Jonesborough, 2018 - National Storytelling Feestival

(This should take no more than ten minutes to read.)

This was my first time to visit the National Storytelling Festival, and my first visit to Jonesborough, TN. Leading up to the event, I was nervous as I was going to perform as part of the Exchange Place. This is where six storytellers got a twelve minute slot to tell a tale in front of a lot of people. The tent (one of five at the festival) holds 1,200 bodies. It’s been a while since I have been performing before so many people. The last time was back in my twenties when I was sat behind a drum kit!

After the meal held for everyone involved in the festival, from performers to volunteers, sound crew to organizers (thanks for making us first timers all so welcome and included) on Thursday night, it was off for a sound check. I had climbed on the stage and looked over the seats when I first arrived, but at the sound check reality sank in. Geraldine Buckley (our MC) was there to help us through the process and to give us tips, and helped us understand that everyone there from top performers to the audience all wanted us to succeed. Everyone kept telling us - “Just don’t suck! And have fun up there.” The sound guys did a great job.

The bonus of performing here at Jonesborough is that you get to see and hear people you might not normally get to see - like Donald Davis and Bil Lepp, Diane Ferlattet and Tim Lowry who rarely make to my neck of the woods. And there are people you might not think to go and see, which for me was cowboy singer and spoken word artist Andy Hedges, and be blown away by their talent. The list of performers at the festival is top notch and I wanted to see as many as I could.

It was suggested that I pick a tent and let the tellers come to me, rather than bounce around. That nearly happened! On Friday I saw Jennifer Monro and Donald Davis share the stage. Amazing. Everyone knows Donald is one of the best tellers of personal stories there is, and Jennifer Monro is every bit as good. Her story on parenting and pets was delivered in that wonderful dry British way she has and her choice of words, and delivery cannot be beaten! I then headed over to see Bil Lepp and Andy Hedges. Andy, the cowboy spoken word artist, singer of ballads and obscure ‘country’ songs and blues knocked my socks off. As did Bil Lepp. Again I moved tent to see my great friend Megan Hicks, and Donald Davis. I had to see Donald again! Megan was superb, of course. Witty, powerful and fun. Elizabeth Ellis, the MC for this performance, said of Megan - “…if you looked up the word ‘joy’ in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Megan so you would know it when you saw it.” I agree.

At this point I had lunch and got talking to other tellers and their partners or plus-one! I was going to head out to see Tim Lowry and Alton Chung and have to say I was so interested in the conversations going on over lunch I lost track of time and missed them. I then headed off to get ready for The Exchange Place.

I needed a shower as the weather was in the mid to upper 80’s and humid. I was also about to don my three piece suit and Converse low-tops. College Tent, when I got there, was filling up. Other storytellers were in the audience, along with a thousand other people. I saw friends, and people I know. Folks I have respect for, people I have not seen in ages. This was quite a crowd. Myself and the other tellers took another go at the stage to take it in, I stood beneath and looked over the faces before getting seated. Geraldine took the stage and began. First up was Willa Brigham, a sassy, take-charge teller filled with wit and full-on stage presence. She told a story about her passion of hats. This may not sound interesting, but it was so funny and lively she had the audience in her hand. Next up was my friend and colleague Rachel Ann Harding. She and I were telling folk tales and Rachel Ann told the most wonderful version of the Corpse Bride I have heard. Creepy in places, funny in spots and filled with compassion. Brilliant job. Nestor Gomez followed Rachel Ann with an impassioned performance about his coming to America as an undocumented child and becoming a citizen. I think it was one of the most powerfully told stories I saw over the weekend. This did not mean Jessica Piscitellli Robinson could not follow Nestor with her story. Oh no. Her personal narrative about overcoming fear and crappy boyfriends hit it out of the park too. Her story hit home. I followed with one of my favourite stories - The Song Unsung, Story Untold. I had had doubts about telling this story. It is a low-key story, a quiet story. Would this work at this event, especially fit between two personal stories? I had had a long conversation with another friend and colleague Sheila Arnold, a fabulous storyteller on the way down. With all the nerves I was having doubts and was thinking of switching stories. Sheila’s words were magic and I am glad I did not change plans. The story went down really well. Following me was the extremely funny and talented Paul Strickland. He tells wonderful tall tales, and is a natural liar - so it seems. He tells those tales that folks who love Bil Lepp enjoy and I loved his piece. Standing on the stage with all these folks was incredible and an honour. Especially when we got a standing ovation and could see the tent was filled to capacity. What a night. And it wasn’t over.

After changing clothes I rushed down to listen to Joseph Bruchac, Elizabeth Ellis, Bobby Norfolk, Anne Rutherford and Shelia Arnold tell ghost stories. What a cast, and what stories. Some were so creepy chills went up my spine, others made the audience jump, but Sheila Arnold’s closer was my favourite. She told an historical ghost story of enslaved people escaping a cruel master and the way things sometimes happen in a swamp. I get the shudders just writing about it.

A few folks met back at the hotel and hung out. More great conversations well into the night. I got to meet Bil Lepp’s kids and they have turned out alright! Megan Hicks and Donald Davis’ grown children were there and it was great to meet and chat with them and others who were there. Late night, early start on Sunday.

