This is me in 1976. I was 3 and it was the last Barsham Faire. I don’t think it was that grainy in real life, but it was the 1970’s…
In some ways, this picture says more than the rest of this post can. But, like all stories, the journey from here to there, or there to here via all the places in between, is a little more complicated than it could have been and all the more interesting for it. How many stories are there where the prince meets the princess right at the beginning and they live happily ever after? No good ones that I know of. How many tales in which the heroine narrowly avoids meeting Baba Yaga, returning home before dark, safer and less wise? In which the sun continues to shine and the winds blow not too strong, not too weak, and all is well with the world, forever and ever? I don’t know these stories, and wouldn’t tell them if I could, for all that living in them may be calmer and smoother than in the epic adventure that is Real Life. Give me a dark forest and a Chinese whisper, a letter gone astray and a child with a curious aunt, and I’ll give you a story worth the telling; give me a secure routine and a pension plan, contents insurance and the certainty that there are no skeletons anywhere in the cupboard, and… and actually, we still have a story, but it’s the story of a soul caught in an uncomfortable form, and it’s a sad tale until the soul becomes a bird and the house becomes a box with a golden lid, and…
And the rest is up to you.
This is the story of how I came to stories, and – like most of my favourite stories – it begins in Russia…
Actually, not quite that Russia. It was the mid 1960’s and my mum had been working in Moscow. She says that she wasn’t a spy, but then she would say that, wouldn’t she? Whatever the truth of it, she came back from ‘working as a nanny’ in Moscow with a lung infection and a suitcase full of extraordinary Russian folktales. Some were in Russian, just for the beautiful illustrations (many by Ivan Bilibin), but some were in English, and by the time my sister and I had outgrown the rich tales my mother created for us, we took to these tales at bedtime with all the wide eyes and glee that two imagination-rich children can hold. Seeds were sewn in our enraptured little minds, seeds of trees whose names are Wonder, Horror and Fascination. We were hooked. We had no television, played free-range in the fields and lived child-lives abundantly fertile in invention and creativity. Thank you, my parents!
Skip forward a few years. It’s 2011. We are at a small festival at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire – it’s called Uncivilisation and is organised by a thing called The Dark Mountain Project. Rima has just painted the cover for their most recent book, because she loved their stated manifesto – because of this, they’ve invited her to bring her stall of artworks. Feeling like I should probably do something to justify getting in for free, I’ve offered to tell the story of Ivashko Medvedko (Little Ivan, Bear-Child) on the Friday night, with Rima accompanying me with music and sound-effects… We’ve been rehearsing by playing accordion and telling the tale to the occupants of the Natural Burial Site in the woods below the festival site. They haven’t complained too much, even when the Bear Mask has been unveiled… Little do we know it, but we are about to become a storytelling Hit at the festival. Ivashko Medvedko will take us a long way. Beyond the thrice-nine lands and over the fortieth sea? Very possibly…
Skip forward again (and this is terrible storytelling – where are we? what’s going on?!) and we’re in a small theatre in Moffat, in Dumfries and Galloway, on the opening night of what has come to be known (in our house) as the Ivashko Medvedko Tour of Scotland… As it happened, it was also the opening night of the London Olympics. Let’s just say that there were slightly more people paying attention to their show than ours, but if we got down to the nitty-gritty of viewers per £ spent, I like to think we might just have pipped them… And we had a dressing room with a mirror with lights round it! The Big-Time…
The next night, we perform to a packed house a few miles down the road, in the grounds of Elshieshields Tower. Packed house? Packed barn. A fine barn, it was, and it’s one of the few times we’ve recorded a telling. The acoustics are grim, but the story’s all there. The tolling of the bell at the beginning is me entering the room from the back, wearing the bear mask and swinging the bell, trying not to concuss anyone or walk into any chairs. Why make life easy for yourself? Why indeed.
That was a few years ago now. We’ve told that tale many times since, from the cow-shed of EarthLines editors Sharon and David, on the Isle of Lewis, to the GalGael workshop in Govan, to the vardo-steps of Harvest Festival fires on the edge of Dartmoor.
It’s a cracking tale with many rises and falls, a Russian classic. It’s also a tale that gets about – I’ve heard Welsh Gyspy variants of it, and far Siberian ones too. Who’s to say which is the original? Some scholar-classifier, perhaps, but not me. I love them all. The original exists in the spirit world, perhaps, uttered by half-animals next to some dark fountain of blood and miracles.
Why do we tell stories? Why do we love them so much? Ach, we could go to the shelves and read the words of the clever people, and they are good words, full of one kind of truth, but I think we human beings tell stories and love them not for a reason, but because they are part of our essential nature. They are not maps; they are territory. They are not fingers pointing at the moon; they are moons, and planets, and stars. In the way that water flows, lovers love and children laugh and cry, we humans love stories. Integral, essential, woven into us, as much as breathing air or dreaming.
This is what I think. Stories are the way that the land talks to itself and its creatures: storytellers or story-carriers, whether they call themselves anything like that or not, are the agents by which these tendrils or tongues of rich magic move from one place to another, from one sacredly enchanted landscape to another, carrying the news of the wild and the soul of the world. When I think of stories like this, I see mycelia, the collection of fungal tendrils in the earth whose function is not entirely known but which seem essential to the rich life of the forest above and below the ground. All things that live, dream. Stories are to dreaming-life as mycelia are to the Earth. Both an essential part, and a message and messenger and a power of transformation. Without stories, communities die, just as we die somehow when we stop dreaming.
