So, the first week of March and I travelled down to Bath to stay with my friend Harry. Next day, Wednesday, I worked in a school in Bristol, running Poetry workshops for KS2 children. Wonderful fun. I used a structure-based approach similar to the work I do with StoryMaking, and the staff were amazed at how the right level of limitation liberated the children’s imagination. After my first class there was a break and, as she entered the staff room, my class’s teacher smiled broadly at a colleague.
“If only all learning could be like that!” she said.
And I sincerely believe that more of it can. The children created complex poems in which an everyday object tells their own story. Some poems were riddles and you had to guess what the object was, and some were metaphorically very rich. Everyone wrote something and now the staff will take these beginnings on further. Proper job satisfaction for me.
On Thursday, Harry and I did our best to destroy the best that Bath had to offer in the matter of ales and pies (very good at The Griffin). I saw a moving play at Bristol Old Vic called Pink Mist. Actually, it was very storytellery as all the characters narrated the story straight to the audience. There was no set and minimal props and actors created scenes with movement and posture. I’ve got so much to learn there. I happened to be seated amongst a clump of 6th Formers, A Level drama students. Kid next to me was all scorn at the end of first act, so above it all, telling everyone how he’d worked out the impending twist in Act 2. He had and he hadn’t. As Act 2 progressed, I noticed him stop fidgeting, start leaning forward listening intently. At the end he spun to his friends;
“Excellent!!!” he said.
He’d dropped into the story. So much better than being above it.
On Friday I worked in a different Bristol school and, at day’s end, boarded a train not to home, but to Manchester. Word Of Mouth Storytelling Club was celebrating its 21st Birthday. I cut my teeth there 17 years ago. I wasn’t going to miss their birthday for the world…
On Monday morning, 15th Feb, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, I ran an hour long session for blind children and their siblings at the Imagine Festival. My brief was to involve the children in a highly interactive storymaking session. This would draw on previous work I’ve done in Norfolk with blind children on behalf of the County Council’s Sensory Impairment Services. I started by telling a couple of very ‘joiny-inny’ stories and got the children singing, clapping, beating drums and shaking tambourines and maracas. In order to take the interactivity to another level I began to tell them a story, asking them to choose for themselves the elements that I could weave into the story as it happened. The result was a story about a knight who lacked courage, rode on a small steam-breathing dragon, and was armed only with an ordinary wooden stick. I told this new story back to them and asked “Who made up that story?” “WE DID!!” they chorused. By the time we’d told two interactive stories and co-devised a third, we had only seven minutes left. “Right,” I said, “let’s make up a complete story from scratch, only using your ideas….” Using Story Structure, we did. I was able to tell the them the tale they’d invented (to be honest, we told it together). Elements included: a giant horn-lacking unicorn! Quacking like a duck! International travel! Blackbirds! Lots of them! Struggles! Danger! Love, and, of course, a very happy ending.
Bloody good story, I reckon, given the time constraints, but this is one of the key things about the StoryMaking work I do. Speed helps. I found it fascinating that this group of blind children created a story about an animal born lacking something everyone else around him possessed.
I was speaking afterwards to one of the dads and an idea popped up – what about setting up a storytelling club for blind children in London, where they could develop their creativity, explore and express their articulacy as well as developing their confidence? What do you reckon – should I do it?
So, I taught the last of five workshops, one each in Kolkata, Delhi, and two in Chandigarh. These are the kind of workshops I would love to do more often with teachers in UK. Essentially, it puts staff in touch with their memory, their imagination and with the natural storyteller in all of them. It is so rewarding to teach.
Children always sound excited when I tell them there are going to be no written notes. Grown-ups sound alarmed. I have to explain that, when you say “I’m writing it down so I can remember,” in fact, you are writing it down so you can forget. And of course staff were much more able to remember things than they thought and, at the end, were all confident they could replicate the workshop I taught them with their pupils, and were excited to do so.
