Sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin: Once upon a time, says John Windsor, public storytelling dramatised popular culture, and the tradition is being revived

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The Independent Online
An international storytelling festival held last month at St Donat's Castle, South Wales, attracted 700 people. They listened to tales of fairies, ogres and witches' spells, of rags, riches, wisdom and folly, to epics of heroic quests and myths of creation.

At the start of the Eighties, Britain had no more than a dozen storytellers performing for payment. Now there are up to 300. A dozen storytelling clubs hold monthly sessions. Every week there are more than 100 performances in schools. But as Ben Haggarty, founder of the Crick-Crack Club, the driving force behind the revival, puts it: 'We are orphans to a tradition.'

Is that why I felt a lump in my throat when I attended my first storytelling in a converted stable at Smithy's Wine Bar in Leeke Street, King's Cross, London? In print, the stories would be deemed semi- literate curiosities: a native American boy with 'wildness in his soul' goes to live with bears; a queen bungles a fertility spell and gives birth to a monstrous worm that slithers off to lurk in the forest.

Out of the mouth of a storyteller such primitive imagery can acquire archetypal power. I felt I was being given back something that had been taken away.

The accomplished storyteller can charm his audience through vales of terror and pinnacles of joy. It takes a few minutes, or an hour, or two-and-a-half hours - the length of one Scottish tinker's longest tale, during which he never lost the thread. Shown a video of a tinker's performance, a television executive looked at his watch and said: 'Eleven minutes and my attention hasn't wandered yet. That's supposed to be impossible.'

Whenever Ben Haggarty performs in schools, he asks pupils how many of them watch television during family meals. Most hands go up. In many homes conversation is sparse. The bedtime story is a thing of the past.

So it is hardly surprising that storytelling has struck a chord. In championing our non-literate, storytelling forebears, the new storytellers have become the apologists for a primitive mentality that stored knowledge in the brain rather than in books or databases.

It still thrives in Asia, where pundits recite by heart even the Mahabharata, longest of all epics, in its original Sanskrit. Closer to home, John Campbell, a celebrated Irish storyteller, has located the old, primitive mentality on remote Irish islands where, he says, the best Gaelic is spoken by the most illiterate people. They have 'clear heads and wonderful memories', he says. Hugh Willbourn, one of the storytellers at Smithy's Wine Bar, says: 'We have become a literate culture that is not very literate.'

Paradoxically, it was the writings of a classics master, the late Walter Shewring of Ampleforth College, that introduced Mr Willbourn to the heretical notion that literacy may be neither an 'unqualified good' nor an 'indispensable condition of culture'. Mr Shewring taught that in ancient India, China and medieval Europe, men of letters were a clerical class, while what we now call literature was largely received by oral tradition. 'In such conditions,' he wrote, 'memory is vigorous and the spoken language resists decay.'

Mr Haggarty has found that today's schooling has not totally obliterated oral culture. With the encouragement of the National Oracy Project, he and 15 other storytellers spent three years visiting schools all over the country. He found that 'low ability' or unruly members of a class (often the same pupils) frequently turned out to be the most vibrant storytellers.

He recalls that at a school on an Ipswich council estate, 'A teacher came to us with tears in his eyes and said: 'I have to rewrite two reports; I had no idea from their written work that those two were capable of anything like that.' Then he added: 'I've never really heard either of them talk before.' '

Epics and creation myths were the stock in trade of ancient professional storytellers. But little remains of England's earliest epic mythology apart from the great Arthurian cycle. It is a wonder any tales survive at all: successive invaders (Romans, Saxons, Normans) superimposed their own tongues; Christian monks disdained pagan myths (though those in Ireland surreptitiously recorded some); the medieval Church lumped them with witchcraft; the Renaissance encouraged originality rather than tradition; the scientific revolution pooh- poohed old wives' tales; and the Industrial Revolution depopulated rural communities where, on storytelling nights, the rule was, 'Tell a story, sing a song, show your bum or out you're gone.' Finally, after the horrors of the First World War, no one felt much like telling stories.

