Orleans House is absolutely beautiful – right on the Thames (you can hear the ducks quacking from the grounds). It’s within easy reach of Richmond, Twickenham and St Margarets train stations and is a short walk through parkland from various bus stops. And there’s parking! If you don’t know this part of London, I’d really recommend you have a look (I grew up round here) as it certainly makes for a wonderful day out (not least because of the glorious riverside pubs…).
I’ll be performing in the Octagon Room – a stunning space designed by the architect James Gibbs. And Orleans House Gallery holds a special place in my heart as it holds photographs taken by the explorer Richard Francis Burton, another extraordinary man that I brought to life in my show Tongues of Flame.
So, 30th May, put it in your diaries. And if you can’t make this, I’ll also be performing a shorter version in Pope’s Grotto itself on 18th and 25th June as part of the Twickenham Festival, the full version at Twickenham Library on 4th July and again at The Old Sorting Office in Barnes on 13th October. For full details click here.
On Friday 12th, we travelled from Chandigarh to Delhi. We’d flown from Delhi to Chandigarh, but now we took the train back. We’d seen nothing of the Indian countryside from the plane due to fog, until we landed in Punjab, green and growing, everywhere. We arrived in modern Chandigarh.
Chandigarh, incidentally, is very modern and very beautiful. Because we’d seen nothing of the city, our British Council hosts, Bipin and Christina, told our driver to take us the long way to the station, only ensuring we arrived in time for our train. Chandigarh is so open, so spacious and so incredibly rich in public parks and nature reserves that we felt like we were in a city and not in a city simultaneously. I’m very glad we got to glimpse it.
Then we got to the station and waited for our train. The trains that pulled in were huge! You could feel the weight of them, the heft of them. Truly, these were trans-subcontinental trains. We boarded ours, and shared our carriage with families, business-people, students, more. As we pulled out, darkness fell, and so we didn’t get to see anything of the Indian countryside by train either! But what an enjoyable journey. We were in standard class. In standard class, two young men, who seemed to tend our carriage only, served us first with vegetarian sandwiches and salad. Next came a rich dhal and with it a paneer marsala, chapatis and rice. Next came fantastic samosas, soft, spicy potato-filled, with peas, chickpeas and almonds and peanuts added for texture. Then came tea, and I finished with a wonderful Indian sweetie but Gluten free and milk free Sooz had to be sweet-free too. Because I know how empathic she is, I enjoyed mine as ostentatiously as possible, rolling my eyes, humming and gasping with pleasure, so that she could at least share the experience with me. Aren’t I kind?
Now contrast all this with catering on an English train – microwaved ham ‘n cheese baguette, completed with painted on griddle marks, which you have to pay for on top of your ticket fare. We’ve got a lot to learn from India.
We smelt Delhi long before we got there, a thick smell of coal smoke, the street cooking of the poor. I lived in Yorkshire for seven years; I find the smell of coal comforting. I know it’s hell for the environment, but for me, emotionally, that smell means cosiness. And then we were back in the madness, the buzz of Delhi and, once we’d found our car, were stuck in a traffic jam before we’d even left the station carpark.
Next morning, horribly early, we left. In 22 hours, door to door, we would be home. What, I wondered, would home feel like?
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.
Thank you to Rituparna Ghosh @Rituparna_Ghosh who filmed this clip from the audience at the Kathakar International Storytellers Festival. I’m telling Mr Fox – we join the story just as the romantic head games begin…
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.
Friday and Saturday I found myself plugged in to what, for me, is the utter joy of a storytelling festival. It still exhilarates me that such numbers of people will devote their attention and commit time to hearing stories.
The festival is modest in size, being new, with only one stage and one performer at a time, but what a stage and what performers. A stage and performance apron is spread beneath the shade of a peepul tree. The audience sit in tiered, semi-circular rows, and it holds about 300. In the morning, I told stories for a younger audience, then sat back, thrilled to listen to England’s Emily Hennessey and Tim Ralphs, both brilliant tellers. There was, from India, a family of musicians. Bloody amazing! Two men sang in raw, gutsy, incredibly soulful voices whilst behind them two others beat out mind-bending rhythms on dhol and another drum I didn’t recognise, and a third skirled wildly on harmonium. The two singers seemed to be adversaries. Then, to the delight of the audience, next entered, clad in rich red salwaar kameez and a fine red chador, a woman. Only this woman was a young, slender man playing the part of woman, just as would’ve been the case in Elizabethan theatre. Next to me, Indian storyteller Usha Venkateraman, herself a very poised, witty and skilful teller, told me the story was a kind of Romeo & Juliet. It seemed a hell a lot funnier! The whole story was sung and acted and, performed as it was under a peepul tree, I could so easily imagine this performance under similar trees in rural villages stretching back hundreds of years. Stunning.
