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.


About loopholestories

Storyteller and Artist in Residence at Fabrica for July and August as part of Cluster. www.jamiecrawford.co.uk
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2 Responses to Jamie’s 2nd blog – START HERE AND NOW

  1. Tim Ralphs says:


    Just read this following the comment on Cybermouth. It sounds like GuestHouse Storytellers night was something special. However, I find that in practice I’m giving the opposite advice to new tellers. Whereas you talk about getting people to work with personal stories and anecdotes before they touch traditional material, a lot of the brand new tellers I encounter in Sheffield are coming from creative writing background, and our telling their own works of fiction. And very often, the best advice I can give is: “Work with traditional material first.”

    I think it’s just that the techniques that work in short pieces of written fiction don’t necessarily carry over to oral performance, and that there are rhythms and deep messages in traditional folk tales that are already aimed at live telling. After getting a feel for these pieces, the jump to original performances stories seems much easier.

    But I will mull over what you said. I was running a workshop for young storytellers in Wem the other week, and several of them complained that they had trouble telling traditional stories seriously, they always seemed to put a comic or subversive slant on things. It’s possible that if they spent some time working on their personal experiences then they’d have found their own voice and a way of being sincere in their performances.

    Good blog, thanks for writing!

    • JC says:

      It’s a good question to zoom in on, Tim. Which comes first in storytelling, the personal or the traditional? Or rather, when should one precede the other? And I like the examples you cite.

      I would tentatively suggest that for someone walking into a storytelling off the street, as it were, and deciding they’d like to have a go. A personal experience is far more likely to catch the audience’s imagination. Even if the teller is a bit stumbling, the truth to life of their story will command attention.

      Traditional stories, on the other hand, are full of challenges, even for old hands like you and me, arf, as well of the kinds of gift you mention, and are therefore suitable material for those prepared to put a bit of time and effort into learning before they perform, on a workshop or course perhaps.

      At the Beyond the Border Summer School I taught, I became obsessed with the koan-like question

      What’s the story of the story?

      That’s because for me some kind of enquiry into why I have chosen to tell a particular story sooner or later leads to some kind of fruition in my final telling of the story. The answers to the question do not necessarily lead to personal stories but often they do. And those personal stories do not have to be told in performance to shape the telling, but it is fantastic to see the personal and the traditional working together on the lips of talented teller.

      Some of my very favourite shows have involved blends of one kind or another. I’d like to hear a few more of our top tellers exploring this ground more.

      And I think it might help raise the profile of traditional story. One of the very few kinds of story that we have not surrendered wholesale to forms other than face to face telling are personal stories and family anecdotes. It could be argued then that these are a bridge waiting to be crossed between the here-and-now and the Once upon.

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