Category Archives: Summer

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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Filed under stories, Storytelling, Summer

The Blame Game


As I write this in early July the weather has been so bad that there is already talk of a poor harvest and a need to import grain. In days gone by, when imports were somewhat harder to organise and the community relied on it’s harvest for survival, this would be a considerably more troubling situation than it is today, and the person it would trouble most was the king. This was not just because the headache of working out the rationing would fall to him but because, as the divinely appointed ruler, such exceptionally prolonged rainfall was obviously his fault.

From a recent outburst by a high up member of the clergy right back in to antiquity long patches of dodgy meteorology have been blamed on poor governance. Interestingly it is not just shambolic or misguided leadership that brings out this particular superstition. It is only when the leaders have become morally or ethically negligent, when protectors have turned oppressors, when providers have become hoarders, that dissatisfaction is perceived to have entered the spirit realm and hence manifest in excessive precipitation.

Why then, you may ask, would a cold hearted tyrant, who is happy to see his people suffer deprivation for the benefit of himself and his cronies, care if they start blaming him for a bit of flooding too? Well, let me begin my answer with a story.

Once upon a time in Phrygia there lived a man called Lityerses, who was the illegitimate son of King Midas (yes, he of the golden touch). Every year, when Lityerses was harvesting his fields he would keep an eye open for any strangers passing by. On spotting one he would invite them to dine with him, laying on a sumptuous feast, then he would force them to help with his harvest. When the last sheaf was cut, Lityerses would wrap his unfortunate assistant in it, slice off his head with a sickle and dump his stalk swathed corpse in the river. One year, however, Hercules happened to be the stranger who passed by so, after making light work of his host’s feast and reaping across the field in record time, he put an end to the Phrygian’s murderous practice by wrapping Lityerses in the final sheaf and cutting his head off.

“We’re all in this together!”

This story and many others like it, including folk customs from the UK, carry an echo of the old belief that human sacrifice was a sure fire way to secure a good crop; life was taken from the field so a life would be given to the fields. That Hercules doesn’t just escape with his life but stops Lityerses from inflicting his ritual on any further hapless victims shows that the late bronze age’s more civilised and literate society would no longer support human sacrifice as a regular procedure. The folk customs also indicate that a symbolic sacrifice of the Corn King can take the place of the real thing.

The reason this might have been a cause for concern to the self-serving ruler of yore is that, once the food supply is in danger, a peasant, no matter how down-trodden, has little to lose. If the peasants believe the unhappy spirits of the land have, in the past, been propitiated with a little blood then what better way to rescue the situation than to kill two birds with one stone and turn your corrupt leader in to fertiliser?

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Filed under August, Harvest, stories, Summer

Chirp-Tweet Chirrup-Cheep


What’s that you say? You want to understand the speech of the birds? There used to be a way, I don’t think you would like it though, and anyway it’s too late for you to test it now even though the right time of year is fast approaching. You see, what you need to do is lie under the gallows on midsummer’s eve. Not something you would imagine trying on the off chance I should think. This is how it generally happens:

Sometimes it’s two brothers, sometimes just two travellers that fall in together on the road.
By various means it always ends up that one has control of the food and the other has an empty stomach. The food controller asks a higher and higher price of the hungry one, taking any gold or money he has and all his belongings. Eventually Control asks Hungry for his eyes. Yes, you read that right: his eyes! Weak and desperate Hungry pays. To add insult to injury, Control abandons Hunger outside the town they have been travelling towards, leaving him blind and helpless by the gallows.

The Magpie on the Gallows
(Ok, there’s only one, it’s not a raven, there’s no one under the gallows, people are dancing and it’s not at night but it’s a free picture so what do you want?)

As he lies there with ignominious death creeping towards him on unfriendly feet, he overhears a meeting that is held once a year by three ravens (Or three crows. Or a raven a crow and a blackbird. Or a magpie and a dove. In one version a fox and a squirrel but let’s not dwell on the details for too long). The magical combination of liminality in both place and time renders the speech of the creatures intelligible as they relate a series of misfortunes that have befallen the people of the nearby town and the obscure means by which they might be delivered from them.

