Time to get Changed

I’m off on tour again from the end of September ’till early November. Starting in Bristol on the 29th I make my way across the South as far as Cambridge and Brighton, taking in a new northern extremity in Oswestry, and hitting 18 venues along the way. Well, I have to live up to my name.

The next couple of weeks are jam-packed with stuff that has to be done before I leave. Not just preparation for the show but sales for next spring’s tour, which have to be started now as many venues sort out their year in September. I’ve just done all the contracts, invoices and posters for this run and spent a few precious days editing the recordings from the last tour in the hope that I will get a new CD of “The Nectar Of The Gods” pressed in time for the first gig. At some point I have to find/make/borrow something for the backdrop and select any other items of stage dressing… and of course there is learning the Danish ballad I have chosen to sing (It’s been translated) and a couple of hours of stories. It doesn’t leave much time for rehearsal.

I had a conversation with a musician friend who has never performed live. He said: “I’m not good enough yet”. He’s been playing for twenty years. I told him that he just has to get out there and do it. Live performance is reliant on the audience, it’s an interaction, rehearse as much as you like but the show changes instantly when you put it in front of people. You change. However well rehearsed and practised you are the first performance will be shaky, you will make rookie mistakes. If you wait until it is perfect you may never do it. To a fair extent it is impossible to do a proper rehearsal without an audience because an essential ingredient is missing. If you are practising any kind of performance art, but keep putting off the day when it actually becomes a performance, I say the same: get out there and do it. In fact that goes for any kind of art. Sharing your creativity with the general public on a daily basis sharpens you up much faster than any number of years spent chasing perfection in your living room.

Audiences are amazingly forgiving, they care far less about the occasional fluff than you do (mostly they don’t know of course, because they don’t know what is supposed to happen), they even find a little fumbling and scrappiness endearing. I frequently speak some of the stories for the first time on the first night of the tour. I’m totally open about it. The early audiences get an adrenaline fuelled thrill ride, an artist on the edge, flirting with disaster! (Ok, I’m exaggerating but that is part of my job after all). The later audiences get a slick, knowing performance shaped by their predecessors reactions, but they of course, are a different audience and they change the show as well. Beyond a fairly basic level, practise is only procrastination.

I would illustrate this wisdom with a story but which one to choose? Pretty well every protagonist gets thrust in to the action and has to think on their feet. The stories only exist because someone is taking a risk, and in every one they reap the rewards of the adventure.

I’ll bring you the rewards of my adventure. By the end of the tour the show, which is called “Changed” Tales of Transformation, Transmutation and Transfiguration, will have been properly rehearsed in front all sorts of people, and changed by them. Maybe I will have been changed by them too,find out at one of the shows http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

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Pond Life

Although the Beauty And The Beast variations may appear simple on the surface, it is clear that this yarn would never have captured the imagination so widely if there wasn’t more to it. The transformation of the beastly suitor into a handsome Prince at the climax of the tale is most readily interpreted as simply a change of perception on the part of the Princess and, through her, everyone else. He doesn’t actually change physically, it is just that no-one sees him as repellant anymore.

Of course it would be impossible to examine this tale type without referencing the problems of gender politics which so often beset fairy tales. For instance, the Beast has a lot of information about Beauty’s family which could only have been gained by stalking, he and Beauty’s father enter in to a deal which would be condemned by a modern court as trafficking and, after months or even years of captive grooming, Beauty eventually develops a love for her captor which would make a text book example of Stockholm Syndrome. Less of a romance and more of a horror story!

However, in the type of psychological analysis in which all the characters are representative of elements of a single psyche, the marriage and transfiguration can also be seen as the internal unification between the ego and a shadow part of the mind, a trait or aspect of personality that has been rejected but is finally accepted and incorporated into the self. And we’re back to a happy, though slightly deeper, ending. Phew!

