A Life On Wheels

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The history of a restless wanderer

I tried, really I did. I was asked to write a short biography of myself. But I am not good at short... Sorry... So take some time, put whatever else you are doing to one side and read just a part of my story...

This has previously been published on the Wild Word blog where I was the “Artist in Residence” under the title “Where Waters Meet.”

The soundtrack to my childhood was the sea. My bedroom was just a short two-minute run down to a beach at the edge of the Atlantic ocean. I grew up listening to the songs of the tidal changes, the waves crashing against the rocks discharging their energies onto the shore, and the soft, smooth, swish of water rolling over the sand. The sea was playing a permanent push-me-pull-you game with the coast. Its rhythm was persistent and undeniable.

The land had an uneasy pact with the ocean. A restless peace that I shared with it then and still do today.

It is said that if you listen to and remember what the sea tells you, then you will always come back to it. I can only agree.

We moved house a lot. My parents were, and still are, restless people. We were living in London when my mother decided to take us back to the sea and so I grew up in North Devon. I was very lucky.

A large and very bustling stream ran down to the sea near our home. It fascinated me and I came home wet from it many a time. I would follow it back up the hills as far as I dared looking for its secrets. It flowed in and out of sight, under and above the ground with a steady and continuous self-assured flow. It knew what it was about, that stream, as it wound its way down to the place where, tumbling over the debris of a cut in the cliffs, it became part of the sea. This was Watersmeet.

Every stream or river rises somewhere. Ours rose on the edge of Exmoor, a wild beautiful place. I would imagine its journey from the source flowing along, gathering strength and vigour, growing deeper and more grown up. All the time picking up energy and material from the places it passed. Then it would flow into the great ocean and become part of a greater story.

In this place, where I grew up, I became restless too… Then I left.

I have made many mistakes, got loads of things wrong and messed up often. I tried my hand at so many different jobs. I was always uneasy. At the time I had the belief that there was no such thing as a bad experience. Which is true. I was looking. Searching.
I discovered juggling. Here was something for an uneasy spirit.

I began performing in Wales as a street performer in 1986. It was a way to make a living and one that I could do on my terms. No boss, no rules. I had developed, by that time, a healthy allergy to and distaste of institutions. The political state of Britain at that time was depressing and restrictive, the state, particularly the police, didn’t like people like me very much, so I left to travel, alone, through Europe. I lived only from what I could earn on the streets as a clown and a juggler. I went to each corner of Europe as it was then, meeting travellers, vagabonds and crazy people from all around the world. I learnt to accept people as they were just as they accepted me as I was. I learnt tolerance. It was a revelation. I learnt not to judge people too quickly either.

Along the way I absorbed much from the cultures that I encountered. Like how a stream is losing its old identity as it flows to the sea, creating a new one by picking up stuff along the way. I was driven by curiosity and an overwhelming desire to look round the next corner. My restlessness was being useful.

The more I traveled the more I learned about people. I became aware that everybody had stories to tell. These stories piqued my curiosity. Then I discovered folk tales from a peasant farmer in the Andorran Pyrenees. His name was Jacketas and he was a goatherd. He had the most amazing azure eyes. He had lived in the same house, as far up as was possible at the head of a valley, tending goats for over eighty years. Only once in his life had he been out of the valley and seen the nearest town. I loved him. There were a few others, mostly German, “freaks” like us living nearby, and between us we could translate his language into one that we could all understand. I had to learn Spanish pretty quickly.

The importance of culture and, especially, language as means of preserving identity is vital. I became fascinated by folk tales and their role in keeping culture alive. I began to delve deeper into them and discovered how entertaining and effective a simple tale could be. As a traveler bound to traveling lightly, I found in stories the perfect material for my shows. Performing a mixture of tales and anecdotes using juggling, physical comedy and marionettes that I made out of materials I found on the streets I created a self-contained entertainment that could be performed anywhere. Therefore I could live anywhere I chose.
I am still restless. Like the stream I have gathered strength and vigour, become deeper and more grown up while flowing through life. Like the stream I have picked up energy and material from the places I have passed through. These places, the people I have known remain with me still and often when I am telling my stories they return to me in my mind to become part of the tale. The listener will not know this, but he or she will hear it. To know this is a wonderful pleasure for me.

Now I work full-time as a professional storyteller in schools, for consulting agencies and management coaching projects, as well as being the storyteller to the Vapiano chain of restaurants. I run workshops, I teach performance and communication skills to anyone who is keen enough to want them. I am bringing the skills that I have learned on the streets and in the theatres of the world, in my life, into classrooms.

But first and foremost I am a storyteller. I have over three hundred and fifty of them in my head. Tales from all over the world. Tales that confirm the power of humanity and offer promise to the downtrodden and weak. These stories have empowered humans for millennia and they are as persistent and undeniable as the rhythm of the oceans.

In India, according to Salman Rushdie, they say all stories flow into a great ocean. The sea of stories. They too have picked up strength, vigour and energy on their way there.

I remember, often, the child who got soaked in the stream while searching for secrets at Watersmeet and now, understanding more about what I do, I am aware of the privilege it is to be who I am.

I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to share stages with, and to learn from, such good and talented people as the superb juggler and clown Ben Smalls, Canadian musician, and incredibly funny human being, Piers Ford and, most of all, the wonderful teller of wonderful tales, Kerstin Otto. Fellow storyteller Sabine Kolbe must also be mentioned.

My work has been influenced over the years by Dario Fo, Jacques Tati, Toto and, most recently, the master of storytelling Ben Haggerty, with whom many late night conversations about stories and the telling of them have been unexpected journeys of discovery. My dear friend Franki Anderson continues to be a voice of reason in my mind and long my that be so.

Right now I am settled on a small-holding just outside Berlin where I work telling stories and giving workshops in schools. I live with my long time partner Kerstin Otto, a heap of chickens and a small flock of sheep.

Between us we have five fantastic, now adult, children and one beautiful grand-daughter, Dorothy who was born in 2011.