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.

Our Mutual Friends

We make distinctions in story-telling, between what comes from our own experience and what we make up, between stories we’ve found and stories we’ve constructed, but in many cases the distinctions get blurred. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the characters we offer to our audiences. I think of this when listening to two members of our group when they tell some of their most characteristic stories.

It came to me the other day when Liz was telling us all about Maureen and her “millions”, a fine fantasy of a storyabout a failed compact with a devilish figure to become very rich, rich beyond the bounds of possibility, through a laborious repetition of a word (I’m not giving away the details – you may hear the story some day). Liz introduces Maureen as a friend and sketches in their shared background, but eventually we are in a fantastic situation which only a fictional character could experience. Even to the end though Maureen is shared with us as one of Liz’s intimates, someone so close to her that she can imagine (or recall) this crucial incident in her life. It’s all in manner and tone of voice, and something else quite elusive which is, or can be, part of the storyteller’s technique. It’s hard to describe but it conveys the sense that Liz does not just, as in most storytelling, know about Maureen, she knows her – as much as she knows us who are gathered to listen to her tell – and so Maureen becomes hyper-real, absolutely amongst us, courtesy of Liz, maybe, but almost of her own free will.

I reflected that David, who has also offered us many tales at sharings and on Story-nights, draws on this same dimension of identification with his characters. They are ordinary folk, from the streets and houses of our towns and cities, not from fairyland or the wide realms of fantasy. They don’t do anything particularly heroic, just interact and learn as they do so. And David shares them with us as acquaintances, perhaps from some perspective which only a wise elder or superior gossip would have – a teacher, a priest, a doctor, a seasoned youth worker. He doesn’t offer himself in any of those roles but there is no doubt that he, like Liz, knows these people, and since he is alive and in front of us, as Liz is, these people must be equally alive, and just round the corner of that twisting path of our lives, liable at some time to appear in our actuality.

I may seem to be making a very particular point here, and I’m not saying that this quality of relating is either necessary or essential to a good story-telling. Fortunately story is as wide as the universe and susceptible to an infinite range of tellings. This is just a short acknowledgement of the closeness you can feel in the presence of shared experience, and maybe a reminder that we can only convey character as a living thing if we are invested in the characters we offer up and, most important, that we manifestly love and care for them. That then also defines our relationship with our audience. We care for them so much that we want to share our story with them.

In Search Of Purpose

I chose to call our January Story-Workshop “Storytelling To Some Purpose”. The name was prompted by a reading-scheme which I remember from my junior-school years, “Reading To Some Purpose”. It has been superseded many times over by the latest Government-promoted scheme, but the phrase sounded a chord with me when I began to consider how many of us involved in “story” would like our story-telling to be connected in some way with the wider world, to be part of some social or artistic purpose. I felt instinctively that many of the people who would come to the workshop would be interested in exploring this idea. In the week running up to the workshop I had been having one-to-one advice sessions with some of the group I’m leading through the “Crafting A Story” workshop, and I knew from those conversations that some people also want their story-telling to connect with the needs of institutions, like schools, and to derive some income from the connection. All of this shaped the workshop.

We started off by sharing stories we’d remembered from recent news reports, and already I could see how the workshop would lead naturally on from these. I began by reminding the group that the news media are interested in stories. We looked at three stories from the news, the first a quite raw news web-site post about the family of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose dead body was washed up on Mediterranean shores after the capsize of a boat in which he and others were travelling from Turkey to Kos. This was a moment which reached a global public through a news photograph which was the focus on world media reporting. The written “story” was quite raw and factual but, despite its accuracy the group found evidence in it of a “blame” culture and a failure to address the issues which led to the widespread flight of Syrians from their country.

A less “raw” story also told of the crossing, this time successful, by refugees from Turkey to Greece, but the subject was an Afghanistani family fleeing the Taliban and now living in a Calais refugee camp. The story was more crafted and focused with direct and reported testimony and it used the image of the husband’s lute-playing which had earned him the violent attentions of the Taliban and which now provided a slight dimension of defiance in the face of the current adversity.

