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Oxford Storytelling Festival – A Personal Review

From the outset I need to declare that, sadly, we were only able to visit the festival for one and a half days. We decided to commit to the Saturday and Sunday of the event, but a family emergency meant that we had to leave at lunchtime on the Sunday. Consequently, my impressions are based on being able to attend just over half of the festival.

Click on the logo to go to the Festival website.

Having said all of the above, the review is going to be in three parts. This is because I feel that the festival was not a single event, but a collision between two events: one a storytelling festival, and another where the focus was a spiritual connection with the earth (as a shorthand for a range of alternative spiritualities) - I will discuss these separately after an introduction to the festival site.

I am aware that some of what follows is negative and so it is worth saying that I was delighted to learn of a storytelling festival that was a little more than an hour from home, I booked tickets for the festival wanting it to be a success (I don’t come from a family that relishes wasting money), and I still want it to succeed. However, there are aspects of the event that I (and some of the others that I have spoken to) felt uncomfortable with, and other things that were simply organisational and could be put down to a ‘first go’. However, to start off with, let’s think about the positive…

The venue

I last visited the environs of Wheatley near Oxford at about the age of fourteen, and then never made it to Waterperry House and Gardens. The House has associations with the School of Economic Science which (from the limited information that I have managed to find online) is a quasi-religious foundation which seems to owe much to Western interpretations of Hinduism - there is a series of murals dominating one of the house’s central spaces which express the spirituality of the organisation. The facilities of the site made it a very good place for the festival, with plenty of performance spaces: tipis pitched in the grounds, rooms in the house itself, and a fantastic small, but perfectly formed, amphitheatre (where performers included Jan Blake and Ben Hagerty (see photo below)).

For the experienced festival goer, the presence of real flushing toilets, running hot water and hot-air hand dryers was not something to be scoffed at - campers also had space to pitch (for free) and access to a ‘sky shower’ and ‘compost toilets’. The on-site tea shop did raise my hopes for a relaxed afternoon brew and piece of cake, but sadly it promised much but didn’t always deliver (hint to the managers of the tea shop: please train your staff – youthful enthusiasm does not make up for not being able to make a decent coffee) – thank goodness for the coffee tent in the tented ‘village’. In addition to the (very good) coffee stall in the village, various craft stalls sold their wares, vegetarian food was available from two outlets (but you would have been struggling to feed yourself on a limited budget through them), and (of course) the SfS yurt was a place of calm and conversation.

The Storytelling

As I have already said, we sadly had to leave early, but still managed to take-in nine full performances, and some snatches of others, in the time that we were there.

There were some stand-out, bravura, performances and I will come onto those in a minute, but the strongest memories that I have of the weekend’s storytelling are those performances that mixed music and story. Sadly, I don’t know any musicians well enough to create a telling in which music and story are woven together (the closest I have come are Christmas shows with the fabulous Louise Howlett, but there we are taking turns: story, song, story, song, etc.). First, Chris Salisbury’s telling of one of the legends of Finn McCool around the (dormant) fire pit was accompanied by Dave Hart (see picture below where he is playing the pipes, as he did at the start and end of the telling) who during the telling played, what I think was, a rebec – a small mediaeval bowed instrument which has something of the tonal quality of a less insistent hurdy-gurdy. Hart’s playing during key sections of the narrative enhanced the drama, pathos and romance of the legend without distracting from or dominating the storytelling.

Clearly, Hart and Salisbury had rehearsed their set beforehand (I couldn’t find out whether they had actually performed together before), which is only notable because it contrasts with the other telling that I want to highlight, which is that of Ashley Ramsden (see picture below). Ramsden said that he had only met the guitarist in the picture (whose name I (stupidly) didn’t make a note of – so if you know please tell me and I will amend this section) at the festival and, upon hearing his playing, invited the musician to accompany his telling of stories and poems from Rumi. This meant that teller and musician were programming their cooperation as the session unfolded, with Ramsden suggesting that this story should be accompanied, and then that that poem be voice only. It sounds chaotic, but there was a real sense of being present in the moment as the performance was negotiated between teller and musician, the playing of the guitar perfectly matching the meditative quality of Ramsden’s style. Anyone present for this session would by now be asking, ‘What about Paul Jackson’s contribution?’ Part of the way through the set, Paul Jackson (chair of SfS) arrived with his Kora and matched Ramsden and the guitarist’s sensitivity as they improvised ensemble storytelling and music. This was a performance that will live with me for a long time.

