Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Writers in their Landscape. Writer and Storyteller Hugh Lupton by Steve Gladwin

The storyteller in his familiar, (and windy!) landscape

Hi again. This is a long interview, but I hope you'll agree its worth it for the ground it covers, which includes a variety of topics, ideas and opinions that come from a lifetime of telling and writing stories both oral and written, and being at the forefront of the storytelling revival of the last forty years. There's no better person to ask about all this than my guest Hugh Lupton, who - as will become clear - has been involved in so much of this. This is just part one of our interview, in which we cover a variety of subjects.

Hugh, thanks so much for answering my questions and joining us here.

Thank you for asking me, Steve. 

To begin with then, I usually ask people to describe the landscape in which they were actually born as if they were seeing it laid down before them. It’s an opportunity for them to flex their writer’s muscles, which is maybe why nearly all of them have copped out! Perhaps you could do it for us – set the man as child within his time and space.

I was born in Cambridge and grew up in South Cambridgeshire. Not far away the chalk hills of Royston Heath (great for sledging in winter) were as close as we got to mountains. Mostly it was flattish arable land with lots of orchards, meadows, scrubby edge-lands, little winding rivers, big fields. I was lucky to grow up in a time when we were still allowed our ‘kith’. As soon as breakfast was over in the holidays we’d be off… building camps, mucking about, exploring, riding our bikes along the lanes, forming gangs, warfare with other gangs etc It’s almost the same landscape as Phillippa Pearce describes in her run of classics ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, ‘Minnow on the Say’, ‘What the Neighbours Did’ and the rest (why aren’t they read any more?).

She lived in Shelford, about seven miles away from Melbourn, which was my home village. That landscape, the village and its eccentrics and characters (there were still Boer War veterans alive when I was a boy), its seasonal rhythms, its certainties, its hidden histories, its rituals both church and secular (from Rogation Sunday to conker season to the annual fun-fair), its voices (dialect, family, school, prayer book), its web of friendships and associations… all of these things I still hold in my heart, they’re at the core of my imagination.       

Hugh's Welsh family, (he's the one holding the kite), including his Nain, who gave him all the William books. 


*So, when were you first aware that you were interested in telling stories and – as we all have to bear in mind – how did it fit in with the eventual day jobs?

Alongside the childhood world I’ve just described there was a parallel world of childhood reading. I wasn’t a bookish kid but I did read… especially during those long childhood illnesses – mumps, measles, chickenpox etc. I loved Robin Hood, I was given lots of Victorian and Edwardian children’s novels by my grandmother, ‘Children of the New Forest’, ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘The Treasure Seekers’ that sort of thing. My other Granny fed me a steady diet of ‘William’ books. I discovered John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ and then ‘The Hobbit’.

My Great Uncle was Arthur Ransome… all of his books were sort of obligatory in our family. The one that really struck me though was his collection of Russian Fairy Tales ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ which was read aloud to me when I was very small and terrified me… but something about it echoed in my imagination. Also, because my parents were ardent churchgoers, there were the weird Old Testament stories. All these things percolate over the years.

In my teens I rejected the church (big family ructions there). I was at a boarding school from the age of thirteen, and first discovered the pleasure of telling stories (not really telling stories, more what the Irish would call ‘Craic’) after lights-out in the school dormitories. It was much easier for a self-conscious teenager to hold forth in the dark. In my mid teens I discovered Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes… and at the same time was captivated by the hippy end of the folk revival, especially those early Incredible String Band records ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’, ‘Wee Tam and the Big Huge’ etc. I was part of a band called ‘Oberon’ (in the end their musicianship outshone mine and I became their lyricist) we made a record (it’s still around actually, now as a CD marketed by Guerssen Records).

