Bartholomew blogs

To follow my current thoughts and experiences as I navigate the world of storytelling read on. For earlier blogs follow the links

It’s All in The Preparation.

June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supplementary notes.

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

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

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

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

Bartholomew Blog Supplemental.

March, April & May 2020

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

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

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

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

Tales from an Anderson Shelter 1.

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

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

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

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

Interesting Times

March/April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Epic in an Evening

February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All Gone Quiet

January 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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