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.
Books and Boggarts
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
- The feast
- 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
- Instagram: @Vaughan.katy
- YouTube: Katy Vaughan Art
- Twitter: @Katymvaughan
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.
I had a look at a couple of websites I’ve used in the past and decided on Museum Reproductions http://www.museumreproductions.co.uk/shop/index.php from their Tudor & Stuart range I bought
- Edward VI shilling
- Phillip and Mary shilling
- Elizabeth I shilling & groat (4 old pennies)
- James I half-groat (2 old pennies)
- 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. Raff, 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!”
I’ve been meaning to write this post for many weeks, but as John Lennon once said, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ So here we go.
Last month, on the 17th November to be precise, I found myself on a train heading for Shoreditch as I was attending a two day storytelling workshop at Rich Mix that was being run by Ben Haggarty from the Crick Crack Club. This was a re run of the course I was supposed to attend in March, but couldn’t because of the snow. There were 14 of us on the course with a 50/50 mix of men and women – for some odd reason I had assumed that there would probably be more women than men.
It was fascinating listening to everyone as we introduced ourselves. We had amongst us a video games designer, a drama therapist, a tour guide, 2 ex actors and an author. We also had a mix of nationalities – a couple of Irishmen, a Catalonian, a Lithuanian, a Croatian and a Swede. What was interesting was that I appeared to be the only person on the course that had told a story to an audience. It was an intense two days with a lot of exercises that taught me that I can tell a story after one hearing/reading without a huge amount of rehearsal. The hardest exercise was standing to tell a story to an audience of one without moving – my old chemistry teacher once said, ‘Ian, if we cut your hands off you wouldn’t be able to talk!’ To make it harder, the person listening to the story had to act it out!
After two eight hour days I came away on the Sunday night exhausted, buzzing with ideas, a lot more confident, (but not too much I hope), and with three new stories to tell. The most remarkable thing that happened over the weekend was when I finished telling a story during an exercise and the person I told it to commented, ‘That was brilliant, I’m an ex actor and I’m learning things from you.’ Ben was a great tutor; he put us all at our ease and had time for everyone. So the big question is do I go for the intermediate course next March?
Everything is quiet on the Bartholomew front, apart from picking up some more wooden spoons to use as props at the Krakow Christmas market. On the storytelling front this month’s Heads & Tales is a little different as we are doing a performance of the ‘Elm Tree Mummers Play’ based on the Quidhampton play. I’m playing the Bold Knight a.k.a. the Bold Slasher and Dan is the Turkish Knight. Then in January it’s an epic in an evening, ‘Tristan and Isold.’ Despite what I learned on the workshop, I am already working on my section, (I have been for some time), as I have to pick the bones of the story out of about 3000 lines of poetry.
To find out how things went watch this space.
Bartholomew Goes to War II
Last week I ransacked Bartholomew’s back story and did a presentation about the English Civil War to the year 8s at Ferndown Middle School. As usual, nothing that I do is straight forward and I decided that I needed some new items for the talk. Firstly I decided that I needed to replace the black acrylic ‘woolly’ hat that mum knitted for me when I joined the English Civil War Society way back in the early 1980s. I also needed to replace my stockings which were not quite so old, but were wearing out at the toe. After various internet searches I plumped for a grey Monmouth cap from Historical Caps, www.historicalcaps.net and a pair of undyed, i.e. pale grey, woollen stockings from Sally Pointer, www.sallypointer.com I was a little apprehensive about woollen stockings – would they itch and distract me while I was talking? In the end they proved to be so comfortable that I’ve ordered a blue pair so that I can ring the changes with my costume.
I also decided that I needed
- a copy of a broadside ballad
- a musket ball
- a length of slow match
- a small wooden box – I’ve actually been after one of these for a while
The broadside ballad was created by typing the lyrics of When the King Comes Home in Peace Again into Word and adding an appropriate woodcut. I then fiddled about with the font to make it look ‘olde worlde’ and printed it out onto a sheet of parchment paper designed for calligraphy. If I were to be picky then the printing is a little too clean – the printing on broadside ballads always looks a bit rough and ready to me, with slightly ‘fuzzy edges’ to the letters. However what I had produced would only been seen by the audience at a distance so I wasn’t unduly worried.
