TAFFY Thomas loves telling stories. Tall stories sometimes, certainly. But short stories too; and folk stories, and ghost stories, and animal stories, and stories about creation.
Just about any kind of story you can imagine, as long as it is authentic. The kind of story passed on from generation to generation, told by wrinkled old grannies to wide-eyed children sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night.
In fact, the 60-year-old is probably the country’s pre-eminent storyteller. He has just been unveiled as the first “storytelling laureate”, is artistic director of The Northern Centre for Storytelling in the Lake District and, in 2001, was awarded the MBE for services to storytelling and charity.
He even has his own storytelling coat – a long black, white and terracotta silk coat printed with ink drawings, each of which represents one of the stories in his extensive repertoire. He calls it his ‘Tale Coat’, and it’s like a storytelling jukebox.
When he travels around the country telling stories, he invites members of the audience to point at pictures on his coat. Then he tells them the story that goes with it. He’s had the coat for years now. “And it goes with me everywhere I go!”
So what is it about stories he loves so much?
Stories are the way that people – and communities and nations – remember their history, passing it on from generation to generation, he says. Folk tales are deep, dark windows into our past. They also help bring us together. “They are very social. They’re conversation art. They cross generational barriers and bring different groups of people together.”
Stories are great for developing emotional intelligence in children, and for teaching. One of the things he does is run storytelling workshops for young adults. “Because if a person can stand up and tell a story, they can stand up at a job interview, or in a lecture hall, or even in a court of law.”
But above all, he says, stories are fun in a way watching the TV can never be, because the listener is part of the story, through the sheer immediacy of the storytelling process.
“TV has tried desperately to be interactive, but it can never be as interactive as someone standing with an audience, telling a story,” he says.
Taffy was brought up in Somerset, but with a name such as David Thomas the nickname was inevitable and has stuck. He has a repertoire of more than 300 stories, most of them picked up through listening to other storytellers.
When he was 16 or 17, he got to meet the storyteller and folklorist Ruth Tongue, then 95, many of whose stories have since been written down. But hearing them spoken out loud was something different, Taffy says.
Every storyteller develops their own style. He himself hones and whittles his stories. “I embellish them, and the first 20 times I tell a new story, I change it constantly, until it settles down.”
I ask him to tell me one, and he does. It’s one he heard long ago that day with Ruth Tongue, he says, apologising because it is only short. His voice changes register, painting a scene for me. “Two men were hoeing together on 15 acres of farmland, on a misty morning.”
He pauses for a moment to give me the chance to picture them in my mind, up there on a lonely hillside. “One of them stopped, leaned on his hoe, and turned to the other one. And he said,” – his voice drops to an eerie whisper – “he said: ‘I don’t believe in them there ghosties.’” He pauses again, for a heartbeat. “And then the other one said ‘don’t you?’ And then he vanished.”
It’s all in the timing, and the tone of voice – but even though I heard it only over the telephone, it delivers a delightful little shiver.
Another wonderful story he tells me is based on a Native American story called Why Leaves Fall. It tells how the Great Spirit made different kinds of creatures, and gave them all different ways to keep warm in winter.
To the mammals, it gave fur: to the birds, it gave feathers. And to the insects and creepy crawlies of the world, it gave…. Well, the story ends in a riddle. Go to the Steiner School, Taffy says, and stand under the trees. If I’m green, turning to brown, and I fall when the wind blows, what am I? A leaf of course. And look under the leaves, Taffy says, and you’ll find all kinds of tiny creatures keeping warm… This talented storyteller is coming to York tomorrow for the city’s first Festival of Storytelling. It promises a feast of storytelling running all day at the Steiner School, in Fulford Cross, and then again in the evening.
Taffy with his Tale Coat promises to be one of the highlights. But there will be a host of local storytellers too: eco-poet and photographer Anneliese Emmans Dean celebrating garden ‘minibeasts’; Catherine Heinemeyer – aka storyteller Nettlefoot Kate – telling the “tales of the trees”; York poet Miles Cain giving his twist to classic tales such as Rumpelstiltskin and The Boy Who Cried Wolf; and Adrian Spendlow performing Viking tales around the fire as Adrinskald Samsson; plus many more.
For Taffy, meanwhile, the return to Fulford will be particularly evocative. As a young man, he founded the Magic Lantern folk theatre company, travelling Europe illustrating folk songs with shadow puppets. Then, at 36, he suffered a stroke that left him with limited movement in his left side, and no speech.
For such a man, it was a devastating blow. And it was a voice teacher in York by the name of Alison McMorland – who has since gone on to be a folk singer – who helped him to get his voice back.
He travelled over from his home in Cumberland once a week to see her. “And she gave me a voic*e again,” he says.
Alison long ago moved up to Scotland, but Fulford still holds a special place in Taffy’s heart. “It will be nice to come back,” he says.
And it will be great to hear him telling some of those stories.
• The York Storytelling Festival, tomorrow at the Steiner School, in Fulford Cross, will be in two parts. The daytime festival, which 10am-5pm (registration at 9am in the school gym) will feature storytelling for children and adults, workshops, puppet shows and a story walk.
• The evening festival, from 5pm-10pm, features storytelling, a ghost walk along the Ouse, a bonfire (weather permitting) and a ceilidh.
Tickets: daytime session £8 adults, £5 children or £18 for a family ticket (two adults and two children); evening £5 adults, £3 children or £10 for a family ticket.
You may be able to turn up on the day: but to make sure you get a place, book now at yorkstorytelling.co.uk or by phoning 01904 620898.