Category Archives: Storytelling

The Spectre That Says “No!”


I don’t know what it’s like for other storytellers but I find stories develop a character of their own and are very much like people. Some are steady and dependable, stories that will always look after you, a safe place to go when everything is a bit fraught.

Others are consistently surprising, like the friend who invites you to see a movie with them, meets you at the bus stop, leads you through some back streets saying it’s a short cut and the next thing you know you’re in a converted sock factory watching a semi burlesque steampunk revue with a 7% Belgian beer in your hand and the only nod to cinema is some grainy black and white 8mm film projected behind the hurdy-gurdy orchestra. It’s great fun, but you really need to be sure you are well rested and in good condition before you dial their number and ask them what they are up to on Tuesday.

The ‘big story’ from the Foxed tour is one of the latter sort, a long and rambling adventure with plenty of opportunity to go off course. It’s my own fault. I’d found three versions of the story, all quite different but with enough commonality to be obviously variants of the same essential tale. I couldn’t make up my mind which one to do… so I decided to make a new version with the best bits from all three in! This gave the performance regular chances to slip from one version to another by accident and once you’ve left the path and headed off in to the woods it is very easy for a character in the story to haul you off somewhere else as well. The Golden Damsel, who is dragged in to the quest about two thirds of the way through, very much as an eventual trophy wife for the simpleton protagonist, turned out to have some strong opinions on the way princesses are treated in folk tales and instead of being silently carted off by the hero who wakes her with a kiss, decided she was going to have her own adventure and pretty much took over. Not to be outdone the Seven Big Women of Denmark gave themselves a radical makeover about half way through the tour and have been getting bolshier ever since. I think I can safely say that no two performances have been the same. Purists would be very upset.

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For all it’s freewheeling anarchy and modern updating, a good story will carry it’s deeper layers, it’s accrued psychological elements, with it. In a repeating motif the simpleton protagonist has to get past a series of numerically significant guards; a score, then a dozen, a half dozen and three. These guards are all asleep but have their eyes open staring at him. He has to ignore their glares and walk past them. It is simultaneously comic, chilling and puzzling. What are these silent, staring sentinels for? What do they mean?

When the Idiot Hero is trying to steal the Golden Damsel he not only has to pass the 20, 12, 6, and 3 sets of unsettling guards but he is finally faced with a Spectre that says “No! No! No!” He walks through it for it is only made of smoke. With this moment of tension and dissipation an interpretation of the sleeping guards offers itself: Could it be that the guards stand for a disapproving society, glaring at the simpleton as he transgresses the acceptable boundaries? A barrier to the faint hearted, but no real threat to those who are firm of purpose? Certainly, the deeply ineffectual spectre would indicate something along those lines.

I wonder if the story has done it’s work, burrowed in to people’s minds and given them the courage to walk past the staring eyes of the guards and have their own adventures, going off to find converted sock factories for themselves, dressing up for fun and learning the hurdy-gurdy, regardless of what other people think? I do hope so.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Special effects


Special effects in movies have reached a point where it is hard to tell where they begin and any real pictures end. Soon they will all be in 3D as well. At this point the only thing that will distinguish it from real life is your knowledge and experience of how reality behaves and what creatures are found here. Sometime after that cinema might finally catch up with storytelling.

When cinema first arrived it barely mattered what was shown since the sheer marvel of moving pictures was enough to bring in the crowds. But it has had to constantly improve itself to prevent boredom from stealing its lovers away. Like an abusive spouse we have demanded more and more from it. First it didn’t talk to us, then it wasn’t colourful enough. Now that it can make us believe a man can fly, bring dinosaurs back from extinction and take us in to outer space, we are telling it it is too flat, you know, just a bit two dimensional.

Theatre hasn’t suffered quite the same difficulties. Oh, it will pull out all the stops and go to great lengths with costume and set but it knows we will be kind. We had a talk with theatre a long time ago and agreed to ignore it’s shortcomings with respect to reality in return for immediacy, interaction and inventiveness. We don’t mind that we can see the puppeteers animating a life size horse frame if they are dressed as World War One groomsmen and the puppet tries to nibble an audience member’s hat.