Musket balls are not the easiest of things to get hold of, but I had an answer to this problem. Some years ago, when getting rid of a defunct mouse for our PC, I discovered that the rubber ball from underneath it was almost the same size as a smooth bore ECW musket ball. At 21mm diameter it is too small by 1mm. I had kept the ball so I gave it a spray with black undercoat. Then I painted it with Army Painter Plate Armour and washed it with Games Workshop Nuln Oil, when it was dry I gave it a coat of matt varnish. It wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, but again it was designed to be seen at a distance and when I held it up while describing how to load a musket several of the kids went ‘whoa’ when they saw how large it was.
The slow match was the easiest to manufacture as, while looking at a website that provides items for re-enactors, I realised that it resembles proper, old fashioned, washing line. I still have a long length of our old washing line – which I use for the Anansi story that I tell – so I just lopped 18” off one end and trimmed off the frayed bits.
I’d seen some white wood storage boxes in our local branch of Hobbycraft. A couple of coats of dark oak stain, including to the lock and hinges and a coat of varnish and it looks the part.
At the beginning of the week I did a full dress rehearsal which was … pretty awful. It just felt so odd standing in the dining room talking to no one – with no audience reaction it was hard to gauge how things were going and I started to make mistakes. At least it gave me a feel for the timings and having done my fair share of Am Dram I know that a bad dress rehearsal tends to make for a good first night.
On the day things went well – the first session was a little short as the hall took a while to get ready after lunch. Trying to form 90 young teens into a ‘pike block’ is a bit like herding cats, Bartholomew ended up cracking an unauthentic joke, and “honestly you’d get better soldiers out of a slice of toast’!
The second group went very well; I got to cover everything and managed to slip in some extra facts. At the end of the session the group were very quiet as I got them to imagine the effect of the war on civilians. The teachers seemed pleased with the session and suggested a possible session later in the year.
So what’s coming up next? Next weekend I’m doing a two day storytelling workshop run by Ben Haggarty from the Crick Crack Club, and I’m starting to work on my section of Tristan and Isold which I’m performing as part of An Epic in an Evening with Heads & Tales on 17th January 2019.
Bartholomew goes to War
A long time ago my wife came home from a school governors meeting, “Oh by the way,” she said, “I’ve volunteered you to give a talk about the English Civil War at school.” Now I have done one at the school in the past, but that was when our youngest was in year 8 and he is now 25 and a teacher himself. So I waited but never got the call. I left a flyer with my contact details back in June and was contacted, but in the end it all fell through.
I was, therefore, rather excited when, on the second day of the current school year, an email appeared in my inbox from the new head of humanities saying that she was very keen to get me in for a talk. So a meeting after school to discuss dates and ideas was arranged and I put my thinking cap on.
I’d no worries about doing the talk,
- I’d given a talk about the Civil War to a local history group many years ago and still had my handwritten notes (which I’ve now typed up)
- I’ve already given a similar talk to the school
- Bartholomew already has a backstory which includes serving in the King’s army in the west, see http://iantovey.com/bartholomew-at-war/
What I needed to think about was how to approach the session. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, getting on a bit. Ok … I’m now well past 50! So standing in front of a class of, almost, teenagers and saying “I am an English Civil War soldier” is likely to be greeted by cries of “Oh yeah! Whatever!” and who could blame them. So I hit on the idea of setting the session on the 23rd April 1661, Bartholomew has returned to the Grey Goose after watching the coronation of Charles II and starts to reminisce about his time spent in the King’s army and witnessing the execution of Charles I. This, apparently, ticks several boxes and has been given the green light.
The school also want me to talk about some of the battles and the way they were fought, so I proposed another idea that I’d had. This will involve getting the children formed up into a ‘pike block.’ There are 60 in the first group and 90 in the second, so I’m thinking in terms of 10 ranks of 6 and 10 of 9. Once I’ve got them closed up for action I’ll get them to look about and see what their field of vision is – very restricted if you’re somewhere in the middle! Next I’ll discuss the noise of a battle field and the blanket of smoke making things even harder to see what’s going on. At this point I said, “And then a whole file collapses because a cannon ball has gone down the line and taken everyone’s head off so the people standing either side are splashed with blood and brains.”
