On Tuesday I was invited to speak at our local Old Folks Club which meets fortnightly for afternoon tea. Specifically I was asked to talk about how I became a poet, but also about my adventures as an Olympic Storyteller.
I duly arrived, and was directed with due pomp to an empty table placed centrally at the front of the Parish Rooms. It felt very… grown up… and not a little lonely, sitting in isolation at the front of the gathering. Groups of people were ushered in as they arrived – all driven in by a fleet of volunteer drivers. I amused myself by counting the men amongst gaggles of women – as usual, men were seriously outdone, both in number and noise levels.
Slowly all the seats filled, and eyes turned to the front as one of the organisers gave the notices and made the introductions. I studied faces carefully as the word poet floated on to the airwaves and was not encouraged by the reactions. Not for the first time I wondered why I persist in using it as a label as it seems to carry a lot of baggage in many people’s perceptions. Fortunately the Olympics has been such a great experience for the nation, I decided to gloss over ‘poet’ and concentrate on ‘storyteller and the amazing experiences I had in the run up to London 2012 as I sought and then met with so many locals who were involved in the Games. With a mental note not to read any poems…not even the prize-winning ones.. I began – only to stop while the all important business was completed of selling raffle tickets a to latecomer, and worse, a very deaf late-comer. After all, I quipped, the raffle is a highlight of the afternoon – and indeed it is because the prizes include many little luxuries (including those home made cakes not consumed at the tea party) that many who were present could not take for granted.
As I warmed to my theme, I emerged from behind the barrier of the table and began to wave my arms about, carried away on the enthusiasm and excitement that I had tried to capture with the unique experience I’d had as an official storyteller. Luckily this was all so present in my memory that I had no need of notes and was able to really engage with people and I was so pleased that they too began to react. They also were surprised at the number of participants we had, in a variety of roles, from the village; there were many nods of approval as I talked of the park and the buildings; smiles and glances betrayed that many of them had shared in the appreciation of the feats of the paralympians, and moreover, the strides we made as a nation in presenting the Paralympic Games with such verve and enthusiasm. We shared a really enjoyable 45 minutes and only the nod from the kitchen hatch alerted that it was time for tea and buns!
There was no chance for a question and answer session, but the upside was that many who did want to share their views or ask about something specific came to chat. Many also bought copies of ‘Chobham’s Olympic Links’, the book I have published containing all the writing I did during my years as a storyteller…including poems!
It was as I was leaving that I was told that I was one of the few speakers who managed to hold their interest, and moreover, that it was extremely unusual that all of them were silent…apparently speakers often have to contend with groups of folk who are far too interested in exchanging news to actually lend an ear to the entertainment. I can’t take the credit however – our Olympic story will linger in the national memory for a very long time, regardless of who tells it.