Monthly Archives: January 2020

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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The Demon Of Procrastination


[In view of the fact that I wrote this for the November edition of the local magazine it seems strangely apt that I am only uploading to the blog half way through January]

I have terrible trouble getting round to doing pretty well anything. If there was an olympic event for procrastination I would… not manage to get the forms filled in to join the team. Every month I have a battle with myself over sitting down to write Folk Tales Corner, even though I thoroughly enjoy doing it once I have started. For November I have a double incentive as I am promoting my autumn tour so already know that it must be at least partially about demons. Thus prepared and inspired I set off to dive into the river of creation and swim with the flow down to the ocean of completion and the beach bar of reward. Two coffees, numerous Facebook comments, some hoovering and the washing up later I finally leapt from the bank – straight into the jaws of an allegory.

Mother Perfection kept a beautiful house, everything was neat and tidy. She had a sister called Good Advice who helped her along the way. Good Advice, despite her knowledge, had a dysfunctional relationship with Low Esteem, he was a nice enough fellow but just did not believe in himself. Good Advice knew if she loved him unconditionally he would change but knowing and doing are not the same thing. Their lovemaking was a failure: Good Advice could not help herself and suggested ways in which Low Esteem could make it better. If he had just done as she suggested then everything would have been fine but he took it as criticism, lost any confidence he had and, well, it was all downhill from there. They did however have a daughter and the daughter of Good Advice and Low Esteem was Nit Picker.

Fear stalked the land, he wondered from town to town terrorising the people. But when he came to Mother Perfection she was not afraid. Calmed by her polite invitation to stay in her house and disarmed by her attention, Fear stayed. Although she wasn’t scared of him she still felt a thrill at his presence. Fear desired to possess her, and she responded. Their lovemaking was of epic proportions. Encouraged by Fear, Mother Perfection did ever wilder and more wonderful things, and she did them perfectly. After three days Fear set off on his travels, he found it hard to cope with perfection. Nine months later the offspring of Perfection and Fear was born and he was Procrastination.

Although Procrastination never met his father, Fear lived in his head and Nit Picker did not help. 
The sheep of inspiration had lambs, and they were called Good Idea, Bright Idea, Creative Expression and Worthwhile Action. Procrastination knew he should feed them but wanted to get it right. Nit Picker told him many things he already knew about how he should do it and this made him even more scared of getting it wrong. Each time he began the process Nit Picker was there telling him every little thing that wasn’t just how Mother Perfection did it so time and again Procrastination stopped and did something else instead. In the end he never got round to feeding the poor little ideas, though he did love them and spent much time with them, so they never grew up.

Procrastination was so upset and he knew he should tell his mother but he could not bring himself to do so. Eventually he ran away, as was his nature. Now, much like his father, he wanders from place to place dropping in on people who generally have better things to do. Unlike his father he can be quite fun and, if he leaves soon enough, even beneficial. A long visit however, can bring disaster. Make no mistake: the entire family are demons, even Mother Perfection for trying to live up to her standards can break you as surely as an intense encounter with her one time lover. They are all best treated with extreme caution and never invited to stay.

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