A third news story told of the Muslim youth group which travelled from Yorkshire to help with flood relief in Cumbria. It was a positive article which emphasized the significant contribution made by the group in reaching across cultural definitions in the name of a common humanity. The story group noted the tendency in the reporting to measure the youth group’s achievement in terms of English values, also the absence of testimony from the young Muslims themselves, but concluded that such an emphasis is necessary to counter the larger trend towards demonizing or scapegoating members of the British Muslim community.

My purpose in sharing these three news stories was to raise questions about how our more generalized, less journalistic, storytelling relates to the mediated news we encounter every day. It was clear that to tell these stories to a live audience we would want to change or reconstruct the order of events and introduce ideas of point of view and agency to the telling. How much further might we go, though, – and for what reason? Indeed, at what price?

It would be possible to use no more than the facts in the articles, but the stories so produced would be neither very vivid nor engaging. Could we infer extra facts from what we had, and include these in the telling? I introduced the group to two short sections from a book by the journalist Peter Millar in which he recounts how he learned to turn raw reportage into vivid popular new journalism by just such inference. It seemed to make sense, but was anything lost in the process? Someone suggested that an emphasis on typicality and likely, rather than reported, facts took away the dimension of unpredictability from the account, and from the representation of life itself. But if more people were drawn into reading the story because it had been enhanced or expanded in this way, was it a price worth paying?

We moved on to consider the times when a news story is given a lot of elaboration, where images are emphasized, dialogue supplied, themes drawn out, when the facts are almost submerged in supposition and literary devices – perhaps in the name of some higher truth or greater reader appeal. This is the kind of thing we do when we develop a story for telling. Are we, the story-tellers, guilty of a fundamental dishonesty?

And what happens when we begin to fictionalize the story? So far, I suggested, we had been dealing with telling the story “of” something. Our purpose was to do justice to actuality. What happens when we tell a story “from”, or “derived from”, or “out of” something we’ve read or heard about? At this point we have taken it upon ourselves to select what facts and images we want, and to add to them at will, using the original information as a reference point only. We can have floods, children, migration, music, as our springboard, as inspiration, but what purpose are we serving here? Not to bring a news story alive for a live audience, surely, but just to serve the deeper (?) needs of storytelling, – interest, delight, empathy, entertainment. Is “based on a true story” an excuse for imaginative licence? If we do not seek a wider purpose for what we do, of course, these questions are irrelevant.

And then there is the story, not “of” or “from”, but “for” the world, a world which contains migration, privation, drowning, persecutions, war, violence. What can our story-telling do for that world, and what stories would we put in our story-bag to take to the stakeholders in that world, – not just Syrian and Afghanistani families and flood victims, but otherwise uninvolved individuals who only know about these situations second- or third-hand? We discussed this at some length exploring ideas of catharsis, compassion, laughter, connection, and “anecdote or antidote?” It did seem that there was some purpose, some function special to live storytelling, which we could draw upon if we wished to.

Before we took on some workshop tasks I briefly pointed out that if anyone was interested in deriving purpose, or income, from their storytelling, then serving the needs of the school curriculum or providing accessible stories as introductions to art exhibitions were areas of possible employment. There was also work as a professional storyteller, but we concluded that only a few people were at that level, that most of us probably wouldn’t reach it, and that, if you hadn’t dealt with the issues we had been discussing, you would probably never reach it.

I proposed four tasks to be tackled in groups: to retell one of the three news stories in our live storytelling mode; to explore one of those stories for its fictional or imaginative potential; to consider what stories might be told for a world of floods, drowning and war; to consider a set of photographs in a book which I had brought as the starting point for a family-friendly story to accompany an exhibition. Much interesting discussion followed.

I was, though, keen , before the end of the workshop ,to take the emphasis away from news stories for a while. I asked the individuals in the group to write on separate pieces of paper distinct images which occurred to them in answer to the question,- when you think of the world we live in, what do you think of? When they had finished we placed the papers on the carpet at random, and there, I suggested, was a composite portrayal of our world, – very provisional and impressionistic, but no less true in the moment. It was a mosaic of images, and any one of those images, or combinations of them, could be the starting point, the springboard, for a story which has as its purpose serving the needs of the world in some way, – “of”, “from” or “for” it.

