If you could build a better world what would it look like?
Gretel wants to live in a better world. She dreams of her perfect place -a Utopia to hope for. This piece of spoken word incorporating song, was inspired by ideas gathered in workshops gather with children and their families over 2022.
A Utopian world building workshop is available to book exploring children’s identity and values and Fantasy and Science Fiction Genres. You can read more about workshops here.
Informed by ideas gathered in workshops with young people and children, Red: A Dystopian Fairy Tale is a spoken word piece about an imagined futuristic world ruled by a totalitarian regime known as Mother.
A world building workshop is available to book exploring Dystopian fiction. You can read more about workshops here.
The world always changes. Even in ways that may not always be visible to us and if we let ourselves, then we change too. Sometimes other people hold us back and at other times we may let them. Some stories survive all those changes and serve us. They deepen our understanding of the way we experience the world, even if we live in a different time and place entirely. Those stories belong to us all and the way we tell them tells us something about the teller themselves. So here is an offering, in this time of transformation, to hopefully help make sense of this jumbled world.
You already know this story.
A lonely man, they always are.
He found it hard to connect to others and yet he could see their joy within their families and that their hearts were full and he wanted that. He saw their heads thrown back in laughter and when out walking the weather beaten coastal paths at dusk, the warm glow of a well attended hearth spilled out of small cottage windows, and he wanted that.
In the village, he witnessed lovers walking hand in hand, eyes missing the surrounding gray world, lost deeply to each other and the promises of the happy lives they were going to have together. And he wanted that.
But time passed and as he stitched the torn nets of local fishermen, he never made a catch. With each stitch into each net his heart shrunk, his gut grew and the lines of loneliness and frustration deepened. He had never been small, even as a boy, but now he was broad and tall – a hulking mass of a man. And as he swelled the women in the village were lost to him and carried into calmer waters on a more comfortable boat. They didn’t want him.
So the man grew solitary and short tempered, his language coarse with under use and his voice carried a bark- the kind you’d hear in an agitated dog.
One evening, as the sun slipped below the surface of the sea and the moon swelled like an empty, expectant plate, the man took a turn off his usual clifftop path and carefully picked his way over the rocks that were always shifting in the cliff face. He descended down towards the smaller smooth stones that washed up on the shoreline.
He starred out to sea – what was the point of a man so lonely? He pulled off his boots and decided he would swim till he could swim no more. Until he would slip silently beneath the waves. And this resolve, this feeling of holding a destination in his mind, this decision lifted his eyes. What a beautiful place to die. His skin felt the wind blowing through his threadbare unpatched clothes. He tasted the salt heavy in the air and he heard the wind singing. Or did he? Amongst the whistling wind, he heard laughter and shouts and multiple voices. He wasn’t alone, somewhere nearby was a group of people. He turned towards the voices and understood that they were coming from a small inlet surrounded by rocks – a perfect place, protected from the elements. He walked over and not wanting to be seen he crawled the final section and peered through the cracks in the rocks.
A group of naked women were laughing. Their white skin seemed to glow in the moonlight, like they had a bright and brilliant light within them. The man was filled with longing, his mind turned to his empty house, his empty life, his empty heart. What life he could have if his house could be filled with such radiance. How freely these women danced and sang and swam. He quietly climbed higher to get a better look, keen to not get caught.
That is when he saw the skins – silver blotted with darker patches. They were all an arms length away from him. Seal skins. He counted them. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. He counted the women – One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. These women had not arrived on foot over land. They had come from the sea and shed their velvety skin to dance upon the sands freely under a full moon. His longing turned from want to need to must have. He was going to have one, just one, of those women, just one of those magical selkie women would be enough. He reached out and with thick fingers grabbed the nearest skin. It felt soft and thick like a scarf hugging your neck or a sleeping kitten. He pulled himself back to his hiding place behind the rocks and stuffed the skin under his jumper. He waited wondering which woman would belong to him.
One by one, the women returned to their skins, a gray dawn was arriving over the cliftops. It was time to return home to the sea. They pulled on their skins and slipped into the incoming tide, till only one woman remained. She searched but could not find her skin. She called to her sisters to help her but they had disappeared beneath the waves. She called and searched and called and searched until her heart grew weary and the man watched and watched, waiting for the moment when her hope would disappear.
