Taffy Thomas, storyteller:
The storyteller Taffy Thomas is creating a yarn of his own to add to the 300 traditional tales which make up his repertoire, the legend of a man who started telling stories to cure a stroke and who became the UK's first laureate for storytelling.
Thomas will begin his two-year term in January 2010 during National Storytelling Week, becoming the first to undertake a role dreamed up by Birmingham's poet laureate Adrian Johnson and backed by former children's laureate Michael Rosen and Liverpool poet Brian Patten.
It was only after he suffered a stroke at the age of 36 that Thomas turned to storytelling, as a kind of self-imposed speech therapy. Awarded an MBE for services to storytelling and charity in 2001, Thomas hopes the laureateship will make both children and adults more aware of the power of stories, and of the oral tradition of storytelling.
"Storytelling happens all over the country – in schools, at festivals – but most importantly it happens in the home. The stories people choose to tell and to listen to are a statement of who they are, of their identity, and it's very important to have that," he said. "It's also very important in terms of literacy. If you can win a heart with words, it is a shorter journey to reading and writing."
He believes there is currently a surge of interest in storytelling, as "people have got fed up with soaking up entertainment and want to be part of the process". "That's why television has done everything it can to make itself interactive, but it's just no substitute for sitting in front of a storyteller and becoming part of that experience," he said.
Storytelling is very much a visual art, according to Thomas, who is currently artistic director of the Northern Centre for Storytelling in Grasmere. "The pictures have to be very strong," he said. "The storyteller has a series of images in one half of the brain, and in the other half a very rich vocabulary. As a storyteller that's your palate, and you dip in to paint pictures, transferring the pictures from your mind to the mind of the listener. And a magical thing happens there, with the listener shaping the story and adding bits of their own experience – they become part of the process. It's not just storytelling – it's as much about story listening."
His own favourite tale is The Tackety Boots, told to him by the Scottish storyteller Betsy Whyte. "It's about the importance of having a story to tell. The whole story is about somebody who's shy, and doesn't have a story to tell until something happens, and from that day they always had a story to tell," said the 60-year-old. "My aim is to make sure everyone has a story to tell."
As laureate, he will receive seven gifts – a 1kg bag of dried beans, a compass, a packet of sweets, a clear glass bottle, a tall white candle, a silver lucky charm bracelet and a whistle – which he will be putting to use as he travels the country telling tales next year.
Adrian Johnson said he came up with the idea for the storytelling laureate following the success of the Birmingham poet laureateship and other regional projects. "Stories inspire and encourage us at critical moments in our lives," he said. "The time seemed right to honour the oral tradition of storytelling and those that tell them." Brian Patten said Thomas would "make a great ambassador for storytelling", and Michael Rosen added: "I'm so pleased for Taffy. Anything that helps support the oral tradition of storytelling gets my vote."
The position is awarded and organised by the Smethwick-based independent production company kindandgenerous.