A professional storyteller will captivate her audience during the final autumn talk of 2019 at the Grosvenor Arms Hotel. Jane Flood’s stories will reveal a little-known aspect of the Arthurian legend – how powerful women supported King Arthur and his knights.
Jane Flood says she doesn’t consider her career to be her job. “It is who I am. It is what I do,” she says, as we met to discuss the stories she will share about King Arthur’s women. We chatted leaning on a large and appropriately round table, inside the grand Grosvenor Arms Assembly Room. Jane’s voice echoed against the vast expanse of the long and high-ceilinged, ballroom-like space.
I marvelled at the skills required to captivate the crowd that would fill a venue like this. Flawlessly telling a story without referring to a script is hard enough, but creating powerful imagery using language alone, and bringing the people and places of 6th century Britain alive in the minds of 100 attentive listeners is, as far as I’m concerned, mind-blowing.
Jane believes that storytelling is deep-rooted within her. She says it is in her DNA. “My grandfather was Welsh and he used to tell me Mabinogion stories to get me to sleep when I was three or four,” said Jane, referring to the traditional folklore stories of Wales. “He spoke in Welsh, so I didn’t understand it. I was interested in folklore from childhood, interested in fairies and looking for them. I was curious about untold stories, the hidden history of places. I’ve always had a vivid dreamlife, so my imagination is a bit rampant.”
Jane enjoys visiting different communities and engaging in conversation with locals. Once they’re in full flow, she stops talking. She believes that attentively listening to someone else is as important as captivating your audience with your own words. “It’s about being able to listen and being interested in people and their cultures. The stories come from places. Part of travelling is about being able to absorb the place in a particular way. I never go anywhere without finding out what the stories of the place are. It’s fascinating,” she said.
Jane has travelled widely and she’s experienced diverse cultures. “The Himalayas were pretty good. There was quite a lot going on there. Africa is amazing. I’ve travelled quite a lot in East Africa and I worked in Uganda. The stories are really alive,” she said. “In this country we are very polite. We listen and nod our heads. In East Africa, if you say something they don’t agree with, they will shout out or someone can take the story off in a different direction and say, ‘That’s not what happened’. I wish it was more like that here. I’ve been to Ireland a few times. They slip from a conversation into a story and you don’t know where the transition happened.”
Some people take selfies to remind them of their travels. Jane collects stories. “Some of them are very long. Some of them very short. They are all just in there. I don’t write them down,” said Jane. She has memorised the structure of hundreds of tales. “Last time I counted, which was probably eight years ago, there were over 500.”
Jane has previously been commissioned to work in oral folklore and history projects around the Devon and Dorset border. She has noticed that the communities which retain a strong story-telling tradition, share certain qualities. “People are still closer to the land and engaged with their communities, maybe not so hooked into technologies. They’re practising the old ways. They believe there’s more to life than the flesh and blood.”
It was the late 1980s when Jane switched careers from teaching to storytelling. She discovered the profession by chance. “I went to a festival and there were storytellers there. I was completely enchanted. At the time, I was a single parent with three daughters. I had been a teacher in London and I knew that I could not go back to teaching and bring up my daughters on my own. It was a ‘road to Damascus’ moment. I went in a workshop and the guy who was running it said, ‘You can do this’.”
As a former teacher, Jane found it straightforward to get work in schools. “It’s taken me across the world, around the country. I’ve met incredible people and it has been an amazing and exciting adventure,” she said.
I asked Jane how she shapes and fine-tunes a tale for performance. “You find a story that sings to you, or you think there’s something in it. My task is to research it and find the different sources for it. I am very keen on traditional stories. I am not a teller of written stories. Then, a storyteller’s job is to strip that narrative down to the bone, like a skeleton, and then flesh it out with images and words. I have to bring it to life with my own interpretation.”
Jane says she has become proficient in ‘reading the room’ and she alters her stories to suit the crowd. “If part of a story that I tell is funny and somebody laughs, then I will move towards the humorous side. If I’m telling a story that is poignant and somebody is obviously touched, I will change what I tell to draw that in,” she explained. “There’s a real relationship between the teller and the listener. The story happens between us. It is not a fixed thing. I know the beginning, the middle and the end. I know where we can go off a bit and where we have to come back to.”
As you might expect, Jane excelled at English in school and is an avid reader. “I am fascinated with language and its use. In the process of telling a story, I will conjure up an image. If I’m doing it properly you are doing the same thing.”
Jane has been researching the legend of King Arthur for her Shaftesbury storytelling. “It’s the women of Arthur’s court, Camelot. Many of us know the stories of Lancelot and Arthur, the fights and the swords. When I was asked to do a piece at Bruton, they wanted me to focus specifically on the women. I found that the women’s stories underpin a lot of the male macho stuff that we know.”
Jane says she’d previously avoided tales of Arthur because it was all a bit testosterone laden. “Big battles, punching the lights out of each other and getting favours from ladies is all a bit tedious. When I did the research for this piece, I found that there is so much more to it and it is based on very old stories,” said Jane.
Proving that her sessions, even on a one-to-one basis, are interactive, Jane asked me what I thought of when somebody mentioned King Arthur. “The round table,” I replied, staring at the subtle prompt of the Assembly Room’s furnishing.
“The roundtable was a gift from Guinevere to Arthur as a wedding present. She was the daughter of the King of Scotland. It was an alliance,” said Jane.
I had briefly Googled the Arthurian legend and discovered that there are mixed views on whether Arthur’s reign was fact or fantasy. “Sometimes children ask, “Is that true?’ I never answer,” she replied. “I say, ‘What do you think?” And so, another interactive story begins.
‘Stories of the Women – An Evening with Jane Flood’ is on at Shaftesbury’s Grosvenor Arms Hotel at 7pm on Thursday 21st November. Tickets are £10 and can be purchased from the Grosvenor’s website.