The amphibian versions are often the most succinct with the action condensed into a couple of days: A princess drops the golden ball she is playing with into a pond and a frog offers to retrieve it if she will take him back to her pad for an evening at her side and a night in her bed. The princess agrees and gets her ball back but reneges on the deal and runs home. The next day, during tea, the frog turns up (usually talking in rhyming couplets for no really good reason), and the princess’ parents insist that she has to go through with the deal she made. She reluctantly shares her food with the slimy pond dweller and has to sit with him on her lap then take him to her room at the end of the evening. She leaves him in a corner but he climbs into bed with her. Annoyed at his sliminess and not keen to sleep in a wet patch, she throws him against the wall. This breaks the spell, releasing the enchanted prince from his green exterior, upon which they get married. It’s classic folktale.

The Frog Prince appears to keep the message of the story simple: “don’t judge a frog by its colour”, but in doing so it seems it misses out on the rich, psychological layer cake of interpretative fun that can be had with the longer versions. In order to move the story along the princess has no sisters, her parents are an authoritative presence but little more, the frog’s back-story is a line at best and the action and motivation are kept firmly in the binary relationship between she and he. As a result of this, the coercion that the disfigured man uses to get access to the woman has to be exerted directly on the princess, rather than on her father as it is in Beauty. So the girl becomes the deal breaker, making her the antagonist and turning the frog in to a sympathetic character pretty much throughout and often leaving me wondering why he wants to marry the rather selfish girl after he is restored. Unless prince froggy is just as much an internal shadow as the Beast and the Black Bull and the only way anyone gets any peace is when the soul is unified in the inevitable psychological marriage. Do you see why I am fascinated with this stuff? Even the pond life is deep!

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Beardy and the Beast

When I grew my beard It was purely an accident precipitated by the breakdown of the beard trimmer with which I had previously maintained a very tidy long-stubble goatee. The unexpected effect this was that a couple of years and several inches of facial hair later I discovered I had unintentionally preempted the trend and was, for the first time in my life, fashionable. When beards are ‘in’ long hair also becomes acceptable and I have rather enjoyed not being seen as beastly.

This tour I am looking in to transformation, transfiguration and transmutation So I thought I might have a go at Beauty And The Beast. I started looking for a version of it in my library. I couldn’t remember coming across one but, it being a classic and me having spent many years avoiding those, I thought I might have just passed it by. A search through the most likely collections has so far turned up several frog princes, and a small tooth dog, a black bull, two bears, and an invisible man, but no lead male simply referred to as a beast.

All of the above are essentially the same story of a beautiful young woman pursued by an ugly and undesirable male who is really a rich and handsome prince under a curse. In most she has a pair of selfish, older sisters for contrast. However it is usually the girl’s father that does something wrong and, to save his own life, enters into a contract with a powerful and frightening entity to hand over his beloved youngest daughter. She is at first scared but slowly comes to appreciate her inhuman captor’s kindness, though still rejecting his advances. Eventually some action of hers brings her unsightly suitor near to death, she realises that she loves him and her love restores his humanity and good looks. Sometimes he is removed from her and she, left with nothing, has to search for him for several years, climb a glass mountain, collect a series of magical objects and trade them with another woman to win him back. It is known in storytelling circles as “The Search For The Lost Husband”. Which is all well and good but still not the populist, crowd pleasing, fairy tale that I was trying to track down: I simply don’t have it!

Puzzled that such a well loved romance should be absent from the works of the assorted collectors on my shelves, I resorted to the internet. There, I discovered why: the title and the particulars of the most well known form of this anti physical prejudice story, are the work of a sixteenth century French publisher called Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, who edited down her version from the novel length original by the equally over-named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Between the two of them, these writers have nurtured and distilled the essence of a genre sufficiently well that they have all but replaced the folk tales from which they took their inspiration.

