Talking About Talking


I’ve got a booking to do two days of storytelling workshops down in Southampton later this March. Day one will look at stories, where to find them, how to learn them and day two will be a performance and public speaking skills workshop. In a similar way to writing Folk Tales Corner each month, it will make me examine what I do, try to make sense of it and find out if it makes sense to anybody else.

Standing up in front of a room full of people and talking was, famously, America’s number one fear. It has now slipped down to number 5, handing over the top spot to Walking Alone At Night. In the UK stats for 2015 it went the other way, pushing past Spiders and Deep Water to claim it’s gold medal at the top of the podium.

Personally I am baffled. We all talk to each other all the time, we speak to shopkeepers and ice cream sellers, bank staff and bus drivers, colleagues and customers. We waffle on country walks, bang on in belfries, rabbit away in railway carriages and pontificate on cold station platforms or in nice warm pubs. How can something so intrinsically human be our most common fear?

I suspect it’s not so much the talking that makes people fearful as the opportunity to be seen making a mistake. Despite the absolute knowledge that not one of us is perfect, we all tremble at the thought of demonstrating exactly how far from that unreachable ideal we are to the world.

So what are my professional tips should you be put on the spot? Well the obvious way to not get caught out is to know your stuff. Thankfully it is fairly rare for anyone other than actors or comedians to be expected to stand up and improvise on a topic they know nothing about. The chances are that when you are called on to wax lyrical to the masses, that it will be because you are the person out of the available people who knows the most about what you have been asked to enlarge upon.

A lot of people will spend their preparation time writing out every word they are going to say, getting each syllable just so. This results in them having to read aloud or learn the whole thing word for word. Neither of these are things most of us do on a daily basis and are therefore things we are not terribly good at. The first results in a lack of animation and eye contact and the second is just making life hard for yourself. Don’t give yourself the trouble of a script.
We are all used to assembling sentences on the hoof, we do it naturally everyday. If you know your stuff there is a very good chance that you have already put it in to words on many occasions, answering co-workers questions, explaining your days work to a partner or friend. Rely on your ability to use your native language and your knowledge of your material. Your head will be up, your enthusiasm will show, you can gauge your audiences responses, adapt appropriately and keep them engaged.

Tip number two is stop caring so much. For most people the worst performance problems stem from nerves, relax and give yourself a break. A bit of revision, a crib sheet of the most important names and numbers and you will be fine.

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Words Are Magic


A sorcerer can invoke a magic incantation and enchant you with a spell. All they need is to speak some well ordered words, give voice to a crafty verse and the tale is told. I am not speaking figuratively, I mean it literally.


In Old English a spell meant a “story, saying, tale, history, narrative, fable; discourse or command”. A speller was somebody who read out words and the title was most often applied to preachers who would read the “good spells”, or good stories, which became the God spells and finally the gospel. It is from the action of “spelling”, reading out the story word by word, that the term changed it’s meaning and became attached to the letters rather than the narrative.

An open book exuding energy and power.

Being enchanted is also far less weird than you are probably thinking. The “en” means “in”, the “chant” bit is just that, some poetic words. Chant goes back through French and latin all the way to a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word: *Kan- meaning “to sing”. This is pretty easy magic to be honest, all you have to do is sing a well known song and if people join in then they have become “sung in”, you have enchanted them.

An incantation, for all its portentous sound, is exactly the same thing, “in” and “cant” having come from the same roots as “en” and “chant”; it is another “in song”. To “invoke” it you only have to speak it, or put it “in voice”.

But what about magic? There is a postulated PIE root *Magh-, meaning “to be able, powerful”. By the time of the early Greeks we have “Magos”, a noun which means “a learned person of the priestly cast”. The powerful capability lies in the learning but you can only get access to that knowledge if you are born in to the right tribe. The power this tribe of capable people wielded became known as “magike” and, since they weren’t sharing, it was obviously very mysterious.

