The tall tale of how teacher Taffy Thomas turned storytelling laureate
"when I left teaching," said Taffy Thomas, who was appointed this week as the UK's first storytelling laureate, "my headteacher told me, 'You are leaving teaching to work in education.' He was right - what I do as a storyteller is educational. You can't write a story unless you can tell a story and you can't tell a story unless you've heard a story."
Mr Thomas, 60, a former teacher, founder of a folk theatre and now director and storyteller in residence of the Northern Centre for Storytelling in Grasmere, took up the two-year laureate's post this week.
The honorary role was the brainchild of Adrian Johnson, Birmingham's poet laureate. He enlisted the support of children's author and poet Michael Rosen, Liverpool poet Brian Patten and four other "guardians of the story", who approached Mr Thomas with the offer of the post.
His task is to travel the country telling stories and, he hopes, not just leaving people with memories of his stories, but the inspiration to tell their own.
Mr Thomas began telling tales aged 35 as a way of recovering his speech after a stroke, but the roots of his interest began much earlier.
"To be successful you have to be a people person, a good communicator," he said. "I spent a lot of my childhood with a grandfather who was the sort of person who took forever to walk the length of the street. He had a word with everyone and everyone had a word with him. If you grow up like that it is just a step to turn it into a story."
But his first love was teaching.
"I had a really inspirational teacher at primary school in Somerset, a man called Gordon Rose. He's immortalised now in one of my stories.
"I did my teacher training at Dudley College of Education and then got a job teaching at Etheridge School in Bilston, which the members of Slade went to. Dave Hill (lead guitarist) ruined one of my lessons once by walking past the window just as I'd just got them all settled down."
While working as a teacher, Mr Thomas became interested in puppetry and began the Magic Lantern theatre company, illustrating folk songs with shadow puppets. After a while his evening work was so much in demand that he had to make the choice between his two careers and chose to go on the road.
"Now I am very much about the spoken word," he said. "I am not an actor. I spend my life being Taffy Thomas, the storyteller."
Mr Thomas also runs teacher training courses and works with schools. He wears a distinctive "tale coat" created by textile artist Paddy Killer, decorated with images that act as prompts for stories, 19 of which have been published as Taffy's Coat Tales by The Literacy Club.
"I want to take storytelling to new audiences," he said. "People think it is just for children or that storytelling is stand up comedy - it is not. There are fine tales out there to tell."
TWO TAFFY RIDDLES
I am wet
and never rust
Wag me if you must
My coat is wood
My nose is dark
And where I go I leave my mark
A LORE UNTO HIMSELF
Taffy Thomas trained as a literature and drama teacher at Dudley College of Education and taught for several years in Wolverhampton. before founding and directing the folk theatre company Magic Lantern and the rural community arts company Charivari, with their popular touring unit, the Fabulous Salami Brothers.
He performed all over Europe until, at the age of 35, he suffered a stroke and turned to storytelling as self-imposed speech therapy. He now has a repertoire of hundreds of stories, tales and elaborate lies.
Since 2000, Taffy has been the director and storyteller in residence of the Northern Centre for Storytelling, a not-for-profit organisation based in a tiny National Trust property in the village of Grasmere in the Lake District.
The centre hosts a monthly storytelling club and various training courses, and organises events in The Storyteller's Garden.
Taffy was awarded the MBE in 2001 for services to storytelling and charity. He is also a patron of the Society for Storytelling.
Last month he became the nation's first Laureate for Storytelling.