Category Archives: Storytelling

Away, away to Fairytale City… the straight way’s short but the long way’s pretty.

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A  year ago I reintroduced myself to this man,  John Row; master storyteller and child of the East Anglian Fayres of years past at a Cambridge Storytellers event.

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I informed him that I had boldly (and probably rather drunkardly) stalked him through festivals across the years throughout my 20s, sitting like a  child at his feet while he spun yarns fantastical and wonderous.

“Lovely” he said, with markedly less recognition towards me than I had to him.

“….and I was on a workshop of yours four years ago”

“OK, brilliant.”

“..and I’m a fledgling teller myself now”

“Ahhhhh….Wonderful.  We’re looking for new blood at Cambridge Folk Festival if you’re interested, drop me an email”

“… wha?… Really? Um… Yes, wow, …ok.  Really? … Thanks”

So I did, ..then I didn’t follow it up, then I fell fantastically pregnant, then fantastically ill with morning/afternoon/night sickness, then life took over and the battle to earn rent whilst trying really, really hard to keep all the plates spinning to maintain the facade of a normal-functioning woman soon swamped everything.  For a reeeeeally looooong tiiiiiime.

I kissed goodbye to the dream of performing at one of THE most prestigious festivals on the Folk calendar.

Because I’d been a self-absorbed idiot.

..and pregnant.

Then an email.

“Hi Janina, It’s John.  It’s Cambridge next weekend, your name’s in the programme, you are still coming aren’t you?”

“… wha?… Really? Um… Yes, wow, …ok.  Really? … Thanks”

Truth be told, I’d have gnawed through a mountain to get there.

So there I got, teeth still intact.

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All relevant passes acquired, and  distributed about my person, I’d never been so squeelingly excited and terrified.

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I arrived in a world where the the bubble-blowing festival nymphs were barefooted and the trees be-jumpered.  Gorgeous.

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And there, nestled in the solitude of the Flower Garden sat my sanctuary.  Like some beauteous, gentle Dark Crystal Land Strider

Our story-spinning space.

I knew I’d be safe here.

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And then they came, the other Tellers, emerging through hedges and from corners unseen… The three experienced hands in the guise of John plus the world’s most smiley teller Mike Dodsworth

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The hilariously-earthly and connected Suzanne Arnold

Plus myself and two of the coolest, most un-outwardly nervous new tellers I have ever met….

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Grounded, ecstatically energetic with a menagerie of animal tales, that’s Holly Piper that is.

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Backed up by her rubber-voiced, amigo Callum McGowan.  This guy can embody and switch between characters so damn swiftly it was nothing but a joy to watch him.   A huge inspiration!

We all held our audiences with varying shades of emotion, well… I say audienceS…  We performed twice a day over three days.  Us newbies presumed, as it was a huge festival, that we’d be able to recycle material; tell the same stories twice, not have to prepare 10 different stories each.

Not so.

I spotted the 15yr old lad in a bowler hat first, a strong look for one so young.  He turned up at the first telling, then 3hrs later at the second.  Then the next afternoon… Then I noticed other smaller faces becoming more familiar.  We couldn’t rehash and serve up stale tales to them, they deserved fresh meat.  So we dug deep into our hearts and delivered.

So how did I find performing to so many people over such a long period of time at 6 month’s pregnant? I can’t say it wasn’t a scary ride, but no-one got eaten, we all survived and the fledglings amongst us, flew a little higher on the way home.

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like swallowing glass

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Just after my last post below,  the boy below,  was raised up off his feet and sent to a place beyond.

Nobody wanted it.

No one was prepared for it.

No one should experience the death of a child.

Michael

Michael was my Godson. His Mother, my childhood friend.

Grief is a dark and heavy load indeed…. Michael was 15 years when he passed away.

I was blessed to know him and thankful to be able to say goodbye properly.

My stories have distracted and hopefully, in some small way, soothed the jagged hearts of his smaller sister and brother over past 15 months.   I have never had a personal illustration of how powerful storytelling can be, I got into this because it was fun and a bit of an oddly interesting thing to do.   Story’s ability to transport the listener and teller to somewhere other than here (and yet seems strangely comforting) is a truly incredible thing.

