English is a cruel mistress, a temptress dressed in rich robes, with ruffles and rubies, elegant in smooth silks and satins. I love her lines of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, as she dances forward in double stresses, stepping and stamping with pride and passion. I love her softer side, scented prose, seducing with the smooth susurration of sweet assonance. Her slyly smiling similes and magical metaphors beguile and entrance. I love the very bones of her, words made of a calcium recycled long ago from some far off land, rugged enough for rigourous use yet still flexible enough to take on a new meaning in the mouths of our successive generations.
Yet her most sinuous moves seem always saved for the caress of another’s pen, her most delicate curves reserved for the brush of other lips. With me her favourite game is hide and seek. Here, at the computer I can draw and redraw her elusive beauty, tame her with tools, trap her with a thesaurus. She teases me as I do so: “Too clumsy” she admonishes, “Too clever” she sighs, “Too much altogether!” she giggles and then hides. Again.
But I am a spoken word artist. I stand before you and invite language to dance on my tongue. It’s live, real time action adventure, no tea breaks to ponder the next paragraph. The matter in hand (or in mouth) is folk tale and, thankfully, the the choreography rarely requires the complexity of it’s more literary cousins: vernacular steps for vernacular material. I release my love from the demands of convoluted contortions and ask only that she keeps going, a continuous forward motion. Now, in peasants clothes and dirty, bare feet she kicks up her heels and she’s away, leaping and twirling, occasionally rewarding my generosity with a back flip and triple salco. She still teases, hiding a word I need behind her back until the very last second or spinning, heart-stopingly, down a blind alley only to leap lightly on to fire escape that wasn’t there a moment ago.
Obviously keeping her in motion takes up a great deal of my attention but I am busy with other things too. My internal director is barking orders: “Remember to make eye contact with the children in the front row. There’s a princess coming up, find a woman to flatter with the description of her beauty. Good work! Now back off – her husbands looking antsy. Take it down, slowly now, almost a whisper, lets make this surprise really work, pause… and GO! Now the king’s on in a moment, can you give him a bit more of an accent this time?”
For all our years of working together though, we are not in charge. Above us all there is a higher power: the story itself. I have chewed it over but, like a virus or a bacteria, it is not broken down by my digestive juices. It has encysted inside me living a life of it’s own. A strong story may even cannibalise some of it’s brothers, incorporating their best bits in to itself. My internal team and I are only midwives assisting in the story’s re-entry to the world. Older than the trees, it is used to waiting but it wants to be told, to burst forth and plant it’s seed in fresh ears.
As the story opens up before me I feed the pictures to Dame English and she dances on, step-step-jump-turn, and the Director does his best to keep the performance on track as it accelerates towards it’s climax. This is the most dangerous moment, if we lose our footing now then all the work we have done is wasted. My leading lady carefully sets herself up for the last dash while the director nudges me to centre stage and makes me do a quick sweep around the whole audience, meeting eyes, gathering you in.
But the story is a big boy now, asserting it’s reality on top of mine. I can’t complain, I have encouraged it, but it is strange standing there in front of you, knowing you are listening while my eyes see another place and time entirely. Under dragon attack for instance, my team flees screaming in to the distance. As dust whirls and huge claws crash to the ground this side and that, I look down at the parched desert floor, scrabble for words to chuck out to you and catch only gravel, It spills from my mouth skidding beneath the hooves of the hero’s horse. I duck and dive, weave this way and that as the scythe like claws whistle through the air just inches from my face. Heart pounding, I babble a breathless commentary, my arms flailing wildly, hands reaching out for words half obscured amidst airborne sand and smoke, trying to pluck power and purpose from the hot unfocused air.
Deep, deep within, a small voice intones a constant prayer to the one eyed god of poetry: “Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die”. I mean it both as the theatrical metaphor, and literally, as the dragon fixes me with it’s vast black eyes and raises his deadly claw to strike. The story is running the show now – and it has an agenda. Our stories tell us who we are, as individuals and as a nation. This story reminds us we are heroes, that we can face our fears and overcome our monsters: it has no intention of letting the claw come down. Through the fog of combat it suddenly presents me with the hero’s magic sword and gratefully grasping the leather wrapped hilt, I-he-you-we are carried forward by our steadfast steed, between the dragon’s very legs and swiftly strike upward delivering shining steel death to our ancient enemy.
My team have returned, the director exhorting cheers from the audience and Lady Language tap dancing lightly to “happily ever after”. The Manager takes over, smoothly handling the PR, “Thank you, thank you, I’ve been The Travelling Talesman, you’ve been a wonderful audience, see you next time!”. People come up to me asking “Where do you get your stories from?” and “How do you remember it all?”. The manager trots out professional platitudes, giving them something they can take away with them. I do not mention the deep, dark well of the unconscious mind or the chaos that goes on backstage. Oh, I can tell them all sorts of ways to learn a story but would they understand if I said that, in the white heat of telling, it’s often the story that remembers me? …And even I don’t know how my leading lady stays on that narrow, narrative tightrope… maybe she returns my love after all.