A little of the behind-the-scenes labour of myth telling today. A very recent piece – local folks will remember the weather i am describing from just last week. In a good moment of synchronicity, it also touches on themes in an interview i recently shared on the schools Facebook page with the storyteller Sally Pomme-Clayton. The link is:
It’s rough weather up on Haldon Hill. As one of the main routes through Devon and into Cornwall, its exhausted motorway is straining to the very limit as truck after truck groans and grinds its load up and over this ancient tump. The motorway air is a churning menagerie of sound; the thick flap of the wheels, high whines from frustrated engines, and the steady put-put-put of the exhaust pipes. In the darkening light of late afternoon, a curling snake of headlights stretch all the way down towards the city of Exeter.
Up here, Haldon has its own weather. There can reside an arctic frigidity, quite unlike the hidden villages and hamlets below. As the rain hurls its ravenous fangs down on the shining cars, only half a mile away i’m tucked into a thin scattering of wood, deep into ceremony.
I’m as dapper as i’m ever going to get, regardless of freezing downpour: grandfathers cufflinks, sash, tailored knee length tweed, rings on fingers, waistcoat and bespoke old-time boots. An elaborate horse strap from the Hindu Kush is firm woven into a large leather bag, which weighs heftily from my right shoulder, filled with gifts. Doesn’t stop that rain though, sleeting sideways though the gloomy verticality of the blue pines. For a second i gingerly remove my trilby and slosh out the gathered moat of rainwater under its up turned brim. Than back to it, the weather begets efficiency.
The story-hut is looking almost ready for business. In the midst of the pines there is the rotted base of a very old oak, still rooted in crumbly black soil. A small bed of bracken has been diligently assembled, and on top resides a stash of dry kindling, a hip flask of Irish whisky, three strands from a blanket, money, and a slow-whittled antler-tipped staff, ornate at its handle with the carved appearance of a local denizen.
Above that is a simple woven roof of grasses and branches. And most importantly, it’s near flowing water, otherwise i fear there’s no possibility of the guest arriving. Fretting like a concierge at some fancy hotel, i pace the soil and glance through the dripping tree line for just a hint of their arrival. Just a few rustles in the glittering bushes. This story know hows how to make an entrance.
I should tell you, this tale brings a very old arrangement with it. Though i’ve encountered it told as a local story, and through a local mouth, i intuit immediately that it’s taken a migration across the Irish sea to get here. I can just smell it. It’s a wanderer amongst the steadies. There’s a subtly different magic to it, that, i admit, settles wonderfully amongst the tussocks and green lanes of Devon. It works. I don’t know if it arrived on a fishing trawler, on the back of an eagle or squeezed itself out into the confines of Newton Abbot library, but it’s here. And it works.
Stories have always done this. Some of them do like a wander. There can sometimes be a ruction between those that insist on locality as prime for folklore, and those that perceive the land as a fluid backdrop, fluid enough for the story to hop from country to country with nary a scratch.
The truth is, of course, both are correct in the way that they are. There are examples that will readily back both position. But for as long as people have loaded the wagons or set out across the ice flow, then stories have been traded, migrated and weighted. Weighted for their purchase, for their wisdoms, for their disclosures. True wealth.
But we already know enough of this commons of imagination, it’s a note struck frequently down in the orchestra pit of modern story. That all myths are talking about the same things at the same time. It’s simply not true. I’m sick of it. As if the pitted cliff face of East Prawl is chanting the emerald song of Sherwood forest. Different lands provoke different stories. Everything i’ve learnt from stripping down the black tent and moving a little way tells me this.
So i focus on the local. The specific. But then this happens. Just like it always did. The nomad is back. A story rolls in, spits once on the ground, and beds in. Claims some turf. Like some charismatic loafer crashing the party, by the end of the evening they have everyone dancing on the tables and a new blush to aunty Ruth’s cheeks. They get claimed. Naughty as they are, they get recognised as saying something new about the old place. I can’t let this kind of messiness pass, it’s too real. It’s like life. But i suspect the story has not been deeply welcomed. There’s an old way of doing these things you know.
