Hugh Lupton is one of Britain’s leading storytellers.
RADIO 4, FEBRUARY 2005
A CHAIN OF VOICES
I am Hugh Lupton. For the last twenty-five years I’ve worked as a storyteller – telling stories in schools, arts-centres, theatres, prisons, hospices, universities; at festivals and fairs. I tell myths legends, folk-tales, wonder-tales, jokes, riddles, ballads… traditional narratives from that great continuum that stretches from the Ginger-bread Man to the Iliad and embraces all points between.
In 1992 I was touring Swaziland and Lesotho for the British Council, telling and collecting stories. Both of them are countries in which, for all the years of missionary zeal, ancestor worship has remained deeply embedded in the culture. Put most simply it is a belief that those who have gone before, whether remembered or forgotten, serve as a bridge, as mediators between this world and the world of spirit. To be possessed by the ancestors is to open that bridge.
One day I was at a festival in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. All afternoon a group of women in traditional costume had been dancing tirelessly in the dusty heat. I had been recording the drumming and hypnotic song that accompanied the dance. During a break I got talking to one of the musicians.
“What about you,” he asked, “Do you believe in ancestor worship?”
To my surprise I found myself answering:
“Yes. Yes I do.”
Music: Lesotho Women’s dance, recorded Nov’ 1992
So where did it begin, my own particular brand of ancestor worship? I suppose, unconsciously, it began with my mother’s milk. Although we don’t often think about it, the most important act of oral transmission, that all of us are heir to, is the passing on of language, of mother-tongue.
Language is a complex of living sound that has been shaped by the mouths of countless ancestors. It has been evolved and refined over hundreds of thousands of years. And it is our birth-right.
We are inhabited by the dead every time we speak.
Then there are the nursery rhymes – those ancient nonsensical fragments and jingles that have survived because they delight the tongues and ears of little children: Goosey Gander, Humpty Dumpty, Ring a Roses and all… an inheritance from the deep past.
There are the place names, with their mysterious Saxon and Celtic etymologies, that ripple out as a child’s world expands from hearth to High Street to town (whether Hemel Hempstead, Hove or Harlech).
There are the family stories told and told again. I never knew my great grandfather, but I always knew that he could only whistle two tunes, one was God save the King and the other wasn’t. It was all I needed to know to give him substance.
There are the thousands of domestic craft skills… from tying a bow to carving a chicken. Skills that have been passed from parent to offspring since the Stone Age.
And the games: jacks, marbles, cat’s-cradles, conkers…
Whether we like it or not we are caught up from infancy in ancestral knowledge.
Nobody has written about such knowledge, its everydayness and the mystery of its origin, better than Alan Garner. In this excerpt from ‘The Stone Book’ Mary has been given a candle and a skein of thread by her father, who is a stone-mason. He has sent her deep into Glaze Hill, just as he had been sent by his father when he was a boy. In a cave below the hill she finds the painting of a bull struck by an arrow. She recognises the arrow as her father’s mason mark.
Mary had come through the hill to see Father’s mark on a daubed bull. And near the bull and the mark there was a hand, the outline of a hand. Someone had splayed a hand on the wall and painted round it with the Tough Tom. Fingers and thumb.
Mary put the candle close. A white dimension hand. She lifted her own and laid it over the hand on the wall, not touching. Both hands were the same size. She reached nearer. They were the same size. She touched. The rock was cold, but for a moment it had almost felt warm. The hands fitted. Fingers and thumb and palm and a bull and Father’s mark in the darkness under the ground.
Mary stood back, in the middle of the Tough Tom, and listened to the silence. It was the most secret place she had ever seen. A bull drawn for secrets. A mark and a hand alone with the bull in the dark that nobody knew.
She looked down. And when she looked down she shouted. She wasn’t alone. The Tough Tom was crowded. All about her in that small place under the hill that led nowhere were footprints.
They were the footprints of people, bare and shod. There were boots and shoes and clogs, heels, toes, shallow ones and deep ones, clear and sharp as if made altogether, trampling each other, hundreds pressed into the clay where only a dozen could stand. Mary was in a crowd that could never have been, thronging, as real as she was. Her feet made prints no fresher than theirs.