The accommodation we have with theatre goes by the term “The willing suspension of disbelief”. We accept that the castle is a painting of stone like shapes on a wobbly bit of canvas; the sea is some completely dry bits of blue silk being waved up and down by stage hands in the wings, however unlike fortress or ocean they may be.

As storytellers we expect far more of our audience. There is no set, wobbly or otherwise. There are no costumes, or even any actors to wear them. There may be sound effects but even they are few and far between. It is necessary for the storyteller to offer up the narrative in such a way that the audience create the wet salt waves, the cold stone castle, the playful chestnut horse, terrifying lizards and supermen for themselves. We require so much more than willing suspension of disbelief, the tacit postponement of cynicism. For storytelling to work the audience have to actively imagine the preposterous!

And this is our secret weapon. Instead of trying to satisfy your senses that here is a vast and bottomless ocean, we tell you “here is a vast and bottomless ocean” and your mind produces one. You do not have to overcome the lack of moisture on stage or the small waves and unnatural blue of a tank at Pinewood Studios. It is exactly as you imagine a vast and bottomless ocean would be. It is the exact colour of the sea, the waves are the perfect height, it has the necessary amount of foam but no more. No part of you has to willingly suspend anything, you do not have to overlook any tricks or fuzzy edges. Your reality filters, evolved over millennia to alert you to any small thing that is out of place, to point out erratic movement in flora and fauna, to nag you about shadows that are too deep or still, to tell you when things are not quite right, are completely by-passed.

Having slipped past the guards we are free to play with reality as much as we like, and the special effects are as amazing and perfect as you can possibly imagine.

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The Red Glass Lantern


This story is a special story because it did not come to me from a book, as most of my tales do, to be set free for other ears. I got it the old fashioned way, sat beside a fire at the Beautiful Days festival after my last late night set, floated on the air as a gift from another’s tongue. I feel almost guilty nailing it to the page in this way.

One day a man decided he would go in search of a land far away. Knowing that the way would be long and hard he packed only the bare essentials, which is to say he took nothing but the clothes he stood in and, since he might have to travel into the night to find places to stay, a simple, red glass lantern.

He walked for many days, sleeping where he could, trading news and stories for a bite to eat. After a time he came to the great forest. The forest was dangerous to cross because of the bandits who would take anything of value from those who sought to pass through. This was why the man had chosen to make his journey with so little and his stratagem worked. Seeing he had no purse on his belt and no possessions save a worthless red glass lantern the thieves let him pass unmolested.

Next he came to the a high mountain ridge and with his cloak pulled tight around him fought his way through wind and snow as the path wound upwards through narrow, rocky defiles; then blissfully downwards through more of the same; until at last he found himself stepping out of the rocks on to a slope terraced with rice paddies, overlooking a wide landscape filled with fields and farms. Down on the plain by the banks of the river he saw a great city.

The people marvelled at his outlandish clothes, the hue of his skin, the colour of his hair, and the stranger from the mountains was soon brought to the palace where the king spoke in a voice like thunder “Who are you that has dared to enter my kingdom? If you come in peace then you must give me a present worthy of my status. If I am not pleased then you shall forfeit your life!” Humbly, the man took to one knee saying “Your majesty, I have little but what little I have is yours, even though it be my life, please accept as the total of my worth the light that has guided me to your magnificence.” and he handed over the red glass lantern. They did not have glass in that country and the king was amazed. Never had he seen such a wonder. Delighted with the present he laid a sumptuous feast before the traveller, entertained him for days with music and dancing and heaped treasure at his feet. When the time came for him to leave the king gave him an honour guard of the fiercest warriors who carried the rich gifts in packs on their backs safely through the mountains and forest all the way to his home.