I realise I have just explained where the word “magic” comes from but not what it actually is. Bear with me and I shall unravel this final part of my spell. There is another Proto-Indo-European root I would like to introduce you too: *Ser-, which has survived in our own words series, serried and sermon amongst others and means “to line up, put in a row, or thread together”. It has also come down to us through the Latin for “one who influences fate or fortune”, which in English is a Sorcerer. So, somewhen between these two ancient lexical points, someone was exerting influence on things, effecting change, by putting something in order, by arranging something in lines.

Given everything we have just been talking about, it seems clear to me that the magic power of the bygone Magos was sorting secret symbols in to charms and spells. Yes, charm is another word from that *Kan- root. Or to translate from magical language into mundane: the mystery capability of the first sorcerers was lining up letters to make words and arranging words into songs and stories. The carefully guarded learning of the earliest magicians was poetry, storytelling, writing and reading.

So if you sometimes yearn for a more mystical life, remember you too can type some terms in to a tidy row or organise some expressions in an exciting order then speak or sing your scintillating spell, who knows what effect you might have?
Words are magic, in every sense, and in every sense magic is words.

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

The Travelling Talesman

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Santa’s Little Apologist


Right on the edge of the Cliff Of Heaven sits the small hamlet of Last Ditch. Here live the Gods of Lost Causes. Doomed with each turn of the moon to once more plunge in to the abyss as the cliff crumbles beneath them. The next weeks see their re-constituted forms drifting from the Mists of Defiance to build again their hovels of forlorn hope either side of the undrinkable waters of the Stub Bourne. Sometimes the other gods will break the tedium of eternity by going down to try and save the inhabitants, begging them to leave while they can. It is of no avail. The hands that reach across the cracking earth, though stretched for, go unclasped. The rope that is thrown as the rocks break away goes un-grasped. They are not rich gods, their worshippers, often newly converted, by definition have nothing to give and much to ask. Although their prayers are fervent enough to make their deities solid and well formed, their inherent pessimism does not empower the mythical symbols of their plight to actually come to their rescue. Besides which, like most gods, they have problems of their own.


With great power comes great responsibility, which makes your average immortal pretty busy. Think how big the Met Office is, how many people it takes to work out what is likely to happen with the amazingly complex business of predicting the weather. Now think about how much more hard work is involved in making the weather! Very few celestial beings have only one area of duty, usually seeing to a portfolio of natural and human activities which can be as diverse as irrigation, textile production and the beach tree. Most of them have some part to play in the battle between good and evil, Odin being famously hard at work building an army to take on the giants, thieves and monsters at the final battle.

As we approach the worldwide annual festival of god bothering, in which solar deities are begged to return, storm gods are begged to hold off, sky gods to bring snow – but only the pretty sort and only for a couple of days and can it be lovely for the rest of the year please? The god of Abraham is entreated to bring peace to the world by the three most heavily armed religions on the planet, and the god of presents receives his annual tall order.

Come December the 25 Santa will have 80 million more presents to deliver than he had last year and a whole heap of requests from confused children asking him to take away their little siblings, for their estranged parents to be reunited and/or their dead gerbil to be alive again. Whatever you have asked for, there is chance Father Christmas will turn up with something else. If he does please cut him some slack, he’s got as lot of stuff going on.

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Use Your passport While You Can


It is a curious factor of ghost lore that they are geographically limited. After our spirit is freed from the confines of its fleshly vehicle one might imagine that we would enjoy the liberty, the new found flying ability and ineffectiveness of walls, fences and other impediments to movement. I can readily imagine that one might undertake a lengthy world tour to catch all the sights missed during a life too busy and financially restricted to have involved the Taj Mahal and so forth. It would not surprise me at all to find myself in the company of several other freshly released souls, breezing lightly past the queues and gaily wafting through turnstiles. But no, it appears that those of us who stay on this earth after our physical demise remain quite specifically restricted by the boundaries of the material world.