I hesitated at this point and said to the teacher,
“How gory do you want me to make this?”
“Oh, they’ll love it,” she replied, “make it as gory as you want.”
“Alright … I can do gory.”
There’s now just under a month to go, the script is written, I’ve started to rehearse and I’m checking my kit and props already. Am I excited? You bet I am!
On the Up
Bartholomew is back, but first a few morsels of news about my other storytelling activities.
I’ve gone onto Bournemouth Libraries relief list and was working at West Howe library the other Monday. A family came in during the late afternoon and asked for some food bin liners, (I really thought I’d seen the last of them when I left the library service last November), as I handed them over the mother looked at me and asked, “Were you at Wimborne the other weekend doing storytelling?” The father remembered that they had heard the Anansi story which means that they had caught the Saturday afternoon session – or at least the end of it. Needless to say I got a warm glow of satisfaction from being recognised.
Madeline and Mike from Heads & Tales have been working on the programme for the coming year and have asked me to do a headline spot in February – 21st two days before my birthday. I was really chuffed to be asked as I will only have been storytelling, seriously, for about a year by then.
The Trick of the Tale
No not the 1975 album by Genesis. Coyote, Anansi and others rub shoulders in a light hearted celebration of tricksters from around the world. Sticky situations abound!
I’m also hoping to do some storytelling to a group of school children that will be spending the night in the Viking long hall at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranbourne; stories of Loki and Thor before bedtime, what could be better?
So what’s been happening with my alter ego Bartholomew? The other evening I had a surprise visit from Isabel, a colleague from my Teaching Assistant days. “Hello Ian, do you still do or are you interested in doing Bartholomew Weever at Parley?” “As it happens …,” I replied and handed her a flyer I’d had printed in case I needed one at the Folk Festival. The upshot was I was booked to perform on Friday 13th! The good news was that they were happy for the session to straddle playtime and for me to perform the extended version of Bartholomew’s story.
For this I needed some new props so I dragged my grandmother’s old blanket box out of the loft. Now I know it’s not ‘authentic,’ but I decided some time ago that I’m not trying to accurately recreate life in the 17th century. If I were I’d need rotten teeth, fleas, lice and possibly a dose of bubonic plague. I’m trying to give the children a flavour of what life was like; the props are mainly reproductions so I’m happy to use a box that looks the part. The first thing I had to do after cleaning it up was repair the base that was coming away. I also wanted a pie and a ship’s biscuit, which after much trial and error, I managed to create from salt dough.
There were a couple of glitches – well it was Friday 13th! I arrived in good time and tested the PowerPoint presentation for part 1, the school’s laptop read my data stick and it worked perfectly. Then I tried my gizmo for advancing the slides, it wouldn’t talk to the computer and didn’t work. I also found that the laser pointer that is built into it didn’t show on the whiteboard. Not a major problem as I could sit by the laptop to control the presentation and point to images on the whiteboard which was placed close by. There then followed a classic ‘crossed wires’ moment, I had asked the teacher, “Is it a touch screen?” She obviously thought I was referring to the laptop and replied, “No it’s old fashioned.” Partway through the presentation I leaned across to point something out on the whiteboard, accidentally touched it and moved onto the next slide. What was worse, I did it again later on.
Bartholomew’s story after the break went well. I was a little worried as parts of the story have been rearranged, parts have been cut and new bits inserted, plus I also had to break off several times to pack items into the box and talk about them as I did. Luckily storytelling has taught me not to treat the story like a script that has to be strictly adhered to but as a framework. As it happens, I did remember everything and managed to feel quite relaxed as I performed – even during the conversations with characters that were not physically present.
There were some lovely interactions that day. When I held up my onion bottle and said it was named after a vegetable, so what did they think it was, several children called out ‘broccoli’. [Broccoli wasn’t introduced into the country until the 18th century] I was also asked why I called the gold coin that I showed a guinea, so I explained that it was minted from African gold which had been brought to England by the Guinea Company. At the end of the session the teacher told the children that she hadn’t known about guineas and had learned something new herself. It’s always gratifying to hear this.