Hmmm, so left with a literary tale on the internet instead of a folk tale in a book I rather went off the idea. But… the essential story is such a classic form of transformation that I feel it really should be represented. On the other hand, it’s a lot of story for only one change. Well, now I am on a search of my own, hopefully I won’t have to wear out my shoes or climb a glass mountain to get it. I wonder if I can find a version that fits the brief?

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Drizzle and Drink

Here in the UK we are not kind to our rain deities and grumble incessantly when they go about their business, which is especially harsh considering that sorting out precipitation is invariably only a fraction of their duties. Looking after the fertility of the land and keeping an eye on agriculture are often part of the job, and they can also get lumbered with storms, giants, livestock, weather in general, the year, alcoholic beverages and dragon slaying.

Rain is a feature of storms so you are fairly likely to get both as a job lot and sometimes end up with all the weather by default, though it is fairly common for everyday wind to be left to someone else and the Sun deity is unlikely to hand over their crown without a fight. The problem with being a storm god is that you will almost certainly be considered rather short on temper: Thor, Zeus, Jupiter and Susanoo-no-Mikoto (the Shinto storm god), are all famously quick and unpredictable rag-losers.

The link between rain and growing stuff is obvious so it’s no surprise to find agriculture on their chore list and once you have the crops you may as well handle the pastoral side too. The alcoholic beverage link may not be so obvious to us twenty-first century types but it follows on quite logically when you think about the crops that brewers use combined with water.

Mbaba Mwana Waresa, the South African rain and agriculture goddess, finds the gods a little too obsessed with weapons for her taste and decides to look for a husband amongst the mortals. She thinks she has found the right man when she hears Tandeeway singing about the crops, the cattle and the rain. After appearing to him in a dream she sets him a couple of tests: a storm that he does not hide from and a temptingly beautiful girl who he does not mistake for the goddess. As they enter in to marriage the gods suddenly start taking notice and get rather huffy about her having married a mortal as they do not consider the mortals as good as the gods. Mbaba Mwana Waresa, distressed that the two sides of her family have fallen out, goes for a walk on the plains, ambling between the great sorghum grasses. The ripe grasses give her an idea and she takes their seeds back to the village and mixes them with water. After a while the mixture ferments and becomes the first beer. She gives it to the mortals and it makes them more like the gods! The gods, looking down from the clouds and wonder if, maybe, they are not so different after all. They also wonder if they can have some of the new drink themselves. The goddess gives them the beer and after a while… it makes them more like the mortals! So by inventing beer Mbaba Mwana Waresa solves the conflict… and gets another thing to be goddess over.

As the June skies darken again and another downpour falls on our veg plot like someone tipping an olympic swimming pool over the garden, I know it is giving the crops just what they need to grow and fatten. With any luck we’ll get a bumper crop of raspberries and my own domestic goddess, Jo, will brew them in to another vat of her excellent mead.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Thoughts From The Road

I’m just back off tour. As with any journey there are some things that stick in ones mind. The colour draining from the face of the landlord when he realised he had completely forgotten that I was coming and had done no publicity at all. Thankfully I had, and a good turn out of old friends and internet contacts saved the night.