Soon enough, the woman gave up. She sank down to the rock beneath her, hugging her knees to her chest.
The man stepped out from his hiding place.
‘I have your skin.’ he said.
The selkie woman shivered from the cold, the exposure, from the man that towered over her.
‘Come with me.’ he said. ‘I can give you a good life.’
‘I have a good life.’ she replied. ‘Swimming with my sisters. Please give me back my skin.’
The man’s longing burned. He thought how much better his life would be for having her in it.
‘Stay with me, for 7 years. For 7 years be my wife. After those seven years have passed, I will return your skin to you. The woman thought what else could she do but accept his offer. She could not return to the sea without her skin to protect her and she could not fight a man so large. What was 7 years in a life that could stretch to 100. She agreed. The man greedily snatched her up. He set her on her feet and helped her down from the rocks. He took off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders.
The coat felt strange – coarse against her skin and the smell was odd like smoke, but what does a woman of the sea know of fire? She followed him as he led her back up off the beach and up the cliff and along the path to his village by the harbour. And there in a tumbledown cottage they made a life and the man softened, although those years of jagged loneliness could never really be smoothed.
She wore the dresses he bought her and looked like a normal wife despite not knowing the ways of a kitchen. Her belly soon swelled and carried out into the world, on a tide of fear, a child was born. A girl. The child was human. She bore no sign of being Selkie. Now the woman was tied to land in a way that was larger than the deal struck on the beach.
Seven years passed. The girl was fed on stories of sea caves and creatures. She was hushed to sleep with the songs of whales and seaweed and water. The child grew well. Rosy skinned and full bodied in fine fettle. The woman waned. Her skin became dryer and dryer until it cracked and her eyes suffered. The world turned into colour and indistinguishable shapes. The woman loved her child, but the longing to be back in the sea with her own kind was causing her body to shut down.
As the seventh year drew to a close, she turned to the man and asked for her skin to be returned to her. The girl, whose parents thought she was asleep, heard the conversation between her parents.
‘7 years have passed. It is time for my skin to be returned to me.’ said the woman.
The man’s fear of being alone reared its ugly head. Left with a young girl to raise without a woman to guide her in things he did not know or understand.
‘I cannot give your skin back to you.’ he said.’ I cannot lose you to the sea.I cannot once again be alone.’
‘You will lose me, with or without returning my skin. I cannot survive here. I am fading fast. To keep me here is to kill me.’
‘What of your child? Do you not love her?’
‘ I love her with all of my body, but my body is weak and I cannot be there for her in death.’
The man shook his head. ‘You belong to me. You are mine and mine alone. I will not give you your skin. Filled with darkness, the man left the house. The woman silently mourned the fight she didn’t have 7 years earlier, now too weak, 7 years on to fight.
The girl having heard all of the exchange was horrified. She didn’t want her mother to die. For days her thoughts swilled a round and a round in her head. What could she do? How could she save her mother?
Meanwhile the woman became extremely frail. Her skin was carved up into patterns like contours and borders on a map. Her sight reduced to near blackness. Her heart, already weakened from the years out of the water, out of her skin and away from home, beat like a fading drum.
The girl drank it all in, She saw her fathers impatience and his snap at this sad, frail woman that he now had for a wife. She saw her mother shrinking and despite being young in years, she knew that her mother was dying.
One full mooned night, while the girl sat drinking in the blackness of the night and the blackness of her thoughts she heard a song on the wind. Her small bedroom rattled as the song found its way through the grains of wood holding the pane of glass in place.
She quietly tip-toed down the stairs on soft slippered feet and made her way to the front door. After Pulling on her woollen hat and mittens and sheepskin lined coat she stepped out into the night. The song was louder out in the harbour. The wind blew from the north west along the coastal path . she followed the sound as she followed the song became louder and the girl grew in confidence, knowing that each step along the path meant discovering answers. Down onto the beach that had been the meeting place for her parents, 7 years earlier. She stopped and looked out to the sea where her mother came from. She felt a pull in her heart, a pull to walk into the waves and never feel land again under her feet , just like her father 7 years before.