By the time I was eighteen I was pretty clear that I wanted to be involved in something that brought together performance, poetry and music (much to my parents’ alarm). I dropped out of an English degree, shared a house for a while with a guy called Ross Daly who was (is) a brilliant musician just starting out on what would become a life-long exploration of the music of the Eastern Mediterranean. His single-minded determination to follow his own path, ignoring all the usual academic by-ways, was an inspiration to me. I wandered for a while, spending time in the USA and Greece. Then, under pressure from my parents to get some sort of qualification I enrolled for a teaching course at a place called Keswick Hall, just outside Norwich.

Storytelling in schools. The best possible apprenticeship for a storyteller!

Keswick Hall turned out to be just the right place for all the wrong reasons. The workload was so light-weight that I was able to follow my own reading, I steeped myself in English folksong & especially the ballads (there was a strong folk scene in Norwich at that time), I lived in the mill-house of an old watermill with a bunch of friends, walked, wrote poems, steeped myself in the landscape and its history… and slowly some conscious idea of what I wanted to do began to coalesce and form itself… and it wasn’t teaching.

But I did end up with a B. Ed… so I had a means of financing my early explorations. I was able to teach part-time… and do supply teaching when I needed to… this was invaluable… not least because the best possible apprenticeship for a storyteller is to work with kids… you learn all the tricks of holding attention, they love the refrains and repetitions that underpin traditional narrative, and if they lose interest you know it.         

*Was there, right from the start, a conscious interweaving of the stories you told and the landscapes that inspired you. Were there places you sought out to aid and enhance your storytelling.

No. Initially I just told stories that I liked from all sorts of cultures without any particular reference to place or landscape. Bits of the Odyssey, Anansi stories, Norse myths, Grimms… I pillaged those Ruth Manning Sanders anthologies for fairy tales… I don’t remember telling many English stories in the early days… although I did sing quite a few ballads… almost all my work was in schools… I’d send out publicity a couple of times a year and take all bookings… and when work was thin I’d do a bit of supply teaching. This went on for several years. Also, at that time, there were these wonderful fairs in East Anglia - ‘The Albion Fairs’. They were hippy events… crafts, organic food, alternative comedy, clowning, bands, horses, feral children, mad rituals etc.

I was a regular performer at these (along with Palfi the clown, Forkbeard Fantasy, Incubus Theatre, Bruce Lacey etc). I went as a character called Billy Bullshit, 1p for a fib, 2p for a whopper… I’d wander about with a top-hat and sandwich boards advertising my wares ‘hokum, eyewash and mendacity all a speciality’ and tell elaborate lies on any subject (all part of the apprenticeship). Later I bought a small marquee and I’d go along and set it up as a storytelling space and tell to whoever came. These were all great lessons in thinking on your feet. I’d happily tell to anyone & go anywhere that would book me.  

*One of the nice things about choosing this two-part way of doing this interview is that I actually knew your work for twelve years before I finally met you on a storytelling course at Ty Newydd. My first encounter with you was in the late eighties when a friend took me to the Stamford Winter Fair, which he was assessing for Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts in the late eighties. The Company of Storytellers were essentially the main act and, as you know, one of the main things that inspired me to eventually become a storyteller and performer. You were doing two slots, with one for the kids on the magic carpet. Bob and I were the only adults sitting on it, somewhat self-consciously, and there were you, Pomme Clayton and Ben Haggerty opening up this incredibly hushed and exciting world full of wonderful costumes and marvelous oddly-shaped instruments being played in between.

*But the real magic came later in the night, where you returned to tell more stories to an adult, seated audience to a world of candlelight and hot punch and stories which were more adult and darker in tone. If I look back now and try to recapture my feelings, I think I’d have to say that it seemed to me then to epitomise a totally new and somehow totally full experience. Can I ask you if you remember that day and how close was it to what you and The Company of Storytellers had set out to do?

