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Meet the Storytellers (6): Adrian Beckingham (The Man from Story Mountain)

Updated on August 19, 2014
Adrian Beckingham (The Man from Story Mountain)
Adrian Beckingham (The Man from Story Mountain)

The Man from Story Mountain

Adrian Beckingham, professional storyteller for 20 years, combines storytelling with art forms such as music, dance, visual arts, exhibitions and survival skills.

He tells stories drawn from a wide range of cultures and ancient traditions from around the world. At storytelling venues, he uses the 'Story Mountain Medicine Lodge' - a fully painted Blackfoot Native American tepee - as a setting for his performances.

He has worked in hundreds of UK schools and projects have included commissions for Historic Royal Palaces, British Museum, Barbican Children's Library, City Of London, English Heritage, The National Trust, The Millennium Commission, The Commonwealth Institute, The Home Office, Glastonbury Festival, as well the main British television channels.

Adrian believes in the transforming power of stories and has over fifteen years experience using storytelling and creative writing within the arena of mental health. He was also the founding chairman of The Siddhartha Foundation, a charity establishing a residential school for Himalayan orphans in Kathmandu City.


What made Adrian pursue a career as a storyteller?

"Initially I did not so much pursue storytelling as stumble into it. I was one of those kids at school who avoided being involved in performance like the plague. A month before I did my first paid storytelling gig, I would not have believed you if you told me I would do this."

"I was until then living in Australia and worked as a National Coordinator for Greenpeace Australia. I helped run a team of 180 professional Greenpeacers, and it was a highly exciting and rewarding position. My team turned back the Japanese whaling fleet one year. That was over 20 years ago but it's good to know those whales and their offspring are still out there in the oceans today. We also closed down a nuclear reactor which was built on the San Andreas fault in the USA, and many other things."

"But then upon becoming a dad I moved to England with my then English partner and did some freelance environmental youth work. It was OK but lacked the drive of what I had been doing before. Then one day I happened to see a storyteller in a library - his name was David James. He was nearing retirement age and I was a young man in my twenties.I was enchanted by his storytelling and at the end of his show I went up and told him how great I thought it was. He would have had many people tell him this, but he singled me out immediately and told me I was going to be a storyteller! I denied it, said I could not do what he had just done, and that it was not really my interest in any case. But he pursued me, got me my first storytelling job."

"As my family and I were on and off income support I thought I had better not turn any opportunity down, but I was very nervous. I have always written, and had a strong interest in literature. I even topped my university in English Literature. So I sat down and wrote some stories out, and practised telling them to a houseplant! The job was in an English Heritage castle, and once I told my tales that session - incuding one I made up on the spot - they booked me to do 12 other castles that summer! I never looked back."

"I found it an inspiring occupation that could also often fit around doing the daily school run. It is a magical art and opens hearts and minds to further possibilites in life. My tales always have social or environmental themes and it's a great. passionate teaching tool."

What can the audience or listener gain from a story?

"There are many answers to that. The thrill and entertainment of live theatre. The lessons learnt within the morals of the tale. A new way of seeing awkward or challenging or inspiring events in the world. Stories act as catalysts to human throught and emotion, they answer riddles and equip human beings to better understand the world around them, and find potential solutions to potential problems. They inspire us to dream."

"But rather than tell you this as a matter of fact list of statements, let me show you an example. This comes from my recent children's novel, The King Of The Things, which was a story I developed orally over many years of storytelling at festivals, before I was one day approached by a publisher to write it down. It is an original folk tale about celebrating difference - and because I created it orally originally, I decided to write it following very much a storytelling oral style."

'The King of The Things' (an extract)

Hunch peered at the strange gathering of Things that yammered and howled, growled and garumbled upon the rough circle of fallen trunks around him. Hunch guessed they would eat him as soon as they could, if only their King allowed it. Some of the Things had sharp curved claws that gleamed in the moonlight, others had enormous pincers, or poison dripping from their wings.

Hunch decided he had better do exactly as he was told. So he pulled himself right out from the tree, dragging his walking staff behind him. He stood there wide-eyed and quaking, as he beheld the terrible King Of The Things right there in front of him.

“Ha ha!” roared the King in merry mirth and all the Things around the circle echoed him: “Ha ha!” they called. Hunch wished his knees would stop knocking from the sheer fright of the sight of them.

“You Samesies make me laugh! No imagination! None!” the king roared.

“None! None!” hissed and haloobered the others. The hunchback quivered. He had better be polite. He bent himself as low as he could and did a little bow.

The King’s nose spread wide in a large smile, his nostrils brimming with fangs. “Now Samesie, what’s your question? Every Samesie has one!”

And with that the King Of The Things stuck one long tongue out from his enormous toothed nose, which happened in that moment to be the whole of his bloated body, and licked all three nostrils. All the Things followed suit, even though some of them had more tongues, or less, or longer, or shorter, and in different places to that of the King himself. A few of them shook or rattled the bones they had been using as drumsticks, and Hunch wondered if he was quite sure none of those bones were human.

A question! The poor hunchback could not think of one! What do you ask a King of terrible Things high up on his hill in the middle of a forest, all alone, under the light of a full moon, without being eaten?

Hunch’s brain whirred and squeezed, juicing one tiny drop of imagination out of his terror frozen mind. “Ah, w, w, well your Majesty, why do you call me Samesie?”

At that, half the Things fell backwards off their logs laughing, while the other half fell forward, and laughed all the more. They tumbled about, baffooing and chaboobeling merrily. The King himself floated up in the air using tiny weeny rows of wings that now grew from his tongue, and grinned broadly with his elbows.

