Legendary!


[This year I have been even more out of kilter with keeping the blog up to date than usual. I completely lost this article and had to retrieve it from the sent folder of Mail. It was written in July for August’s Morchard messenger]

I’m doing a bunch of Viking tales for an online gig in three day’s time. I know a lot of the mythological material really well, the stories of Odin, Thor, Freya, Loki and the other gods of Asgard as they struggle with the giants. I have been telling them on and off since I started nearly 30 years ago. It’s nice to keep things fresh though and I’ve been meaning to work up a version of the story of Halfdan, a young Viking warrior who has to fight assorted foes, traitors, brigands and wizards to eventually retain his father’s kingdom and win the hand of the fair Ingigerd. It’s a great tale! It’s got star crossed lovers, treachery, cross dressing, blood feuds, sea battles and magic dogs. What more could you want?

Well, I want it to be easier to learn. Being part of the saga material, huge amounts of the action are dependent on the relationships between the characters, often with respect to generations of animosity sparked by an ill-considered, fatal dust up between their grand uncles, or some other unburied hatchet, or unburied Dane axe, as it might be. On having a read through before starting work on memorising it I realised that every character comes with an entire genealogy, each ancestor emphasising their status in the hierarchy of the North, in one case traced back to Odin himself.

Now, you might think that one could simply ditch all this back-story and get on with the action, who cares about lineage? However, if you don’t know that Griff The Bald’s great grandad was stabbed in the back by Frank The Flashy’s grandmother in law in the wake of a bit of pillaging, that would strip the emotional power from their chance meeting on the deck of a longship in the middle of a battle. All that tedious “Bjarki The Bashful was the son of Bronji Boring Bonce from Birken” matters.


It’s not just the drivers of the drama that matter. Despite the more fantastic elements of the story, this is not a folk tale. Also, despite the occasional deity in the family tree it is not mythology because in mythology the gods are the main protagonists, or at least are responsible for a significant part of the plot. Halfdan appears in actual historic documents. Oh yes, he was a real person. Who was related to whom matters because some of it may be true. Now, if Halfdan was a historical person, if some of the things that we are told happened actually happened, and it then accrued a number of less believable elements, that makes his story technically (pauses dramatically)… a legend! Yep, because there truly was once someone called Halfdan Eysteinsson, king of Romerike and Vestfold, also known as Halfdan “The Mild”, the exploits in his saga are officially legendary.

Unfortunately that also means that editing it to make it easier to learn needs to be done with immense care, and getting down to the level of “There was a prince who went out to seek his fortune” is not going to happen. So Halfdan is going to have to wait to get his legend told and I am going to have to find some other tale to tell. One I can have ready to go in 3 days…

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

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Eye Eye


Theatre, I have recently learned, did not develop directly from storytelling. In several different cultures around the globe theatre evolved from religion via ritual performances of myth. The sacred dramas were, of course constructed on a foundation of earlier storytelling, so it is theatre’s ancestor, maybe not it’s mother as I have previously held, but in true mythological style, still a parent via an incestuous relationship with an earlier offspring.

Each of these three generations of the storytelling family have their own accepted range of physicality. When I run workshops one of the things I ask my students to play with and make a decision about is the basic concept of movement involved in their performance: are they a sitting or a standing teller? Static or mobile? As storyteller’s go, I am out on the extreme end of active, roaming the stage with imagined swords, opening non existent doors, leafing through transparent tomes taken from invisible shelves, pulling faces, waving my arms and sometimes even running from side to side. It must be a bit of a surprise for anyone who thinks that storytelling is someone sitting down and reading from a book.

We in the 21st century are very much an optical culture. Video may not have actually killed the radio star but it did push her in to an abandoned cellar and steal her lunch money…
And no one cared: out of sight, out of mind!

Storytelling though, is and interactive art form and the line of sight goes both ways. The bard of yore was given the best seat by the fire, not just because their status earned them the warmth (if they were anything like me they would be oblivious to the cold once the words start to flow), but because then the audience is lit by the blaze and their reactions can be seen, read, and reacted to in turn.

