A ladder to success

On Saturday afternoon I made a fair job of enchanting about 10 seven year olds, mainly boys, at a lively birthday party. They were very cool: joining in the stories at all the right places.
Birthday boy’s happy mum emailed me later to say that he was still listening to my Dragon Tales CD when he went to bed that evening.

Eleven years ago I could not have done that. I was terrified of child audiences.

Children are merciless! When I started as a full time storyteller in 1999 I struggled with working in schools and family events. Facing rows of sniggering youngsters woke my worst memories of school bullies….
Horrible things happened to me in early gigs, like the fairy birthday party where the 8 year old and her friends were made to sit and listen — glaring at me — through my first story; then the little princess snarled “I’M BORED” and escaped back into the garden, with minions in tow. That time I took the cheque and ran…

You can’t work as a storyteller without performing to children. I had a problem! 
Then the amazing Cat Weatherill suggested that I construct a stage persona to form a mental safety net around me.
The idea of the Dragon Whisperer popped into my head like a light going on. After all, I grew up with dragons… And I love dressing up!
Enter Agent Green the world’s only living Dragon Whisperer, draconics expert for DCHQ [Dragon Conservation Headquarters]
Problem solved. Confidence restored.

A snake of disappointment

On Sunday evening I was experimenting, pushing the boundaries. I’d asked permission to do spoken word at a music open mic. 
I was there as part of my Midnight Storytellers revival campaign: to remind the world that I‘m not dead yet.
But even as I show up at more open mic events, cashflow must be reined in until bookings pick up. My unpaid excursions have to be low mileage, local.

Having spent the fuel, I can tell you that it is extremely frustrating to feel under pressure to hurry up and finish ”because we‘ve got a lot of people wanting their turn”.
The session format was 3 songs per person; around 10 to 15 minutes.
Here’s the thing: performers – especially spoken word – need to breathe. And the audience needs to take in words it’s never heard before.
A story is a narrative that unfolds and builds; it’s not a joke to be fired off.
I believe I chose the right story for the season and for that audience. Not my shortest piece because I (stupidly) thought it was OK to show what I can do; not a long piece, either.

Hosts don’t ask musicians to speed up their songs, or leave bits out, in order to get them off stage quicker. But it seems to be ok to lean on a spoken word artist to rush their performance.
Possibly the hosts that evening were unfamiliar with spoken story.
Probably I shouldn’t have been so bold. Probably I should have done a brisk crowd pleaser that didn’t in fact take up the time allegedly allowed.

My disappointment is a temporary problem and will fade. The audience listened intently so my performance was probably acceptable, albeit too fast. And shorn of the really fun bits.

 I will try to learn the lesson. Mind you, it does seem to clash with the requirement to be “authentic”.

And … confidence dented.

Outdoor storytelling is tough. It’s good for Covid safety but it tests you as a performer.

Without a mic your voice can just float into the air and vanish… unless you have a wall or even a hedge behind you, so your sound will reflect forwards into the audience. Stagecraft also helps. But your voice will tire after a day of 4 open air shows.

Outdoors, you’re up against the physical environment as well as the humans.

One harassed organiser put the storytelling space next to the chainsaw tree carving arena!

Or there was that December afternoon, blazing floodlights and pouring rain, and 30 primary school children huddled under a giant oak tree.
The event took months to arrange, those 45 minutes of stories were going to happen come hell or, in this case, high water.
I had my weatherproof leather cloak and boots plus a certain inner fire. The children didn’t.

At an exquisite Cotswold mansion, 15 small princesses careered around the garden like junior T Rexes with the zoomies. They had to be corralled at the picnic table.
I was doomed.
Under the ferocious glare of the birthday girl I stumbled through one story. Next breath, the birthday princess whined “I’m bored!” and darted back into the garden with all her shrieking minions. The parents mercifully paid me and let me slink away.
This sort of thing was one reason I created the Dragon Whisperer. Even 10 year old boys in the middle of an adventure playground respect a draconics expert!

After months of inaction I’m slightly scrabbling to remember subtleties.
For example, new clients need gentle house training. If they never hired a storyteller before then your spot can be just a bench off to one side of a busy, noisy, outdoor craft fair. A picnic blanket for the kiddies to sit on was a good thought. But I had only my voice and my costume to catch the crowd’s attention.
In that instance I should have offered better guidance.

Time for me to invest in another fancy banner, perhaps?
Or a glittery gazebo?
But I avoid schlepping kit around. It’s exhausting to set up and take down. It’s vulnerable to wind and weather – and I have nowhere to dry out multiple square metres of dripping wet fabric.

Only one of the experiences above actually stopped me. Everywhere else – every camp fire, arts event in a posh garden, heritage site – I’ve stood up, looked at the back row and remembered all those voice workshops: breathe in enough to speak out. I know you can hear me!

What other performer is challenged this way?
Poets and comedians definitely get mics. So do many actors and musical theatre performers, now. How about those open air operas – are they mic’d up or battling to be heard at the back?

