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For six weeks I have been running an after-school storytelling club for 6-7-year-olds (Key Stage 1) at Knavesmire Primary School here in York.  This has been a special privilege, as well as a learning experience for me.  A special privilege, because one of the downsides of life as a ‘journeywoman storyteller’ is that most contact with audiences is one-off – you tell them some tales, maybe they get involved, but then off they go.  Whereas, on this occasion, I got to know their names, what they found difficult and what came naturally, what parts of them were stretched or unfolded by their participation.

They engaged, I think, quite deeply with the story we worked with – I chose to work once more with ‘Lugalbanda’ for its epic scale and the centrality of a brave child in a wild world!  The children were able to choose the characters they identified closely with, and each made a puppet to represent that character – it was very interesting to see who gravitated towards the heroic soldiers, who towards the king, who towards the mysterious sky gods. 

Every child managed to find their ‘storyteller voice’ at least for some moments, and not a single one displayed the ‘short attention span’ children are reputed to possess. 

What have I learned?  Not to cram too much into a short space of time! Me + 20 enthusiastic children + learning a large meaty story + making 20 puppets + drama work + writing work = rushing!  I have been invited to re-run this club in September and I will extend the session from 45 minutes to an hour, seek a parent volunteer for each session, and think very carefully about the choice of story we work with.  A storyteller needs to be a source of calm and surety for her audience, not the person darting about the room retying broken strings. 

The final presentation to the children’s parents was both mighty and slightly chaotic, as it was always going to be.  So the journeywoman picks up her bags and goes off to her wagon to reflect for a while, before her next outing….

 

 

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I’ve just finished a project which was – for me – stretching, rewarding, a bit nerve-wracking, and ultimately rather poignant.  The hospital’s arts team, Gill Greaves and Kat Hetherington, along with Dave Fleming of York Stories offered me the chance to spend some time as ‘Writer in Residence’ at York Hospital.  The brief: to gather the ‘backstories’, not of patients, but of staff at the hospital: everyone from surgeons to porters, security staff to administrators.  And not so much their working lives, as what made them who they are today.  Our aim: to produce a book about some of these busy people, to give patients in waiting rooms a glimpse into the human beings behind the uniforms, and thus, in a small way, to humanise the whole hospital experience.

Most of us, if we enter a hospital as a suffering or anxious patient, see the nurses and doctors, but not the vast citadel of supporting professions that make everything tick.  Standing in the hospital cafeteria looking out for the morning’s interviewee, I would scan the passing knots of workers with their different uniforms, different body language, and had the sense of this place as a very industrious town – an old-fashioned kind of town where each person knows precisely his or her own place and purpose, and how they fit together with everyone else’s.

Then, out of the melee would come one cleaner or nurse scanning the crowd just like me, and we would sit down for our interview.  Interviewees were recommended to me as people who had something to tell, and liked to tell it.  Most of them had been working at least twenty years and had seen changes in the hospital – and in wider society – during that time.

So I heard about hospital staff’s other lives: as single mums, Harley-Davidson riders, ukelele players, artists, charity fundraisers.  I heard too about their previous lives, as policemen, RAF officers, wild children, army wives, classical scholars, children in care, ballgown hirers.  I found out all about their training in the NHS, much of it in the 1960s and 1970s in different times, when ‘ward sisters were dragons’, or when ‘there used to be a lot of practical joking’, or ‘there were a lot of characters about’ – all things which everyone assured me were no longer the case.

It became a bit like the old cliche of asking all the men in the darkened room what the elephant in the room looks like: people answer either, “it’s big and flat and flappy”, or “it’s long and stringy like a bell pull”, or “it’s like a long powerful hose” – because each of them can only feel one bit of it from where they are standing.  But gradually, after interviewing 10 or 11 people from different professions, I started to get a feel for what the elephant really does look like.  The elephant being the hospital – and also, in a way, the NHS over the past few decades.

What everyone agreed was that, despite the bureaucracy and efficiency drives, subcontracting and targets, and the fact that there’s no slack or tolerance nowadays for pranks and messing about, the NHS still runs on a vast reserve of good will.  It is still a sort of enormous family, or society in microcosm; as one doctor told me, “The backbone of the hospital is altruism.”  One cleaner explained that her manager understands that if she sees an elderly person wandering lost about the hospital, she will take some time off cleaning to go and help them. 