Also springing to mind, as it were, are pictures of neurons, but whilst those neuron-pictures have an undeniable beauty, they’re too clean for my kind of poetry. I like rough edges to my story-tongues, as rough as the tongues of bears or dragons, rough as the bark of an old, old tree or the half-glimpsed, mushroom-scented knee of Baba Yaga’s gran at a barn dance in the slums of Vilnius. Rough…
I began telling stories ‘properly’ because I lived in Scotland. There’s a conversation – what’s ‘proper’ storytelling and what’s ‘not proper’, but it’s one for a fireside, not a blog-post. I’d been looking for a Zen monastery and found instead cheep beer and the City. I’d embarked on this thing of Being a Writer, trying to finish my first, mad novel about a boy who becomes a falcon, or at the very least has his soul stolen by an angel. I was dimly aware that I was apprenticing myself to something, some ancient way of words and magic, but I didn’t have many allies on the way – this was Edinburgh in the mid-90’s and I was living on the dole in a flat where the rain came down the inside of the walls, selling my record collection to buy bread so that I could keep on writing.
I was desperately shy, pathologically introverted and believed myself to be the inheritor of a lineage that included Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Smart, Pablo Neruda and both Gilgamesh and Sophocles. Probably the Buddha, and Susan Cooper too, and plenty of others. I didn’t know much about bards, except what I’d learned from Asterix, otherwise I’d have lumped them in as well and worn a good deal more velvet, so it was probably a lucky escape all round. Anyway, in my eloquent grandiosity (which you need, if you’re 21 and embarking on a metaphysical novel about soul-fragmentation, love and the wild), I knew that to be apprentice in this work meant being able to speak words as well as write them. It’s not enough (or rather, it wasn’t enough for my particular apprenticeship) to write words – I had to be able to play with them, pray with them, dance with them in the moment of their speaking.
See, in Scotland, even now, in some places at least, there’s the tradition of the ceilidh. I’m not talking about a barn dance, although I’m fond enough of them – I’m talking about a get-together, nothing fancy, where folk take a turn to do their thing. For him over there, it might be a fiddle tune; for her over there, it could be a song. It might be a story, or a poem, or a dance. And you have your ceilidh-piece – if you’re at a ceilidh, you have the thing that you can do. Or not. And that was my situation – I was a word-worker, without a word-thing to do at a ceilidh. And that felt… actually, it felt shameful: it felt like a dereliction of duty, a letting-down-my-part-of-the-bargain. I could hear my ancestors tutting over my shoulder.
I’m not saying that that’s healthy. No. I’m just telling you how it felt. Perhaps – and I wonder if the late, great James Hillman would have something to add here – perhaps, these are the goads that lead us into uncomfortable places that are necessary for our soul’s growth… I don’t know – it’s not always so simple, of course. But, to appease those relentless inner critics, I decided that I would learn to do something. Reciting poetry, I’ve never been good at, and I wasn’t writing my own back then, not to share. Singing, just no. (We can go into that another time…) But stories, stories I knew. Because – and this is where it all loops back – my mother had told my sister and me Russian folk-tales when we were small. They were so embedded in my inner world that I knew Baba Yaga, long before I had any sense of what archetypes were all about; I got the stories, in a way that is not the getting of psychotherapeutic interpretation or a workshop analysis or a visionary insight. I was arrogant enough in my wordy youth of word-learning to believe that I had a right to tell those stories. And that arrogance was the great horse on which I rode into the land of storytelling.
Although, in truth, it has been much more like:
The first traditional story I told was the tale of Marya Morevna. It’s a good place to start.
And it’s a good place to stop. This story is long enough already and my bones ache from sitting at this computer… Let us say that I found the stories and that for all my mistakes, they seem to like being told. Not all of them have been triumphs, and not all of them have led to gold. Many of the stories have been told because they demanded it, such as the tale of Tai-Pat and Left-Hand Morning Dawn. A tale for a windy night, an incantation. But not for now.
However I arrived here, I did. And, it seems that I am here for good. Despite my best attempts to stop storytelling, I am – it seems – an inveterate teller of tales. They keep working in me, when I’m asleep and dreaming, when I’m awake and thinking of the most prosaic things. The tales keep moving, keep wanting to be told. They nag me, like twenty-foot dogs that want to be walked. In the end, I feel, to not tell them would be an insult to the Powers that move through them. It might be dangerous. They are magical beings, entities beyond my understanding. Martin Shaw, the storyteller and mythworker whose books and thoughts you really would do well to know, has much to say on this matter, and better than I can. His path with stories is stronger and clearer – I have meandered this way and that before surrendering completely with the Hedgespoken dream. But surrender I have – as I wrote here (and I heartily recommend you meander over that way after you’re finished here…) – the stories have got me. I give up. Let them do what they will.
I hope I serve the land and its dreaming well in what happens next.
From the moor-edge,
Tom, a.k.a. Coyopa
If this sounds like your cup of tea, or indeed your cup of kvass, then you should check out the HEDGESPEAKER perk of the crowdfunder – a storytelling workshop with me next year. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss it…
And here are just some of the posters for stories we’ve told over the last few years… Perhaps we’ll begin a gallery once we’re on the road…
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