When storytellers give a narrative performance both performer and audience are lit so we can see each other. We will let the audience know that they are seen by making eye contact with them now and then, a universal sign of acknowledgement and inclusion. Since I am the only person on stage I can use these various lines of sight for different parts of the show. If two characters in the story are having a conversation I can clearly demonstrate that by stepping to one side, looking across the front of the audience, making eye contact with someone sitting near the opposite side of the room and talking to them as if I am the Giant and they are the Padishah’s Daughter. To continue the dialogue I simply step across the central line, turn to face someone on the other side of the room and they become the Giant while I speak the words of the Princess.
We all understand the visual convention, acclimatised to it through years of theatre and a vocabulary of camera angles learnt in the early days of the big screen and passed down through TV, yea, even unto the TicTok generation.

But now a new re-evolution is upon us. As the storytelling world has moved en-masse to the virtual firesides and feasting halls of Zoom and Google Hangouts we find ourselves restricted to a single eyeline. I have my web cam standing in front of a large screen which shows as many of the viewers as possible, each in their own rectangular box. I can see and react to them but I am unable to look from one side of the audience to the other as all eyes have become the same cyclopean orb, all engagement must be through the one unblinking lens. As we all adapt to the unfamiliar context I am intrigued and excited to see the full form of this new child that storytelling and technology are spawning before our very – universal, digitally integrated – eye.

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

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The Old Grey Waffle Test


“But how do you remember it all?” It is the question I am asked most often about my craft. I have answered it in this column at least twice. With two different answers of course, both of which are true. Today as I sat down to write this months FTC for you I realised I am going to give you a third answer.

“What is it about Three?” Is one of the questions I am asked most often about my material: “Why does everything happen in threes”; “Why is three the magic number?”
The observant among you may well have put three and three together and realised the answers to these questions are linked.

The thing is, folk stories, stories that stay alive by being told, heard, remembered, and told again do have a survival mechanism that has evolved in them. It came to my attention last night when I was reading Jo a bedtime story. I had chosen the tale of the Goddess Inana and her descent in to the Underworld. This is one of the Sumerian stories that was found on 5,000 year old clay tablets from the dawn of writing. A deeply significant tale of power, sacrifice, loyalty and resurrection. Having performed it on tour nine years ago I am re-learning it for a zoom gig in September. It is around twenty minutes in total but I only have to learn about 7 minutes of it. Here’s the trick: every element is repeated at least three times, sometimes quite cleverly.

Before Inana descends in to the Underworld she gives her minster, Ninšubur, a set of very specific instructions concerning the ritual mourning she must perform, including some quite shocking procedures, and a richly metaphorical request for help she must make to Inana’s father and two grandfathers. The story follows Inana down while Ninšubur waits. After three days have passed and Inana has not returned, that specific sequence is reprised as Ninšubur puts on the dress of a servant, covers herself in ashes and performs the series of lacerations to her eyes, nose, ears (in public) and buttocks (in private) as directed previously. She then makes the requests to all three ancestors. Father Enki grants the wishes of Ninšubur and produces the necessary help so we don’t hear the request sequence again, but we don’t need to; we’ve heard it six times by now. We have only experienced the mourning ritual twice though. Don’t worry, it’s coming up again soon.

After Inana has been restored to life she comes back from the Underworld accompanied by the Anuna, who are described variously as the “Judges of the Underworld” and as “Demons”. They are not just up for a jolly in the land of light but have to maintain the cosmic balance by taking back someone to fill Inana’s place in the realm of the dead. The first person they encounter is of course Ninšubur, waiting patiently by the gate. The Anuna are about to take her below when Inana stops them: “This is my minister of fair words, She did not forget my instructions…” and continues to run through the litany of mourning that Ninšubur executed, lacerations both public and private, the visit to the houses of the three gods and concludes “She brought me back to life. How could I turn her over to you?”. So we hear the same words three times but in very different contexts, first as impending imperative, second as action and third as both praise and a defence before the Judges, each repetition carrying a different emotional charge.