“Why Samesie? For that is what you are! You Samesies that live in your barns and cottages, out in your villages and towns, you are all the same! One head on top. Two ears either side, two eyes out front above one nose, above one mouth, above one chin! One neck above one chest, two shoulders and an arm attached each side! One elbow in the middle, hands at the end, four fingers and one thumb. Two legs, two knees, two feet, ten toes, all down the bottom ordered and accounted for! I say, you must all like it! You all do it! You are all the same!”

The King Of The Things suddenly lowered gently onto his log and turned into a shivering cluster of feathers, with sharp spikes like a porcupine sticking through. “Nothing wrong with being the same!” The King Of The Things said: “And nothing wrong with being different. Everyone is different to us, even we are! Ha ha! There is no better or worse. Just different. You see? But how could you? You’re a Samesie!”

Now as you might imagine, nobody had ever called Hunch the same before. He had spent his whole life being bullied because he was different! Perhaps you would not like it much if a strange Thing on top of a mountain told you that you were a Samesie, but Hunch liked it. He liked it a lot. And all of a sudden he liked that Thing King too! He was so happy for a moment he forgot to be frightened anymore, and he simply said: “Why thank you, your Majesty!”

"The story goes on to show how Hunch - who is always laughed at by other children for his awkward dancing - is celebrated for his dancing by The King. When the King invites Hunch to dance again the following night, Hunch is not so sure. After all he is all alone in a forest with snarling monsters. So the King gives him some gold as a bribe to return - half now, half tomorrow. Then we see..."

The King Of The Things glared at him with the tips of his squinting ears. “How do I know you will come back? Yes – if you do, you get more gold. But now you have enough gold to make you rich for your whole lifelong in the world of Samesies. You Samesies are all the same on the outside, but you are different on the inside. Some of you are greedy, and can never be happy because you want more, more, more. That Samesie would come back. But some of you are grateful for what you have, and even enjoy sharing it around. That Samesie is often very happy already, and might not return to give another dance!”

The King Of The Things frowned with his pointed nose and said: “What kind are you? Samesies are all the same on the outside. But on the inside, they are different – some are better, some are worse. Courage and fear, kindness and greed. What kind are you?”

*

"Since it became a book, I have toured the story - always telling, never reading - through over 20 schools in three months, emphasising it's anti-bullying theme. It has gained praise from a Minister for Government Policy in Cabinet, Oliver Letvin, who said of it: “I was very impressed. Mr Beckingham’s anti-bullying literacy project clearly encourages a culture of respect and good behaviour – and it was also clear that the pupils were thoroughly engaged with this project and enjoying themselves as well as profiting from it. That is a happy combination!”

"So you see, stories have the ability to change world views, and therefore people's lives."

What makes a good story?

"A story that can be simply enjoyed in it's own right is fine, but I always lean towards stories that have an underyling message people can learn from. One of my specialist fields is the creation stories of indigenous peoples. They are in my opinion stories of very high value."

"People nowadays mistakingly think that the word myth means something isn’t true. On the contrary - the ancient myths have only survived because there is great truth inside them. They are thousands of years old. If they didn’t hold some very special meaning for all those people who have bothered to hear them, hold them, and pass them on again, they would have been erased from human memory and culture long ago. Ancient mythologies may appear false or unbelievable on the outside, but they are true on the inside. They are truths disguised in the camouflage of a story, a riddle worth solving. This is something I love to learn and share. "

"I have created an anthology of earth creation myths for other storytellers to enjoy and share (see link below). I do ask tellers to please acknowledge me as their source, since all of these tales were learnt at considerable effort and expense - campaigning for the human and cultural rights of the people who tell them, for example, or travelling to the country they come from and spending time story exchanging with the peoples who tell them traditionally. I acknowledge my sources, and ask for the same courtesy."

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What advice would he give to prospective storytellers?

"Firstly I would say, there is always room for more storytellers in this world."

"When I began in 1994, storytelling seemed an almost dead art. Tellers and audiences were few and far between. But no human being - whether a four year old in nursery, a teenager in a hostel, a prisoner, or a politician - nobody can resist stories for long if they are well told. And today the craft is blooming again, with audiences across the nation and beyond, and new tellers springing up like keen shoots awaiting the spring."

"The Hopi Native Americans have an ancient myth which tells how the original humans were all crafted from tall dancing fires. When the flames went out human beings were formed, but they kept one small flame burning with their hearts. This flame was the source of their dreams, their imagination and inspirations. If you are a lover of tales, and wish to share them, then follow that flame in your heart. Live it, breath it. "

"Storytelling is not just a job, and don't expect instant financial riches. Other more valuable riches shall come first, those which replenish your own vitality for life. Storytelling is a path walked and an adventure. I have told stories in hot air balloons flying over the temples of ancient Egypt, in submarines cruising the Great Barrier Reef. In every landscape of this world, from the Sahara, to the Pacific, and the Himalayan Mountains. There is even an orphanage for over 100 children, which I helped create as founding chairman as part of a storytelling adventure. So be prepared for the unexpected. "

"And remember we are all born with two ears and one mouth - it is good to listen properly before we speak. If they are traditional tales you wish to tell then learn the tales fully and honour them by sharing them correctly. I view it as a sad and destructive thing to change a traditional tale that has lasted thousands of years. That would be like adding my own personal graffiti to an ancient cave painting. It's because I am so particular in telling tradition tales traditionally, and invest a lot of time and energy into learning them from an authentic and relaible source, that I enjoy work for clients, such as The British Museum, and have the trust of over 500 schools who hire me in."

Always good to hear from you, the reader. What type of stories do you like to listen to? What are your memories of being told stories by others?

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      Colin Neville 3 years ago

      Enjoyed the story - great imagery and sound effects.