Yes! I don’t remember the specific gig… but it sounds very typical of what we used to do in those days. We formed the Company of Storytellers in 1985. It came out of the First Storytelling Festival that Ben organised at the Battersea Arts Centre in the January of that year. I’d already met Ben by then and we had a sense of common purpose and a great respect for each other’s work. Initially there were five of us – me, Ben, Pomme, TUUP and Georgiana Keable. It soon whittled down to three. All of us had worked primarily with kids, but in the wake of Ben’s festival, we wanted to bring storytelling to an adult audience. So the event that you saw was quite typical… we’d do what was expected of us and put on a children’s show… and then slip in an adult event later on. It was a way of convincing sceptical bookers that it was an art form that could work on a lot of levels.

We had loads of strange instruments that we could barely play, all of them made intriguing sounds, we had carpets and hangings and candles… wherever we went we tried to make a visual and aural world that the audience could step into and be transported. We rarely did the same show twice in the early days, we were constantly experimenting, stretching our repertoires, and gauging what did and didn’t work. Sometimes we’d go on stage with no plan at all. We’d ‘draw lots’ for who would tell the first story and try to find the right one to follow it with. It was the best possible next step in my apprenticeship… to work with two brilliant people (much more steeped in theatre than me) and forge a new way of making the stories come alive in performance. You’re right… it was a new art-form… a new experience for audiences. I’m proud of that time, everything we did had a freshness about it.

And then there was the other side… what didn’t happen on stage… the long conversations in the car, in caf├ęs and service stations while we were on tour… exploring what the stories do, how they work, what they’re trying to say… and the hi-jinks and the arguments… all grist to the mill.     

Hugh on the right, with Ben Haggerty and Pomme Clayton. The wonderful Company of Storytellers, very much as I remember seeing them.


*I have to say that that was very much what I was thinking at the time and part of what inspired me - just how wonderful all that side of it might be as well. But now let’s talk more about The Company of the Storytellers, and about the great revival of traditional storytelling that happened in the 80's. You were all at the vanguard of that. What made it happen.

By the late seventies and early eighties there were people who, unknown to each other, had started telling traditional stories. It was a sort of spontaneous combustion of storytelling. Something was in the air. But it wasn’t a movement or a revival, it was just a group of individuals in different parts of the country doing their own thing. And there were very few of them. Roberto Lagnado was telling stories for the Inner London Education Authority. Ben, Georgiana, Pomme and TUUP had set up the West London Storytelling Unit. Grace Hallworth and Beulah Candappa were telling Caribbean and Burmese stories in schools. Robin Williamson had started to slip stories into his repertoire. I was beavering away in East Anglia. Helen East, Rick Wilson and Jan Blake had formed ‘Common Lore’. Taffy Thomas and Tim Laycock had formed ‘Magic Lantern’, telling ballad stories as puppet shows. Eric Maddern was telling some Aboriginal stories. There was a group of enthusiasts called ‘The College of Storytellers’ who met monthly in London (probably the first storytelling club).

Over in Ireland Eamon Kelly was performing Irish tales and Eddie Lennihan was collecting and telling stories. In Scotland there was still a thriving storytelling tradition among the older travelers, with Duncan Williamson, Sheila Stewart and Stanley Robertson as the leading proponents… but they were almost completely unknown beyond their own communities. And that was it.

What Ben Haggarty did in 1985 with the first storytelling festival (and in the two that followed in 1987 & 1989) was to make a storytelling community. He drew everyone together, brought Duncan Williamson down for the first time (his first trip to England), brought Abbi Patrix and Ben Zimmet over from Paris (where there was a more developed performance storytelling movement), there were lectures by Alan Garner and the wonderful P. L. Travers (very old by then). In one weekend I met, for the first time, Pomme, TUUP, Eric, Rick and Helen, Duncan, Abbi, Alan Garner… the trajectory for my next thirty years was set in place over three days! It’s easy to forget how important those festivals were, and what a debt is owed to Ben.