Much as musicians listen out for departing audience whistling one of their melodies, storyteller’s know we have got something right when someone quotes an oft repeated line back at us. After I’ve told The Field of Genies I enjoy hearing “Who gave you permission to do that then?” echoing across festival fields; those who have heard The Padisha’s Daughter Who Married a Donkey Skull find themselves approaching taps with the words “What fountain is this?”; and any audience that has made me run around at the end of The Hedgehog And The Devil will get up to leave afterwards with the words “Off we go again then” on their lips.

And there you have it, at the risk of repeating myself, repetition within a story makes that story easier to remember and the stories that have triple repetition are more likely to be told because they are more easily remembered.


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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Giochi Senza Frontiere


This week I’ve been making videos for a band I used to go on tour with until a few years ago. We used to head off to northern Italy most years for a week or 2, playing gigs to a few thousand Italians in Bologna, Parma and other towns that we Brits mainly know because of the specific type of food we eat that supposedly came from there*. The band plays Welsh folk rock, is called Here Be Dragons and is run by my mate Mike.

When Here Be Dragons go on tour, Mike (being Welsh) always brings this little foam filled rugby ball along to chuck around, it works as a combined team building exercise and time filler whilst waiting for things to happen, which is, apart from sitting in a van, mostly what one does on tour. You wait for venues to open, wait for promoters to arrive, wait for sound engineers to turn up, wait for sound checks to start, wait for audiences to come, wait to be given keys for the accommodation, wait for taxis, wait for planes…

Once upon the end of a tour, having unusually had a decent nights sleep and not had to catch the plane at an hour in the low single digits, we were all packed and hanging around outside the hotel for the van to pick us up and take us to the airport. Out came the foam filled rugby ball. Thus we had it in hand as we entered the departure lounge.

We were gently chucking it around while we waited for our luggage to be checked in, as we queued to have our passports looked at, being silly, laughing, getting looks. The instrument cases, going in the cabin to avoid being destroyed by the baggage handlers, gave away our status as musicians so people accepted our playfulness. Big kids.

After all the usual walking down corridors, getting on and off escalators and travelators, we were directed in to a big glass room with plastic airport seating along the sides and a back to back row down the middle. Around a hundred people of various nationalities all waiting together for our winged metal tube to arrive. The band waited as we had been waiting for the last two weeks: we threw the ball back and forth.


Then the plane was delayed. Everyone was getting bored. Except us. We were getting more adventurous and spreading out, moving further away from each other as we got more confident of our aim.

It started with the occasional missed catch, when the ball would roll gently to some stranger’s feet and they would pick it up and throw it back to the big kids… a couple of throws later one of us would pass it to them deliberately. Passengers losing interest in their books or phones watched the fun going on, and if any of them caught our eye we would lob it to them too.

Language, culture and age barriers all melted away like morning mist. Soon they weren’t just throwing back to us anymore, they were looking out for anyone who might be a willing recipient, bringing other people they had never met or spoken to in to the game. Then that became the thing to do and it was obvious that throwers were trying to find a pass receiver who had not taken part previously, hunting for a hopeful face on the far side of the room. Soon, I am fairly sure, all but one person had caught and chucked the ball at least once… All but one man sitting in the central block who was, almost pointedly, reading his pink Financial Times, held high in front of his face. The ball was passed to a young lad sitting nearly opposite. The lad looked around and realised what I have just told you. The whole room seemed to hold it’s breath as he took aim and launched the ball directly in to the paper.

Thankfully, paper man found the incident amusing and we all laughed, able to breathe again. Maybe it was his lad, though I’m not at all certain. Our jet finally arrived, an hour and a half late, but unusually after such a delay, everyone boarded with a smile.

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

* A sauce that goes on pasta and thinly sliced pig respectively, in case you were wondering

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The Fox and The Crow


There is a tree that stands by the edge of the wood where tame fields meet wild trees. It has a dead branch sticking out straight at just the right height for Crow to sit.

Fox was hungry. Fox was always hungry. He had been through the fields and round the barns but found nothing. He headed back towards the woods. There he saw Crow sitting on her branch… and Crow had a chunk of cheese in her beak.

