Literary Folk

I’ve been to three Story Nights in the last week or so – three in seven days. That’s a lot of story to take in, but also a chance to reflect on the breadth of this thing we call telling. On one night I travelled to the Lake District, to Brigsteer Village Hall, with a small group of Liverpool Storytellers, for “Stealing Thunder”, a monthly story-night hosted by Emily Hennessey where the main offering was a long telling by Vergine Gulbenkian. The following night it was one of our own Story-nights, with two longer stories from Stephe Harrop and Clair Whitefield and on the following Wednesday, as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival, Liz Weir brought together her own stories with those of other tellers and music for the first anniversary of storytelling nights at the St Michael’s Irish centre.

What struck me from this rich array of telling was that the terrain of story has been extended to encompass two very contrasting tendencies. One I shall call the Literary. Literary storytelling is very elaborate; the tellings are very sustained, the effects complex and the context often challenging. Clair’s story is, she explains, the result of a lot of detailed writing and those with ears for such things will detect subtle rhyming and poetic scansion in parts of the telling. It begins near the end of the narrative and then cycles back to the beginning of the events to explain the circumstances before passing its beginning, recovering a reference or two and proceeding to its conclusion. Vergine’s story was in fact several stories all nested within each other and involved an actual story-book which she had brought to show to those interested.

There is something of the post-modern about the Literary. The book in question has its last pages torn out, as the story, which is also one of those within the story-nest, is involved with a belief that it would be unlucky to tell the ending. One of the other stories is of experiences from Vergine’s great-grandmother, whose book it was. And in Stephe’s story one of the protagonists, well, two, just walk out of the story near the end, as though story was a straightjacket that could not contain an authentically happy ending. In all of these tellings there are filmic effects, narrative shifts and the occasional absurdity, or knowing wink at the audience. If you are a reader or a film-buff none of these effects and strategies will be unfamiliar to you. For others, weaned on traditional stories, traditionally told, the effect can be a bit disconcerting.

Liz Weir, by contrast, offers many stories, maybe a dozen in one evening and each is compact, direct and unironic. If the Literary plays tricks with time and sequence, and refers to or arrives at a familiar present, the Folk (as I shall call it) only deals with “Once”. “There was once….” This is not the historic past but the foregoing time when things were not as they are now. The Folk is about folk-memory and its components and there is a flavour in each telling of a story collected (or in one case created by a class of school-children from lessons learned from Liz) and shared anew. The stories are not nostalgic though – the past was often hard and cruel and its consequences harsh. If they end positively it is with a flourish of common humanity or a gasp of realization. In all this they come from a long tradition of which one past master is Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826).

Hebel has come back into public view, outside his native Germany, thanks to the attention of W G Sebald who wrote a chapter about the writer in a recently published book. Hebel’s “Treasure Chest” is now available in Penguin Classics. It may seem odd to link Hebel’s stories with the tellings of Liz Weir since he is so avowedly a writer, but this is just the area where writing and telling converge and where many, if not most, of us pitch our story-telling. Hebel’s tales are maybe found, recovered, invented, recounted, but they always strike a chord of familiarity. Some are very short but something that is not quite a moral, more a kind of spur to reflection on life, is always the kernel of the narrative. This is what we get from Liz Weir’s tellings, a sharing of experience and wisdom, and a point of reference for moral or ethical consideration.

It may sound as if I’m favouring the Folk over the Literary, but in fact both are essential features of a wider landscape which is Story Now, as we are telling it in 2016. They are not in opposition and for listeners they invite complementary skills of discernment and understanding. Most contemporary story falls somewhere between the Literary and the Folk (and probably other co-ordinates, like Song and Epic, for example). The Literary is flourishing in the current climate as a place to experiment with the representation of hard present realities, and the folk will always be there to remind us that we always need something we may call “verities”.

The Colouring Book

At our last Story Workshop session we re-joined the idea of colour in story-telling. I started the session by asking the people present to draw a cartoon of a snail on a Post-it Note. I chose a snail because the night before I had found a small doodle of a snail which I must have picked up after a meeting I’d been at. I didn’t know who had drawn it, and actually a snail was only one of a number of subjects I could have chosen for drawing. We shared our cartoons and, of course, there was a lovely variety of treatments. My “found” snail was cute and speedy but others were cheerful and full-fed, stylish and shy. We spent a while characterizing each of them. My point was that these simple outlines suggested a world of character and what we were doing was colouring them in (In fact we didn’t do any actual colouring, but our descriptions were – and this is the point – a kind of imaginative filling-out of what the lines suggested.) as our minds colour in the things we refer to in our stories.

We used a lot of Post-it’s that morning. I asked people to write words on three of them each to identify,-

– with a single word a thing which might appear in a story – we had words like “nut”, “key”, “boat”, “pencil”

– in two words a something which is made more characterful by the addition of a describing word – we had, for example, “open window”, “closed window”, “happy shoe”, “angry diary”, “iron shoes”

– in a short phrase something that sounded unique, a thing which was a world of its own,- we had, again for example, “The Land Beyond The Sea”, “The Book Of Druid Magic”, “The Last Sunset Of The World”, “The Princess’s Cat”, “The World Champion”

We stuck these notes on the wall and gave them a lot of consideration. There were a number of conclusions to be made,-

– even a simple single word can suggest an emotional colouration,  (we had “Spirit” in our first set of notes) and the simplest of things (like the snail) will let us give them character. The question will be how much character do we need to give them for the purposes of the story in which we have included them?

– when we add character to a something we define more clearly where and how they fit into a story, or what kind of story will grow around them. Take the difference between “open window” and “closed window”, for example, or consider how the idea of an “enchanted castle” limits and deepens what will happen there.

