Tall tales: Meet the storytellers spinning edgy new yarns for the digital age

Spinning a good yarn is the most ancient of entertainments – but thanks to the iPod generation, it's getting a new lease of life

Lena Corner
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:33

Should you be at a loose end in the country next Saturday night, in a field in Higher Ashton, not far from Exeter, you'll find a storyteller named Martin Shaw. He will be giving a rendition of the 13th-century European masterpiece Parzival – a tale of knights, loyalty, romance and the search for that pesky, elusive Grail. He plans to start his yarn before midnight and finish some time around daybreak. Bring coffee and a warm blanket, advises Shaw; it's an all-nighter, but not as you know it.

Shaw's marathon tale is one of the highlights of next weekend's Westcountry Storytelling Festival, a three-day extravaganza of myth, saga, epic and plain-old fairy story told by the top tale-spinners on the circuit. While it's not quite Glastonbury, it has slowly been gathering followers. "We started out nine years ago with a group of about 100 people gathered in a meadow in Devon," says artistic director Chris Salisbury. "Since then it has grown exponentially." It's a similar tale in South Wales at the Beyond the Border festival, which takes place against the dramatic medieval backdrop of St Donat's castle, perched on a cliff-edge. When it started in 1993, a humble three storytellers featured on the bill. Now there is a cast of 90 telling tales to an audience of a few thousand. It is the biggest festival of its kind in the world.

"Storytelling is an art form with deep integrity," says Salisbury. "It is so simple and stripped-down. A good tale well told doesn't need set design or costume. It's as if our lives have all become a bit complicated and this is what we seek."

The revival of interest in the art form can be traced to the mid-1980s when Hugh Lupton, Ben Haggarty and Sally Pomme Clayton formed a collective called the Company of Storytellers. The group spent the next decade tirelessly promoting its craft, teaching new blood how to spin a yarn and, crucially, persuading people that storytelling was a valid adult art form. "There was a misconception that stories were to be told only to people under the age of six," says Salisbury. "People began to realise this wasn't necessarily so."

Prior to this revival, the oral tradition had undoubtedly been on its last legs. One of the last remaining troubadours was Duncan Williamson, a Scottish traveller who had a repertoire of 3,000 riddles, tales and ballads he'd learnt at his grandmother's knee. He took to the road at the age of 14 to share his extraordinary knowledge, but died three years ago at the age of 79. "It really was a forgotten art form," says David Ambrose, festival director of Beyond the Border. "Our forebears knew all about it but we forgot how vital it was. I think it was a social thing, to do with the fragmentation of the family unit. I'm sure TV played a part, and the rise of literacy – we live in a world where things can be written down so we no longer have need to remember them."

Although storytelling occupies a territory somewhere between comedy, poetry and theatre, its reputation also suffered due to an association with crusty old men telling tales of goblins and dragons. "When it gets done badly, and it does, it is truly awful," says Salisbury. "It's a folk tradition which comes from the heart so you do get a right old mixture. At least at festivals there is a quality-control filter in place."

Ambrose believes storytelling's revival is tied up with a resurgence of interest in live performance, particularly music. "For a while we all became a bit infatuated with TV, film and digital art forms, but people have become hungry for live experiences again," he says. "You only have to look at what's gone on in the music industry. Live performance of any art does something that recorded performance can't." '

Most storytellers describe their craft as the art of painting visual images in listeners' heads. Some believe that to tell stories is their birthright and calling, while others study at one of the many storytelling schools in the UK. It is never, ever about reading aloud: Salisbury compares good storytelling to improvised jazz; as the musician riffs on a familiar tune, so the storyteller breathes new life into familiar tales.

And so the scene continues to grow. You only have to look at the audiobook market, currently one of the few areas of growth in the publishing industry, to see how much our appetite to have stories told to us has been whetted. The scene is particularly vibrant in Scotland, with much new work coming out of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, and in Shropshire, where the annual Festival at the Edge attracts thousands. Meanwhile, in London, the Crick Crack Club at the Barbican, also started by Ben Haggarty, has raised the bar for storytelling and often sells out weeks in advance.

