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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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Sweet Dreams


I sat down last week to write this months FTC and… nothing. There wasn’t a thought in my head that could be coaxed in to even a single interesting sentence, let alone an article. I remembered a celtic tale about a storyteller who ran out of stories. He was under obligation to tell stories to the king every night for five years and the king was, of course, threatening to cut off his head if not appropriately entertained. Finding himself one story short he wandered in the garden trying to remember some tale as yet unused and finally fell asleep on a bench. Although lacking in coherence, the resultant stress induced nightmare provided his yarn for the night and saved his life. I wondered briefly if I might scoff some hefty cheese before bedtime and get away with a similar ruse.

Fortunately, as I was reading one of my Christmas presents last night, a beautifully put together book of Turkish folk tales, I found a story which rather surprised me. It featured a man whose dream led him to great riches. Nothing surprising there as dreams in folktales are frequently premonitions that, if heeded, bring rewards or at least prevent catastrophe. The surprising thing was just how closely it followed the plot of a well known English folktale. Well, of course there is nothing really surprising about finding a different version of the same story in both Europe and the Middle East. So what was it that I did find surprising? I’d better tell you the story.

The English version features a poor pedlar who lived in the village of Swaffham in Norfolk.

One night he had a dream in which he was told to go to London Bridge and there he would meet someone who would lead him to great fortune. Off he trotted eking out his few remaining coins through the long walk and three days of hanging around on London Bridge getting steadily more despondent. On the last afternoon before he would be forced to return home, a shopkeeper from one of the shops on the bridge came out and said “I’ve been watching you wandering about for three days getting sadder and more sad. What, pray tell are you doing here?” The pedlar told him of his dream and the shopkeeper patted him on the shoulder saying “Ahh! Dreams! You shouldn’t listen to them. Why, I had a dream myself the other day that there’s a chest of gold coins buried under the roots of a tree in the garden of a pedlar who lives in Swaffham, but you don’t see me dropping everything to go and starve digging a pointless muddy hole in Bloomin’ Norfolk! Go home and get on with your life.” The pedlar thanked the shopkeeper for his kind advice, returned to Swaffham and found the treasure in his garden just as the man had said. He rebuilt the church, to the joy of all his neighbours, and lived happily ever after.

This story, called “The Pedlar Of Swaffham”, has never been attributed to any other place in the UK. The pedlar even has a name, John Chapman, and is immortalised on a massive sign in the town. Obviously, with such strong material evidence behind it the English version is the original and the Turkish version was borrowed in an exchange during the crusades. Except that the Turkish protagonist also has a name, Murat Usta, and the Anatalyian mosque that he paid to have built is named Muratpasa after him.

So there I am, thoroughly surprised that two near identical tales should both have left behind such indisputable physical results in such specific geographic locations. Are the double-prophetic-dream stories just a cover up for wealth gained in a less scrupulous fashion or should we be paying more attention to our nocturnal adventures?
Here’s wishing you all sweet dreams.

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Cheers!


I’ve got a 40 pint bucket of a yeasty sugar mix bubbling gently in my office. If all goes well it will transform over the next month in to 40 pints of cheap but very drinkable beer. The best thing about it is that I can honestly say that it is part of my research for work. A new year brings a new tour, “The Nectar Of The Gods”, in which I shall be looking at the place taken in mythology by the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.

My old favourites the Norse Gods have a couple of adventures on the subject. In one, the truce between the Aesir, the gods of Asgard, and the Vanir, the ‘shining ones from beyond’ is sealed by all of these divine beings spitting in to a cauldron. Odin makes Kvasir, a man of great wisdom, from the resultant holy goo and sends him off in to the world to do good. Two dwarves kill him, mix honey with his blood and brew a sublime mead that can bestow a magical ability to speak with great skill and weave words together in rhythm and rhyme.
The giant Suttung steals the three cauldrons, putting them under guard of his daughter Gunlod in a cave deep under a mountain. Odin then embarks on a long and arduous journey to retrieve the Mead Of Poetry for the gods. In another Norse tale there is no ale for a feast and no cauldron big enough to brew it so Thor is despatched to the land of the giants to fetch an appropriate brewing vat.