It’s for that reason that I’ve got back on my storyhorse and am now breaking from a trot to a canter.

Thanks Michael Valentine, you’re still making things happen.

It was raining, so I went out anyway…

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There’s a maxim amongst hardy-optimistic-outdoor types that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.  I suspect it hales from Scandinavia or somewhere the elements are very sure of their identity.

We are blessed with a temperate climate here in the UK which spoils us with a whole wealth of atmospheric conditions; from sudden, thunderous summer showers to silent, misty, dew-dappled mornings.  Each of them with their own merits.   It then astounds me that the majority of people I speak with during my working day will make a negative comment about the weather if it is anything other than 18 degrees and sunny.

In chatting with one lady I reminisced that last winter, some roads were impassible, schools closed, buses cancelled (my poor husband had to take the remaining 10 miles of his journey home by foot) and there was mild panic-buying of bread and milk all because of the snow.  By comparison this January has been positively tropical.

“Still, we might get some of the white fluffy stuff in February”  I cheerfully added.

“Oh don’t say that.”

“It’s lovely to look at though, through a  window, with a warm hug of hot chocolate on the go isn’t it?”

“Oh no.  I don’t even like to look at it. I hate the thought that I might have to go out in it and fall over.”

“…..”

What do you say, to someone that’s become so disconnected from the natural world that they can’t even bring themselves to observe it?  You don’t say “There’s no such thing as bad weather…”

I didn’t, but the words were battering on the inside of my teeth, hammering to be let out.  I swallowed them and resolved to go exploring on my next day off.

Today was Explorday and it bore exciting weather; rain frantically racing across the fields in sheets, the wind whipping the wind chimes against the guttering.  The only thing stood between me and adventure was appropriate clothing.  Over the years I’ve learned that it’s easier to cool down when outside than warm up, (it’s all to do with Newton’s second law of thermodynamics for all you physics and Professor Brian Cox fans) so I often tend to over-egg the pudding when it comes to layers.  Firstly base layer.  Thermals are seldom sexy but mighty effective at keeping you warm without adding bulk.  Next waterproof trousers and old skate t-shirt, one pair of thickish socks then jacket and boots.  My boots are possibly my most treasured piece of kit.  After years of searching and being told that no boots exist that will keep your feet super warm AND dry, I found a pair of North Face snow boots.  I adore them.

I then grabbed a map, a flask of tea and some nibbles and headed over to Wandlebury Country Park

In it sits Wandlebury Ring, the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort.  I’ve never really explored this area although it ticks all my boxes .  The whole site sits within the The Gog Magog Hills or the Magog Downs,  a series of chalk hills that rise to the southwest of Cambridge.

Gog and Magog are said to be  two giants, the protectors of London (who sometimes take part in the Lord Mayor’s Show, here they are with their makers who are not your average basket weavers.)

The hills are said to be the metamorphosis of the giants after they were rejected by the nymph Granta (the river Cam which runs through Cambridge) Utterly fascinating.

Completely beautiful…

Sadly not much remains of the fort except a truly enormous circular ditch and bank, easily 10ft deep in some places, where ancient yews and beeches cling to the chalky inclines.

Slow fingers grip the earth deep…

It has to be said that the most exciting of the weather occurred whilst I was still at home.  Here the air was busy going about it’s daily chores; rustling leaves, dispersing seeds, gently nudging clouds along, but it wasn’t … well it was safe enough to have a rootle around underneath some very tall, very old trees.

There was just enough mizzley dankness to justify the waterproofs though.  Hurrah!

Some of the trees were spectacular, but I had a strange sense of not being alone…

Ancient tracks worn smooth by noctural paws.  The badger paths follow the curves of the land, adding to the the beauty of the place.  There is a Roman road nearby, it is straight, functional and less pleasing to the eye. Hmmmm

Then from around the corner, a tiny, wonky grain store.  It sits on brick pillars to deter rats and mice, but it reminded me of Baba Yaga’s hut.  Her dwelling sits atop a pair of chicken legs in the woodland of Russian folk tales… more of her and her child-eating ways another time.

One day my hands will be this deeply furrowed, my cheeks this weather ravaged, my bones this fragile, my heart this full of quiet tales.

One day..

