Jamie’s 5th blog – A Curious Friendship

One bright morning otter slinked up out of the river to go and pay a visit to his friend owl.

He came to owl’s oak and knocked but there was no answer. Owl was fast asleep. Otter whistled and chirped and listened but there was still nothing. Finally he tried a loud squeal, all to no avail, and so he went disappointed back to his pools.

That night owl flew from her nest intent on paying her friend otter a visit. She glided from the woods low over the river where otter had his holt, calling in the darkness, but otter heard nothing as he was fast asleep. She wheeled around and back shrieking out to her friend but with no result. She came to rest in a willow, waited a moment, gave a final hollow cry and lifted off and away through the trees.

Next morning otter awoke and again decided to try and see owl.

Fortunately for the two friends that day there was a total eclipse of the sun.

They met between the woods and the water, and there otter greeted owl with a question that had long been troubling him, and owl replied as she saw fit:

How might the old stories best be told today?

–      I don’t know

If you did know

–      by accident

–      by singing

–      by walking over uneven ground

 How might the old stories best be told today?

–      in an every day voice

–      by learning the names and lore of wildflowers, of birds

–      by talking to strangers in pubs, by listening to men in hi-viz jackets

–      by finding what the name of a place means

 How might the old stories best be told today?

–      by calling them something else

–      by knowing your own story

–      by sleeping with a book under the pillow

–      by choosing your moment

–      by telling them in a nutshell

–      by slipping one into the conversation at a party

 How might the old stories best be told today?

–      make ‘em laugh

–      make ‘em cry

–      know your audience, talk to them, listen

–      start with a strong image and get the ending right

How might the old stories best be told today?

–      I don’t know

–      by getting lucky

–      by not caring

–      by being at home with silence

–      by making yourself heard

–      by telling the stories that need to be heard

–      not venerating the ashes but spreading the fire

–      awakening in adults what never died in children

–      by not being boring

How might the old stories best be told today?

–      by waiting till someone says Tell us a story!

–      by those who tell them best

When the sun came out again owl and otter had vanished and of their conversation there remained no trace.

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Jamie’s 4th Blog – “Not for Cadwallader and all his goats”

Shakespeare, Henry V



It’s the story, Stupid!

On putting myself into the story

and the story into myself 


One morning Cadwallader noticed his favourite goat Jenny was missing.

When people ask me what I do my reply bores them.

He saw her halfway up the hill and went after her. But she kept on disappearing only to pop up again further up the slope. Higher and higher she led him, onto the rocks.

I told my friend Steve this the other day and he said, ‘You’re a storyteller so start with a story.’ And he reminded me of the following occurrence. On a course I was teaching, everyone was asked to choose and tell a story. One woman found the story of Cadwallader and started telling it.

In exasperation Cadwallader picked up a rock and threw it at the goat.

Her telling was full of pauses.

The rock hit her. She fell out of sight.

After an especially long pause, she said, ‘I don’t think I can go on.’

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked.

‘It’s my voice… I just feel so self-conscious. I’ve always had this thing about my voice.’

‘Well, we haven’t noticed a problem,’ I said. ‘You have a great storytelling voice, and we all want to know what happens next.’ She sat in silence, and then continued.

Cadwallader scrambled down the cliff and found Jenny where she lay dying. Full of remorse, he cradled her head in his lap and she looked at him with her big soft brown eyes.

And then there was no goat.

In her place stood a beautiful woman. ‘Oh, Cadwallader, have you found me at last?’ She took him by the hand and led him up a mountain. On and on they went and at the top they came to a great herd of wild goats.

The biggest billy goat of them all took one look at Cadwallader and butted him off the mountain. He hit his head on a rock and knew no more.

‘The thing I like best about storytelling is the silences.’ Abbi Patrix 

 Birdsong and sunshine awoke him next morning where he lay.

Of the woman and the goats there was no sign.