Although there are one or two ghosts that are seen in coaches or on horses (usually headless) riding about on the roads, they don’t seem to make use of the extensive connectivity of the road system, their nocturnal journeys being proscribed, like spectral trams, to a specific route. The odd deceased monarch is inclined to show up at more than one of their previous homes, though they seem to manage without haunting the transport systems in between. The great majority of ghosts very rarely roam beyond the confines of a single house, in fact their spatial limitation is often to a solitary room or even a specific spot in one room. Some don’t even get a room but are doomed to an eternity in a corridor, which probably explains the moaning.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. In japan you can be anywhere in the country and still encounter Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman. She waits for lone pedestrians in dark and narrow alleyways then steps in front of them and asks the rather forward question
“Am I beautiful?”
She will have her mouth covered, back in medieval times she used a fan or a scarf but nowadays she hides her face with a surgical mask like those worn by many health conscious occupants of modern Japanese cities. Regardless of the answer she will then reveal her jaws, along with the gruesome mouth-to-ear gashes from which she gets her name, and ask what you think now. If you answer yes she will produce a butchers knife or a pair of scissors and cut your cheeks to match hers. If you answer no she will walk away but secretly follow you home and stab you in your sleep.

The story is that her samurai husband found out she had a lover and used his sword to cut her face in to its hideous grin asking “who will find you beautiful now?” Then he decapitated her but was soon filled with remorse and turned his sword on himself.

Quite why Kuchisake-onna is not subject to the laws of locus that bind so many other spooks I do not know. Thankfully, whilst she can waft at will around the Land Of The Rising Sun she doesn’t appear to have found her way beyond its shores. Maybe she is restricted to a location after all, just a very big one. So visit this world while you can because it seems that when we don’t move on completely we don’t move at all.

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Who becomes a ghost? Nobody!


You can’t beat a ghost, literally. You can try, but since a ghost is an NCB (Non Corporeal Being), it has no physical body and does not respond to being whacked with weapons. Now if people come back from the dead in their own body, that is a different matter. It is also a different thing, not a ghost but a… any guesses? No? You know me too well!

If you have come back from your grave it may well be that you were buried alive. With the dubious medical practices of the past, live burial was not entirely uncommon. To offer a last chance to those who were not only at Death’s door but had been neatly nailed in a box and delivered to his lobby, it was standard practice to place a string in the deceased’s hand and attach the end to a bell on a stand above the grave. In this manner, if you did come round in a wooden overcoat under several feet of earth, it was possible to be “saved by the bell” and become a “dead ringer”. It also made you a “revenant”. A revenant is someone who has “come back”, from the French “revenir”: “to come back”, and was particularly used for those who had come back from the dead. A significant feature of a revenant is that they have come back to life; they are alive, unlike vampires.

Far from being handsome or sparkly, the original folkloric vampire of eastern Europe was a fat, fetid, dead person with matted hair and dark or purple skin, wearing a shroud, that rose from the graveyard to feed on the living. These it seems, were largely the result of hysterical fear of the dead combined with confusion over the stages of decomposition. Someone would have a bad dream or a fevered vision and the most recently deceased person would get the blame. On being exhumed to see if they were leaving their grave in the night, their body would be found plumper than when they died, possibly gurgling, and with fresh blood dripping from their mouth. Clear signs that they were wandering about and drinking blood! That these symptoms are pretty much what one would expect as bacteria fill the dead body with gasses and this forces “purge fluids” from any openings, wasn’t well known to your rural communities at the time. The classic methods of dispatching these foul creatures, A stake in the chest or decapitation, are both good ways to deflate a gaseous, bloated corpse.

In 1819 a bloke called John Polidori wrote his book “The Vampyre”, a while later Bram Stoker nicked his ideas and wrote a slightly more famous book. Thus the newly pale, cultured, attractive and un-dead vampires put on evening wear and took over stately homes, conveniently leaving an empty space in our graveyards, and our fears of walking corpses, for the zombies to move in. Zombies (you knew they’d turn up eventually) entered our language, and our imagination, from Africa and the Caribbean in the 19th century. These post life perambulators are corpses re-animated by witchcraft, a meat puppet, and as such are still technically dead. A zombie is in some ways the exact opposite of a ghost, in that it is a body with no spirit.

