Writers in their Landscape.
Writer and Storyteller Hugh Lupton by Steve Gladwin
Wednesday, 16 September 2020
Hi. This is a long interview, but I hope you’ll agree its worth it for the ground it covers, which includes a variety of topics, ideas and opinions that come from a lifetime of telling and writing stories both oral and written, and being at the forefront of the storytelling revival of the last forty years. There’s no better person to ask about all this than my guest Hugh Lupton, who – as will become clear – has been involved in so much of this. This is just part one of our interview, in which we cover a variety of subjects.
Hugh, thanks so much for answering my questions and joining us here.
Thank you for asking me, Steve.
To begin with then, I usually ask people to describe the landscape in which they were actually born as if they were seeing it laid down before them. It’s an opportunity for them to flex their writer’s muscles, which is maybe why nearly all of them have copped out! Perhaps you could do it for us – set the man as child within his time and space.
I was born in Cambridge and grew up in South Cambridgeshire. Not far away the chalk hills of Royston Heath (great for sledging in winter) were as close as we got to mountains. Mostly it was flattish arable land with lots of orchards, meadows, scrubby edge-lands, little winding rivers, big fields. I was lucky to grow up in a time when we were still allowed our ‘kith’. As soon as breakfast was over in the holidays we’d be off… building camps, mucking about, exploring, riding our bikes along the lanes, forming gangs, warfare with other gangs etc It’s almost the same landscape as Phillippa Pearce describes in her run of classics ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, ‘Minnow on the Say’, ‘What the Neighbours Did’ and the rest (why aren’t they read any more?).
She lived in Shelford, about seven miles away from Melbourn, which was my home village. That landscape, the village and its eccentrics and characters (there were still Boer War veterans alive when I was a boy), its seasonal rhythms, its certainties, its hidden histories, its rituals both church and secular (from Rogation Sunday to conker season to the annual fun-fair), its voices (dialect, family, school, prayer book), its web of friendships and associations… all of these things I still hold in my heart, they’re at the core of my imagination.
So, when were you first aware that you were interested in telling stories and – as we all have to bear in mind – how did it fit in with the eventual day jobs?
Alongside the childhood world I’ve just described there was a parallel world of childhood reading. I wasn’t a bookish kid but I did read… especially during those long childhood illnesses – mumps, measles, chickenpox etc. I loved Robin Hood, I was given lots of Victorian and Edwardian children’s novels by my grandmother, ‘Children of the New Forest’, ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘The Treasure Seekers’ that sort of thing. My other Granny fed me a steady diet of ‘William’ books. I discovered John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ and then ‘The Hobbit’.
My Great Uncle was Arthur Ransome… all of his books were sort of obligatory in our family. The one that really struck me though was his collection of Russian Fairy Tales ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ which was read aloud to me when I was very small and terrified me… but something about it echoed in my imagination. Also, because my parents were ardent churchgoers, there were the weird Old Testament stories. All these things percolate over the years.
In my teens I rejected the church (big family ructions there). I was at a boarding school from the age of thirteen, and first discovered the pleasure of telling stories (not really telling stories, more what the Irish would call ‘Craic’) after lights-out in the school dormitories. It was much easier for a self-conscious teenager to hold forth in the dark. In my mid teens I discovered Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes… and at the same time was captivated by the hippy end of the folk revival, especially those early Incredible String Band records ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’, ‘Wee Tam and the Big Huge’ etc. I was part of a band called ‘Oberon’ (in the end their musicianship outshone mine and I became their lyricist) we made a record (it’s still around actually, now as a CD marketed by Guerssen Records).
By the time I was eighteen I was pretty clear that I wanted to be involved in something that brought together performance, poetry and music (much to my parents’ alarm). I dropped out of an English degree, shared a house for a while with a guy called Ross Daly who was (is) a brilliant musician just starting out on what would become a life-long exploration of the music of the Eastern Mediterranean. His single-minded determination to follow his own path, ignoring all the usual academic by-ways, was an inspiration to me. I wandered for a while, spending time in the USA and Greece. Then, under pressure from my parents to get some sort of qualification I enrolled for a teaching course at a place called Keswick Hall, just outside Norwich.
Keswick Hall turned out to be just the right place for all the wrong reasons. The workload was so light-weight that I was able to follow my own reading, I steeped myself in English folksong & especially the ballads (there was a strong folk scene in Norwich at that time), I lived in the mill-house of an old watermill with a bunch of friends, walked, wrote poems, steeped myself in the landscape and its history… and slowly some conscious idea of what I wanted to do began to coalesce and form itself… and it wasn’t teaching.
But I did end up with a B. Ed… so I had a means of financing my early explorations. I was able to teach part-time… and do supply teaching when I needed to… this was invaluable… not least because the best possible apprenticeship for a storyteller is to work with kids… you learn all the tricks of holding attention, they love the refrains and repetitions that underpin traditional narrative, and if they lose interest you know it.
Was there, right from the start, a conscious interweaving of the stories you told and the landscapes that inspired you. Were there places you sought out to aid and enhance your storytelling.