– when we create with our formulations something which is unique, that something then becomes a threshold to a further world with its own special character. So “The Last Sunset Of The World” will have a very powerful atmosphere and sense of occasion about it. (The use of the definite article – “the” – gives an immediate impact and power to a something to which we apply it) And that further world will contain many things which share the same emotional colouration. Moreover that world will be a model of the bigger world and express values. We, and our listeners, will be advised, maybe subliminally,by this “deep” portrayal what kind of world and what kind of values are possible.

– some colouration emerges from the thing named and some is what we give to it. How much effort we need to make in each case – that is for us to decide.

The key question is how much colouration, – through description but conjuring up feeling – is appropriate for any given tale? Should we go to town and lavish lots of descriptive wordage on a pencil? Can the word “egg” be enough to carry a story without further description?

One answer is that it depends how we say the words. We had already, in a previous workshop, looked at voice colouration, and this workshop didn’t stretch to trying out the many things we can suggest about, for example, “nut” by the way we speak it. The further wonders of intonation and vocal nuance will be the subject of a future workshop, I’m sure. Sound colouration is certainly one of skills involved in storytelling and something that sets it apart from Story-writing because it happens in the moment of telling which is a present moment.

Another answer to the question about how much colouration is a practical one (which also offers a different angle on story from written/read stories) – only as much as is strictly necessary. No description for its own sake. Only words and qualities which contribute to the world and dynamic of the telling. Less is more – but more can often be good.

There was much here to be applied to the stories we have in our repertoire, our story-bag, and to how we might develop and enrich our telling of them, but in this workshop I finally introduced a particular story, the text of an African story I’d found in a collection. Like the snail it seemed to be a simple outline, but it yet invited colouration,-

“Mulungu And The Beasts

In the beginning man was not, only Mulungu and his people, the beasts. They lived happily on earth.

One day a chameleon found a human pair in his fish trap. He had never seen such creatures before and he was surprised. The Chameleon reported his discovery to Mulungu. Mulungu said, “Let us wait and see what the creatures will do.”

The men started making fires., They set fire to the bush so that the beasts fled into the forest. Then the men set traps and killed Mulungu’s people. At last Mulungu was compelled to leave the earth. Since he could not climb a tree he called for the spider.

The spider spun a thread up to the sky and down again. When he returned he said, “I have gone on high nicely, now you Mulungu go on high.” And Mulungu ascended to the sky on the spider’s thread to escape from the wickedness of men”

There was much to discuss and reflect on with this story and we will no doubt return to it in future workshops, but my question on this occasion was, what would you colour in/ describe in more detail/add words to/emotionally enhance in this story to draw out its meaning? I think there was no option but to work on the story as it raised so many questions and suggested so many values and qualities, but how would we do that? People worked in pairs and came up with a lot of ideas. They speculated on the spider’s role in all this. They wondered why Mulungu couldn’t climb a tree. They offered various descriptions of the spider’s thread. They queried what order of being was Mulungu.

The answers to these speculations will determine how we tell this story, and the answers will be expressed in colouration, – description, intonation, qualifying words, and so on. “Mulungu And The Beasts” could be told as an epic, extended and episodic, or turned into an opera with extended numbers where music does the colouring-in. On the other hand it could be a short parable for discussion, or a medium-length nature-myth. You can be sure that the African tellers from whom it originated would have given their own colouration to their telling, but what does it mean to us, and how can we build that meaning into our telling?


This is an address which I gave as part of a session at the Beyond The Border 2016 Festival at St Donat’s in South Wales. The invitation to speak came after the Festival Director David Ambrose had seen me give a keynote speech at the Storytelling Symposium in Cardiff the previous year. That speech was “Storytelling and Activism” and a full transcript of it can be found on the Liverpool Storytelling blog. I refer to it in this address which is dedicated to the connections between Gender and Myth (although I actually refer to a wider range of story than myths). The gender connection came about because one of the Festival’s themes was Transformation and because, as a practicing transgender artist for whom this might be considered my Special Subject, I was invited, for the Cardiff Symposium, to address issues of transgender relative to activism. (In fact my transgender other and I have created a transgender epic “The Mandayana”) Although there are some issues and themes in common this is a different speech.

I warned the St Donat’s audience that I realized I had taken on two huge subjects in Gender and Story and expressed the hope that I might, if I did nothing else, raise some pertinent questions and help them to find a focus for discussion and further reflection. This was recorded for transcription but what you have here is worked up and slightly embellished from the notes I prepared in advance of the address.



I want to start by speculating on why we have gathered together to consider gender in relation to story. It’s always possible simply to celebrate the relationship between the two, and we will do that today, but I suspect that many of you are here this morning because gender is something contentious. Why is gender an important aspect of story? Is it something to do with the exercise of power? Gender has a role in delineating power, or hegemony, and if we see power predominating in one area of gender rather than another it is because we so often define gender in terms of opposition, and a clear divide between masculine and feminine. We feel that we live in a world of imbalance and that imbalance is endangering us. Gender has come to be the deepest principle of division in our lives. Once we have passed beyond the distinction between being and not-being, – once we begin to be – gender is a fundamental definer of ourselves. And that definition is binary.

The Binary concept is apparent everywhere in our contemporary lives. It dictates the way our computers operate and therefore everything digital. On or Off – they seem to be our options, and gender is required to follow suit. Masculine or feminine? But the Gender Binary has been subject to question for some time now and we are challenged to present an alternative. When I have lectured groups, quite often students, on Gender issues I found myself using the idea of a line, a line stretched across the space, and I say that gender is a continuum and that everybody in the room is somewhere on that line between an absolute masculinity and an absolute femininity. Then I see individuals pondering their position on the line.