The audience was wonderful, intelligent, attentive and with a deep knowledge of and engagement with traditional storytelling. And the organisers and the British Council worked wonders with publicity. I kept missing performers because I needed to give interviews for TV, for radio, for print media. That seems a touch more switched on than Blighty.
I had the honour of closing the festival on Sunday night. I told East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon. My telling might not be to all tellers’ tastes. It’s a serious story, Norwegian, from the Ancient Greek Eros & Psyche, and chronicles the journey of the Soul to Love, but the Norwegian version is so intrinsically funny! Talking bears, old ladies bearing impractical gifts which turn out to be just the thing that’s needed, and trolls so bad at handling frustration that they inflate and detonate? Now, you could tell this reverentially and solemnly, but, to a sassy, sophisticated & urban audience, who doesn’t believe
in trolls, why on earth would you? I play the straight bits straight and the wonky bits wonky.
As you know, I can’t see my audience, not really, but can sense their attentiveness. I got to the end, a quiet, a low-key close, because the end is serious, and the applause engulfed me. It took Blind Pew a while to realise, but the entire audience had risen to their feet! They stayed there until they were quite clapped out.
And thereafter surrounded me for selfies, photos, autographs and handshakes. A woman declared, loudly, that I was “A rock ‘n roll storyteller! I’ve never seen a storyteller mobbed like this!”
So, I became a storyteller because I lost some sight. Do you believe me now when I tell that, even though sight-loss was my first real experience of grief, I honestly can’t now regard it as a misfortune?
Chandigarh tomorrow, an entire city planned and designed by Le Corbusier. India continues to astound me.
So, with quite a wrench, we left Kolkata on Friday morning & flew to Delhi. I have heard on UK radio, again and again, how terribly polluted Delhi is. Checking the weather on my smartphone when in London, I saw descriptions such as “Fog”, “Smoke”, and fully expected to land in a right pea-souper an’ no mistake, Mary Poppins. Wrong again. The day we landed was clear & balmy. The sky was blue and the air, compared to London seemed, well, the same. Does this mean that pollution in London too, and our acceptance of it, has got beyond a choke?
Next morning, I could see what they meant. Delhi, in the early morning, looks like this:
Sure, looks grim, but to my London nose it FELT perfectly fine. I’ve never had so panoramic a view over London at that time in the morning. How do I know it doesn’t look just the same? I do know that, on cold, low pressure mornings, I smell soot & petrol in the semi-basement of my East London flat. Like I said, beyond a choke, and we have no reason, as far as I can see, to be smug.
As we drove from airport to hotel we met other strange echoes of England. Addresses like Connaught Square. New Delhi is a thoroughly modern city with sky-scrapers which could be anywhere, chain restaurants which are everywhere. Our driver pointed out the Presidential Palace, home to the President of the largest democracy in the world. It is impressive, designed by Lutyens, and is as British a lump of Victoriana as you could ever hope to see. Pausing at stop-lights, junctions, young men in skinny jeans, with angular haircuts and hipster beards chat with young women in jeans and tee-shirts. Pausing alongside a beautiful, tree-studded park, our driver indicated a group of small, grey, furry animals. Squirrels? No, monkeys.
We checked in and, after a nap, walked to a vast shopping mall, searched for food. We had an Indian.
Tomorrow is my first day’s work at the Khatakar International StorytellingFestival.
It’s a strange paradox; because I can’t see your face across a table, I became a storyteller. Because I became a storyteller, I get to see the world. Right now, I’m seeing the world that is Kolkata, West Bengal, and what a world it is! So, after the longest day’s travel we arrived at 3am at our hotel in Kolkata. I’d been briefed to expect crowds, chaos, hurly-burly at Kolkata airport but at that time in the morning, there was no such thing, only very tired, very courteous airport staff. A car was provided by British Council and we drove, not through the fabled Kolkata snarl-up, but easily through dark & empty streets. Had we really arrived in India at all? But then we arrived at a palatial hotel and our door was opened by a tall & beautiful man, splendid in white kurta, black trousers & a scarlet turban. Every inch the Bengal Lancer from my grandmother’s Imperial picture books, he pressed his palms together, inclined his head. “Namashkaa!” he said. We’d arrived, no question.
