The Living Tradition
|Taffy Thomas - by Roy Dyson Issue 24 November/December '97||
Thomas is well known for his connection with Magic Lantern, The Fabulous
Salami Brothers, and the major folk operas "The Shipbuilder" and "The Transports".
He has a sound reputation as a performer, raconteur and storyteller. A wooden
chair and a tricycle ("Stop me and hear one!") are his trade marks and his
work in schools takes him the length and breadth of the country. After a
debilitating stroke in 1984 he developed a full blown interest in storytelling
which assisted him along the slow and difficult road to recovery.
So who is Taffy Thomas, what are his views on storytelling and the major influences on his life journey? I spoke to him at length in the comfort of his home in Grasmere on a very busy Tuesday afternoon squeezed in between radio and TV interviews and the storytelling club at the Watermill in Ings. The occasion was something of a celebration, the christening of a new Northern Arts Lottery Funded Volkswagen Sharan minibus, fondly named Betsy II, representing the launch of Taffy and wife, Chrissie's new joint business initiative "Dance Tales".
What were the events that led you to becoming involved in the folk scene?
When I was a boy I lived in Yeovil and became very interested in folk music and dance because the group that ran the folk club there in the sixties was called the Yetties ... and they didn't draw any barriers between song, dance, storytelling or music. They introduced me to an area of what you might call 'traditional folk arts' which I now sometimes describe as small-scale, self entertainment.
Did you actually perform in the club at that time?
Yes I did ... I sang songs but there was a West Country comedian, whose name I think was Billy Burdon, who used to do yokel stories and I cribbed a wack of his act which I started performing, for my own amusement really, in talent competitions both in Yeovil and when we were on holiday in seaside places like Llandudno where I actually came back with more money than I went away with ...
And that led to ...?
Well me being occasionally asked to do bookings for all sorts of small community events where I would sing a few songs, mainly west country folk songs and intersperse them with a few jokey stories really. And when I was on holiday in my late teens, I was taken to Sidmouth Folk Festival where I met a woman called Betty Wry - she offered to take me to meet Ruth Tongue. So I had the pleasure of being taken down to Ruth Tongue's little cottage at Croakham when she was well in her nineties and sitting and keeping her company for an afternoon. She was a strange old soul really and very much in the autumn of her life - when she heard I was interested in her stories she said "Well, Mr Thomas, I suppose I better tell you a story then" ... and she told me a couple.
And how did you feel about that?
Well, I was hooked really ... well I was always aware there was this generation of elders, senior citizens who at the time when I was part of a revival they were the custodians of the tradition ... and I made it my business really that if I was going to sing traditional songs and tell traditional stories then I would do my utmost to get them from oral sources ... and that's something that has stuck with me all along.
Was there anything else from Ruth Tongue that you have gained?
Because very little of the Ruth Tongue collection has been recorded I've actually gone to the printed versions of her repertoire but the ones I tell best are the ones I actually heard her tell as well, I mean it is the same with other traditional tellers I've been lucky enough to meet or seek out. I mean particularly Betsy White or Duncan Williamson. I think the important thing with storytelling is that you have an anchor point for the story ... for me the anchor point is nearly always sitting at the knee or at the next table to the person who is telling. I mean my strongest anchor point for Duncan Williamson stories is sitting by his fire side literally ten inches away from his nose being shouted at!
What for you is the real attraction of storytelling?
A love of the English Language is in there fairly and squarely and the job of communicating with my fellow human beings ... my main inspiration for telling traditional stories is Betsy Whyte. I've seen Betsy walk in front of a quite rowdy community group in a heavy estate on the edge of Edinburgh and just put a hand on the back of a chair and do it by the sheer power of her eyes and her voice and the story - then the other way of telling stories you've got Eddie Lenihan who is very physical and rushes round - I gravitate very much towards the simple direct eyes and language approach.
So tell me about Ings then - what's happening at Ings?
Well the South Lake District Council employed me as its Storyteller in Residence and the brief there was to collect the stories of the district , tell the stories of the district and encourage the art of storytelling ... and part of the brief was that if I was going to encourage storytelling then people need somewhere to tell stories ... so we started the monthly storytelling club at the Watermill Inn at Ings which I host and which has outsurvived the residency by two years and is getting stronger. It's a great little pub, its a family pub, which is rare in the Lake District. What tends to happen is that we get a huge age span from people bringing their children, particularly in the school holidays - we are very much a family audience for the first part of the evening - and then some of the adults come through from the other bar when the children go home, so the audience size stays about the same.
And how do you set about doing a storytelling residency - because this is the second one you have done isn't it?
Yes it is the second year-long one I have done - there have been a few shorter ones but ... one was in the north Pennines and one was in the Lake District. The brief of both these residencies was that any non profit making organisation within the area could have my services free of charge. I've made an important part of the brief the collecting of the stories of the area and that is very much something that has come at the end of the residency and sometimes even after the end of the residency ... for I'm still doing it now. You have to build a profile in the area and a profile for the art of storytelling and I suppose win people's trust really ... people have to decide you are worth the time of day, you are worth talking to before they'll come to you and part with what are quite often valued possessions, a story. I actually make a point of saying that one good story deserves another and that I actually quite consciously use certain stories to a certain audience as bait for getting stories. I remind people of things they already know ... that's the way I describe it - most of the people who have stories would never describe themselves as being storytellers.
Just looking over your career again what would you see as the highlights.