But gender is a complex thing and I was never very happy with the one-dimensional line. It made it hard to reconcile the many aspects of gender into a single point. Then I came across QR codes, the square signs which are a new form of barcode and have been used in shops and advertising. A QR code seemed to me to offer a richer two-dimensional combination of differences which was nearer to our experience of gender. The question became, How much of what? not, How far along the line? And then I realized that we all had an even more refined and inclusive code inside ourselves, our DNA, and since our DNA pattern is unique to each of us the best definition of gender difference is that each of us is unique in our gender-profile. And that would be the end of the matter were it not that gender opposition is already so far encoded in our cultures that we can’t make a clean start in defining ourselves.


Turning to Story now I want to ask if it has a gender. Can gender be encoded in individual stories? I often find myself, in speeches, referring to the work of Ursula Le Guin, the eminent fantasy and science fiction writer. In her book of essays “Dancing At The Edge Of The World” she devotes two essays to gender issues and in one in particular she very clearly defines a gender-distinction in story. She looks back to early societies and distinguishes between hunter-stories and gatherer-stories, between stories of the swift precipitate killing of animals and the slow accumulative gathering of provisions, between the heroic story and the life story.

We haven’t time now to explore the deeper gender-implications of that distinction but I would encourage you to read the essays. For Ursula Le Guin stories are sites for gender difference. And stories of gender difference are clear in our origin myths. An origin story which depicts, as in the Bible, woman as the product of a spare part of a man, differs from the origin myth of the African Dogon people who conceive of each new human as containing both a male and female soul.

But is story itself gendered? Story is of course an account of change through time, and change can imply progress and progress can be seen as a masculinist concept of human development. But time can also contain process, which can be seen as a female quality, and so story is implicated in another gender continuum, between progression and procession.

Is gender also encoded in the activity of story-telling? If we look at a whole range of human activities we can see that some are considered more the province of men or women. Road-building? – men mainly do that. Bridge-building? – the same? Cooking? -traditionally woman’s work. But now, as our traditions evolve and change, and when we can know more about cultures across the globe, the situation has become less clear. In some cultures it is the man who does the weaving, and in others the woman. But however complex the distinctions it is clear that stories are gendered, story itself is gendered and story-telling is gendered. Hence our need to consider the relationship between Gender and Story.


Here we must be more specific because there are different kinds of story. If story is giving an account of things, there is yet a difference between what I will call Consumer Stories and Shared Stories. The Consumer Story we perhaps know best from the news-media, where an account of things is considered as Information and exchanged or provided for profit, In this it is Communication, something different from Shared or Community Stories where a form of communing prevails. Of course the situation via a vis story cannot be rendered quite so simply. If the commercial consumption of story is aligned around profit not truth, what happens when I buy a novel? Or read a history-book which I have borrowed from a library? And Story as information is not always about a physical commodity. What about internet news sites? Or my blogs?

Whether physical or virtual, the selling and buying of stories is implicitly capitalistic and mercantile and this situation obtains where story is produced as text. If capitalism is intrinsically masculine then texts are the subject of consumption, and, in this, they do not differ entirely from the spoken stories of the historic balladeers and African Griots. Where there’s an exercise of power and patronage then story is in a sense objectified and we may be justified in suspecting that its potential truth has been compromised.

Now told stories have a life of their own. They are subject to growth principles. There are stories which I would call “wild” or “free” stories and these tend towards negotiating a truth between teller and told-to. They also mutate (the modern idea of memes is akin to this) and they grow and even decay. Stories can restore the truths in themselves, can heal the untruth laid upon them, but some untruths linger on. Like established foot paths, like legislation (Section 28, for example), like libel, like political accusations, stories can become enduringly fixed in form through the action of cultural habitude.

If story can be corrupted and co-opted for the exercise of power, and if telling can be commodified and monetized, and if this results in a significant imbalance in our lives then we need to do something about this. Gender is where we feel that imbalance most. Hence we can consider story as a cause, a way of addressing the imbalance and restoring balance, and gender is where we can make that attempt.

It is an attempt which we are making already. In story as in theatre we experiment with regendering familiar stories, like Cinderella or the plays of Shakespeare, We can re-inflecting existing narratives to cast new light on them. In my Cardiff address I spent some time explaining how I had taken one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – The Man Of Law’s Tale – and re-inflected it to represent the point of view and authentic experience of its female protagonist. We value the work of story-tellers like Clarissa Pinkola Estes who have deconstructed many traditional stories to uncover dimensions of gender which we had previously ignored. We have come to value personal accounts of real situations and narratives of actually-lived experiences as alternative histories, and, above all perhaps, we continue to gather in circles and share stories in the traditional way.

I am not alone in thinking that all this is not enough, not adequate to the imbalance which we are feeling in our lives. The situation vis a vis Gender and Story needs attention. Recent events have suggested that we need a lot of rebalancing. Story can be fundamental to this, so we should continue our explorations this morning. After all for many of us at the Festival it’s our Special Subject.


So let’s look at trans, – transgender. It is, as I say, my special subject and transformation is a theme of this Festival. Does a trans perspective help us to address story as a rebalancing?

I should offer here, as background, the thought that many experiences are represented by transgender, itself a partially useful term to bring together a range of terminologies– trans-sexual, transvestite, drag, cross-gender, hermaphrodite, gender-queer, intersex, androgyne, and many more. All this brings with it category issues, issues of status and presentation – and raises questions about the outcomes of desire

It is a complicated situation and therefore complicating. I think that transgender is a usefully complicating – maybe I could say queering factor in modern culture. It is, for a start, anti-binary. In this respect trans presents as a useful problem for cis-gender others in society and for the Binary. Binary is categorical and an excess of category can lead to polarization and conflict. It is certainly an indicator of decline. In the Song Dynasty of China history tells us that one room in the Imperial Palace was subject to so many protocols of use and behaviour that they filled two 11,000 page books. When your civilization is as categorical as that you know that it is headed for the rocks.

