Archive for the ‘Books + Literacy’ Category

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.

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The family show that brought me happy audiences all summer just bombed at a theatre festival. This morning I feel worthless and irrelevant.

I’m drinking coffee from my Never Give Up mug.

What can I learn?

  • I am amazing at going on stage and delivering the full experience to an audience of 2. They bothered to turn up. They get their money’s worth, in fact I work harder for them so that, in a big empty room, they feel relaxed and welcome. I believe it’s called being a professional.
  • The festival organiser possibly should have known that, despite last year’s feedback saying “not enough shows for families”, in fact this festival is popular for decidedly grown-up theatre including experimental pieces. But with my previous experience of the festival I should have known this too!
  • The other storytelling show in the festival – that sold out and needed extra chairs, oh my poor crushed heart – featured modern / personal stories, stand-up comedy and adult themes. This is what sells. Traditional storytelling [folktales etc] suits only a very limited number of venues and audiences. I need to devise and offer work with more awareness of this.
  • It’s time for me to grub out the crippling fear that took root in me when I was starting out in storytelling – a fear unleashed when influential storytellers publicly sneered at me, even shouted at me, for wanting to do ‘new’ material. More than ever, I must keep my confidence and continue to create new work. Yes, the magnificent heritage of traditional story must be kept alive through regular retelling. But 21st century themes and styles are also worth exploring in spoken word ‘telling. The person who roared at me “Nothing you’ll ever do can ever stand up in comparison with the traditional tales that have been tried and tested for hundreds of years!” was very, very frightening – but wrong. That is simply not true.
  • Of course nothing really new is possible … but I’m good at bringing old pieces into new settings, new twists, new life.
  • Who’s to say my show must be all storytelling? Why not include, say, one piece of dramatic reading? People love talking books. Actors do well giving theatrical readings. Reading a story aloud can be interestingly different from telling.
  • Many artists / performers make a big deal out of their personal battles with life. I won’t trade on personal misery – although I’ve struggled with depression since the 1970s. As an apparently white middle class ‘privileged’ person […hollow laughter…] I’ve felt it was out of the question for me to make personal sadness part of my performance territory. But perhaps I’ve missed a trick?
  • Audiences choose where to spend their money based on minimal information: usually just the image … and the title. Do not expect people to read any blurb. So I know I look like one of those overweight, chinless, greying arty-farties in ridiculous clothes. There’s no point in me trying to be edgy. And I’m not naturally sweary, I can’t go all Jimmy Carr. But being my age puts me in a great place to have seen the way the world works and to still have energy to rage against it. The London spoken word venue that told me last year to “Stick with storytelling in libraries, dear” might have missed out…

A friend reminds me Don’t make plans on the basis of what you should do, don’t make yourself fit into somebody’s else’s idea of acceptable – pretend there’s a fairy godmother and plan for what you really want to do! Ok: so that’s Chloë presenting a roller coaster ride of exquisite traditional tales, hair raising contemporary pieces, a piece read from the page to provide a contrasting tone and pace – alongside (a) gypsy jazz musician(s) connecting sections of the show with very different sounds and that gypsy energy of heart and blood… There! Easy! ‘Love, Death & the Invisible Woman’ … hmm… Booking now for autumn 2017. Thank you!

profanities

 