Revenants are rarely heard of these days, Vampires are getting ever more glamorous and even the zombie-come-latelies are not the shambling foot draggers they used to be. Ghosts, however, remain ghosts. Unchanged by the years, the disembodied spirits of the dead still float around the sites of their demise, moaning and groaning, or unwittingly repeating some long-finished task, unable or unwilling to pass over to the other side. In these uncertain times it’s nice to know there is someone you can rely on, even if there is actually no body there.

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Special effects


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All Pull Together


Before I start the blog, just a quick apology that this wasn’t up in August but I suffered a catastrophic disc failure, lost all my archives and everything I was working on including the publicity for the autumn tour. Amazingly I managed to fix the crashed disc and I have now recovered the data so there will be a couple of blogs in short order before normal service is resumed.

Here’s the first one:

An old fella planted some turnip seeds. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, it’s a very old story, so you may well have done, though I expect you have forgotten some of the details, sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the things we already know. Anyhow, while we’ve been talking the turnips have been growing and the old fella decided it was time to pull them up.

He went along the row gathering them in until he came to the last turnip. This one was a little different. The green leafy fronds at the top were as tall as he was! “I expect there’ll be an even smaller turnip than usual on the end of that lot” he laughed. He took hold of the turnip top and pulled. It didn’t move an inch. He cleared away a bit of the earth and could now see that it was an enormous turnip, every bit as big as the overgrown top should indicate. “Well I never!” he said, “I’m going to need a bit of help with this”. So he went and asked his wife. Out she came and she took hold of him and he took hold of the turnip top and they pulled and pulled but the turnip stayed firmly in the ground.

Now I expect, even if you haven’t heard the story before, you have a pretty good idea what happens next. This is where a good storyteller, seeing the “yeah, yeah, we know this” expression in the eyes of the audience will keep you engaged by asking what it is that you know happens next? It’s a win-win question of course: if you get it wrong you now want to know what could possibly be coming up instead of what you thought was obvious, and if you get it right you are equally keen to stay and be right some more. A brilliant, Norfolk storyteller I work with occasionally, called Mike Dodsworth, does a version of this five minute tale that lasts for half an hour. He starts off asking the audience what they had for lunch, or if they like vegetables. After ten minutes he eventually brings the conversation round to turnips, everyone joins in with the “and they pulled, and they pulled” bits and the whole thing is enormous fun! Nearly as enormous as that turnip which is still stuck in the ground.

So the old lady goes and gets their granddaughter and the girl holds on to the old lady and the old lady hangs on to the old man and the old man holds on to the turnip, and they pulled and they pulled and they puuuuuulled… but still the humungous turnip wouldn’t move.

One of the great things about this point of the story is that it is almost infinitely extendable. If you want to stretch it out you can add all sorts of relatives, neighbours… I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it with a postie getting involved. In the straight forward version, after the magical three family members it’s time to shift gear a bit. Who’s up next? Well, he is often considered a family member but not being human can make him a mildly comic surprise: it’s the dog. The dog takes hold of the girl etc. and they pu… well you can do that bit, you know how it goes, but whether Jack Russell or great Dane the result is still a static turnip.

More help is needed. After the dog it may seem a cliched step to add the cat but it is an important one. The inclusion of these age old rivals demonstrates the need to put aside our differences for the good of all. (The cat holds on to the dog…).

When the turnip still doesn’t move, the mouse demonstrates the infection of co-operation by volunteering. The mouse holds the cat, the cat holds the dog, the dog holds the girl, the girl holds granny, granny holds the old gaffer, and they all pulled, and they pulled, and they puuuuuuuuuulled… and out came the enormous turnip!
Which goes to show that even the smallest has value when we all pull together.

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