The tale I was thinking of telling instead of The Song and Story got told at the Swapping Ground where I heard three other funny tales before heading off to see Megan again. Her story Transformations about her mother was impassioned and beautiful. I stayed in the same tent to see Sheila Arnold present Locks Opened: Waterway Stories of the Underground Railroad. This was another impassioned story, and imbued with humour. I love these two women. They are so good at what they do. I caught a second helping of Andy Hedges, and then saw a remarkable set of stories told by Egyptian princess Chirine El Ansary. She grew up in France, so I had an odd idea of what an Egyptian accent was until I spoke with her afterwards! She is another incredible teller and told stories from A Thousand and One Nights, story within story, within story. It was great. Again a late lunch and lost time again hanging out with other tellers. It was beautiful. That evening I got my third helping of Megan, second helping of Chirine, and got to see Tim Lowry and John McCutcheon for the first time. This olio entitled Waging Peace was another great set of tales, and ended on another impassioned performance, this time by John. Wow. What a night.

Because I came with my wife and daughter (the latter has totally fallen for Bil Lepp) we left early Sunday morning. We headed to Asheville and explored there for a while before heading to Charlotte. Our trip to-and-from Jonesborough found some good eating places. One on the way there was a great little spot in Hickory, NC: a cafe/bar filled with great art, and fabulous food - a great mix for meat-eaters and vegetarians - Crescent Cafe - look them up. And in Asheville we found this great little ice-cream shop called the Golden Cow, all homemade. To say I am full of stories is an understatement. To say I met some wonderful people and had a great time would also be an understatement.

If you have thought about this festival but have not gone, make the effort. It is an incredible event, and the food vendors have a very wide range of very good food for many dietary needs and food choices. It’s not just hot-dogs, but from good Mexican food to tasty Indian meals.

Thank you to Krystal, Susan, Kiran, the sound guys, food peeps, and volunteers of the festival. Thanks to all those wonderful shop-owners we met in Jonesborough and all the other people we chatted with and met. Thank you Jonesboro, TN. I hope to see you again soon.

The Old Man in the Woods - a short story

The forest was unusually quiet this morning walking with my black dog, Moe. Just the sound of a slight wind in the trees, the cries of birds, and the patter of Moe’s paws on the forest floor running here and there sniffing, and rushing after small animals. Those squirrels always seem faster than Moe and get the better of her. Off in the distance we heard the church bells toll eight of the clock. We were a little later than normal when we set out. A mist was rising in places, from last night’s rain. Cool, the humidity began to bead on my glasses. I stepped over piles of leaf litter and cones washed throughout the path in piles. Looking at the streams, they seemed excited, dancing over the rocks.

Coming between a couple of large boulders supporting tall, waving trees whose roots gripped like fingers to the rock, we saw an old man. The smoke from his small pipe drifted lazily upward as he sat on a rock. I noticed his clothing was somewhat unusual. The path led us to the man; as we approached, Moe a little wary but tail wagging, he looked up and smiled.

After a friendly greeting we began to talk.

“My wife will be along soon,” he said. “She's a wonderful woman. She loves dogs. She'll like this one.” The man scratched Moe's ear as she got closer to gingerly sniff his trousers. “Is she a mutt?”

I told him what I believed was Moe’s varied ancestry. We discussed that the day was quite beautiful despite the mist, maybe because of it and how this was such a nice place to wander. I asked how he had met his wife.

“She saved me, she did.”

I asked him, how?

“From a dragon,” he said and took a puff on his pipe, the smoke once more gently rising towards the branches drooping above us.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I sat down on a fallen tree and listened.

“We lived in a small cottage in a small town where we told stories to small children. Sometimes when it rained in the summer, we would come here and we'd dance beneath the showering clouds and dripping trees. Too old for that now, I think.”

I smiled.

“We grew together,” he said. “Aged together, and joked about each other farting. Her’s were sweeter than mine, and she always let me know! We always held hands, except when we were cooking together, or reading. Sometimes we'd write poems to each other and hide them so we'd find them later. It was more than once when I hid mine too well and would have to unhide them.”

I couldn't help but laugh at this. I turned about to see between the branches. There was still no sign of the man’s wife.I wondered at what type of person she was. They were obviously happy together. Geese flew overhead, and I looked up. Their cries filled the air. Moe jumped about, then spotting a squirrel chased after it.

“Lively one, that dog of yours.”

“She is that. Her name's Moe.”

“What, for Maureen?”

“No, just Moe. M O E.”

“She likes the woods, eh?”

I nodded. “She does.” There was still no sign of his wife. “Moe loves most places I take her,” I told the man.

He looked over his shoulder, then turning back opened a pocket watch that appeared in his hand. Gazing at the watch face, he shrugged. The watch looked old but well kept, the kind I wouldn’t mind owning one day. He lifted his face and spoke. “We loved going to town market. It always seemed an adventure. The market sellers was always smiling at us. It was as if we were rich and they wanted us to spend all our money on them. But they knew we weren't. We had fun tasting the wares, though, especially if they had chocolates. It was rare they ‘ad chocolates, though. If the old bookseller was at the market, we would sit and read bits of books and stories to each other, buying our favourite to read at home together later.

“My favourite was when one of townspeople would visit and play the fiddle for us. I was getting on then.  We would slowly dance in each other's arms, eventually collapsing on the sofa and we'd fall asleep still wrapped in an embrace.” The man smiled and gazed off, as if remembering something from a long time ago.

“One o’ me friends said our kisses could light the skies, that fireflies glowed more brightly when me and the missus kissed, the crickets would chirp louder, and birds sing more sweetly! At least that's what he said.”