Fox stopped under the branch and looked up
“Ah! Crow how wonderful to see you!”
Crow cocked her head on one side.
He continued, smooth as the finest silk,
“I was hoping I would run in to you, since we last met I have only had one thing on my mind”
Crow looked down at him with one eye and then the other.
“It is your delightful voice that I wish to hear. Please sing for me Crow, bring joy to all the wood with your melodious song!”

Crow had never been praised like this and it made her ruffle her feathers.

“Oh, please do not be bashful Crow. Sing for us and make the field bright with your mellifluous tones, bless us with the balm of your beak.”

Overcome by Fox’s flattery, crow could hold back her overture no longer.

She opened her beak and let out… a rasping “CAW!”

The cheese fell from her beak. Down it fell and Fox snatched it out of the air.

“Oh Crow that was delightful, thank you. I knew something wonderful would happen if you opened your beak.”

He said and, licking his lips, Fox went on his way.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Folk Tale, Fox stories, Talking Animals

It Aint What You Shoe It’s The Way That You Shoe It


A vast amount of what I did for the first month of the first lockdown was extensively and minutely deconstructing Cinderella variations. It started as a process to identify what exactly a Cinderella story is, what elements are present in all of the different versions. I say “all of the versions”, There are more than 700, some scholars claim over a thousand. I’m collaborating with another storyteller and together we are examining in detail a sample of 21 stories, carefully selected through rigorous, scientific criteria such as “We’ve got to have this one: there’s a talking horse in it!”.

Inspired by questions like “Do all Cinderella’s have a Fairy Godmother?” (Nope. Not by a long way), or “How many have wicked step mothers?” (significantly less than half), we have uncovered some shocking statistics. Our perception of the story has been altered to a point that will be hard to explain in the time available for a theatre show. One of the surprising revelations being that the apparently desirable royal male is far from the bland, two dimensional, characterless but handsome, Identikit prince that we initially thought.

I wrote In January about the problem with princes failing to recognise the heroine and going away with a step sister who has cut her toes off, but that is just the tip of the deeply disturbing princeberg. In the popular imagination, a glass slipper being taken around to all the women in the country until the ash covered kitchen wench puts her foot in it and is re-united with her paramour, sits at the centre of the Cinderella myth. Statistically though, only one out of the full seven hundred styles a slipper of glass, and a mere half of the tales in our sample feature footwear of any sort. So bear in mind that, Out of the 21 ‘princes’ we have looked at (some are kings, some are just rich blokes), the following litany of dodgy shoe related behaviours take place within only twelve tales and our experience so far is that even worse are likely to come to light if you look any further.

Four of the princes, having become enamoured of their respective sink skivies, are unable to find out who they are or where they come from. In two of these cases the posh plonker hasn’t even attempted to engage the object of his “affection” in conversation or considered asking her directly. The other two have asked but, despite getting no answer, have failed to get the hint. These four delightful examples of regal breeding take it in to their heads that they have a right to know and that the best way to find out is to obtain one of her shoes. This they set about doing by taking tar (or in one case, honey) and spreading it all over the exit of a public building. Nobody questions this and no charges are brought.

One prince obtains the hapless girl’s shoe by sending a servant to pursue her coach until, in her hurry to get away, she sheds a slipper. Another takes matters in to his own hands and, grabbing her foot as she tries to ride away from the church, hangs on until he hauls her multicoloured mule from it’s mount.

Four more royal males begin a search for our leading lady without ever having met her: they simply find her little, lost slipper and become obsessed with marrying the woman whose foot would be small enough to fit. The two, so called, lovers do not exchange so much as a word before the testing of the tiny treads brings about their, usually instantaneous, wedding. That’s a full 20% of cinderella stories being basically a shoe fetishists fantasy.

Most of the twelve slipper searchers simply announce that they are going to marry the woman who can get the slipper on. No further proposal is made. In fact out of the entire cohort of monarchical muppets, only two actually ask the female protagonist if she wants to marry him and only one gets a positive answer, but all of them end up married regardless.