One thing that particularly made an impression on me this time was the extraordinary fact that the person who talks most during a performance is the one who is keenest to tell me how much they enjoyed it. How they enjoyed it when I could barely hear myself over their almost constant stream of interjections I don’t know, I’m all for a bit of interaction, its part of what keeps the show fresh and I often incorporate a good heckle into later performances, but some parts of stories require the audience to be absorbed in the narrative which is hard when someone won’t just be quiet for a couple of minutes. I suppose he was just excited by the newness of the experience, caught up in the moment and in a way I should be glad: Mr. Talky is at least engaging with the performance. At the far end of the bar there’s a couple of blokes who are just having a conversation. One has his back to me, he has consciously decided he is not going to acknowledge that something different is happening in his local. I do sympathise, I have talked the landlord in to breaking convention and booking some storytelling. The landlord has no real idea what it is going to be like. Mr Chatty and his pal have come down for a drink and a chat like they always do, it must be strange for them to find me orating away in the corner of what is practically their living room. It is not a theatre after all, it’s a pub with the bar right there in front of me. I’m pushing the boundaries of performance, we’re back in to pre-Shakesperian times. It’s not that there are no conventions but that there are conflicting conventions and it’s my job to unify them, and the audience. Pretty much all the seated customers are listening intently, the two guys on a table up by the end of the bar amaze me as they are right next to Mr. Chatty but keep their eyes on me the whole time, following every word and neither give up and fall in to talking themselves nor offer Mr.Chatty the opportunity to ‘step outside’. Occasional elements of the a story spark some memory or in-joke and suddenly the English Teacher sitting at this end of the bar is having a conversation with Mr. Talky across twelve feet of oak and beer pumps which makes it impossible for Two Excellent Beards to hear anymore so they start talking too, and I am now using my best theatrical projection to continue the story for the twenty odd people who are sitting nearest to me (and the two guys up by Mr.Chatty who are still somehow unfazed, though each wearing a look of slightly more intense concentration). Usually the assorted talkers do go quiet for a bit here and there, as a room full of hardened drinkers are slowly charmed by the poetry of the Finnish Kalevala or get drawn in bit by bit to the exploits of the Norse Gods. Mr. Talky has momentarily over-ridden his mouth and even Mr. Chatty down the end falls silent and looks over his shoulder, won over by a finely woven web of words or the spell of an ancient adventure cast anew.

Shows where the audience have self-selected and especially where they have paid as well are much easier and often more fun as I can play with the stories a little more when the audience are already with me. Nevertheless it is on the difficult pub gigs where I have to win the customers over and make them into an audience that I know I am really doing my job, not just preaching to the converted, but taking the stories to a new audience, giving the folk back what a fast paced, modern, consumerist culture has taken from them. I hope I stick in their mind as much as they do in mine.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Rhyme And Reason

In the world of early writing, there are many stories that it is believed were only written down after they had already spent years in existence as orally transmitted pieces, passed from generation to generation through special keepers of the lore. All of these are in some form of verse, that is they have a regular rhythm, a specific meter and, where we know enough about the language, we usually find elements of rhyme, alliteration and the other markers of poetry. It is assumed by those who write about such material that the verse form was adopted for oral transmission because it was “easier to learn” and this theory they happily put forward with such regularity that it has become an unchallenged “truth”.

On my current tour I am performing an excerpt from the “Kalevala”, a massive saga from Finland which is all in trochaic tetrameter, a 4 footed meter with eight syllables per line, four of which are stressed. If that all sounds a bit complicated then you only have to think of Dr. Seuss: “I do not like green eggs and ham / I do not like them Sam I am” which is also in trochaic tetrameter. Doesn’t sound half as intellectual and posh now does it? Although I am working from a translation, the translator chose to render the English version in the original meter. It is a fine piece of poetry and the excerpt I am performing, “The Brewing Of Beer” is about fifteen minutes long. As with much narrative verse (poems that tell a story rather than just bang on about how beautiful something is), there are parts that repeat and many parts that almost repeat but are just slightly different. There are also lines, and whole sections (the Kalevala doesn’t actually have “verses” as such, just “Runes” which are like chapters) in which the conflicting requirements of story and meter fill the resulting lines with tongue twisters and grammatical gymnastics. I can assure you that it is in no way easy to learn. If you want to hear some of it recited then come to the one of the gigs on the Nectar Of The Gods tour ( http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml ).