Many storytellers are more comfortable with small audiences, so outdoors or indoors is irrelevant to them.
Most of you reading this know that I am happier the more people are in front of me. Café packed full? – I’ll make sure you all hear every word. Eight hundred at a WI Federation meeting? – yes please!

And it wasn’t 3,000 people at the end of that jazz concert, the way I always tell you. Yes, they were packing up their picnic baskets and leaving: my task as a “warm down” act was to slow the rate at which the concert goers piled into their cars and queued for the only exit.
In fact my audience was around 7,000 people but I never say that because who would believe me?!
I had a good mic, giant video screens and the whole stage to myself. I wore screaming pink and black evening dress. Possibly the most fun I’ve had on stage so far.
That’s when outdoor storytelling is a breeze.

Top – Archive image of The DragonProof Cloak. Credit: Bryony Holden.
Below – 2021 image of Chloë co hosting Stroud Fashion Show. Credit: David Sutton.

As told by the free dragon Fuse to Agent Green, the world’s only living dragon whisperer, at DCHQ [Dragon Conservation Headquarters]

It was a complete scam. A nasty one. A man calling himself Sir George used to ride around looking for dragon sign – heat shattered rocks or scalded stones; it’s territorial: a sort of Trespassers Will Be Devoured notice. Once George had tracked down a lair, he’d high tail it to the nearest town and gallop down the main street in a terrible lather, shouting the odds about A dragon, a dragon!

Of course everybody barricaded themselves indoors at once and George could latch on to the local bigwig. He’d be all broad shoulders and brave words, then pretend to set off scouting the dragon’s lair. After a couple of hours he’d come back looking shaken and sober, with awful reports of the creature’s voracious predations. Most people didn’t even know the words.

So then George would insist on virgin girl ‘sacrifices’: and of course he had a crew of henchmen waiting, didn’t he, to grab the poor kids and sell ‘em into slavery. Vile. Absolutely filthy business.

Soon it would come down to the princess or the mayor’s daughter, or whoever. They’d deck her out in some sorry parody of a wedding dress and drag her up to the lair. George knew when the dragon was asleep, oh he was very good, he knew his dragons, timed everything to the hour… After a bit of ceremony the grieving parents and guards all shambled off, sobbing like infants, and the young woman was left to her fate.

Which had nothing to do with the dragon. George appeared with his wolfish smile – he never washed, by the way, in fact he stank too bad even for a dragon to eat – and he’d start getting personal with the girl. She was bound up, poor wench, so all she could do was shriek.

Which was exactly what the wretched George wanted. The girl’s protests would wake up the dragon, who invariably stuck his head out of the cave to see what the fuss was. Of course the poor beast was still sleepy, not to mention grumpy at being disturbed. George just had to hurl a few ripe insults to make any dragon come charging out without even sharpening his claws properly.

George was depressingly efficient at this next part. He knew how to dodge the tail, duck under the claws and teeth, and skewer the dragon right through the rib cage. Then he’d hack its head off. His henchmen could take their time pillaging the cave and carting away the poor dead dragon’s treasure hoard.

Meanwhile, George would terrify the girl even more by telling her that nobody back home would believe she hadn’t wanted to make sport with him, as he called it, and that she was sullied beyond repair with her family and her community. He called her a slut and told her the only hope was to marry him and make him one of the family.

Then he’d drag the girl and his grisly trophy back to town, and insist on a ‘private conversation’ with the family. That’s when he dropped all the chivalrous charm, coldly told them that their precious daughter was no longer a virgin and demanded a wedding, quick sharp.

While everybody was celebrating the slaughter of a dragon who had never been a minute’s threat in the first place – well, all right, it probably had pinched a few sheep and cows – George and the girl would be married, whether anybody liked the idea or not.

Sometimes he only stayed for the wedding night. He liked young flesh and he liked variety.

If he didn’t see much prospect of squeezing more profit out of the game, he’d help himself to the best horse in the stable and disappear. The girl and her family would be in turmoil. The dragon was dead. George never even looked back.

Agent Green is the lead draconics expert at DCHQ.
Mission: to find and save the world’s last dragons.
Motto: Only The Keenest Survive.

Voracious predator or victim of a vile scam?

I write as the UK reacts to the murder of Sarah Everard, taken as she walked alone at night. I write as a 60 year old female with experiences since early teens of low level, gender based harassment, and as a survivor of failed hetero relationships. Am I a man hater? – Read on.

  • Trigger warning.

In today’s UK it seems to me that men’s behaviour will not change unless they experience the same daily fear of harassment and sexual violation that women do.

Why would men even think about change if they don’t fear to wear certain clothes or walk alone? I suggest role exchanging exercises might be helpful. With a dash of comedy here, let’s have men literally walk in women’s shoes on a city Saturday night!

I wish that the focus could change. To blazes with what women should /shouldn’t do – teach men not to rape!

But at age 60, after living abroad and in the UK, I’m sadly convinced that a lot of men simply cannot control themselves. They appear to be biologically driven. Cultural / family upbringing influences their behaviour but there seems to be swathes of males who can no more refrain from mistreating females than they can, for example, stop themselves from pissing in the street when they stagger out of the pub.

