On the eve of the Settle Storytelling Festival, Chris Bond looks at the ancient art of verbal narrative.
WHETHER it’s a ripping yarn we’ve enjoyed as an adult or the cherished memory of being read to as a child at bedtime, we all love a good story.
Storytelling is an ancient method of communication that stretches back through the mists of time, from the epic tales of Homer’s Odyssey to the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and as long as mankind has existed, so too have stories and the desire to hear them.
In recent years we’ve seen literature festivals popping up here, there and everywhere as public demand to meet authors has grown. This resurgence of interest in writers and writing has spread to the spoken word with the likes of Festival at the Edge and the Scottish International Storytelling Festival leading the way in reviving and celebrating this great oral tradition.
Yorkshire has been getting in on the act, with the Grassington Festival and the Limetree Festival, and tomorrow marks the start of this year’s Settle Storytelling Festival. Nestled deep in Yorkshire Dales country, this bustling market town is best known as the starting point of England’s most scenic railway and for being the gateway to the Three Peaks of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside, and Ingleborough. But for the rest of this week it will have a different focal point.
Sita Brand, a storyteller herself, set up the festival last year. “I moved to Yorkshire four years ago and I wanted to do more storytelling and I thought why not have a storytelling festival here in Settle and when I mentioned it to people they were very keen. So I organised it to see what would happen and it went incredibly well, better than I could have imagined,” she says. “Afterwards people said they thought it was wonderful that something like this was being held in Settle and there was a lot of community support for it to become an annual event.”
Last year, more than 500 people attended the festival, and this year the organisers hope to double that figure with something for adults and children alike. As well as getting local businesses on board to support its storytelling competition, the festival also has funding from Arts Council England and it received a further boost when festival organisers Settle Stories announced yesterday that author, performer and radio presenter Mike Harding had agreed to become its patron.
Harding, who will advise on the future direction of the Festival and help with its promotion, says he is delighted to be involved.
“Right from when I was a child, stories and storytelling have always been a central part of my life – my mother always used to tell me tales and I still use the stories and jokes my grandad told me in my performances today. I can’t think of a better place to hear and share stories than the Settle Storytelling Festival – it’s grown quickly into one of the country’s top storytelling events and I’m delighted to be a part of it.”
There are more than 20 guest storytellers from the UK and abroad are taking part in this year’s event, which is being held at venues across Settle including Victoria Hall, St John’s Church Hall, the Folly Museum and the Friends Meeting House. Among the many highlights is former Divine Comedy percussionist Grant Gordon who will perform Century, an uplifting 10-piece multimedia and music performance that follows one family’s journey through the 20th century to the present day.
Hugh Lupton, a professional storyteller for the past 30 years, will be entertaining audiences with tales about his great-uncle, Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome, and his perilous travels through Russia during the 1917 revolution. Lupton will reveal how Ransome played chess with Lenin, fell in love with Trotsky’s secretary and escaped the country in disguise.
Such tales are fascinating, but in our digital age when the speed of communication is seemingly the be all and end all, is traditional storytelling still relevant to our fast, modern lives? Brand believes unequivocally that it is. “Storytelling is one of the most important forms of communication because it puts us in touch with other people. We have Japanese and Indian storytellers this year and that helps us understand different cultures we don’t necessarily know that much about,” she says.
“There’s a story about an anthropologist who travels to Africa and helps them get electricity and television and he returns a year later and notices that nobody is using their TV. He asks the chief in the village why this is, explaining that it provides information and knowledge and the man says, ‘yes, but we have a storyteller.’ The anthropologist says the TV has stories, too, and the man says, ‘yes, but the storyteller knows us.’
“And that’s the difference, storytelling is a shared experience between the audience and performer and each time it is slightly different because the performer responds to the individuals in front of them. It’s completely different from going to watch a film at the cinema and that’s the beauty of storytelling.”
As well as writing stories for the BBC and for schools programmes, Brand runs leadership courses and workshops using storytelling as a way of solving problems and has also toured the world with her one woman show, Memories of an Indian Childhood. “It’s a way of painting pictures with your mind. People often say they want to read a book before they go and see the film version because we want to create our own pictures, even in this digital age, and that’s what storytelling offers,” she says.
“Stories like Cinderella and Red Riding Hood are told all over the world and there are different versions depending if you’re in Egypt, Vietnam, or the United States. Human beings are united through stories and this oral tradition has a resonance that transcends the passage of time.”
Arguably the most recognisable face at this year’s festival in Settle will be Taffy Thomas, the UK’s first storytelling laureate, who has a repertoire of more than 300 stories and tales that he’s collected over the years by talking to people he meets.
Thomas founded the folk theatre company Magic Lantern, travelling all over Europe and later set up an arts company and a touring group, the Fabulous Salami Brothers, which he performed in until he suffered a stroke at the age of just 36.
He turned to storytelling as a kind of speech therapy to help with his recovery. “I was a fire-eater and a circus performer for many years and then I had a stroke. But I used stories to learn to talk again and to reinvent myself as the storyteller I am today,” he says.
For Thomas, storytelling is one of life’s great pleasures. “It’s about having a love of language and for children it makes the jump to reading and writing much easier. Everyone has their own story to tell and I regard myself as the luckiest man in the world because I enjoy telling stories and I enjoy meeting the people I’m telling them to.”
The Settle Storytelling Festival runs from October 6 to 9. For more information tel 01729 825 718 or visit www.settlestories.org.uk