When he got home his brother was astonished and immediately piled valuables and food in to carts, gathered some friends and set off to make his fortune in the same way. As he passed through the forest the brigands fell upon his party, slew his companions, stole his goods and chased him in to the mountains. He escaped with his life, an old brass lamp and nothing more. When he was brought before the king and the king demanded a present he fell on his face weeping and begged the king to accept the brass lamp as it was all he had. They did not have brass in that country and the king was amazed “this is a wonder, never have I seen such a marvel. You must be rewarded. Unfortunately our treasure house has been emptied, nevertheless you shall have the most valuable thing in our kingdom!”
And so they gave him the most valuable thing in the kingdom.
They gave him the red glass lantern.

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Fairy time


Fairies as such, are fairly limited in Geographic scope, being primarily a European phenomenon. Their name and characteristics can vary significantly across this area too, but there is a type of fairy encounter which is common throughout the lands, widely different in the specifics yet exactly the same in it’s outcome, and so prolific one has to wonder if there is some truth behind this tale type.

As is often the case with close encounters of the fairy kind the person, whether young lad, maiden or wandering drunk, who features in the story is captivated by faint musical, magical sounds. Following the entrancing harmony they come upon the Good Folk dancing, singing and making merry. Often they will watch unobserved from behind a tree or rock at first but soon the music will pull them into the whirling dance. It may be that they stay for a couple of hours, nights, weeks, or even three months. At the absolute maximum it might be seven years. It would seem that this period is full of intoxicating joy and pleasantness. Nevertheless, at some point they decide to head for home. On arriving back in their village, or castle they find many things changed and unfamiliar, all the people they knew are gone and their home is occupied by strangers. On further enquiry they find that their family are long dead and there is only a faint memory of a story about someone by their name having vanished without trace more than a lifetime or two ago. As they struggle to come to grips with this news they age rapidly and crumble to dust.

Sometimes the plot may have a longer set up. King Herla goes to a far land to witness the wedding of a fairy king; Oisin is wooed by a beautiful princess from the land of youth. In each case they return to discover hundreds of years have passed. Interestingly, in both of these cases a change of epic proportions has fallen upon the land. In Herla’s case he leaves a British King and returns to a land long under Saxon rule. The Irish Oisin leaves a pagan Eire and comes back to tell the tales of Finn mac Cumhal to a fascinated Saint Patrick.

Curiously it is by no means guaranteed that a sojourn in the Otherworld will lead to a powdery demise. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed manages to count off a year and a day in Annwyvn
with exactitude before coming home the same year and a day later in his own land. Many others come and go between the lands with less loss of time than I encounter whilst eating breakfast. Certainly the fairies themselves have no problem reconciling time between our two plains, happily making and keeping appointments accurately to the hour.

So are these tales based in fact? Possibly it was common for people to leave home without warning, maybe falling in with Romanies or other nomads in a rush of excitement after accidentally joining them for a few nights revels, then losing track of time before coming home to find their family had died in their absence. It is easy to see how the tale might be elaborated and exaggerated by re-telling until it spans hundreds of years.

…and yet, the rapid onset of the time spent in the land of youth and the ensuing sudden de-hydration are less easy to see being the creation of so many different storytellers in so many assorted places. So if you are out in the forest or on the moors of a night and your ears are assailed by the most delectable melodies you have ever heard, take thought before you let your feet follow the captivating rhythm: your life may never be the same again.

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Away With The Fairies


NOT A FAIRY.
“Changeling” by Robin Stevenson
More by him at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/142496775681932380/

I don’t use the term “fairytale” very often. It is odd that somehow the title “fairytale” has become a blanket term for any story involving magic. For me it is only a fairytale if it actually has a fairy in it. So how do we identify a fairy? Oh, Now we have entered a realm of confusion! I have several books purporting to be specifically about fairies (or faeries, we can’t even reach consensus on the spelling). These contain descriptions and tales of the wee folk by the various names of Spriggans, Pixies, Piskies, Sidhe (pronounced “shee”), Good Folk (I could go on but we’ve barely scratched the surface and haven’t even left the British Isles), but also feature Trow, Trolls, Koboldoi, Gnomes, Brownies, Nixen, Knockers and a host of other supernatural beings. It’s a bit like buying a textbook on humans and finding chapters on marmosets and grizzlies.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Irish Book Of Invasions tells us that at one time the land of Éire was in possession of the tall, fair skinned Tuatha De Danann. Long lived and wielding powerful magic the Tuatha De held truth and fairness in high esteem and many stories are told of their time. Then the Milesians, whose descendants are the current Irish, turned up, fought the Tuatha De for the land, won, and banished the Tuatha De Danann in to the ancient burial mounds that litter the country where they still live as the Sidhe or faery host.