Noggin

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It was roughly 10.30pm on a warm evening last May, Tash and I had just returned from swooning at Johnny Depp at the local cinema to celebrate my birthday.  Infact no celebratory excuse was needed,  my birthday was just a co-incidence you see this was practice.  As a married and an about-to-be-married woman, we were seasoned swooners.  It’s not something you can do well in the throws of youth.

Under the sulphur-orange glow of the street light we made our way down her driveway and paused to find the front door key.

“Maaaaaaaauuuwww…”.

“Hello mate, where are you?”

Working at The Arc (Animal Rescue Charity)  Tash battled not bring work home with her.  This meant not filling her home with abandoned puppies and unwanted rabbits.  However one vaguely psychotic but utterly adorable kitten had beaten her into submission.  Bo would often sit in the darkness beneath the Volvo and swipe at my ankles as I passed by.

“Maaaaaa-aaa-aaauuuwww…”

“Come on mate it’s late, you need to come in now”

A big furry face peered cautiously from round the back of a back wheel, with even bigger, desperate eyes.

“Maaaaa-uuuuuuuu-wwwww..”

“Ah Tash, it’s not Bo, come see.”

“Oh, that’s my stray”

“Your stray?”

“Yeah he turned up here asking for food about three months ago.  I put food down for him hoping he’d stick around and I’d be able to get him into work, to get him checked out, but he just ate and left.  It’s odd actually I’d been to the cinema that night too”

He was in a bad state then and a worse one now.  A long haired cat, he was full of dreads, huge clumps of matted fur.  A tentative stroke along his back felt like like running your hand along iron railings; all ribs and spine.

He smelt terrible too.

None the less he was up for fuss, lots of strokes infact while Tash served up a dish of tasty treats.  He attacked the bowl with the ferocity you would expect of an animal that hadn’t eaten properly in months, and the second.

Tash, dear Tash is a woman of astounding determindness which at times can leave me a little frightened.

“Right, I’m not letting him get away again.  We’ve got to get him to the centre and sorted out.  I’ll go get a cat crate.  Keep your eye on him”

“ok..”

Lots of sniffing and some purring later and he amazingly had let me pick him up.

The crate arrived, as did the elbow-length leather gauntlets.

It was then that we discovered that dinner had given him renewed vigor, this cat was not happy about being stuffed into a plastic box.  Some time later, after the lid was secure and Tash had got her breath back I rang home to let Leaf  know I was going to be late back and the spitting, hissing, furry reason why.

Thu THUD.

“What the?”

Thu THUDDD.

So unhappy at being in the crate, so violently terrified, that this poor, emaciated moggy was making the crate jump along the floor.    The only way to get him to The Arc was in my car and there was no way I was prepared to run the risk of him breaking the brittle plastic catches whilst I was at the wheel.

So into a metal dog cage went the cat-carrier and cat. He was taken, Hannibal Lecter-style, to the sanctuary under the veil of darkness.

Days came and went.  I couldn’t stop thinking of him. Deep inside me the magpie child who picked up abandoned trinkets from the floor was shouting  “HE BELONGS WITH YOU! HE’S YOUR TREASURE”

Leaf and I visited the noble beast who had become known as Dylan.  After much deep, heart-searching discussion;

“Can we keep him?”

“Yes”

We set the wheels in motion to bring him home.

Everything about him was big; big paws, big eyes, big head, big poo and over time he began to put on weight and forge a friendship with Moog, the first feline member of our family.

                                                                     Here’s Moog, looking beautiful as she usually does.

Tash gave us some sage advice regarding how to introduce him to the house which worked fantastically.  Over time he adopted the name Noggin after the wonderous Oliver Postgate’s sagas of Noggin The Nog, a gentle Viking King.  It’s  also the English term for a carved wooden drinking cup.  (One day I will succeed in carving one of these and will share the process with you)

All this happened 8 months ago.  Now, he is very much my boy, he’ll tolerate Leaf’s lap, but only until mine is available, he sits in the kitchen when I’m cooking and enjoys walking the field edge with Moog and I.  But mostly he loves curling up in warm places, not hurrying over anything and softly snoozing.  I like to think he’s pushing the memory of last years’ winter out to sea for a true Viking burial.