Now that I have more time on my hands I’m hoping that word will spread and that I might pick up some more bookings, not just revolving around the 17th century, I’m happy to turn my hand to any period. Or I could just sit in a classroom and tell stories.
Folk Festival Frolics
Last weekend was Wimborne Folk Festival and the town was rammed with people enjoying the music, the dancing and the good weather. It struck me, as I wandered around on Sunday, that only in England could you have in one part of town a group extolling the joys of being a ‘friend of Jesus’ while, in another, a pagan ‘obby ‘oss is cavorting round doing phallic things with a pole every time it meets a woman.
The most important thing about the weekend, for me, is that I’ve now performed in front of complete strangers who aren’t also storytellers.
Saturday’s performance was in the Sensory Garden at the Wimborne Model Town. This is a great outdoor venue with a large wooden throne for the storyteller – which I didn’t use in the end as I like to move about and act things out when I tell.
The set was called Trickster Tales From Around the World and consisted of
- Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby (North America)
- A Tale of Two Tails (a First Nations Coyote story also from North America)
- The Bag of Beans (a Japanese story about a trickster hare)
- How the World Got Its Stories (an Anansi story from Africa)
I had 13 in the audience to start with, half of them friends and family, but only a couple of them had heard me storytelling before. There were about 23 at the end, but being an open air venue the audience was fluid. The only thing of note – I didn’t spot this but got it from Dan afterwards – was that during the performance a couple dressed in church t shirts arrived with some children and stopped to listen. All was well until halfway through the last story when I started to talk about honey beer – leopards enjoy a drink as I’m sure you all remember. At this point the couple got up and hustled the kids away. Kit Pearce recorded the performance and took some photos so watch this space.
Sunday’s set was based on songs from English and Scottish Popular Ballads (aka the Child Ballads) and was
- Robin Hood and the Butcher (ballad 122)
- The Famous Flower of Serving Men (ballad 106)
- Tam Lin (ballad 39)
I did two performances; the first was in the Secret Garden behind the library. This is a rather out of the way spot next to a busy walkway so the acoustics weren’t good. The audience was tiny, eight – I nearly got them to introduce themselves like The Police did at one of their early gigs. There was Dan (my youngest son), Jess (his girlfriend), Holly (my daughter), James (her boyfriend), Mike from Heads and Tales, Chris M (a colleague from my library days) and an unknown lady and her son. I was a bit nervous about the second story as I had to sing during it. Luckily it all went well and gave me a chance to get performance under my belt with a benign audience.
The second performance was back at the Model Town and although the audience wasn’t huge – consisting mainly of family; those from the previous performance plus Neil (my eldest), Beckie (his wife), Pippa & Matt (grandchildren), Sue (my wife) and a smattering of strangers – the performance was more memorable for me. For instance, halfway through Robin Hood I noticed a man arrive and stand at the back of the audience space. At the end of the story he started to move and I thought that he was going, but I was wrong as he found a seat and sat through the rest of the performance. An older couple, sitting to one side, got up at the end of the first story ‘They’re off,’ I thought only to see them move to a more shaded seat. And a young boy, sitting with his father, didn’t want to leave at the end of the second story when his dad suggested that they move on.
I was really there at the end of the last story with those magical transformations
The audience reaction was the best I had over the weekend. The boy’s father said at the end, “That was good, he doesn’t listen to me for that long.” The older couple also came up to say “Thank you,” the lady adding, “I was really there at the end of the last story with those magical transformations,” which is why I tell stories – moments like these are priceless. If only we could get over the majority of adult’s attitude that ‘storytelling is just for kids.’
If you’ve never seen live storytelling I’d urge you to check out a session, you don’t know what you’re missing.
The Sting in the Tale
Saturday’s set will be trickster tales from around the world and, with the exception of one story; all are ones that I’ve told at various times in the library. All I need to do is check the timings and decide on the running order, then make a snake out of toilet roll tubes. If you want to know what the snake, and a rope, are for come along to the model town at 13:30 and listen.