No. Initially I just told stories that I liked from all sorts of cultures without any particular reference to place or landscape. Bits of the Odyssey, Anansi stories, Norse myths, Grimms… I pillaged those Ruth Manning Sanders anthologies for fairy tales… I don’t remember telling many English stories in the early days… although I did sing quite a few ballads… almost all my work was in schools… I’d send out publicity a couple of times a year and take all bookings… and when work was thin I’d do a bit of supply teaching. This went on for several years. Also, at that time, there were these wonderful fairs in East Anglia – ‘The Albion Fairs’. They were hippy events… crafts, organic food, alternative comedy, clowning, bands, horses, feral children, mad rituals etc.
I was a regular performer at these (along with Palfi the clown, Forkbeard Fantasy, Incubus Theatre, Bruce Lacey etc). I went as a character called Billy Bullshit, 1p for a fib, 2p for a whopper… I’d wander about with a top-hat and sandwich boards advertising my wares ‘hokum, eyewash and mendacity all a speciality’ and tell elaborate lies on any subject (all part of the apprenticeship). Later I bought a small marquee and I’d go along and set it up as a storytelling space and tell to whoever came. These were all great lessons in thinking on your feet. I’d happily tell to anyone & go anywhere that would book me.
One of the nice things about choosing this two-part way of doing this interview is that I actually knew your work for twelve years before I finally met you on a storytelling course at Ty Newydd. My first encounter with you was in the late eighties when a friend took me to the Stamford Winter Fair, which he was assessing for Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts in the late eighties. The Company of Storytellers were essentially the main act and, as you know, one of the main things that inspired me to eventually become a storyteller and performer. You were doing two slots, with one for the kids on the magic carpet. Bob and I were the only adults sitting on it, somewhat self-consciously, and there were you, Pomme Clayton and Ben Haggerty opening up this incredibly hushed and exciting world full of wonderful costumes and marvelous oddly-shaped instruments being played in between.
But the real magic came later in the night, where you returned to tell more stories to an adult, seated audience to a world of candlelight and hot punch and stories which were more adult and darker in tone. If I look back now and try to recapture my feelings, I think I’d have to say that it seemed to me then to epitomise a totally new and somehow totally full experience. Can I ask you if you remember that day and how close was it to what you and The Company of Storytellers had set out to do?
Yes! I don’t remember the specific gig… but it sounds very typical of what we used to do in those days. We formed the Company of Storytellers in 1985. It came out of the First Storytelling Festival that Ben organised at the Battersea Arts Centre in the January of that year. I’d already met Ben by then and we had a sense of common purpose and a great respect for each other’s work. Initially there were five of us – me, Ben, Pomme, TUUP and Georgiana Keable. It soon whittled down to three. All of us had worked primarily with kids, but in the wake of Ben’s festival, we wanted to bring storytelling to an adult audience. So the event that you saw was quite typical… we’d do what was expected of us and put on a children’s show… and then slip in an adult event later on. It was a way of convincing sceptical bookers that it was an art form that could work on a lot of levels.
We had loads of strange instruments that we could barely play, all of them made intriguing sounds, we had carpets and hangings and candles… wherever we went we tried to make a visual and aural world that the audience could step into and be transported. We rarely did the same show twice in the early days, we were constantly experimenting, stretching our repertoires, and gauging what did and didn’t work. Sometimes we’d go on stage with no plan at all. We’d ‘draw lots’ for who would tell the first story and try to find the right one to follow it with. It was the best possible next step in my apprenticeship… to work with two brilliant people (much more steeped in theatre than me) and forge a new way of making the stories come alive in performance. You’re right… it was a new art-form… a new experience for audiences. I’m proud of that time, everything we did had a freshness about it.
And then there was the other side… what didn’t happen on stage… the long conversations in the car, in cafés and service stations while we were on tour… exploring what the stories do, how they work, what they’re trying to say… and the hi-jinks and the arguments… all grist to the mill.
I have to say that that was very much what I was thinking at the time and part of what inspired me – just how wonderful all that side of it might be as well. But now let’s talk more about The Company of the Storytellers, and about the great revival of traditional storytelling that happened in the 80’s. You were all at the vanguard of that. What made it happen.
By the late seventies and early eighties there were people who, unknown to each other, had started telling traditional stories. It was a sort of spontaneous combustion of storytelling. Something was in the air. But it wasn’t a movement or a revival, it was just a group of individuals in different parts of the country doing their own thing. And there were very few of them. Roberto Lagnado was telling stories for the Inner London Education Authority. Ben, Georgiana, Pomme and TUUP had set up the West London Storytelling Unit. Grace Hallworth and Beulah Candappa were telling Caribbean and Burmese stories in schools. Robin Williamson had started to slip stories into his repertoire. I was beavering away in East Anglia. Helen East, Rick Wilson and Jan Blake had formed ‘Common Lore’. Taffy Thomas and Tim Laycock had formed ‘Magic Lantern’, telling ballad stories as puppet shows. Eric Maddern was telling some Aboriginal stories. There was a group of enthusiasts called ‘The College of Storytellers’ who met monthly in London (probably the first storytelling club).
Over in Ireland Eamon Kelly was performing Irish tales and Eddie Lennihan was collecting and telling stories. In Scotland there was still a thriving storytelling tradition among the older travelers, with Duncan Williamson, Sheila Stewart and Stanley Robertson as the leading proponents… but they were almost completely unknown beyond their own communities. And that was it.