The theme of not having the necessary equipment seems common in the North. The Finnish epic “The Kalevala” contains a section in which the wedding beer will not start its fermentation. It appears they know about barley, hops and water but not yeast. A magic virgin despatches a squirrel, a marten and a bee on quests to bring back pine cones, bear spittle, and honey respectively. Even when they finally get the bubbles to rise the beer itself refuses to have a beneficial effect unless someone sings about how marvellous it is.

In the cuniform tablets of the ancient Sumerians we find a hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, which also contains the full recipe and instructions. Similarly, in the epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu comes to Uruk it is not the eating of bread that civilises him but the drinking of beer. No story that I have come across recounts the amazing discovery of leavening bread with yeast. Despite all the associations we, as modern people, have with grain goddesses, there are relatively few deities of bread and apparently no existing recipes from the earliest writings. It is also an interesting point that the instigators of agriculture were not growing wheat but barley. It is not surprising then, that some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the driving force behind the spread of agriculture was not food supply but the discovery of the delights of beer! Certainly the mythological record accords far more importance to beer than bread.

The journey into the origins of the myths about beer has lead me to the possibility that the amber nectar may be behind the greatest shift in human society we have yet experienced: the move from nomadic hunting and gathering to a settled agrarian society with cities and all that they bring. With my foaming bucket of barley and hops I am following in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors (except for the pinecones and bear spit), and I look forward to a very civilised March before I head off on tour in April, May and June.

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To Sleep, Perchance To Dream


I’m quite visual as storytellers go. I stand up to do my tellings and move about quite a bit using hand gestures and even elements of mime to emphasise or elucidate a point. Photographers are always annoyed because all they get are a series of vaguely orange blurs. Nevertheless I have always had the occasional member of the audience who likes to listen without the aid of their eyes. These rare individuals will sit back, often stretching out their legs, hands folded over midriff, eyes closed, chin on chest, and let their imaginations provide the pictures. Whilst appearing to be asleep they are in fact the person in the room who is most deeply involved in the story.

Our ability to translate the words we hear in to pictures projected on some figmental screen in the virtual cinema of our occipital lobes is the very root of imagination. It is quite literally where dreams are made. Nowadays we are rather inclined to underuse this phenomenal effect, opting instead for a continuous feed of external images through magazines, televisions, computers and smart phones. I think this is a shame as our inner cinematographers, set designers and artists are all quite exceptional at their jobs if given a chance.

As part of a workshop I ran for Poole museum service recently I used the following exercise. Having previously handed out some stories for the participants to read through a few times I asked them to sit in a comfortable position, relax and close their eyes. I then asked them to bring to mind a picture that they had in their head from the story. I went to each one in turn and asked them, with eyes sill closed, to tell the rest of us what they saw in their mental picture. After a general description I asked them to zoom in on one part or item in their scene and relate this detail. The results were wonderful. The closer they went, the more they saw. Textures and colours sprang to life as they turned their attention to them. “A gateway” became “An arch of carefully chiseled, yellow stone with the iron spikes of a raised portcullis sticking through a slot in the roof and the names of the guards scratched in to the wall”. Try it for yourself sometime, you don’t have to speak the words, just have a good look in to a picture you have in your head and see how high resolution it is.

Of course, now and again, the person at my performance with their eyes closed is just very tired. Sometimes so tired they actually are asleep. It doesn’t happen often but when it does this is fine too. For many people storytelling is associated with bedtime. The whole point of storytelling is to transport the listener to another plane of existence, to move them beyond the mundane world to a limnal place on the borders of the land of dreams, once in a while you are bound to lose one over the edge. How often do we give ourselves the chance to drift gently over Lake Slumber into the Land Of Nod with our minds eye being fed a stream of fantastic images via our ears? In fact I quite like it if the occasional audient nods off, it lets me know I have been taking the rest of them in the right direction. Storytelling is the one art form in which your audience falling asleep is not an insult, indeed, If I have relaxed them to the point of sleep then I think that qualifies as a job well done. The sleeper is like someone who has taken the coach trip in to the forest but wandered off from the guided tour to have their own adventure, a scout in the borderlands of consciousness. If we are lucky they may come back with a new story to tell.

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

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