Since their banishment the Fair Folk have interacted with humans in a variety of ways. Women and men from each race have fallen in love with, seduced or abducted and married someone from the other; items have been stolen by each from each and favours, trades and deals have been done leading to both lasting happiness and deep sorrow.

One of the oddest things about The Ever Living Ones is that they appear to be shrinking. The Tuatha De were considered tall against humans. A few hundred years ago elves were generally perceived as around three or four feet tall. The modern apprehension of the size of a fairy is probably between ten and twenty centimetres. What they have lost in stature they have made up in utility, having apparently grown wings along the way. However, just incase you thought you were getting a handle on them, some can switch from small to large if they wish.

Probably the most consistent thing about fairies is that they are attractive to human senses: they are beautiful to gaze upon, their music and voices are sweet to the ear and the smell of their food ravishing to the nostrils. Whether short or tall, a glimpse of the Good Folk fills the mortal observer with wonder, delight and curiosity, but beware, they are very choosy about the humans they will share their wonders with and many who have blundered excitedly in to the revels of the Fae have suffered for it afterwards.

Now it seems your humble Talesman has fallen under their spell, for my spring tour will be “Away With The Fairies” and I shall be reading everything I can about them over the next three months, so no doubt you will hear a little more about them too.

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Get Lucky


I’m packing the tent in to the car again, along with my blackboard, drums, hat stand and four foot Dane Axe; it’s funny the things that you gather as part of your job. Storytellers of yore are always assumed to have wandered on foot with nothing more than a bit of bread and cheese from their last friendly host. I’m beginning to think this unlikely and suspect donkeys of yore found ready employment lugging bard’s harps, tents, sleeping bags and assorted tat of the trade around the country. I’ve only been home for a couple of days and barely caught up on my sleep after Wickham Festival where I finished each day with the popular “Late Night Child Free Story Chill” after the main stage closed down. This left me closing up the Storytelling tent at gone midnight and only just getting to the bar in time for a post work pint before it closed… but on a festival site there is always someone who has just come off shift, stall holders, stage crew, caterers; professional nomads all, we happily chat in to the wee small hours to the constant thrum of the generators… and wake at 7 as the sun turns our tents in to ovens.

 

Often, when I tell people that storytelling is my full time job they will respond with “Aren’t you lucky! What a great job to have.” and they’re right, it is a great job.

 

There is a story that inhabits the entertainment industry. It gets dragged out every couple of years by film producers to support their latest offering. Sometimes there is a prequel about how they auditioned thousands of hopefuls or were let down by a big name at the last minute, but the meat of the story is always that the director walked in to a supermarket and discovered their new star working behind the counter. “Like a latter day Cinderella” the press releases say; “A modern tale of rags to riches”. It’s a great story but it is just that, a heart warming yarn that fills you with hope… and makes the audience warm to the character played by the lucky store hand. The missing part of this story is that the actor – and they are already an actor, the job at the supermarket is only a fill in while they are “resting” – has been sending their CV to the director in question for months, they may even have been in for an audition. Sure, the meeting in the supermarket happens… but the groundwork has been laid, in both publicity and skills.

 

Now I’m not saying that luck doesn’t come in to it, there are definitely lucky breaks, but if you are already on the road the chances of a lift are far higher than if you are sat on your back porch. All the professional nomads who live at festivals through the summer have put in the hours and developed their skills. Whatever it is that fills your dreams, you can set off towards it, and if there is no lucky break then you get an excellent journey!

