Tales of the city: Story-tellers are coming together as a revolt against television. Dominic Cavendish hears the one about the tribal chief

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The Independent Culture
The King proclaims that any liar found entering the city will be hanged. When the notorious liar Nasrudin approaches the guards at the gate, they say to him, 'Prove to us you are not a liar'. Nasrudin replies, 'I have come to the city to be hanged'. The guards realise he is telling the truth and are forced to let him in.

When Violet Philpott finishes her story there is a short round of applause and then silence. The silence is just about to take hold, just about to become a problem, when a young woman leans forward and says, 'That reminds me of a story I once heard about Merlin'. The small group gathered in the Torriano Meeting House settle back in their chairs and wait to hear the one about Merlin.

This is the standard pattern for the Camden Ceilidh, a story-telling evening that takes place once a month in a quiet residential street in Kentish Town, north London. Candles are lit, wine bottles opened and for two hours or so, visitors entertain each other with myths, folk tales, riddles and even music. The evening is based along the lines of the Celtic Ceilidh, age-old communal get-togethers usually held during the dark winter months. 'There's no guarantee that people will turn up or that if they do, they'll tell stories,' admits Jenny Pearson, who set up the Ceilidh five years ago. 'But something always happens - someone always comes along to tell a story.'

Having been around at the beginning of the story-telling revival of the 1980s, Pearson can count on a few familiar faces, or 'old warriors', to get things moving. Tonight there's Violet Philpott with her dog Gypsy, and Dante, a Venezuelan harpist. But there are obvious newcomers too . . . those who are here to get a feel for the art.

The result is a blend of different subjects and styles. A man called Richard explains that he has been waiting 33 years to tell a story he once heard in the Nigerian jungle about the martyrdom of a local tribe chief; an Irish woman tells a Celtic fairy story and a businessman talks of the loss of Druid culture in Britain with the arrival of Augustine.

'We wanted to see if a Ceilidh in London was possible,' explains Pearson, 'and I think we've proved it can work.' Although she has seen people attending the Ceilidh go on to become professional tellers, the majority are there, she says, as a revolt against television. 'They are reclaiming their power of imagination instead of having everything done for them.'

The stories being swapped have simple 'Once upon a time' structures, vivid imagery and quasi-poetic refrains. Sitting in Torriano Meeting House, you realise that a sophisticated, urban audience is consciously reinventing fireside story-telling, an oral tradition that all but disappeared with the Industrial Revolution, surviving only in children's fables. In the 1990s, few of the stories in either the local group sessions such as the one in Camden or in larger events staged by professional story-tellers can be dismissed as tales for the young at heart.

'There is still this Victorian idea that the tales of primitive people are for children,' says Ben Haggarty, whose Crick Crack Club is staging a season at BAC, the art centre in Battersea. A flamboyant line-up of international professionals will, he hopes, further remove the prejudice that story-tellers are 'boring folkies and old hippies'. 'People are stunned by the apparent simplicity of the stories,' he adds. 'In fact it's deceptive. They tackle all kinds of taboos.'

His own evening of Eastern European tales which kicked off the season featured incest between brother and sister, a king who abducts his son's wife and a man devoured by his baby sister. Serious stuff, but Haggarty throws in jokes and dramatic flourishes to keep his paying guests engaged. For all the foreignness of the tales he weaves, you are left feeling completely at home. His stories take place, as he tells the audience, 'at the point where east and west meet . . . under your feet.'

Events include: Story-telling workshop 29 Jan, Central Library Croydon (081-760 5400); Croydon Festival 19 Feb (081-760 5400); Jim & Lynette Eldon 30 Jan, BAC, Lavender Hill, London SW11 (071-223 2223); Workshop, Bob Hope Theatre, Wythfield Rd, Eltham (081-467 9183); Camden Ceilidh 21 Feb (071-482 1817)

(Photograph omitted)

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