I am telling stories all day on February 1st in Newbury: two sessions with Primary School Pupils, one with adults who are free in the afternoon, one with older children in the early evening, and a two-hour show of Russian traditional stories and Stalin anecdotes, called In a State of Terror.
I’ll tell you what I did after I’ve done it.
The venue sent me an interview questionnaire, and here it is with my answers:
Interview Questions for my Narrathon at Newbury on February 1st, 2017, at the Arlington Arts Centre
How long have you been storytelling?
I have been writing stories since I was eight. When I started going to Southampton Story Club, I would read my stories aloud. They were often written to sound as though they were being told.
The first time I actually told a story was in 2002 – and in the same week I used the same story to stimulate activity in a drama lesson at school. It was Big Claus and Little Claus, by Hans Christian Andersen, which I had read aloud to children in Heffer’s Children’s Bookshop in Cambridge in 1969. It is still one of my favourites, but I don’t tell it very often, because it is selfish at story-clubs for one teller to occupy 35 minutes, and it won’t tell in any shorter time.
What was it that originally attracted you to become a storyteller?
I acted from the age of 13. Storytelling gives me all the fun of acting with no rehearsals, no lines to learn, no worry about costumes or props or other people messing things up – it is pure contact with the audience, and pure responsiveness to the audience as well, because I can change things as I go. When you tell a story, you are not just reproducing it – you are creating it.
What is the best part of telling these stories to children and young people?
Most of my storytelling has been to other adults in story-clubs held in the evenings, often in pubs. There may be some stories I would not tell to children, because I would have to explain too much, but there are no stories I tell to children that I would not tell to adults. There are two good parts to storytelling: the audience and the story. You can feel when the audience is with you, when you are sharing the story with them, and they are contributing to its atmosphere and its excitement. Actors will tell you that a good play carries them along. This is even truer of stories: as a teller, you climb inside and let it take you along for the ride. If you need it to be longer, you tell the audience more about the things you can see in your mind, if you need it to be shorter, you tell them less.
Which story is your favourite to tell?
At the moment, my favourite story is one that I call The Widow of Lymington. I stole it from a big collection of Norwegian traditional tales and transplanted it to England and added a thought on the end that came out of my own life. I like it because of the unexpected way in which it achieves its happy end.
If you could get your story telling out onto an even bigger platform what effect do you think it would have on children and the way they perceive tales?
The magic is in the stories. A storyteller is someone who can hear that magic and doesn’t get in the way of it. They try to make it louder, so that others can hear it more clearly. Once others have heard it, they will want to pass it on. A really good story will make those who hear it want to become storytellers, even if only to tell their friends who weren’t there the story that they heard. Not everyone is musically talented – I’m certainly not! Not everyone has the forcefulness of character to act on a stage. But if you can speak to another person, then you can tell a story. The story will help you make contact with other people. Traditional stories seem to be about things from the past: princes, princesses, kings and queens. Or about fantasies: witches, wizards, curses, spells and monsters. But they’re really about people and their emotions and their personal qualities: pride and humbleness, boasting and modesty, hatred, anger, jealousy, greed, courage and fear. The more stories you hear, the more you recognise that. The more stories you hear, the less you take them for granted as mere entertainment, the more inclined you are to put yourself into them and say, ‘What would I do in those circumstances?’ You begin to recognise yourself and the people you know in them. That’s what I hope will happen when I tell stories.
Why do you think that storytelling is something that should never be lost? Should we be working to bring it back as a strong tradition?
Storytelling is a way of making sense of the world. It is a way of creating a world and making things happen, good things and bad things. Of course, you can write a novel, and maybe get it published, and maybe get some people to read it. But you can tell a story right now to the people around you. And best of all is when one of those people says, ‘That reminds me of a story I heard once…’ and tells another one back. That is what creates a strong community, to which everyone contributes, and that’s what we want – not a group that produces entertainment and a group that consumes entertainment, which is what we have.