Not for a second do I assume that “All men are…” It’s just so sad that, after wonderful improvements since the 1970s, I now see male-female interactions regressing.

There’s a core problem. For centuries, in societies around the world, men have feared women at a very deep level. Women are messy and smelly, women change over time (maiden, mother, crone), the next generation can’t happen without women’s wombs and milk. So men have used their superior physical strength to control women’s reproduction. Topped up by control through rules of religion, social acceptance and politics.

I observe that certain types of male human base much of their social status on being seen to control females. Like stags with hinds. Unlike wolves with their alpha pair and unlike matriarchal monkeys and meerkats!

Yes, I do know that some men get abused. By women or other men. A young man was raped 300 metres from the flat where I used to live in Cheltenham. I can only imagine these victims know the same fear and society-imposed shame that women endure.

Paris, early 1980s: my employer warned all us young women newbies about the high risk of being assaulted. I wore a big cover up coat in the street (because I was told if the rapists didn’t get me, the gendarmes would…) I rarely went out after dark alone, took expensive taxis to get home (and that wasn’t safe, either). I was hyper aware and ready to react, even trying to read a book in a busy park on a sunny day. You can develop a body language which says This is not an easy victim. It was a very lonely existence.

My friend’s daughter studied in France more recently as part of her uni course. She said the sexual harassment was relentless and that it permanently put her off having anything to do with the country.

Despite all this, I still believe that workplaces and creativity thrive best with a mix of masculine and feminine energies. The French, despite everything, have it right with “Vive la différence”.

How do we make friends again and support each other in mutually respectful yet warm behaviour styles? From office gossip to the law, we need to be whole orders tougher on stopping sexual harassment cold. Women and men must pressure the slimy minded. It’s not easy because good grief we want to stay human. It’d be a sorry day if we’re not allowed to admire each other and flirt a little!

So the current conversations are important: what is appropriate? What is acceptable? If you see someone being made uncomfortable, how do you challenge that – and not get yourself beaten up or fired?!

Was this a long read for you? Then imagine how tedious and tiring it is for women to constantly double check what we’re wearing, where we’re going, what time we might have to travel alone, what to do if the car breaks down on a lonely road, what to do if a scary man is near us in the street, how to handle “workplace banter” that’s just coarse innuendo, what to do if this, if that, if the other…

Because women in today’s UK are not safe to walk alone after dark.

For #NationalTellAFairyTaleDay I offer the heart of an odd project that never quite happened. I loved learning French. Uni careers advice person sneered at me and said, there are no jobs with French. In 1984 he was correct. But the language enchants me. I’d love to tell stories in French.
I apologise for all the language mistakes in this piece. (Please do let me know in the Comments below!) Apart from the traditional start –
Once upon a time, there was… – I keep to present tense and simple-ish sentences. The story was originally intended for school children.
Of course this has limited appeal. Yet there are images here which flow in French, that I’d never have devised in English.

Il y avait une fois un roi et une reine.  Ils habitent un grand château. Ils sont très riches.

Mais le roi et la reine sont malheureux parce qu’ils n’ont pas d’enfant. Tout d’un coup, la reine est devenue enceinte. A la fin de 9 mois – voilà un bébé. C’est une fille.

…Une jolie petite fille avec de toutes petites mains, avec un tout petit nez, avec des touts petits pieds, des cheveux marrons, et avec des yeux bleus comme le ciel.

Le roi et la reine font la fête, avec toute la cour. Tout le monde est invité. Le roi et la reine invitent aussi les 7 fées qui habitent au royaume.

Les 7 fées arrivent. Elles portent des robes magnifiques. Elles ont des ailes qui brillent comme des bijoux. Et chaque fée a une baguette magique.

Chaque fée offre un cadeau à la jeune princesse: on la donne touts les vertus – la beauté, la grâce, une belle voix pour parler et chanter … qu’elle joue parfaitement à la guitar et au piano… qu’elle sait bien monter à cheval… qu’elle fait parfaitment son broderie…   enfin, tous qu’une princesse du 16ième siècle doit savoir faire.

Ensuite – à table! On mange et on boit. C’est bon! C’est beau! C’est délicieux! Toutes les fourchettes, tous les couteaux, même les verres sont faits d’or. Qu’est-ce que ça brille dans la belle lumière des bougies.

Mais tout d’un coup la salle devient noir comme la nuit. Un grand vent souffle et ce vent éteint toutes les bougies – pouf!

En haut de l’escalier, la grande porte de la salle s’ouvre – claque!

Et dans un nuage, tout le monde voit entrer une fée habillée tout en noir, avec des bijoux et une couronne d’acier. Elle descend l’escalier. Ses ailes sont fait d’acier, eux aussi. Elles font un bruit affreux.

C’est la fée Carabosse! Elle est vieille. Elle a beaucoup de puissance magique. Et elle est de mauvaise humeur. Elle est super fâchée! Parce que personne ne l’a invitée à la fête pour la princesse. Le roi et la reine pensent que la fée Carabosse est morte. Soit morte, soit ensorcelée. Alors bien sûr personne ne l’a invitée.

