It’s weird when something happens, some event, that blows your mind so completely that it takes ages to process it enough to write about the experience. That’s part of the reason I’m only writing about this now, something that happened a month ago, an event so special, so magical, that it’s hard to find the right words to describe how it felt at the time. But I’m gonna try.
Every so often, Joanne Harris will find herself at a loose end, and that means #storytime. For this, she’ll start with the tweet, “There is a story the bees used to tell, which makes it hard to disbelieve.” And then she’ll go on from there and make up a story on the fly. Some followers leave; those followers, perhaps, who don’t like it when a storyteller tells a story. (If you’re following a writer in the hope they can give you a leg up in the publishing world, forget it… Follow them because you love their work, and respect them as writers.)
Last year, she wrote a libretto for her story Clockwork, a disturbing tale of a toymaker and his less-than-perfect wife. Lucie Treacher, a young composer, wrote the music, and it was performed as a mini opera outside King’s Place in London – until parents complained to staff that it was too scary, and was frightening their small children. (I’d say that was a compliment, personally – in my experience, the more horrible something is, the more children like it.) It was subsequently moved inside and all was well. No more small children crying.
Anyway, that went so well that this time, Joanne did something else. With The Storytime Band assembled especially for the occasion, she put together a set of six of these stories, to be performed on stage, again at King’s Place. My SO and I bought tickets, and that sunny Sunday, off we went. (It was so hot, I wore shorts…)
We got there just in time to grab something to eat before we went in, and arrived at our seats (right at the front) just as the show was about to start.
First, Joanne explained how this had all begun: on Twitter, with #storytime, and how she now had so many stories that it was time to do something with them. And as the stories all begin the same way, that was the story she told first: how the bees came to be storytellers in the first place.
Anyone familiar with her work will be unsurprised to learn that it’s basically a fairy tale, set by the side of the River Dream, straddled between two of the Nine Worlds, and features a unique flower, withered by Death’s skeletal hand. But before that happened, the bees collected the nectar, and took it back to the nest…
I’d never heard Joanne sing before, and it was lovely. I sat there, SO next to me (equally rapt, I might add), tears pouring down my face. It was one of those moments that no words can do justice. And even though the whole thing was filmed (you can find it here), the recording couldn’t possibly have captured the feeling. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but you really did have to be there, to be swept up in the world Joanne and the band had created. It was a whole new world, but one both SO and I felt was familiar, and safe, and exciting, and above all, magical.
The next story was Moonlight (which has also been turned into a mini opera and was performed later that afternoon – of course we went…), about a moon jellyfish who falls in love with the moon, and her subsequent heartbreak when he fails to respond to her advances.
The Sand Rider who Dreamed of the Ocean was about… well, dreams of the impossible, that maybe, just maybe, can come true if you dream hard enough.
Next came Clockwork, the accompanying song being an adaptation of the mini opera performed last year. Every woman dreams of being perfect, doesn’t she? She wouldn’t complain when her husband replaced her, bit by bit, as she grew older. He wants the perfect wife. She has a broken heart… the end is quite horrific…
The Red Slippers is about a young man who falls in love with a girl whose only distinguishing feature is her shoes – every other part of her is covered up, as per the convention in his land. But she’s not all she seems…
Finally, Joanne told the story of The Old Lady and the Rocking Horse, another one about the power of dreams, and with a sly swipe at family members who come out of the woodwork and seem to care only when they think there’s something in it for them.
There was applause. There were cheers. And Joanne then stepped aside so the band could play their own song, called Old Light, with husband Kevin stepping out from behind the drums to sing in his folky voice (SO said it made him think of Steeleye Span, which to me is the ultimate compliment).
And that was it. Just over an hour and it was done. Afterwards, we just about managed to catch Joanne in the foyer, where she gave me a T-shirt the same as the ones she and the band wore (and also her daughter Anouchka, their part-time roadie). Yay! She signed a book for SO (A Cat, A Hat, and a Piece of String, a very special little book). And we gave her a little present, too – for our writers’ circle, I had keyrings made, and I wanted Joanne to have one, seeing as a) she’s a friend and b) she was the first to answer our silly questions for the group website. Oh, and cakes. Cakes always go down well. Then she was off again, whisked away to do… things. SO and I grabbed some noodles from a little place on the Caledonian Road and then went back to join Joanne and Anouchka for the opera of Moonlight (and also The Last Seed, written by Stella Duffy with music composed by Na’ama Zisser). Once again, the music was composed by Lucie Treacher, the story was adapted by Joanne to suit the medium and again, it was truly magical. The musicians even had sea creature balloons attached to their heads, which moved when they moved, creating an undersea world in this dark little room at King’s Place. (There’s a great review of this part of the day here.)
And that really was it. We were in no rush to get back to Brighton, so SO and I joined Joanne and the others for drinks. What happened in the evening, I shall keep to myself, but I will tell you that there was red wine (and champagne) involved, and I got rather drunk.
SO and I went for a train from St Pancras, missed it, and went to Victoria instead. Despite being full of wine, we felt refreshed, invigorated, and truly cleansed by the power of Story.
There are people who will try to tell you stories are just child’s play; kids’ stuff; not for grown-ups; even a waste of time (I’m looking at you, Michael Gove). Nonsense. Stories are what make us human. Without them, the world would be a sadder place indeed.
Thank you Joanne, and the band, for a day neither of us will ever forget. We can’t wait for the next one.