Drizzle and Drink


Here in the UK we are not kind to our rain deities and grumble incessantly when they go about their business, which is especially harsh considering that sorting out precipitation is invariably only a fraction of their duties. Looking after the fertility of the land and keeping an eye on agriculture are often part of the job, and they can also get lumbered with storms, giants, livestock, weather in general, the year, alcoholic beverages and dragon slaying.

Rain is a feature of storms so you are fairly likely to get both as a job lot and sometimes end up with all the weather by default, though it is fairly common for everyday wind to be left to someone else and the Sun deity is unlikely to hand over their crown without a fight. The problem with being a storm god is that you will almost certainly be considered rather short on temper: Thor, Zeus, Jupiter and Susanoo-no-Mikoto (the Shinto storm god), are all famously quick and unpredictable rag-losers.

The link between rain and growing stuff is obvious so it’s no surprise to find agriculture on their chore list and once you have the crops you may as well handle the pastoral side too. The alcoholic beverage link may not be so obvious to us twenty-first century types but it follows on quite logically when you think about the crops that brewers use combined with water.

Mbaba Mwana Waresa, the South African rain and agriculture goddess, finds the gods a little too obsessed with weapons for her taste and decides to look for a husband amongst the mortals. She thinks she has found the right man when she hears Tandeeway singing about the crops, the cattle and the rain. After appearing to him in a dream she sets him a couple of tests: a storm that he does not hide from and a temptingly beautiful girl who he does not mistake for the goddess. As they enter in to marriage the gods suddenly start taking notice and get rather huffy about her having married a mortal as they do not consider the mortals as good as the gods. Mbaba Mwana Waresa, distressed that the two sides of her family have fallen out, goes for a walk on the plains, ambling between the great sorghum grasses. The ripe grasses give her an idea and she takes their seeds back to the village and mixes them with water. After a while the mixture ferments and becomes the first beer. She gives it to the mortals and it makes them more like the gods! The gods, looking down from the clouds and wonder if, maybe, they are not so different after all. They also wonder if they can have some of the new drink themselves. The goddess gives them the beer and after a while… it makes them more like the mortals! So by inventing beer Mbaba Mwana Waresa solves the conflict… and gets another thing to be goddess over.

As the June skies darken again and another downpour falls on our veg plot like someone tipping an olympic swimming pool over the garden, I know it is giving the crops just what they need to grow and fatten. With any luck we’ll get a bumper crop of raspberries and my own domestic goddess, Jo, will brew them in to another vat of her excellent mead.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Thoughts From The Road


I’m just back off tour. As with any journey there are some things that stick in ones mind. The colour draining from the face of the landlord when he realised he had completely forgotten that I was coming and had done no publicity at all. Thankfully I had, and a good turn out of old friends and internet contacts saved the night.


One thing that particularly made an impression on me this time was the extraordinary fact that the person who talks most during a performance is the one who is keenest to tell me how much they enjoyed it. How they enjoyed it when I could barely hear myself over their almost constant stream of interjections I don’t know, I’m all for a bit of interaction, its part of what keeps the show fresh and I often incorporate a good heckle into later performances, but some parts of stories require the audience to be absorbed in the narrative which is hard when someone won’t just be quiet for a couple of minutes. I suppose he was just excited by the newness of the experience, caught up in the moment and in a way I should be glad: Mr. Talky is at least engaging with the performance. At the far end of the bar there’s a couple of blokes who are just having a conversation. One has his back to me, he has consciously decided he is not going to acknowledge that something different is happening in his local. I do sympathise, I have talked the landlord in to breaking convention and booking some storytelling. The landlord has no real idea what it is going to be like. Mr Chatty and his pal have come down for a drink and a chat like they always do, it must be strange for them to find me orating away in the corner of what is practically their living room. It is not a theatre after all, it’s a pub with the bar right there in front of me. I’m pushing the boundaries of performance, we’re back in to pre-Shakesperian times. It’s not that there are no conventions but that there are conflicting conventions and it’s my job to unify them, and the audience. Pretty much all the seated customers are listening intently, the two guys on a table up by the end of the bar amaze me as they are right next to Mr. Chatty but keep their eyes on me the whole time, following every word and neither give up and fall in to talking themselves nor offer Mr.Chatty the opportunity to ‘step outside’. Occasional elements of the a story spark some memory or in-joke and suddenly the English Teacher sitting at this end of the bar is having a conversation with Mr. Talky across twelve feet of oak and beer pumps which makes it impossible for Two Excellent Beards to hear anymore so they start talking too, and I am now using my best theatrical projection to continue the story for the twenty odd people who are sitting nearest to me (and the two guys up by Mr.Chatty who are still somehow unfazed, though each wearing a look of slightly more intense concentration). Usually the assorted talkers do go quiet for a bit here and there, as a room full of hardened drinkers are slowly charmed by the poetry of the Finnish Kalevala or get drawn in bit by bit to the exploits of the Norse Gods. Mr. Talky has momentarily over-ridden his mouth and even Mr. Chatty down the end falls silent and looks over his shoulder, won over by a finely woven web of words or the spell of an ancient adventure cast anew.

Shows where the audience have self-selected and especially where they have paid as well are much easier and often more fun as I can play with the stories a little more when the audience are already with me. Nevertheless it is on the difficult pub gigs where I have to win the customers over and make them into an audience that I know I am really doing my job, not just preaching to the converted, but taking the stories to a new audience, giving the folk back what a fast paced, modern, consumerist culture has taken from them. I hope I stick in their mind as much as they do in mine.

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

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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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