A final indication that something is afoot is that finally storytelling has spilled out from within its specialist confines. Literary festivals such as Bath, Cheltenham and Hay have brushed aside any snobbish preconceptions and welcomed the tellers in and now even mainstream festivals such as Latitude, Cropredy, Big Chill and Port Eliot all feature serious storytelling programmes.

Ambrose believes his job now is simply to continue spreading the word. "The business of telling and the business of listening is deeply, deeply inside us," he says. "The Greek myths, Persian epics, Arabian Nights, Brothers Grimm, they form the backbone of what we know of the world and give us the ability to say something about what it is to be human. It's our job to make it speak to now."

For more: weststoryfest.co.uk, beyondtheborder.com

The modernisers

Spoken Ink

Spoken Ink was born out of a love for the modern short story. "I had written a collection of short stories and tried to get them published. I was told to forget it; there was no market for them and they wouldn't sell," says the group's 24-year-old director, Ed Caldecott. The knockback got him thinking, and he decided that if he couldn't publish his own short stories, then he would like to tell other people's. He called Ian McEwan's agent and, with very little trouble, secured the rights to an early short story he had written called "Solid Geometry". "I realised there were whole swathes of short stories out there that simply weren't being used," he says.

In 2008, Caldecott set up Spoken Ink with co-director Constantine Gregory and fellow storytellers Emily Randall, Adam Newsome, Jo Heap and Ruth Everett, as a vehicle to bring the short story to a modern audience. Since then the group has made a name for itself using authors such as Angela Carter, Raymond Chandler and Neil Gaiman in its repertoire. Caldecott cites Mark Twain as inspiration. "He used to travel around America telling his short stories in the local bars and saloons. They would be packed out with cowboys listening to him and wondering about life beyond the prairies."

It's a refreshing update on an ancient art and Caldecott is keen to point out that his group's stories have nothing to do with goblins, dragons or grails of any sort. "What we've done is take modern stories with modern themes and present them to a whole new audience," he says. "Our aim is to draw our stories out in every different way possible."

Alongside live shows at festivals such as Standon Calling, Spoken Ink has set up a website, selling a whole host of audio short stories, from Roald Dahl's "The Hitchhiker" to Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge", that would otherwise be languishing unpublished and unread. "Short stories should be distributed live and out loud, not shoved in some collection and forgotten," says Caldecott. "Now the iPod generation can consume them in the way they were meant. We're trying to take the idea of storytelling away from the weirdy beardy image; it's getting a lot cooler. "

For more: spokenink.co.uk

The elder statesman

Hugh Lupton

Anyone you speak to on the circuit will tell you that Hugh Lupton, 58, is the elder statesman of storytelling. He is one of only a handful of people who have actually managed to make a living for the past 30 years simply by telling stories.

Lupton spent his early career working with children in schools, but in 1985 he came across Ben Haggarty, who was running arguably the first storytelling festival the UK had seen at the Battersea Arts Centre. The pair, along with Sally Pomme Clayton, set up the pioneering collective the Company of Storytellers, kick-starting the storytelling revival.

Lupton comes armed with an extensive library in his head and guesses he has several hundred stories in his repertoire, covering everything from epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey to 14th-century Middle English yarns such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. "I try to cover quite a range," he says. "It's a language of pictures. What you are trying to do as a teller is project images into the mind's eye of the listener. I tend to learn stories as a sequence of images first and foremost, then the language winds around the pictures."

Lupton has taken his stories to the National Theatre and the Southbank's Purcell Room and has toured the United States and South America as well as South Africa. It's a vocation he believes he was destined for. "I think storytelling is a sort of possession because in order to tell a story you have to internalise it, take it into your whole body and hardwire it into your nervous system," he says.

"There is a belief among the travellers that when you tell a story, the person you heard it from is standing behind you and the person he heard it from is standing behind him, and so on. Storytelling is about straddling history, in that one part of you is trying to honour the voices that have gone before and the other part is trying to make it speak to the now. We are a conduit for these ancestral voices."

