Monday, September 12, 2011

Mr Wiggle and Mr Waggle on the road home...

What does a storyteller do? In my case I tell old tales, like Mr Wiggle and Mr Waggle, and many others to small children, school students, old folk, workers - a wide diversity of human beans. I tell folk tales, mostly from a Western European tradition as that is my cultural heritage, interwoven with personal anecdotes and stories. I listen to the stories all around. I listen to the stories moving around a place and in the voices of the people who are the listeners to my tales. I listen to the stories that bubble out of the children and adults who are participating in storytime. I listen for the stories that light people up and the ones that illuminate the story space and the ones that are not told, the silent stories, that inhabit the space around the told stories. I do not know these stories, because they have not been told, but I do know their absence and how that changes the stories that are present. For example, the stories that my father did not tell about his war experiences took up as much space, and at times more space, than the stories he did tell. So it is with stories and the way they move around the landscape.

I know how I dance with these stories. Every time I tell Mr Wiggle and Mr Waggle, or the Gingerbread Man, or The Silent Princess, or The Galah Tree or the Glass Cupboard - I dance the words around the space where the listeners sit. The words fall around them, I pick them up and throw them back, I listen and change them according to the contributions from the audience, I laugh and add some ancient language from an old, old version of the tale, a word like 'pedlar' or 'cobber' or even a place name like Yackandandah. The listeners will add their bits too. Children just call them out as their enthusiasm overflows. They make up words or call their current favourites like 'Higgle piggle', 'Humpybong'. They play with the language and that is the point. Language belongs to us, we created it, we can play with it, change it, innovate. The story space is the place to claim language for your own - and for children to be able to play confidently in their first language is all about identity, family, culture and articulating who I am and where I come from.

So it is with everyone in the story space, regardless of age. We dance the words, recreate the story every time it is told. As the teller it is my job to give the story up for reinvention every time. To share the delight, the poignancy, the nonsense and the profound truth which rests in each of the old folk tales. Spoken story never stays the same. If it did it would never survive, except as print on a page and then it is a different story - it is written, not spoken, and will be reinvented individually by the reader. The storyteller keeps the story moving, relevant to the audience that hear it across time and make it new, each time.

Toot Toot and I go up the hill and down the hill, up the hill and down the hill, across the landscape, along the New England Highway. Ironically I have lost my voice since catching a nasty case of flu in Wodonga while staying with Kirsty and Jarrah and dancing our way through stories together. The told and the untold stories that sit with dear friends and family while we watch the delight of Jarrah, at two and a half, tell us who he is and dance his story.

Wodonga, Gundagai, Canberra, Goulbourn, Oberon, Bathurst, Wattle Flat, Ilford to Lake Windemere and Mudgee. Up the hill and down the hill, up the hill and down the hill...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Australian War Memorial - a different sort of journey...

It has taken me some time to write about the War Memorial. That is a Lancaster bomber in the photo. My father flew these, and other bombers, during the second World War. This seems an impossibly long time ago now, but in my childhood it wasn't that much longer than the decade that has just been marked since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Between 1943 and 1945 my father was part of the Australian Bomber squadrons that flew over Europe and tried to wipe out the industry of Germany. He was aged nineteen to twenty one. I used to think that he was too young then to have done anything really dangerous, or courageous. At the War Memorial, it says the average age of the young Australian pilots was twenty. 20. Let me tell you about what I remember of my father just now. He used to throw back his head and laugh out loud. His laughter moved his whole body. He used to say 'Whackothedidlio' and when watching the Broncos, he would lean forward and say, 'you beauty' in a long and drawn out exclamation. YOU BEAUUUTYYY. When we were small he taught all five of us to body surf, guaging the right moment to throw our body into the curve of the wave and ride with absolute delight into shore. On the edge of the surf, when we were even smaller, his legs were like pylons, dug deep in the sand, that we would roll and squirm and knock up against. He would stand there with the other dads, on the edge, while all us kids chased waves and dug holes that filled with salty water so quickly we would almost miss the shells that were sucked down and buried. From time to time he would lean down and pick one of us up and swing us high above his head, onto his shoulders, to scan the deep sea past the breakers for smugglers. At the end of the day, after dinner and before bed, when it was dark he would sit with us on the dunes again and look for the smugglers lights far out in the ocean. Our family played this game for years, then he played it with his grandchildren too, scanning the dark of Bribie Passage for lights blinking a code to shore.
Years later, as his time here was almost done, I found some old black and white photos from his youth. A group of young men in uniform larking around, smoking, smiling at the camera and each other. On closer scrutiny I recognised some of my father's friends - the other dads from the beach and the bar-b-ques, the beer garden and the park on Cracker Night. We talked together about the photo and for the first time in all those years he pointed to other faces and said, "He didn't come back. He didn't come back. Either did he or he." And I started to sink into the grief and the shock, the sadness and the courage of those young bomber pilots that flew off in the night, all those decades ago, and did not know if they would make it back. At the War Memorial it said that of the 10000 young Australians in the bomber squadrons, more than 3500 did not come back. I cannot remember the exact figures but the death toll was staggering.
Those that did come back built a life, determinedly, had large families and did not talk about those years. At least not to us, their children. My father did not go to Anzac Day, though he did play in the Army and Navy Cup at golf, with the other faces from the photo, the ones that did come back to inhabit my childhood neighbourhood, to cheer their footy teams, and their childrens and grandchildrens.

