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To Stay and Tarry a While


Good things come to those who wait is not an aphorism I have much time for. I’m not at all sure why random items of a positive leaning should find their way to someone palely loitering rather than the person who is actively searching. My suspicion is that those who wait are inclined to consider whatever turns up to break the monotony a “good thing” regardless of it’s intrinsic value. Years of touring have meant hours of hanging around for venues to open, sound engineers to show up, meals to come, and the quality of the eventual arrival bore no relationship to the length of time spent on standby.

In my youth I basically used to rush from one thing to another at the last minute. As a result I never had to wait for anything unless someone else was late. These days I try and save my brinksmanship for less absolute, unforgiving and simple challenges than being on time. I’d much rather keep on everyone’s good side, arrive early and have a chance to breathe before I’m officially required to do anything, or if possible get ahead of the game with a little pre-emptive preparation. When I do have to wait for things, trains, appointments, I find I quite enjoy the experience. I always have a yarn to learn, a book of new tales I can dive in to, a show to plan or list to write. Even when I don’t have these things to hand I find there is a freedom in waiting. For a change one has nothing else to do… Nothing else one should be doing… Total liberty to do no other thing. Even if the train is late I find this state can persist: worrying, fretting, pacing will not make it come any sooner. Nothing we do will make any difference, we will be exactly the same amount of late so we may as well continue to enjoy the peace of absent expectation and not be wound up when we do finally get where we are going. Relax. All decisions, all control are out of our hands until after whatever we are awaiting has caught up to us. 

What has this got to do with folk tales I hear you ask? Of course I came to this attitude through encountering folk tale characters who have to bide their time for one thing or another. Often it is a trap that the protagonist has set and they are sitting tight until the antagonist or love interest ambles unwittingly in to it. In other stories it can be be a bearer of great knowledge, a marvellous creature or some similar wonder that our principal has to kick their heels for. 

In the written story, since there is no activity to report between the arrival at the point of pausing and the re-comencement of action on the appearance of the awaited being, it tends to pass as quickly as a full stop and a space. Sometimes maybe a paragraph gap.

When I am telling a tale I try to get inside it. It is my job after all to make my audience, you as it might be, feel the events of the tale as if they are real. In attempting to get to the emotional content, the essence of those un-detailed lingerings, I had to imagine myself in to a much different world. People knew how to wait in the old days. No mobile phone; no iPod; no book even. No clock ticking. No radio playing from a nearby shop; no adverts or announcements to break the silence… Only the world continuing to turn around them. 

I sometimes see if I can make an audience join the leading player in their anticipation, explore how long modern people, kids especially, can maintain attention when nothing is happening. It is not long. Nowadays we get fretful if we are forced to hang around five minutes for a bus. And maybe that is part of the problem, it’s possible modern waits are too short!

Waiting for someone in pre-industrial times could take hours or even days, long enough to make a fire; darn a sock; sew a button; watch the birds; Whittle a stick; climb a tree; sew the button again; have a conversation with the sock… Some of these might sound a bit like “doing things”, but they are not your primary activity: what you are “doing” is waiting, these other things are just time fillers, there is no obligation to do them at all and… they all become much easier.

Hidden between the words “ … sat down to wait.” and the beginning of the next sentence is a lost art: Don’t worry about the thing that is coming, good or otherwise, enjoy the wait.

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

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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The Pile Of Tinsel


Crackling fires, candles, stars, and strings of fairy lights. Trees with piles of presents, rows of cards and tables groaning with heaps of food. Holly, ivy, snow, reindeer, mummers, socks, sheep, cake, Scrooge, kings, The Snow Queen, donkeys, Julie Andrews and somewhere amongst it all a new born baby. It must be Christmas again!

I don’t know where I will be for the festive week: I have had an offer of possible work for Christmas day on the other side of the country, as yet unconfirmed, and thus may be far away from home and possibly even people I know. I’m pretty sure there will be fine food, drink and good company though, that much is compulsory, isn’t it? 

Of course, the things that make Christmas depend very much on who you are, where you have come from culturally and what stage you are at in your life. Every family does it a little differently: Presents before breakfast or after dinner? Cook all morning or do it the day before? Games after dinner or dozing in front of the TV? Midnight Mass or Carols From Kings? Massive row over Christmas Dinner or get it out the way on Christmas Eve?

All sorts of people over the years have tried to sift out “the real meaning of Christmas” or to construct a purer version of the midwinter feast, struggling to disentangle the assorted threads of Pagan, Christian and corporate tradition, or extract the literary, folk or media elements, like you or I battling with a box of last years fairy lights, though rarely with as much success.