Furieuse, la fée Carabosse s’avance jusqu’au berceau de la princesse. Ses ailes d’acier claquent comme les dents d’un dragon.

La reine pousse un cri de peur. Elle court vers la fée Carabosse, elle veut l’arrêter – mais la fée méchante repousse la reine avec sa magie. La reine tombe par terre. Elle pleure.

Carabosse regarde la petite princesse, elle regarde toute la cour et, d’une voix forte, elle dit: “Maudit soit ceux qui m’oublient! Malheur à vous, roi et reine! Et mort à la princesse! Jamais plus personne de ce royaume va rire ou sourire, car – je vous le dis, je vous le jure – le jour de son seizième anniversaire votre jolie princesse va mourir! Ella va trouver un fuseau, elle va se percer la main de ce fuseau – et la blessure va l’empoisonner et la tuer avant la fin de la journée. C’est moi Carabosse qui vous le dis. Ainsi soit-il!”

Et dans un nuage de fumée verte – pouf! – la fée méchante est partie.

Dans la cour tout le monde est effrayé. On pleure, on s’arrache les cheveux.

Mais alors une des 7 fées avance. Elle lève sa baguette magique, et voilà! Du calme. La fée porte une robe argentée. Elle a des ailes et une couronne d’argent. Elle a même des yeux argentés.

Tout doucement la 7ième fée dit, “Majestés, ne vous inquiétez pas. Je n’ai pas la puissance magique pour défaire entièrement la malédiction de Carabosse – mais je sais la modifier.
“Alors, majestés: le jour de son seizième anniversaire votre fille la princesse va bien se percer la main d’un fuseau – mais au lieu de mourir, elle va tomber dans un profond sommeil de cent ans.
“A la fin de cent ans, c’est un beau prince qui va venir la réveiller.
“Et pour que la princesse ne se réveille pas toute seule, toute la cour et tout le château vont aussi dormir cent ans. Tout sera protégé. Tout va se réveiller, sain et sauf, dès l’instant que la princesse s’ouvre les yeux.
“Mais vous, majestés, quand votre fille s’endort, vous devez la quitter, vous devez quitter le château et passer le reste de vos jours ailleurs, loin d’ici. Voici combien ça coûte, pour sauver votre fille.”

Le roi interdit de filer au fuseau, sous peine de mort. Ainsi passent les seize ans. La princesse est jolie, elle est gentille, elle est sympathique. Elle aime bien se promener, à la campagne et dans le château.

Le jour de la 16ième anniversaire de la princesse, il fait beau temps. Personne ne pense plus à la malédiction de Carabosse. Surtout, la princesse pense seulement à sa fête – et aux cadeaux! Elle se promène dans le château. Elle cherche sa bonne, elle veut sa nouvelle robe de fête. La princesse ne trouve personne et elle est presque de mauvaise humeur.

Tout d’un coup, au fond d’un couloir, une petite porte s’ouvre. Voilà une chambre que la princesse ne connaît pas. Et là dans la chambre il y a une vieille femme. La vieille s’occupe d’une … chose, une machine, que la princesse ne connaît pas.

Alors la princesse entre dans la chambre. Le soleil brille fort par la petite fenêtre. Mais les coins et le plafond sont ombreux et plein de toiles d’araignées.

“Bonjour, grand’mère,” dit la princesse.

“Bonjour, bel enfant,” répond la vielle. Elle sourit. Elle na pas de dents.

La princesse regarde le fuseau. “Qu’est-ce c’est? Que faites-vous?”

“Eh bien, c’est un fuseau. Je file. It faut filer le lin ou le coton, ou bien la soie, pour faire le tissu de vos belles robes. Tenez, ma belle, venez voir…”

Il semble que la vieille ne connait rien de l’interdiction du roi.

“Oh, qu’est-ce que c’est joli!” dit la princesse. “Faites voir!” Et elle met la main sur le fuseau. “Aie! Ça fait mal! Ça me pique…  Tiens, grand’mère, je ne me sens pas bien, je suis tellement fatiguée…”

La princesse tombe par terre. La vieille sourit horrriblement – et elle disparaît dans une nuage de fumée verte.

La princesse commence à ronfler.

Au bout de cent ans un prince vient se promener à la campagne. Il est grand. Il est beau. Même son cheval est beau.

Le prince entre dans un bois. Il perd son chemin. Au coucher du soleil, parmi les arbres, le prince se trouve devant une grande haie. Partout il y a des épines affreuses. Le prince voit des squelettes, il voit des épées et même les restes d’un cheval – tous morts en essayent de traverser la haie d’épines.

Le prince se souvient d’une vieille histoire: il a entendu parler d’un ancien château caché et oublié derrière une grande haie d’épines affreuses. Et dans ce château, dit l’histoire, se trouve une belle princesse endormie depuis cent ans, que seulement un prince peut réveiller – avec un bisou.

Alors le prince tire son épée et se prépare à attaquer la haie. Il a très envie de voir la belle au bois dormant! Les oiseaux chantent, les étoiles sont au ciel, et le prince s’étonne de voir les épines affreuses qui s’écartent devant lui.