So I taught them a Memory Technique from Ancient Rome (Cicero, if you’re interested in provenance) and then used that to get them to memorise a content-free story structure. Then, in just over five minutes (I kid you not) staff, in groups, were able to create new stories, each different from those of other groups, which are guaranteed to hang together and maintain listener attention because they are based on the same Story Structure as Star Wars (the first ever and the most recent) and, for that matter, the Ramayana. Having used this structure to devise the story we were then able to spend the rest of the workshop exploring the language used to develop the story and the voice used to deliver the story. All staff said they were amazed by the way that a little limitation of choice actually liberates, rather than kills, imagination, and agreed that nothing kills inventiveness more than absolute freedom of choice. A strange paradox, but something I’ve found again and again.
Best of all, I got to hear them tell stories! It never ceases to give me joy. I can remember, when I was 11ish, some friends and I were all discussing telepathy, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put thoughts inside someone else’s head? I now know we can – use language to name things, describe things, narrate things, and a whole world can burst into life inside somebody else’s head. You put it there.
Here are some pictures of the lovely people I worked with in Chandigarh…..
Apparently, in Chandigarh, I’m only an hour & a half from the Himalayas. You’d never guess. The land around is flat, fertile farmland. The city itself, in architecture, layout and outlook is resolutely modern. Our hotel has abstract paintings all along the hall.
All the buildings I’ve seen are white (or mostly white) and block shaped. There is a mall in Chandigarh where, just as in the UK, young people mill around, shop for high street brands, pop into coffee bars, burger bars, whisky bars & beer bars. So, is this modern, modish manner of living the realisation of Le Corbusier’s Modernist manifesto?
Not quite. A house may well be “a machine for living in” but it’s a machine inhabited by defiantly organic entities – people. Wherever there is life there is warmth, and dirt, and humour, and these elements can be found in Chandigarh as much as anywhere else. Sleek cars slip down streets and then a tractor comes grunting after, dragging what could be half a farm behind it. More sleek cars, and then these:
The Mall, which could’ve been replicated from any other mall anywhere, has this intriguing sign at the entrance:
We don’t have a sign like that outside malls in London! Arguably though, with some justification, we might…
On Thursday I went to a school in a satellite town of Chandigarh. The driving was smooth, over excellent new roads. Then, again, we encountered more defiantly organic life. First, making its presence felt surprisingly within the air-conditioned capsule of our cab, there was, strong and sudden, the soft smell of coal smoke, and lots of it. People aren’t meant to cook on coal but here in the Punjab, in Delhi, in Kolkata, if they are poor, what else can they do? Seconds later we saw, sprawling, the shantytown settlement; MDF and wooden walls, salvaged roofs, doors hanging open. No clear, clean Modernist lines here. Suddenly cyclists as numerous as a flock of geese took possession of this major road. They were workers, commuting. More than that, they were a community working, as used to be the case in the UK. These bicycles weren’t flashy mountain bikes like the ones you see in London, festooned with cogs and gears and levers and dials, and neither were they new. They were old-fashioned vicar bikes, no gears, heavy frames. Perfect affordable transport. Faster than walking, cheaper than driving, never needs feeding. I was looking simultaneously, at the 2010’s & the 1930’s. I doubted that the children of these people would be the children I was just about to tell stories to.
Years back, in the 1920s, in England, a young woman called Annie used to cycle to work in the cotton mills north of Manchester, part of a community of working people. As they cycled the women would chat and smile. Little time for that later. Annie hadn’t had much education. She could read, but never fluently. She was clever though and, having deft fingers and small hands, had the job of tying on the threads when the cotton broke. You could lose a hand doing that. Annie didn’t – too quick, and lucky.
Later, in the 1930s, Annie rode one of these, a classic English bike still manufactured in India and, as you can see, proudly on sale in Chandigarh today.