Gloucester Guildhall 2pm daily until 27 August – Ticket £7
Dads-Play-Poster
This week is your last chance to catch the final performances in the debut run of The Secret Life of Dads by Jarek Adams at Gloucester Guildhall, 2pm every day until Saturday. It’s the perfect cast and a sparkling gem of a new play that brings something truly new to family theatre. Just because it’s for children doesn’t mean it has to be about children!
    So here are three no-longer-young blokes who love their kids but really need a break from fluffy bunny world! Over beer and daft blokey banter in the pub they talk themselves into resurrecting their old band The Cabbage Heads for a talent show.
    But it’s not so simple, as each man struggles to put the stresses of modern life into perspective – wage cuts, new baby worries, grumpy teen – and grab some time to live and be playful for his own sake. You can feel the warmth and strength of friendship; and the music also turns out very much better than you might expect! This is live performance, too: no cowardly backing tracks here.
    Officially suitable for age 4+, the audience I observed included several dads with children under 10, all watching keenly. Seating is café style, more relaxed for youngsters. What a great way to start conversations about family and why parents are sometimes so embarrassing.
    Written by Jarek Adams*
    Directed by Jilly Breeze
    Original music by George Moorey
    with Murray Andrews, Darren Lake and Craig Rogers
Tickets: £7  No online booking at Gloucester Guildhall! Be patient with 01452 503050
Where? Gloucester Guildhall is in the city centre pedestrian precinct next to BHS (for now!): 23 Eastgate Street, GL1 1NS. A brave urban tree shades the entrance!
Parking + public transport: Nearest parking is Gloucester Eastgate and lots of bus stops are a 2 minute shamble away, outside the Museum and Library.
    * Jarek Adams is an award winning playwright based in Gloucester. Her science and history have been seen by more than half a million school children. She now runs the Scriptorium, a group of emerging playwrights based in Gloucester Cathedral – where you should look out for Jarek’s new work Tapestry in May 2017.  www.jarekadams.com
   And finally… Apologies for rubbish layout of this article. WordPress is refusing to insert paragraph breaks. Bah! Millennium hand and shrimp!!

UK flag A newsletter alert from a nursery school was shared on Facebook: “Prevent duty: From the 1st July 2015, all schools and childcare providers must have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism…”

Comments were scathing.

“They’re literally assessing the children to check they’re demonstrating British values… *shudders*”

“I hope they’re also teaching [toddlers] how to root out and report illegal immigrants at nursery. Hmmm. Which side of the Iron Curtain were we on?”

We need to get past the clichés. Prevent strategy contains several worrying bits – but I see an opportunity to connect all British young people with a magnificent heritage of story (eg traditional folktales) and some rather important bits of history. Plus of course we can make clear what we’ve learned from national mistakes of colonialism and exploitation.

I sighed with boredom at school over the list of Factory Acts created in Victorian times. Only recently have I understood how important that legislature was: locking into law the protection of workers’ rights; saving childhood and guaranteeing children the right to education.

Now our rest days and right to withhold labour are being whittled away. There isn’t even a Workhouse for people to go and die in when cut off from essential benefits … But that’s another story.

A sense of belonging (or not) really does start among small children. People who feel part of a nation, and who feel they have a chance to contribute to and profit from that national community, are less likely to want to blow it up!

Hmm… What are ‘British values’?

Cleverly, even the Prime Minister who ringingly asserts their importance has shied away from defining British values in his public utterances. But of course there is Department of Education advice for grant maintained schools.

 My version includes a nice cup of tea; generosity and quiet kindness – sometimes, admittedly, only when things are dire; respect for privacy; and an irrepressibly wicked sense of humour!

My British values encourage everyone to be self directing individuals within their group of family, cultural and social circles: to think clearly, form their own opinions, build resilience to life’s downs and ups, treat people fairly, protect the vulnerable, know the difference between authority and bullying, and to have the knowledge and courage to speak truth to power. Or at least to lampoon the powerful – and those who try to control us – without mercy, until they get over themselves…

So here’s a cliché for you: as a pro storyteller working with British cultural stories, I’ll be putting Prevent front and centre of my approach to schools. So there.

A nice cup of tea

“My idea of heaven is a nice cup of tea”

• What are YOUR British Values? What mindset do we need to live together well in the 21st century?

Poster for 28 July 2015 Storytelling Dragon Tales at Sutton Coldfield LibraryA rare flying visit from the Dragon Whisperer brings a morning of fantasy and magical adventure to Sutton Coldfield Library (Birmingham, England) on Tuesday 28 July.