Le cheval du prince a trop peur. Il ne peut plus continuer. Donc le prince marche à pied jusqu’à la grande porte du château. La porte s’ouvre – avec des grincements horribles.

Le prince entre dans la cour du château. Il s’effraye: parce qu’il voit partout des morts… Mais au bout de quelques instants le prince voit que personne n’est mort. 

Partout – dans le jardin, dans la cour, sur l’escalier, dans la grande salle – il y a du monde qui dort. Et qui ronflent de leur mieux. Il y a des soldats. Il y a des gentilhommes et des dames de la cour royale. Les uns dorment par terre, les autres dorment assis. Sur le toit dorment des pigeons. Il y a un chien étendu par terre, comme s’il court toujours, il a la bouche ouverte – évidemment il est sur le point de mordre la queue du chat qui le fuit. Mais les deux animaux sont allongés par terre, et ils ronflent comme tous les autres.

Le prince trouve une belle chambre toute dorée. Dans la chambre se trouve un grand lit. Et sur le lit dort la princesse. Elle porte une robe blanche brodée de fleurs et d’oiseaux bleus. Ses cheveux marrons sont très, très longues. A travers ses pieds dort un chaton blanc. 

Le prince voit la belle princesse et il tombe amoureux sur place. Tout doucement il s’avance vers le lit, il se penche en avant et il donne un tout petit bisou à la belle au bois dormant.

Le chaton ouvre des yeux bleus et dit, “Miaou!?” Il se lève et s’étend d’un air content.

La princesse ouvre des yeux bleus et dit, “Te voilà enfin!”

Et la princesse se lève et s’étend d’un air très content, parce qu’elle fait de beaux rêves depuis cent ans. Elle reconnait le prince de ses plus beaux rêves. La bonne fée, elle n’est pas bête!

La princesse dit, “Mais j’ai faim! Allons trouver à manger! Et il me faut absolument une tasse de thé…”

Quand le prince et la princesse descendent dans la cour du château, ils voient toute le monde qui se réveillent. Les soldats bâillent énormément. Les pigeons se mettent à roucouler.  Même le feu à la cheminée se r’allume. Et le chien aboie et achève de chasser le chat, qui lui donne une bonne baffe au nez.

Partout dans le château on allume les bougies. Heureusement il y a très peu de poussière, ni de toiles d’araignées, grâce au charme protecteur de la bonne fée.

Alors on fait la fête de mariage la nuit même. La viande, le pain, le vin, les légumes et la soupe sont toujours bons – grâce encore à la bonne fée.

Après avoir bien mangé, la princesse et son prince se promènent ensemble dans le jardin du château, sous la lune, parmi les belles fleurs de la nuit.

Le prince est beaucoup trop amoureux pour dormir. Et la princesse n’en a vraiment pas besoin.

❦ FIN ❦

Image credit: Spinning wheel by WikiImages from Pixabay

Snow day in the Cotswolds: if the power goes off, can you find your matches to light a candle or the fire?

I’ve become a proper countrywoman. Or as good as an incomer can get. A few nights ago I held a newspaper across the front of the fireplace to make the chimney draw stronger. The fire was feeble: I didn’t even have to think what to do.

The boyfriend who taught me the trick is long gone. But I learned all the back lanes between Malmesbury and Moreton in Marsh from him, plus multiple knacks of making rural life comfy.

I was eight years old in 1969 when my father’s work moved us from East Anglian suburbia to the edge of a small Berkshire town. Our gate opened onto a potholed lane with Green Belt woodland opposite.

Nobody told me about vixens.

Night after pitch dark night, searing screams and screeches woke me in paralysed terror. I wasn’t allowed a bedside lamp. I was too frightened to switch on my torch. It was Not Done to wake my parents. 

Presumably I worked out that some wild creature in the woods made the noises, but it was years before I could put a name to it. Meanwhile, my dreams were troubled and Dr Who didn’t help.

Learning to love the night

At age 12 I won the nasty battle for parental permission to cycle alone to the shops and library. Down the lane, around the end of the woods and across the wasteland, under the railway bridge and into the village with its sticky heaven of a sweet shop. Nowadays I’d shun that route as a rapist’s paradise. In the early 1970s it was independence.

By my early teens, on summer camping expeditions I was the Girl Who Loved The Night. I walked at the front of the group across fields under vast starry skies. How did I manage that? As an only child, asking for help was Not Done: I faced fears alone and head on. So I learned to love rural darkness. Here in the Cotswolds I still walk without a torch on star sparkled nights. If I must carry a light, I prefer the warm glow of an old fashioned miner’s safety lamp. Just one of my quirks.

Paris to popcorn

London and Paris featured in my student life. They were only fun if you had money. Marriage brought me to suburban Luton, to recession, redundancy and depression.

Running away with my then husband to a gamekeeper’s cottage beyond Newbury couldn’t save the marriage, despite good will all round. Even so, I was developing rural skills all the way. Keeping in a solid fuel burner. Keeping out damp and rodents. The tiny 19thC cottage efficiently circulated warmth from downstairs. The cats grew glossy and athletic, hunting rabbits and rats nearly their own size.

