Their story's gone stale

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Old Father Time has caught up with the bearded shennachie wannabes , says James Campbell

YESTERDAY I was plying my trade as a storyteller in a Falkirk school. "I'm going to tell you a story as old as the hills using my beard, my kilt and the smell of cheap whisky. My story is the tale of the Faerie Pants of Achnaclachanachadh." The school was in a deprived area and the children - revelling in lime green trainers and jewellery that would put Tutankhamen to shame - were strangely bored by my tale and chatted among themselves.

One five-year-old boy with a smudged face stood up and explained. "Forgive my colleagues," he began earnestly. "It is not that we don't appreciate the worthiness of your endeavour.

"We understand the importance of the heritage of storytelling and oral tradition but our lives are coloured less by the blooming heather and more by the grey of cracked concrete and the crime rate. We do not aspire to be Tam o' Shanter, mainly because we live in a society where our elders seek to bring us up to be like them. We can simultaneously play computer games, do our homework and converse with a friend about Pokemon. Your story does not engage us - either in content or in style - on enough levels and it's irrelevance is patronising."

I was about to make a scary face and boom something non-

sequential when the boy turned into a hamster and scuttled under the piano stool. When the headteacher started making frog noises and the archbishop slipped out of focus, I realised I was dreaming.

I woke up in a cold sweat. Thank God! I had no silly beard. I searched the wardrobe and found no kilt. Thank God! For a moment I thought I had turned into my worst nightmare, my nemesis - A Traditional Storyteller.

Thankfully, I am not a traditional storyteller. I describe myself as a contemporary storyteller - I write everything I do for performance and through performance and the stories evolve through their telling shaped by the responses I receive. I talk about things that children can relate to but stretch and surrealise them into fantasy. My characters include walking, talking eggs; nine-headed monsters; frogs with microwaves in their tummies; caterpillars who live in eyebrows; funky dinner ladies and death-defying cats.

My absurdity is designed to provoke their imaginations into questioning. It is only through a refusal to accept the banal and established that childre can become truly creative. If children are the next generation of society and that generation is going to improve the society we have made for them, they need to be creative - leaders not followers.

Traditional storytelling teaches children to respect their country's past but it also teaches them to accept and recite. This is all very well but children can cope with so much more. You only have to watch how quickly a child learns to read or decodes a video recorder, or how a baby grabs everything in its path and shakes it, sucks it and breaks it to see how eagerly a child can learn.

I have few dealings with the traditional establishment - namely the Scottish Storytelling Society. Despite being the most successful storyteller in the country, I am not on their register because I have refused to apply. I have, however, seen their brethren at work and note that they are generally unable to cope with more than 60 children and for a limit of one hour. I have yet to find a maximum. I suspect it is something to do with relevance.

There are writers in Scotland who fire up children with their original work and performance style. There are theatre companies and puppeteers who show children that their imaginations have no boundaries. Why is it that the Arts Council continues to encourage and fund the bearded, shennachie wannabes when their only redeeming feature is that they are traditional?

At the beginning of a new millennium, I find it startling that we subsidise an art form which is rooted in the 19th century and is a Victorianisation of Scottish culture. Traditional storytelling is effectively little more than embroidery - following someone else's pattern to give the embroiderer a false sense of artistic achievement.

Children need art to fuel their minds. They need to make, to create, to disturb, paint pictures with words and thoughts. They should be set an example and Selkies will never inspire the children of Scotland. Traditional storytelling should not be funded at all. Then maybe they will see reason, record their tales on CD-Rom, stick them in the Scottish Museum and get a job.

James Campbell performs tomorrow (May 13) at the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, Glasgow. His show, James Campbell is not Particularly Keen on Cheese Either, starts at 2pm. He will also appear at the Scottish International Children's Festival, Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh, on June 2.

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