For interest the images were,-

The Ocean – whales, Greenpeace activists.

A masked young man making a threat

Parched earth

Mobile phones


Coffee Shops

Mobile phones/camera


Refugees In leaky boats

Tree – tree house, tree huggers

Rich people’s expensive food

Smart phones

British Red Cross/Red Crescent

Rich and Poor

Youth/Poor Housing

Square filtered sunsets from somewhere in the world (Instagram)

Mornington Crescent (!)

Chinese students

I would like to think that the workshop set the participants off into considerations of the processes they used in story-making and –telling, and maybe in so doing deriving a new story project from the material we had considered and the discussions it stimulated.


Someone had lost Christmas. One poor soul had to report it to everyone else, but, of course, no-one was taking responsibility. It wasn’t their department, they’d been on long-term leave, the files had been shredded. But there was no getting away from the fact, Christmas was lost,

There were the usual questions,-

When did you see it last?

Um, about a year ago, was it?

Have you checked your pockets?

The search turned up nothing more reminiscent of Christmas than an expenses receipt and an uneaten toffee.


A lot to rifle through, but nothing more festive than a packet of indigestion tablets.

So, a full search of the building, especially down the back of the sofas, and, although a number of unspeakable finds were made and unpaid bills were uncovered, nothing  Christmassy emerged. One individual drew the short straw and had to check the rubbish bags in the bins, but a full half-hour of grubbing through tissues and half-eaten apples produced only a lost cufflink and a bad smell.

It was time to contact the police and the travel companies, but the problem was that when it came to filling in the forms and giving details no-one could remember exactly what Christmas was like. Exact dimensions? Colour?  Identifying features? They were at a loss.

Photocopied posters were fixed to lamp-posts. Handbills were put through letter-boxes. “Have you seen Christmas? Much missed by loving owners. Please contact, etc, etc.” It turned out that there were a lot of stray cats around.

It was time to bring in the experts. Three men in the know were summoned, They arrived carrying a metal detector and a mobile device, and they were confident that they could find the lost item.

“What’s that?

“It’s GPS – Geo-positioning, but to you, Godhead Pursuit System. Guaranteed to find anything – it’s all down to the satellites.” He gestured vaguely towards the sky.

They set off, but before they’d gone far some-one called them back. “I think this has happened before, and it’s probably best to take some kind of offering with you.”

“What exactly?”

There was a big discussion.  Money? No, a bit obvious.  A Voucher, ASDA, Boots? No, too impersonal. Wine? They may not drink. Perfume? No, you can never get perfume right. In the end it was agreed, you couldn’t go wrong with a tin of biscuits, so the experts were instructed to buy some expensive biscuits, and put it on their bill.

Everybody then sat back and waited.  They weren’t very hopeful. “It’ll turn  up , I guess. And if it doesn’t, does it really matter? If we’ve got food in the house, and some drink, and the television works and we have a subscription to Netflix, we’ll never notice the difference and we don’t need to worry.”

“But I really think we’ll be needing it soon.”

Someone had a bright idea. “Let’s use Google Search, – you can always find things that way.” Everybody reached for their phones and laptops, and there it was, courtesy of Wikipedia – Christmas, – etymology, history, economics – but there it wasn’t – nothing about whereabouts at all.

They posted on Facebook – Christmas is Lost. Has anyone seen it? And a few hours later they had over a thousand Likes. Everybody liked the idea that Christmas was lost because they couldn’t do anything else.

Twitter was the next idea, but as they were about to deploy the hash-tag “#christmas lost” someone suggested that Christmas had probably been swept away in the recent floods and was lost forever, and, well, the combination of Twitter and an act of God and #lostchristmas became a natural disaster, a national one, even, and top government had to be involved.

A meeting of responsible politicians was called to discuss responses.

“How about we produce a substitute? Black Friday, or Crazy Wednesday? Or we could call Easter early?”