But the song called soothingly from behind some rocks further along the beach. So she followed, scrambling over giant rocks, slippery with seaweed in soft slippers. There lying on the rock below was a seal skin. It was bedraggled and torn in places. Its silver shine reduced to an asphalt gray. The girl knew it was the skin of her mother. Carefully she picked up the skin – it felt as frail as tissue paper. She folded it up with great care and tucked it into her coat.
Dawn was now breaking from behind the cliffs. So the girl picked her path back over the rocks and up the beach. Back along the path and down to the small village by the harbour. The boats were gone, carrying the men in the village out to sea for the morning catch. The girl made her way to the cottage where she lived and found her mother luging in bed. Eyes open yet unseeing.
The girl guided her mothers hands to the seal skin and even though it had been years and even though the soft velvety skin had decayed and even though the woman was as sightless as a moonlit night, she recognised the skin. For who doesn’t know how it feels to come home?
Tears fell from the woman’s eyes dropping like patchwork upon the skin and with each tear the skiing seemed to become healthier. The girl watched as her mother cradled the skin in her arms just like she had cradled her daughter as a baby. She sang weakly aat first, her voice keening, breaking with the heartache of absence and the joy of the return.
With help from her daughter the woman shuffled from the house and along the headland. Down from the cliffs and onto the beach. There she removed her nightgown and pulled on her skin. The girl watched wrapping her mother’s nightgown around her neck for change is hard and small comforts help.
Before her eyes, her mother was a seal and the girl knew this was how it was meant to be. Awkwardly the two made their way to where the salty water kissed the waves, splashing and laughing in the shallows. Further out they went and soon the girl had wrapped her arms around her seal mothers neck . The seal mother turned and breathed air over her daughter and soon enough they were diving down deeper and deeper and the girl breathed as though she was above the surface. They came to an underground cave. They swam through arriving in a vast cavern filled with other seals, other selkies who all turned to see who had entered.
A stillness descended and slowly an elderly seal swam towards the seal mother and the girl. There was recognition and acceptance. There was grief and celebration. Before long the child had to be taken back to land for she was not Selkie, nor human. The elderly seal and her mother returned her to the shoreline. The child walked onto a beach forever changed by the homecoming she had witnessed and the journey beneath the waves. She belongs to transformation. Wherever transition took place. She was a sliding scale, perpetual movement. A cycle of breath. She was autumn leaves and spring buds, dawn and dusk, bears emerging from a long winter’s hibernation, pine trees kissing the sky and the sea embracing the land. She was her mother and her father, she was soul and ego and she could navigate an edge- her curiosity overcoming her fear.
And she grew and as she grew she listened, knowing that the world turns and time passes and people change. And people came and they listened to her stories and for the short time that they listened they found peace within and without. She told and listened and listened and told and she saw that the world was an unending cycle of wonder.
Watching Peggy Seeger’s singing, I hear the voice of the many older women who I am lucky to have in my life. I have been running creative writing workshops for Davenham Theatre and through Stitch. It really strikes me that the majority of participants are women who are over the age of 55. These workshops are open to anyone to come and yet we see these women loyally attend. They are grateful and positive and tell me that they get so much from the sessions.
But here is something that I think these women would struggle to accept from me. They have amazing insight, they care so deeply about the world they inhabit and their stories are beautifully compelling. It is a gift to spend a couple of hours with these women and listen to their thoughts. I have this amazing tribe that are now my friends.
One of the challenges that many writers face is the fear that anyone will find their work interesting or relevant, it is certainly something I feel at times. However this feeling is rife in this community of women and I think when you listen to Peggy Seeger singing, you can understand why.
My own mum told me that as she has got older, her visibility has dropped. That people pass her by without even seeing her. During the Covid Pandemic, we have all been locked away from each other, unable to meet up in public spaces. Those shielding even more so. We have collectively lost sight of many who are not in our immediate circles. The Invisible turned into memory.
As we emerge from this lockdown and Britain reopens its doors, let’s make sure we have room for everyone at the table. If you are an older woman who is feeling invisible, please tell your story. We need the grandmother’s wisdom now more than ever. If you are not an older woman, pull up a seat and look at ways to ask and listen. Let their stories inspire your story. You’ll feel richer as a result.