While I am dealing with the complications offered by trans I’d like to mention the individuals I call Gender-Jokers. They offer themselves as provocateurs, (and I am using the word “Joker” here in the sense of a challenging intermediary, akin to the Trickster in Boal’s Theatre Of The Oppressed) Perhaps the most prominent Gender Joker today is Grayson Perry, the ceramicist, designer and prominent transvestite media icon, but I might as easily refer to another artist I saw recently performing at the Hackney Empire, the American, Taylor Mac, Taylor Mac comes onstage like a distressed Christmas fairy but he (and he disputes the pronoun most inventively) has had considerable experience in community theatre, and he, like Grayson Perry, uses his public prominence to reinforce the need for mutuality not division. There are many Gender-Jokers in the world offering dislocation to a world crucifying itself on gender and division

I’d like to look at the stories which have gathered around the experience of trans and to point out the importance for storytelling of prepositions. There are stories by, for, and about transgender. Stories “for” transgender are welcome and offer ways of strengthening our community often by reflecting us to ourselves. Stories “by” trans individuals are also welcome. They contribute to cultural diversity and, if accepted into the canon,- a significant “if”- can help to shift the centre of gravity of cultural discourse.

Stories “about” transgender are more contentious – questions arise as to why should these stories be heard? and if they are heard are they falsified or skewed? In Cardiff I took those gathered through a series of newspaper reports which appropriated trans experiences and subjected them to different levels of bias and disinflection. Although I haven’t the time to do that this morning, I would suggest that everything, as so often, depends on who is recounting these stories to whom and in what circumstances.

And here I should say that there is the trans experience that doesn’t want to be a story. When I was in Hong Kong – and this is replicated in many places – I found it difficult to make contact with trans individuals because their lives were based on a simple physical gender conversion. Once they had transitioned they wished to merge into the background in society and achieve invisibility, or at least anonymity. For these individuals there is no trans story. Equally there are non-trans-stories or trans non-stories. For a period New Zealand had a trans MP, Georgina Beyer, something that might not have merited the attention it received. Thankfully for Georgina and all of us it became a story that succeeded in belonging to itself. Nor can we forget that stories change through eras and across cultures.

If there are to be trans stories we need to consider whether they are unique in form and content. If trans can be fitted into conventional story-structures, are conventional resolutions enough? Can conventional stories do justice to the truth of transgender? Here are six instances of conventional story tropes to consider.

Trans as destination – In this order of story trans is looking across a line or a divide. There is another place or state where they wish to be, In conventional resolutions a protagonist sets out to reach that destination and achieves some kind of fulfilment. For a trans individual, however, such a journey is often not possible, and the story becomes a tale of futility, wish-fulfilment achieved at a price, or a perpetual state of longing. In “The Bacchae” by Euripides the king who cross-dresses to get close to the Bacchae is destroyed by his foolishness. In a recent memoir by Susan Faludi about her father who transitioned later in life we are faced with a story of someone who wished to erase their past. For the trans experience there is no Promised Land and no easy crossing.

Trans as process – in this story the individual undertakes a journey and the journey is one which they may have to struggle to join, or be very brave to take. Along the way there will be challenges before they return to the original location with a developed attitude to life. W H Auden expressed the relativity of this story in his portrait of Southern Italy.-

“the myth of an Open Road, Which runs past the orchard gate and beckons Three brothers in turn to step out over the hills And far away, is an invention Of a climate where it is a pleasure to walk And a landscape less populated Than this one.”

A journey like this, inflected towards a Northern European morality, is rarely the transgender experience. For the trans individual there may be no return and none may be wished for.

Trans as outsider – In Cardiff I drew a distinction between the “excepted”, individuals who are forced to the margins of society and beyond, and the “accepted” whose lives define society’s norms. Beggars, outcasts, travellers –so many familiar from Arabian Tales – these are the excepted of traditional story, but their story-fate here is to become enriched, empowered, elevated. The surrounding society is not transformed and social forms are not amended. This may be the transgender experience but it is not the resolution needed.

Trans as magician or seer or shamen – we can think of Tiresias the Greek seer who lived as man and woman and we can think of witches and wizards with gender-ambiguities but such figures are always outsiders, and they appear as an interlude in some-one else’s story. For most trans individuals it is not enough to remain an outsider.

Trans as disguise – This is the story of “I am not what I seem”. We are told of girls who go off to be soldiers and sailors attaining prowess if not power, and occasionally men who attain beauty and sexual influence through disguise. These are conventionally about presentation rather than Identification and this permits the release of alternative energies, but such stories conclude with the disguise being stripped away. Trans, needless to say, is not about simple reversible disguise.

Trans as an Interlude in myths and the big composite stories – we hear of the warriors in the Mahabharata taking time out to experience the “other” gender, and characters in Sidney’s “Arcadia” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron” experience comparable respites for learning and character formation. These are culturally fascinating stories, susceptible of many levels of analysis, but they are not, essentially, transgender stories.

If transgender experiences don’t fit the stories we have they challenge us to create new stories. I asked, can trans can be fitted into conventional story-structures? are conventional resolutions enough? I believe not, because gender is of a different order to living somewhere or lacking status or enduring oppression or lacking opportunity.  We are not born into gender, we are born with it. What complicates us at birth is the “Other”, the difference within us and my consideration of that difference will lead me to my conclusion.