He never saw Jenny again.

No-one spoke. At last I said, ‘That is your story. You were Cadwallader and Jenny was the story and she kept on getting away from you. You nearly killed her in the middle there and yet that too helped make it something extraordinary. That is your story and I hope you keep telling it.’

That is her story.

This is mine. When people ask me what I do this is what I tell them.



 (Photos taken holidaying at my in-laws on the Isle of Portland in Dorset)


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Jamie’s 3rd blog – Out of Order at Beyond the Border

Paul Seligman

photo by  Paul Seligman

Couldn’t resist posting this shot of me in full flow on the last night of a wonderful storytelling festival.

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Jamie’s 2nd blog – START HERE AND NOW

and work your way back

What shall we do with the herring’s head?

We’ll make it into a loaf of bread

Last week I bumped into my friend David at the

Hillcrest Centre Café.

cafe menu picture

cafe picture

As we chatted over lunch my 2 blog questions arose.

What place is there for the old stories today?

How might those stories best be told?

I was particularly interested in the answers he would give as an intelligent outsider married to a writer and  storyteller who has himself attended many storytelling events.

In answer to the first question, he said he thought that there was still plenty of meaning for people today in traditional stories but that on the lips of inexperienced tellers the meaning tended to be lost, as if they had not properly researched the stories and were telling them simply as fairy tales for children (even with an adult audience).

What shall we do with the herring’s eyes?

We’ll make them into clear blue skies

In the west today oral storytelling is overwhelmingly regarded as an activity provided for children. (A very few kinds of story prove the exception to this rule: most obviously jokes, ghost stories and personal, family or historical stories.) This bias means that even when we try and tell stories to adults there is an unconscious tendency to dumb down in all sorts of ways, from the tone of voice we adopt to the choice of language and imagery used.

Gilgamesh    The Iliad    The Odyssey    The Ramayana     The Panchatantra

The Bible    The Canterbury Tales     The Decameron    A Thousand and One Nights

Most traditional stories were always told by, for and to adults and this is in no small measure what makes them difficult to tell well.  Just as the nut contains the tree, so the apparent simplicity of traditional stories, which is what enables them to be remembered and passed on through the spoken word, belies all the hidden complexity of the adult world within them.

What shall we do with the herring’s fins?

We’ll make them into needles and pins

Storytelling is a grassroots activity. Anyone can have a go. It’s accessible and open. That’s part of its beauty. The problem comes when greenhorns start trying to entertain a large paying audience. If you haven’t mastered the basic but sometimes elusive knack of keeping your voice from falling into a monotonous rhythm, within minutes of you opening your mouth people will be bored rigid and start creeping out as soon as they can.

David and I agreed that most beginners would be better off choosing personal stories for their first telling to a public audience, and then working their way up to traditional material, perhaps through family and historical tales. This template was exemplified in an event we had both attended a few days earlier: Stories of the Sea, hosted by The Guesthouse Storytellers at the Newhaven RNLI Station.

What shall we do with the herring’s tail?

We’ll make it into tackle and sail

Jack lost his fishing job when he threw back a fish with a gold crown on its head.

The stories were a mix of folktales by people interested in storytelling and real-life accounts of lifeboat rescues and the like by other locals, most of whom had no prior experience of formal storytelling.

What struck home is that the personal experiences recounted were at least as compelling as the traditional tales. What these newcomers might have lacked in performance technique they made up for in authenticity and naturalness. The environment helped, as the tellers were framed by a large triangular picture window at the south end of the first floor looking out to sea as the July dusk deepened and the harbour lights came on.

We’ll make it into a devil’s flail

Jack then met a stranger who offered him whatever he wanted in exchange for the correct answers to three questions. The good news was that he could have his heart’s desire right there and then while the questions would not be asked for seven years. The bad news was that the stranger had a cloven hoof and was after Jack’s immortal soul.