The old man looked about again. He sighed. “Seems she’s not coming today. Maybe tomorrow.” He sat gently tapping his pipe on the rock, watching the tobacco fall to the forest floor. Lifting a foot, he stamped the tobacco out in the damp earth. “Oh well. I hope I didn’t bore ya. I don’t get to meet too many folks who notice me out here in the woods. Folk are funny these days it seems. Won’t even look ya in the eye.”

“You didn’t bother me at all. It’s nice to meet you. A pleasure. I should get on though. Work and all that.” I turned and called for Moe, who came bounding towards me and leaped up on the rock the old man and been sitting on. The old man had vanished. I stared at Moe.

It was then I realized that the man had only talked in the past tense. I looked at where the burned tobacco had fallen, and sniffed the air, but could see no sign of it nor smell the tobacco. It occurred to me that he had never told me his name, nor how his wife had rescued him from the dragon.

© Simon Brooks, 27th September, 2018

Unintentional Magic

Originally posted July 12, 2018

There is much talk about what we do in the work of ‘healing’ as storytellers. I think we can help people. But unless we are also trained therapists or psychologists, not simply storytellers, we need to be very careful in the realm of things like "stories for addiction" or "stories for veterans."  If we are not trained or qualified, and are not a vet or addict (for example), really we have no idea what could be the 'right' story. In fact we might even think a story that would be ‘good for a veteran event’ turns out to be triggering instead. We need to remind ourselves that we are storytellers, entertainers. We need to know why we are telling a story and if we have the right to tell it. The motives need to be authentic. This is an art and craft.

I do believe in gut instinct and if a story cries out to be told (not from ego, but from that place within - the story as the petulant child – me, me, me), or the story you planned on telling does not seem right anymore, then to listen to that voice, that inner (or outer) guide.

Although stories can help (unless we are trained, as I said) we are not therapists. We are entertainers, as I see it. The fact that our craft can lighten the load, can help people see through an issue they might be having is secondary. I love being told, as I am sure everyone who tells tales does, that a teacher has never seen this or that child laugh before. And at the same time that is really saddening. It makes my day when someone comes up after a performance and says: "that story really helped me...” But it was not me, it was the story, and when this happens, it was not because I had a plan, other than – I think this would be a great story today. No other motive, just a great story to tell.

I know we suggest tales to one another. It's what we do. As a colleague said, we should be doing due diligence and asking if there are any 'off topics' which could be triggering, and leaving those stories at home. I believe we should not be finding which are the right tales to tell. If we do our due diligence, make sure we leave out stories which could trigger and tell stories we love, then maybe we will heal someone along the way. And that is what is wonderful about what we do: we can create unintentional magic.

Public Speaking - from a storytellers PoV

Originally posted June 18, 2018

Public Speaking in Seven Steps (well, maybe eight) – Seen from a storytellers perspective

Public speaking is just like storytelling. When I talk about storytelling, I mean the traditional kind – telling the ancient stories, word of mouth. Not filmmakers, not playwrights, not poets or novelists, not script writers or directors, but oral storytellers. Storytellers, raconteurs, a maître conte, cuentista, conteur or griot will all stand before an audience and without a script, piece of paper, or screen of some kind, will tell stories. View public speaking as a skill you probably not only have, but one you can hone. And public speaking should not be seen as an exercise in humiliation. It is an opportunity to show off your best work or skills, and you know it better than anyone else – or else, why would you be asked to do this?

1.    With any presentation, tell a story in the most direct way. This does not mean read bullet points. It means leaving out what’s boring or irrelevant, but retaining what is essential to the story, builds a necessary picture, or is entertaining. Make sure the sequence of what you are talking about is understandable!

2.    People want to be entertained. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a new product, tips on selling, discussing a project, presenting your homework, sharing how people have been healed, or how to act. Entertain. I am not talking about writing a comedy skit. Simply inject a bit of humor. It will add a human touch. Find things to include in a presentation that is personal, and relevant - something that the audience can identify with. If it is a product, then make fun of something that happens to older versions or problems it or similar products have had in the past. If you are talking about acting, make fun of gaffs you have made, or reactions from audience members. Your audience should know about these sorts of things, and can usually identify with them. This creates empathy and a rapport with the audience.

3.    Practice. Make notes, read them out loud, and listen to how it sounds. If you can record yourself, do so. Listen to how you sound. Are you getting your point across? Are you going to confuse the audience? What can you do (add, remove) to your presentation which will make it clearer, more concise and understandable? Is it all relevant to what you want to achieve?

4.    Practice more. Get rid of your notes. Once you have read through your notes or script a few times, you will know what to say. Practice in front of someone who knows nothing about what you are about to present. Ask them if there were parts which were unclear or confusing. Fix that. Unless you are an actor or have total recall, you will not remember every word, every line. So create bullet points of your presentation and work from those. Then lose the written word all together. I believe if you miss something out it will not be hugely important. And if it is, it will come back to you. Add it to your presentation as soon as you can.

5.    Embrace your case of nerves. It means you are truly alive, that you are at your most alive! The feelings you get, butterflies (or alligators), pounding heart, shaking, this is your body telling you you are ready. It is that feeling warriors get before battle. You might not be going into battle, but your body is quite possibly feeling the same thing. You have practiced, rehearsed, trained (or at least prepared yourself properly) for this moment.

