Pat Triggs talks to Toni Arthur
25 July is St James’ Day. The emblem of St James is a scallop shell, though no-one really knows why. Some say it’s because of this strange tale.
St James had died and his body was being taken by boat to Spain where he was to be buried. A horseman was waiting on the shore for the boat to arrive. As the boat got close to the shore, the horse bolted into the sea, carrying its rider with him.
Miraculously, neither the rider nor the horse was drowned. It was said that the power of Saint James saved them but when the man and horse came out of the sea, both were covered with scallop shells. So, scallop shells have been the emblem of St James ever since.
You’ll find that story in Toni Arthur’s new book All the Year Round (Puffin, 0 14 03.1320 6, £ I) published this month.
On 25 July next year you may come across miniature grottoes and caves decorated with sea shells, displayed outside houses by children chanting
Please remember the Grotto.
It’s only once a year.
Father’s gone to sea.
Mother’s gone to bring him back,
So please remember me.
This summertime version of ‘Penny for the Guy’ is one of the customs associated with St James’ Day, known once as Grotto Day. It’s in the book too. If this and other rituals reappear Toni Arthur will be delighted. ‘ I love the old customs. I wanted to have a go at trying to get children to revive them.’
All the Year Round is a collection of traditional customs, superstitions, games and stories. It’s arranged month by month and is full of instructions and ideas for things to make and do from a January wassail cup – a spicy drink to warm you after you’ve wassailed the apple trees to ensure a good crop – through a St James’ grotto in July, to a December Mummer’s Play.
Toni Arthur didn’t have to look far for the book. ‘It was all there in my head.’ And, if she needed to check anything, there are 6,500 books on folk lore at home. In fact she wrote it at tremendous speed. She set aside four weeks to write it before setting off for Africa and lost two of them. Tony Lacey, at Puffin, couldn’t wait for it until she came back so, ‘I wrote day and night for ten days. It was as if I’d talked my way through the whole year.’ The book retains that immediacy and it’s a bonus.
There was time, though, for a little market research. ‘Every time I finished a chapter I bunged it off to the boys and said, “Read it.”‘ The boys are her two sons, Timothy, 10, and Jonathan, 16, for whom many of the things in the book are part of family life – annual clear outs, egg painting, April Fools.
Another influence on the book was Toni’s work on TV, in radio and live with children. Jokes and riddles in the Play Away style pop up regularly throughout. ‘I’ve found through working with children that they can hold concentration for a certain amount of time. If you break that to make them laugh and relax then they can hold concentration again.’ The jokes are also used in the manner of a radio technique, as links to get from one section to the next.
The same impulse that prompted the book lies behind Toni Arthur’s Music Box, the show with which she and her husband Dave are currently touring the country in schools and theatres. It’s for anyone who’s ever been between 5 and 10. It’s got traditional music and stories and an eight-minute Mummer’s Play – all with the emphasis on joining in. Dave and Toni invent and make all the costumes. ‘They arc all very easy, just as it’s described in the book. Mostly we use stuff from jumble sales and things we’ve hoarded. In schools we encourage kids to do their own version of the play, make it personal and local, rewrite the rhymes to fit the community. In one school we even wrote a part for the donkey.’
It sounds fun. But isn’t all this attempt at folk revival a bit out of place in the nineteen eighties’. They don’t see it that way. For one thing, although Dave is a member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and edits their magazine and he and Toni have just finished a radio series on storytelling called Folk Tales, they don’t like the word ‘Folk’.
‘Labelling things “folk” has made them museum pieces, cut them off from the community as if they had nothing to do with everyday life. It’s fossilized them instead of letting people see that really they change with the needs and moods of the singer, dancer or storyteller,’ says Dave. Toni avoided using the word in the book. ‘It has all the wrong associations for people. We just want to give traditions back to the children. It’s up to them what they do with them. The only real difference between now and two hundred years ago is the physical setting. We’ve swopped the village green for a housing estate. What we want to try to recapture is the idea of community. Festivals, annual rituals can be a reason for getting together and a way of keeping the rhythm of the changing seasons which is easy to miss in towns and cities.’
For schools or families All the Year Round is a good first step to that.
Toni Arthur’s Music Box is on the road again in the autumn. In September it will be in Wimbledon: in October in Frome (Somerset), Swindon, Basingstoke, Farnham, London (Queen Elizabeth Hall), Macclesfield, Accrington. Poynton, Harrow. Yeovil, Norwich: in November in Birmingham, Horsham. Coventry, Harrogate and Bury St Edmunds.
All the Year Round events are being planned to co-incide with the tour. Details from Puffin, Children’s Marketing. 536 Kings Road, London SW10 OUH. Tel. 01 351 2393.
TV GOES TRADITIONAL TOO
Traditional songs of highwaymen and smugglers, poachers and ploughmen. fishers and weavers were featured in The Song and the Story, a recent BBC series for children. A book of the same name written by Isla St Clair, who appeared in the series, and David Turnbull, the producer, is available from Pelham. It contains the words and music of 36 traditional songs, and background stories and pictures to the songs and the series.
The Song and the Story, Isla St Clair, Pelham, 0 7207 1324 2. £5.95.
Storybook International, a 24 part film series of classic tales from around the world starts this month. Made by HTV it will be networked throughout the country. A book based on the series containing adaptations of the stories by Veronica Kruger, line drawings by Patricia Drew and colour plates of stills from the series will be published in August.
Storybook International, Gollancz. 0 575 03051 8 £5.95.