This is not the first large chunk of verse I have tackled and the learning part is hell every time. With a prose story I can get the basic gist, make sure I have the names correct and be fairly confident of making a decent fist of improvising my way through a telling of it after about three reads through, six if it is especially long and convoluted. With verse I have to read it time and time again, pick it apart, read and repeat each line until I can do it without looking. Move on to the next line and do the same. Go back and do both lines together until I have got it right, then do the same procedure all over again with the next line. It takes days. I record it and play it to myself while I do the washing up and before I go to sleep. I have to practice reciting it every day whilst on tour, running it through in the car between gigs, making sure it has not slipped and will roll cleanly from my brain to my tongue when required. After performing it I can feel that my brain has been working, my head feels exhausted much the same way as my legs used to feel after a cross country run. Every single word has to be exact or it breaks the poetry. Those writers have no idea!

If it’s not easier to learn, what is the purpose of the verse? The recitation of the verses was often a group activity, the skald or bard memorised the piece in its entirety and lead the recitation, the listeners familiar with the work and free to join in. Like singing along with a pop song that has been on heavy rotation, you find you know some of the words but you couldn’t keep going for more than a line or two if the song was taken away, hence the specialist leading. However, any change would provoke outrage: “You’re doing it wrong!” They may not know how it is supposed to go but they know it is not like that! Should the bard pass on prematurely the verses can be reconstructed from the partial memories of the people, the meter and rhyme narrowing down the possibilities for any one lost word.

Communal knowledge coupled with the exactitude of verse protects the tribe or nations history from being altered. A verse, once learnt, must remain the same and that is how oral transmission keeps the lore, the truths of the tribe, for hundreds and even thousands of years. Those early writings of ancient stories were not in verse to make it easier to learn, repetition works just as well whether it rhymes or not, but to make it harder to change.

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As it was Foretold

It would appear that to many people “folk stories” and “superstition” are one and the same thing. This I could understand if the stories were packed with evil forebodings and dark portents but this is far from the case. In folktales it is considerably more common for the protagonist to crash through the action without any suggestion of what is coming. If they do get given a prediction it is more often than not a clear and accurate description of the obstacles that lie ahead, usually along with detailed instructions on how to overcome them.

In Sleeping Beauty the wicked fairy lays a curse on the young princess of death by a finger pricked on a spindle. The good fairy commutes the sentence to 100 years sleep ending with a royal snog. This is exactly what happens. In The King Of England’s Three Sons each son in turn is given the low down on how to break in to a castle: they must cross the black moat on the back of a swan, sneak past the guards and find the golden apples they are seeking in a secret garden. The only supernatural bit being the warning not to look back whilst escaping or the apples will be lost. You will be un-surprised to hear that everything turns out to be just as they are told and we even get the middle prince losing his hard won treasure by looking back. The youngest (of course) observes the instructions fully and carries off the precious fruit. It seems the oral tradition is rather literal when it comes to auguries. No ill-defined Delphic declarations for Jack and his ilk: just follow the tutorial and live happily ever after! Maybe it is the nature of stories shaped in the mouth that they tend towards the optimistic.

So how did this confusion between superstition and folktale come about? Where are all the yarns with mysterious prognostications? What you are thinking of there is literature. Shakespeare’s work is full of creaky crones prophesying unlikely and un-specific doom and destruction, the shadow of which then hangs over the action until they are proved one hundred percent correct. In Julius Caesar he dooms his eponymous lead to die on the famous “Ides of March” and the would-be god duly obliges (with the help of his friends). Despite the apparent improbability of Hamlet’s destiny, he too is carried off in accordance with his heathland Hags’ pronouncements. The Ancient Greek penchant for oracular predetermination is mostly down to the writings of Homer; the various sooths said for King Arthur are updated by each medieval author in turn. Writers just can’t seem to resist an obscure augury as a device for supplying a witty twist whilst trotting inexorably towards predicted tragedy.

The interesting thing is that as a society we publicly, and nowadays officially, consider the foretelling of the future to be nonsense. The pervading wisdom is that no one can know what is going to happen and anyone who claims to is a charlatan. Nevertheless, all our stories of predictions, whether born from a quill or evolved via voices, treat divination as real, accurate and inescapable. If I was a psychologist I would be worried about us, we seem to have something of a personality disorder.


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