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Woolgathering


Last week I went to the John Arbon spinning mill in South Molton, as they were having an open day. John talked us through the surprisingly complex process of turning raw sheep fleece in to thread for knitting and weaving. Most of his machines are rescued or reclaimed and each one is named, which gives the mill a certain atmosphere and the feel of a working museum.

At one point in the tour John had to put a fresh set of bobbins on a machine before he could demonstrate it. Whilst talking us through the process he said “I’ll just doff the thread, that is, undo it or take it off…” then he paused before musing “It’s all ways ‘doff’ when you remove a thread, I don’t know why.” Various suggestions were put forward without any certain knowledge and I made a mental note to look it up when I got home.

Doff is, unsurprisingly, a contraction of “do off”. In much the same way, when you get dressed, you “do on” your clothes, though we rarely use “don” for anything except hats these days.
That this mostly archaic term should be preserved in the textile trade is interesting, well it is to me anyway. This is partly because so much of the terminology for storytelling comes from the textile business.

Further back in history than the invention of Mr Arbon’s assorted combing, cleaning, stretching and twisting devices, back when ordinary people still manufactured their own clothes, everybody could spin wool. When work in the fields was done for the day and the evening meal had been eaten but not yet digested, everyone took out a spindle and some fleece. There they would sit, setting the spindles turning and pulling out the fleece, stretching it and letting the spindle twist the fibres together. It was common for someone to tell a tale, so common in fact that the acts of telling a story and creating thread became synonymous, and so we get both “spinning a story” and “telling a yarn”.

The action of pulling the fleece to make it ready for spinning is known as drafting, which is the same as drawing, from “to draw” which means to drag or pull. If you draft your wool a lot then you get a fine thread and a longer thread from the same amount of fleece. Making finer thread will also take more time so your story might get a bit “long and drawn out”.

Whilst all women, men and children could and did spin, it took a little more skill to operate a loom. Nevertheless, once all the threads had been set up an experienced user could still work one and entertain, so “weaving a tale of wonder” entered the language as well.

Some of the old tales were collected and have come down to us in books such as the famous Grimm’s Household and Children’s Stories. Our lexical connection to cloth does not end here though. Before you commit your words to a page, it pays to draw out your yarn in a “first draft”. To weave in Latin is “texere” and it is from this that we get our name not only for textiles but for the written word: text.

So what you are reading is the final draft of a yarn that has been spun and woven in to a cloth of words. Finally it is worth noting that both the textile and the story process often start in the same place, with a bit of woolgathering.

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24/7 Hydrogen Bomb


The Sun is the one from whom nothing is hidden, the all seeing eye in the sky. Despite their late arrival in many mythologies, once the daily trip from east to west is established the Sun is the indispensable one without whom all life comes to a halt. Thus, if the Sun goes down and does not come up again something must be done. A great deal of solar mythology involves the incarceration of the Sun and its subsequent rescue. There isn’t time for a Tolkienesque quest, the first to notice get straight on the case, usually part of the support team of morning star, horses or attendant sky gods, the cause of the problem is dealt with in short order and the Sun is out of their prison and back in the sky before you can say Winter Solstice.

Sometimes the Sun actually dies and has to be brought back from the underworld. This may seem more drastic but is rarely as big a story since, metaphorically, the death of the Sun is a daily occurrence. There are stories in which the dead Sun does not get resuscitated but simply replaces itself with its own child who, going by the same name come elevenses, grows up, surreptitiously has its own child, grows old before teatime, then dies in their turn. It’s a lot to pack into a day.

Hunter gatherers and tribal societies seem content to let their Sun goddesses amble gently over the sky carrying a torch and don’t expect any more from them than that. Agricultural societies with cities and the like, who have more riding on the Sun showing up for work each day, are more likely to indulge in that curious act of mass delusional sycophancy known as Sun worship. There are advantages: these are the people who will give the Sun a chariot to ride in and equip them with a bow and arrows, but they never seem to run out of things they expect the Sun to do as well as shine down benevolently upon them. Now the Sun must organise agriculture, irrigation, all growing things, hunting… sometimes medicine, music, textiles and half a dozen other areas of life. In hotter climes the Sun will often preside over plagues and sudden death as well.

Not content with filling their days the priests find even more work for the Sun to do at night: They have to negotiate the return from west to east, usually by way of the underworld. This is likely to involve one or more battles with serpents, snake bodied gods and other demons of darkness. Which rather puts doing the washing up and falling asleep in front of Gogglebox in to perspective.

Somehow though, the Sun finds time to be a lover as well as a fighter. Filled with fiery passion the Sun takes partners from amongst gods and humans alike becoming parent to the earth, moon, sky, night, day, light, stars, assorted heroes, and in Japan the entire dynastic royal line of the empire. These solar love affairs are often explosive and short lived. Pretty much all of Apollo’s paramours end up dead and most of the children he sires come a cropper along the way too, some he even does in himself, whilst two greek Sun children are blown to pieces with thunderbolts by their grandfather, Zeus.