I probably saved the whole neighbourhood one night when I alerted the farm manager to the grain dryer fire alarm. If I hadn’t, there’d have been popcorn raining down all over West Berkshire!

Power cuts and indoor camping

Since 1993, when I gave up trying to be married, I’ve enjoyed renting accommodation in the countryside. From a room at small dairy farm held together with bailer twine, to neatly trimmed modern feudalism.

I tamed a coal fired Rayburn, with gritted determination on mornings when the dratted contraption would heat neither kettle nor eggs. (There were electric options but I’m stubborn!) That Rayburn moistly and tenderly cooked the biggest Christmas turkey I ever offered to guests. Fancy stuffing and all.

Solo neighbours took refuge with me on nights of storm and power cuts. I like thunder and lightning: they didn’t.

The first Saturday after moving into a beautifully redecorated farmworker’s cottage near Cirencester, I woke to the mewing and scratching of my two cats – and looked outside to see a red fire engine with hefty firefighters moving briskly. Chimney fire next door, right behind my bed. Luckily, order was swiftly restored. My neighbours were in fact the kindest people, born and raised in the countryside. They showed me how to stack wood tidily and now I get compliments. 

Candles, lanterns and the wood burning stove turned regular power cuts into camping adventures: you can very nicely heat baked beans, cook sausages and make toast with a woodburner. A small camping pan boils water for tea. It was comforting to potter about in the dark and quiet, with the crackle of logs and the gleam of candlelight on my ornaments and picture frames.

At least by then I knew about vixens’ screaming. And the dogmess stink of fox on morning paths.

Hot water bottles that purred

At my next home, owls duetted on the fence at dusk just metres from where I sat on my garden sofa. Small, rounded shapes uttering friendly “towhoos” in the summer dusk.

But it was an odd village: a hamlet of wealthy recluses, who seemed to regard a 40-something single female with cold suspicion. The husbands were not seduction material, believe me.

The down to earth, unobtrusive friendliness of my farmer neighbours made everything bearable. Cups of spontaneous coffee on sunny morning benches. Fascinating conversations about what farmers really do and think – their bone deep love for the land, for their animals domestic and wild. Hard truths: “If you’ve got livestock, you’ll have dead stock.”

When snow was deep and the temperature fell to -12 degrees C, as in earlier homes I slept in two duvets on my sofa next to the woodburner. With furry hot water bottles that purred.

In 2017 the farm was sold. All cottage tenants had to leave. After 16 cosy years I decided on total change – after all, I’d lived in London and Paris – and sought “café society” in town.

Drunks and druggies kicked off every night until dawn, pissing and vomiting all round the square. Seagulls used my elegant oval skylight as watering hole and toilet. Noise assaulted the flat from restaurant kitchen fans, an air compressor, shop alarms, idling engines and amplified buskers. Town air was like diesel soup. My health imploded. At least the flat was within walking distance of the hospital oncology department.

In the valley of power cuts

December 2019 brought me “home” to the Cotswolds again: a tiny cottage on a hill. Talk about timing.

Throughout Lockdown chemo, shielding and after serious surgery, village neighbours I barely know and old friends have brought me supplies and giggles.

As I recuperate, everything I’ve loved and learned about living in the countryside has sprung back into relevance. From watching buzzards and kites circle over the fields, to double checking the outside tap isn’t dripping. I stock up tinned and dry goods in summer against winter bad weather. I bring firewood indoors to dry on the hearth before use. I’m restored to my countryside quirks, such as wearing the colours of the day that I see out of the window in the morning.

Back in the valley of power cuts, a certain life hack is crucial again: leave the tail of at least one match sticking out of the box so you can find it and light your candle in the dark. And put the box in the same place all the time, so you always know where your matches are.

One day, Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers will buy batteries for all the modern torches she has in the cottage.
Meanwhile her spoken word performances are going online for the rest of UK Lockdown and beyond.
It’s a great way to reach a worldwide audience.
To commission your own bespoke Story Cabaret set for grown-ups, or family storytelling, email chloe@midnightstorytellers.co.uk

Headshot of Chloë showing weight loss and undiagnosed illnessIn April 2018, three weeks before I was hauled into hospital for emergency surgery, I completed a storytelling workshop project for Cheltenham Poetry Festival.
Today I found that I wrote this account of it:

When ordinary life scares you rigid, imagine what order of heroism is required to step up and tell a story – live without notes – even to a handful of people you know.

I’m Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers and I’ve been a gabby, über confident diva since I was four. Since 1999 I’ve worked full time as a performance storyteller.

But I remember when I was just as terrified of public speaking as anybody else. And for forty years I’ve experienced phases of not handling the world very well.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2018 invited me to deliver an Outreach programme to people supported by the Independence Trust in managing their mental health issues, notably anxiety. I wanted to deliver workshops that I hoped would help empower participants to break free of habitual thought patterns and explore happier scenarios: to discover their own ‘hidden hero’.