What was that about a journey?

Infinite Horizons - the Fred Williams exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra, captures how my journey has been for the last week. Toot Toot and I have been making our way across the landscape with a little help from Sean, my Irish GPS. The landscape has changed at every turn - colours, hillsides dotted with trees and livestock, woods and forests that crowd all around and most of all a breathtaking climb through the mountains from Goulburn to Oberon and on to Bathurst. At times on this drive as I made my way across a plateau above the Abercrombie River National Park I was surrounded by newly felled forests that stretched away to a horizon outlined by mountains in the deepest of blues. The road wound round and round with treacherous drops at the side and Toot Toot followed my every turn with steadfast determination. Then we would plunge down into the valleys and cross streams amidst tall timber again and the dappled sunlight and shadow was indeed like a Fred Williams kaleidoscope. Colour, colour all around, light and dark.

But before I set off from Goulburn I was in Canberra for three days. Sean was not much use to me in Canberra as I did not have exact addresses or even any idea where I was most of the time. Partially this is because of a bad childhood memory of being lost in Canberra on a family holiday while my parents struggled to navigate around the city circles. We would see the monument, or the hotel, but could never quite find our way there. This time I thought I would be fine with Sean to help, but that did not work out. So I left the car at the van park and took buses at first this worked fine. The Fred Williams exhibition was exquisite and I spent hours at the National Gallery. By the time I got to go to the War Memorial I had enough courage to take Toot Toot again and believe it or not, we found it no worries...

Friday, August 26, 2011

Yackandandah via Wodonga and Yarrawonga

There is poetry in the place names of country Victoria, poetry in the landscape too. The drive to Wodonga on the Murray and the border of Victoria and NSW is tiresome - straight down the Motorway, the road hardly deviates for three hours. But when I stopped and looked around it is another story. All the rain has fed the creeks and rivers and fields - the grass is lush and cattle look well fed and content. And once again, the wattle is blossoming everywhere. The clear blue of a wide sky, bordered by mountains and fields dotted with pink and white cherry blossom and a road lined by wattle like fireworks. Mostly though it is the undulating hills which stretch across the landscape like a serpents back while Toot Toot makes her merry way along that capture my imagination.

I am visiting my pal, Kirsty and her wondrous son Jarrah in Wodonga. This morning they took me to Yackandandah and we wondered the old shops, spent some time in the Museum and the old park. I am always amazed at the war memorials in country towns - long lists of names, sometimes three or four in one family, who perished on the other side of the world.
This also makes me wonder about the aboriginal history of the area - the Murray would have provided a rich feast with lots of bird life and a flood plain for grazing mammals. Hopefully I will discover more over the next few days.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The road to Seaford and Aireys Inlet...

I have spent the last week staying with friends in Seaford, down near Frankston. This requires that I travel through the tunnel and along the motorway, Eastlink. I have got better at the tunnel, though I do find it disconcerting when the GPS shows me and my little van actually travelling under the river!

Then last Friday I headed off to Aireys Inlet for their Words Festival, to listen to authors and illustrators, Roland Harvey, Elisabeth Honey and my pal Jackie Kerin. They all talked about their inspiration and their craft of creating stories and books. Jackie talked about the creation of her book, Phar Lap, the Wonder Horse. She also told more stories on her kamishibi, a traditional Japanese storytelling theatre. I love Jackie's stories, based on historical research and a great passion for characters and events through time.

Aireys Inlet also has an old lighthouse. It was International Lighthouse Day... Both Jackie and I tell adaptations of the "Lighthouse Keepers Lunch" by David and Rhonda Armitage, in our story sessions for small children.

Aireys Inlet also had a great van park where Toot Toot and I settled for a couple of days. There were not many people at the southern tip of the continent this last weekend - well, not many at the van park, so I had a fabulous stay with the camp kitchen and games room all to myself.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Story begets story begets story...

The house was hopping and the stories running hot at Daylesford. Annie had three storytellers and two musicians staying at her place this weekend, so we shared champagne, red ned and a little whisky, along with the stories and music until late at night.