All of five feet tall, she once rode her Enfield motorbike round a bend in a country road and slap bang into the front of an oncoming lorry. The bike was a wreck. She went through the windscreen and doctors had to pick the broken glass out of her eyes. By the late 1930’s she was living in Worcestershire in a home not unlike the ones we’d just flashed by. Her home was actually a disused cobbler’s workshop with wooden planking for walls, with a corrugated iron roof, no electricity or telephone, no plumbing or running water. Scarcely educated herself, she brought up two children there, both of who went to University. She had four grandchildren, all of whom went to University, one to Cambridge and two to Oxford. One of her grandchildren lost his sight in his twenties and became a storyteller and now contemplates people who are living now just like his own beloved grandmother did then.
To look at some photos of my trip so far go to Further Adventures in Pictures…
Open, clear roads.
Open boulevards, clear vistas, clean, straight avenues, clean lines on white modernist buildings. Designed, not evolved. In Kolkata we were met by white-kurtured concierge, black boots, red turban. In Delhi we were greeted at the hotel by a man in a red turban, but in a black Kurta and with a fabulous curling moustache. At Chandigarh, the concierge looks ultra-modern in what appears to be a combat shirt and baseball cap. The courtesy, the warmth, is the same. In the hotel lobby we hear not the twang and gulp of sitar and tabla but the soapy ooze of soul-jazz. No more the cortical whorls and grooves of Kolkata, it’s hive-like streets, with buildings and businesses packed tight and uneven as boxes in a cupboard, neither the palatial government buildings, majestic parks, pillared colonnades of New Delhi, but pale, rectilinear blocks, spaciously and evenly distributed. Le Corbusier, who planned the layout and much of the architecture of Chandigarh, famously stated that houses we’re “machines for living in”. So, what does it feel like to live in a machine? I’ll get back to you.
To look at some photos of my trip so far go to Further Adventures in Pictures…
Started my work day today reading Alexander Pope’s Chaucer parody to my assistant and making her laugh! I still find it very strange that the complete works of Pope seem to fit on my iPhone… Looking forward to diving into the research for the Pope’s Grotto project. First proper meeting next week at the Grotto in Twickenham to get things started. Until then your Interesting Pope Fact of the Day is this – as a child Pope had TB and instead of it going to his lungs, it went into his bones so he never grew beyond 4’6″ and left him with a hunchback.
A New Project, a new (old) story!
So, a BBC World Service journalist called Richard Hamilton, working in Morocco, has discovered and fallen in love with the public, open air storytelling traditions of Marrakesh and has discovered the tradition is under threat. For years, storytellers have been able to perform in a particular square and this is how they have earned their living for generations. Guess what? The citizen’s friend, DEVELOPMENT, has now deprived these storytellers of anywhere to work, to earn. Richard has started a labour of love to bring this tradition and the plight of these tradition keepers to a wider audience and, as part of this project, he is launching a YouTube channel to showcase as many stories and storytellers as possible. He and his assistant Nigel came to my flat and, despite an egregious cold, I told some stories for them. The first of them to be published is now online, a short Norwegian tale, and you can enjoy it here….
Stay tuned to this list for further stories in the weeks and months to come.
My story of Richard Francis Burton
My story is based on the extraordinary life of Richard Burton; it is a story that runs to the heart of Empire and travel. Beginning at the foot of his peculiar mausoleum in the form of a Bedouin tent in a Catholic church, my tale of the great and enigmatical explorer becomes a journey to the edge of the known world.
Burton was an Englishman fluent in over 40 languages, with the support of the The Royal Geographical Society he led an expedition to the true source of the Nile; he was the first non-Muslim to enter the holy city of Harar and he completed the Haj from Suez to Mecca. ……..Burton turned exploration into a practice of human freedom. These stories are complemented by the soaring, melancholic, and yearning vocals of the Iraqi Kurdish singer Nawroz Oramari.
‘Tongues of Flame’ was one of the highlights of a great storytelling year in Cambridge…. They [the audience] were enthralled by the vibrant colours of the piece, and the masterly crafting of the material….. Its picture of a colonial past has an immediacy for modern culture and the 21st century legacy of British colonialism…Best of all it held me riveted, laughing, appalled – what more can I ask from a storytelling show?
2014, Marion Leeper, Cambridge Storytellers Programmer