Coming to my keyboard once again, trying to find this year’s approach to the big, tangled pile of tinsel; to decide which colour to unravel and hang before you… I found myself, instead, entranced by the intensity of the interwoven wonders. No other festival, time of year, event or part of our lives is quite so clearly made from such differing strands, such incompatible ingredients, and yet is so tightly and inextricably intermeshed that the majority of us do not even know that our traditional celebration is a bizarre snowball that has rolled across continents getting random bits of foliage and aggregate stuck in it for centuries.

Whether it’s the star followed by some Magi, the Yule Log saved from the year before, a special candlestick or just the lights on the tree, we all respond to the symbols of the light in the darkness, warmth in coldness, comfort in hardship. New born sons, reborn suns and evergreen trees are all signs of life in the desert of winter. Then mashed in alongside all that are the stories of kindness in adversity, care for family, friends, strangers, even enemies, soldiers playing football where they fought the day before. Tale after Yuletide tale are reminders of our mutual fragility, that we survive by sharing and supporting each other, huddling together against the cruel winter wind. The endings also come again and again to the same triumphant point: The longest night is passed, light returns to the world and we are still alive! 

So whatever it is that you do for midwinter, I wish you a very good one: Peace on earth! Blessed be! Fill the mead cup! Good will to everything! Happy Traditional Thing-a-majig!

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

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk 

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The Demon Of Procrastination


[In view of the fact that I wrote this for the November edition of the local magazine it seems strangely apt that I am only uploading to the blog half way through January]

I have terrible trouble getting round to doing pretty well anything. If there was an olympic event for procrastination I would… not manage to get the forms filled in to join the team. Every month I have a battle with myself over sitting down to write Folk Tales Corner, even though I thoroughly enjoy doing it once I have started. For November I have a double incentive as I am promoting my autumn tour so already know that it must be at least partially about demons. Thus prepared and inspired I set off to dive into the river of creation and swim with the flow down to the ocean of completion and the beach bar of reward. Two coffees, numerous Facebook comments, some hoovering and the washing up later I finally leapt from the bank – straight into the jaws of an allegory.

Mother Perfection kept a beautiful house, everything was neat and tidy. She had a sister called Good Advice who helped her along the way. Good Advice, despite her knowledge, had a dysfunctional relationship with Low Esteem, he was a nice enough fellow but just did not believe in himself. Good Advice knew if she loved him unconditionally he would change but knowing and doing are not the same thing. Their lovemaking was a failure: Good Advice could not help herself and suggested ways in which Low Esteem could make it better. If he had just done as she suggested then everything would have been fine but he took it as criticism, lost any confidence he had and, well, it was all downhill from there. They did however have a daughter and the daughter of Good Advice and Low Esteem was Nit Picker.

Fear stalked the land, he wondered from town to town terrorising the people. But when he came to Mother Perfection she was not afraid. Calmed by her polite invitation to stay in her house and disarmed by her attention, Fear stayed. Although she wasn’t scared of him she still felt a thrill at his presence. Fear desired to possess her, and she responded. Their lovemaking was of epic proportions. Encouraged by Fear, Mother Perfection did ever wilder and more wonderful things, and she did them perfectly. After three days Fear set off on his travels, he found it hard to cope with perfection. Nine months later the offspring of Perfection and Fear was born and he was Procrastination.

Although Procrastination never met his father, Fear lived in his head and Nit Picker did not help. 
The sheep of inspiration had lambs, and they were called Good Idea, Bright Idea, Creative Expression and Worthwhile Action. Procrastination knew he should feed them but wanted to get it right. Nit Picker told him many things he already knew about how he should do it and this made him even more scared of getting it wrong. Each time he began the process Nit Picker was there telling him every little thing that wasn’t just how Mother Perfection did it so time and again Procrastination stopped and did something else instead. In the end he never got round to feeding the poor little ideas, though he did love them and spent much time with them, so they never grew up.

Procrastination was so upset and he knew he should tell his mother but he could not bring himself to do so. Eventually he ran away, as was his nature. Now, much like his father, he wanders from place to place dropping in on people who generally have better things to do. Unlike his father he can be quite fun and, if he leaves soon enough, even beneficial. A long visit however, can bring disaster. Make no mistake: the entire family are demons, even Mother Perfection for trying to live up to her standards can break you as surely as an intense encounter with her one time lover. They are all best treated with extreme caution and never invited to stay.

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Demoted


Demons. I have never tackled a subject with so many accreted layers of mythic literature featuring so many famous names. Each layer, from Enoch to Crowley via Solomon, Dante and Milton, completed with an obsessive desire to include as many demon names as possible and academically categorise them. Unfortunately none of them had the same dedication to spelling or consistency causing their many subjects to bifurcate, mutate and multiply in a shocking fashion.