6.    Speak slowly when you present. Really slowly. Tortoise slow. If you think you are speaking too slowly, you are most likely speaking at an intelligible speed. If you think you are speaking at a ‘normal’ speed, you are probably speaking way too fast for the audience. If you find yourself galloping, stop. Your breathing will clue you into this. Stop. Take a deep breath. Smile and look around but think of what you are talking about – stay focused. Then continue. Believe me - there are times when I get into what I am talking about, I get excited and start to speak too quickly. So I stop. I take a deep breath. I might say: “Let me repeat that.” Or “As I was saying.” If someone happened to miss what I had said, I am providing it again.

7.    If you do miss something out, as mentioned above, you will not be the first to do so. Every public speaker has missed a bit, or forgotten part of their presentation at some point. If someone says they have never done this, don’t believe them. Add the missing part when you can. Don’t say something like: “Oh, I forgot this bit!” Simiply add the missing part. If you have practiced enough, you will know what to say to create a segue which will sound okay, if not great. And most people will not notice. I missed a huge section of a story out once, and when I realized this, I thought quickly (still telling the story) about where the best place to add it would be. No one realized. And I am not the only person to have done this.

There are things to avoid.

Don’t read bullet points. If you are using slides don’t read them, but add to what is already on the screen. Make it interesting, raise a relevant point, inject a bit of humor, or that human touch. This will mean keeping what is written on the screen to a minimum. The audience don’t want to see you can read off a slide you wrote. They want your knowledge and/or experience. If you can use images instead of words on the slide all the better. The words you speak and the image should complement each other and build on what is being talked about. The two together should be stronger, not the same.

Don’t just present you work, show your work, talk about it. If you are showing off artwork, or photos of things you have done, don’t tell people about the image, they can see it. Explain the image, yes, but talk about it, add to it. How did you get there, create the image, why? What had the impact for you as an artist? What inspired it? In this day and age most people can find your work on-line and they do not want a repeat, but they want an insight into the work and you. It is similar with sales. Talk about the product or stats, show images of it. Make it a human experience – connect the product to how people will benefit from it, what it can do that no others can. If it’s your homework, show the class and teacher you learned from the project, or research. Inject humor into it – “Did the Greek gods REALLY do that? And no one complained? (Sounds like some school teachers!)” Maybe leave out the bit about the teachers.

Don’t brag. Don’t pretend you know it all. No one does. We should always be learning. Share your failings. Show you are human, and that mistakes are what make us stronger. If someone in the audience is new to what you do, it can be helpful for them to know even the experts failed when they first began, and still make mistakes – hopefully fewer. Your listeners will have more empathy with you, you become a real person, and therefore are more relatable. This is another place where you can make people be more comfortable by laughing at yourself. Maybe it’s that self-deprecating Englishman in me!

8.    My last piece of advice is this: Have fun. Enjoy what you are doing. The nerves will leave soon after you start, and you will be in the moment. If you are having fun, those with you will be having fun. If you love what you are talking about, this will come across and people will feel that.

© Simon Brooks, 2018

Under the Oaken Bough - the new book

April 29, 2018

It has been in the works for a couple of years, with the writing, getting feedback and rewriting, editing with Jennifer Carson and Laura Spauling and re-writing, working with Rob Brookes on the illustrations, and with Parkhurst Brothers, the publishers! (And re-writing a bit more!) But it is out. And I am thrilled. Thanks Ted for approaching me and asking me to do this.

As I say in the author Q&A, I wrote this book because I feel people do not value, or necessarily enjoy folk and fairy tales the way I do. I wanted to try to change that, by putting together a collection of tales that was fun, and that got people interested in these ancient tales from different cultures.

There are many books out there for young people, teachers, and librarians which contain 'the usual suspects' like Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella et al. I wanted to write a book which contains some old favourites (for comfort) and some stories that are harder to find for the layperson. I wanted the stories to be fun to read either to yourself or better still out loud! I wanted to have sources for readers, whether that a Tips on Telling section (check!), or a list of further reading (check!), or a list of words that some readers might find challenging along with their definitions (check)! And as I mentioned above it has an author Q&A.

There are seventeen folk and fairy tales, which, as Odds Bodkin says, are (I hope): "[w]itty, funny and full of tenderness..." Odds also says: "Brooks’ slightly irreverent, post-modern versions of world tales are marked by his ability to bring his characters to life..." Thank you Odds! All of these tales are stories I tell. Some more than others. Some stories to me are special stories that I take out only so often, and there are others which I love to tell more often. Some are like fine chocolates to be spoiled with, others are like soda or coffee - we need it now!

Yes, I have included Goldilocks in the collection, but I think the title says it all: "The True Story of the Brat Goldilocks." I want people who read this book to understand you don't have to tell a story as it is written on the page, but you can add yourself to the story, you can use your own voice and words to tell a story. With each tale, I have often included the Aarne-Thompson tale type so you can find variations, as well as notes where I first heard or found the story, or what it means to me. I want these insights to encourage the reader to dive into libraries and go to storytelling events to discover more stories and see how they can be told, and maybe find new stories to share with others, using your own unique style and voice.

Trying to write the stories as I tell them was a challenge. Telling a story with a live audience, using their energy as feedback and inspiration is very different to writing something legible! If I transcribed stories I have recorded live, either from my CDs or a live performance, the tales would have not mUnder the Oaken Boughade too much sense, or would have been hard to read. There are things I do in performance which tell the story - body movement, facial expressions, sound effects - which do not translate well to the page. But I think I have thrown my energy into the book, and added the style I tell to the pages, if not the exact words you might have heard. If you read the book and have one or more of my CDs, you might want to do a side by side comparison of stories such as Anansi Gathers Stories, or The Dragon and the Monkey's Heart, or One Wish - all tales on my first two CDs which are in the book. (If you have one of my bootleg CDs there are a few more tales you can compare! - Shh.) You will see what I mean by what works in the telling and what works in the writing.