'The Ballad of John Clare', Hugh Lupton's first work of fiction, will be published by Dedalus in October

The performer

Jan Blake

Jan Blake, 46, is all about big-performance storytelling and is widely recognised as one of the best in the UK, if not Europe. She grew up in Manchester to Jamaican parents and moved to London in 1983 with the hope of becoming an actress. "I soon realised that entering theatre was perhaps not such a good idea, because I wasn't very good at taking direction," she says

In the mid-1980s a chance meeting brought Blake into contact with a storytelling group called Common Lore, which invited her to audition. "I brought a book of West Indian folk tales and told one called 'Why Puss and Dog are no Longer Friends'." Blake was hired on the spot.

In 1986, Ben Haggarty offered her £60 to take part in a festival he was programming at the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford. "I went along and found myself in the company of all these great poets and storytellers," says Blake. "But 'Puss and Dog' went down a storm. Ben came up to me at the end and gave me a book called The Magic Orange Tree by Diane Wolkstein and said to me, 'You are a storyteller. You have to tell stories for the rest of your life.'"

In 1994 Blake performed at Beyond the Border and has never looked back. "It wasn't until I did that festival that I fully realised my impact as a storyteller," she says. "You know you're good at something but you don't realise how good you are. It was there that my career really took off and my name spread all over Europe."

Her favourite performance pieces are tales of power and magic, such as trickster tales or shape-shifter stories. She also loves anything with a strong female protagonist. Blake is currently working on an ambitious global project with 13 other countries inspired by a 10th-century eco fable called "The Case of the Animals Vs Man Before the King of the Jinn". Her hope is that the piece will be included in the 2012 Olympic celebrations.

"I've been doing this for 24 years," she says, "and still I haven't got a website. Everything I do is spread by word of mouth. More than anything, this is testament to the fact that the oral tradition is not dead."

Blake will appear at the Westcountry Storytelling Festival next weekend. For more: companyofcommonsense.com

The conduit

Taffy Thomas

Taffy Thomas grew up on the Yeovil folk scene and, after graduating from teacher-training college in Dudley, ran his own storytelling club as well as a folk-theatre company called the Magic Lantern. One day, however, while at a festival in Lancashire, his career nearly came to an abrupt end.

"I was pedalling the rest of my storytelling group up a hill on a tricycle when suddenly I started having massive convulsions," he says. "Burnley General was my next call." At the tender age of 36, Thomas had suffered a huge stroke through which he lost the use of the left side of his body and, even more tragically, his ability to speak.

It took three years for him to get his voice back – and Thomas believes telling stories was his cure. He has since been awarded an MBE for services to storytelling and, in 2009, was nominated to become the UK's first Laureate for Storytelling, a post he holds for two years.

More than any other teller around today, Thomas is the link between the great voices of old and the modern day. He has actively sought out purveyors of the old oral tradition to learn their stories and keep the craft alive.

"I went to see the late, great storyteller Ruth Tongue. She was a vicar's daughter from Yeovil and very eccentric. Some of the stories she passed on to me, about the magical 'sea morgan' off the north coast of Somerset, I have been telling just this week."

Thomas also sought out Betsy Whyte, a Scottish traveller who also taught him many of her tales. "She was my mentor," says Thomas. He also tracked down the Irish musician and storyteller Séamus Ennis, and spent the last year of Ennis's life with him, as well as Duncan Williamson and Tommy Morrissey – a fisherman from Padstow, who passed on many old salty tales of the sea.

"All of these people who came before me are now ghosts standing behind me. I believe I am keeping them alive in some way by keeping their stories alive."

For more: taffythomas.co.uk

The rising star

Rachel Rose Reid

"I grew up in London and went to the Weekend Arts College in Camden where [hip-hop artist] Ms Dynamite and [singer-songwriter] Paloma Faith went," says 28-year old Reid. "It's for urban kids who don't have the money to go to Sylvia Young." Reid also spent her youth being taken to storytelling festivals by her parents. "I think sometimes in the city we only see a stereotype of folk culture," she says. "My upbringing showed me a way of bridging that."

