Urban Story Walk
I’m not really the best person to write about the Pannier Market at Granary Wharf on Saturday. I’m not a great frequenter of markets and tend to shy away from shopping in general, so can’t claim any specialist insight into how successful the day was. Everyone I spoke to said they’d had a good time and were looking forward to the next one. Everyone that is except a particular eleven year old girl I was introduced to whose mum had dragged her along to help out with a stall. I have to admit my sympathy was for the daughter. At least I could retreat into The Hop for pint or two and read my book when I felt the need for respite from the retail frenzy, but, being eleven what could she do? She was stuck in a place she didn’t want to be under instructions to enjoy herself. Look happy! Put a smile on your face! Enjoy the sunshine! Poor kid. Her protestations had been public and unashamed. Good tactic, and I think her mum will think twice next time.
Before I turned up I wasn’t sure what a Pannier Market was or what sort of things they sold. So I had no preconceptions. There were stalls. The stalls were piled high with stuff. Some of the stuff was shiny, some fluffy, some was edible, and some was, as far as I could tell, just stuff. But stuff seemed to go down very well. Stuff was certainly shifting. The crowd seemed happy to mill about and pass the time of day, rummaging, haggling, occasionally buying stuff. The sun shone at a consistent intensity all day which pleased the punters, and the amount of stuff on the stalls gradually diminished, much to the relief of all concerned. I almost bought a t-shirt which had a slogan something like “The next person who invites me to play Mafia Wars is gonna get whacked!” but I got distracted by the offer of Yorkshire parkin from Out of the Woods. I forgot to go back for the t-shirt and found myself in the pub instead. The parkin was lovely. And congratulations to Out of the Woods for their success in securing one of the nice little units in Granary Wharf! Hope you’ll be opening Saturdays.
The main reason I hung around so long (apart from the beer) was to go on the Urban Story Walk. I’d seen Joe Collins do a talk at the last BettaKultcha, although “talk” hardly describes the maniacal maelstrom that the story hunters unleashed on us that evening. Check the video! So I was looking forward to seeing what he’d do with a longer, less pressured, occasion. I managed to book on the second of three walks he was doing that day after gormlessly missing the first owing to an unaccountable incident involving the queue for beer. It was great to see Joe again. He was looking well and very tanned. He said he was nervous, though I found that hard to believe as he doesn’t give the impression of being a backwards at coming forwards kinda guy. He said the first walk had gone well but he was still tinkering with the material. As we were talking I realised there was something peculiar niggling at the corner of my consciousness and it took me a few minutes to realise the cause of my unease, one singularly odd sartorial synchronicity; Joe was wearing the exact same shirt as Tim Waters who led the psychogeography walk the other day! Same as in pinky, purply, swirly paisley . . . is there some kind of fashion conspiracy that I’m unaware of? I mean, what are the chances of two guys on opposite sides of the city deciding independently to dress identically? There’s definitely something going on. Come on guys, just tell me!
When I mentioned to Emma that I’d love to write about Joe’s event for The Culture Vulture she has asked me to explain what story telling is, “for the dim.” (I know I shouldn’t have said that; it was a private conversation, late in the evening, just a throwaway comment, but I couldn’t resist . . . sorry Emma!) Now I really can’t imagine that the average reader of Culture Vulture is of less than scintillating intellect and positively throbbing with radiant wisdom so I won’t labour the point. And I don’t think we need to understand clever French theorists if we want to know what narrative is all about; as clever French theorist Roland Barthes wrote, “The narratives of the world are without number…the narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives.” We all get stories, even us dim Brits. Joe has his own definition on his website. One of my favourite definitions is from the writer Tim O’Brien, who wrote a cracking book on the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. He said, “stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for the late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you where to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
Joe took the hint about eternity to heart. He started his narrative way back when space and time first appeared in the big bang, which he assured us resulted from the clash of matter and anti-matter somewhere near present day Todmorden, on the Yorks/Lancs border. We were stood on the top of the Candle House, about fifteen of us, looking out over the most spectacular view of Leeds I know. Joe had the group gripped and gagging on his every word from the get go. One little girl, probably no more than five or six, sat rivetted through the whole forty minutes, elbows on knees, chin in hand, totally wrapt up in Joe’s performance. The adults too were transported into a kind of trance state where we were able to suspend our normal analytic rational thinking, set aside our conditioned inclination to slice and dice experience into abstract categories, and just go along with the exhuberant flow of Joe’s performance.
It didn’t matter that Joe’s sources are freely available. He’s ransacked libraries, the internet, oral folklore, and local papers to cobble together his tale. For instance, one of the best stories, the treacherous murder of the bloodthirsty tyrant, King Penda can be found on the local Cross Gates online news site. And it didn’t matter that Joe sprinkled his story with liberal amounts of fanciful nonsense, made up on the spot by his vivid, fabulating imagination; he really doesn’t know the exact location of Beeston Hill in the Bronze Age, no matter how much he points and protests that it’s right there, in front of us! he’s just pulling our legs. But that’s the point. Joe doesn’t just read a story, he doesn’t repeat a well rehearsed plot everytime he puts on a show. He’s a genuine story teller. Each telling is different, elaborating on different elements, spinning different storylines, riffing on characters and episodes, making it new with each retelling. Another quote now, about the importance of oral story telling: I just couldn’t resist, from one of my favourite books, David Abrams, The Spell of The Sensuous;
Recording events in writing establishes, as well, a new experience of the permanence, fixity, and unrepeatable quality of those events. Once fixed on the written surface, mythic events are no longer able to shift their form to fit current situations. Current happenings are thus robbed of their mythic, storied, resonance.
Joe’s stories are about that mythic resonance. Stories are the connective tissue of a culture, and without them everything that happens just floats around, undifferentiated. At the heart of every story is a common human concern that leads to the three most important and beautiful words in the English language: What happened next? Everyone who heard Joe tell the story of Granary Wharf went away wondering what happens next. I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in the past and the future of Leeds to go for an Urban Story Walk with Joe next time he’s down there.