 

My big break is still waiting to show itself but I am doing all I can to make sure I can take it if it comes. One more step on the way is that I have been nominated in the British Awards for Storytelling Excellence this year, http://www.storyawards.org.uk/ please check out the competition and vote even if it’s not for me, we can all do with a leg up after all. I may not make the shortlist but there is always next year.

 

So, who knows? Maybe I’ll get spotted by a producer and turn up as the next Doctor Who, it would still be a rags to riches, meteoric rise to fame, but in the meantime I’ve got a pretty good job, I’ve worked hard for it but I’m lucky to be The Travelling Talesman.

 

*** This months FTC is dedicated to all the litter pickers, stewards, caterers, security teams, lampies, noise boys and girls, marquee erectors, toilet cleaners, shower operatives, stage managers and everyone who works stupid hours behind the scenes to make festivals run. Thank you all.

 

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Powerful Stuff


Recently I’ve seen lots of people are describing themselves as storytellers. The term is applied to film directors, authors and journalists (with some justification) but I’ve also seen it commandeered by marketing firms and a company of “change consultants” who actually named themselves The Storytellers. Facebook calls stuff you post “stories”, even if it’s just an automatic post created because you click “like” on a page about poodle shaving (not a euphemism). Storytelling is a popular concept. The reason for this is that it is powerful stuff and in skilful mouths it can change the world. The most famous book in the world is a book of stories and the most famous person in all history was a storyteller*. Here’s an updated version of a tale that appears in one and is attributed to the other:

An ordinary man was driving through Manchester on a main road. He stopped at some traffic lights and a gang of thugs car-jacked him, beat him, stripped him of everything of value including his clothes and left him on the pavement. As he lay there bleeding and barely conscious a tabloid journalist walked up but, on seeing the man he crossed the street and went on his way. Soon after, a peer of the realm also skirted round the fallen man. Next an East European immigrant came along. Seeing the battered victim he stopped and called an ambulance, then stayed with the man by his hospital bed, helping the nurses tend him until he had regained consciousness and his relatives had been found.

You probably recognised the story about half way through and are maybe wondering about the adaptations. The parable of The Good Samaritan has become somewhat diluted by time and use, it’s meaning nowadays often being seen as little more than “be good to strangers”. The part played here by a journalist was originally a Judaic priest, someone who the predominantly Jewish audience that Jesus was speaking too would see pretty much every day, and by whom they would be given constant instruction on how to live their lives. Even if you strenuously avoid the tabloids the stories they choose to tell become the lead stories for the television news and the subject of conversations with friends. In modern Britain we have no cognate for the Levite (the original second passer-by), a hereditary position with the responsibility for reading certain passages and services in the temple; the only hereditary positions of power in our society reside in the House Of Lords. At the time of the first telling of this tale the Jews had a pretty poor view of the Samaritans, who were very closely related being Israelites who had not gone in to exile in Babylon and followed their own version of the Torah. There were plenty of candidates for the role of the Samaritan.

So in the telling of this tale Jesus was making a series of points, challenging prejudices and assumptions. The main thrust being that goodness rests not in who you are but in what you do and whether you are prepared to do it for everyone, even those who may despise you. It is a masterful piece of storytelling, extraordinarily compact with hardly a word more than the bare minimum necessary and packed with meaning. The bit that is often overlooked from our modern perspective is that he was having a massive dig at the established voices of moral behaviour in his society, essentially calling them hypocrites… but indirectly through the story.

The thing that the 21st century would be storytellers have in common is that they are trying to influence us, to change our behaviour. How much effect they have depends on how many of us repeat their yarns. We have to be careful how much of the tattle of the tabloids we pass on and which facebook memes we share, editing out anything that is filled with prejudice and hate. Having filtered those that might do good we must be skilful in passing them on so that they remain potent. It can be a tricky business, this storytelling; Jesus was such a powerful storyteller that the establishment killed him for it.

* Though I did find an online poll that put Michael Jackson ahead!

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