So if a hot and fiery lover claiming to be the Sun comes wooing you, my advice is to make your excuses and sidle quietly away. The sex might be hot but, being a fertility deity, pregnancy is pretty much guaranteed and the child will be more trouble than it is worth. However much they appear to care the Sun won’t stay with you… and if they do then it won’t be long before a couple of golden horses turn up with an irate star, kick your house to pieces and drag your sweetheart back to their 24/7 job.

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The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


You know those things that seem like a good idea at the time? “I’ll do a set about the sun” I said. “ The research will be easy” I said. “There’s Amaterazu from Japan, Apollo from Greece, Ra from Egypt, I’ll just read up on them, find one or two more, job done!” I said.

With a legendary character, say Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, there is a natural starting point with their birth and an obvious chronological order for the events of their life to unfold in, providing a generally consistent narrative thread. Their story mostly is presented as just that, all neatly packaged up in one place from beginning to end and helpfully titled with their name.

The problem with the Sun is that its birth is not the beginning of its own story but merely a passing event in the great story of creation from which the teller swiftly moves on. Other parts of their development are often tied in to the workings of the cosmos in a similar way and are found amongst the stories of their parents, creators or siblings. Sun goddesses are particularly beset with pushy Moon gods, usually their brother or husband, or both. This means that the Sun’s story is often scattered, like the shards of a broken pot in an archaeological site, through the episodes of a mythology.

In several countries their mythology is only preserved in a corpus of songs or poems which never actually tell the story as it was, but only allude to a now forgotten narrative in deliberately obscure ways. Here it goes beyond archaeology and becomes detective work. One is no longer trying to assemble fragments of broken pot but solve a mystery… using a cryptic crossword in a foreign language.

Even where scholars have gone before and collated the disparate elements it isn’t always easy going. Each author has their foibles. One will try to illustrate every deity by comparison to their Greek counterpart, another to the Egyptians, yet another with chapter and verse references to the bible. None of these are useful unless you have studied the mythology they are clearly obsessed with in as much detail as they have. In addition their various anecdotes, comparisons and academic diversions, though fascinating to the casual reader, have the same effect to the storyteller as if the ceramics expert, having glued the pot back together, smashed it up again and handed it to the historian in a bag full of other random bits of pot from completely different digs.

It should be simpler in Egypt. Ra is the creator of all things as well as being the sun and there is only one sun isn’t there? Maybe, but there would appear to be more than one spirit of the fiery orb. Horus also lays claim to the title, as does Osiris. Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast are just three of the goddesses that go by the name “The Eye Of Ra” which makes them the sun too. It seems that most cities or areas had their own divine wrangler of the heavenly yellow orb and to avoid (or settle) conflict a fair number of them were absorbed in to the official versions of how things were. The end result of this is that Hathor, Horus and several others work with Ra as specialists in a sprawling department of solar affairs. There are so many of them that they dispense with the traditional chariot and use a barge to get across the sky. Horus and Sekhmet handle security while Osiris takes over completely for the night shift as they make their way through an underworld full of giant snakes hell bent on having them as hot, hydrogen flavoured snacks. Poor Ra. “I’ll create a world” he said, “I’ll be the sun” he said. I expect it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Time to get Changed


I’m off on tour again from the end of September ’till early November. Starting in Bristol on the 29th I make my way across the South as far as Cambridge and Brighton, taking in a new northern extremity in Oswestry, and hitting 18 venues along the way. Well, I have to live up to my name.

The next couple of weeks are jam-packed with stuff that has to be done before I leave. Not just preparation for the show but sales for next spring’s tour, which have to be started now as many venues sort out their year in September. I’ve just done all the contracts, invoices and posters for this run and spent a few precious days editing the recordings from the last tour in the hope that I will get a new CD of “The Nectar Of The Gods” pressed in time for the first gig. At some point I have to find/make/borrow something for the backdrop and select any other items of stage dressing… and of course there is learning the Danish ballad I have chosen to sing (It’s been translated) and a couple of hours of stories. It doesn’t leave much time for rehearsal.

I had a conversation with a musician friend who has never performed live. He said: “I’m not good enough yet”. He’s been playing for twenty years. I told him that he just has to get out there and do it. Live performance is reliant on the audience, it’s an interaction, rehearse as much as you like but the show changes instantly when you put it in front of people. You change. However well rehearsed and practised you are the first performance will be shaky, you will make rookie mistakes. If you wait until it is perfect you may never do it. To a fair extent it is impossible to do a proper rehearsal without an audience because an essential ingredient is missing. If you are practising any kind of performance art, but keep putting off the day when it actually becomes a performance, I say the same: get out there and do it. In fact that goes for any kind of art. Sharing your creativity with the general public on a daily basis sharpens you up much faster than any number of years spent chasing perfection in your living room.

