Monthly Archives: August 2022

Time To Pay The Piper

Stories are wonderful things, they seem to know when they are needed and somehow find a way to present themselves to you. I was struggling with what to write this month, maybe something about my festival experiences… or the heat… or my festival experiences in the heat. Having done a sufficiency of procrastinative housework to warrant a lunch break, I sat down, put on the Netflix documentary series Myths and Monsters and there it was: the story I needed.

You all know it. A prosperous German trading town is beset with a plague of rats, nothing they do is enough to save them. The stores are being eaten, the fabrics nested in, the ropes chewed in to short lengths. Nothing softer than iron is safe from the sharp teeth of the omnipresent vermin and what doesn’t get gnawed up is covered in the unhealthy spoor of the rodents. The town council is at it’s wits’ end and initiates the age old fairy tale cure all of offering a reward of unimaginable wealth to whoever can save them.

A poor musician, so poor that their clothes are a multicoloured mismatch of patches and replaced parts, appears in the square tootling on a whistle. The music is delightful and everyone wants to listen. Once he has their attention the piper introduces himself as a Rodentia Extermination Operative. The grandees of the city immediately offer him a 1,000 guilder contract to end the plague.

The man in motley strikes up a strange and haunting tune that draws every last one of the rats from their nests as they pour from basements and eaves alike to follow the capering flautist, who leaves the town and heads for the banks of the river. In a scene which has delighted pantomime directors and animators alike, the myriad meal munchers plunge in to the flowing waters and squeak their last.

Job done, the Pied Piper returns to a deeply relieved Hamelin where they give him a big round of applause but, claiming the town has significant expenses to cover replacing the unrealised profits for the rich merchants and there is no magic money tree, they refuse to give him the agreed 1,000G. The melodious rat catcher is unsurprisingly a bit miffed, swears revenge, much to the wealthy traders amusement, and storms out.

The final episode comes a few months later, on a Sunday when the adults are all in church. A man clad in green prances through the streets playing a lively dance on his flute, entrancing all the children who follow him out of the town and away… never to be seen again.

Now, I could go on about the fascinating history of the tale, how the rat infestation element was added a few hundred years after the original mysterious, but probably true, disappearance of a surprisingly specific 130 Hamelin children in 1284. On this occasion though it is the relevance to current affairs that caught my attention. Following a decade of political austerity, a Brexit that promised greater prosperity and a pandemic which clearly demonstrated exactly who are key workers that deserve reward; NHS staff, postal employees and transport workers are all being denied recognition of their essential functions in the meaningful form of getting paid enough to have a house and eat.

Striking is significantly less disruptive than taking away everyone’s children, but it is the only form of leverage available to those who have no magic flute. It may be inconvenient but unless we want it to get worse, it’s time to pay the piper.


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Getting Festive

It’s festival season again! I’m rather delighted by the wide variety of niche, special interest, communities that set out each year to immerse themselves in their enthusiasms for a weekend whilst living in a field and drinking too much.

I’m currently preparing for two days of telling tales to an assortment of LARP (Live Action Role Play), cosplay and re-enactment fans in Gloucestershire at Fantasy Forest. I did a wedding for a sub set of this group a few weeks back and it has to be said that LARPers make a great audience, though I am expecting to be outclassed in the costume department as, for a lot of these people, getting dressed up as something spectacular, wizards, elves, werewolves, aliens, is the entire reason they are there.

Two weeks later I’m off to Valhalla, which is unsurprisingly a Viking Festival, though the location may raise an eyebrow since it’s just outside Basingstoke. There I have to compete with archery, axe throwing, blacksmiths, wolves, fire walking, ravens, boat burning, display fights featuring viking warrior bands from around the country, and the Mead Hall, complete with stage, 10 kilowatt PA and a full programme of viking related music from tinkly medieval harpists to gothic Scandinavian metal.

Now you may think that my preparation for these involves rehearsing my stories and maybe looking up a couple of new ones, which might happen if I have time but mainly it is comprised of activities like rubbing the inside of my viking boots with neats foot oil; sewing my viking tunic up where a seam has split; jump starting the car, moving it to the drive and recharging the battery which has mysteriously gone flat. I have Thursday down for loading the (hopefully fixed) car with the ridiculous array of things I need. Alongside all the obvious camping gear, tent, bedding, stove, enamel plates etc. I also need to fit in chalk boards to advertise my shows, emergency backdrops, costumes, merchandise… instruments: lyre, bodhran, djembe, thunder drum, chimes, dulcimer… then there’s all the odd stuff you have to take because it’s camping: toilet roll, solar powered torches, wet wipes, and not just camping but camping in England, so you need to have enough clothing for any and every possible weather condition: wellies, waterproofs, sun hats, umbrellas, insect repellant, factor 50 sun screen, t-shirts, jumpers.