Apart from the Arthurian legends, the few English stories that survive are 'fireside' tales - spinsters' and old wives' wonder stories and folk tales, the likes of Jack and the Beanstalk. It is mainly these fireside tales that are being elevated to the platform by the new storytellers.

As for technique, its revived form, even for fairy tales, is epic. The teller is taught to maintain the humility of a custodian of true knowledge and warned not to attribute the story's wondrous effects on the audience to his own skill. He or she is encouraged to use humour and trickery (such as saying 'Boo]' in a quiet bit) but even a fairy story must be delivered with respect for its inherent truths. Audiences regard theatricality and chumminess as fraudulent. They want the truth.

Children are often told stories in order to reinforce traditional values. The Ibo people of Nigeria have abolished their monarchy and are proud of their unusually democratic constitution. But besides tales of deposed tyrants, Ibo children hear stories teaching them to respect different cultures - such as a story about a boy who had never travelled and who thought his mother's soup was the best in the world.

Storytelling, according to Chinua Achebe, the Ibo novelist, is 'the basis of our existence - who we are, what we think we are, what people say we are, what other people think we are'.

I listened to Jan Blake, a young Manchester-born storyteller of Jamaican descent, at the Royal Festival Hall, telling a traditional Ibo story about a tortoise. The tortoise in all such tales is a trickster, so listeners know what to expect. In this one, the tortoise persuades the birds to invite him to a feast given by the sky people. On the way, he lies to the birds that their hosts expect each of them to adopt 'praise names' such as 'Daughter of Heaven'. He adopts the incongruous name 'All Of You', then asks the sky people 'Who is this food for?', receives the expected reply - and gobbles up the lot. He gets his comeuppance, of course.

Tales such as this forewarn children painlessly about the wiles of the adult world. Will they work here? That monstrous worm, the result of the bungled spell, insists on his right as first- born to marry first - and gobbles up a succession of princess-brides. He finally marries a shepherd's daughter who takes advice from the hen-wife who gave the queen the spell and, on her wedding night, insists on removing a layer of the worm's skin every time she removes a garment of her own - seven in all. Eventually, she is naked and the worm is 'a lump of red flesh on the bed'. She scrubs it and a prince emerges. They live happily ever after.

Whatever you make of that (Jungians go on about its 'redemption motifs'), it is clearly not kids' stuff. Alan Howe, a member of the National Oracy Project, says he finds the risk of political incorrectness to be the biggest fear of teachers tempted to explore storytelling in the classroom. But he and John Johnson, director of the project, were so inspired by the possibilities of storytelling that, besides producing books on the use of language for the project, they collaborated on Common Bonds - Storytelling in the Classroom (Hodder & Stoughton, 1992, pounds 7.99).

On the notion of stories containing 'gender or racial stereotypes, or actions that can be seen as morally questionable', it says: 'The classroom needs to be a place where these kinds of dilemmas can be pondered and discussed openly.' That is too tame for Mr Haggarty: 'Where's the spark, where's the danger?' he asks. 'It is all controlled, justified and made safe.'

So here is a storyteller's riddle to train you to handle 'difficult issues' in a storytelling performance: 'You are asleep and dream that you are on a bridge. Hungry tigers are approaching from each end of the bridge. The bridge catches fire. There are sharks in the water below. What should you do?' Answer next week.

The Crick-Crack Club publishes The Crack three times a year, annual subscription pounds 7.50 including p & p: Dalby Street, London NW5 3NQ (071-284 4367). Weekly Crick-Crack storytellings at the Candid Cafe, 3 Torrens Street, London EC1, from 2 November (7.45pm), entry pounds 3.50- pounds 4.50. The Society for Storytelling (subscription pounds 10), gives information on most storytelling venues: membership secretary Roy Dyson, 52 Normanton Lane, Keyworth, Nottinghamshire NG12 5HA (0602 376240). Hugh Willbourn is telling London stories at Smithy's Wine Bar, 7, 14, 21, 28 September (8pm), entry pounds 5 (booking: 071-837 1574).

(Photograph omitted)

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