The predominant story is that the demons who now inhabit the lower realm originally came from heaven and were once angels. Now, I’d imagine most people in western culture are familiar with the version where a war in heaven precipitates the expulsion of those who picked the wrong side. In the Christian tradition these angels are flawed and fall from grace due to their deficiency. It’s a narrative that pervades a host of books, films and TV series, almost as numerous as the demons that are their subject matter. Many of these depictions use the prophesied round two of angels versus demons to provide both suspense and a (literally) apocalyptic climax.

This is not the original rendering though, in the so called Enochian texts the angels that descend from heaven are not pushed but rather jump. They are willing volunteers who give up a life of bliss and come to the realm of humanity to teach us the arts of civilisation. While they are involved in this process they become enamoured with human women and it is acting on this infatuation that loses them their angelic status. 

I find it quite interesting that alongside the various gods of assorted pagan nations that have been re-cast in a demonic mould, as we saw previously with Beelzebub, there should be this throng of Abrahamic good guys gone bad. I can’t help wondering if they too, were once gods, part of a pantheon, before one of their number was given exclusive top billing and the rest were downgraded.

It must be frustrating for them. Gods are generally requested to do good things for their followers via prayer or offerings and are under no obligation to respond if they are feeling a touch ineffable. Whereas, if one has the knowledge to mark the correct symbols on the floor and recite the appropriate formula, Demons can not only be summoned but compelled to do one’s bidding then banished afterwards. Quite why this should be the case when they are beings of great power I do not know. 

Forced to work in hellish conditions with no free time and the worst customers one can imagine. Constrained to receive and commit atrocities and torture, being at every bodies beck and call, it seems there is a heavyprice yo pay when you are demoted.

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Off We Go Again Then


For several years near the beginning of my storytelling career I used an old gag about a hedgehog as my encore number. It explains the origin of the well known phrase for getting on with a task: “Off we go again then, as the hedgehog said to The Devil”. I first learnt it as a short filler story for a guided Performance Archaeology walk at Lechlade. Between the very interesting historic town centre and the very interesting historic riverside tower, there was quite a long section of footpath past garden fences and allotments which was very uninteresting. However, we needed an excuse to stop and let the audience catch their breath and whilst they did so it was somewhat incumbent upon myself and my archaeologist compatriot, as walk leaders, to entertain them while they did so. That, to a fair extent, being the point of the exercise. 

The thing with guided walks is that your location is part of the show, it is both the inspiration and the backdrop, the set and the subject. Having chosen a specific site to build one’s performance on, it is rather a requirement that said performance be site specific. Unfortunately at this particular pause in forward locomotion the only landscape features available to talk about on the otherwise flat, floodplain fields, were a hedge and a ditch. Neither of these could be conclusively proven to have historical provenance, so it would obviously be the storyteller’s job to fill the yawning chasm with excitement. The brief then, was to tell a short story somehow connected to the aforementioned hedge and ditch, and since the majority of the history on the walk was from the Middle Ages it should preferably be a medieval story… about a hedge or a ditch. I expect I don’t need to elaborate on the unsurprising paucity of material in the ‘Hedge and Ditch’ genre of medieval folktale. Oh the conundrums we contrive for ourselves!

What the Middle Ages did have in copious quantities were stories about The Devil. I say, The Devil but I should say “devils”, plural. Although the hellish antagonist is mostly referred to as “The” singular, one and only, definite article “Devil”, the plots have him killed off or permanently confined to the flaming pits of the nether regions too often for us to be able to accept the entire trope as the single saga of one solo demon. A quick shufti at the sources of some of his many names will also demonstrate that we are looking at more than one. For instance Beelzebub was a pun used by the early Israelites to insult a Philistine god called Beelzebul. Beel meant “Lord”, Ze can be read as “of the” and Bul translates as “heavenly home”. Bub on the other hand, meant “flies”. Leaving the dubious humour of the pre-biblical authors aside, it is clear that this is not the same fella who sat at Yahweh’s right hand until he got too big for his boots and had his wings clipped.

The obsessively Christian society of the Medieval period was beset by a plethora of devils. One of the problems of a monotheistic religion is that one has to do something with all the other deities that are hanging around. The obvious solution is to deny their heavenly status and send them to hell, to quite literally demonize them. Since there is only one god the general populace tend to simplify the over subscription of hell by assigning the activities of numerous underworld denizens to the one primary evil doer. The attributes of the foremost fiend are transferred the other way and all manner of newly ex-gods find themselves sporting horns, tails and hairy legs as they are forced to conform to the stereotype.

Amongst the great pile of devil related tales of the time I managed to find “How The Hedgehog ran The Devil To Death” which has a hedge and, more importantly, a ditch in it. I was going to tell it to you but I have been sidetracked by devils and demons, not unreasonably since they will be the subject of my autumn tour. Maybe if you come along I will tell it you then, in the meantime I must get back to my research. 
Off we go again then…

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A Tail of Time


A long time ago in galaxy far, far away and as it happens a parallel universe of a different dimension, a pilgrim set out to seek The End Of The World. No longer in the first flush of youth yet not old enough to have slowed down too much for a long journey, he felt that the time was right to make his search. This took a good deal of time, as you might imagine. Eventually, you may be surprised to hear, with great jubilation and wonder, and some relief since his feet were quite exhausted, he did indeed find what he sought. There followed the all too brief period of satisfying rest that pilgrims enjoy before their inherently restless nature sets them a new goal.

