Hugh Lupton tells
his own story to
Frances Noble

Putting it into words

How did the young Hugh Lupton become a storyteller?
My family were very given to anecdotal storytelling, but my only claim to a literary background is through my grandmother’s brother – Arthur Ransome. As a small child I was particularly drawn to his Old Peter’s Russian Tales. I was terrified by the story of ‘Prince Ivan and the Witch Baby,’ but kept going back to it and its horrifying refrain ‘Eaten father, eaten mother, now’s the time for little brother.’ There was something dark and beautiful about those stories, they seemed remote from my world but true to it at the same time. I had a real love/hate relationship with the book.

Later I came to John Masefield’s Midnight Folk with its very English magic. Then in my teens I discovered Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes, and by the time I was 17 or 18 the Border Ballads introduced me to the place where myth met music, language and place, which was absolutely inspirational to me. Everything I enjoyed reading led me to the belief that all nature is supernatural, and that there’s something unseen that charges the visible world. It was a good ten years before I began to tell stories myself though; I had been teaching and writing and singing traditional ballads – and all that eventually converged into storytelling as a career.

Many of the people who have talked to Spiked in these pages have moved into Norfolk from some other part of the country, where are you from?
I am an East Anglian! Sense of place is really important to me. All the writers I most admire have this sense of place – that you must begin at the beginning, and that it all begins at the place you come from – I tell lots of East Anglian stories for that reason. The place you come from is the root of the whole thing, the names of places, and dialect and the rhythms that go with dialect. There is a great invocatory quality to place names. I’m interested in stories from every culture, but in order to be able to tell them I have to have some sense of their landscape and the mindset which goes with it. I find that I can identify and work with stories which come from the Norse, Celtic and Greek, and I feel a sympathy with the whole Indo-European tradition, but I find it almost impossible to tell stories from sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. Perhaps because I don’t ‘know’ those places in the same way, I can’t get into the mindset, the landscape which they inhabit. Oddly enough I can tell Native American stories though, perhaps because they come to us filtered through a Western sensibility. The downside of that is that they are often tainted by a soft centred ‘new age’ reworking and it can be hard work to cut through to the real purpose and meaning
of the story.

How do you decide whether a story is worth telling and how you want
to tell it?

Some stories I hear told and some I find in books. I trawl through second-hand bookshops and listen to stories all over the country. I probably have to read over 200 stories in order to find one I want to tell. The written story is usually only a pale shadow of the story as it would have been told. The storyteller’s work is to breathe pictures and rhythms back into what has been written, and you develop a nose for what will work. It was Coleridge who made the distinction between imagination and fancy. A good story draws from, and feeds, the imagination, but it isn’t fanciful. I subscribe to Coleridge’s distinction. When you hear or read a story, you recognise whether it has validity or not. Perhaps the best way to expand on that is to say that the Grimm Brothers’ collection of stories draw from imagination, from the mythological tendency of the human mind, whereas most of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories are fanciful. The Grimm stories were collected from traditional tellers. The Andersen stories were invented. In the oral tradition stories are whittled down to their essentials in a way that a written story can’t be.

Sometimes a story will demand to be told – something I have known for years and never used just seems right at a particular time. At other times I can lose my affection for a story and it will drop out of my repertoire. I’m never quite sure how or why these things happen – they just do. But it’s probably the result of that circular thing that happens with an audience; their absorptions and responses are fed back to me and affect my telling. It’s that ‘back and forthness’ which determines whether I tell certain stories rather than others at a particular time. They are never sentimental or whimsical.

How do you learn your stories?
You must know thousands by now, have you always had a phenomenal memory?

No I don’t think so, but I must have a very peculiar memory. I have a huge repertoire of stories but a terrible memory for facts. When I read or hear a story it comes to me as pictures – a language of pictures first and foremost, a sequence of images. Part of the digestive process is to leave the text behind – to explore and prod the language as it winds itself through and around these pictures. So there is a strange projection in storytelling – the spoken word becomes an evocation and conjuring of images for the audience. That’s the magic.

Were you good learner at school?
No! I always remember a quote from Robert Graves:

‘You learned Lear’s Nonsense Rhymes by heart, not rote;
You learned Pope’s Iliad by rote, not heart;
These terms should be distinguished if you quote
‘My verses, children – keep them poles apart . . .’

I was certainly in that learning by heart and ear group. I’ve always been bad at rote learning. I think I remember sequentially which is why storytelling works for me, it lends itself to narrative. I sometimes try to teach teachers to tell stories, but they seem to find it hard, which is strange considering they stand in front of a class and talk for most of their working day. It’s only rarely that they find the liberation which allows them to face up to the vulnerability of storytelling, even though they have all the skills necessary to tell the stories well. I suppose I was always willing to surrender myself to the story, which is why I would return to Old Peter’s Russian Tales again and again, even though they terrified me.

Do you work alone or in a group of storytellers?
Sometimes alone, sometimes with a colleague and sometimes as part of a
larger group. There are three of us working together in the Company of Storytellers – Ben Haggarty, Pomme Clayton and
myself. When we met in the mid-80s each of us was already telling stories, but we were working almost entirely with children, and we formed the Company with the aim of taking stories to adults. At the moment I’m working on a huge project with another storyteller – Daniel Morden. We were commissioned by the Bath Literature Festival and the Cambridge Education Institute to tell the story of The Iliad (by heart not rote!). We have been telling The Odyssey for some years.