Typically there is sick princess to be cured, a drought to be ended and a blind mayor to be restored to sight. None of which would be much use except that the cure for the mayors blindness just happens to be the dew that falls right there on Solstice morning… and it will work for anyone! Gratefully, Hungry rubs his sightless sockets with the dew and vision returns.

Hungry bottles some of the magic moisture, drags his enfeebled body to the town and sure enough sets the Mayor aright, gaining his thanks in food, accommodation and often a job to boot. Control, however, is already in the town and, envious of Hungry’s new found status, tries to bring him down. Control’s efforts only result in Hungry using his knowledge to rise even higher through ending the people’s troubles and not only saving the princess but gaining her hand in marriage.

Now, you may be tempted to rush off trying to find somewhere that still hangs murderers or and old gibbet preserved on some rural hillside so you too can eavesdrop on some corvids, cure the blind, save a town and win a princess but hold fast: timing is everything.

Eventually Control learns of the method through which Hungry came by his amazing knowledge and, since a year has passed heads out that very night (just as you have been thinking you might do) to hear what the birds have to say. As he lies there, the ravens meet. How is it that all they discussed last year has come to pass when only they knew? Someone must have been listening! Look there he is down there! And they ply their beaks dexterously upon him, plucking out his eyes and striking out his life.

So if you do choose to seek a gallows to hear the birds beneath this summer solstice eve, be careful no one has been there before you!

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

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Filed under Folk Tale, Solstice, Talking birds

Tales Which Want Telling


It’s July, many of you will be going on holiday, whether you are sat around a camp fire, spending evenings in tavernas or relaxing on a Mediterranean beach with delicious bread and olives, wine and good company you could find the ideal space for a story. Some years ago, on tour with Pressgang in Italy I told the first half of “Jack The Cunning Thief” to the guitarist, Damian Clarke and his three sons with white sand, blue sea and an olive grove as the backdrop. I promised, as the boys were sent off to bed, that at some point I would tell them the second half of this two part story. Roll on 15 years to the eldest’s wedding night: another beach, this time in Dorset with a crackling camp fire instead of the chorus of cicadas, and this story, so long in gestation, made sure it got out and told.

Some stories just push themselves forward, they definitely want to be told, and few are so patient. Often something someone says or even just a feeling will have a story leaping forward, occasionally even pushing the legend I was intending to tell out off the way just as I step in front of an audience. These inspired tellings are often the best and most magical, moments when one feels in tune with the universal flow, or that the story has chosen to tell itself because someone needs to hear it.

 

In “The story not told; the song not sung” the main character is a woman who has a story and a song inside her but she does not tell her story and does not sing her song. Oppressed within her for many years and never given voice they turn against her. One afternoon as she falls asleep the story and the song decide they have had enough and make a break for it, pausing only to exact revenge for their long captivity. The story crawls out of her and on reaching the door transforms itself into a pair of muddy workmen’s boots, her song leaps out and as it flies across the room falls into the shape of a man’s jacket hanging on the back of the door. Clearly when her husband comes home and finds another man’s things making themselves at home in his house he is none too pleased. Her denial of any knowledge of the items, or any man who might be connected with them, does nothing to calm his fury and he storms off to sleep in the Temple of the Monkey God while she waits up late into the night hoping for him to return.

Now, everyone knows that the flickering lights of the candles go to stay in the temple of the Monkey God when they are put out and this night her light is late arriving, as it does so it explains to the others that it is so late because of the ructions caused by the story not told and the song not sung. The Husband, who is having trouble sleeping in the unfamiliar surroundings, hears the candle flame’s explanation and returns the next day to ask his wife’s forgiveness. He then requests that she save them both from further trouble by telling her tale and releasing her song in joy. However it is too late: they have both gone.

 

As famous folk singer Maddy Prior once said to Damian, when discussing the possibly sacrilegious idea of delivering traditional folk songs in a lively punk style, “The worst thing you can do to a folk song is to not sing it”. The same holds true for stories, if you have one inside you then, as any psychiatrist will tell you, repression is not a good idea. Your holidays may provide the perfect environment to let your stories get out into the air and remember, you never know what trouble they might cause if you don’t!