What Ben Haggarty did in 1985 with the first storytelling festival (and in the two that followed in 1987 & 1989) was to make a storytelling community. He drew everyone together, brought Duncan Williamson down for the first time (his first trip to England), brought Abbi Patrix and Ben Zimmet over from Paris (where there was a more developed performance storytelling movement), there were lectures by Alan Garner and the wonderful P. L. Travers (very old by then). In one weekend I met, for the first time, Pomme, TUUP, Eric, Rick and Helen, Duncan, Abbi, Alan Garner… the trajectory for my next thirty years was set in place over three days! It’s easy to forget how important those festivals were, and what a debt is owed to Ben.
The Company of Storytellers was formed immediately after that first festival. We toured, on and off, for fifteen years, running workshops, performing, organising events… slowly we became aware that a revival was beginning to happen, with clubs and festivals appearing and disappearing, ‘oracy’ became an educational watchword, and a new generation of tellers began to manifest itself.
The ‘Beyond the Border’ Festivals that Ben and David Ambrose ran at St Donat’s Castle, were the direct descendants of those first three festivals, and continued the tradition of bringing leading storytelling exponents from many different cultures to Britain, alongside British performers and musicians, and intermingling with talks, discussions and lectures (Jeanette Winterson, Erica Wagner, Robert Irwin etc).
And out of all these interactions a form of storytelling began to evolve, that was contemporary, unsentimental, engaging, performance-oriented, drawing from a tradition that took in both the fireside tradition and the more formal aspects of the epic (troubadour) tradition… with a touch of stand-up. (Daniel Morden and I sometimes describe ourselves as ‘Stand-Up Tragedians’).
The question of repertoire is clearly a very important one to a storyteller. Some are proud of the amount they have memorised, whereas I and many of those I know might have twenty or so tales on hand that they know, which could be dusted over, or re-shaped, and perhaps with a couple of story cycles they would use and build for performances on specific themes and myths. What were the kind of tales you always kept fresh, and the first cycles you developed and why?
I think developing a repertoire is an important part of a storyteller’s apprenticeship. It’s the equivalent of those ‘bardic schools’ where you had to learn stories of conceptions, courtships, cattle-raids, voyages, feasts, battles, sieges, elopements, adventures and heroic deaths. It’s part of the craft. I find that if I’ve told a story a few times it can sink down into a sort of memory bank and become silted over, but it’s still salvageable years later. It can be dredged up and brought back to life. So I carry hundreds of dormant stories, but I’d need a few days notice to get them up and running again. At the same time there’s a core repertoire of stories that are close to the surface… maybe a hundred or so if I include ballads. They range from cumulative tales that I’d tell to little children to wonder tales, to regional stories, to legends and myths.
The first story cycles I learned were from the Odyssey, from Norse myth (including Beowulf) and from Irish saga (the Tain). I jumped in at the deep end! I wouldn’t say I was ready to tell any of those stories until ten years after I started telling them. But when we start we’re innocents… and in those days there were no mentors.
An important part of my life was hearing you tell the story of Taliesin at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton, where I’d taken my A Level Theatre Studies night class from Bridgwater College. You were alone that time, but I was delighted to find in your book ‘The Assembly of the Severed Head’, which we’ll examine further in Part Two of the interview, that you retold this tale and included that wonderful poem of yours. How important is Taliesin as a figure for you, and the other stories of Welsh Myth?
I didn’t mention, earlier on, that my Mum was Welsh. So though I grew up in Cambridgeshire, we’d go over to North Wales at least twice a year. There were grandparents and lots of Great Aunts and Uncles, all of them spoke Welsh as a first language (though English was the language of the ‘drawing room’). We walked and climbed all over Snowdonia, the coast, the Vale of Clwyd, the Llyn Peninsula… when I discovered the stories of the Mabinogi and their landscape it was a sort of home-coming.
Yes, the birth of Taliesin is a core myth for me, one I return to over and over again. The poem I use in performance is a composite of various poems attributed to Taliesin, and my telling of that story owes a lot to Robin Williamson’s version. I love the Mabinogi, the fluidity of form, the shape-shifting, the dark human motivations, the suggestions of a whole lost mythology… the way the stories are permeated by a familiar natural world, a fauna & flora, that we all know and are part of.
And in that story, the landscape – especially as little Gwion flees through it – is very important. How important do you think it is to tell or embody landscape as part of your telling? How do you go about it?
I haven’t really talked about landscape yet. My serious engagement with it didn’t begin until I’d been telling for a while. I was commissioned to put together a performance of ‘Tales from the Fens’ and tour it around village halls in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The more I worked on those stories the more I realised that they were informed by their landscape, almost precipitated by it. Telling, for example ‘Tom Hickathrift’, I visited his grave, climbed the Smeeth where he fought the giant, found dew-ponds called ‘Tom Hickathrift’s wash-basin’, found ostentatious gate-posts known locally as ‘Tom Hickathrift’s candle-sticks’, and there was a place where a church tower was separate from the body of the church, of course the local story was that Tom had lifted the tower for a wager and put it down in the wrong place. He permeated the landscape, and had a part in shaping it.