How do those stories work for modern audiences?
We performed the adult version of The Iliad at Bath in March and it seemed to work well for that audience, now we are planning, with some trepidation, to take it to groups of nine and ten year olds. We aren’t quite sure how we will manage to get over the sex and violence within the stories, or how the children will receive it, but they always get an awful lot of amusement from the things which happen between men and women. The Iliad is not a story about violence, rather, it’s Shakespearean in avoiding the absolutes of good and evil, and recognising complexity and the individual’s capacity for extremes. The stories of the Trojan War serve as a blueprint for all war, feeding the imagination with the concept of conflict. The Odyssey continues the story with Odysseus’ journey home, with the shedding of everything learnt in war. He has to become ‘Nobody’ in order to return home to Penelope, re-humanised. Any stories worth their salt are metaphors for the human condition. I’m often asked what’s the point of telling these stories about dragons and sirens, and whether they can speak to our time. But I believe the fundamentals that stories address are always there. Irrespective of the specifics of any particular time, the questions they address and the solutions the characters find are universal.

How does that happen?
Well successful stories don’t have morals – they raise questions and invite the listener to draw conclusions. What the wonder-tales, or fairy-tales do so beautifully is go into the dark capacities of the human spirit and return – they make that journey safe and finally comedic rather than tragic. The characters go through the confusion of the narrative and achieve resolution. In Grimm’s Tales the confusion can be very bleak and we may find the resolution uncomfortable but we recognise the essential truth in the stories. It is a similar universality of confusion and resolution which we find in Homer. The Iliad may be fundamentally tragic, but The Odyssey brings it round again for Odysseus.

How do you relate storytelling to other art forms – theatre or music for example?
I see storytelling rather like jazz. Take the Pedlar of Swaffham for example, with its simple line of narrative about a dream which takes you back to where you first came from (in this case, to find the treasure at home in Swaffham rather than among the riches of London). The same story, or close variations of it, occurs in Judaic, Arab and Irish versions. The storyline is like a simple melody, each time it’s played the storyteller is developing his or her own variation on the melodic structure. That’s one reason I hate people to make recordings of my storytelling – it fixes the story too firmly in that one telling. Much better that they should listen and subtly alter it in recollection. Actors don’t make good storytellers because they learn word for word and give essentially the same performance each time. Storytellers make each performance their own and different. Theatre is a formal experience – the audience and the performer are separated from one another by the proscenium arch. The successful storyteller breaks down the fourth wall. In fact, when things go well, the storyteller disappears, is lost to the listeners, and the material becomes greater than either. The teller is the medium who enables the realisation of the story itself. When things are going really well, the story is in front of you, bigger than you are. The audience shouldn’t be able to separate you, the storyteller, from the story or to separate the event of listening and watching from the content of what they have heard and seen. The performance provides a certain kind of ritual which enables people to forget themselves, and allows them to enter the story’s world.

Can you explain a bit further how you might establish that sense of ritual and mystery of the process?
It’s all to do with creating a community of attention, recognising the vulnerability which that brings about, and knowing the importance of the things which might contribute to it or interrupt it. A proper quiet, the use of music, sympathetic lighting, the heightened language, can all add to the effect. When we tell an evening of stories we often apply a pattern called ‘The ladder to the moon’ which is based on (or so I have been told) the custom of West African storytelling. When people gather together for a night of storytelling they will start with gossip, that is recollections from within living memory and jokes. Then will come the exploits of culture heroes. Then the magic or wonder tales. Then the myths, where the Gods intervene in human affairs. Finally as dawn is breaking you come to the stories of creation itself. This is a useful pattern to structure an evening on.

Laughter at the beginning is important, and this ritual form to the evening allows the depth which so much religious practice today has lost – it opens the audience to mysteries, in the way that the accessibility of the Mystery Plays did for medieval audiences.

Do you use music in your storytelling?
I do, I use music as breathing, as a space within which to surface in and out of the story world and to allow the images which the story generates to resonate as you move through it. But I don’t think there is a separation between song and narrative or story.

Are you ambitious, where do you want to take your work next?
I suppose I am ambitious, for my own work but especially for storytelling as an art form. I want to see storytelling taken seriously, to remove some of the modern generalisations that see stories as being for children, and only for little children at that, and to open up that imaginative experience for a wider adult audience. To establish the imaginative rather than the fanciful in storytelling. Then perhaps storytelling will be reviewed with the proper criticism and vigour which other, more established, art forms receive. People have been doing awfully good work in this field for over 20 years now and it’s about time it was recognised as an art in its own right.

My personal ambition is to carry on working to integrate music, poetry and narrative – to create an interface where they can interact. I’m currently working with a violinist, Chris Wood, on a series of Narratives and Praise Songs, which try to find the myth at the back of biography. I would like these to work as performance and for radio; which takes me back to my pre-occupation with sense of place. I don’t think you can understand a life without knowing the place that formed the person. I suppose I can’t get away from my own East Anglian background and the stories from this region which demand to be told.

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