 

 

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

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Filed under stories, Storytelling, Summer

You have to kiss a lot of frogs…


Well, actually, no. You don’t. There really is no point at all in going round randomly kissing amphibians in the hope that they will become lovestruck royalty, and even less in killing them. All else aside, they have to be able to talk or the chances of them being a magical creature are slim, and even then just because our cat appeared to call me a “wingnut” the other day doesn’t make her magical. We want whole clear sentences from them, ideally ones offering assistance with a tricky situation or high speed transportation.

It’s not just frogs either, all sorts of animals can come along and start chatting away; the White Cat from the story of the same name is a sophisticated conversationalist with her own castle; the fox of The Golden Apple (well it is midsummer, they were bound to come up) from Norway is witty and erudite. One thing most of them will never do is tell you that they may be royalty, gorgeous or highly eligible and the answer to your prayers in some other way. Often it is a condition of the curse which gave them animal form that the actions they ask of you be unbiased by their previous political clout or social and financial status.

Don’t worry, statistically they are fairly unlikely to ask for a snog or even a peck on the cheek in a traditional folk tale. It is far more common for these loquacious animals to help you along with your quest and save your skin on numerous occasions, often when you are only at risk because you ignored their initial good advice. They will repeatedly prove a loyal bosom buddy to you, before politely and kindly requesting that you cut off their head. Not what one normally expects from a good friend.

So if you’ve been given a list of impossible tasks to do and the local wildlife has come over all verbose:

1) DON’T assume it’s all down to the ale or that you’re going mad and ignore them hoping they’ll go away

2) DO exactly what they say, and I mean exactly, follow those instructions carefully, you will only make more work for yourself in the long run if you don’t.

3) DON’T get smart and think you know better than they do or tweak the details because it was only a pond dweller who advised you. They’re animals that can talk so they probably do know what they’re talking about, have they not proved that on your quest?

4) DO for just a moment put aside any emotional attachment you might have to keeping them with you, if they have asked you to ritualistically decapitate them it is probably the only way to release them from their cursed state into their human form so they can make all your dreams come true (not just the weird ones involving talking animals)

5) DON’T however, get ahead of yourself and start slaughtering garrulous critters unless they specifically request you to do so (over-enthusiastic slaying has already rendered them endangered, we see very few of them around these days)

6) DO be aware that not all chatty beasts are marriageable material: some turn out to be your dead parents come back to look after you or they might just be honest to goodness, straight up, every day, perfectly normal talking animals. But that’s a story for another Folk Tales Corner.

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

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Filed under Animals, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, Storytelling, Summer, Talking Animals, Transformation

Harvest Time


Harvest used to be the centre of the year for pretty much the entire population, it is what the long school summer holiday was for, It wasn’t time off: it was time to do some real work! We may not be the agrarian society we once were but we all know of annual events that hold great importance and carry extra stress. Tax returns, exams, stock take; we plan for them, work towards them and celebrate with a drink when they are over, but we don’t really talk about them… unless something goes wrong.

So, harvest appears in folk tale as a marker in time or a backdrop of activity that was understood by any audience, in the same way that shopping in the third week of December might be nowadays. If the actual business of bringing in the crops is important to the plot then you can be pretty sure that trouble is on it’s way. Despite many tales from other times of the year indicating the superiority of the female intellect, sending a young wife off with a scythe to tackle a field on her own is apparently a bad idea as she is likely to fall asleep or accidentally cut her own clothes off, instead of cutting the crop, and then suffer a personality crisis as she fails to recognise herself and thinks she must be someone else!

The most well known tale of harvest is “The Tops And The Butts”. This simple tale has been told, with little variation, across the whole agricultural world for hundreds of years. Sometimes the protagonists are a fox and a bear, or some other animal pairing, but mostly it’s a human farmer and a devil / bogle / boggart / (insert supernatural being of choice). The farmer (or fox) is preparing a field for planting when their antagonist appears and claims that they own the land. After some negotiation the devil (or bear) allows the farmer to proceed on condition that they share the crop. The wily farmer (or… you’ve got the point by now) asks their new partner if they would like the tops or the bottoms and when the poor dupe says “tops” the farmer plants beets, resulting in a full harvest for himself and a pile of waste leaves for his “landlord”.

Naturally the next year the bogle requests the bottoms, whereupon the farmer plants wheat and pulls in a second harvest whilst leaving the fall guy with roots and stubble. Many versions end there with the stooge muttering “This land is rubbish! You can keep it.” and wandering off in a huff.