My overwhelming sense was that this healthy ecosystem is both very precious and very fragile.  I was told how the subcontracted security staff are still proud members of the hospital family, still join in charity fundraising with the A&E nurses – but there was an unspoken feeling that this sense of community was highly dependent on key individuals making sure it happened, and on this particular hospital being a well-functioning community.  It wouldn’t happen by itself. 

All the stories will, hopefully, soon be available in all the hospital’s waiting rooms for your perusal!  Let’s hope that the NHS’ stories continue to be rich and human for many decades to come!

Anneliese (Emmans Dean) and I had a truly fab night last Friday, performing our new show ‘Flying High’ in the York Literature Festival, a medley of her poetry and my storytelling.  Jacob’s Well was packed to the rafters with both children and some unaccompanied adults, and plenty of bird enthusiasts. 

Anneliese’s new bird poems are – as ever – strong on character and fond observation of her animal subjects.  They are also, more so than her other work, full of opportunities for audience participation.  So the audience became a flurry of sparrows in a hedge, chirping in three-part rhythmic harmony (yes, really!), twisted their tongues around the words of her portly ‘bullfinch with a belly’, and whinged along with the poor bluetit fledgling who still felt that ‘nest is best’!  They also had to gauge the breadth of a herring gull’s wings – would you believe, it’s about five feet!!Image

 

Before each poem, the audience had to identify which bird was coming next by the sound of its song, and pick it out of an identity parade – a process which was greatly enjoyed and became quite ‘lively’ at times!  So it was good that the story I had chosen – Lugalbanda and the Anzu bird – was a meaty one full of visual imagery.  With each instalment of it, the room seemed to breathe, and I got plenty of my favourite feedback of all: people staring into space. 

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This rhythm of moving from high energy, to inner absorption, and then back again, seems to be a good recipe for us. 

Lugalbanda is a truly wonderful epic, possibly the oldest ‘book’ ever written on clay tablets, in Sumeria over 5000 years ago.  VERY briefly summarised, it is a rite of passage story, in which the child Lugalbanda must be left behind by his brothers in the desolate mountains, as he is sick and they must march on to war.  He is saved by their kindness, the power of the gods, and then by his own resourcefulness and courage.  He is brave and cunning enough to win the help of the fearsome Anzu bird, a creature so big it eats bulls for breakfast and can block out the sun when it soars.  Eventually he not only finds his brothers and their army, but manages to bring a message of peace to them, and to bring beauty and skilled craft back to his own city-state of Uruq.  If it has a moral or theme, it is that beauty and success come out of conquering one’s own fears, not through domination of others.

I was in two minds as to whether to bring a picture of what the Anzu bird is said to have looked like.  In the end I didn’t, preferring to leave it to the audience’s imaginations, and I was so glad that I hadn’t!  The following week a four-year-old girl, Astrid, who’d been up well past her bedtime for the show, and had listened with wide eyes, brought me a beautiful painting she had made of the climactic scene of the story.

She was kind enough to let you see it!  The Anzu bird is top right, swooping in to his nest in the mighty tree at the top of the mountain of Inana.  Lugalbanda is hiding behind a rock bottom right, and waiting to visit the Anzu chick to honour it with rich food and decoration:ImageI nearly shed a tear as she described what was what!

 

Anneliese and I being ‘bullfinches with bellies’

A treat for families in York Literature Festival!

Well, it’s Live Arts Week once more, and as ever their chosen theme got me thinking: ‘Playtime’.  I decided to use it to satisfy my curiosity as to the health of children’s oral culture of singing, dancing and rhyming. ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’ is only sung in nursery schools these days and The Dusty Bluebells are surely gathering dust.  This can lead people to think that kids these days are so absorbed in their Nintendos and social networks that they have no natural joy left in word and movement.

I did a bit of prep – as well as dragging out of my memory the words and movements of lots of my own childhood rhymes (the different permutations of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, the skipping games about the lady on the hill, the bramble bushes, the belles of Belfast City and elsewhere), I spent some time on a wonderful website by the British Library. Their ‘Playtimes’ collection of films and recordings of children’s games throughout the 20th century is a wonderful and evocative resource.    