I am walking through a hall. A large hall, with high ceilings, pillars and archways. Everything is made of glass. The hall is full of glass statues. Some are of people I don’t know. Most are of people I do. Some I know really well, like my two friends from drama school. They’re sat next to each other on a bench. They are wrapped up in hats and gloves and scarfs. They are holding a takeaway coffee cup in their hands. Their heads are thrown back in laughter. There is a gap in the middle where I should sit, if I was made of glass, but I keep moving around the room.
Amongst these glass figures are people I have worked with. There is the little boy, who told me all about his pet dog in the last workshop I ran in February. Max, the dog was called. I remember how the boy’s eyes had sparkled as he talked about looking after Max. The statue’s eyes seem to sparkle too.
In the middle of the hall, is my brother and his wife. They are stood next to each other. They look like they are watching something in the distance. Maybe it’s their own dog, Biscuit. I pat my brother on the shoulder. He’s cold. Freezing. My fingers burn from the cold. That’s when I realise they aren’t made of glass. They are made of ice.
I stare at the frozen figures around the hall and realise they have the glisten of frost. I see that they are my relationships that are frozen. The relationships that don’t develop because of the time that I don’t have, the spaces that we cannot share. I become Demeter, waiting for my daughter to return, in a long, hard winter.
Spring will come and with it vaccinations. Those relationships will bloom with the crocus and daffodils. By the time we start planting out our seedlings, we can maybe hold space for one and other. I will be there. Waiting amongst the spring blossoms.
Taking down evil in storytelling is quite often presented as an individualistic action. A hero will defeat a villain. These characters are binary. The hero is good and the villain is bad. This narrative has been served up to us time and time and time again. Even when we get told stories about a group of people battling another, this is quite often reduced down to leaders.
However banishing the monsters of this world is a collective effort. For so long, we have been living in a story of a pyramid. We have been consumed by the notion of the ‘One’.
The one who rules us. The one who stole our heart. The one who cast dark magic. The one that got away with it. The one that saves us. The one that had roast beef. The one that had none.
It is an isolating view of the world and it stops us diversifying what we know, who we know and how we learn. It comes with an enormous pressure. For those that are the one and for those who are not.
When we look at the moments when there was a pivot in society, we would see that those moments are built on ‘We’ and ‘Us’. Not ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The Civil Rights movement, the Suffragettes, School Strike for Climate, Black Lives Matter. These were built by grass root collectives.
Good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.
Martin Luther King Jnr
So let’s start telling stories where people come together to ask for a better life. Let’s hear stories which aren’t about ‘the one’ but are about ‘Us’. We will discover other ideas and other people and we may even find ourselves sat in their stories in ways that surprise and delight us.
The term collective curiosity has been swilling around my brain for the last week. I think as we are for the most part currently sat in our homes, it can be hard to connect with what other people are wondering about.
One of the things I love about running creative workshops is hearing that amongst the different views and voices and experiences that make up a room, we can normally find a sense of collective curiosity. Collective curiosity is the notion that we have shared ideas that we all wonder about. The power of this collective curiosity is not to be sniffed at. The room could have different opinions, unique takes and understanding, but the feeling that you are all explorers, learners, creators unites the room.
“Curiosity is the engine of Achievement.”
Sir Ken Robinson
I have been delivering online workshops for the past 6 months. Yes, there have been things that are not as easy. Yes, it has been difficult not connecting and being in the room altogether. As a lover of people, I have found this enormously hard. However, there is still the sanctuary of coming together, creating and engaging a shared curiosity.
So if you have been sat at the edge of the pool, looking at that refreshing water and wondering whether it is worth dipping your toe, dive in. The water is just the right temperature and lifeguards are on hand.
There are many artists and organisations offering ways to engage. I promise that it is worth coming and stretching those creative muscles and finding a collective curiosity.
This afternoon, I entered into a Zoom meeting with composer and musician Tayo Akinbode, hosted by Z-Arts. Being a storyteller, can be a lonely process and we are living in a lonely time, so it was great to hear about how Tayo creates music to tell a story.
