Ten things I learned at The Story 2014

You never know quite what will happen at The Story, except that it will illuminate distant areas of your brain with unpredictable copper sparks for some time to come. Here are a few of the things I learned from this year’s gathering of storytellers of all stripes – from film makers, writers and artists to illustrators and singers.

1. You have nothing to fear from a jelly hand grenade

Kyle Bean's 'Soft Guerrilla' materials for Cut magazine

Kyle Bean’s ‘Soft Guerrilla’ materials for Cut magazine

Artist / designer / illustrator Kyle Bean goes to painstaking lengths to create extraordinary images. When Cut magazine asked for pictures to illustrate a feature on guerrilla gardening, he came up with the feather knife and jelly grenade shown here, as well as toast knuckledusters and sticks of mini-milk dynamite.

2. The truth is over-rated

In the pursuit of a good story, you sometimes need to bend the truth, twist it or step neatly over it. “We have a really dodgy relationship with reality and are not really interested in it at all,” said Jane Pollard, talking about the documentary she and Iain Forsyth made about Nick Cave.

Kenyatta Cheese agrees. As he says: “It’s not the facts that are important. It’s the emotional truth.”

3. A story needs a ‘yay’ bit at the end

Not all stories end well, but Stella Duffy prefers it if they do. “I believe in a story having this ‘yay’ bit at the end,” she said. This was after she’d told us: “Two weeks ago I had eight hours of cancer surgery. I’m still a bit bloody and very bruised, but isn’t this a lovely frock?” She’s devoting her considerable wit and spirit to inspiring a series of Fun Palaces across the UK in October 2014.

4. Celery and pasta make good gore

Barnaby Smyth is a foley artist: one of those fascinating behind-the-scenes people who creates rustling leaves, rattling chains and footsteps for film and television. He asked us all to close our eyes as he recreated a ghostly story for us in sound. “For decapitation scenes,  I twist a head of celery mixed with boiled penne pasta,” he said. “But you can use tagliatelle too.”

5. Children have great instincts

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

Performance artist Bryony Kimmings worked with her nine year old niece, Taylor, to come up with Catherine Bennett, a paleontologist popstar who is the epitome of the anti-twerk, the un-Thicke of it. Schoolchildren suggested lyrics for CB’s song, The Future, including the brilliant line: “We need at least four more ways to eat potatoes.”

6. We find joy in unusual places

  • Bill Wasik gets his kicks from going viral, and was responsible for gathering a 200-strong flash mob in Macy’s carpet department who claimed to be commune members looking for a ‘love rug’.
  • Tony Ageh loves lists. “A proper list is democratic, neutral, useful and empowering,” he told us.
  • Philip Larkin is partial to procrastination and Vines. Here’s the impromptu Vine made during his talk, part of his ‘What happens if I press this button?’ series.
Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

7. All stories are the same

Feeling lost and alone in Los Angeles, Lisa Salem took an unusual approach in the city-where-no-one-walks. She attached a video camera to a baby buggy and invited people to come and walk with her while she videoed the conversation. “The talks quickly became intimate and personal, and I discovered that everyone tells the same story,” she said. “Everyone wants to be heard, to be seen, to be understood.”

8. Writing a novel is like riding a horse

Novelist Meg Rosoff solved a mystery while she was practising dressage. Why, she wondered, were so many of the novels she was asked to review so mediocre? Her theory – convincingly put – is that you need a good flow and mastery of the unconscious to write a novel. Just as a good dressage rider channels the power of the horse, a writer needs to use the deep, unconscious areas of the brain to create writing that resonates. “Write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place,” she advises.

9. It’s not easy to destroy a computer

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, gave his insights into the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA material. In July 2013, GCHQ supervised the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of the leaked information. “It’s more difficult than you’d think to destroy a computer,” said Alan. “It’s not enough to wipe it clean, hit it with hammers or put superglue in the USB drives. We had to dismantle them, then use angle grinders and drills on the internal components.”

10. It’s never too late to travel with an ancestor

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor's footsteps

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor’s footsteps

Gruff Rhys, the Welsh singer and all-round good egg, told a fascinating story of his 2012 American Interior tour which retraced the steps of a long-dead ancestor, John Evans. Evans was quite a man: he left Wales in 1792, hung out with tribespeople, became Spanish and then French, and ended his days in New Orleans. Gruff was accompanied on the tour by a felt model of Evans, complete with period costume and a pioneering stare. Gruff completed his story by playing us a song about Evans, with around 29 key changes reflecting the many twists and turns of his ancestor’s adventures.