I have already concluded that we need new stories and new story structures which point towards the future. I’ll suggest some, but before I do let me just indicate two trans concepts or dichotomies which underlie our lives. One is concerned with the difference between Performativity – the definition of Gender advanced by Judith Butler in “Gender Trouble” in which gender is the active road to Intentionality – and Being or simply becoming. The other dichotomy of concern to trans individuals is between a change of status (the road to influence) and trans as sufficient diversity.

In Cardiff I distinguished between the diversity of the wild-flower field and that of the sea’s edge. In the former something of everything is contained in a given area. In the latter every individual has a unique and singular position on the edge of being, and it is this latter which I believe best identifies Transgender (and maybe other) diversity – living on the edge but belonging. The achievement of such a diversity is one of the new stories we need, the story of the creation of an authentically new society, rather than an individual destiny. This is an idea about “the trans which we would like to have” and it requires us to envisage the emergence of a world beyond conventional gender. Ursula Le Guin envisaged such a world in her science fiction novel “The Left Hand Of Darkness” and you can read her account of what she thought she was telling us in the book of essays I mentioned earlier.

There are also ideas of duality. We have, and need more, stories of two sensibilities in one body. We have the Shamen, and Tiresias, and also the Chinese bodhisattva Kuan Yin. In contemporary fiction we have Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. All in different ways communicate a release of new energy, the exercise of a different kind of power. We need more such stories. We also have a small number of stories about individuals who belong in two worlds. I can think, for example, of the transgender protagonist in the Hop Ciki Yaya detective novels set in contemporary Istanbul. Such figures offer a kind of magic mediation in society, like Gender Jokers but without the public prominence.

And after Diversity and Duality there is Singularity. We need stories about the power of separateness and difference, which is in some senses a new power, useful in a world of transition. The American writer Gore Vidal wrote an essay on the passing of Eleanor Roosevelt which concluded in this way,-

“Now we live in a society which none of us much likes, all would like to change, but no one knows how. Most ominous of all, there is now a sense that what has gone wrong for us may be irreversible. The empire will not liquidate itself. The lakes and rivers and seas will not become fresh again. The arms race will not stop. Land ruined by insecticides and fertilizers will not be restored. The smash-up will come.

To read of Eleanor and Franklin is to weep at what we have lost……We’re really on our own now.”

For Gore Vidal in 1962 this was an expression of loss but to be “on our own now” in a post-Binary world, not devoid of relationships but not dependent on them for our self-definition, may be our best hope. In Cardiff when considering Constance in “The Man Of Lawe’s Tale” I made much of the idea of Pity and “choosing what must be and in choosing it changing it”. It is not about “can do”, but “will be” and it is an exercise of singularity. Virginia Woolf in “To The Lighthouse” invokes the line from Cowper’s “the Swimmer” – “We perish each alone” to capture the sense of isolation each of her characters feels. I wonder if we are now ready to adventure with the obverse idea – “We flourish each alone.”?


These are in the nature of challenges to story derived from the needs of the trans situation. There is one further challenge which trans offers, to something beyond or beside story, to the idea of a unified sensibility. Is there such a thing? Can we have a  resolved centre? The Iron Law of Mental Health is, Thou shalt not be conflicted

(or to use the words of William Blake,-

“Reasoning upon its own dark fiction

In doubt which is self-contradiction”.)


Yet the great psychotherapists of the post-war era, Bowlby, and Winnicott, for example, did not see a unified sensibility as a human “given” but as a state of being to be achieved and maintained. Most of us live in such a state beset by personal irresolution.


Is transgender a way of dealing with – by accepting – the internal disunity most people experience? To be conflicted does not obviate your being what you conceive of yourself as being. There seems to be a kind of disunity, an existential dissonance, in our lives which is not altogether unproductive. Recently I began a reading of Proust and was reminded by a comment on that writer by Walter Benjamin that there is a joy that can only be apprehended from the perspective of profound unhappiness. My Cardiff speech concluded,-

“We’re reaching inside for our own “inner transgender” if you like, or, to put it another way, we are reaching for our problematised souls and we’re bringing them out.  And if we can do that then I believe that we can prevail and I would say that – well, I know that – the Activist’s Tale is in all of us.”

Is this the basis on which we can transform ourselves out of the present situation? If so, to do so, we need new conceptions of ourselves – and our selves. We need a two that is not a binary, not excluding. We need complementary energies which run in parallel or intertwine on a journey together. We need Duality in Singularity.

And modern science and technology have recently offered us two such Promised Lands. One is quantum power, a conception beyond binary which will offer multiple attachments and simultaneous existences, and transform the ways we compute and relate. The other is Nuclear Fusion. We have lived a long time with Fission – I think of the fearsome Warp-spasm in the old Irish Epic “The Tain“, and of Robert Oppenheimer at the inception of the atomic bomb quoting the Hindu epics, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Fusion, though, the application of energy to create more energy, like Quantum power, may offer a way beyond the Binary and categorical difference.

And mentioning the great Hindu epics, – like “Kali” which has been told at this Festival –also the Greek stories especially as re-inflected by Roberto Calasso – and I could mention our own transgender epic “The Mandayana” in this connection – leads me to conclude that the greatest stories allow for a kind of universal equivalence, in which gender (and power) is as fluid as our lives together need it to be, – and these stories are essential to our troubled times.


Colour And Sound

I thought that it might be useful to give an account of Saturday’s Story Workshop for those who couldn’t be there. I am always loth to repeat workshops, especially when the attendees are regulars on our Saturday mornings, so this is a short account of what will probably not happen again in this form.