I deliberately chose a piece that would complement the homegrown tales with a comical version of Jack and the King of the Fish set in Newhaven and spliced through with snatches of song and audience participation.

We’ll make it into a milking pail

Jack said he wanted to be an ice-cream man. The stranger gave him a cow with a never-ending supply of clotted cream from its udders, and disappeared. Jack’s business flourished for seven sweet years…

It was another triumph for the Guesthouse Storytellers who have been going for five years now without a grant. In contrast to most storytelling clubs they were actually raising money for someone else… over £50 for the RNLI by the end of a well attended evening.

We’ll make it into an old folktale

…until the day the stranger stepped into Jack’s Ice Cream Parlour and asked his first question, ‘What am I thinking right now?’ Jack was flummoxed but an old man in the corner piped up, ‘You’re thinking he can’t answer your questions. Next!’ The old man outwitted the devil through the next two questions, tricking him of his prize, and sending him back to where he’d come from. Jack emerged from under a table to thank the old man but he too had vanished, leaving only a wet trail across the floor, out the door, over the seawall, down the beach and into the sea.

Too often storytelling clubs can be little ghettoes, tucked away from the world outside. Some tucking away is fine, especially when it’s for those taking their first steps in telling a story. But there is a lot to be said for taking storytelling to the community. Has to be done properly to work of course.

Herring’s tail

Old folktale

Herring’s fins

Needles and pins

Herring’s eyes

Clear blue skies

Herring’s head

Loaf of bread

And all manner of things.

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Jamie’s 1st blog – From that world to this world

I’ve just returned from the fabulous Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival at St Donats Castle on the South Wales coast, where I was performing and teaching.

The course I ran, Tell It Your Way, for entry-level storytellers, involved some learning for me too as I’ve never led a three day workshop before. Two areas of interest that arose for us are also pertinent to my Fabrica enquiry.

Beginner’s Mind

This is an idea borrowed from Zen Buddhism and refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. I believe it is especially relevant to storytellers in the west today, who are in many ways attempting to reinvent a native tradition that was almost extinct. Most of us do not acquire our repertoire and techniques direct from an unbroken lineage of master storytellers. Instead we scavenge, learning what we can from tradition bearers of various cultures, from printed versions of the stories, from other art forms and increasingly from each other.

Because there are less givens, each time we retell a traditional story we are compelled at some level to ask ourselves why we are telling it. Which leads me to my second point:

The story of the story

Each day I would start my teaching with a short story that I felt illustrated some aspect of the storytelling process. For example one day I told the Chinese creation myth of Pangu, a primeval giant whose body after death forms the world as we know it:

his breath the wind

his voice the thunder

his eyes the sun and moon

his body the earth

his blood the rivers

and so on!

One story behind the story of Pangu is the human imaginative faculty for understanding the incomprehensibly vast in terms of our own bodies. We still talk about the foot of the mountain, the mouth of the river and the head of the valley, for example. It is likely that versions of the myth was once told right across the Old World and its influence can be seen in many other stories (such as the legend of the Sleeping King.)

A second story behind the story is the deeper notion of using metaphor to create images of what is beyond us. Perhaps all art aspires to this.

A third story behind the story is the way that just as the dismembered parts of the giant’s body make up a world, so the disparate individuals in a storytelling performance cluster to form an audience and a teller whose purpose is to resurrect and embody the ghost of the story.

The point of elaborating the myth of Pangu in this way is to point to the fact that there is always more to the storytelling than the words told. A good storyteller will be sensitive to what German tradition calls the ‘red thread’, the secret inner life of the story that plays out in a different way for each listener. (For more on this see Dan Yashinsky‘s book Suddenly They Heard Footsteps.)

This doesn’t mean one has to analyse and intellectualise every story one tells. Sometimes it’s enough to ask, ‘Why am I telling this story to these people now?’ If the answer that comes is, ‘I don’t know, it just feels right,’ that’s fine!

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