As part of the Record Breakers themed Summer Reading Challenge 2015, gorgeously costumed Agent Green the world’s only living Dragon Whisperer tells Dragon Tales from around the world to age 7+ at 11am. At 12.30, Agent Green breaks out the drawing pens to show age 9+ How To Draw Your Dragon – bring your favourite sketchbooks, pencils and colouring pens.

Both sessions are free thanks to sponsorship from Sutton Coldfield Charitable Trust. The Library is at Lower Parade, B72 1XX. Tel 0121 464 2274.

Thrilling legends and folktales include a dragon in hiding and the dragon who was really a lost princess, ranging from Eastern Europe to Bamburgh Castle.

Agent Green, who is alleged to work for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters, also reveals hot tips on dragon care and training, and talks about her mission to find and save the world’s last dragons. You’re welcome to ask everything you ever wanted to know about dragons – because the Dragon Whisperer has the answer!

Behind the bling is Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers, a storytelling entertainer and writer/illustrator from the Cotswolds. Celebrating 15 years as a spoken word artist, Chloë sets a new record this August as the first ever Dragon Whisperer in Residence at Sudeley Castle (Gloucestershire).

Chloë’s performances for children take her to primary schools, community events and festivals all over the UK. Her story cabaret shows for adults are acclaimed from Cheltenham Literature Festival to cruise ships on the Mediterranean. For her 15th anniversary celebrations Chloë has launched a new contemporary story cabaret show Scheherazade’s Shed which tours to Kidderminster Arts Festival 14 August and Windsor Fringe Festival 24 September. The Dragon Tales CD is available £5 from Chloë, while the fully written out and illustrated Dragon Tales are available as a Kindle ebook (£2.99).

  • The annual UK Summer Reading Challenge, an initiative from the Reading Agency and the Arts Council, encourages UK children aged 4-11 into libraries to read up to 6 books during the long summer holiday. The scheme is designed to maintain reading skills and confidence which can otherwise weaken during over that time.

Headshot image of ChloeRevered script consultant Michael Hauge, whose blockbuster credits range from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hancock, happily gives away trade secrets at www.storymastery.com .

A young wannabe wrote to Mr Hauge of his frustration at getting no response from Hollywood script agents. The submitted scripts, intended for mainstream USA audiences, featured Sikh characters and included roles for the writer, who’s also ‘an aspiring actor’. He asked if he must ‘write to sell instead of writing good quality screenplays with unique characters’. You can read Michael’s beautifully honest reply on the Q+A page of www.storymastery.com

Michael’s response might be tough for a frustrated writer / actor /director to read. That’s why it’s so valuable.

I believe that ‘commercial and ‘good quality’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact the creative challenge to balance those elements is a big part of the fun!

To me, creative process means communicating my ideas – in ways that will win audiences. Grab them, hold them, provoke them into thinking (that’s hard!), give them laughter and other reasons to go on living.

Emotional power

Obviously I’m white British, irretrievably middle class and now sagging into middle age. Yet somehow I’ve always been aware of long established respect for Sikhism in the UK. When I was aged six or seven I loved the serial in my weekly comic about a Sikh army officer. I was also a child who suffered horrible nightmares. Time and again I summoned up the image of that warrior in his turban and uniform as I prepared to face the wild landscapes of night; the thought of that character made me feel protected.

So let’s think Life of Pi. Think Slum Dog Millionaire. Those films involve cultures outside the experience of a large part of western cinema audiences, yet the stories have vivid characters about whom you really care, they have visual magnificence and narratives that corkscrew between magical romance and raw survival. Cultural settings are secondary to the films’ emotional power.

5 year plan

But that young Sikh writer-actor must also remember that British creative industries have gatekeepers who tend to revel in their power and who only deign to give the time of day to their chosen clique. Outsiders are almost never allowed in. I suspect the USA, land of opportunity, is no different when it comes to film and television.