This breaks the story telling rule that ‘Anything that happens twice happens three times.’ and I rather like it for that. Some variants though, have a third year which I am sure has been added on to make up the magic three. The field is divided in two along it’s length, planted with wheat and both parties agree to a mowing match: whoever finishes their half first gets the whole field. So the farmer cheats by planting thin metal rods amongst the wheat in the other’s half which sufficiently slow their opponent, who thinks the scythe-blunting rods are “burdocks”, that he gives up the race.

Entertaining as it is, “The Tops And The Butts” does not stand up to examination if what you want is a moral at the end of your story. The boggart’s ownership of the land may not be proven but neither is it disputed and he gives no provocation for the farmer’s trickery save being different and maybe a little slow. The story seems to suggest it’s ok to cheat people of other races, that the ‘civilised’ farmer has a right to displace the ‘ignorant’ native from their ancestral foraging grounds.

For a more ethically palatable harvest tale I recommend “The Field of Genies” which not only teaches the whole process of preparation and planting but warns against the employment of forces we do not fully comprehend. The genies who own the field (and increase in numbers exponentially as the story progresses) enthusiastically repeat the actions of the farmer, which is tremendously helpful when doing the back-breaking tasks of digging and raking etc, but accidentally giving them the wrong actions to follow results in disaster.

As artificial fertilisers and indiscriminate pesticides deplete our soil or reduce our essential biodiversity and genetically engineered crops promise magical returns that are too good to be true, we would do well to listen to the message of this old yarn.

Be it harvest, exam or stock take, if you want to reap the rewards then you have to put in the hard work: There are no short cuts.

Here’s to living happily ever after …until the next adventure!

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Filed under August, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Summer

There are nine and sixty ways…


I’ve been rebuilding my bookshelves and sorting the massive collection of storybooks back into categories.  It’s amazing how many of them feature the same stories, only slightly different.   Some vary only in the voice in which they are told; some may be a name change here or there; sometimes the same story is in rhyme; in others the motivation for action is entirely different although the main plot features settle into their familiar pattern once things get going. Sometimes you come across entire stories welded on to the end of one you know… or maybe that was it’s original form and parts have been left out in later tellings.  I remember my surprise on discovering that the famous dragon slaying episode in St. George’s tale is near the beginning of a much larger adventure. For me these discoveries are part of the exciting detective work that leads to the heart of the story!

Take Cinderella (no please take her, she’s been overshadowing her folktale sisters for far too long),  you will find variations of this tale all over the world.  They go by the various names of Tattercoats; Cap o’ Rushes; Mossycoat; Nipitfit and Clipitfit; with never a glass slipper or a pumpkin coach in sight.

Many of them are more empowered than Cinderella and don’t rely on a fairy godmother to do the work for them (though Tattercoats does get a hand from her only friend the crippled goatherd). The sisters rarely play more than a cameo role, neither ugly nor evil, they simply contribute to a misunderstanding between our heroine and (this may surprise you) her father, the king, leading to her banishment from court and a stint in lowly service.  However the main plot reveals itself as the same over and again with the poor-maid-turned-anonymous-beauty winning the heart of the Prince at three successive balls.

Now for some of us reading a variation we may find ourselves missing the familiar elements, but if we can accept the differences they often show the story in a new light revealing valuable, previously obscured aspects of the tale. Without the special effects of transformed mice or the demonised step-mother, the climax of the story shifts from Cinderella’s ‘escape’ into marriage, to Cap  O’ Rushes’ clever reconciliation with her father, making it less of a black and white Good-Versus-Evil tale and more a triumph of wit and perseverance over foolishness and pride.

One of the skills of a storyteller is to search out these variants of a story, and in exploring their individualities, get to know the essence of each tale.  These different tales may have evolved through chinese whispers one to another, or sprung up simultaneously and spontaneously from the pool of human archetypes; either way the exploring storyteller may choose to weave them into a fresh, informed, new telling of the tale, their very own contribution to the evolutionary Folk process.

As Kipling says –

“There are nine and sixty ways
of constructing tribal lays
and Every Single One of Them
IS RIGHT!”

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

The Travelling Talesman
http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under August, Cinderella, Fairytale, Folk Tale, stories