I explained to those present that the recent work on voice might usefully be continued and channelled into an exploration of colouration in the speaking of particular words and phrases. Later, nearer the end of the workshop I also invoked the idea of musicality. Visual arts and music have some significant cousinship with story-telling, so this was nothing particularly new but we rarely, perhaps, use tonality as a way of enhancing our story-telling.

I began by inviting those present to give a short two-minute account of a travel experience, not necessarily abroad, or even far from home. My own offering was of my elation at reaching the top of the Montserrat Peak near Barcelona. There were tales of trains missed, and caught, ways lost, purses found, lessons learned. Later Manuela, one of our new group-members, would describe these accounts as like crumpled pieces of paper and indeed, as her metaphor suggests, we took each of them and spread them out to look at their structure and nature. In relating an experience spontaneously we often proceed without a sense of structure producing crumpled accounts, and yet, as I pointed out and we saw, each account had within it that sense of consequence and conclusion which is written into our genes as everybody is by nature a storyteller.

I asked each person, in examining their story, to isolate the two or three key moments – what we later called “fateful” moments – around which the necessity of the story-experience hung. In some cases identifying these moments brought out new aspects of the experience, things omitted in the previous telling. I then asked the teller to dwell for a while on the feelings wrapped up in that moment and write down words to describe five feelings experienced then. I pointed out that our daily vocabulary for describing feelings is quite limited but that we have many more nuanced words for feelings which we can bring into use, so in unpicking what were in every case complexes of feeling we came to words like “frustrated” and “rueful”.

The next stage of the workshop was to fix the telling around these moments, just a sentence or two. Up to now the tellings had been potentially malleable and variable – they might change each time they were undertaken, – but now I asked for a set of words which would remain set, and could be re-used. Within each set of focal sentences I asked the workshop participants to isolate one word (or at most two) which were the very core of what was being told.

And so to colouration. Could we say that one word with the colouration of the feelings we had written down for the experience? I suggested that people work in pairs and try out many versions of the word, including some that were highly inappropriate to the moment. This was a moment of playing. It’s always important not to feel too constrained by a process, particularly one so structured as was this workshop. It was also good to move the focus away from the centre of the circle, and stimulate more individual interactivity.

We shared those words, individual by individual, and after each word had been spoken we reflected on the feelings we could find in the musicality and colouration which had been infused in it. So often we could hear the feelings intended. Finally I invited each person to add a couple of the words on either side of the “coloured” word to give a sense of its context. I pointed out that if the story (as we now might call it) was to hinge upon the delivery of that word coloured that way then all the words around it would be affected by its colouration. We could develop a kind of halo around the word, not by pausing dramatically before and after it but by knowing that it was crucial and , almost subconsciously, letting it, when spoken, reach into us for those original feelings which are then communicated to our listeners.

At the end of the workshop I commented that each of us brings our usual voice and  manner of telling to our shared stories but by working on the coloration and musicality of individual components in the story “text”, and without resorting to over-dramatic and bombastic effects, we can raise our game and deploy more of our potential voice to good effect. The response at the end from participants suggested that this had struck a chord (!) with them, each in a different way. It had been a very focused workshop and I was glad that it might have a beneficial effect on stories, not always from life, yet to be told.

Tests And Quests

I had a story ready for Story Night but didn’t tell it as there were many other people keen to take up the opportunity of telling. I saved the story up and it became the focus of our workshop last weekend. The subject of the workshop was tests and how they feature so often in stories, traditional stories anyway. I was particularly interested to explore whether the test has a similar role and importance to play in our contemporary stories.

We began, as we so often do, by sharing experiences, – on this occasion of exams, and then tests like driving tests, job interviews and public appearances and performances. I wasn’t surprised to discover that most people shared my dread of exams, and, yes, most had had dreams of exam and revision crises. Many also had ripe tales to tell of driving tests. All this was unrelated to how successful we all were at passing exams or driving tests. It seems that the very essence of tests leaves indelible marks on our psyches. I suggested that this might be a clue to creating or finding contemporary test-stories.

My first story was a simple old Chinese tale of five identical brothers each with the traditional equivalent of a superpower, and how by substituting for each other they survived a number of sentences of execution, and emerged from the trials as innocent as they deserved to be. This was a story about being tested but the clue to survival was not a superpower but cunning and ingenuity.

We spent some time anatomising what tests in stories involve. We distinguished between protagonists who set out on a quest and encounter a series of challenges and tests, and those who are pitched out of their comfort-zone and forced to engage with extreme difficulties. We noticed that many stories present examples of individuals who refuse to endure difficult situations and compare the consequences of this with the one who bravely confronts them. We noted the need for a goal or prize to make all this sufferance and suffering worthwhile. We noticed that tests of manhood and tests of womanhood were often very different.

The human qualities which traditionally carry us through difficulty seemed to be strength, endurance, perseverance, truth, honesty, worthiness, faith, and a readiness to use our senses and intelligence. All this added up to a kind of authenticity or integrity, which varied from culture to culture. Some cultures stories validated cunning and intelligence, others endurance, others honesty, and so on. There were differences between countries and continents, but the tests were everywhere, sewn into the fabric of storytelling. Against these positives were pitched darkness, doubt, fear, confusion, and that perennial staple, evil, which in story-terms is the malignity which will not redeem itself and must be destroyed. Meanwhile the protagonist comes through unscathed but, with some honourable exceptions, changed and more realistic in their relations with the world. Wiser, maybe, and certainly more seasoned.