Positive fantasies

I workshopped with the group to develop their storytelling skills and devise pieces for performance. We based ideas on a folktale or fairytale of their choice; or they could create an original story. Many of the group already took part in drama and creative writing sessions run by Independence Trust. They were up for something new.

Above all I encouraged the group to create positive fantasies in which the hero was an aspect of the person at their very best – confident, capable, feeling good. I hoped it would be a chance for some participants to step into the imaginative opposite of their regular experience.

Working with traditional story allows people to explore ideas at a safe emotional distance – story action happens to a fictional character not to themselves. Most participants adapted fairy tales. And two people created moving, original stories.

Huge achievement

Five participants braved the microphone at our third workshop, a recording session at Independence Trust’s music studio.

Part of the challenge was to complete the story devising and rehearse in personal time. It was also seriously daunting for some of this group to speak in front of other people let alone into a microphone, and it was a huge achievement that they did it.

The final performance and recording took place in April 2018 at Independence Trust music studio. Four people spoke live. Two recordings were played.

Stories presented were:

A Brave Little Girl – This Red Riding Hood boldly enters the forest and sorts out the wolf.

Blue Roving Hood – A Red Riding Hood who wins the day despite being tricked into taking drugs; plus a woodcutter with caring good sense.

Cinderella Story – Cinders leaves home and starts her own business.

Moving On – Original fiction about the conflict between family duty and life changing romance.

The Little Tree – Original fiction, styled like a folktale and enhanced with mini puppets.

Bra, Knickers & Beanstalk – Benny Hill style romp through the Jack & the Beanstalk fairytale, complete with naughty names and magic mushroom dream.

For some of the group, summoning the courage to attend the event was already a big success. For others, quietly telling a four minute story with only a couple of glances at notes was quite simply a heroic triumph.

You can tell I’m proud of them all, can’t you? I’m also hugely grateful to Hugo Poyser at Independence Trust for his kind and energetic support, and to Anna Saunders / Cheltenham Poetry Festival for giving me the opportunity to deliver the project.

Spectacle of Light at Sudeley Castle near Cheltenham includes light art sculptures throughout the gardens, all round the castle and historic chapel. Selected nights to 30 December.

There are people in Devon and beyond who still think I was roistering drunk that night in the king’s pavilion.

I giggled and staggered, and flirted with men in fierce armour who were set on laying waste all around them in battle the next day. It was 20–something years ago: a Live Action Roleplay weekend; and I was entirely sober but spying for anyone who’d “pay” me.

In fact I was one of those annoying players who stayed in character all weekend, even in the toilet queue at horrible o’clock when everyone else was crawling out of their hangovers. If you’ve met me, this won’t be a surprise.

Flying and handling dragons

The full length, heavy leather cloak I had made all those years ago – after too near a brush with hypothermia one soggy Sunday – now serves as the techno magical DragonProof Cloak for my storytelling persona of Agent Green the planet’s only (living) Dragon Whisperer.

It also splendidly does its original job of keeping out the weather. Add an Indiana Jones-ish hat over a bright headscarf – roll over hijab, I need warm ears! – plus big gloves and hey presto! It’s obviously a dragon wrangler’s perfect kit for flying and handling her toasty charges.

Grandmother of Dragons

When guests emerge starry-eyed from the first three quarters of the trail around this year’s Spectacle of Light at Sudeley Castle, they’re quite ready to encounter a fantasy character.

On opening night yesterday, even groups of adults without children were enchanted by the deep bass roars, the glow and smoke issuing from the Dragon Dungeon. And by the Dragon Whisperer’s spiel about a rescue dragon inhabiting the cellars.

Beware of the Dragon says the sign. I’m not quite sure who my boss means, by the way, as he’s taken to calling me Grandmother of Dragons.

Romantic, magical Spectacle of Light

December notwithstanding, the Spectacle of Light is wonderfully free of festive clichés. Not a plastic Santa in sight. From the long vista across glowing reflections in water to the venerable castle itself, to shimmering patterns unrolling from a perfect little tree, this is art made of light. As magical as the shining energy tree of Avatar. As complex as Miss Haversham. As mischievous as Alice’s mirror world. And packed with extra emotional wallop from luscious music; a different mood for each ‘set’. It’s a glorious treat for children as well as the most romantic thing I’ve seen in decades. And if you’ve been feeling low these winter nights, I’d say Spectacle of Light will lift you.

Spectacle of Light runs on selected evenings with timed entries 5pm–7.30pm
Friday 8 – Sunday 10 December
Friday 15 – Saturday 23 December
Wednesday 27 – Saturday 30 December
Please note Dragon Whisperer is on missions elsewhere 18 and 30 December 

“Tickets For Tonight” are available only in person on the day after 4pm at Sudeley Castle Visitor Centre on site

Save 10% Book in advance here


You judge someone by their actions. The real life effects of Conservative government policies are killing sick and disabled people, and leaving others to starve ( = rely on food banks). In the 21st century. In a developed, wealthy, modern nation.