Thanks to the intrepid organisers of The Story for assembling such a brilliant mix of people and ideas. When can I book next year’s ticket?

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How sound can tell a story

What can creatives learn from the way that Jacques Tati uses sound in his 1958 film, Mon Oncle? As someone who works with words, sometimes it’s great to come across storytelling that does away with them altogether. This article, written for a 26 / D&AD project, The Story Works, reveals how sound tells a story in Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati.

Jacques Tati investigates bouncing crockery in Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati investigates bouncing crockery in Mon Oncle

I love Mon Oncle. I love the way that Monsieur Hulot ambles through this 1958 film, with his pipe, his too-short trousers and his billowing mac, trailing chaos in his wake. I love the way he’s at home in the shambolic old district, but a flounder out of water in the modern world.

But most of all, I love the way that Jacques Tati (who directed and starred in the film) tells the story through sound rather than words.

So here are some of my favourite sounds from Mon Oncle, together with some thoughts on how they tell the story.

The kitchen that bites back

M Hulot is visiting his sister and brother-in-law, M and Mme Arpel, in their immaculate modern house in the suburbs. In contrast to the animated market in the old district, Mme Arpel’s buzzing, bleeping kitchen has all the charm of an operating theatre. The cupboards are booby-trapped and every appliance produces sound and fury but little that you’d want to eat. The machines have got the upper hand, but they can’t boil a decent egg.

The manic lawnmower

As Mme Arpel tells her husband that M Hulot needs some order in his life, we hear a rhythmic ticking, like someone cutting daisies with tiny scissors. The couple look out from upstairs and see their imperious blonde neighbour manically pedalling a lawnmower in ever-decreasing circles around her miniature lawn.  The insistent, repetitive clack of the lawnmower tells us that there’s madness in her method.

The fish fountain

Mme Arpel activates her metal fish fountain to greet important guests. We hear the ‘buzz-gurgle-buzz’ motif as people ring on the intercom, the water jet starts and the garden gate opens. She turns the fish off when a carpet salesman appears at the gate. She then frantically turns the fountain on again when she realises that the carpet salesman is actually her neighbour waving a poncho. During a tea party, M Hulot breaks the fountain and the genteel afternoon disintegrates into chaos as the fountain springs a leak and spurts gravel over the guests. Mme Arpel’s attempts to control  her environment are outwitted by M Hulot and a big metal fish.

Sausage pipes

M Hulot is given a job at the plastics factory and asked to keep an eye on a colleague’s machine. Soothed to sleep by the rhythmic roar and slow hiss of the production line, he wakes up to find tubes snaking across the floor. The machine judders, hiccups and starts to disgorge pipes that bulge with air pockets.  It then shifts into a pop-pop-pop rhythm that produces a stream of sausage-like links. Rhythm and efficiency reliably dissolve into disorder whenever M Hulot appears.

Tip tap tip tap

Throughout the film, the ordered ‘tip tap tip tap’ of efficient feet contrasts with M Hulot’s meandering, often circular, lope. A secretary’s heels resound sharply along the corridors of the plastics factory as M Hulot marks out a conga of white footprints across the floor. The Arpels tip tap precisely along the paving stones in the garden while M Hulot teeters on edging stones then sploshes through a lily pad into the pond. Life in the modern world is all time and motion, but M Hulot meanders along to a different beat.

Devilish gadgets

Towards the end of the film, gadgets take over at the Arpel household. M Hulot’s nephew Gérard can’t be heard over the self-propelling vacuum cleaner, whirring kitchen gadgets drown out M Arpel and a shaver as loud as an aircraft silences Mme Arpel.  The family are alienated from each other by deafening labour-saving devices which eliminate all chance of human communication.

Lessons from Mon Oncle

  • Milk sound for laughter. As David Lynch said: “For Jacques Tati, every sound effect is an opportunity for humour.”
  • Dialogue’s over-rated. M Hulot mumbles and mimes his way through this film, telling brilliant jokes without saying a word.
  • Don’t talk, bark. “Dogs are marvellous comedians,” said Tati.  Like children and M Hulot, they represent freedom and chaos, and their barking underpins some of the best bits of the film (eg the genius ‘moonlit eyeballs’ scene).
  • Sounds reflect personality. The boss is an uptight ticking clock, Mme Arpel is an overpowering robotic vacuum cleaner and M Hulot is a canary that whistles in the sunshine.
  • She who laughs loudest won’t be invited back. If Mme Arpel ever invites you to tea, don’t laugh too loudly or take plastic flowers.

What else can I say? Watch Mon Oncle. Add your own laughter track. And listen to Tati as he tells a story without words.