The Week In Books: Once upon a time in a field at a festival
Friday 15 August 2008
Once upon a time, before the amazon Kindle, before the Penguin mass market paperback and before the Gutenberg printing press, stories belonged to the people and they got them from storytellers. There were wandering troubadours instead of Waterstone's and ballads rather than Big Brother, and the "revolutionary new e-ink" would have seemed as far-fetched as the "revolutionary new ink". Now things are different: books come with a battery life measured in units of War and Peace and stories can come with you everywhere except in the bath or the rain. But the storytellers haven't gone away.
I noticed this for the first time this summer as I sat cross-legged in the mud at the Big Chill festival's Words in Motion tent and John Hegley told a story about a dog. This year's festival was a real treat for the kind of gig goers who like to listen to the words. It was Leonard Cohen (right) – an old-fashioned troubadour in a big black hat - who blew us all away. But I noticed that his audience and Hegley's listened with the same expression. Sprawling on the ground or swaying in front of the main stage, their faces were those of children listening to stories, with the same wonder as if they were hearing all about the princess and the pea.
Hegley and Cohen have different styles and different methods. Cohen (Hallelujah/ do you) admitted in a recent interview that he uses a rhyming dictionary to write his songs. Hegley (I am a guillemot/ I don't eat Krill a lot) told me over a fried breakfast in a field that he doesn't. "But it's allowed." But what they both do is tell old, atavistic stories, and tell them with a storyteller's glee.
I saw those storybook faces again at the Cropredy festival the following weekend, where old folkies Fairport Convention are still spinning the yarn about Matty Groves in a way that makes all the hairs on your arms stand on end, and Richard Digance recites the history of Britain, with audience participation and jokes. Outside the children's tent was a crowd of kids (up to the age of at least 58) sitting rapt before John Row, a storyteller with a big black hat, a long white beard and eyes as blue as in any story. He was bewitching. As he unwound his tales, layers of stress and bluster fell away and left a crowd of children at a parent's knee. Later, Row told me about the bardic tradition and his work in prisons: he's the most famous storyteller-in-residence at HMP Wayland after Jeffrey Archer, but, unlike Archer, the Storybook Dads scheme he takes part in is proven to reduce reoffending.
Meanwhile, at the Edinburgh fringe this weekend, the star is Daniel Kitson, a storyteller whose show 66a Church Road was described by this paper on Wednesday as "poetic and poignant". "There's a whole new generation of storytellers," says Row. My advice is to find one of them and a comfy rug this summer. They can store an infinite number of stories, and their battery life will astound you.
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