The Sunday set is titled Ballads Without the Singing and is based on songs from the Child Ballads. If you’re not familiar with these Francis Child was an American professor who came to the UK in the late 19th century to collect folksongs. However, unlike other collectors such as Cecil Sharp & Ralph Vaughn Williams he only collected the words and recorded every version that he could – even if the singer could only remember fragments. His collection English and Scottish Popular Ballads, (aka The Child Ballads), ran to 10 volumes and contained 305 songs.
Putting this set together has been an interesting experience. Volume III has a lot of songs about Robin Hood and I have toyed with the idea of doing a complete set of Robin Hood stories. However he doesn’t always come across as a hero in some of the songs. Several of them run along the following lines
- Robin Hood meets a [insert tradesman of choice]
- Robin and the tradesman get into an altercation and blows are exchanged
- Robin starts to lose the fight and blows his horn
- The Merry Men arrive and issue the tradesman with a strongly worded cease and desist order
- Robin then invites the tradesman to join his Merry Men
There is even one song in which Robin tries to extort money from a beggar with threats of violence. When the beggar refuses to hand any over Robin threatens to shoot him so the beggar beats Robin to a pulp. Three of the Merry Men turn up and Robin sends two of them after the beggar to drag him back, because he can’t decide how to punish him – it is even implied that death is an option. The two thugs (I can’t think of a better description for them) catch the beggar but decide to rob him first. As a result they also get beaten up for their pains. The song ends with Robin angry that the beggar has got away but secretly relieved that he wasn’t the only one to take a pasting at the beggar’s hands.
In the end I’ve plumped for Robin Hood and the butcher as there are three versions to work with. I was a bit wary as Hugh Lupton does a great version of this story as part of The Liberty Tree with Nick Hennessey, (I’d definitely urge to check it out if you get the chance), but I think I’ve managed to put enough of my own spin on the story to carry it off.
The main story of the set is Tam Lin. I love this story as I can really get my teeth into it – it’s got passion, magical transformations and ultimately redemption. There are also 15 versions of it in the collection as well as a poem by Robert Burns and numerous written versions, an embarrassment of riches! It’s also the story that got me this gig. My one concern is that the storytelling sessions have been advertised as ‘family entertainment’ and some parts of the story are a bit dark and a little bit naughty. So I may have to prune some bits out, or tone them down, depending on how many children are in the audience and how old they are.
As I’m doing the same set in two different locations I could end up telling two different versions of the story during the course of the afternoon. One of the joys of storytelling is that every performance is different as you are not working from a set text like an actor does.
So here I am ready, keen and hoping for fine weather and a good turn out – watch this space.
Things Fall Apart
I really didn’t want to use these posts as a place to moan, but sometimes things just go so badly that you need to get them off your chest.
As I mentioned in the postscript to the last post my father died on the Friday 23rd February. We couldn’t pick up the doctor’s death cert from the hospital until late afternoon on the following Wednesday so couldn’t register his death until the Thursday morning. Having spoken to mum on the Wednesday morning I made an appointment with the registrar’s office and Sue arranged for us to stay at her parents on the Wednesday night to save driving an extra 100 miles over the two days. We woke up on Thursday morning to Sue’s mum saying “Bill the radiators are stone cold and there’s no hot water.” Their boiler had packed up and so we couldn’t start the day with our usual shower, (SPOILER ALERT – this was the week of the ‘Beast from the East’).
We got to the register office in Portsmouth with no problem and registered the death. As we now had the ‘green form’ that gives the hospital permission to release the body we also made an appointment with a local firm of funeral directors. It was while we were at the funeral director’s that it started to snow, but not seriously. We dropped mum back at home and decided not to stay for a quick cuppa. We left Gosport at 3pm on a journey that should have taken an hour. At 5:30 we were within 350 yards of the end of the motorway when everything ground to a halt – the New Forest had become impassable. At 8:30pm Hampshire Police declared it a major emergency and called in the Army to assist, 3 diggers finally arrived at 1am and started to clear a route. Everything was fine until we reached Ringwood, but the last 6 or so miles was on untreated roads which hadn’t had much traffic, in freezing rain. We finally arrived home at 2am and I then had to shovel snow off the drive so that we could get the car off the road. The one spot of relief was the cup of hot chocolate given to us at 11:30pm by some locals who were walking up and down the carriageway dishing out hot drinks to us stranded motorists.