All story-clubs welcome and encourage new tellers and show them ‘the tricks of the trade’ – because storytellers want to hear stories told to them!
Yesterday, looking for new stories, I was browsing in Ralston’s Russian Fairy Tales and came across a story about the rivalry between the prophet Elijah [venerated under the name of Ilya in Russia] and Saint Nicholas. I learnt from Ralston’s own notes that Elijah had responsibility for what came down from the skies: thunder, lightning, hail, weather in general – indeed, in Old Novgorod there were two churches dedicated to Elijah, and you prayed in one to ask for rain to start and in the other for it to stop – they were known as Wet Elijah and Dry Elijah.
However, I needed Google to tell me that Elijah was the patron saint of Russian paratroopers, whose national day therefore falls on August 2nd, which corresponds to July 20th of the Orthodox calendar, Elijah’s day, around harvest-time.
These only apparently random facts make a good introduction to the story, but what I found interesting was the way in which the story grew under my hands. The peasant in it worships Nicholas, rather than Elijah, and when Nicholas, chatting with Elijah, hears that the prophet plans to ruin the peasant’s crop with hail, the saint advises the peasant to sell his crop in advance to the priest of Elijah’s church. Selling your crop in the field is, of course, a recipe for financial disaster and establishes the dominance of financiers over farmers. Here, however, it is a piece of insider dealing, prudence masquerading as profligacy.
When Ilya and Nikolai wander that way again, and Ilya smirks at the destruction his hail has wrought, Nikolai wipes the smile off his face by telling him that the ruined crop is now owned by the prophet’s priest, which moves the prophet to declare that he will sort matters, which moves Nikolai to urge the peasant to go to the priest and buy back the ruined crop.
This is where my habit of tidying up motivation produced a mischievously creative addition. Nikolai suggests that the peasant should tell the priest that he feels guilty about the loss the priest has sustained, and offer him half the purchase-price to buy back the field, so that they share the loss between them. It was then that the imp in my brain made the peasant say, ‘Will he believe me?’ and made Nikolai say, ‘He’s a priest – they believe anything.’
Elijah can’t have been listening, because I wasn’t immediately struck down by lightning.
That first little addition came to me after the first time of telling, which was an impromptu ‘bare-bones’ job at an under-attended poetry-group yesterday morning, and it went into the first proper telling last night, at Southampton Story Club. But on the drive home another little twist occurred to me. After the first couple of incidents, and even more after the threshing, which I’ll let you read about for yourself, Ilya strongly suspects that Nikolai is in collusion with the peasant, which Nikolai naturally denies. Ralston’s version simply has Nikolai appear to the peasant, but it felt much more natural to me to have the saint appear in a dream. But a peasant, who has been working hard all day, will not necessarily want to have his sleep disturbed, so, when he complains about this, Nikolai can explain that it’s simply so that Elijah won’t find out, but he is suspicious, which leads neatly into the final encounter, which again I’ll let you read for yourself.
This is another of the things that make me love storytelling: the stories are alive, and grow.
This is the link to the Earthouse, an amazing turf-roofed building where stories are told. Ring the East Dorset Heritage Trust, 01202 888992, for tickets and further information.
Poetika is a poetry open mic evening, 3rd Wednesday in the month 7.30pm-9.30pm in The Cloisters, 83 Catherine Street, Salisbury SP1 2DH
The theme was The Devil in the Detail, so I thought I would tell the Grimm story Bärenhäuter (Bearskin), but I also wanted to make it mine. It seemed to me that having to stay dirty for seven years would be more of a challenge for a man who liked to be neat and clean, so the ordinary soldier became an officer, who put on his last dash of perfume and stripped off his fine clothes because he knew their value, and they would settle the last of his debts, together with five of his six remaining bullets, before he shot himself on the deserted heath. The bear, which the Devil summons up to test the officer’s courage, is not a real bear, but a bearskin animated by magic, though scary enough to make the officer use his last remaining bullet, which, in a sense, forces him to abandon suicide and take the Devil’s challenge (and avoids the messiness of having to skin a bear on the spot, and the need to harm a protected species in the telling of a story).