The book contains seventeen illustrations done by the remarkable Rob Brookes. The book is worth the money for these alone! Rob created a holding page for each of the stories and illustrated the cover. His work is a blessing and wonderful compliment to the book. To be honest, I am not sure I would have published the book without his artwork and design suggestions. Rob is really a partner in this. Thanks Rob.

So if you like telling stories, if you are a librarian or school teacher, if you are a parent, grandparent or young person who kind of sort of wants to read more folk and fairy tales, or you want to try telling them yourself, this might just be the book for you. And you don't have to believe me! Check out what the godfather of storytelling, the fairy godmother of storytelling and a colleague and friend of mine who is a storyteller and story researcher have said about Under the Oaken Bough.

"A delicious collection: a tempting mix of old favorites and rare gems, all shared in Simon Brooks' engaging style.
Parents, teachers and tellers will all want this for their libraries. It is made more useful by his informative notes that include folktale index motifs as well as sources and variants. His insightful Tips for Telling is an added bonus."
- Elizabeth Ellis, International Storyteller and Author

"Simon Brooks invites us to relax and rest ‘under the oaken bough’ and the time is well spent.  Whether it is his clever adaptation of an Aesop tale, the humorous fractured fairy tale of a trespassing Goldilocks or a visit with our favorite trickster Anansi, Simon’s beautiful words and imagery will transport you.
In addition to the glorious, fresh variations of familiar and unique tales, these stories are well researched. Simon offers insights on different variations of specific tales, including the Aarne-Thompson classifications, along with his personal insights. Storytellers, educators, and librarians will definitely appreciate the detailed research he shares.  
Simon also offers us an extra gift with a gentle hand, specific guidelines perfected from his years of storytelling on how to find your unique voice before you step onto the stage. That section alone is worth its weight in leprechaun gold! I guarantee your imagination will be happily satiated when you rise from your time Under the Oaken Bough."
-Karen Chace, Storyteller/Author)

"Simon Brooks’ collection of folk and fairy tales is a must-have for parents to read to kids, while trying not to smile too much.  Witty, funny and full of tenderness, Brooks’ slightly irreverent, post-modern versions of world tales are marked by his ability to bring his characters to life, both with breezy but still vivid descriptions of animals and people, gifted dialog for all of them, and a lovely warmth for his material. An overly talkative turtle, a Goldilocks who is quite the brat, a quick-thinking fox facing a vain and hungry bear––the characters go on and on but never resemble one another. Brooks even adds a how-to about oral storytelling itself, filled with insights for both beginners and seasoned performers. With evocative illustrations by Rob Brookes, Under the Oaken Bough is a gem."
- Odds Bodkin, Storyteller/Author

Changing Lives - Books

Originally posted March 1, 2018

I have read two somewhat heavy books and a fun one so far this year. I began the year with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I love the story, the writing, the book. I immediately followed this with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. What a book that is. Having lived in the USA for over twenty five years, and have put a son through the school system (college next year), and have a daughter who is in middle school i find it hard to believe that the latter of these two books are not required reading, or at least parts of it. The book, when it began to be put together, was to be about the life of Malcolm X, but during the process of completing the book his life changed.

Everyone's life changes, but to see it (as it were) as it happens is incredible. The book of Malcolm Little's life was mostly about his life of crime, and redemption when he found The Nation of Islam. But this changed when Malcolm X discovered cover-ups in the Nation of Islam, and decided to visit the Middle East and Africa. He went to discover true Islam (I am no expert), but this changed his view point to hating the White Devil, to understanding that not all white men are devils. This shift in his life is captured as it happened, along with threats from the Nation of Islam. An urgency comes to the book as Malcolm X tells Haley about these death threats, and about his work with other nations and his diplomatic meetings with heads of state in the Middle East and in some African countries. He seems to be gathering his thoughts, formulating a way to peace, a way to truly bring equality to the USA. There are also hints that he and Martin Luther King Jr. might end up working together, but of course both great men were shot to death. I have to wonder how different America would be today if they were both alive. I think we would be living in a very different world, but of course this is all conjecture!

I finished reading the Autobiography on the day of Malcolm's murder, in 1965. Then this week in New York City, I went to the Natural History Museum. One of the exhibits I like is the Egyptian exhibit. Malcolm X talks about the art he finds in Egypt and other African countries, and he describes the real art of these people which came from 2,500 B.C.E. while Europe was still 'rubbing sticks together'. The art in the Egyptian exhibit is a small sample of the remarkable work done by artisans 5,000 and more years ago. Yet there were people not that long ago who said Africans could not have made such amazing art. Human beings are a strange race. The stories we can tell each other are sometimes remarkable.

The other book I read was in preparation to recording it - Tangled Magick by Jennifer Carson. This is the sequel to  Hapenny Magick, the first audio book I recorded. I am looking forward to revisiting some of the characters and bringing them back to life in this new story. I will keep you posted. Jenn is also pretty exited about it!

The next book I am diving into is Giovanni Boccaccio's 1300's masterpiece, The Decameron. I am very much looking forward to this. Not sure I will get across America with this book, but who knows!

What are you reading this month? What have you read so far this year? I would love to hear from you.

Be the change, be a positive force in the lives of those around you.