One of the thoughts that regularly swills around my head is around the difference and similarities between working with children or adults. It’s a question I get asked regularly moving between these different groups that I work with. It leaves me a bit stumped as other then a slight modification of language, there is no difference. Children laugh and so do adults. Adults struggle crossing the creative threshold and so do children. Both children and adults want to hear and tell stories. So it is a relief to hear someone as experienced as Tayo say ‘I wouldn’t dumb down music for children.’
I have finished writing the story of my family ancestors. A project I was inspired to start after working with Emily O’Shea company, On The Border. I am now in the process of editing the story into an audio experience and it is a relief to be piecing the story together. The writing process has been difficult. The vision I sat down with was to create a piece of audio storytelling about my great-grandparents. They were performers at the turn on the 20th century who went on to manage some of the first variety cinema’s in the country (a mixture between Music Hall and Cinema). Before I sat down to research, this part of my family had mythical qualities. I wanted to use Music Hall numbers in order to help tell their story. I wanted this to be a piece for family audiences. Something that could be enjoyed with everyone – an intergenerational activity. That you could listen at a distance together with your elderly granny who is shielding and your 8 year old nephew who is home schooling. That it would open up conversations about family stories in a way that I could not have with my own grandparents. I was going to use this idea to develop my creative practice, to experiment and play.
But the doubts creep in. Will children get this? Is the music too bawdy? Am I just inventing truths that I cannot find? Is this material appropriate for family audiences? Nothing kills playtime like doubt and nothing makes experimentation more pointless then isolation. So thanks to Z-Arts for providing connection and thanks to Tayo for grounding me and reminding me that children are no different from the rest of us, which in my wobbly, lonely, creative moments I forget.
I grew up in Reading and we had family down in Bath. When we drove down to see them in Bath, my Dad would play Peter Gabriel’s albums. We loved the track, Solsbury Hill. We used to drive past Solsbury Hill on the route to see our family. We used to climb up it (when you could). We loved that song. We’d ask for more Peter Gabriel. We’d listen Red Rain, Don’t Give Up and Games without Frontiers. We did not hear the loaded political meaning in these songs. We didn’t here the meanings that I as an adult now hear. Tayo told us today ‘Children like Music.’ Its a simple statement, but it is an easy one to make. No matter how much I see my children request Michael Jackson (their Dad’s favourite) or sing along to Fleetwood Mac (Rumours is my go to Album), in my artistic process my lived knowledge gets crowded out by my doubts over how to execute an idea. I managed to create children into something ‘other.’
That is why I love working creatively with children. They remind me that we are all not that different from each other. I’m looking forward to Z- Arts opening their doors again so I can be reminded of this by the real child experts, the children themselves. Until then, I will keep going. Clumsily put one foot in front of the other.
After all music is music to be made, all stories are stories waiting to be told and all humans are humans waiting to be heard, no matter their size.
This project am I am working on has bee made possible by funding from the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund. The funding has allowed me time to develop my skills, conduct research and connect to other artists. My thanks go to Z-Arts for providing free access to these conversations and understanding that these conversations are needed.
This time, more then ever we need stories. Many famous and more intelligent thinkers and writers than me say that after shelter, food and air we need stories. We need stories to listen to and we need stories to tell. But after numerous conversations with friends, peers, fellow artists and family I see a similar trait in behaviour and it’s linked to the way we tell stories.
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
― Philip Pullman
‘I know how lucky I am compared to others…’ is a mantra that is rolled off the tongue repeatedly. I hear it so often, as often as tales begin with “Once upon a time…”. However where “Once upon a time” leads to a story, “I know how lucky I am compared to others” is the completion of a story that hasn’t even been uttered. Now don’t get me wrong, of course we are lucky compared to others and during this difficult time, we need to count our good fortunes and appreciate what we do have. Gratitude is important. Good fortune can keep us healthy and secure. There are plenty of tales of characters losing everything through a lack of appreciation – like this one.