As you have already read, some of the big names in British storytelling were performing at Oxford, notably Jan Blake, Ben Haggerty (see photo above) and Hugh Lupton (see photo below), each of them individual in style and equally mesmerising. Jan Blake’s set felt very short (it was actually an hour), but in that time she had the audience singing and ululating, and her commanding presence in, and possession of, the amphitheatre contrasted beautifully with Hugh Lupton’s understated retelling of tales from the east of England. I freely admit to being a huge fan of Blake’s ability to make it hard to pull your eyes from her, but I think that I envy more Lupton’s easiness with a large audience. As he explored tales from his home county, it felt as through we could have been sitting in a small group round a fireplace, not in a public space illuminated by spotlights.

Ben Haggerty’s Atlanta set had, unsurprisingly, a pretty full house (I know that the photo above does not do justice to that claim), and so we had to take seats on the side. Watching a storyteller in profile for a significant part of the performance was interesting as it gave me the chance to notice that Ben Haggerty performed for most part on bent knees. Please don’t read this as a criticism (it isn’t one), but it showed how he is able to embody a coiled spring, and exude the sense that you never know when or where he is going to release that energy stored in the flex of his knees (writing as someone with dodgy knees, my comments should be read as something akin to jealousy).

Among the other tellers that we heard, Sarah Liisa Wilkinson (see photo above), who kicked off Saturday’s storytelling with The Girl, the Snake Witch and the Grinning Castle, certainly needs a mention. Her energetic style and ability to use physical expression, vocal dexterity and verbal composition to create clear punctuation, underpinned the dramatic content of the Finnish tale that she shared with us. A very good way to start a Saturday.

The Spiritual Context

Clearly the School of Economic Science (see above) has a spiritual (I would say religious) core to its work. I am unclear from the festival information whether the organisers are aligned with the School, or they simply saw it as a suitable place in which they could (literally) pitch their event, but the spiritual drive behind the organisation was front and centre once you arrived at the site – if not explicit in the initial publicity.

I think that it is worth reproducing part of the welcome page in the programme, written by Rachel May (festival director):

A geomancy report of the land at Waterperry has discovered ley lines. Two dragon lines, the Fire and the Water dragons which we will bring to life during the opening ceremony… The team that is now working on the Festival is a fabulous team of 13 women, and Chris [Salisbury] is now supporting as ‘Consultant Magician’… I wish to dedicate this Festival to the Goddess of Our Land, to The Sacred Fire, The Sacred Waters, to Emma Orbach and to Dru, the midwife for the festival birth.

Now, I have to tread carefully here: it would be very easy to dismiss this kind of language as ‘New-Age’ nonsense. But I write from a faith perspective myself, and one in which we expect adherents to believe that God can be one person and three persons at the same time, and so I am well aware that what seems deeply significant from inside a faith perspective can seem very strange from without. In fact, I situate myself on the very liberal wing of the Church of England, and so the invoking of the feminine divine, or venerating the earth as holy is nothing new to me, nor is it offensive.

My problem, then, is not with the spiritual content, but that I thought that I was attending a storytelling festival. And to be clear, that would be a festival, the raison d'etre of which would be the celebration of story and storytelling, and the promotion of the same. A festival to celebrate the our oneness with the earth may include storytelling, but is not purely a storytelling festival. When I initially felt disquiet I questioned whether it was my uptight Protestant origins asserting themselves, but I spoke to several people about their experiences of the festival, and people who I think that it is fair to describe as coming from a variety of perspectives (humanist, Christian and pagan): they felt the same as me: we didn’t like that we had been drawn to something that we thought was a storytelling festival but clearly had another agenda.

There were some fantastic performances at Waterperry, and established storytellers were able to show exactly why they are established, but a few of the contributors had clearly been chosen because they were ‘on-message’ in either the stories that they tell, or the way in which they frame those stories. Of course, there is no reason why someone with the spirituality being described here shouldn’t be a good storyteller. But it is not a guarantee, and there were times where I was thinking, ‘this person would not get a slot at Festival at the Edge or the ‘Sting in the Tale’ festival in Dorset’.

Oxford – What Next?

I enjoyed the Oxford Storytelling Festival in many ways. I saw some great performances and enjoyed good company. But I think that the organisers need to work out what they wish to create a festival of. If it is of storytelling, and good storytelling is at the core of the festival, I will be glad to book again. If it is a festival of alternative spirituality at which there will be storytelling, then I suspect that I will give it a miss.

One final point. When we were walking through the site on Saturday morning, I bumped into a former colleague and her husband who had seen the title ‘Storytelling Festival’ and thought they’d give it a go. I didn’t get a chance to talk to them before they left, but I am concerned that this new audience for storytelling will have left Oxford thinking that storytelling is inextricably linked with the alternative spirituality that was such a part of the festival, instead of seeing it as a fundamental way that all cultures, both sacred and secular, represent themselves.

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