The Company of Storytellers was formed immediately after that first festival. We toured, on and off, for fifteen years, running workshops, performing, organising events… slowly we became aware that a revival was beginning to happen, with clubs and festivals appearing and disappearing, ‘oracy’ became an educational watchword, and a new generation of tellers began to manifest itself.

The ‘Beyond the Border’ Festivals that Ben and David Ambrose ran at St Donat’s Castle, were the direct descendants of those first three festivals, and continued the tradition of bringing leading storytelling exponents from many different cultures to Britain, alongside British performers and musicians, and intermingling with talks, discussions and lectures (Jeanette Winterson, Erica Wagner, Robert Irwin etc).

Hugh as Billy Bull-shit. All the clues are on the board

And out of all these interactions a form of storytelling began to evolve, that was contemporary, unsentimental, engaging, performance-oriented, drawing from a tradition that took in both the fireside tradition and the more formal aspects of the epic (troubadour) tradition… with a touch of stand-up. (Daniel Morden and I sometimes describe ourselves as ‘Stand-Up Tragedians’).

*The question of repertoire is clearly a very important one to a storyteller. Some are proud of the amount they have memorised, whereas I and many of those I know might have twenty or so tales on hand that they know, which could be dusted over, or re-shaped, and perhaps with a couple of story cycles they would use and build for performances on specific themes and myths. What were the kind of tales you always kept fresh, and the first cycles you developed and why?

I think developing a repertoire is an important part of a storyteller’s apprenticeship. It’s the equivalent of those ‘bardic schools’ where you had to learn stories of conceptions, courtships, cattle-raids, voyages, feasts, battles, sieges, elopements, adventures and heroic deaths. It’s part of the craft. I find that if I’ve told a story a few times it can sink down into a sort of memory bank and become silted over, but it’s still salvageable years later. It can be dredged up and brought back to life. So I carry hundreds of dormant stories, but I’d need a few days notice to get them up and running again. At the same time there’s a core repertoire of stories that are close to the surface… maybe a hundred or so if I include ballads. They range from cumulative tales that I’d tell to little children to wonder tales, to regional stories, to legends and myths.

The first story cycles I learned were from the Odyssey, from Norse myth (including Beowulf) and from Irish saga (the Tain). I jumped in at the deep end! I wouldn’t say I was ready to tell any of those stories until ten years after I started telling them. But when we start we’re innocents… and in those days there were no mentors.  

*An important part of my life was hearing you tell the story of Taliesin at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton, where I’d taken my A Level Theatre Studies night class from Bridgwater College. You were alone that time, but I was delighted to find in your book ‘The Assembly of the Severed Head’, which we’ll examine further in Part Two of the interview, that you retold this tale and included that wonderful poem of yours. How important is Taliesin as a figure for you, and the other stories of Welsh Myth?

I didn’t mention, earlier on, that my Mum was Welsh. So though I grew up in Cambridgeshire, we’d go over to North Wales at least twice a year. There were grandparents and lots of Great Aunts and Uncles, all of them spoke Welsh as a first language (though English was the language of the ‘drawing room’). We walked and climbed all over Snowdonia, the coast, the Vale of Clwyd, the Llyn Peninsula… when I discovered the stories of the Mabinogi and their landscape it was a sort of home-coming.

Yes, the birth of Taliesin is a core myth for me, one I return to over and over again. The poem I use in performance is a composite of various poems attributed to Taliesin, and my telling of that story owes a lot to Robin Williamson’s version. I love the Mabinogi, the fluidity of form, the shape-shifting, the dark human motivations, the suggestions of a whole lost mythology… the way the stories are permeated by a familiar natural world, a fauna & flora, that we all know and are part of.

*And in that story, the landscape – especially as little Gwion flees through it – is very important. How important do you think it is to tell or embody landscape as part of your telling? How do you go about it?

