Four years ago today, I lost my father. These poems were written at stages of my father’s long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. I’m proud of him and proud to be his.
John Robert Simcoe Abbott, 1937-2012
Here’s a little treat for Easter that won’t pile on the pounds… It’s a tale of generosity, everlasting love, and bunnies…
My train from Bath took me straight North to Manchester and I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly just ½ hour before the storytelling started. Earphones, SatNav, charge!
I loved walking through Manchester, obeying the orders of the bossy woman’s voice I heard in my ears. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I recognised, having not visited Manchester in over a decade. Oxford Road where Sooz studied, that funny bar at the junction of Great Bridgewater Street and then The Briton’s Protection, a lovely pub named, with typically harsh Mancunian irony, after the Peterloo Massacre on St Peter’s Field, 16th August 1819, when the government read the Riot Act and commanded the Army to open fire on peaceful Chartist demonstrators. Still on the Statutes, the Riot Act.
I arrived with a minute to spare and there I found old friends like Honor Giles and Helen Stewart, who’ve been running the Word of Mouth Storytelling Club successfully for a number of years. I sat at the back not knowing, until he spoke, that I’d sat next to my old friend Nick. Then I heard Effie’s laugh & realised that my London friends, Richard Trouncer and Effie Giordanou were there too! I met Richard & Effie at Word Of Mouth, years ago. Richard & Effie met each other at Word Of Mouth. I was already enjoying this reunion.
Friday night I saw Amy Douglas telling stories with her musical partner Lucy Wells. “Wild Edrick” was very cleverly structured and a beautifully balanced evening’s storytelling. Funny, magical, humane, the story glid from Shropshire landscape to folklore, to history, to myth, and back. Subtly, but strongly political, different layers of the telling explored the relationship between Edrick and Goda, between the rich people hunting and the poor people getting fed, the shamanic relationship between hunter & hunted – in which the hunted gives consent to be hunted on the understanding that they will not be over-hunted, and the relationship between the ruled and their rulers. Really beautiful stuff.
More memory lane as I walked to my hotel, past the Central Library, the Art Museum. I was amazed just how much my mind had stored.
But on Sunday I was astounded at what the memory of Shonaleigh has stored. You think you’re a storyteller and then you hear Shonaleigh doing a Drut’syla telling. Wow.
The Drut’syla is a female Jewish storyteller. They have their own unique repertoire. Shonaleigh’s training by her Grandmother Edith Marx, which lasted from the age of four to eighteen, has equipped her with a repertoire of 3,500 interlaced stories. No, that’s not a typo. Really, three and a half thousand.
The way a Drut’syla telling works is fascinating. A story will intersect with another story which is alluded to with “but that’s another story,” to which the audience responds “for another time”. The teller then continues with the tale. But, if anyone in the audience says, for example, “no, tell us the story of the wine merchants” the Drut’syla will do so. Usually that story leads back to the one we were on, but not necessarily, and there’s no guarantee you’ll hear the end of any given story. Not that night, anyway, and traditionally a Drut’syla telling can last for nights.
I could’ve listened for weeks! It wasn’t just the depth of her repertoire and the sense of an entire world you could explore, but Shonaleigh’s telling is so spare, so clean, with never a word too many nor a description too long. Utterly hypnotic. I sincerely think Shonaleigh should be awarded Museum status as a sincere acknowledgement of her, of her Grandmother and their tradition and of the importance of intangible culture, paradoxically enduring and at the same time fragile. Now that’d be a Facebook petition to sign!
I’m taking a few days break now but I’ll be in touch next week to share some exciting developments in the Alexander Pope commission. And I plan to record some poetry for you. So, keep checking in! See you soon.
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?
Then we were home.
We were both genuinely sad to leave so shining a country, so energetic, so optimistic. We were sad to leave the graciousness, the warmth of Indians behind, to say nothing of the warmth of India itself. India was cotton shirts, tee shirts. Home was damp, clammy, cold, but still home. We realised, on disembarking from the plane that straightaway we would need our woollen armour.
Next day, Sunday 14th, I told love stories for Valentine’s at the Viktor Wynd Museum Of Curiosities (my monthly residency). It interested me – the Museum is based on the camera fabula of 18th and 19th Century Englishmen, a box or a room crammed with exotic treasures picked up on voyages as the English explored the wider world. One of those exotic treasures, acquired first by a private company and then by the Crown, was India, all of it. In Hackney, young men in Victorian style beards, and their vintage-fabulous ladies, lost themselves in traditional love stories. It was interesting to reflect on that deep and long relationship between two cultures, which still persists. In India I saw endless cricket and English place names. In Hackney, as well as British Indians, of course, I see young men with large beards and elaborate moustaches which were originally inspired by that British contact with India, where moustaches are still almost de rigeur. That night I told the story of Shukuntala, a beautiful Indian story that Gorg Chand told me years ago. It features the kindness of a king’s daughter, the greed of a god and love for a blinded sage. It seemed right.
A late night, especially after all that travel and with my body clock 5 ½ hours ahead, but worth it. Telling good stories is always worth it. Next day would bring another early start and “Storytelling Mayhem”, a workshop with blind children for the Imagine Children’s Festival. I went to sleep not knowing what stories I would tell the children the next day. Why? Well, we were yet to invent them together.