And the bull was still dying under the mark, and the one hand still held.
There was nowhere to run, no one to hear. Mary stood on the Tough Tom and waited. She daren’t jerk the thread to feel Father’s presence; he was so far away that the thread would have broken.
Then it was over. She knew the great bull on the rock enclosing her, and she knew the mark and the hand. The invisible crowd was not there, and the footprints in the Tough Tom churned motionless.
(Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet, Collins, 1976)
As for myself, I suppose I would have been about Mary’s age, eleven or so, when I began to become conscious of the relationship between past and present. I went to Kings College Choir School in Cambridge (though I wasn’t a chorister). I can vividly remember crossing the playing fields on misty autumn mornings, in school cap, mac, grey flannel shorts, cold knees, three-quarter socks… a copy of the Victor sticking out of a pocket… and hearing the choir practicing William Byrd or Thomas Tallis, and realising, in an unformed way, that here, on the tongues and in the breath of my class-mates, the spirit world of Tudor England was being made present in the here and now of the uttered word… in a battered classroom. The music was alive in a way that the Tudor stone of King’s Chapel could never be. The chapel was a fossil, the music was the real living thing. Although I never formed the thought at the time, a part of me understood that the choir were possessed by ancestral spirits as they sang.
Music: Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, sung by Kings College Choir.
When I was sixteen I had a history teacher called Mr Shipton. I don’t remember much about him… he only taught at the school for a couple of terms. But I do vividly remember one of his tutorials. It was just before we sat our ‘O’ levels. He needed to give us some extra notes. He invited us to his rooms. He did his best to make us relax, made us coffee. We sat rather stiffly on every chair, stool or bench he could muster. When the teaching was over he produced an LP he’d just bought. On the cover two wind-swept figures were leaning against a snow-covered dry-stone wall, woollen trousered, cloaked, one bearded with a broad brimmed black hat, behind them a clear blue winter sky… they looked like Wordsworth and Coleridge photographed on a fell somewhere high above Grassmere, but re-incarnated as hippies. He took the record from the sleeve and switched on the stereo. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
Music: Keeooaadi There
The record was called ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’, the two musicians called themselves ‘The Incredible String Band’. I became an instant devotee.
Their music was suffused with a humour, an anarchy, a youthful delight at simply being alive in the world, and an intoxication with language. Their songs sent me scuttling to the esoteric corners of bookshops and libraries, references to Maya and Krishna, to Gimmel and Daleth, to Loki, to Thomas Traherne and Robert Graves, to folk-song and nursery rhyme opened up new worlds. I started to explore Indian devotional music, the folk music of North Africa and the Bahamas. And I began to collect, volume by volume, F. J. Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’.
That moment in Mr Shipton’s room set something in motion, and I thank him for it.
What was that something?
I think it was the realisation that certain things that had seemed to me to be weighed down with a sort of grey worthiness and institutional respectability: folk-song, religion, history, poetry, myth, could be quickened into a mercurial life on the tongue.
At the day’s end I found
Nightfall wrapped about a stone.
I took the cold stone in my hand,
The shadowy surfaces of life unwound,
And within I found
A bird’s fine bone.
I warmed the relic in my hand
Until a living heart
Beat, and the tides flowed
Above, below, within.
There came a boat riding the storm of blood
And in the boat a child,
In the boat a child
Riding the waves of song,
Riding the waves of pain.
That was the first of Kathleen Raine’s ‘Three Poems of Incarnation’.
The act of telling a story involves straddling two worlds. One foot is in the place where the story happens, one foot is in the place where the story is being told. One eye looks inwards to the image world of the tale (the imagination), the other looks outwards to the audience. The tongue (or the pen) relays one world to the other.
Two contemporary poets in particular have understood this, both in their poetry and in their commentaries on the poetic process. One was Kathleen Raine, the other was Ted Hughes. I never met them, but they both became tutelary spirits for me, appearing at the right moment in my life, then reappearing, like beacons, casting a harsh, clear light, reminding me where I needed to go. Both of them are hard task masters, antidotes to whimsy. They led me unerringly into myth. Especially Hughes. I cherish the memory of the few times I heard him read his work. I’ll never forget the craggy presence… and the coiled energy of his voice, beneath the Yorkshire understatement, that set the language vibrating… and his almost paleolithic understanding of the natural world.