This reveals a dizzying level of assumption and entitlement on the part of the sovereign slipper snatchers and a terrifying lack of choice or control for the women involved. If you have ever told one of the seven hundred or more Cinderella stories to a child, it might be worth having a think about what they are being trained to accept, or even aspire to, when their impressionable young ears hear it.

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It WasA Dark And Stormy Night


The folk process is an endlessly fascinating and wondrous thing. Much like genetic evolution, mutations and variations creep in with every repetition until eventually it has either become something else entirely or lost it’s ability to survive. Sometimes a story will change to suit a warmer or wetter climate, sometimes it may find that it’s feet are no good for a new terrain and it will take to the wing…

I accidentally stumbled across an example of the breadth of variation brought on by oral transmission of even a very simple four line trope. Storm Ciara was doing her best to wreck the fences out the back and I found myself typing in to Facebook:

“It is night
It is dark.
It is stormy.
The rain is falling down in torrents.
If you are a skipper, please, please turn to your mate and ask them to tell you a story.”

Now, if none of this rings a bell I must first ask if you have been hiding under a rock and then go on to explain that I first heard this famous opening from my father at tea one evening, long before I began my explorations of storytelling. Some reference had been made to entertaining with a tale and Dad suddenly came out with,

“It was a Dark and stormy night, and the rain fell down in torrents, and the Skipper said ‘tell me a story’, so the Mate began…”

The Mate of course begins his story “It was a Dark and stormy night, and the rain fell down in torrents, and the Skipper said ‘tell me a story’, so the mate began…”
and so it goes on…
This delivered with great gusto, my father’s eyes wide, long arms gesticulating with outsized hands (all traits which he passed on to me very much unchanged!). As a child, I remember the infinite, helical nature of the story that never ended, but also never really started, forming a chain of stories within stories stretching through immeasurable, parallel stormy nights, being quite mind blowing.

Within minutes of my post I had variations pouring in “In my childhood, it was always the mate who asked the captain for a story.” said Anne.

Viv commented “my dad’s was …” it was a dark and stormy night, and the wind began to howl, and captain jack to captain jo said tell me a story and this is how the story began… “”

“It was a bright and sunny afternoon” quipped Robin.

The inevitable internet search found only one reference to this widely known eternal tempest, on a joke page in reddit:
“It was a dark and stormy night on buffalo hill… a group of bandits sat around a campfire… one of the bandits said to the captain, “tell us a story captain… ” etc.
Which readily demonstrates the stories adaptation to the inland terrain of the American continent.

And so it spirals off in to the distance. I wonder where this strangely evocative collection of words will end it’s journey, if it ever does… maybe in some far distant future a space captain will gaze out of their bridge at some twisting nebula flashing with electrical discharge, and as the stellar wind batters their fragile craft they will turn to their Mate and say “Tell me a story”…

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If The Shoe Fits


There is a motif in quite a few folk tales in which two people who have fallen in love are separated and one or both of them can not recognise the other when they meet again. Let me give you an example: In Cinderella and many of it’s variants, the Prince falls in love with Cinders at the first ball, spends all evening with her for the next two days often having “eyes for no one but her”, yet his method for identifying the mesmerising beauty who has won his heart is entirely dependant on her fitting the shoe that fell off her foot. In a whole bunch of the variants, when the step sisters cheat by cutting their toes off to make their feet small enough, HRH Charming doesn’t even seem to notice that he has the wrong woman and it takes a magical bird singing a warning rhyme for him to realise his mistake, twice, making him possibly the most obtuse idiot in all folk tale.

It’s not just lovers who suffer from face blindness, or prosopagnosia to give it it’s official name, In folktale world. Mixed sex pairs of siblings who are very fond of each other frequently exchange portraits, rings or other tokens, before one of them goes away for any length of time, and cannot be re-united without producing them as proof of identity. 