This was an eye-opener for me. Telling the stories locally I didn’t need to describe the landscape because it was already familiar to my audiences, but as soon as I started to tell the stories more widely I found I had to evoke that flat, mist-ridden, watery world with its enormous skies. And it began to occur to me that the landscapes of Britain need to be ‘re-storied’. We have a very different relationship with a storied landscape. We value it in a different way.
At the same time I became interested in ‘Englishness’. I realised that there’s a profound embarrassment about it. It’s identified with colonialism, empire, jingoism and extreme right-wing political belief. (And its got worse since Brexit). Might it not be possible to take a different view? To celebrate the English folk-tales as a collective ‘dreaming’ – Tom-Tit-Tot, Molly Whuppie, The Three Sillies, Cap o’ Rushes, The Hand of Glory (as wonderful, surreal, muscular, anarchic & truthful as the stories of any other culture)? Might it not be possible to celebrate a parallel history of English radicalism – Watt Tyler & John Ball, the Levellers, Tom Paine etc? And also to address the ecological crisis and the barren reductionism that is ruining our landscapes? This became a major pre-occupation and has been at the core of my work with Chris Wood over the years. It also led to my engagement with the life and poetry of John Clare.
So, through the 1990’s, landscape became a central theme. My wife, Liz McGowan, is a landscape artist. Together (with Helen Chadwick) we developed a piece called ‘A Norfolk Songline’ that followed an ancient trackway across Norfolk, evoking through story, song and visual image, 10,000 years of human interaction with place. The Aboriginal idea of a story as a sort of map – the next episode of the narrative you’re telling being the next landmark that looms over the horizon as you’re walking – became a key idea. We walked the Peddar’s Way, sometimes alone, sometimes with groups of people, telling, singing and making as we went.
At about the same time the Company of Storytellers devised a piece called ‘I Become Part of It’. It was an attempt to create a Mesolithic mythology for the British Isles. We took hunter-gatherer myths from other cultures and tried to re-imagine them in the British landscape as it would have been after the last ice-age. That work had a powerful effect on what I’ve done since, it gave me a feeling for a ‘deep England’ that is quite at odds with any received embarrassment about ‘Englishness’.
So, to return to your question, yes, the Mabinogion is rooted in very specific places, easily visited. I don’t think you can really tell those stories unless you’re familiar with those places. It’s a subtle thing with landscape when you’re telling… you don’t have to say very much, but because you’re revisiting those places with your inner eye as you’re speaking, something communicates itself to your listeners. I think it’s possible to understand the stories of the Mabinogi as a sort of ‘Songline’. They certainly have their roots in something deeply archaic. And lets not forget… all of England was Celtic too… they represent fragments of what would once have been a mythology that was known from the Wash to Anglesey!
One of the most popular things said to a storyteller is surely, ‘I’d love stories like so and so, but I could never remember all those words.’ What would be your reply to them?
I’m always a bit frustrated/bored by that question… memory is a muscle that we develop as part of the craft… in exactly the same way that a carpenter develops a strong fore-arm. I’d much rather people wanted to know about the stories themselves.
But, having said that, the question must be answered…as I’ve hinted already, the secret is not to learn a story word for word, but to see it as a sequence of images. Story is a language of pictures (that’s the root of the word ‘imagination’). The work is in the ‘mind’s eye’. So, I tell people to try and forget ‘memorizing’ and to break down a story into a sequence of visualised moments. I tell them to enter the terrain of a story in as much detail as they can manage. If they can see it, then the words will begin to take care of themselves. Of course, there are refrains (the ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fums’) that have to be learned… and then, if you decide, like you Steve, to take on bardic poetry, that’s a different kettle of fish… but still, even for that, I’d advocate visual memory.
Finally, in the first part of this interview, I’d like to talk to you about ‘Three Snake Leaves’, which for me, when I first heard and saw it, was doing something different with storytelling, allowing it to be divided into cliff-hanger moments, like something would be on TV, by the simple precedent of saying ‘Stop’ every time you needed to change the story being told. At the same time, it maintained all the richness and variety of the actual telling, but providing several tales at once. I know you recently reassembled to do a retrospective about it. How do you feel about it now?
‘The Three Snake Leaves’ was the result of years of working, with Ben and Pomme, on wonder-tales, and particularly Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We were deconstructing the form of the fairy tale, exploring how it descends into the tragic and then returns from that dark place into something life-affirmative (the wedding, the feast). We told three long, complete stories (and a number of shorter ones), the ‘stop’ moment you mention always came at the darkest, bleakest moment of each narrative.
In Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ he talks about the classical notion of the tragic and the comedic, here’s what he says: ‘Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible. The two are the terms of a single mythological theme… the down-going and the up-coming, which together constitute the totality of the revelation that is life.’ He says: ‘The happy ending of the fairy-tale… is to be read not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man… where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest’. That was our core text when we were shaping ‘The Three Snake Leaves.’
So in the first half we told each story to its tragic ‘nadir’. And then, in the second half (you might remember), after the central character, the musician, describes sitting on the throne of God and seeing the world as tragic, and being told he needs to see the ‘whole picture’… after that, we tell the second halves of our stories through to their ‘comedic’ redemption. Another thing we were trying to do was to find some sort of resolution for those characters who usually end up being rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails, or made to dance in a pair of red-hot iron shoes.