During this time he frequently enjoyed the view from The End Of The World, sitting on the last rock, dangling his grateful feet over the edge and watching the faint twinkling of distant turtles swimming through space with their plate like worlds upon their backs*. Although there was a certain peace in this activity it also brought with it a heightened sense of the passing of time. Watching space go by, and the shifting patterns of the planets, turtle powered or otherwise, tends to do that since, as Einstein realised, time and space are pretty much the same thing.

Despite the successful achievement of his challenge and partly because of it and the time it took, his hair having turned from black to grey on the journey, the pilgrim began to feel a desire for more time, a pressing need to slow down its rapid transit. Looking down from his precarious perch one day his eye was drawn to the nearest visible object in the firmament: the scaly tail of the turtle upon which his world sat. As he watched it swing majestically from side to side a thought formed in his head, and so his new project began.

Day by day he cut trees and harvested hemp until he had fashioned a device of prodigious size. A pole-snare on a pivot mounted on the edge of the world. With this he reached out and down far further beyond the limits of the land than any person had ever done. He swung the great pole and, after many attempts, caught the tail of the enormous turtle in the loop of rope at its end. Quickly he hauled on the longest rope ever made and brought it tight, then applied the principles of leverage to the rod so that it began to pull back on the tail of the immortal diapsid.

Do you think it worked? Is it possible to halt the progress of time, or at least slow it down just a little bit? If it is possible anywhere then a world which really does have an end, one that overhangs the rear of a vast cosmic reptile, is surely the place to give it a try. If you have ever wanted to stop the world and get off, even just for a bit you will be very much on the side of the old man as he heaves on the landward end of his audacious device.

Far, far away, a whole world away in fact, diametrically opposite where the old pilgrim was tugging on the tail of time, a youngster, desperate to be free of the constrictions of youth sat on a rock. Their feet dangled over the edge of the world. In their hands they held a stick, and tied around the stick was a long, long string, on which a carrot dangled in front of the face of the great turtle.

* There are universes with flat earths that do not require the services of testudines to facilitate their locomotion but this is not one of them. The intermediate elephants that are often part of the arrangement are, however absent in this iteration of creation.

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The Monkey’s Wedding


I was sure I had heard a story about it. It happened the other day. It rained while the sun was shining,  
“Oh look, it’s a Monkey’s wedding!”

Someone said. It’s a phrase I know but there were several there who hadn’t heard it before.
“Where does that come from then?”
I was sure, long ago, I had been told a story about it.
“India, I think, possibly a Hanuman story, he’s the monkey god… I know I’ll hunt it out and write about it for Folk Tales Corner.” I said. “Someone told me the story once, might have been my Mum.”

I checked my books.
It wasn’t there.
I checked the internet.
It was not there either.
I put out a request on the Society For Storytelling Facebook group. All I got back were the pages I had already found listing the various assorted creatures nuptials that are connected to ‘Sunshowers’ which includes Jackals, foxes, werefoxes, hyenas, leopards, witches, devils, a tiger and a fox, a monkey and a donkey, and the jackal and the wolf’s wife… but no story.

I put out another request, this time amongst my own friends, some of whom are quite scholarly and widely read. This brought me a couple of ancient collections of fokltales from India. I thought 
“Now I’m getting closer!” 
I was not. 
I searched and skimmed through these great and wonderful anthologies reading any story with a monkey in it. I now know how red bottomed monkeys got their ruddy rumps scraping their behinds on a tree whilst escaping from the tiger, how baboons got their black faces and how the monkey got it’s tail… but still not why it rains in the sunshine when they get married. There are plenty of yarns about monkeys and humans setting up a wedding but the only ones that make it to their vows are the monkeys that turn out to be enchanted princes. Apparently a fruitarian diet puts most human brides off.

So if I ever was told a story about a monkey king who wanted the gods to bless his marriage and travelled to heaven; If I ever did hear how the gods offered him a bath with beautiful hot water that would magically flow when he called for it and how he lost track of time playing and relaxing in the heat, how he had just asked for more water when he heard the wedding music floating up from the world below and ran off in a tearing hurry, without telling the water to stop, so that all of heaven was flooded and the water ran over the edge and fell down on the wedding below while the sun shone… If that telling ever happened, it is looking likely that my mother (or who ever it was) simply made it up. 
Well, a story has to start somewhere I suppose. 
If only I could remember how it went so I could tell you.

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

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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