I suggest that, given he knows what he’s capable of when he gets his break, the young man needs a 5 year campaign:
1) To build a good reputation in the right places as a Sikh actor. Be available in many countries, do the widest possible range of work to learn how different aspects of the industry create success (and to see how NOT to do many things!) Respected actors do get opportunities as writers + directors.
2) To offer scripts to specialists in making films that feature Sikh culture.  Initially he should not ask to act in his own films, until decision makers know and trust his writing and his acting. So where are the Sikh film makers, all around the world? Hollywood is not the only fruit.
3) To trust that all experience is useful as he works towards writing scripts that celebrate his Sikh culture and weave that material into a wider (western) context that will hook Hollywood decision makers’ attention. If he still wants that.
4) To network, study, work ordinary jobs to pay his bills and discover life; and keep writing. NOTHING IS WASTED even if it isn’t used this year … or next…

All about the money

I know all about failing to see beyond my own potential. “If only bookers/audiences would see how brilliant my performances and material are…”

And my work is constantly devalued, even when people enjoy it. “It’s just storytelling. It’s just for kids.” “We’re a charity.”

Just last week a conversation went bad because someone said “It’s not all about the money” to which I responded “But money is important. I have to pay the rent”. They couldn’t assume that I deliver my work fuelled by a lifetime of experience, 15 years of full time commitment and all the artistic integrity of which I’m capable. Instead they leapt to the easier assumption that I’m crassly commercial.

Right now I’m wriggling my material around to reach a new market. The world première of my first all-contemporary story cabaret Scheherazade’s Shed was hailed by the director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015 as a “highlight of the festival”. I should have done this years ago!

Terrified

But when I started out in 1999, the senior practitioners of my (very small) creative industry terrified me into believing that only one kind of work was acceptable. They were the gatekeepers so I did what they said they wanted. And 15 years on I’ve realised that didn’t work either! Sometimes the doors aren’t just locked against you, they’re bricked up. Time to stop banging my poor bloody head against a brick wall.

But if I’d been more confident, I’d have found the way round much faster. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got. Creative work MUST be influenced by commercial demands, i.e. what audiences like. Otherwise your work is just amateur self indulgence.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival logoIt was a delight, dare I say even moving, to hear the poetry choices of Cheltenham’s election candidates last night at Cheltenham Poetry Festivals world first Poetry Election.

The town’s current MP is Martin Horwood, a Liberal Democrat. He won the Poetry Election with a pair of poems that included Shelley’s Ozymandias (‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone…’) which stopped being a cliché when Martin explained the poem’s original, harshly political context: the Peterloo massacre, repressive Corn Laws and vicious poverty.