We couldn’t have created ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ without all those years working together and having those intense conversations in service stations. It was a sort of culmination of our work together. I like to think of it as a ‘Prentice Piece’. After that we were free to go off in our three directions and do our own things.
I’m still proud of it. We revived it in 2012 and toured it with music played by Dylan Fowler and Gill Stephens… who knows, we might revive it again.
Thanks, Hugh for all your answers, and in October we’ll be focusing on your writing projects and the courses you and Eric have been running at Ty Newydd.
Writers in their Landscape. Hugh Lupton by Steve Gladwin
Monday, 26 October 2020
The second part of my interview with storyteller, writer, poet and lyricist Hugh Lupton, carries on the theme of landscape in more detail and relates it particularly to the landscapes of Mid -Wales and Norfolk, and Hugh’s books on John Clare and The Mabinogion. For those of you who particularly enjoyed the selection from Hugh’s picture archive last time, I promise you a few more crackers, beginning with the one below!
Thanks again, Hugh. Let’s begin by thinking about those two very separate landscapes, of Norfolk, where you live, and North Wales and the Lleyn Peninsula, where for the last twenty five years, you and fellow storyteller Eric Maddern, and year after year of eager students – which four times included me – have been exploring landscape and myth at the entirely wonderful Ty Newydd Writers Centre. They are very different landscapes. How do you feel about them both?
I’m half Saxon and half Celt. When I think about the two dragons that Merlin reveals to King Vortigern on Dinas Emrys, the red dragon of the Celts and the white dragon of the Saxons, I think of the mix in the blood that runs in my veins: the red corpuscles and the white. The two landscapes, East Anglia and Wales, reflect that mix… they are both homelands, I feel comfortable in both.
East Anglia is farmland, largely arable, fertile, traditionally bound by the agricultural cycles of ploughing, harvesting etc. North Wales is mountainous, rugged, a herding culture, traditionally bound by cycles of grazing on high and low pasture. Of course those distinctions don’t mean much today when very few people are engaged in farming… but they inform the consciousness of place on some deep level.
The courses that Eric and I run at Ty Newydd, because of their location and its surrounding landscape, inevitably lean towards the Celtic end of the storytelling repertoire. Though some years we’ve drawn on a more agrarian mythology – The ‘Passion of the Corn’ explored Neolithic myth, ‘Frost and Fire’ explored the cyclic seasonal rituals… and we’ve run several courses where we’ve delved into the Saxon/Norse pantheon.
Looking at the brochure every year I’m always amazed at how you manage to keep things fresh and rarely repeat. How have you done that?
Eric and I have been running these courses for more than twenty-five years. Eric came to storytelling and landscape through his work as a community artist with Aboriginal peoples in the Australian outback. He settled in the UK with the question: ‘What is the white-man’s dreaming?’ as his central concern. I (as I mentioned in the last interview) had become deeply interested in the connections between story and place, and ‘restorying’ the landscape. Eric and I had known each other since Ben Haggarty’s first storytelling festival. I’d visited his wonderful (evolving) place at Cae Mabon a number of times. We’d worked together for English Heritage. We were friends and there was something inevitable about us combining our interests and skills in running these courses at Ty Newydd.
The first course we ran was on the Mabinogion. Ty Newydd is surrounded by places that are mentioned in the second and fourth branches. The course was a mixture of discussion, excursions into landscape and retellings of the stories (which all participants contributed to). We saw ourselves as facilitators rather than teachers, and we found that there was a very high level of shared knowledge about the material within the group. This became a pattern over the years. Each course rang the changes, taking a different theme and connecting it to the landscape. Sometimes we led participants on quite challenging adventures. Among the courses have been: ‘The Battle of the Trees’, ‘Totemic Animals’, ‘The Holy Grail’, ‘The Sword out of the Stone’ (the coming of metal), ‘Bardic Romantics’, ‘Pilgrimage’, ‘Lost Gods of Britain’, ‘Song-lines’, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, ‘Annwn and the Otherworld’, ‘The Goddess’, ‘Heightened and Prophetic Speech’… There’s no shortage of themes! This year would have been ‘Creation Myths’ but Covid scuppered that plan.
We’ve had wonderful participants over the years, many of them storytellers, some just beginning their journeys into the craft. Many came over a number of years, among them Nick Hennessey, Katy Cawkwell, David Ambrose, Ana Adnam, Sharon Jacksties, Jem Dick, Cath Little, Eleanor Kapp, Jo Blake, Jamie Crawford, Daniel Cohen, June Peters (to name a few)… and you Steve… and the redoubtable and much missed Rob Soldat (always a fount of arcane knowledge).
Each course has a visiting speaker for one evening. We’ve been privileged to welcome (among others) Ronald Hutton (many times), Kevin Crossley-Holland, Gillian Clarke, Hugh Brody, Nikolai Tolstoy, Lindsay Clarke.
I should also say that Ty Newydd has been generous and accommodating in making it possible to run courses that are far from the quiet and sedentary norm for a writer’s centre. It’s a beautiful and comfortable place to work in and from, with a fantastic team who have been enormously supportive over the years.
Again, the courses are very much about walking into landscape and telling stories within. How important is it for a storyteller to have landscape as a backdrop? Does it give you a particular something?