Here he is telling one of the stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A contemporary poet, possessed by a story that was old two thousand years ago, making it speak to his own time. The story is of a contest of music between Pan and Apollo, witnessed by the hapless King Midas. The judge is a mountain called Tmolus. It was one of the last recordings Hughes made.
Reading: Midas, from ‘Tales from Ovid’, Faber
I had a brief exchange of letters with Ted Hughes about ten years ago, in one of them he wrote (self effacingly): “When I was a lad, back in the Dark Ages, I used to dream about wandering the roads, West of Ireland and the Hebrides, just telling tales and singing songs and grafting myself somehow into the old trunk of that tradition. What a fall since!”
Music: Virata, from ‘The Mahabharata’, Realworld records.
That was the Indian singer Sarmila Roy, from the sound-track of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata.
It was a Burmese storyteller called Beulah Candappa who observed: “The written word goes from the eye to the brain, the spoken word goes from the ear to the heart.” I don’t know what the neurologists would say about that, but to me it comes close to the mark.
When I was twenty the next-door room in the house I was living in was inhabited by a lanky, barefooted Irish-American with a loud ribald laugh, very long hair and strange deep-set leonine eyes… from behind his door came alternately Bach preludes played on the classical guitar and the sounds of a cat being disembowelled. This was Ross Daly. We became good friends. He was already an accomplished musician, and he’d just returned from Crete with a lyre – the Cretan fiddle – the screeching sounds were his first attempts at the instrument that would later make him famous. Ross had an almost complete indifference to the established orthodoxies of the academic and musical worlds – though he could have dazzled them all. He was on his own dogged quest for an authentic musical voice.
From him I learned to seek out and value the bearers and disseminators of tradition, often over-looked and living on the margins of society.
By the mid seventies Ross’ quest had taken him back to Crete, where he apprenticed himself to one of the island’s finest lyre players (who kept a tobacco booth in Chania). Eventually he became a leading exponent of the music of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Music, Bayali, Ross Daly, from ‘Iris’, erosmusic
Over the years, following Ross’ lead, I’ve been lucky to meet and make friends with several great bearers of tradition. Duncan Williamson is one of them. Duncan is a Scottish traveller, born in a tent on the shores of Loch Fyne in 1928. His repertoire of stories and songs is unsurpassed.
It was Duncan who told me that when you tell a story or sing a song the person you heard it from is standing behind you. When that person spoke he, in turn, had a teller behind him, and so on, back and back and back. I love this idea, the story has to speak to its own time, but the teller has also to be true to the chain of voices that inform him or her.
The ancestors are lining up behind the spoken word like the footprints pressed into the clay in Alan Garner’s story.
Here’s a recording I made last summer in my kitchen, of Duncan singing the ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, a song he
remembers hearing his grandmother, old Bet McColl, sing in the 1930’s. The sense of her presence is almost tangible.
Music: Thomas the Rhymer, recorded May 2004
The function of myth is to tell the truth. Not the everyday truth that is the opposite of lying, but the truth that can’t be told any other way. Countless intelligences have precipitated the stories. Countless voices have worked on them, shaping them and adjusting them and refining them, clothing them in the picture language that lodges in our memories. They are as durable and resilient as the words that carry them. They are a gift from the past, but they are only worth anything if they can speak to the present. Our job is to retell and reinterpret them, to let them lead us into the questions and mysteries and silences that words can only point towards.
He built himself a house,
his roof overhead,
his chimney and smoke,
his view from the window.
He made himself a garden,
his evening dew.
He cut out his bit of sky above.
And he wrapped the garden in the sky
and the house in the garden
and packed the lot in a handkerchief
and went off
lone as an arctic fox
through the cold
into the world.
(Fairy Tale, Miroslav Holub)
As they say in Romania:
‘Three Golden Apples fell from the sky.
One for me, who told.
One for you, who listened.
And one for all those who are standing behind me now.’
Music: St George’s Day, the English Acoustic Collective, from ‘Ghosts’, ruf records