Storytelling – getting the pictures from my head into yours


My contribution to National Storytelling Week 2017

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!


Where can you hear stories told?

STORY CLUBS in Hampshire and Wiltshire
Southampton Story Club 1st Thursday in the month 8pm-10pm
The Art House, 178 Above Bar, Southampton, SO14 7DW
Sarum Story Club 2nd Tuesday in the month 8pm-10pm
The Wyndham Arms, 27 Estcourt Road, Salisbury, SP1 3AS
Wykeham Tales 2nd Wednesday in the month 8pm-10pm
The Hyde Tavern, 57 Hyde Street, Winchester, SO23 7DY
Heads and Tales Story Club 3rd Thursday in the month 8pm-10pm
The Boston Tea Party, Unit 15 Furlong Centre, Ringwood, BH24 1AT
More stories: Sting in the Tale organises a story festival in East Dorset in August, and also advertises events throughout the year on its Facebook page
Mister Rook’s Speakeasy is in Frome and they have monthly shows [more performance than open mike with regular tellers] They also do an e-newsletter

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 
Andover Story Tellers will be meeting for the first time at Town Mills, 20 Bridge Street, SP10 1BL [we’ll be upstairs somewhere] on the first Tuesday of the month, which is February 7th… The previous club we started, Hare Today, had one meeting before the Lunar Hare closed its doors… let’s hope this is not an omen!

Silver on the Hearth

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.

The Magic Carpet

magic carpetThis is by Victor Vasnetsov, and brings a  certain Russian realism to the world of Araby. I haven’t yet read a story from the Arabian Nights which contains a flying carpet. Flying horses, yes, flying carpets, no. I feel I would need to know exactly what kind of carpet it  was, and where it was woven, and by whom, before I would trust it. Remember, too, that every weaver is supposed to weave in a deliberate mistake, because perfection is only for Allah, and given that a strict view of the Quran would forbid representation of any living creature, the pattern would probably contain writing, and who knows what that would say…?


bogatyriI’ve already mentioned them on my page on Russian Tales, the knights-errant from Kiev, but here is Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting of the three most famous, whose adventures are told in various byliny: Dobryna Nikitich [the courageous one] is on the left, Alyosha Popovich [the clever one] is on the right, and Ilya of Murom [the honest one] is in the middle. A full-length 1956 film about Ilya Muromets is here, with subtitles, and the English-language version is here.

As you can see, Bilibin is not the only brilliant artist. And Vasnetsov was given the honour of a Google Doodle.



frogprincessaRussian Tales have pictures in them that are every bit as bright as the pictures that Ivan Bilibin creates. Indeed, there are few artists whose works fit the tales they illustrate as well as his. These are the pictures I see in my head. These are the pictures I want to get into yours.

This picture is the beginning of The Frog Princess. Three princes each shoot an arrow into the air to find their brides – but an eagle catches the arrow of the youngest and drops it into a swamp, where a frog finds it and fulfils her destiny. You will find a picture of that elsewhere, on the Russian Tales page.

Tsar Saltan

tsar saltanThe Tale of Tsar Saltan is a poem by Pushkin and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov that is too rarely performed [like most of them], but I tell it differently, leaving out some magic bits and making the structure clearer. I also introduce Baba Yaga as joint villainess, which I think is completely appropriate.

In this picture, Tsar Saltan [who seems older than I would have expected, but then big beards are always impressive] is listening outside the merchant’s house to hear what each of the three daughters would do if they were to become Tsarina.

The picturesque dog does not, alas, seem to have a part in the story – but give me time, give me time!