So off I bussed to Rufforth Primary, a very small and very friendly school in the deep dark woods (or rather, fields) beyond the ringroad.  The head teacher had been concerned that maybe this theme I had chosen (‘Singing Stories, Playing Stories’) might be a tad babyish for the Year 5s and 6s. So we started with a bit of maths: what counting-out rhymes did the children use to decide who would be ‘it’?  Let’s make a graph of who uses which!

I had expected two or three – but the children came up with 9 different rhymes or games they used to settle this critical question – and they could have continued had time allowed.

We moved onto ‘courtship games’ – the circle songs that used to be used by teenagers as a subtle way of confessing whom they fancied and getting to ‘first base’ with them! – but which later became seen as children’s songs.  The children were intrigued by this, but more than that I was amazed how quickly they learnt ‘The Wind’ – a Scottish courtship song consisting of nine verses and no less than three different tunes! 

I taught them some more, we talked a bit about how they change over time like all folk culture, and what they say about the children who sang them. The exuberance bordered on raucousness at times – but then it was time for them to share their own such games.

It was like opening the floodgates.  A couple of Year 6s got up to perform the very funkiy ‘Tell me how you bungalow’ to rapturous applause and a very complicated rhythm which all the children seemed to know.  Another pair of girls got up to do ‘Concentration’ – a clapping game which certainly qualifies as mental gymnastics.  Yet another pair performed a very long clapping story they had made up themselves, which got too lewd for the teachers and had to be discontinued. There were still lots of hands stretched up to tearing point when the clock put an end to the session.

We wrote it all down on a flipchart paper.  Both teachers and pupils were surprised at the length of the list, and we wondered if perhaps in 50 years’ time, their grandchildren might be sitting in this hall wondering what children used to play in ‘the olden days’, and somebody might find this tattered old sheet of paper in a storeroom and bring it out.  And perhaps some of the same rhymes and story-songs might still be around, evolved a little but still part of a hundreds-of-years-old tradition that is very much alive and kicking.

Here is ‘The Wind’ in full, in case you’re interested:

The Wind (Scotland, dates back at least to 1875)

(one child stands in the centre of the ring)

The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,

The snow comes tumbling from the sky,

________ ___________ says (s)he’ll die

For the want of the Golden City

 (Repeat 1st verse)

 

(S)he is handsome, (s)he is pretty,

(S)he is the girl/boy of the golden city,

(S)he is handsome, one two three,

Come and tell me who shall be

 

(child whispers initials of the one they like best)

X is his/her first name, his first name, his first name,

X is his first name, E I O sir.

Y is his/her second name, his second name, his second name,

Y is his second name, E I O sir.

___________ ___________ is his/her name…..E I O sir.

 

(if guessed right)

Now it’s time to hide your face….E I O sir.

Now it’s time to show your face….E I O sir.

Now it’s time to choose the one….E I O sir.

(child in centre chooses another to be in the centre)

 

The days are lengthening (this weekend is Candlemas/Imbolc!) and this means the York Literature Festival must be approaching.  The programme this year is pretty stupendous – Will Self, Tracey Chevalier, Carol Ann Duffy and the like – but nestled in among all that is a smaller but hopefully also delectable treat for families.  Anneliese Emmans Dean and I are getting together once more with a brand new show for families: Flying High – poems and stories of birds and bees.

The basic recipe is tried and tested: poetry, storytelling, music, wildlife photography, bringing the generations together through lots of audience participation, and cake.  We have had full and happy houses for our previous just-before-bedtime shows ‘Raucous Rhymes and Wonder Tales’ and ‘Stomping Through The Seasons’.

AED and Cath

However we are particularly excited at this one:

Come fly high with garden birds and mythical birds, rhyming birds and ancient birds.  From the mighty Anzu bird of sumerian myth, to noisy sparrows in our hedge (with a smattering of bees buzzing by) – this show celebrates them in stories, poems, interactivity and song.  With storyteller Catherine Heinemeyer and Carnegie Medal-nominated poet Anneliese Emmans Dean, the duo who brought you the sell-out York Literature Festival family shows Raucous Rhymes and Wonder Tales and Stomping Through the Seasons.  A soaring treat for everyone aged 5 upwards.  With refreshments on the house!

All tickets £5.00

Venue: Jacob’s Well. Trinity Lane, Micklegate, York

Book here.

Just to give you a sneak preview, an image of the Anzu bird of Sumerian myth, who will be figuring rather highly (that lovely lady in the middle is the goddess Inana)…