As there was more bad weather forecast for the Friday and, according to our daughter, the trains in and out of London were still badly disrupted, I never got my birthday present. This was a two day storytelling workshop in Shoreditch run by Ben Haggarty from the Crick Crack Club which I’d really been looking forward to this, but at least I got a full refund, given the circumstances.
Monday 12th was dad’s funeral which was tough on the family. I had been asked to do the eulogy by mum and managed to keep it together. Still it did give me the chance to say ‘bloody’ in church in front of 4 vicars! Dad’s ship, HMS Formidable, had suffered a Kamikaze attack on the day before his 20th birthday – his action station had been on the ship’s island so he had been looking down on the plane as flew down the length of the fight deck before making its final attack. After it was all over he had commented,
“I’ve been through the Blitz; we’ve had bombs, we’ve had incendiaries, we’ve had landmines thrown at us but it’s the first time I’ve had the bloody plane thrown at me as well.”
Another result of the disruption caused by the bad weather was Kinson Primary School cancelling their Great Fire of London session. Plus both grandchildren went down with chicken pox – not at the same time but one after the other – so ‘Grumpy’ duties have been fun recently.
So life hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses at the moment, but I’m determined to end this post on a positive note. I’m not doing a storytelling session at Wimborne Folk Festival in June … I’m booked to do three, (watch this space).
This post will end up being uploaded long after some of the events it refers to for reasons that will become clear later.
On the Bartholomew front things are still quiet. Kinson Primary School has booked a session for March – I’m just waiting on them confirming the date. I have suggested to them that I could give the new format a run out; this would involve doing the PowerPoint presentation before break. The classroom would then be ‘dressed’ to resemble the Grey Goose tavern while the children are at play and I would have longer to get into my costume. To this end I have extended Bartholomew’s story so I should be able to talk about all of the props as they are packed away prior to Bartholomew and Abigail fleeing to the Moorfields camp. If they go for the idea it should make a pretty interesting story. I haven’t heard anything definite yet from Grovelands Primary in Walton-on-Thames (Bartholomew is nothing if not willing to travel).
So what’s been happening on the performance front in general?
Jan 25th – the Burn’s night supper went very well, the food in particular was excellent. As usual I had over prepared, talking to Emmanuelle during the meal I asked how long they wanted me to do and was told ‘about 15 minutes,’ so I quickly pruned out a couple of the poems. I started with the Address to a Haggis – there were one or two stumbles over some of the more obscure Scottish words, but on the whole it went OK. I had got to the end of the penultimate poem and had said ‘I’ll do one more’ when someone called out ‘do two’ – so I did. Mark and Emmanuelle were both happy with the evening and several people came up to me afterwards to say thank you and how much they had enjoyed the performance.
Feb 3rd – the family decamped to Derby as my nephew was getting married. A couple of weeks before the wedding I’d got a surprise phone call from Stuart asking if I’d do the reading during the service, which was very flattering.
Feb 15th – Heads and Tails at Ringwood. There was no professional storyteller this month so the whole evening was ‘open mic’, the theme was Love, Lust and Laughter. I ended up performing two stories during the evening – Tam Lin & His Heart’s Desire (aka The Woodcutter and the Unicorn). Tam Lin was the last story before the first break and after it Mike, who runs the club, asked if I’d be interested in doing a set at Wimborne Folk Festival in June? I just about restrained myself from biting his hand off. So now I’m turning my mind to a set built around the Childe Ballads and other folk songs. I really want to do Long Lankin as it’s so creepy in some versions – definitely not one for the kids, although I may also be able to do a children’s set as well over the weekend. The one fly in the ointment is that the proposed evening is Friday 9th June and Sue and I already have tickets for a show in Poole that night!
So why is this going up so late? Well, I’m writing it in my usual manner – long hand in a notebook – sitting in a hotel in Malta. So I won’t be able to get it typed up and uploaded until the beginning of next week (26th Feb) after I get back.
Postscript: there was a further delay as on the afternoon of the 23rd Feb, while we were on a ferry coming back from Gozo; I got a phone call from sister to say that dad had died that afternoon. I’ve therefore spent part of the last week travelling backwards and forwards to help mum register the death and sort out funeral arrangements – putting up posts being well down on the agenda.
