian ending, plus an awful lot from my own fevered imagination. The story kicks off with a drunken bargain, so fitted the theme well, and only Mike and Raph had heard it before. It has gained a couple of tweaks since I told it back in January.
- Young Ivan takes advantage of his height and lies about his age in order to join the army.
- He can load his musket faster and shoot straighter than his fellows – which is why he does so well as a soldier.
- At the end of the story, after 15 years of not washing, cutting, or combing his hair, shaving, trimming his fingernails or wiping his nose, Ivan is restored to normal. I described him as “the handsomest lad ever to appear in a folk tale. So, the next time you describe someone in a story as handsome, you’ll have to qualify it by saying, but not as handsome as Ivan in the story that Ian told the other week.”
I had great fun telling it, for once I was happy to go first, and Mike said he enjoyed it even more the second time around. One of the listeners from Sarum’s meeting was back and informed us that she was listening in from Tanzania – the wonders of technology.
With libraries now beginning to open up, I’ve been doing the odd day in other branches when they’re short staffed and was working in a branch the other day which I haven’t worked in before, (if you don’t count one day 16 years ago). During the afternoon, I was chatting with the lady who is based there and mentioned storytelling by Zoom. “Is that something you do for children?” she asked. I explained that, although I have told stories for children, this was for adults. “So, does someone sit and read out a story?” was the next question.
I suppose that, when you love reading and work surrounded by books, it’s difficult to imagine words flying free and not pinned to a page like a butterfly in a Victorian entomologist display case. I still feel we have a long way to go to explain just what storytelling is all about.
Oh, Robin Has to the Greenwood Gone.
Are you sitting comfortably? … then I’ll begin. Here is a quick rundown of the stories I told during March with a few notes on how I prepared for Heads & Tales’ Epic in an Evening.
Southampton: as the theme for March was ‘Those Who Have Gone Before,’ I took the opportunity to tell another story gleaned from Trickster Makes this World, (see last month’s post).
This story, from West Africa, tells how Legba, the trickster, persuades his mother, Mawu (a female creator spirit), that she really, really doesn’t want to live here on earth amongst us mere mortals anymore. He does this with a combination of stolen yams, embarrassment, and a lot of dirty washing up water.
Sarum: there were only three of us telling – Mike, Raph and me – so we had room to expand our stories, which is always nice. Mike had decided that we should tell Celtic stories, so I picked one from Wales – The Lady of Lyn Y Fan Fach. A story I first read as a child in my parent’s copy of the Readers Digest Book of British Folklore. It’s amazing how some stories stick with you.
A young farmer falls in love with a water spirit who lives in a local lake – the Lyn Y Fan Fach of the title. She agrees to marry him and says she will stay with him until he strikes her three causeless blows. As you can imagine, being a marriage between a mortal and a denizen of the otherworld, things do not end well. I did use this story as the basis for a sequel to The Little Mermaid of Honfleur, (see March 2019’s post), but haven’t told this version yet.
Heads & Tales: it had been decided that this year’s Epic in an Evening would be tales of Robin Hood. Unlike the previous two epics that I’ve taken part in – The 1001 Nights and Tristan and Isold – there was no ‘set text’ for us to work from. We decided, therefore, that we would find a story we wanted to tell and tell it. Now, I have two Robin Hood stories in my repertoire at the moment, both based on songs from the Child Ballads. Robin Hood and the Butcher (ballad 122) and Robin Hood and the Beggar (ballad 134), I’ve told Robin Hood and the Butcher a couple of times but hadn’t told Robin Hood and the beggar, so this seemed like a good opportunity to give it a run out.
This is an unusual story/song as it is set in Barnsdale Forest (S Yorkshire) as opposed to the usual Sherwood Forest – which is why some people think it is an early ballad. In it, Robin tries to obtain money from a beggar with threats of violence but gets beaten up. He sends two of his merry men to bring the beggar back for ‘punishment’ – the implication is that he wants to hang him but, the two merry men also get beaten up and so the story/song ends with Robin furious that the beggar has got away unpunished, but secretly pleased that he isn’t the only one who has been beaten up that day.
