‘In Search of the Polyvernacular’ -or- ‘We Wanna Tell You Some Stories’

Once Upon A Time…

by Warren Draper

I’m still not exactly sure what The Telling is or where it is headed, but I’ll tell you what I know in the hope that we might work it out together.  I guess the easiest thing to do is follow the lead of the storytellers and begin at the beginning…

I’m a regular contributor to The Idler magazine; arguably 21st Century Britain’s most beautifully produced periodical. For the 2010 Back to the Land issue I wrote a history of the commons and land rights in relation to Barnsdale Forest; an ancient woodland which once stretched from Wakefield to Sheffield encompassing most of what is now South Yorkshire, and which – according to one of the oldest remaining versions of the tale – was the original home of Robin Hood. The historic nature of the essay caught the eye of fellow Idler contributor, Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of the Dark Mountain Project. Paul invited me to write a reappraisal of the Luddite rebellion for issue 2 of the Dark Mountain Journal to coincide with the current bicentennial. The cover of issue 2 was designed by Rima Staines, an artist, clockmaker, accordionist and puppeteer who I have admired for some time.


As a contributor to the journal I was invited to talk at the 2011 Uncivilisation festival at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. Those close to me know that I’m a country bumpkin at heart who has a (in my opinion healthy…) fear of crowds, so I was unsure about attending. What changed my mind was a strong desire to meet with Rima and her storytelling partner, Tom Hirons.

Uncivilisation 2011. All photography by Amelia Gregory.

Left to Right: Dougald Hine, Rachel Horne, Gill Barron & Warren Draper (photos from Amelia’s Magazine)

Speaking at the event did nothing for my phobia – despite a generous slug of single malt from Dougald Hine I froze before the crowd like a rabbit before a lamper’s light – but Uncivilisation did help me in many other ways. The speakers and performers were informative and inspiring; the conversations which took place around the fire even more so…

Uncivilisation 2011. All photography by Amelia Gregory.

…but for me the real revelation came when Tom & Rima performed the Russian folk-tale of Ivashko Medvedko (Little Ivan, Bear Child). As Rima herself describes it:

I had made a very rudimentary projection device from a shoebox painted black, a torch and an old magic lantern lens; inside it I had taped an upside-down silhouette painting on perspex. And so behind our expectant firelit story-circle, a warm and undulating circle of light shone Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut in the trees onto a white cob wall…

And then as I played the first few strains of a Slavic folk tune into the night, Tom emerged from the forest blackness in his magnificent bone-toothed bear mask ringing a bell… What followed was a journey through worlds, meetings with bears and giants, otherworldly birds and Baba Yaga herself; not to mention a beautiful maiden, strips of flesh and a very deep hole… The audience was entranced…

Entranced‘ is exactly the right word. It was hard to tell in the dim firelight, but there must have been 200 souls in the darkness drinking in Tom’s story and swaying to the voice of Rima’s accordion. A fire, an accordion, a pair talented storytellers – and we were utterly captivated. Simple, wonderful, unforgettable. I was convinced that everyone – everywhere – should have the opportunity to enjoy such a spectacle… and so the seeds of The Telling were sown.

There was one other thing at Unciv 2011 which convinced me that every town deserves a little bit of Uncivilisation now and then. Dougie Strang and company’s ‘Liminal‘ was another performance which used simplicity – this time darkness, a wood, light-boxes and candles – to transport the ‘audience’ (for want of a better word) to a world both within and yet utterly other to our own. I think it was the same-but-otherworldly nature of both events which put me in mind of Phlegm.

Images from Phlegm’s blog

Phlegm is one of the UK’s – if not the world’s – foremost muralists. As street art becomes ever more mainstream – and sadly more commercial – Phlegm stands head and shoulders above the rest not just for his technical ability, but for his depth of vision. He sells his comics, prints and books to pay for his own materials – and often even his own air fair! – so that he can paint walls all around the world, but his paintings create a world which is all his own. The characters and creatures that inhabit this world evolve over time and continuously explore new themes;  thus his images always recogniseable, but never the same. In short, Phlegm is a graffito storytellerwho better to provide a backdrop for The Telling?

When I first saw the post-apocalyptic courtyard of Church View, the former art college in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, I knew instantly that we had found a stage for Phlegm’s backdrop. We would light Phlegm’s work with fire-pits – ably controlled by the wonderful Mr Fox – and there would be music and dancing and drinking and feasting and conversations (lots and lots of conversations) and poems and storytelling. But what of the stories themselves?

The 2009 Dark Mountain Manifesto was written as a response to the “feeling that contemporary art and literature were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises.” A feeling which resounded among a diverse selection of writers, artists, thinkers and dreamers and which led ultimately  to the formation of the Dark Mountain Project. Charlotte DuCann offers perhaps the best overview of the project so far:

Three years onthe Dark Mountain Project is still hard to define. It is both a cultural response to a collapsing world, and a network of  people who gather to makes sense of that collapse. At its core is a shared recognition that the stories we have inherited are are no longer making sense of our lives, and a new narrative for the times we are living in needs to be forged…

Dark Mountain … is about facing the reality of the matter, how we proceed towards the future with integrity and intelligence, no matter what the storm brings. It allows the space and time in which to discover a creative common ground, as well as  our common allegiance with the living, breathing earth and all its creatures. At the heart of the project is a deep reconnection with the planet and a recognition that we need to shift away from a dissociated, mental worldview to reengage with life on a practical and imaginative level…

An acute sense of loss is one of the markers of Uncivilisation, a loss of the things we love that define us as human beings, namely our kinship with the natural world, our ability to make beauty and sense of our lives, our connectivity. It’s a loss that leads not to guilt or powerlessness however, but to questions that challenge the writer and philosopher in all of us.

I’ve added emphasis to the end of the last sentence because I think its important to bear in mind that when you’re heading into uncharted territory – a situation we all face in this climate of ecological and economic turmoil – there are no experts. If we are to find the stories which will challenge civilisation – those tales which may yet lead us to the uncivilisation necessary for our species’ continued existence – we will need to widen our search as far and as wide as possible.

Diversity has kept life alive on this planet for 3.6 billion years. With diversity (whether it be a diversity of species, genes or culture) comes potentiality; the ability to adapt to changes in the environment. A diversity of voices – and with them a diversity of stories – is essential if we are to fight the dominant monoculture – perhaps we should call it a Monocracy? – which threatens so much of what we hold dear. Arguably the most important voices are those which are currently ignored; those deemed to have little academic, cultural or economic value (according to the Monocratic yardstick) and/or those who have been tossed aside by progress. The ultimate goal of The Telling then must be to broaden the story-pool to help counter the worst effects of the Monocracy’s cultural inbreeding. We must endeavour to create a democracy of voice and a seed-bank of tales.

So what’s your story?

3 thoughts on “‘In Search of the Polyvernacular’ -or- ‘We Wanna Tell You Some Stories’

  1. Pingback: We Present :: Ivashko Medvedko | Coyopa

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