The next day we were met at lunchtime by Maryanne Dasgupta, an American lady who, fifty years ago, married a Bengali & settled in Kolkata. A prominent educator & writer, at the cusp of eighty, the lively & elegant Maryanne has retired from teaching and now devotes her energy to her own charitable foundation which works to educate gifted children of the absolutely impoverished. “Houses with three walls and a roof,” she said, “forget about four, and illiterate parents. We have twenty students now studying at University and a number going on to take their MAs.” Brilliant example of what energy & focus can achieve. So, in this company I began to experience Kolkata.
In daytime the roads are jammed. Old and beautiful English models, Morrises, now made in India, not Oxford, and known as Marutis, jostle and nose their way through teeming traffic. Lanes don’t exist. Junctions seem ambiguous, traffic lights negotiable. One peep on the horn means “I’ve seen you, come on”, two means “I’m here, I’m coming through”. More peeps means alarm and standing on the horn means “Sir, I protest!!”. Sudden changes in direction from other cars, sudden stops, demand the reaction speeds of a fighter pilot. And for all this, motorists seem completely calm. I hear car horns and voices everywhere. In every road flows a river of pedestrians, flooding over, breaking over, uneven, torn up and rutted pavements. Slim, dark men in shirts and trousers, in robes, in shalwar kameez, in kurta and dhoti, move, talk, call out, or just stand and watch. There is an endless variety of things to watch. East London, we are told, bustles with pop ups. Compared to Kolkata, East London knows nothing of either pop ups or bustle. Here, every square metre of pavement is anthill industrious. We pass a building propped up at one corner by posts as the road falls away about four feet. The space beneath hosts a business; a man making shoes. Further along, a square hole in the wall makes an alcove, about 3ft x 3ft, in which a man sits. On the street he has a brazier glowing with coals. The brazier heats his flat-iron. Cross-legged, board on his knees, he takes in and irons shirts. Next along, a man stirs a pot, fragrant with street-food spices. Another crouches on the floor polishing the shoes of a long-robed/haired/bearded man. A man squats next to a banyan tree, a mirror fixed to its trunk, and from this, his barber’s shop, he washes, soaps, shaves his customers’ beards. Near him a man squats, his back to the road and next to him a young woman, her sari lifted neatly from the dirt, her iridescent black hair coiling across the bare skin of her upper back. Both are busy mending the masonry of a wall. Through all this ceaseless hive, women in parakeet-colourful saris contrive to glide down the street, elegant as fairytale princesses. Kolkata is without doubt one of the most fascinating and wonderful places I have ever seen.
We visited a private home called the Marble Palace. Once the home of the Molik family, who still own it and live in part of it, their merchant wealth has built what looks and feels, outside, like a Victorian fantasy of classical Greece and, inside, like a wing of the V&A. Classical sculptures gaze, marble-eyed, at Italian paintings in the style of Caravaggio. Baroque decor and styling surrounds dazzling marble floors, not made of tiles but of immense coloured slabs cut and fitted as fine as woodwork marquetry and parquetry. Just as, in Kensington, Leighton House is stuffed with the exotic treasures of the East, here, the Molik family have filled their home with the treasures of the exotic West. No photos permitted – you’ll just have to take my word for it. It is simply stunning. And as soon as you leave its gates, at one step, you leave its serenity and find yourself once more in the hubbub of Kolkata.
Now, as you know, I can’t have actually seen all this. As you know, I live in coloured shadows and, where my eyes should focus, see only a blast of colour which I can’t see through, as if I’ve been staring at the sun. So how can I have perceived all this? Well, I do have a tiny telescope hanging round my neck. That helps. But, much more than that, my companions, Sooz and, yesterday, MaryAnn, describe to me the details that I miss. I “see” what they say vividly, just like, when you listen to a story, you see the characters, the landscape, in your mind. Much of your visible world, to me, is a story narrated by people with better eyes than I. So, I ask you, is it any wonder I became a storyteller?
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.
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