Now, I have some sympathy since I struggle to recognise faces especially if I meet someone in a different context to that in which I have previously seen them. It is my firm belief that characters in films should remain in the same clothing throughout unless they change during a scene. Not that they have to change on camera of course, they can go behind a screen or in to another room, but they should be involved in continuous dialogue so I know who they are when they return looking like a different person. Nevertheless, my facial recognition fault is fairly mild and has certainly never extended to anyone I was hopeful of forming a long term relationship with after three nights of constant intimate communion, nor to any family members. 

Since I know plenty of people who don’t seem to have a problem divining anyone’s identity by the arrangement of their facial features and aren’t phased when movie characters appear in random outfits from one scene to the next, I assume prosopagnosia is fairly rare. Indeed, it is only officially diagnosed in around 2% of the population. So I began to wonder if the story making petrie dish of medieval Europe had experienced an epidemic of some sort to bring about such widespread identification breakdown. A few instances could theoretically be accounted for by the rarity of spectacles amongst the general population, however, when I asked around to see what my storytelling colleagues and friends thought, the consensus of opinion was very surprising.

The historians who joined the conversation placed the blame squarely on clothing. During the middle ages social mobility was very limited. Each class and occupation had it’s own fairly tightly proscribed mode of dress, even to the extent that certain groups could not legally wear certain materials. Sumptuary laws prevented labourers, artisans, merchants, and even the lower nobility, from wearing silk, velvet, satin or silver. Cloth of gold and purple silk were reserved to the royal family. With one’s status so clearly marked by one’s apparel a simple change of costume could effectively put a person beyond notice in one direction or the other. In many situations it was considered poor etiquette to talk to, or even look at, someone who was more than one class above or below your own. So if your sibling travelled over the sea, made their fortune and returned, it might not be that you couldn’t recognise their face but that, on seeing their new posh duds, you would not even look upon their face until they had placed their proof of identity before your dutifully averted eyes.

Whilst this does justify the necessity of presenting tokens of proof in a great many stories, it still seems to me to come up short of giving an acceptable solution for why The Duke of Charmshire is happy to accept an entirely different woman as his hearts desire based only on her ability to put on a slipper. Was the concept of physical tokens of identity so ingrained in the society that we can understand his willingness to override the evidence of his own senses or is Cinders’ husband the most gormless man in all of fiction? 

Well, if the shoe fits…

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To Stay and Tarry a While


Good things come to those who wait is not an aphorism I have much time for. I’m not at all sure why random items of a positive leaning should find their way to someone palely loitering rather than the person who is actively searching. My suspicion is that those who wait are inclined to consider whatever turns up to break the monotony a “good thing” regardless of it’s intrinsic value. Years of touring have meant hours of hanging around for venues to open, sound engineers to show up, meals to come, and the quality of the eventual arrival bore no relationship to the length of time spent on standby.

In my youth I basically used to rush from one thing to another at the last minute. As a result I never had to wait for anything unless someone else was late. These days I try and save my brinksmanship for less absolute, unforgiving and simple challenges than being on time. I’d much rather keep on everyone’s good side, arrive early and have a chance to breathe before I’m officially required to do anything, or if possible get ahead of the game with a little pre-emptive preparation. When I do have to wait for things, trains, appointments, I find I quite enjoy the experience. I always have a yarn to learn, a book of new tales I can dive in to, a show to plan or list to write. Even when I don’t have these things to hand I find there is a freedom in waiting. For a change one has nothing else to do… Nothing else one should be doing… Total liberty to do no other thing. Even if the train is late I find this state can persist: worrying, fretting, pacing will not make it come any sooner. Nothing we do will make any difference, we will be exactly the same amount of late so we may as well continue to enjoy the peace of absent expectation and not be wound up when we do finally get where we are going. Relax. All decisions, all control are out of our hands until after whatever we are awaiting has caught up to us. 

What has this got to do with folk tales I hear you ask? Of course I came to this attitude through encountering folk tale characters who have to bide their time for one thing or another. Often it is a trap that the protagonist has set and they are sitting tight until the antagonist or love interest ambles unwittingly in to it. In other stories it can be be a bearer of great knowledge, a marvellous creature or some similar wonder that our principal has to kick their heels for. 