Jackie Kerin, Mattheo and Jan (Yarn)Wozinksky arrived at the Daylesford Courthouse for their panel discussion on "An afternoon in conversation with ..." Annie led the discussion and Jan (Yarn) was first up talking about what brought him to story - his mixed Scottish and Czech heritage, his history with the Bushwackers Band and the stories he collected in NT from Bill Harney Jnr. All this was accompanied by his banjo and ballads. Jackie followed and chatted about her time as a dreamer, when she was small, and training at NIDA, then hilarious stories about working on ads for Bunnings and, to quote Jackie, 'stuff I wouldn't want to eat.' In fact Jackie has a wide and diverse acting history, but when I first met her, about 15 years ago in Melbourne she was just starting out as a storyteller. She also demonstrated her 'Split Dog' stories on the kamishibi, a traditional Japanese story theatre.

Mattheo's story was fascinating too - his early work as a set designer building hugh sets and props, his work with theatre in Melbourne and Bryon Bay and lots of anecdotes about being a street performer and the way storytelling creates pictures in your head. Mattheo tells 'wonder tales' and that is how it is - wondrous, taking the listener on a wild and hilarious journey with ogres, fools and princesses. It was a great afternoon.

Later that night, back at Annies we all told tales to the camera so that Annie could put them together for the Guild Blog. It was great fun, sitting by her fireplace, trying to work the lights and camera, but mostly just telling and laughing and encouraging each other to look right at the camera. Story beget story beget story - that's the way it goes. It is how stories have moved all around the world, survived, thrived, changed and morphed - but mostly kept on moving, mouth to ear, breath to breath, heart to heart.

Words in Winter...

So, on Friday morning I asked Sean the way to Daylesford. Sean is my Irish GPS guide. Every time he tells me to turn right in 300mts, it makes me laugh and I find myself arguing with him. “Oh Sean, you’ve got no idea at all how to find your way around the Australian bush. Who do you think you are kidding, right you say, right. “

That’s how we usually chat with one another and I must day he is very persistent. So this morning when I asked the way to Daylesford, I had already worked it out on my map. I just thought it was time to give Sean a chance to lead me astray. Well, he certainly did that! He took me across hill and dale, through some of the most hidden roadways. I would never have taken the chance to go that way myself, it was far too obscure. But I have to say, Sean came up trumps. It was a spectacular journey from Shepparton, through Heathcote and the State Forest to Daylesford – and so much shorter, even for the meandering way. At first I was a bit worried about the kangaroos as the path was heavily wooded and Toot Toot is not really used to dodging wildlife. But after a while the road became an avenue of old eucalypts on the edge and pasture beyond. It was hilly but so beautiful.

Until we got to Annie’s place at Daylseford…

And here the stories started…Annie has been a storyteller as long as me, starting back in the eighties in public libraries, then making the leap to freelance work about 88, like me. She has worked all around Victoria, particularly Daylesford and Ballarat where she has lived for 20 years and raised her kids too. Annie has worked in schools and libraries, on local radio and

at galleries. She has developed lots of wonderful stories from historical material and tells the stories that have just sat on library shelves neglected, or have lingered in the minds of folk, waiting for a teller to draw them out and let others hear…

So when tellers get together that’s what we do, tumbling over each other with ideas and hare brained schemes that may take some time to find their voice. But they usually do, eventually. Annie is telling at the Daylesford Words in Winter festival. She started last night with her show, “So who was the first gay in the village” about the history of gay culture in Daylesford. I cannot believe I missed this – but just could not make it in time. Never mind, there will be other times, and anyway I am here for the next few days so we are sure to be telling late into the night. Tomorrow, three Melbourne tellers will be here – my great pal, Jackie Kerin, and two of the oldest fairy tellers, Marylou Keaney and Mattheo. One of the strange phenomema of the Australian storytelling scene is that quite a few of us worked a lot in the early days in the Fairy Shops. In Melbourne the first Fairy Shop was Wonder Wings, in Richmond, and it offered steady work for tellers at children’s parties and the Adult Only nights on the weekends. Annie, Mattheo, Mary Lou, Suzanne Sandow and of course, Nell Bell, all told at Wonder Wings in the early nineties. Fairy parties were very popular for kids then – it has dwindled these days. I also told at Brisbane’s first Fairy Shop, on Latrobe Tce, in Paddington, for a while, but this work was really developed by another Brisbane teller Suzanne Harris. Telling at children’s parties is hard work because the kids are so beside themselves with excitement. They are also pretty little, so it is as tough a training ground in working with audiences that you can get. If you don’t tell well for small children they just give you the flick. It is not easy to engage fully with their imaginative life – the teller has to lead for a bit, then be prepared to follow and take them on a truly wondrous journey, bringing them back safe to eat cake and blow out the candles.