Audiences are amazingly forgiving, they care far less about the occasional fluff than you do (mostly they don’t know of course, because they don’t know what is supposed to happen), they even find a little fumbling and scrappiness endearing. I frequently speak some of the stories for the first time on the first night of the tour. I’m totally open about it. The early audiences get an adrenaline fuelled thrill ride, an artist on the edge, flirting with disaster! (Ok, I’m exaggerating but that is part of my job after all). The later audiences get a slick, knowing performance shaped by their predecessors reactions, but they of course, are a different audience and they change the show as well. Beyond a fairly basic level, practise is only procrastination.

I would illustrate this wisdom with a story but which one to choose? Pretty well every protagonist gets thrust in to the action and has to think on their feet. The stories only exist because someone is taking a risk, and in every one they reap the rewards of the adventure.

I’ll bring you the rewards of my adventure. By the end of the tour the show, which is called “Changed” Tales of Transformation, Transmutation and Transfiguration, will have been properly rehearsed in front all sorts of people, and changed by them. Maybe I will have been changed by them too,find out at one of the shows http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

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Beardy and the Beast


When I grew my beard It was purely an accident precipitated by the breakdown of the beard trimmer with which I had previously maintained a very tidy long-stubble goatee. The unexpected effect this was that a couple of years and several inches of facial hair later I discovered I had unintentionally preempted the trend and was, for the first time in my life, fashionable. When beards are ‘in’ long hair also becomes acceptable and I have rather enjoyed not being seen as beastly.

This tour I am looking in to transformation, transfiguration and transmutation So I thought I might have a go at Beauty And The Beast. I started looking for a version of it in my library. I couldn’t remember coming across one but, it being a classic and me having spent many years avoiding those, I thought I might have just passed it by. A search through the most likely collections has so far turned up several frog princes, and a small tooth dog, a black bull, two bears, and an invisible man, but no lead male simply referred to as a beast.

All of the above are essentially the same story of a beautiful young woman pursued by an ugly and undesirable male who is really a rich and handsome prince under a curse. In most she has a pair of selfish, older sisters for contrast. However it is usually the girl’s father that does something wrong and, to save his own life, enters into a contract with a powerful and frightening entity to hand over his beloved youngest daughter. She is at first scared but slowly comes to appreciate her inhuman captor’s kindness, though still rejecting his advances. Eventually some action of hers brings her unsightly suitor near to death, she realises that she loves him and her love restores his humanity and good looks. Sometimes he is removed from her and she, left with nothing, has to search for him for several years, climb a glass mountain, collect a series of magical objects and trade them with another woman to win him back. It is known in storytelling circles as “The Search For The Lost Husband”. Which is all well and good but still not the populist, crowd pleasing, fairy tale that I was trying to track down: I simply don’t have it!

Puzzled that such a well loved romance should be absent from the works of the assorted collectors on my shelves, I resorted to the internet. There, I discovered why: the title and the particulars of the most well known form of this anti physical prejudice story, are the work of a sixteenth century French publisher called Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, who edited down her version from the novel length original by the equally over-named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Between the two of them, these writers have nurtured and distilled the essence of a genre sufficiently well that they have all but replaced the folk tales from which they took their inspiration.

Hmmm, so left with a literary tale on the internet instead of a folk tale in a book I rather went off the idea. But… the essential story is such a classic form of transformation that I feel it really should be represented. On the other hand, it’s a lot of story for only one change. Well, now I am on a search of my own, hopefully I won’t have to wear out my shoes or climb a glass mountain to get it. I wonder if I can find a version that fits the brief?

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Rhyme And Reason


In the world of early writing, there are many stories that it is believed were only written down after they had already spent years in existence as orally transmitted pieces, passed from generation to generation through special keepers of the lore. All of these are in some form of verse, that is they have a regular rhythm, a specific meter and, where we know enough about the language, we usually find elements of rhyme, alliteration and the other markers of poetry. It is assumed by those who write about such material that the verse form was adopted for oral transmission because it was “easier to learn” and this theory they happily put forward with such regularity that it has become an unchallenged “truth”.

On my current tour I am performing an excerpt from the “Kalevala”, a massive saga from Finland which is all in trochaic tetrameter, a 4 footed meter with eight syllables per line, four of which are stressed. If that all sounds a bit complicated then you only have to think of Dr. Seuss: “I do not like green eggs and ham / I do not like them Sam I am” which is also in trochaic tetrameter. Doesn’t sound half as intellectual and posh now does it? Although I am working from a translation, the translator chose to render the English version in the original meter. It is a fine piece of poetry and the excerpt I am performing, “The Brewing Of Beer” is about fifteen minutes long. As with much narrative verse (poems that tell a story rather than just bang on about how beautiful something is), there are parts that repeat and many parts that almost repeat but are just slightly different. There are also lines, and whole sections (the Kalevala doesn’t actually have “verses” as such, just “Runes” which are like chapters) in which the conflicting requirements of story and meter fill the resulting lines with tongue twisters and grammatical gymnastics. I can assure you that it is in no way easy to learn. If you want to hear some of it recited then come to the one of the gigs on the Nectar Of The Gods tour ( http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml ).