I can’t escape the deepening, sick suspicion that Conservative advisers have decided to cull the population. Looking at the horrifyingly frequent reports of critically ill people having heart attacks or dying within days of being assessed as “fit to work”, I wonder if those responsible should be charged with murder?

At the very least, I believe that voting Conservative is a vote for cruelty.

Labour’s Mr Corbyn stands out by virtue of the flatness of the surrounding countryside. A warm human being in a sea of sound bites. It’s clear he cares. He wants the population to thrive in rich diversity.

But Corbyn is on his own, even within his party. He doesn’t understand national defence and his team is a bickering omnishambles. I have no confidence in their ability to handle Brexit let alone day to day government. And certainly not national / international finance.

This, dear reader, is all our fault. We elected each government. And if you didn’t vote, if you shrugged Oh They’re All The Same then it’s even more your fault.

If you voted for Brexit, you are part of just over half the nation who’d rather see Britain go to hell than thrive. Because you’re scared of foreigners. Because you wanted to bash posh Mr Cameron. Because you didn’t think through how this would play out over the next 50+ years.

Under Conservative rule there will be no arts at all after Brexit except rich people indulging their hobby. Because we’ll lose European support for the last projects that haven’t already been cut in recent UK budgets. Most of you reading this will say, too bad – who needs the arts anyway? Just so you know, without my art form I have nothing to live for. We can’t all be mobile phone sellers.

OK, something that might matter to more of you: Brexit has handed the UK’s food supply to importers on a plate. British farming is going to fall apart because all the European farm subsidies, on which most of our better (smaller) farms get by, will vanish. I guess you wanted to have only imported, tasteless, nutrition-less, mass produced food that destroys the environment for all other plant life and wildlife. Remember I’ve lived in a farming community more than 20 years…

Britain will also have to import energy and pretty much everything manufactured, too – at cutthroat disadvantage prices. Because Britain can’t make anything any more. And we certainly haven’t the money to invest in the huge amount of new farming and manufacturing startups that would be required to make the UK self sufficient. Hmm… Are you looking forward to WW2-style rationing? It’s what you Brexiteers have voted for; except you couldn’t see it.

Who can you vote for on 8 June? Liberal Democrats have been emasculated. Except… the only effective local politician I know is one. Greens are nowhere to be seen. Independent candidates are being denied BBC airtime. UKIP if you want to, I remember what my parents told me about the Nazis in 1936 and I’d rather swallow ground glass.

Oh dear oh deary me, scary isn’t it? Because this election will decide how you spend your old age, how you die, as well as the life chances of your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Who ya gonna call?! Who will you vote for?

This evening on social media I saw an artist acquaintance giving up in despair: “…too demoralised by the drudgery of applying to committees for funding. I could not give a fuck about what adds value to communities, or promotes anyone’s wellbeing. All I need to do, all that satisfies me, all that keeps me alive, is beauty. I don’t make art to justify the existence of funding committees – I make it because I have to…”

I posted to her: If you stop then they have won. I understand a lot about why an artist (in any genre) can be made to feel like this… You at least have figured out how and where to do funding applications!

May I invite you to view this from a different angle? As creative people we are forced to work with many ‘brutal morons’ [her words]. They got that way because they didn’t have enough art of any kind in their young lives, they never learned empathy, never got stopped in their tracks by beauty – they had a set of grey, workaday values ground into them and they perceive creativity as some kind of cop-out, a soft option…

So part of our job is to educate the people we work with. I know, artists want to do what we’re good at – the art! – even so, I still think we do better in all ways by gently and warm heartedly leading our clients to better understanding of our work, and of others’.

Excessive behaviours

Historically, artists of all kinds contributed to the modern negative view. The 19thC rich kids getting off on laudanum and poetry, the precious flowers in their ivory towers… That wasn’t the whole truth but it’s the image that lingers. The 1960s wacky baccy brigades were fighting to experiment and evolve artforms but people remember the excessive behaviours and not the art. Creative people now are paying the price for all of that.

Creative people walk a cliff edge path: keeping the mind free enough to think beyond “normal”, and having to convince the money people that art is “worth it”.

I was involved years ago in a couple of completely useless arts projects that reached nobody, and taxpayers’ money was spent, and I felt deeply embarrassed (organisers failed to understand what their audiences would respond to, and completely failed to promote the events!) Because of multiple failures like this, and because of so-called austerity, arts funding has become almost impossible to achieve.

Make them feel

Worse, the general public either can’t afford or just won’t pay for art! If I as a non London nobody try to charge more than £3 a ticket, I face empty seats! But people will pay for what they see as “entertainment”, £40+ for West End shows with celebrities…

We have to deal with things as they are. We have to explain how creativity adds value to people’s lives. The raw fact that art is our reason for living doesn’t matter to the money people, or anybody else. We’re being challenged to make art that has an effect on people, and that’s good for our creative discipline.

In a world hurtling towards self destruction perhaps our last chance is in the arts. Creativity is the last way we can protest. Creativity is the last way we can grab humans and make them feel. I love what I do. I live for what I do. And  a little of what I do has a powerful effect, on people and in ways that I’ll never know. That’s why we must keep doing our art.