We managed to briefly lure Martin away from his desk to share a few words from a new book he’s been labouring away on. If he doesn’t growl too often we’ll try again.


What I want to do here is make a concerted plea for you to become a story carrier. I say this as seriously as I would the labour of becoming a shield-maiden for Boudicca, or being on one knee in front of Arthur, or sitting in the longhouse as the snow falls and the people brood on how to survive another winter. As seriously as you working for Greenpeace or becoming a professor of gender studies. I say this in the midst of western amnesia and the glorious chloroform of privilege. I say this because knowing how to carry your story, being freighted in your story can not only save your own life but it can bring life to others too.
If there’s too many horns blowing, and the snorting of Castilian steeds in that statement, then so be it. I do not retreat, I do not step back.

And so the bucket creeks and down we go into deep story. Past our depressions and ecstasies, our loosely gabbled opinions, past our birth date even. Down under the cartographers map, under the spidery grid of lights that scarify our lands, down under flint-toothed Inuit seas, under face-tightening ambitions, parental pressures and ancestral lunacies, down below all that. Down into the grist and magical dimensions of the underneath. The sediment of myth-time that unpicks our frame into older conditions. The loosening is upon us.

Down in that place are bright heroes, white gold saplings, scald crows and cattle walking clean from the sea with flowers garlanded around their neck. All flash past as we swing down deep into ourselves, red pagan horses and mountains delirious with flowers, the latch being lifted on all that came before us. We swing down, we swing down, we swing down deep into ourselves.

Bring your hands
Like proud cattle of the field
To the things that culture
Most needs you to till

You have more of the right stuff
Than you could ever need
But no one gets to heaven
Without study and kindness

Memory is everything to a storyteller. The divinatory-speak is over without it. This is a residue of memory that only emerges when I’m teaching through stories: it’s not the skin stuff of my CV, the flesh stuff of big emotional wallops, but an acute memory of the bone. And the bones don’t tend to turn up much with ‘I’ statements. That require a grander view, they require myth. They go down.

Lorca is grappling with the paintings of the Chauvet caves when he pulls his lime green moons and clattering cloaks of gypsy knives onto the page. He is strolling through Amazonian jungles in a linen suit whilst New York taxis honk in the far distance and Tristan crashes by on a Castilian steed. Lorca doesn’t know how he can know what he knows.

There is a form of imagination that doesn’t just reach out to rowans, anacondas, antelopes and icebergs, but back into the mystical compression of history. There’s little point trying to represent this rationally. It’s magic like a woman’s hair is magic. It just is. It is possible to be in conversation with the alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis or Lady Gregory, don’t let a chance like that go by. You are not as anchored to the 21st Century as may appear, on occasion slip the net for a few hours. You will meet magnificent things out there. Don’t be afraid. Be mentored. Amongst the hawthorn and blueberry, amongst the libraries of Moorish Spain and the grit-dirt at the bottom of the well they are waiting.

Retention and innovation. A challenge for storytelling is quite what you stay faithful to. Because you’ve always got to betray something, it’s a mark of love. There’s a remarkable tension present in this balancing act, and you have to be nimble. Abandon spontaneous inspiration and it’s a flat ride, a pamphlet, a dull eyed polemic, but abandon the essential progression of the tale and you cut away the mischievous old ones that laboured so hard, jaw to jaw, to get the clattered language to your mouth at all. You hack the tree off at the roots. No matter how pretty the trilling word-birds in the branches, they fly away when the base is felled. No one genius on a laptop can replace it. It’s somewhere between loyal retention and imaginative wondering that the bones start to dance. That’s the sweet spot.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2019