Well I suppose for me the highlight and the best point of my career was the first really major thing I did with Chrissie. When we started to explore the potential for narrative dance which we did particularly with a production of Bob Pegg's folk opera "The Shipbuilder", we performed twice, once at the Whitby Folk Festival and on the beach and once at Granton Harbour on the edge of Edinburgh. The next really big one that I did with Chrissie was Peter Bellamy's folk opera "The Transports" ... which we did for the bicentennial of the voyage to Australia, which we performed in Portsmouth for an audience who were leaving on the square rigged sailing ships next day to do the replica voyage.
Who else also had a very significant influence in your life?
Probably Betsy Whyte would be the strongest influence there. She was just a very dear friend and I have learned a lot from Betsy in my role as receiving the stories. I mean the last time I saw Betsy was when she came to this house to perform at the Ambleside storytelling festival. She stayed with us and when I took her along to perform in Ambleside she said "I want you to tell the Tackety Boots tonight" I said, "No its your story you tell it!" I insisted it was her tale and she should tell it and I said the fateful words, "I'll tell it the next time I see you" and of course she died before we met again and it was only then that it dawned on me she was actually wanting me to tell the story to check the fact she was happy with the way I was telling it and she was happy it was in good hands ... you know. So I never ... If Duncan asked me to tell one of his stories while he is there even though I know he would probably burn my ears for me if he didn't like it - I always do. I won't duck that ever ... because I'm a link in the chain. It was actually at Betsy's graveside that Alistair, her eldest son thanked me for going to the funeral and said, "That story, the Tackety Boots, that's your story now, tell it" So of my repertoire of about 300 stories that is the only one that almost has been willed to me - so although I don't feel ownership of any of them that's the one that has got the most special place. Of course it also about the importance of having a story to tell.
The biggest family influence for me was my paternal grandfather - Teddy Thomas, who again would never have said he was storyteller but he would talk to anybody - he was a real people person if you like and I just used to love him going round and talking to his friends ... and the most important family day of the year was Boxing Day which was the day that both sets of grandparents come to our house for tea and I used to discover that if I could get them talking, I could sit back and listen and they would be talking about their lives but effectively be telling stories ... though I didn't think it was telling stories at the time ... so that was an influence. At the time I visited my grandfather one of the things on the television we used to watch together was Johnny Morris - as the hot chestnut man. When Johnny came along to judge the storytelling competition at Sidmouth a couple of years ago, I told him one of my influences had been the hot chestnut man ('cos it was the hot chestnut man that gave me the idea for the tricycle you see) he was really quite touched that I could even remember it. I've always dreamed that I might be able to use that format and use it with the tricycle.
Tell me about the new venture you've got with Chrissie - "Dance Tales".
After doing the two big folk operas, Chrissie and I decided we wanted to continue exploring the potential for narrative dance so we started doing workshops for festivals and what effectively happened was that Chrissie did a warm up, told a story and then the group worked together on a dance based on that story. So the movement is not necessarily to music but to words, to language, and we called these workshops "Dance Tales". When it became evident that for the purposes of what we were doing with the arts funding bodies that we were a company, we decided to use "Dance Tales" as the Company name - our commitment is to the development of folk arts and small scale self-made entertainment particularly, but not exclusively contemporary dance and storytelling. So we've got the workshops but we've also put together as new show called "Stories that Charles Darwin never heard" and that uses a musician as well. I tell the stories, Chrissie dances and in Edinburgh the musician was Stefan Hannigan.
So what is that about?
Well it's all about the animal stories really, from various tribes. Native American stories, Innuit stories. There are several British stories, but they are all about why animals have particular shapes, why swans are mute, why rabbits have long ears and a bobbly tale, why robins have red breasts and so on. It went very well in Edinburgh but we are touring it in November. We're doing a schools tour in Cumbria and we're taking it down to Amber Folk Festival, down at Alfreton. We're actually touring with Bob Pegg who is another fine narrative song writer and storyteller who works on a regular basis with Chrissie at Whitby Folk Festival doing performance workshops for children.
And just as a sort of projection for the future where do you see yourself in say five years time?
Well I'm already thinking of a sequel to the Charles Darwin show which I think will stay with the ideas of animal stories because they are particularly suited to movement and a family audience. I was thinking of the story which celebrates the fox in British folklore and we're dreaming about the possibility of putting together a large scale performance for the millennium - but as I say, "If this millennium is no good I'm not going to another." We've got a very important link with the visual arts which is happening this year and has got to do with the lottery grant Paddy Killer, who is the finest fabric artist in the country, has been commissioned to produce for me a tail coat and a pork pie hat, so that is going to be delivered in early '98.
And looking over your time particularly - what skills and strengths have you developed personally?
Probably the main strengths I've developed are from the fact that having a stroke at the age of thirty-six left me with no speech and limited use of the left side of my body - storytelling has given me a voice again, a speaking voice again, and an independence and an income, and just the strength to sort out my body and move forward positively. I've grown gradually rather than suddenly over the years, made a lot of friends and hopefully entertained a lot of people and grown in strength. Sure the stroke - there are still bits of shock that still come out as a result; baggage, crap, that was caused by the stroke that I'm still dealing with but certainly it's all there and I work with my wife who is my best friend and my partner in business and the finest community dance worker in the North of England.
Thanks Taffy and Chrissie for allowing me to share the afternoon and evening with you at your home and the Watermill Inn at Ings.
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