The event in the echo-ey vastness of Frances Close Chapel on University of Gloucestershire campus was very sensibly free, so nearly 100 people including the be-chained Mayor of Cheltenham and plenty of arty types packed the front pews to hear readings and a short debate. For an informal arts event in Gloucestershire, that’s an almost miraculously good house.
Other things were revealed. Only the Green candidate Adam Van Coevorden knew how to use a microphone. Labour candidate Paul Gilbert had thought about how the arts enhance education. UKIP newbie Christina Simmons didn’t seem to have an arts policy at all and put austerity far ahead of support for the arts. Martin Horwood vaunted the array of Cheltenham Festivals, quite reasonably on the basis of his involvement in helping to win funding for them. Everybody on the platform got stuck in to their poems with gusto, even indie candidate Richard Lupson-Darnell who confessed to loathing poetry at school.
Call it creativity…
But none of the candidates showed any real understanding of the arts world. Cheltenham’s wonderful Playhouse Theatre – that welcomes professional, semi pro and amateur performance in a way that some of the town’s posh publicly funded venues dismally fail to do – never got a mention.
Beyond the official Festivals, and a yearning for the long lost Axiom centre, the candidates clearly had no concept of working in the arts. If you call it creativity, by the way, the elitist overtone goes away.
Nobody spoke about how creativity – received or participated in – supports mental health, potentially saving the NHS fortunes as depression attains epidemic proportions in the UK. Nobody spoke about how millions of creative people in the UK today – dedicated, intelligent people who train to a high standard and who commit their finances, heart and soul to their work – are unable to make a living.
The thing that makes your heart sing
Nobody spoke about how ‘working in the arts’ carries such a stigma now that it’s almost better to be outed as a banker.
Nobody spoke about how most creative people must, for the whole of their adult lives, consign their talent to a mere hobby to be fitted around zero hours contracts, inadequate wages and exhaustion. If you have any spark of creativity in the UK today, but you’re outside the elite cliques of arts stars and large scale commercialism (film, musical theatre, video games) then all you can expect is sneering discouragement.
Your ability, the thing that makes your heart sing and gives you a reason for living – will be dismissed with a cry of “Get a proper job!”
Cultural desert
After 15 years working full time as a spoken word performer, and observing a wide range of theatre and music from the inside, I’ve concluded that Gloucestershire is a cultural desert where nobody wants to go to anything except the pub, and if they drag themselves to a show they certainly don’t want to pay more than the price of a pint.
Oh, all right, there’s a thin cadre of intellectuals who rather joylessly patronise opera, literature, smart exhibitions and the snob end of culture. Often nowhere near Gloucestershire, let alone Cheltenham or oh my goodness rough old Gloucester.
I could be wrong. It could be that 15 years battling the dead weight of indifference has skewed my view.
Last night’s Poetry Election showed that even politicians can be moved by – and can reach other people through – a thoughtful choice of poem.
But the cold truth in Cheltenham as in most of Britain is that the general public has no interest in what creative people can do. They don’t know, don’t care, don’t go. I’m good at only one thing: telling stories. I have to face every day knowing that very nearly nobody wants what I do best.
Story Cabaret entertainer, spoken word artist Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers

Chloë: new contemporary Story Cabaret

Notes

•  The Jordans Cheltenham Poetry Festival runs 20 April – 3 May 2015: from the world’s gloomiest poet (who will have you in stitches) to duck infested canal poetry, plus bands, hip hop and poetry for children.

•  Scheherazade’s Shed – the world première of my new contemporary story show for adults is Monday 27 April 9pm at Cheltenham Playhouse, ticket £7 or concession price £4. Please pre book from the Playhouse 01242 522 852

Cheltenham’s parliamentary candidates, in alphabetical order, are:

Cotswold Life magazine requested spooky local yarns for its online pages during October. I sent them a true story… Here’s The Museum in Black – don’t have nightmares!

Come and enjoy Hallowe’en family storytelling and adults’ Story Cabaret

during October

starting 12 Oct. 4pm with Sunday Afternoon Tea & ScaryTales at the Burrow Café, Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire

Chloë at Hallowe'en

Chloë tells scarytales [photo by Ken Skehan]

Chloë: "Fairytales help me function in the real world"

Chloë: “Fairytales help me function in the real world”

Experts tell me my blogs are too long. They insist you don’t have the time (or intelligence?) to take in detail.
I think experts cater for the average – and that’s not what I’m working with, here.
I think you read with cuppa to hand and brain provoked into firing off your own ideas. That’s what blogging is about, isn’t it? But today I experiment: the long blog has been split into 2 parts. You tell me what you think – add your comment or use the Contact Form below.

When I perform as the Dragon Whisperer, every audience includes one child who asks, “Are dragons real?”

To the child whose voice quavers with anxiety I answer, “I am a storyteller. It’s my job to make things up. What do you think?”

To the grinning, streetwise brat as well as to the gravely enquiring child I respond with a straight look and “Dragons are real to me. You’ll have to make up your own mind.”

I believe these responses empower children to sort out their own thinking; and that’s the point, really.

A few young people find fiction an irritating turn off. Was Richard Dawkins, disparager of fairytales, one of those? Many reluctant readers need facts – wild truths, outrageous reality, biographies and encyclopedias. Fiction phobes relish real life stories about how their heroes overcame disadvantage and setbacks. Engage their imaginations with how the real world is constructed, from weird sea creatures to the craziest twists of history: because truth is, of course, stranger and more wonderful than fiction. Every day.