If last year is anything to go by I could do with a fridge and a rubber dinghy too, one for when it gets too hot and the other for when the rain gets biblical, like it did at Wickham, where I was woken up at about 4am by the extraordinary pounding of the rain on my, thankfully brand new and very waterproof tent, and on going out to check on the guy ropes discovered that a sheet of water around an inch deep was flowing down the hill and under my tent.

I might get to practice my performance a bit before I go but not if I can’t find my sewing kit, I’ve looked in all the obvious places and no sign yet. It’ll turn up eventually but the sooner it does the higher my chances of getting to sit in the shade and bone up on a couple of new viking sagas.

Oh! Water carrier, chalks, tankard… and I must remember a towel this time.

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So Simple My Friend

In the folk tale hall of fame there is one single character who has probably become the star of more tales than any other. Not our friend jack, as it is clear from the number of mothers and wives he has had that these are different people who share the same name. No we must look further afield than our own shores. If we leave even Europe, cross the Bosphorus and head out through Turkey and the near east we will find the person we seek: Nasrudin. Unlike jack he goes by a variety of spellings, Nasreddin, Nasruddin, Nasredin and more. Often a Mullah, sometimes a Hodja or Hoca (teacher), he is known and claimed by Afghans, Iranians, Uzbeks, and Arabs, as well as the Turkic Xinjiang area of western China.

Is he some kind of hero? A middle Eastern Robin Hood? Well, not so much. His speciality is humorous and philosophical anecdotes. Often short pithy yarns that leave you thinking, but with a smile on your face. He is sometimes a trickster and sometimes a simpleton, something of a Divine Fool. Although a poor man, Nasrudin is a friend of kings, becoming the voice that speaks truth to power, even to the great 14th century Emperor Tamerlane who ruled from Russia to India, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.

The venerable Mullah has rather crept up on me. Over the years I have found stories that simply appealed to me in a variety of compilations, mostly of world stories but also in a couple of books of Turkish tales. Without really trying, I have accrued the makings of a full set on the old fella. There is often a simplicity or innocence in Nasrudin’s actions, alongside a good dollop of absurdity that hides the deeper wisdom, when there is some. My favourite so far is one in which he takes advantage of a king who would like his beloved horse to read to him. It’s a little long for the space I have left so here are a pair of short ones to give you a taste.

The Mullah had a new house built in the town. When the door was fitted he attached a strong lock to it. Next to the door was a window which Nasredin left open in all circumstances.
His neighbours grew curious.
“Wise one” they said, “why do you have this strong door that you keep locked to prevent burglary, but then leave your window open, even when you are out, making it easy for a thief to enter?”
“The door is locked” said Nasredin “to keep my friends out that they do not disturb me when I am praying. A thief though, will get in and take what they want even if the window is locked, so I leave it open that they do not break the glass.”

Nasrudin’s neighbour looked over his fence and saw the Mullah walking slowly, stopping, and turning around by his back door, all the while looking down thoughtfully.

“Are you alright neighbour?” he called out.

“I’ve lost my key.” Came the troubled reply.

The neighbour rushed round and joined in the search while the Mullah thanked him profusely.

After a few minutes of fruitlessly scanning the stony ground he asked

“Are you sure this is where you lost it?”

“Oh no,” said the Mullah, “I lost it in the cellar.”

“Then why are you looking out here?” shouted the exasperated neighbour

“It’s so simple my friend” Said Nasrudin calmly, meeting his eyes with a clear gaze,

“The light is better!”

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Mothers, Grandmothers, Bananas and Tradition

Folk culture is a fascinating thing. It can be a thing of deeply distinct nationalistic pride one moment and continent wide inclusivity the next. Here in England we can be rather disparaging about our national folk customs, people who will happily wrap themselves in a St. Georges Cross flag will make jokes about morris dancers and mummers. Over the Scottish border, in what is to the rest of the world the same country, laughing at a man doing a jig in a kilt is likely to get you stabbed with the dirk that is traditionally kept in the very accessible sock of the wearer.