The general title for all these courses has been ‘Storytelling and the Mythological Landscape’. At least one day in the week is spent visiting sites that Eric and I have chosen as being connected with or evocative of the stories we’re exploring. It’s absolutely central to the course that all participants have this experience, so that when we retell the stories at the end of the week we have a shared imaginative world.
The landscape experiences can vary enormously. When we were looking at Parsifal and the Holy Grail we started at Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station (decommissioned) as an experience of the ‘Wasteland’ and then we followed an ancient trackway over the high moors to Harlech (as Grail Castle). When we were looking at the mythology of metal we visited the Bronze Age copper mines on the Great Orme… and smelted iron from stones we’d found on the beach. Then, with the Mabinogion-related courses, it’s possible to visit sites that are mentioned in the texts – Dina Dinlleu, Cynfael River, the Dylan Stone, Taliesin’s grave etc. I’m endebted to Eric’s deep knowledge of the North Wales sites for making these experiences possible.
So yes, to answer your question, it gives something fundamental to the retelling of the stories… more than a backdrop, something immersive.
For a similar amount of time yourself and colleague Daniel Morden have been running a similar, weekend introductory course to storytelling there. Do you find with those that people need a lot of nudging to believe in themselves, considering they’ve made the decision to come there?
The fact that people have elected to come and have coughed up the fee means that there’s a genuine interest in what we’re offering. People come to those beginner’s courses with a wide variety of expectations and needs. Because Ty Newydd is a ‘Writers Centre’ Daniel and I often have to start by shaking off any notion that we’re going to be writing stories and reading them aloud. People are not always familiar with traditional storytelling or with the form and structure of traditional tales. The idea of improvisation can be terrifying. We spend the first part of the weekend with games and exercises that help people relax into speech and start to feel comfortable with each other. We end with a shared telling – participants work in pairs and tell folk tales to the rest of the group. We’ve had some wonderful tellings over the years, there’s something about the moment someone finds his or her voice for the first time that can be very moving.
It seems a natural progression from a retreat centre in Wales to the mythic world of The Mabinogion, and especially the four linked tales which are known as the four branches. Considering your love of the tales and the various explorations on all those courses, it took until 2018 for you to produce your book, ‘The Assembly of the Severed Head’. Was it something you’d always had brewing and you were just waiting for the right opportunity? How did the setting down of this story end up coming about?
It had been brewing for a long time, but I’d never planned to write it down. I’d wanted to do an extended performance of the Four Branches, focusing on Pryderi as the central character. I’d thought I might record it. Also Eric and I had been talking (are still talking) about making a book about the courses we’ve run, and obviously the Four Branches and their geography would be part of that.
But then Henry Layte, who runs Propolis Books, turned up on the doorstep one day and said he’d like to commission a retelling of the Mabinogion. Well, as you know Steve, commissions don’t grow on trees, so I immediately said ‘yes’ and started thinking how it might work.
I knew I wanted to write something that liberated the story from the text and returned it to its oral, bardic origins. I’d always found the text strangely lifeless, though the material is extraordinary. Then, one morning, I had the idea: ‘What if there were two texts, a spoken and a written? What if the scribe is reluctant, disapproving and lacking the breadth of vision of the teller?’ I started reading about the history of early thirteenth century Wales (when scholars reckon the stories were first set on the page). It was the time of King John’s brutal incursions into Gwynedd and the humiliation of Llywelyn. It seemed highly likely that Llywelyn would have used his bards to fire up the Welsh troops with patriotic fervour in their resistance to the Normans. I thought: ‘What if there was a massacre of the bards? What if only one survived? What if he was the sole repository of the old knowledge? What if he knew that the only way his ‘matter’ could survive was through the written word?’ Slowly the frame story began to form in my imagination.
And, of course, it was the monks who were the book-makers and who, in their scriptoriums, set words onto the page. I knew that the scribe had to be a monk… and that he would have been writing, against his better judgement, this profane material from the old times. This tension between ancient lore and Christian teaching began to underpin the story and give it a tension… especially as the stories of the Mabinogi, told over a number of months in a Cistercian monastery, began to echo the ritual and liturgy of the church.
So (I hope) the book works on two levels. For someone who doesn’t know the Four Branches it serves as a lively and palatable introduction to one of the corner-stones of a British ‘Dreaming’. For someone who’s familiar with the original text it explores the moment a living oral telling is hardened and diminished into the written word.
At the same time it’s a celebration of the making of a book (a major operation in thirteenth century Wales) and of the fact that without that book the stories would have been lost completely. So hats off to Brother Iago and his stylus and quill!
As a storyteller with such a love of the country, Hugh, it seems natural for you to have written a book about John Clare, the ultimate country poet. Is he someone you’ve had a lifetime’s admiration for? Are there any other poets whose work you particularly love? In general, how important a part of your journey has poetry been?
Many years ago I had a conversation with a First Nation storyteller called Jo Bruchac. He’s an Abnaki (a branch of the Mohawk people). He said that when his people were put into reservations it was as though they were ‘taken out of their mind’. In that culture landscape and consciousness are so intertwined that to be taken out of your place is to be taken out of your mind. As he was talking I started thinking about the English Enclosures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The common lands, heaths and wastes were privatised and fenced, and the ‘landless poor’ who had always depended on them as part of a subsistence economy (grazing for their hogs, snaring & trapping, firewood, timber, berries, basket-making etc) could no longer make ends meet and were forced to leave their villages and move to the new mill and mining towns and become part of the ‘proletariat’ of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. They were ‘taken out of their minds’.