I told another, longer, story, again Chinese. It involves three brothers setting off in turn to try to recover a beautiful brocade made by their mother who is wasting away for the loss of it. Its disappearance is supernatural and elemental, and the tests equally so. Of course only the youngest, most loving and bravest of the brothers goes the distance and finds the brocade. Along the way there are magic horses, fire, sea-storms, and the challenge to knock out their two front teeth. The brocade is found in a magic palace and magical things happen to it before it comes home safely to the mother. The reward is riches, comfort, peace and beauty, and, for the youngest brother, love. There is probably no such thing as a typical test-story but this one has many of the characteristic features of one.

I asked, do we need the supernatural and magic to make a story of a test work out? If we are telling a story of the realistic non-supernatural present can we still achieve the metaphorical depth and poetry of these older tales? We set to discussing these questions whilst each member of the group considered what contemporary story they might create which would include a significant test. The overall answer to the first question seemed to be, it’s tempting to use the supernatural and magic but not essential. One story-idea which emerged from the discussion was very contemporary – the passage of migrants across continents and seas to their chosen destination. We know from the news that there are many tests along the way in such journeys, many difficulties, much need for endurance and ingenuity. But the goal or prize may not be what was hoped for – the country of destination neither welcoming nor a promised land. In this I sensed a harder more contemporary story-shape, and I recalled that just this story forms the backbone of “The Grapes Of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. The 20th Century was rife with disappointment even as it promised itself so much. The American Dream has a lot to answer for.

One other, and to me unexpected, reflection on contemporary story emerged from the discussions. It happens that our lives today are full of tests willingly taken – extreme sports, television reality shows, binge-drinking stunts, celebrity challenges, publicity stunts. It would seem that, far from trying to stay safe and secure and comfortable, increasing numbers of us are putting ourselves through identifiably dangerous experiences. Is this because we have lost the religion which once gave us a secure sense of identity? Are we so well-off in various parts of the world that the challenges of survival, of getting food on the table and clothes on our backs, of enduring weather extremes, are now not enough to occupy our restless minds? And would the test we found most difficult be not to be tested at all? To suffer boredom? Is there a contemporary story to be told of that? Or do we need to go back to the old tales and rediscover spiritual difficulty and redemption? At the end of the workshop we were somewhat clearer about all this, but I know there is more to explore.

Reading, Writing And Telling

Our monthly Story-Nights have given us the opportunity to compare and contrast the reading of a written story with one told. We offer equal opportunity to individuals to do either, or both, and to me at least the difference is very marked. It has strengthened my belief in story-telling as a medium for truly enlightened sharing of ourselves.

Good story-readers are few and far between, and good readers of their own story even more rare. When the BBC offers a Book At Bedtime they have generally chosen to deliver the reading an actor who has great clarity of enunciation, good voice-modulation, and an innate readiness to inhabit the world of the words. The actor will also be able to cope with the various literary devices employed by the writer and imbue them, sometimes miraculously, with an immediacy and fluency which the writing was not intended to manifest. All this is the result of training, study and experience.

Good storytellers are more common and anyone can be a good storyteller with practice and attention to their audience. It is a given of storytelling that the creative/expressive act is only possible – only happens – in the presence of an audience. That is not to say that storytellers don’t write their stories first, and even sometimes memorize them meticulously – many do both. It is just that the story is only realized in the telling. It only has life as a moment of communing with others.

This contrasts with the written story which has achieved its form and substance on a page. It may be read there and, indeed may be best when read there. Writing allows the author to deploy artifices which often work best on the page. And writing for reading is a one-to-one, writer-to-individual-reader relationship. So often, in my experience, that joke, irony, sly insinuation, or detached tone which make a story on the page variously piquant and characterful go adrift when the reader attempts complicity with a crowd. They were not meant to be read aloud. The same kinds of inflection are available to the storyteller but are conveyed through eye-contact, facial expression, pauses, body-language – performance devices not literary devices. There is a great difference, I believe between a literary flourish and the rhetoric and emphasis of telling.

The story-reader so often – unless they have been practicing Jackanory-style and know their text thoroughly – looks down at their page; the voice is the main, and sometimes only, medium of communication, and that voice is so often directed towards the floor. Is it a matter of honour that writers’ stories be delivered by themselves? If so, it is frequently a false honour, doing the writing a disservice, and depriving the audience of a truly live, and living, experience. We have, on the night, been offering to find readers for the written stories, or a course on how to present your own writing. This is because we want our Story-Night audiences to have the most vivid experience and the strongest sense of occasion.

We had the pleasure at our most recent night of contributions from some student story-tellers whose university course includes a module on story-telling. They were good, and well able to breast the wave of the occasional mistake of memory, and above all very present. I noticed a slight tendency for them to enact – to run about and mime in the service of their telling – where the words on their own, feelingly used, would have done that work, but better something to follow with your eyes as well as your ears (and your mind’s imagination) than to lose a literary effect through careless reading. The students were developing their technique and some of them may go on to tell stories professionally, but they were there, on the night, to engage with people, and they did.

I have noticed one other divergence between writing/reading and telling – the nature of the human events which are related. I had wondered for some time why many of the written stories were so full of cruelty and graphic violence and malice. That’s not to say that many stories chosen by tellers, from the great ocean of stories available to us all, do not include violence or pain or downright evil. The written stories however have seemed to fetishize that cruelty, as though it was a shared indulgence to describe it. And whereas a told story will most often bring their protagonist(s) through the experiences with unrelenting sympathy and humanity to a resolution which satisfies all concerned, including the audience, the written and read stories often seemed to leave us all, well, in the shit.

I’ve discussed this perception with others and we concluded that it was the nature of story-writing to be a mixture of confessional and deep fantasy, the experiences coalescing on the page into images of personalized power. When they are read out loud to an audience they are suddenly exposed as personal. It is as though a private phone-conversation about something quite intimate were suddenly broadcast to a crowded room. Story-tellers on the other hand have declared their readiness to be heard. They have prepared themselves to connect and will use only what is needed for that to happen. They know that they must work every word in the moment.