Your storyteller,
Simon Brooks

RED! a retelling (PG-13 for fantasy violence)

Originally posted October 10, 2017

Red! A retelling, starting the story in the middle, by Simon Brooks, © 2017

It was dark, damp and hot. The air was filled with rancidity. The old woman felt around the slime covered walls which gave and moved to her touch. She felt a jolt and was bounced around and for a short while was not sure which way was up and which was down. Then all was still. Sitting up she felt the walls press against her. She heard gentle rumblings, was jolted again and felt it become slightly and slowly more damp. There was an acidic smell to the new dampness, not unlike wine. At least it was warm. Silence and stillness and what seemed like eternal darkness ruled for a while. Then the old lady could hear murmurings, mumbles, but could not really make anything out. The woman was glad to try to hear what the noise was; it was a distraction from the claustrophobia she was beginning to feel. Then another sudden jolt, a roar, and she was bounced and jostled around and felt something land and press against her. There was barely room to move before; now she was crushed almost beyond endurance against the stinking, slimy wall. The old woman did not move and then muttered to herself: “It’s dark in here, but at least I am still alive.”

“Who’s there?” said a tiny voice.

“Is that you, Little Red?”

“Grandma! Did the wolf eat you too?”

“Well, I suppose he did, my little one.”

“I’m sorry Granny, it’s all my fault.” The small voice began to tremble, so Granny pulled her grandchild in close and hugged her.

“Don’t be silly. How can it be your fault?”

“Well. Me and Mama, we made some bread for you ‘cause you were poorly and I was supposed to bring it to you with the wine. And I was s’posed to come straight here, but I never did,” said the girl. “It’s so hot, I can barely breathe.”

Granny spoke softly. “There, there.”

There was a sudden movement and they heard the sound of liquid rushing towards them. It poured over them both. Red cried out and Granny held the girl tighter. There was that acidic smell again. In another place it might have smelled good. Maybe. Granny said, “Well, what happened?” She tried to clear the warm liquid from Red’s face.

“Mama told me to come straight here, but I didn’t,” said Red.

“Well, what happened?” Granny asked again.

The girl sniffed and said, “I met a wolf on the path, Granny.”

Granny’s voice was patient and soft. “What happened, Red?”

“He asked if he could walk with me as it was such a nice day and I said ‘yes’. He was big, but really thin, Granny.”

“There, there. What happened?” There was more noise and some moving, then nothing.

“He asked where I was going and I told him. That I was coming to your house ‘cause you was poorly and I had bread me and Mama made and some wine for you. The wolf, the wolf, he said maybe I should pick some flowers, too. That if you was poorly, flowers would make you happy and feel better.”

“Yes, they would, my dear. Yes they would. So you strayed off the path?”

“I did Granny. I strayed off the path, and then he was gone. And I came straight here.”

Granny was quiet for a while. “That wolf, the old sinner. I bet he thought he’d come here and make a meal of us both.” She sniffed the air and her clothes. “And wash us down with the wine, of course.” She sighed and thought. “I’m sure there’s a way out of this, if I could think of it,” she said.

“It smells in here, Granny.”

“That is does, dear. That it does. It’s dark and hot too, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Although Red could not see her grandmother, she knew she was smiling. Red could hear it in her grandmother’s voice.

The humidity rose and rose. Granny tried to take deep breaths, but found it hard. The fetid air grew heavier until there was a great rumbling roar and release. For a while Granny and Red could breathe a little easier.

There was a slight movement and it felt like something was pushing in against one of the walls of the wolf’s stomach. A shining point came through the wall and with it, a thin sliver of light. The sudden brightness grew as the slit grew. After the complete darkness, the light made Granny cover both her own eyes and those of Little Red. More light poured in and a pair of hands followed. Little Red was pulled from Grandma’s grasp and lifted out of the belly of the beast. Granny cried out. The hands reached down again and carefully lifted Granny. They both blinked in the bright light and saw before them a tall, strong, kind-faced huntsman. Although he smiled at them, there was something about his face that told Granny how both she and her granddaughter looked and smelled.

“Are you two ladies alright?” he asked. He looked about and got a cloth. After dampening it he handed it to Granny who wiped her face and hands clean. A basket lay on the floor, and flowers were strewn about. An empty bottle lay on the floor next to an untouched loaf of bread still wrapped in a cloth. The table had been pushed across the floor and a chair tipped over. The old lady stood still shaking a little, wetted the cloth once more and began to wipe off Red. The young girl clung to her grandmother looking between the huntsman and the wolf.

The huntsman began to pick up things which had been knocked onto the floor and straighten the house up a little. He said: “I’ve been tracking this old sinner for a while now. Sorry I didn’t find him sooner.”

Granny looked at the huntsman. He was handsome and made Granny’s heart skip a beat. She smiled at the man. “Thank you. For saving us and for picking up the mess.” Granny looked over at her bed and saw the wolf with his head flopped back and belly opened up. “Please take it away.”

The huntsman pulled the sheets around the wolf, took the body outside. Granny washed Red’s hair at the water pump in the kitchen.

When the hunter came back in he told them he had skinned the wolf and butchered the meat. “No point in letting it all go to waste.” His clothes were rough but well made. The boots heavy and worn, but looked comfortable.

Granny remembered her husband, when he had been alive, had a pair just like them and he used to say they were as comfortable as slippers. She smiled at the memory, but then shuddered again, thinking of the wolf.

The man looked around the house and then at Granny. “Well, there is a reward for a wolf’s pelt. It doesn’t seem right to me that I keep it all. After all, I found the sinner in your house.” He moved from one foot to another, slightly embarrassed. I’ll bring you the money, or we could split it” said the man.