This is not the first large chunk of verse I have tackled and the learning part is hell every time. With a prose story I can get the basic gist, make sure I have the names correct and be fairly confident of making a decent fist of improvising my way through a telling of it after about three reads through, six if it is especially long and convoluted. With verse I have to read it time and time again, pick it apart, read and repeat each line until I can do it without looking. Move on to the next line and do the same. Go back and do both lines together until I have got it right, then do the same procedure all over again with the next line. It takes days. I record it and play it to myself while I do the washing up and before I go to sleep. I have to practice reciting it every day whilst on tour, running it through in the car between gigs, making sure it has not slipped and will roll cleanly from my brain to my tongue when required. After performing it I can feel that my brain has been working, my head feels exhausted much the same way as my legs used to feel after a cross country run. Every single word has to be exact or it breaks the poetry. Those writers have no idea!

If it’s not easier to learn, what is the purpose of the verse? The recitation of the verses was often a group activity, the skald or bard memorised the piece in its entirety and lead the recitation, the listeners familiar with the work and free to join in. Like singing along with a pop song that has been on heavy rotation, you find you know some of the words but you couldn’t keep going for more than a line or two if the song was taken away, hence the specialist leading. However, any change would provoke outrage: “You’re doing it wrong!” They may not know how it is supposed to go but they know it is not like that! Should the bard pass on prematurely the verses can be reconstructed from the partial memories of the people, the meter and rhyme narrowing down the possibilities for any one lost word.


Communal knowledge coupled with the exactitude of verse protects the tribe or nations history from being altered. A verse, once learnt, must remain the same and that is how oral transmission keeps the lore, the truths of the tribe, for hundreds and even thousands of years. Those early writings of ancient stories were not in verse to make it easier to learn, repetition works just as well whether it rhymes or not, but to make it harder to change.

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As it was Foretold


It would appear that to many people “folk stories” and “superstition” are one and the same thing. This I could understand if the stories were packed with evil forebodings and dark portents but this is far from the case. In folktales it is considerably more common for the protagonist to crash through the action without any suggestion of what is coming. If they do get given a prediction it is more often than not a clear and accurate description of the obstacles that lie ahead, usually along with detailed instructions on how to overcome them.

In Sleeping Beauty the wicked fairy lays a curse on the young princess of death by a finger pricked on a spindle. The good fairy commutes the sentence to 100 years sleep ending with a royal snog. This is exactly what happens. In The King Of England’s Three Sons each son in turn is given the low down on how to break in to a castle: they must cross the black moat on the back of a swan, sneak past the guards and find the golden apples they are seeking in a secret garden. The only supernatural bit being the warning not to look back whilst escaping or the apples will be lost. You will be un-surprised to hear that everything turns out to be just as they are told and we even get the middle prince losing his hard won treasure by looking back. The youngest (of course) observes the instructions fully and carries off the precious fruit. It seems the oral tradition is rather literal when it comes to auguries. No ill-defined Delphic declarations for Jack and his ilk: just follow the tutorial and live happily ever after! Maybe it is the nature of stories shaped in the mouth that they tend towards the optimistic.

So how did this confusion between superstition and folktale come about? Where are all the yarns with mysterious prognostications? What you are thinking of there is literature. Shakespeare’s work is full of creaky crones prophesying unlikely and un-specific doom and destruction, the shadow of which then hangs over the action until they are proved one hundred percent correct. In Julius Caesar he dooms his eponymous lead to die on the famous “Ides of March” and the would-be god duly obliges (with the help of his friends). Despite the apparent improbability of Hamlet’s destiny, he too is carried off in accordance with his heathland Hags’ pronouncements. The Ancient Greek penchant for oracular predetermination is mostly down to the writings of Homer; the various sooths said for King Arthur are updated by each medieval author in turn. Writers just can’t seem to resist an obscure augury as a device for supplying a witty twist whilst trotting inexorably towards predicted tragedy.

The interesting thing is that as a society we publicly, and nowadays officially, consider the foretelling of the future to be nonsense. The pervading wisdom is that no one can know what is going to happen and anyone who claims to is a charlatan. Nevertheless, all our stories of predictions, whether born from a quill or evolved via voices, treat divination as real, accurate and inescapable. If I was a psychologist I would be worried about us, we seem to have something of a personality disorder.

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