Reid comes from a long line of storytellers. "My family came to the UK about 100 years ago from Eastern Europe. My great-grandfather was a cobbler and used to tell endless stories to my dad about Romania and Russia and the land he had come from. It's so nice to be connected to that."

Coming from such a rich oral tradition, initially Reid struggled to find how she fitted in. "When I was little and going to festivals I had no problem at all telling stories, but growing up surrounded by amazing storytellers was intimidating," she says. "When I hit my teens I became very quiet and reserved. It just took me a while to find my voice."

But find it she did and in 2007 Reid was crowned Young Storyteller of the Year. She has since become something of a rising star on the festival circuit. This year she has performed at Latitude, Secret Garden Party, Camp Bestival and Port Eliot, and is currently in Edinburgh doing a piece entitled Rachel Rose Reid: I'm Hans Christian Andersen. "The Victorians made him a children's writer, but I think he probably fits more closely into the world of Angela Carter," she says. "I really enjoy reclaiming stuff and have reclaimed this for the grown-up world in which it belongs. I love the way Hans Christian Andersen stories are never resolved. They always end up with things exploding or evaporating. It's a great antidote to all the happy endings at Disney." n

Rachel Rose Reid is showing at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, at 2.05pm until 29 August; rachelrosereid.com

The extract

'If Dead Fish Could Blink' by Adam Marek as read by Stephen Thorne, Spoken Ink

Rupi's pace has slowed. There is not enough meat on his bones to sustain such a flight. His broken shoes flap hard against the cobbles. Doorways slip past. He could knock at any one and it would not be opened to him. As we pass these doorways, indulge me for a second as we linger at a window too greened up for anyone else to see the couple inside. The sweaty putty of their limbs slapping together antagonizes the dust mites. They pant too. Their lungs speckled with mildew.

But Rupi slips away from us. Now out of the terrace, and on to the long stretch, down past the bio-power station, where the sound of electric slurry crashing into the river drowns the footsteps of his pursuers. For a moment he thinks they are gone, but he dare not look back.

Moving along just ahead of Rupi, we see over his shoulder that the policemen are gaining. They are sweating in their jackets and their silver buttons rattle against their chests. They no longer call out. They save their breath for the pursuit.

Not one of these men will stop and show himself a weakling to the other two. They bite through their exhaustion, salivating. They no longer care about the fish. They only care about beating the thief. In fact, look now, the one in front licking the sweat from his chops already has his stick in his fist.

While we have been watching them, they have closed more distance on him, as if our attention has sped them along. Let us catch up with Rupi, blow at his heels, become breathless ourselves.

Here are the steps down. Watch Rupi's practised slide on the algae- slicked rail. He hits the ground running, his fingers stretched out as if the air were a substance he must claw his way through. Tucked inside his jacket, the fish nods encouragement.

We overtake Rupi and the city around us blurs. If only he could move so quickly. We zip ahead to Rupi's home. Over the canal and hidden people waiting, over the inner city wall, past the guards at the gate, past the tall tenements where the buildings lean and whisper to each other, where the residents fly their underpants like flags. Further on, to the last of the city.

Here, long ago bombs have brought underground rivers to the surface and made a misery factory of the suburbs. Here we find Rupi's family home. A house hunched for comfort in the arms of a dead willow. Crouch with me on the floor, where toadstools pry loose the skirting boards. Rupi's mother mashes bog garlic in a pestle. The smell is so strong that the dragonflies swoon...

Rupi's dad comes back from the stream with a bucket full of crayfish. Only here, on this revolting circumference of the city, are tastebuds dull enough to eat these armoured shit-scoffers. Rupi usually likes to kill the crayfish, but he and his brothers are late again....

Full download is available free at spoken ink.co.uk. Enter pass code 'Independent'

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