I haven’t really talked about landscape yet. My serious engagement with it didn’t begin until I’d been telling for a while. I was commissioned to put together a performance of ‘Tales from the Fens’ and tour it around village halls in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The more I worked on those stories the more I realised that they were informed by their landscape, almost precipitated by it. Telling, for example ‘Tom Hickathrift’, I visited his grave, climbed the Smeeth where he fought the giant, found dew-ponds called ‘Tom Hickathrift’s wash-basin’, found ostentatious gate-posts known locally as ‘Tom Hickathrift’s candle-sticks’, and there was a place where a church tower was separate from the body of the church, of course the local story was that Tom had lifted the tower for a wager and put it down in the wrong place. He permeated the landscape, and had a part in shaping it.

This was an eye-opener for me. Telling the stories locally I didn’t need to describe the landscape because it was already familiar to my audiences, but as soon as I started to tell the stories more widely I found I had to evoke that flat, mist-ridden, watery world with its enormous skies. And it began to occur to me that the landscapes of Britain need to be ‘re-storied’. We have a very different relationship with a storied landscape. We value it in a different way.

At the same time I became interested in ‘Englishness’. I realised that there’s a profound embarrassment about it. It’s identified with colonialism, empire, jingoism and extreme right-wing political belief. (And its got worse since Brexit). Might it not be possible to take a different view? To celebrate the English folk-tales as a collective ‘dreaming’ - Tom-Tit-Tot, Molly Whuppie, The Three Sillies, Cap o’ Rushes, The Hand of Glory (as wonderful, surreal, muscular, anarchic & truthful as the stories of any other culture)? Might it not be possible to celebrate a parallel history of English radicalism – Watt Tyler & John Ball, the Levellers, Tom Paine etc? And also to address the ecological crisis and the barren reductionism that is ruining our landscapes? This became a major pre-occupation and has been at the core of my work with Chris Wood over the years. It also led to my engagement with the life and poetry of John Clare.

So, through the 1990’s, landscape became a central theme. My wife, Liz McGowan, is a landscape artist. Together (with Helen Chadwick) we developed a piece called ‘A Norfolk Songline’ that followed an ancient trackway across Norfolk, evoking through story, song and visual image, 10,000 years of human interaction with place. The Aboriginal idea of a story as a sort of map - the next episode of the narrative you’re telling being the next landmark that looms over the horizon as you’re walking – became a key idea. We walked the Peddar’s Way, sometimes alone, sometimes with groups of people, telling, singing and making as we went.

At about the same time the Company of Storytellers devised a piece called ‘I Become Part of It’. It was an attempt to create a Mesolithic mythology for the British Isles. We took hunter-gatherer myths from other cultures and tried to re-imagine them in the British landscape as it would have been after the last ice-age. That work had a powerful effect on what I’ve done since, it gave me a feeling for a ‘deep England’ that is quite at odds with any received embarrassment about ‘Englishness’.  

So, to return to your question, yes, the Mabinogion is rooted in very specific places, easily visited. I don’t think you can really tell those stories unless you’re familiar with those places. It’s a subtle thing with landscape when you’re telling… you don’t have to say very much, but because you’re revisiting those places with your inner eye as you’re speaking, something communicates itself to your listeners. I think it’s possible to understand the stories of the Mabinogi as a sort of ‘Songline’. They certainly have their roots in something deeply archaic. And lets not forget… all of England was Celtic too… they represent fragments of what would once have been a mythology that was known from the Wash to Anglesey!         

*One of the most popular things said to a storyteller is surely, ‘I’d love stories like so and so, but I could never remember all those words.’ What would be your reply to them?

I’m always a bit frustrated/bored by that question… memory is a muscle that we develop as part of the craft… in exactly the same way that a carpenter develops a strong fore-arm. I’d much rather people wanted to know about the stories themselves.

