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Calibre in Conversation with Giles Abbott - Traditional Storyteller

17 April 2014

At a recent event organised by the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, children and adults were entranced by traditional storyteller Giles Abbott, who is registered blind. Not only did we listen to his wonderful tales but also had fun in a special workshop. Giles joins Nicole Russell as her special guest for the Calibre in Conversation series.

Giles – when you were a child what stories do you remember listening to and what were your favourites?

My mother used to pick my brother and I up from school and then read to us from a translation of The Iliad (3087) and The Odyssey.  I loved it!  Mum and Dad both read to me from when I was very little and as soon as I could read myself, because I grew up sighted, I buried myself in Greek myths, Viking myths, Celtic myths as well as novels.  But the happiest memory is my Mum reading to me about Odysseus and his comrades.

How were you drawn into the world of storytelling?

 I lost all my central vision in 1998, when I was 25.  My right eye took five days and then my left eye went five months later.  It took four hours.  I couldn't read anymore and felt that as a major bereavement.  Then, in 1999, someone suggested we go to a pub in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire (near where I was living at the time) because they had a storyteller on.  I went along and fell in love!  The following month I had a go myself in the open spot and it all went from there......

I was speaking to Young Calibre member Sam recently who has severe dyslexia. He said he wouldn’t have it taken away because he felt it actually helped him with design and technology, seeing patterns and non-verbal reasoning. Do you think that sight loss can enhance other senses and gifts? Is this something you have experienced?

Highlighted, yes, heightened, no.  My hearing is no better, but I use it differently (for example, I will hear a car behind me that's about to turn in front of me).  However, like Sam, I do regard my visual impairment now as a gift as it has led me directly to all the work I do now.  I love what I do very much - how can I begrudge how I got here?  It might be a strange one, but it is a gift.

You draw on stories from all over the world – are there shared elements that make a good tale and what are they?

The best tale allows me to take the listeners on a journey in their imaginations which will pass through many emotions, so joy, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust, wonder, and more.  The best story, though not necessarily true, is truthful, which is to say that it is true of human nature, human experience, and as such allows us to journey out into the story's world and at the same time into a deeper experience of ourselves.

Do you have a particular favourite story?

Yes - a story I call the Marriage of Gawain.  A version of it is told by the Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (8551) and it is just as I have described above, rich and truthful.  It can be very funny and very serious at the same time.

Do you ever forget stories when you are telling them? What do you do?

I was telling the story mentioned above once and forgot one whole section of the story.  A main character could now not be spared from death because I hadn't introduced into the story the means of his escape!  So, I had him speak, "Wait!  There was one more thing....".  Actually, it made the story much better and I've told it that way ever since.  When you tell you've to keep a mind on where you are and try and put things in the best words and gestures, and at the same time think about where you're going next AND at the same time be listening to the audience, sensing where they are, so that you can make the story right for them.  For example, if you can really sense people are in the story's spell, you can push it further, make it more scary, more funny.  If you sense this one isn't working, you can respond.  A good storyteller has to do all these things at once.

You work with a wide age range of audiences from children to adults. Do you find that each audience is unique even though you may be sharing similar stories?

There are many stories too grown up for young children, and there are things that young children like which adults may not, but there is more similarity than you might think!  Telling stories to very young children is quite a skill because you have to take into account how much language and how many things they have yet to learn and how things that we take for granted are new and fascinating for them.  Everyone laughs at a good fart joke.

You write too, what are you working on at the moment?

I just shot a short film which I co-wrote.  I acted in it too, playing a blind storyteller and, really!  I have no idea how I was able to leave myself behind and take on that role.....

Right now I am writing a script for two singers who are based in New York.  The idea is that my story will turn their gigs into a multi-media experience.  It's a challenge (but most fun things are!).  I am also writing a book which will teach readers how to magic stories out of thin air and, because of the techniques they will learn, they can be confident it will be a good story!  That's fun - I've been teaching it for years so now it's time to get it in print.

Our members, both children and adults alike,  LOVE listening to stories varying from Paddington Bear, the Artemis Fowl series and Jacqueline Wilson’s fabulous characters to poetry, Shakespeare and Harry Potter. They also write and tell stories – could you give them some advice about creating a good story?

Think of a really nasty problem for your character to struggle to overcome.  This is the engine that will drive the story.  And get it writ, then worry about getting right.

Thank you Giles for joining us as our special guest . If people want to find out more about your work what’s your website address ?

My website is: where you can find out all about me and my work.

Find out more about ancient tales in Roger Lancelyn Green's book, Tales of the Greek Heroes (16960)

Photo credit: Andrey Zvoznikov