Storytelling debut 22nd January 2018
I was tempted to start this post by moaning about how badly 2017 ended, but that’s not what they’re about. Let’s just say that, since I ceased working for Bournemouth Libraries at the end of November, both of my parents have been admitted to hospital. So, to quote Robert Burns (more of him anon), ‘the best laid plans of mice and men …’
On a positive note I’ve finally made my debut at the Heads and Tales Storytelling Café last Thursday. The evening started with a wonderful selection of stories told by Katy Cawkwell, the last of which, Iron Teeth Eaten Heart, was a gruesomely dark tale from Siberia, if you get the chance to see this take it. The last 40 minutes of the evening was an open mic session at which newcomers (like me) are allowed to go first. I’d decided that, given the location of the main story, I’d tell the Russian folktale that I’d used with a school group at the start of last year and my experience demonstrated the difference between storytelling for children/schools and adults.
When I first read the story I took it at face value – odd things happen, but it’s a fairy story so what do you expect? When I told it in the library the children listened in polite silence, but on Thursday … The story starts with an absurd situation – someone tries to claim that their cart has given birth to a foal. When I got to this part the audience began to chuckle, the laughs coming thicker and faster as the story progressed. Looking out at the audience at one point I noticed that the professional storyteller was also laughing, and she thanked me for my story at the end of the evening. That’s it then … I’m hooked.
So what’s coming up in the future performance wise? Well on Thursday (25th) I’m reading some Robert Burns poetry at a Burns Night dinner at La Fosse, a very good restaurant at Cranbourne (see I said we’d come back to him). I’m particularly looking forward to this as payment is dinner, so my next post could very well be a restaurant review.
As for Bartholomew, I’ve had two enquires about Great Fire of London talks but whether anything comes of them I’m not sure. Unfortunately, in an age of ever shrinking budgets there just doesn’t seem to be the money in schools for such sessions any more.
Remember, remember 6th November 2017
I was sitting at the library enquiry desk the other Monday when one of the old ladies from the Brendon Care group came up to me and said, “You were very good last week … I didn’t understand what you were telling us, but you were very good.” A bit backhanded, but still a compliment … I think. And what had earned me this curious accolade?
The previous Monday I had performed my Guy Fawkes piece for them. I’d kept it light and steered well away from the sheer gruesomeness of hanging, drawing and quartering – unlike the BBC’s Gunpowder (which I’ve still got to watch). It’s an interesting piece to perform as it involves playing two characters, Guy Fawkes and a secretary to Sir Robert Cecil and involves a costume change part way through – OK I change doublets, but in true Shakespearian tradition once you’ve changed nobody recognizes you.
I start the piece at one table, with a few props, as Guy Fawkes gives a (very) potted history of his life up until he is recruited to take part in the plot.
Then I switch to a second table where ‘M,’ as he calls himself, from Cecil’s spy network is preparing a report about the discovery of the plot and the fates of the conspirators. Now there are a lot of names to get my head around – 13 plotters to start with – so remembering everything is a bit of a nightmare. I’ve therefore discovered that the easiest thing to do is … cheat. The style of the performance makes this easy.
To start with Guy receives a letter outlining the plot and naming the conspirators. This means that I only have to remember that extra bits that I slip in while reading out the letter. Secondly ‘M’ is preparing a report and what do you need when preparing a report? Notes! I therefore have several sheets of notes and a handwritten copy of the fateful Monteagle letter on M’s desk. “Simples,” to quote a rather annoying meerkat.
So how did the day go? The new shirt and britches that I was wearing for the first time were comfortable and, at least I’ve got to use them, (just need an excuse to wear the Dutch coat). I did, however, have a bit of a heart sink moment just before starting. Guy Fawkes was born in Stonegate, York, so I do this bit of the performance with a Yorkshire accent. As I was getting ready to perform I realised that one of the Brendon Care volunteers hailed from Yorkshire, luckily she didn’t take offence at my efforts. I think I remembered everything – I’m not aware of any gaping holes in the performance. Better still, everyone enjoyed it … even if they didn’t always understand it.