In the written story, since there is no activity to report between the arrival at the point of pausing and the re-comencement of action on the appearance of the awaited being, it tends to pass as quickly as a full stop and a space. Sometimes maybe a paragraph gap.

When I am telling a tale I try to get inside it. It is my job after all to make my audience, you as it might be, feel the events of the tale as if they are real. In attempting to get to the emotional content, the essence of those un-detailed lingerings, I had to imagine myself in to a much different world. People knew how to wait in the old days. No mobile phone; no iPod; no book even. No clock ticking. No radio playing from a nearby shop; no adverts or announcements to break the silence… Only the world continuing to turn around them. 

I sometimes see if I can make an audience join the leading player in their anticipation, explore how long modern people, kids especially, can maintain attention when nothing is happening. It is not long. Nowadays we get fretful if we are forced to hang around five minutes for a bus. And maybe that is part of the problem, it’s possible modern waits are too short!

Waiting for someone in pre-industrial times could take hours or even days, long enough to make a fire; darn a sock; sew a button; watch the birds; Whittle a stick; climb a tree; sew the button again; have a conversation with the sock… Some of these might sound a bit like “doing things”, but they are not your primary activity: what you are “doing” is waiting, these other things are just time fillers, there is no obligation to do them at all and… they all become much easier.

Hidden between the words “ … sat down to wait.” and the beginning of the next sentence is a lost art: Don’t worry about the thing that is coming, good or otherwise, enjoy the wait.

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

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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The Pile Of Tinsel


Crackling fires, candles, stars, and strings of fairy lights. Trees with piles of presents, rows of cards and tables groaning with heaps of food. Holly, ivy, snow, reindeer, mummers, socks, sheep, cake, Scrooge, kings, The Snow Queen, donkeys, Julie Andrews and somewhere amongst it all a new born baby. It must be Christmas again!

I don’t know where I will be for the festive week: I have had an offer of possible work for Christmas day on the other side of the country, as yet unconfirmed, and thus may be far away from home and possibly even people I know. I’m pretty sure there will be fine food, drink and good company though, that much is compulsory, isn’t it? 

Of course, the things that make Christmas depend very much on who you are, where you have come from culturally and what stage you are at in your life. Every family does it a little differently: Presents before breakfast or after dinner? Cook all morning or do it the day before? Games after dinner or dozing in front of the TV? Midnight Mass or Carols From Kings? Massive row over Christmas Dinner or get it out the way on Christmas Eve?

All sorts of people over the years have tried to sift out “the real meaning of Christmas” or to construct a purer version of the midwinter feast, struggling to disentangle the assorted threads of Pagan, Christian and corporate tradition, or extract the literary, folk or media elements, like you or I battling with a box of last years fairy lights, though rarely with as much success.

Coming to my keyboard once again, trying to find this year’s approach to the big, tangled pile of tinsel; to decide which colour to unravel and hang before you… I found myself, instead, entranced by the intensity of the interwoven wonders. No other festival, time of year, event or part of our lives is quite so clearly made from such differing strands, such incompatible ingredients, and yet is so tightly and inextricably intermeshed that the majority of us do not even know that our traditional celebration is a bizarre snowball that has rolled across continents getting random bits of foliage and aggregate stuck in it for centuries.

Whether it’s the star followed by some Magi, the Yule Log saved from the year before, a special candlestick or just the lights on the tree, we all respond to the symbols of the light in the darkness, warmth in coldness, comfort in hardship. New born sons, reborn suns and evergreen trees are all signs of life in the desert of winter. Then mashed in alongside all that are the stories of kindness in adversity, care for family, friends, strangers, even enemies, soldiers playing football where they fought the day before. Tale after Yuletide tale are reminders of our mutual fragility, that we survive by sharing and supporting each other, huddling together against the cruel winter wind. The endings also come again and again to the same triumphant point: The longest night is passed, light returns to the world and we are still alive! 

So whatever it is that you do for midwinter, I wish you a very good one: Peace on earth! Blessed be! Fill the mead cup! Good will to everything! Happy Traditional Thing-a-majig!

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

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk 

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