John Clare lived through that moment of history. He was attuned to his place (the village of Helpston, near Peterborough), its animals, birds, plants, rituals, songs, agricultural cycles, in a way that echoes a First Nation sensibility. For him the enclosure of his parish and its losses marked a fall from a personal Eden. And he was taken out of his mind (he spent the last twenty five years of his life in a lunatic asylum).
I’d always loved his poetry. He wrote these finely observed ecstatic snap-shots of the world of his place in a language that by-passed the mannered poetry of his time. He was a labourer. He was literate but had grown up in an oral culture, he composed as he was walking or working and wrote when he could afford to buy paper. His story seemed an important one to tell today, seven generations on, when the full implications of that ‘enclosure moment’ are playing themselves out in the environmental crisis we’re all facing, and at a time when more than half the population of the world has been forced to move from village to city. The novel is set in 1810, the year of the Enclosure of Helpston, when Clare was seventeen and just beginning to find his poetic voice.
In answer to your second question… yes, poetry has always been central for me. I’ve always written poetry and in some ways it’s been my core concern. In fact myth and (true) poetry are sprung from the same source. What Coleridge called Imagination. Here’s a list of key figures (off the top of my head): Mother Goose, Chaucer, John Skelton, Shakespeare, John Donne, Wordsworth & Coleridge (pre 1810), Blake, John Clare, Edward Lear, Edward Thomas, D. H. Lawence, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert Graves, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, R.S. Thomas, Charles Causley, George Mackay Brown, Alice Oswald… and most of all the ever fertile anon’.
I should add that song is so closely allied to poetry that it should be acknowledged in the same breath… so here’s to Bob Dylan, Robin Williamson, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Lal Waterson, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch… and once again (and an even more resounding cheer) the anon’ of the ballads and folk songs.
Was it a big challenge to write about someone whose work you so admired? As you know, I’ve recently been doing similar with the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. In doing so, I’ve often had the fear of misrepresenting him as a person or character. Did you feel that with John Clare? After all he’s never really been as highly regarded as he might have been until recently.
During John Clare’s life there was a passing fashion for ‘peasant poets’. For a little while he was feted in literary London. Three volumes of his poems were published (cleaned up & tidied for mass consumption) then he was dropped and forgotten. His best work was written after his fall from grace… it would be more than a hundred years before much of it was published. He was rediscovered in the twentieth century and is now regarded as the founding father of ‘eco-poetry’ (I hope that isn’t another passing fashion).
Not very much is known about his early life, so I had a certain amount of leeway… and anyway I never pretended that the novel was anything other than a ‘fiction’. But at the same time I felt a duty to be true to my sense of John Clare, who he was and what drove him, and to stay within the few parameters of what biography there is. His early love for Mary Joyce is attested in many of his poems, but nothing is known of what actually happened between them. My story is pure conjecture, but I hope it makes it possible for the reader to then go to the poetry and understand how the loss of the commons and the loss of Mary somehow get entangled in his imagination… she becomes his muse and the presiding spirit of his place.
I couldn’t let you go without talking to you about Greek Myth and your performing partnership with Daniel Morden. I was certainly thrilled when we saw you do ‘Metamorphoses’, and I think there might be something about the great Greek stories – something powerful, but also visceral – which gives them real impact when out across to an audience. And, apart from anything else, these are some of the greatest stories ever written. What would be the main pitfalls in telling them?
You’re right, these are magnificent, visceral stories. There’s a challenge in telling them though, they’ve become sort of main-stream. There are so many layers that have to be scraped back to get at their energy. There’s an academic overlay, a psycho-analytic overlay, there are Victorian, Enlightenment, Renaissance and Roman layers that have to be scratched at to get to the essential stuff. Various poets have shown the way. Christopher Logue’s ‘War Music’ and Ted Hughes’ ‘Tales from Ovid’ re-charged the material. Daniel and I have done performances of the Odyssey and the Iliad with professors of Classics in the audience, their response is often: ‘I’ve been studying this material all my life but I’ve never experienced it as a story before, I’ve never been moved by it before.’ That was our aim, to get to the humanity that’s at the root of the Homeric tales.
We started with the Odyssey. Our angle on it was that this is a story about a veteran’s return from war. Odysseus’ journey home with all its mythic encounters charts the stripping away of his warrior bravado, so that when he finally reaches Ithaca he has become ‘nobody’, and only then is he ready to be re-united with Penelope. The more we told it the more we realised it only made sense if it was preceded by the Iliad, so that an audience came to the Odyssey having witnessed the bloody excesses of the Trojan War. But then, when we started telling the Iliad, it became clear that it also is imbued with a deep humanity and understanding. Homer never takes sides. War is never a simple case of right and wrong… and most of it is outside human agency altogether, it has its own terrible momentum.
Homer is a master! He/she’s up there with Shakespeare & Tolstoy. And the wonderful thing is that Homer is really anon’, he’s standing at the end of five hundred years worth of oral transmission, he’s just the moment it reaches the page.