Relief in fantasy

It’s quite disturbing to hear an eight-year-old claiming that fantasy stories help her ‘escape’. I have to hope she was repeating what she’d heard adults say.

But fantasy / fairytale as escapism for teens and adults is also valuable.

BBC Radio 4 intelligentsia might fret about teen boys immured in bedrooms playing internet wargames and watching endless films; I suggest this is still feeding imagination – and diverting the rogue waves of testosterone. Better films and fantasy than rampaging down the road with an Uzi. (Yes, this is a whole different subject, for another day.)

Put it another way: if your life is dull or difficult, if physical or mental health is on the blink, then fantasy can provide significant relief.

More adaptable

For more than 30 years I’ve been pummelled by phases of depression, some more derailing than others. Millions of people face the same mood management challenges that I do, and likewise refuse to resort to alcohol or other substances.

I can’t change my world: only my response to it. For me, that means a short trip into fantasy – dragons, space ships and all; sometimes in a book or film, sometimes at a live action roleplay game. Thus refreshed, I face my real world tasks in a stronger and more adaptable frame of mind.

In my mid 50s, I still NEED fairytales in order to function.

I hazard the guess that Richard Dawkins loathes Narnia author C S Lewis, whose work was as much Christian allegory as children’s entertainment. I read the whole series repeatedly between the ages of eight and twelve and took no interest whatsoever in the Christian connections. The stories were just rattling good reads. So I’ll give today’s last word to the creator of Aslan, so thrillingly “not a tame lion”.

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” – C S Lewis 

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Blog revised (divided to make shorter pieces!) after expert advice that you can’t cope with long articles…
Tell you what, you tell me: comments below. And anyway, you’ve probably seen Part 2 of this already, thanks to blog layout. Hey ho.

The hero who faces the dragon can inspire or warn many generations

“…Let them [children] at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage”

PART 1:   Richard Dawkins won his headline coverage at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival by belittling fairytales and suggesting that childish fantasies should be dropped in favour of “a spirit of scepticism”.

Dawkins has a string of letters after his name. My late father, the entomologist Professor A D (Tony) Lees, had only BSc, PhD and FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s top club for scientists. You don’t get many of them to the pound]. From my earliest years, my father read to me and encouraged me to love stories.

In his own boyhood, my father was partly inspired to follow the way of the naturalist by reading the children’s fantasy series Dr Dolittle.

Before that story was razzamatazzed by Hollywood, Hugh Lofting’s stories about the little portly doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh nudged young readers to consider very serious subjects indeed. The Dolittle books explore friendship, family, multi culturalism, moral dilemmas, money management, cruelty, ignorance, courage and the stultifying effect of narrow thinking – including academic snobbery… Lofting himself was a WW1 veteran and international civil engineer.

Relief from logic

My father – and his colleagues – sent me exploring Narnia, Middle Earth, Japanese poetry and mythology, Jules Verne proto steampunk science fiction and of course the spoof scientific methods of Sherlock Holmes. For these very serious scientists such fiction provided relief from the business of hard logic – as well as springboard moments of ‘What if..?”

Several models of mobile phone, medical diagnostic devices and even the latest space ship design derive directly from the enduringly popular TV science fiction series Star Trek.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales,” Albert Einstein is alleged to have said.

The author Beth Webb says “Fiction inspires scientists to imagine the impossible.” All my life I’ve seen how the arts and science mutually nourish each other. I’ve observed author Sir Terry Pratchett deep in discussion with performers and scientists as he developed more of his glitteringly successful, magi-technical Discworld. Good fantasy writers start from real science in order to create plausible fiction.

And yes, bad fantasists distort science to con the less well informed. Look at almost any so-called UFO website; it’s very nearly impossible to find genuine information.

But the professors from around the world who dined at my father’s table, talking shop until my mother and I crept away in exhausted incomprehension, valued creativity from fine art to fine words. Very serious scientists love fantasy.