I decided that the story needed a couple of tweaks, the first of which was to relocate it to Sherwood Forest, so that it would fit in with the usual setting. I also gave names to the three, unnamed in the song, merry men who discover Robin after his beating, deciding that they would be, “Will Scafflock, who calls himself Scarlet, that little weasel Much the Millar’s son, oh yes, and Alan a Dale – failed balladeer.” I did feel that such a blatantly anti Robin Hood story amongst all the others might be a little jarring, so I decided to set it in a ‘frame.’ A group of drinkers in The Trip to Jerusalem, a Nottingham pub that claims to date back to the 1190s, are told the story by a stranger who is trying to blacken Robin’s name – at the end of the story the narrator is revealed as the Sherriff of Nottingham. I rather like this idea so will use it if I ever get to tell the story again.
I really enjoyed telling this story as, over numerous rehearsals, it has built up a lot of alliteration, which becomes more complex as the story progresses.
- At the start of the story, it is implied that the beggar may have “frittered his money away on mead, maidens and madrigals,” (I did notice a couple of smiles when I trotted that one out).
- In his fight with Robin, the beggar is described as, “laying about himself lustily with his long staff, leaving Robin lying in the lane in a bruised, battered and bloody heap.” This image occurs again when the beggar fights with Will and Much.
- My favourite bit, however, is the description of Will and Much running, “up hill and down dale, through birch wood, beech wood, bramble, briar, bracken and bog. Using the back ways and byways that only a wolf’s head who had spent years in the forest avoiding the attentions of lawful authority would know about.” Quite a mouthful, but very satisfying to say out loud – and I only spotted the avoiding/attentions/authority alliteration when typing this up.
April’s Southampton meeting will be on the 1st of April – could be interesting.
Serendipity: n. faculty of making happy discoveries by accident, (also a track by John Martyn)
Not a lot to report at the moment, due to the current COVID lockdown, so let’s just pitch in with what I’ve told at the various Zoom meetings I’ve attended since the new year.
- Southampton: The Stones of Plouhinec – a story from Brittany about treasure hunting on New Year’s Eve. This story has walking menhirs, a sneaky tramp and a young man trying to make his fortune so that he can marry his childhood sweetheart.
- Sarum: Ivan and Wormwood (my title). I came across the detailed ending of the story in Russian Fairy Tales, A Choice Collection of Muscovite Folklore by William Ralston Sheddon. The set up to the story, only briefly outlined, seemed familiar but I couldn’t think what the European version referred to was – the Grimm brothers have a version called Bearskin. So, I had a choice, I could either spend hours trying to track down the original or, have some fun and write my own beginning. Guess which option I went for? Before I told the story, which Mike referred to as a Russian/Tovey mash up, I explained what I’d done and was pleased at the end when one member of the audience asked where my part ended and the original started. So, I think, that was a great success.
- Heads & Tales: the theme for the evening was Games and Riddles so I told the ‘nicer’ version of Riddles Wisely Expounded – see my June 2020 post for a full explanation of this.
- Southampton: a chance to tell The Grey Goose Feather – a ‘true’ story dating from the time of the English Civil War. I’ve wanted to tell this story ever since I heard Hugh Lupton tell it at the Earth house several years ago.
- Sarum: as the theme was Protection, I decided to tell the tale of Peredur Son of Evrawg an Arthurian story from the Mabinogion. I picked this story as Peredur’s mother takes him to live in the wilds, after her husband and 6 sons are killed, to ‘protect’ him from ideas of knighthood and chivalry, but like most stories, it all goes wrong in the end.
- Heads & Tales: it’s serendipity time! At the beginning of the month, I was reading Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde – Maddie had drawn our attention to the book at a meeting towards the end of last year and Dan bought me a copy for Christmas. There was a mention of a story in which Coyote becomes the sun but loses the job through his bad behaviour. ‘Looks interesting, but not enough to work with,’ I thought. A day or two later, I went to do my one day a week at Bournemouth Library. In the work room there was a trolly load of books that had been taken from the CT (Children’s Tales) shelf for some stock work. The books were in three piles with only one book cover visible – Who Will Be the Sun? by Geraldine McCaughrean. On the cover was a painting of … Coyote, I picked it up and started to read it and yes, it was the full version of the story I’d seen mentioned earlier. During my lunch break I borrowed the book and made some notes, then worked them up into ‘my’ version of the story. The theme for Heads & Tales in February was … Sun – sometimes stories have a way of telling you that they want to be told.