But one of them called the others to the window. Out in front of the building was a huge crowd, all very still. Prominent at the front were the Christmas Tree growers, standing each very solemn with a tree grasped firmly in their hand. Alongside them were carol singers, silent under their red and white hats, and behind them, turkey-farmers, tinsel-sellers, and retailers and moody protestors and Home County heritage groups, as far as the eye could see. They were all waiting, just about patiently.

“Could we not just deny that Christmas exists? A rumour spread  by unpatriotic extremists allied to a foreign religion?”

“What do you think that lot would say? Or do?”

“We could say that we abolished it – in the national interest? Health and safety, an unsupportable strain on already-stretched public services?”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“I know,” said one bright spark, keen on promotion, “We could call a high state of alert and institute a full search. Then we can go drilling under National Parks and investigating people’s E-mails – all the things we want to do anyway.”

There was a rumble of approval. The Prime Minister cleared his throat. But before he could speak an Under-Secretary touched his arm. “Excuse me, sir, but there’s a boy at the back door.” “What’s that got to do with the situation?” “He says that he thinks he’s found Christmas.” “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, go and deal with that, will you? I’m about to declare a plan.”

So the Under-Secretary left the room with two of his Under-Under-Secretaries, and the Prime Minister said, “We can do all that, and we can say that Christmas has been stolen, kidnapped, even, by Them.” By who, Prime Minister?” “Oh, you know, that Islamic lot, Middle-eastern types.” Another rumble of approval.

When the Under-Secretary and his men got to the back door, there was a small boy with a sheep. The sheep was probably bigger than the boy.

“What do you want?”

“I’ve found Christmas for you.”

“Have you got it with you?”

“No, you’ve got to come with me.”

The three officials put on their coats, and the boy with his sheep led them off into the streets .

“Where are we going, sir?”

“God knows. Keep quiet, follow the boy and watch out for muggers.”

It was dark now and the boy led them along streets, across car-parks, down alleys and across waste-land, until they came to a supermarket. The trail led behind the store to the place where a number of big dumper-skips were standing under arc-lights. Under the central light a man and a woman sat on the tarmac either side of a skip with its lid open. The boy pointed at it. The officials approached gingerly and the Under-Secretary peered over the edge of the skip. There, nestling amidst loaves, packaging and cling-wrapped fish was a baby, entirely small, wrapped up against the mild night-air, and content.

The Under-Under-Secretaries also peered into the skip.

“This is meant to be Christmas?”

They looked at the boy. Neither he nor the sheep said anything.

“Sir, there was something about this before, wasn’t there? I’ve seen pictures somewhere. Only the baby had this thing round its head, a halo, was it? Or maybe there is one, you know?”

“Listen!” said the other.

“What for?”

“It’s all gone very quiet. And can you hear bells somewhere?”

“God knows what’s going on.” The Under-Secretary was about to turn and interrogate the boy when he felt something in his hand. He could swear it was…..the muzzle of a sheep. Sheep! A whole flock! and, standing at his shoulder, a man holding a tin of Marks and Spencers Luxury Assortment. Behind him a man with a mobile phone and another with a metal detector over his shoulder.

“Yes, this is it!” said the man with the mobile phone. “GPS has it exactly. This is Christmas.”

“What do you mean?” said the Under-Secretary.

“We were sent to find Christmas. This is it. The technology is pin-point accurate.”

They set off back the way they had come, the Under-Secretary holding the baby, gingerly, the man and the woman following close behind, flanked by the Under-Under-Secretaries, then the experts with their equipment, then the boy and the flock of sheep with some other shepherds who seemed to have tagged on along the way, – back across the waste-ground, down the alleys, across the car-parks, along the streets.

The Under-Secretary was thoughtful.  “How on earth are we going to explain this to the Prime Minister?” he mused aloud.

“Rather you than me, sir.”


“Well, look at the baby.”

“What do you mean?”

The Under-Under-Secretary glanced back at the man and the woman.

“Don’t you think he looks rather, well, Middle-Eastern?”