I declare that there are exceptions to the judgements I’ve expressed above. A small but distinguished number of readers have written words which trip off their tongue with all the authenticity of their personal voice, and they still manage to make-eye-contact with their audience. The stories are humane, convivial and coloured with shared humour. Conversely some story-tellers do not hear themselves as they tell and overplay or underplay their material. We all, in the end, have things to learn about our craft. As a committed story-teller I have come down on the side of telling but I am always ready to be impressed by a good reading. All I would request of story-readers is that they consider handing over their stories to others to read, so that they can hear them in a detached way, and learn from that.

Meanwhile the contrasts and comparisons are available for all to consider. Most stories pass through the medium of the page on the way to someone’s imagination, but I guess we would all want the page to be as negligible as possible in our public sharings so that our unique expressivity can shine out.

What Have I Got In My Hand?

Our storytelling group are planning to offer a workshop this Spring on “Story-telling And Sewing”. We have in the past programmed workshops on “Storytelling and Movement” and “Storytelling And Voice” so linking story with another expressive medium is nothing new, but maybe sewing is a less obvious choice for connection. I was inspired to propose it when I was asked by my old friend Clare Higney to read a draft of a book she has been writing, about sewing and embroidery and their place in our wider culture. Clare is a genius in this area and has so much experience of working in the medium in community settings, but the aspect of the subject which caught my attention was her description of how story can be captured and preserved by sewing, not just in the past and in far-flung parts of the globe, but here in these islands now.

I was interested in how a craft medium which produces objects and static images not actions can have a narrative dimension, and last week on a visit to the British Museum I found myself drawn to an exhibit – “Krishna in the garden of Assam – the cultural context of an Indian textile” – and there it was, the Vrindavani Vastra (literally ‘the cloth of Vrindavan’), made of woven silk and figured with scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan. It’s a narrative cloth, and the exhibit is dedicated to assisting in our understanding of the story.

The Vrindavani Vastra will be on show until August and I recommend that you see it if you can. What then pre-occupied me was how we might include any products of our sewing-and-story workshop in our tellings. This seemed to me to be the same challenge that we set ourselves whenever we use objects with story, so I decided to run a workshop last weekend about using objects and what they allow and insist on in the telling.

Most of what we did was to handle, consider and use as stimulus a number of objects I’d brought in for the session. I already had had some thoughts about the different ways an object can have presence in a spoken narrative, but this was a time to test them out.

I suggested that an object can, for example, be used as exactly itself – “this very thing” – and its history can be told, sometimes the history of how it came to be and sometimes how it came to be in the possession of the teller, and indeed in this space now. I had brought with me a mug which commemorated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was produced in Leicester to mark that city’s celebration of this nationally significant date, and to either side of the Queen’s image are pictures of Leicester’s Lord Mayor and his wife. We had a few stories which might be told here, of varying levels of interest – how the mug came to be produced, the story of the Jubilee, or how the mug had been passed down the years to end up at the back of a shelf in my kitchen. The mug was the story, but also contained a story or two. Each would take some investigation (and ingenuity) to constitute a story worth the telling, but there was no doubt that the presence of the mug in the storyteller’s hand would lend a certain weight to that telling.

I was also ready to point out that the mug might be presented as a representative, a stand-in, for the mug about which a story might be told, and then Mary offered an entirely fictional, or at least suppositional, tale of how the pictures on the mug may have been mixed up, which gave the object another life, and made us want to look again at it. I also pointed out that the object as held by the teller might be presented, fictionally, as having a relationship with the one in the story being told, as one of a pair, or a replacement for one broken, or as a copy, and so conferring life on the story-object by association. There was also the much looser use of the mug as a pretext for telling a story about mugs, or a mug, and we did not fail to note the use of an object, any object, as a way of distracting the audience’s gaze away from the face of a nervous or shy storyteller, by shifting the focus of the telling.

Each object raised new questions about the use of objects in story. A cheap plastic “Winner” medal on a tricolor string and bought in a supermarket – did we use that as representing a winning medal or draw attention to its cheap manufacture? Was it the medal in a story or just a medal? We can determine how much attention is paid to the close details of an object but how what determines that “how much”?

There was a beautiful flower-shaped candle, unlit (and bought, if you paid attention to the label on the bottom, from Habitat). Was the fact that it had never been lit part of the story? (Was Habitat?) Decima came up with a story which accounted for both. There was a harmonica in a perfume container – the piquancy of that conjunction suggested (almost demanded) a story which was not so much about the objects so much as about their coming together. It might be researched or made up. A sea-shell – it has its own geological story, but can also, courtesy of John and Colin hold the focus of a fiction about how it was found, or lost. The torch, the magnifying glass, – all of the objects stimulated consideration of the ways in which an object can be essential to a telling. And then we noticed how we held them as we talked and that denoted or demonstrated a relationship with the teller. It all became very fascinating and in the process we came up with a lot of developable stories.

All this will bear fruit when we come to the sewing. At the end of that session, if all goes according to plan, we shall each have a sewn something to provide a focus for a future telling. We may end up making it first and then finding out how to use it, or we may design it in our head for a planned storytelling. It will have substance, a pattern or an image, it will be a masterpiece or an avowedly imperfect go at sewing, it may represent something for us, or we may discover something about ourselves and what we need to say in the very physical, manual act of making it. We do not know, but it will be interesting to find out. When we all put down our needles and thread at the end of the session, or after what we have produced has accompanied us into a story-sharing, we may have something to report.