To tell those stories is to engage with the Greek Gods and Goddesses. Daniel and I found the whole Olympian Pantheon, each with his or her powers, provinces and ‘force-fields’… each of them flawed, but with the power to level a city on a whim… we found them deeply absorbing… and with a certain reality… we found ourselves being careful how we addressed and acknowledged them. So the next stage in our Greek adventure was to tell the stories of its divinities, and that was how ‘Metamorphoses’ came about. Then we moved on to Prometheus, Theseus, Jason… we’re currently working on a set of Greek myths about the constellations.
To answer your question though, the main pitfall is to lose the emotional journey the stories chart. An audience needs to care about the characters, its heart need to be touched. The outward harshness of the Greek stories can make this difficult to achieve.
It appears from an outsider’s viewpoint that you’ve spent a great deal of times collaborating and working with others on every level. You’re clearly a very social person. Do you prefer a mix of both, or is it project to project?
I like collaborating, it’s a form of play.
I remember when I was a boy, I’d go round to someone’s house and nothing much would happen. I’d watch his electric train set go round and round and then we’d sit in front of the telly. Then the next day I’d go round to someone else’s house and something clicked, before I knew it we were clambering around in a tree and imagining we were part of a tribe of monkeys. It was those people who became friends. The people who I’ve collaborated with (there aren’t that many of them) are people who can play. Ben & Pomme, Daniel, Eric, Nick Hennessey, Chris Wood… when I set off in the car with Eric to explore possible sites for a Ty Newydd course… when Chris and I are matching words and music… when I’m locked in conversation with Daniel… these are all clambering around in a tree moments. It’s all about the excitement of that dynamic… when you’re making something that’s bigger than both of you.
I also like collaborating with musicians (and its not called playing an instrument for nothing). It’s a delicate thing putting music and story together and I’ve had wonderful collaborations with Helen Chadwick, Rick Wilson, Sherry Robinson, John Dipper, Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney…(Chris Wood is a musician too, of course, but he’s also a word-smith, and in his own okkard way, a bit of a visionary).
The other thing about collaborating is that it’s much more fun when you go on tour. Solo tours can be miserable affairs, solitary meals, long drives, drab b&bs… but shared tours lift the whole experience… the post-gig pints… the late night Indian… the shared sound-track in the car etc. Chris and I used to tour with a copy of the Good Pub Guide and take long detours to fit in a rattling good lunch.
So yes… I like collaboration… but I also like working on my own… I like dreaming a book or a performance into being… I like walking and muttering to myself… I like balancing on that tight-rope between being in control and being a conduit for something that’s speaking through me. In many ways I’m a bit of a solitary.
Another form of collaboration I’ve been involved with recently has been ‘community plays’. There’s a village in Norfolk called Bergh Apton with a very strong interest in community arts. I’ve worked with them on four plays. I wrote a cycle of ‘Mystery Plays’, which were performed over a day as a processional performance with a cast of maybe fifty people. We’ve made a performance on the rituals of winter called ‘A Midwinter Dreaming’ and one on inundation and global warming called ‘A Songline for Doggerland’. The plays are all written in negotiation with the community and involve workshops (writing, mask making, printmaking, lantern making etc) with a host of local artists. We’re currently working on ‘One for the Rook’, a performance about the geology, flora and fauna of the parish. I’ve been lucky to work with some very skilled local community artists: David Farmer, Charlotte Arculus and Mary Lovett.
And I should also mention in passing, although it’s worth a whole interview in its own right, my long friendship, collaboration with and apprenticeship with the late Duncan Williamson, the Scottish traveller, teller, singer, and extraordinary bearer of oral tradition.
My final question takes us back to storytelling. You and I share a fascination for a series of tales called ‘Tales of the Lincolnshire Carrs’. I know that you did a cassette version which included two or three of these tales years ago. Now, even, allowing for some of the stranger products of those many nations who tell what we call ‘traditional tales’, they really are fantastically dark and also quite disturbing. For me, Lincolnshire born as I am, admittedly, they rather stick out like a sore thumb in their themes and atmosphere, and the fact that they’re written nearly all in dialect. The very particular landscape of the Fens really did produce and evoke a nightmare world, didn’t it?
I didn’t know you’re a Lincolnshire lad Steve!
I think you’re talking about the stories retold by Mrs Balfour. Yes, I included some of them in my ‘Tales of the Fens’ performance: ‘Tiddy Mun’, ‘The Dead Moon’ and ‘The Green Mist’. She was a niece of Robert Louis Stevenson and had literary aspirations. The stories are very strange in a feverish sort of way. They include strong folk motifs but seem to me to have been ‘worked up’ either by her or by her informant. There was a big tradition of taking laudanum in the Fens (sovereign against Marsh Fever) and the ‘Tales of the Lincolnshire Carrs’ have a tinge of the opium-induced nightmare about them. They are amazing stories though. And yes, the flat, water-logged landscape of the Fens does seem to have generated some dark narratives.
Well, thanks again, Hugh, it’s been a pleasure to catch up and share some thoughts.
Many thanks Steve… it’s been a pleasure, and great to be interviewed by someone who has such a long perspective on my various doings over the years.
Steve Gladwin – Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement.
Author of ‘The Seven’, ‘Fragon Tales’ and ‘The Raven’s Call’