So, my task is twofold: to visit the land and barter some relationship to the story, to visit the story, and barter some relationship to the land. What happens after is not my business, but i can’t be slack in my duties. That’s why i’m up Haldon hill with my bundle.
Storytellers have always had a hinge-vocation; between worlds, cultures, spirits. But, as i write elsewhere, there has usually been a gradient of protocol attached, a sensitivity, a way of doing things. It’s not appropriate to grab some far off tale and expect it to show up ready for business in a climate not suited. However, if the story itself has something of the migrational about it, then a courtship begins. A testing of the ground.
And that courtship requires a few standards: no Erin tale will settle unless its near fast moving water, if it doesn’t have dry wood for the fire, if there’s no dram for the lip, no emerald bed, no staff to lend its heft when the feet are weary and the road is long.
You have to be loving, generous and attentive when a story arrives. You have to make a home for it. Make it comfortable, more than comfortable.
The three strands of blanket were part of a late night gift from a storyteller representing some of the Tulalip people of the pacific north west. A blanket that held one of their sacred paddles and was now freely given in exchange for a wild old Celtic story that they recognised and claimed as useful. It’s always been done. It’s a kind of magical practice. But the way in which it is done, is paramount. You don’t just grab a prize pony from a neighbours paddock. That’s how you get scalped.
Too many assume that oral stories are all up for grabs: as long as the story is repeated then all is well. All is not well. When a story lands beautifully, we witness not just the spirit of the tale, but the long apprenticeship the teller has served to it.
The turns in language, the lifting phrase, the moments of rapid improvisation, are defining marks of service in the temple of the tale. To mimic such a diligent practice without the involved, cautious and daily maintenance of a big story is theft. It’s not ‘continuing the oral tradition’, it’s theft. You simply didn’t earn it, and as a friend of mine says, “you are still on the take”. Stay in that groove and you may leave the west, but the west will never leave you.
These are words for those in the trade of speech to consider, those that claim a little prestige or maybe coin for their tellings. Now, for those on the front line of telling stories in the raising of kids, helping the sick and the poor of heart, to returning veterans, assisting the spell breaking of addiction, whispering tales into seal holes and across grey waters to a heron, well that is something else again. Long may you ride. Firmness of tone is reserved here who stake some claim as working storytellers. It’s just a call to do things right. Your heart has a true-north, a sense of efficacy: use it.
The rain has hushed, and a second wind has joined the first, a different tone entirely, this time coming in from the east. The air is so fresh it feels like it’s soaking, like you could squeeze it out like a rag. The rocks and trees are an almost hallucinatory green. I reach into my bundle and pull out a couple of horses brasses – heavy amulets used for display and protection of the Devonshire heavy horse of the last century. I start my shake. The low clack of brass on leather, and a third wind enters the small glade. As all myth-tellers must, i beat down cloak time with the clatter-pulse of my amulets until little pinpricks of somewhere-else-entirely show up. We are now at a proper crossroads.
So i bring language. Hard-wrought speech, gathered from caves and clouds, kestrels and the hoof print of a roe-buck. Gathered from sitting at the feet of women and men in service to language. Curated from all the ordinary heartbreaks and woeful betrayals we will surely face. And it’ll still never be enough. But i bend my head and i try. I try to barter conversation between the tale and the land, that the story and its beings recognise, if not a home, a place they could occasionally shack up when over this way, that they can get a fire going, have a dram, get a sweet bracken bed like the old times.
This particular ceremony is quite a protracted affair, and requires complete sincerity as well as little touches of fine, fluttering speech that the stories find charming. But the heart must be tenderised too – not aimless flattery. What happens between the land and the story afterwards is something only they can negotiate, but right now, in this spirit-mediation, i am accountable. This matters, it’s not free-form.
At a certain point, my knee drops to the grasses, and i realise its time to give voice to the story itself. They’ve turned up, one at time, over the last few minutes, and, although at a discreet distance, they’re ready. I can see the glint of copper on their chariots, the hounds breath-steam in the dusking. It’s getting dark, crows caw from across the copse, and a car passes in the far distance, lights twinkling.
copyright Martin Shaw 2015