Tag Archives: Storytelling

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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The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Sun, Sun goddesses and gods, Uncategorized

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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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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Filed under Mythology, Spring, Uncategorized

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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