“No need to do that.” Granny stroked Red’s hair with lavender oil trying to get the rid of the smell. “If you had not been tracking him, I don’t know when we would have got out. You keep the money.”

“If you say so. Thank you. Can I help out here? Should I send word to anyone?”

“No. We will be fine now. If you could burn the bed covers and sheets, I would appreciate that.”

“Of course.”

So, the house was put right again. The great pot was boiled and the water poured into a small tin tub into which Little Red was thoroughly scrubbed. The pot was boiled again and Granny washed herself. She picked some lavender and rubbed the leaves over both of them. Granny dressed her granddaughter in some of her own clothes, and the two laughed at such a small girl dressed in such roomy clothing.

 While the washed clothes dried in the sun, the girl’s hooded red cloak flapping in the warm breeze. Together they made some soup which went very nicely with the bread Red had brought.

Before dusk, they went out together and picked some new flowers and put them in a vase. The flowers Red had arrived with were broken and trampled. Red’s mother and father visited a couple of days later to check on them both. The hunter had told them that the wolf had been found and killed and Granny and Red were fine.

Although it needs not to be mentioned, I will say that Little Red never strayed from the path again; unless it was with her grandmother to pick flowers.

 

Copyright Simon Brooks, ©2017

Why another retelling of Gilgamesh?

Originally posted August 21, 2017

The Gilgamesh Project began for me last year. I have been wanting to tell one of the great Epics for many years, but wasn't ready. I had been working on Beowulf, but it wasn't speaking to me. Ironic, as it is one of my favourite stories. I have over seven different translations, retellings!

My son had been studying mythology at high school. It bothered me that so much was omitted in some of the stories. Characters were missing. What I thought were essential plot schemes were absent, and to me, it seemed wrong. I understand these books cannot contain the full stories. One book with all these myths and legends would be too big to lift, but still. When my daughter began to study Ancient Civilization I decided to learn Gilgamesh, to tell at her school. I saw one version they were learning from and saw huge parts missing again. I read other parts added - not in any version I have seen and read! I wanted to create a telling of the story which stayed faithful to the original. I dove in and found a story I connected with and fell in love with.

Learning a story like this means, for me, immersing myself in it. I re-read the two books I had, one a translation by John Gardner and John Maier, the other being N. K. Sandars. Sandars does not work from the original cuneiform, but from German, French and English translations he had available. I then found Stephen Mitchell's wonderful poetic retelling, which captured a magical part of the story I had not felt, up to that point. I then invested in Andrew George's 1999 translation. Since these books have been produced, another tablet was discovered in 2015. I read about that, and what it contained. I then set to work.

Several months later I had a working story which stayed close to the translations I was working from. I did not use the children's retellings, but stuck with the full versions. I wanted to present the story authentically to middle school aged people and their teachers. I felt I had to make a few small changes. The last thing I wanted to do was have agitated parents calling me up, or schools getting upset. The part where Ishtar's priestess Shamhat "couples with Enkidu" for seven days straight became 'the priestess and Enkidu stayed together and danced for seven days.' In other versions written for young people, this is missed out all together. I feel that Shamhat tames Enkidu, so that Enkidu can tame Gilgamesh. We need to know this event happens. These are the sort of changes I have made. I used semantics to disguise what was happening in places. The story retains its gore, but this is not any worse than the six o'clock news or what is seen on people's devices and apps like SnapChat.

I was able to present my retelling of Gilgamesh to the entire 6th grade at my local middle school. About 175 students and all their teachers (Mathematics, English, Science etc. as well as Social Studies) attended. It was well received. In fact some of the boys wanted more gore! Of course.

Over the summer I worked on the book form with the idea of making it available for teachers, using my telling, and the books I have, as resources. This telling is, I hope, engaging to the younger reader and accessible to the youth of today. It is not inappropriate and remains authentic to the original cuneiform tale. At the back of the book there is a bibliography, a character list, a vocabulary word list/lexicon, and some activities for readers, which Social Studies and English teachers might enjoy using.

There will also be an audio available of the book. This is script read, and not a live storytelling, which I normally do, from the book. I am hoping all this will be out, released and in the big, wide world by the end of September 2017 at the latest.

Watch this space!

Peace,
Simon

21st August, 2017

I think Shamash will go into hiding today for a brief time!

Artwork by Aidan Brooks

Stories Are Alive

Originally posted August 20, 2017

Last night I was telling stories at Camp Exclamation Point (CAMP!) where I go every year to share stories. The kids here face more challenges in their lives than most. For the last five years, I think it is, Odds Bodkin has joined me, and this year we had a special visit from Karen Pillsworth. Karen was standing in for Angela Klingler, who has been coming on and off for as long as I have been going (13 years).

For a change I told stories to the youngest Pods, and Odds told tales to the oldest group. I have been telling to the older kids since the beginning of offering storytelling to CAMP!. Because the younger kids only get about 30 minutes, I was able to hoof it up the hill (in a golf cart), join Odds to catch his last story and share two tales myself.

I told a story I had been working on, one I wanted to share with the CAMP! folks for the first time - The Golden Ball. They wanted another tale from me, and one young man asked me to tell the Scottish story known as The Lonely Boatman, or The Fairy Bride, depending on your source! It could be a couple of years since I have told the story. When the young man asked me, my first reaction was - no! It's been too long, I have not practiced it, I'll botch it up. But the story and characters floated to my mind and wanted to be told.