Having lodged Bearskin in an annex to the stables, with poorly-built walls, it was a simple matter to send the distressed businessman to a store-room next door, where Bearskin could hear, through a handy knot-hole, his lamentations as he prepared to hang himself. After he has restored the merchant’s fortunes, Bearskin accepts his invitation to visit his home, not out of any desire for marriage, but because he is lonely for human society. The two elder daughters (do they have a different mother from the youngest? I don’t know) refuse even to meet him. In a piece of prefiguring (which occurred to me too late, but which I will use next time I tell it) one of them says she would sooner hang herself, the other that she would sooner jump down a well than meet him. The youngest, who really loves her father, makes the offer of marriage to Bearskin, since she is the only thing she truly possesses that she can give him in gratitude, and they do the stuff with the ring that is already in the story.
After which, everything unfolds as it does in the text… though I will leave it to the Devil to tell Bearskin about the suicides of his sisters-in-law, and let him decide when to tell his wife… we’ll simply have them stomp off in high dudgeon before the wedding.
These are my methods: to preserve what I see as the point of the story, but to reinforce motivations and remove what I feel to be unnecessarily offensive, especially if I can do it cleverly.
People will know the story about the man who sees Death in the marketplace, and sees Death looking at him in a meaningful way. Thinking to avoid Death, the man flees, takes horse, rides furiously to a distant city – the distance and the city vary in different versions – where, the day after his arrival, the man again encounters Death. Since it is, as they say, a fair cop, the man goes quietly, but he asks Death why he looked at him meaningfully. Death says that he looked at him in surprise and puzzlement, seeing him in that city, because he had it down on his list that he was supposed to collect him in this city, the one in which they are now.
If you google this, you will come across John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra in the first place, and Somerset Maugham in the second place, who has Death tell it to eponymous hero of his play Sheppey. Idries Shah claims it as a Sufi story in his Tales of the Dervishes. There is a good account of various possible sources here. Even Saki has a version.
All in all, the earliest written version is in the Babylonian Talmud, compiled around 500 CE, and if you’re picky enough to want to go to the source, it’s here, in Tractate Succah section 53a [this is the easiest to consult – there are other Talmuds on the web, but they don’t always print the section designations in a clear way].
And this is what I made out of it, in my own story, which sets the events in France and Gloucestershire during WW1 and later, and also includes a mummers’ play. Only long after writing it did I learn that there were other Thankful Villages – though probably not for the reason advanced in my story.
I first heard this story told by Suzanne Houston at Heads and Tales Story Café in Ringwood three years ago. She had come across it in Doctors on afternoon television, where it provided the framework for a sad story of Afghani refugees. [You can watch it here.] There are various versions on the net, e.g. this one, but when I tell it I’m afraid I emphasise the poor relationship already existing between the farmer and his wife, and I also stress that the neighbour is thinking of deceiving the wife, and saying that the jar of coins was missing or empty, before he opens it and finds the poisonous snake [I only have one – it’s a small jar, and I don’t want any animals harmed in my stories, if I can help it]. This makes it clear that we find what we seek.
Quite recently, I found a reference to another occurrence of the story – not as a main story, but as an aside about women’s inability to keep a secret – presumably the story itself was well-known enough in another contexts for the teller to refer to it briefly but clearly. The source is also Afghan – more particularly Pashtun.
Most recently, I came across a version of it in a tale from Africa, though it seems to be from East Africa, and influenced by Islam, which may account for the transmission, since the story itself has the feel of a Sufi tale.
So – is it poverty of imagination? Or the ability to see the fairytale world in reality? Sleeping Beauty, too, has a real-life, semi-overgrown castle as her model in Ubbelohde’s world. But then the Grimm stories DO take place in sleepy old Germany… and the interiors in Schmidhammer are just as real…