But, having said that, the question must be answered…as I’ve hinted already, the secret is not to learn a story word for word, but to see it as a sequence of images. Story is a language of pictures (that’s the root of the word ‘imagination’). The work is in the ‘mind’s eye’. So, I tell people to try and forget ‘memorizing’ and to break down a story into a sequence of visualised moments. I tell them to enter the terrain of a story in as much detail as they can manage. If they can see it, then the words will begin to take care of themselves. Of course, there are refrains (the ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fums’) that have to be learned… and then, if you decide, like you Steve, to take on bardic poetry, that’s a different kettle of fish… but still, even for that, I’d advocate visual memory.

*Finally, in the first part of this interview, I’d like to talk to you about ‘Three Snake Leaves’, which for me, when I first heard and saw it, was doing something different with storytelling, allowing it to be divided into cliff-hanger moments, like something would be on TV, by the simple precedent of saying ‘Stop’ every time you needed to change the story being told. At the same time, it maintained all the richness and variety of the actual telling, but providing several tales at once. I know you recently reassembled to do a retrospective about it. How do you feel about it now?

‘The Three Snake Leaves’ was the result of years of working, with Ben and Pomme, on wonder-tales, and particularly Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We were deconstructing the form of the fairy tale, exploring how it descends into the tragic and then returns from that dark place into something life-affirmative (the wedding, the feast). We told three long, complete stories (and a number of shorter ones), the ‘stop’ moment you mention always came at the darkest, bleakest moment of each narrative.

In Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ he talks about the classical notion of the tragic and the comedic, here’s what he says: ‘Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible. The two are the terms of a single mythological theme… the down-going and the up-coming, which together constitute the totality of the revelation that is life.’ He says: ‘The happy ending of the fairy-tale… is to be read not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man… where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest’. That was our core text when we were shaping ‘The Three Snake Leaves.'

So in the first half we told each story to its tragic ‘nadir’. And then, in the second half (you might remember), after the central character, the musician, describes sitting on the throne of God and seeing the world as tragic, and being told he needs to see the ‘whole picture’… after that, we tell the second halves of our stories through to their ‘comedic’ redemption. Another thing we were trying to do was to find some sort of resolution for those characters who usually end up being rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails, or made to dance in a pair of red-hot iron shoes.

We couldn’t have created ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ without all those years working together and having those intense conversations in service stations. It was a sort of culmination of our work together. I like to think of it as a ‘Prentice Piece’. After that we were free to go off in our three directions and do our own things.

I’m still proud of it. We revived it in 2012 and toured it with music played by Dylan Fowler and Gill Stephens… who knows, we might revive it again.


*Thanks, Hugh for all your answers, and in October we’ll be focusing on your writing projects and the courses you and Eric have been running at Ty Newydd.



Anne Booth said...

That was so interesting, and I love the discussion about Englishness and recovering & reclaiming it through stories.

Andrew Preston said...

Couple of years ago I discovered a musician, Vashti Bunyan, for whose first album 40 + years ago, I believe members of the Incredible String Band did some of the backing. Record companies described the album as uncommercial, and it died a death. Vashti Bunyan left the music business, raised her kids.

Over the years, unknown to her, the album slowly became a cult, with copies changing hands for up to £2000.  Bunyan only realised when one day she Googled herself on the internet. The album was re-released, and a mobile phone network offered her lots of money to use the title song 'Diamond Day' in one of their commercials.  She accepted, considering it quite ironic given how the music had been described all the years before.

I liked 'Diamond Day', but found another of her songs from way back then...

Train Song.

Travelling north, travelling north to find you
Train wheels beating, the wind in my eyes
Don't even know what I'll say when I find you
Call out your name love, don't be surprised..

Paul May said...

Thanks, Steve. Brilliant interview! I’m looking forward to part two.

Steve Gladwin said...

I'm really glad you all enjoyed it. I learned so much I didn't know. Roll on the second part! Certainly the idea of reclaiming Englishness in this way has a great deal of appeal.

Shane said...

Great interview with Hugh. It's so good to hear Hugh sharing some of his back story.