Great beards in the sky

Dawkins complains that fairytales indoctrinate children in “supernaturalism”. An ardent atheist, he worries that fables put young minds at risk of being caught in the webs of religion.

But isn’t it exactly the other way around? I suggest that young people experienced in the difference between fantasy and reality are far LESS likely to be taken in by claims of resurrection, virgins in heaven, tablets of stone, divinities with animal heads, guided thunderbolts or any of the great beards in the sky that rulers have invented to control the general population.

The woodcutter takes charge of the dragons, tricking them out of their treasure

Legendary hero Stan Bolovan wins wealth and happiness by keeping his nerve: a lesson for children? (Illustration from ‘Dragon Games’ story in DRAGON TALES CD and e-book by Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers)

I can’t have been the only child who was disappointed to discover that her toy magic wand didn’t work, and that no amount of burrowing to the back of wardrobes led to a snowy lamplit land. Privately, without fuss, I confirmed the difference between make-believe and the real world.

Dawkins fails to credit children with their natural bloody-minded common sense. We know in our bones – I revert to eight years old here – that frogs can’t turn into anything (except interesting corpses…), that superheroes don’t fly to the rescue and that dragons don’t light up our skies. And we see pretty soon that prayer can ease fear but it doesn’t stop earthquakes or save loved ones.

The uses of metaphor

As it happens I deal in make-believe on a daily basis. For the purpose of children’s entertainment I have constructed the fantasy world of Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer – lead draconics expert and field operative for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters.

In costume and character I tell stories about dragons, plus traditional folktales and legends from many cultures around the world. I must be doing something right because it’s no trouble to keep a couple of hundred primary school pupils completely spellbound. Even teen and adult fantasy fans – especially Tolkien/LOTR enthusiasts – enjoy my Masterclass in the Care & Training of Dragons.

But what is actually the point of fairy stories and folktales? (As the very teutonic academic demanded at the end of my Tolkien Society presentation in 2012).

Beth Webb (also on Facebook) writes elegant fantasy fiction that is adored by an extraordinary range of children and teens. She also works with the UK’s most gifted and talented young people – frankly, the great thinkers and top boffins of our future – in writing courses bubbling with joyously outside-the-box creativity. Most of her students won’t become professional writers but they do go on to communicate more effectively with the rest of their world. They never forget the critical and constructive thinking skills – yes, the ‘spirit of scepticism’ – and the creative freedom opened up for them under Beth’s guidance.

Educationalists around the world assert

  • For children transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, the structure, phrasing and imagery of fairytales/folktales demonstrate the uses of metaphor.
  • Fairytales accustom children to narrative structure and develop their vocabulary. Children who grow up hearing, telling and reading stories move more easily into written work at school.
  • Fairytales allow children to experience fear and danger at a safe remove. Children observe how wit, courage, creative thinking and co-operation solve problems.

I would also say that fairytales and folklore help connect young people to their cultural roots. Equally, stories from different cultures give children insight into other ways of life and different values. In a world where belief systems are clashing with ever bloodier violence, and the great beards of temple, church and mosque are prescribing and proscribing with ferocious zeal, stories become a last chance to broaden cultural horizons.

Very definitely fairytales promote scepticism: think of all the mocked and unloved third sons or daughters of storyworld who shine as role models, defying convention and authority to save their families. Consider Dawkins’ improbable frog prince, and the Beast in his rose garden: apparently impossible partners for a human – yet their gentleness and delightful good company invite us to take the difficult step of looking beyond appearances, beyond prejudices.

And now refill your glasses for Part 2: scroll up to the next blog post title ‘Fairytale: A Great Escape’

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If you’d like to be entertained by live Story Cabaret (spoken word fantasy for audiences of adults) or would like workshops to inspire your own creativity, as well as for secondary schools Year 7 – Sixth Form, please check out my work

I also supply storytelling for primary and junior schools and family events as Agent Green the Dragon Whisperer

If you’re really keen, Dragon Tales the e-book for Kindle is available for a teensy tithe of treasure – only GBP£2.56 – including more illustrations