The story of The Fairy Bride, is not a silly story, it is not a story which makes us look at ourselves and laugh. It is a love story about the fey, the fair people - fairy folk. It's about losing something precious. And getting it back. It's on my third CD ('A Tangle of Tales') and is a beautiful tale. It was one of my Gran's favourite stories.

Stories, I truly believe, live within us. I have likened them before to children - sometimes errant children, who hide away when you have practiced and planned on telling them, or they can jump up and down and demand to be told.  The Fairy Bride is a gentle story, sad in places, thoughtful in others, and when I was asked to tell it, the tale stepped quietly to the front, ready to be told. It was alive, and it breathed as I spoke the words. The telling was different, easy, relaxed - I caught the elusive dragon. When the story ended there was that pause you sometimes get as folks take it all in, then a sigh, then applause. This was a large group of young people from 12 years up, not a group I would have pegged this story on, especially when they wanted ghost stories. This was not a ghost story in any manner or form. And they loved it.

Another story I tell on the same CD is called The Story Untold, Song Unsung. I end it, where and whenever you hear it, with words I came up with for this story: "If you know a song - sing it. For they wrap us up and keep us warm when we need to be held. If you know a story, tell it. For stories are like boots and like to travel." And I'll end this blog the same way.

If you know a story - tell it. Stories are like boots and love to travel.

Simon

17th August, 2017

Favourite Epic (for now!)

Originally posted July 6, 2017

I am not sure if I can say I have ONE favourite epic anymore. I have read too many and enjoy them all. The one I have the most connection with is Beowulf, probably because I have known it the longest. And have read many different translations.

I have five versions of it, and there are a couple of other re-telling in some childhood books of myths and legends I own and love. I have two young person translations/re-tellings, one by Michael Morpurgo which pulls you in like no other revisit I have read, and the other by James Rumford who only uses Saxon words. This renders the language very blunt and edgy, but I love it. This is quite the opposite of Morpurgo's poetic style of writing and are great to compare. The other versions I have are David Wright's prose translation, Burton Raffel's translation, Michael Alexander and of course Seamus Heaney's definitive (for me) bilingual verse translation. In collections, I have Kevin Crossley-Holland's superb translation, James Riordan and Brenda Ralph Lewis' young readers version of the tale, and I recentlyfound an 'updated verse translation' by Frederick Rebsamen, which I have yet to read. And I have, of course, seen the movie directed by Robert Zimeckis, with screenplay written (along with others) by Neil Gaiman. This is a 'based on' movie and has some very interesting ideas and concepts in it, but is not the 'proper' version of Beowulf! The movie is good entertainment.

Odds Bodkin has released a live recording of Beowulf. It is a recent acquisition for me. Like all of his work, it is deep, funny, and brilliantly told. Odds' version is entertaining and pulls you in so you cannot back away from it and sticks very closely to the story. There are parts where he uses the exact wording and phrases from the translations which pop out for me. The humour he injects into the story is artful, and respectful to the original. I have listened to it several times. In fact I am at the point where I cannot start it unless I have the time to finish it all. I cannot stop listening to the words and music which flow so wonderfully throughout the hour and twenty minutes or so it lasts.

If we lived in those days of Grendel, swords, and mead halls, and spoke current English, this telling by Odds would be the quintessential telling. I am not usually a fan of live recordings, but this is one of those performances that truly benefits an audience. The musical accompaniment on guitar, never drowning Odds out, pulls you along, fills your ears and body leaving you totally immersed in the man's words and fully within the story.

But another story I have immersed myself in this year is Gilgamesh. It's been 'bugging' me for a while. By that I mean that I read a translation years ago and listened to a classic reading by Sebastian Lockwood and never thought I would tell it - because other people tell the story and fellow Brit Sebastian does such a stellar job.

A couple of years ago, my son began studying the epic, so I revisited it. The copy of the epic he was studying was lacking a great deal of the story. Then this year my daughter began studying it in 6th grade social studies. The version they were using was a young person's retelling, but was so off from what I read I decided to research it more. I immersed myself in the epic, reading what there was on-line, re-reading the two versions I had by Gardner & Maier, and N.K Sandars, and buying and studying two more versions - a very thorough translation of both Sumerian and and Akkadian cuneiform by Andrew George, and Stephen Mitchell's poetic version of the epic. Mitchell did not translate, but used a number of translations available to him.

As I read more and more Gilgamesh and researched the gods and goddess in the story, the closer, or more attached, if you will, I became to it. Essentially, Gilgamesh is an entitled bully. He creates amazing gardens, and presumably sponsors the arts, yet at the same time, he terrorized the citizens he was supposed to protect, the people of Uruk. They call for help from the gods, who in turn send down Enkidu to be his opposite. Enkidu is created by the gods and sent to calm Gilgamesh's restless heart and nature. The epic becomes an incredible tale of redemption when Gilgamesh loses Enkidu, his soul brother. The king of Uruk goes in search of immortality and instead returns to Uruk humbled, for the first time in his life.

I have written my own retelling, suitable for middle school aged people. To try and make a story containing pretty intense, if not explicit, sex scenes, battle scenes, into a story readable for young people was quite a challenge. It is not finished quite yet, but when it is, the story will also include social studies materials, a lexicon, character sheet, sources, and maybe a game. These tools will be able to be used by educators and parents. Once the story piece is finalized, I will be recording it, making it available via download only. I am hoping that will be done by the end of July. I am close! The book will contain illustrations by S. Aidan Brooks which I am thrilled about.