“I know how lucky I am” has become a sneaky silencer of our conflicts and our stories. But it doesn’t need to be. Your stories matter. Hearing the stories of our friends, colleagues and family (the good, the bad and the ugly) will combat the other dominant force in our lives currently – Loneliness. By denying the stories that you need to tell, you are denying your humanity. Many of us would be horrified to find out that we had been silencing the voice of others, and yet we think nothing of silencing ourselves.
I am currently, furiously, painfully trying to tell the story of my great grandparents. They died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. This has involved a lot of connecting dots through research using ancestry websites and it has been a background project for about 8 months. I have discovered so many wonderful things about them, things that none of us knew. But I have to guess at what they think and feel.
I would have loved to have found letters and diary entries that they had written, I would have loved to have stories told down through time, so much so that the way the stories were told is a story in themselves. But I do not. For many reasons this is not available.
So I want you to imagine, that 100 years from now, your great grandchild is trying to understand how you felt about the time you live in. What would you want them to know? And if you’re not sure where to begin, what questions would you ask your ancestors who lived 100 years ago?
You could write these questions down and you could answer for your time. You could or you could not. Or you could tell your story to the audience that you currently have, the audience who are invested in you now. Your friends, your colleagues, your family.
So instead of using “I know how lucky I am compared with others”, try “Today, I felt…” because we want to, need to hear your stories, even if your voice shakes.
A tale adapted from the Grimm Brother’s collection
nce, three unlikely friends lived in the hollow of a tree – a mouse, a bird and a sausage. They lived happily in their home, each with their own tasks to keep their home happy.
It was Bird’s job to fetch the twigs for their small fire. It was Mouse’s job to keep their home swept and clear of spiders and cobwebs. It was Sausage’s job to make their dinner. He would stir the pot and then he would go for a swim through the dinner to add flavour.
One day, Bird got to thinking about the different jobs that they all did. Mouse only had to sweep the floor once a day and all Sausage did was go for a swim through the pot and stand there stirring. Meanwhile the bird had to fly through the forest all day to collect twigs and carry them home. It didn’t seem fair that she had to constantly come and go while the others did very little.
Bird complained to her housemates that she felt she worked harder then the others. Mouse and Sausage did not want their friend to be unhappy. They agreed to swap jobs. Sausage would go and fetch the twigs, Mouse would make the dinner and Bird would sweep the floor.
Bird was happy this. She felt she had gone from the hardest job to the easiest.At the start of a new day she swept the floor. Seeing that her job was done she decided to go for a nap. It wold seem that frustrations had taken its toll and she slept all day.
Meanwhile Sausage, had headed out of there hollow and into the woods. He felt great to be away from the host stove and he enjoyed looking at the forest and all of its wonders. He smelt great. So great that his smell filled the forest and snuck into the nose of a nearby fox. The fox followed the scent trial over and under logs until Sausage came in sight. As Sausage bent down to pick up a fallen twig, the fox leapt out from behind a bush and swallowed Sausage down in one noise gulp. That was the end of Sausage.
Meanwhile back at home Mouse had been making the dinner, just as she had seen Sausage do. She chopped up the vegetables, just as she had seen Sausage do. She slid the vegetables into the boiling pot of water, just as she had seen Sausage do. She stirred and stirred all day long, enjoying making food for her friends, just as she had seen Sausage do. And just like Sausage, she dived into the boiling pot to add flavour. Unlike Sausage, she could not swim and the heat was too much for her small fragile body. She drowned in the dinner. That was the end of Mouse.
When Bird woke it was dark and the house was quiet. The fire had gone out and the dinner was cold. She scoffed. Clearly Sausage and Mouse were not up to the tasks that they had taken on. She waited. A long time. The whole night through. And as the night wore on, she started to worry. Why was the home in the tree hollow so empty? So quiet? So friendless? Where were Mouse and Sausage?
Bird decided to clean up. After all that was her job now and it turned out that a lot of spiders wanted to make the Hollow the home so she swept the cobwebs away and shooed the spiders back outside. Sh thought she had better clean up after dinner. So she went to empty the pot and there curled up in a little ball was her dear friend mouse. Bird understood what had happened. Then she worried about Sausage where was he? Why wasn’t he home?
So now she flies from tree to tree searching for her friend Sausage, skittish and cross with herself for being such an ungrateful fool.