Oppression by invaders and occupiers often brings about a renewed pride in ancient forms of traditional dress, dance, song and story as a means of identification. Witness the winning entry to the Eurovision Song Contest: The intro and chorus sound like part of a folk song sung with traditional harmonies and the band were dressed in a variety of traditional folk costumes from the regions of their country. The lyrics are about the singers mother, with strong hints that it is a metaphor for the mother land of Ukraine. As a musician I particularly enjoyed the use of the telenka, a local overtone flute, which has no finger holes and is played by a mixture of breath control and partial or fully covering the end of the pipe. I hope we do not witness a completion of the Russian invasion as all of the above elements of Kalush Orchestra’s delightful performance will almost certainly be instantly banned and violently persecuted, as the folk practices of conquered nations nearly always are.

Meanwhile, from a little further north and west, the same competition brought us a fully modern dance floor friendly take on a folk tale. A folk tale so classic that Norway clearly expected the entire continent to get the joke of deflecting a wolf from eating grandma with the worlds default comedy fruit, if it was a joke, since the maned wolf of South America does actually eat bananas. Either way the Little Red Riding Hood reference was clear for all to see, as was it’s thoroughly international reach.

Greece, Sweden and particularly the UK, fielded some very fine songs with very fine singers which will undoubtedly get to single figure places in their own countries charts if not several others. I doubt however, that we will still have any of them on regular rotation in three years time.

The national distinctiveness of ‘Stefania’ and international inclusivity of ‘Give That Wolf A Banana’, both borrowing extra depth and connection from folk tradition and teaming that up with some solid up to date beat production, will probably be filling dance floors across Europe and beyond even a decade or so from now.

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Come On In

There is much to be learned about our past by studying the stories we have told ourselves over the years, the omnipresence of agriculture or textile manufacture, the power dynamics of royalty and inheritance, but sometimes it is interesting to look at the things that are almost totally absent. Swimming for instance.

Nowadays we are quite used to the idea of swimming and water safety being taught to everyone at a fairly young age, toddlers who can barely walk splashing around with floatation devices in the gradually yellowing waters of the shallow pool. Just as well too, although the UK statistics for accidental drowning have been falling steadily and fairly dramatically since 1985, it is still the worldwide bronze medal winner for unintentional human fatality. The ubiquity of at least some aquatic ability is, however, a new thing.

In folktale it is extremely rare for anyone to swim for any reason. Entering water voluntarily is almost unheard of. Witches famously won’t even attempt to cross running water, possibly very wisely since giants, thieves and villains of all stripes are enticed or forced in to water in any number of denouements, breathing their last on the ocean floor or at the bottom of a well. Protagonists have less to fear from H2O, nevertheless rivers, moats and lakes are all crossed by the aid of boats, bridges, fords, swans, fish or wading. An occasional lucky Jack will survive a shipwreck but not by swimming; they grasp a barrel or spa and hang on until they are washed up on some far shore. This is historically pretty accurate: Hardly anyone learned to swim before the 1900s, not even sailors who considered it irrelevant at best and bad luck at worst.

Maritime superstition aside, the ability to swim is, to the medieval mind, an extraordinary skill. Only a limited number of legendary characters with bloodlines traceable to a deity actually choose to come on in, and the water is rarely lovely. The Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, devotes several pages to the re-telling at a feast, of a swimming match between the eponymous hero and a childhood friend. For some reason it is held at night and in the face of a storm. The thrashing waves separate the two competitors, sharks or sea monsters attack Beowulf and drag him to the bottom where he dispatches all nine of them with the sword he is carrying for exactly that purpose, the brief delay costs him the race but Beowulf considers his feat to be greater.

This episode pre-figures the climax of part one, where Grendel’s terrible mother, after trashing Hrothgar’s famous feasting hall and several of his best warriors, takes sanctuary in a heathland lake. All present are about to give up the chase: how can they possibly pursue her in the water? However Beowulf, wearing full armour of course, dives in and swims down for a day or so until he finds and destroys the monstrous family. No other warrior had the skills to carry out the rescue of Heorot from the demons that plagued it: no warrior save Beowulf!

Swimming is in effect presented as a super power, almost akin to flying, but if anything more unusual.

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