Monday, February 25, 2013


Last Friday, I attended The Story, London’s annual one-day conference about stories and storytelling at Conway Hall in Holborn. After taking my seat, armed with a bag of Witches’ Brews courtesy of the Ministry of Stories and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, I noticed the words above the stage: “To thine own self be true”, the advice that Polonious gives his son Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Took me a while to get the gag...the line from Hamlet begins “this above all: to thine own self be true”. This. Above All. Geddit?)

Those words hold special significance for me, as it was the motto of a man who was like a second father to me. He strived and succeeded to live by those words. Those six words could similarly apply to the speakers who took the stage throughout the day at The Story. In a whirl of dense twenty minute chunks, the whole day was rammed with information that has only just finished percolating through my headmeat three days later. Here is a random smattering of my personal highlights of a day that was full of ‘em:

Producer Rebecca O'Brien spoke of her most recent collaboration with director Ken Loach, the forthcoming part archive footage, part talking heads documentary The Spirit of ‘45. Somewhat inspired by Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City and conceived as a way of keeping Loach “out of trouble”, the film documents life in post-war Britain, with O'Brien wrapping up with the killer line: “Kids learn about the war, but they don't learn about the peace”. So much interview footage didn't make it to the finished film, but will find a home at the film’s website.

Laura Dockrill gave a relentlessly passionate, ebullient and energetic performance of an excerpt from her first Darcy Burdock novel (to be published on Thursday 28 February), complete with a convincing portrayal of an octopus. (The octopus was going to have an Australian accent, but her husband told her that would be too distracting). She then went on to discuss her discovery that many of the children she meets are convinced that a career in writing is something that is unattainable to them. She is dedicated to proving to them that (and I’m paraphrasing here) writing isn't the sole preserve of lesbians, vegetarians and old people. She likes to remind them: “If you can talk, you can write.”

Artist Molly Crabapple gave a rousing speech full of eminently quotable soundbites. Here are just a few of them: “Nothing makes you think about money and power more than posing naked in jam for dentists with cameras.” “Artists are blue-collar workers with pretensions to the sublime.” And, as a closing statement and a call to arms: “Use what you love to interrogate the world”.

Ben Bocquelet is the man behind the Greatest Show on Television. The Amazing World of Gumball. Yes, The Amazing World of Gumball is even better than Breaking Bad. I've known this for quite some time now. And by the time his twenty minutes were up, everyone seated in the auditorium knew it too. For some people, it was the breathtaking and insanely detailed denouement of the wonderful episode The Job that sealed the deal. For others, it might have been the dancing banana:

Without a doubt, The Amazing World of Gumball must be an incredibly complex and time-intensive show to make, which is why Bocquelet exhorted us all to "please make sure you do something you love, that way you know it will turn out good". And on the subject of time...

Stop-motion animator Mikey Please discussed the way in which “we experience time as a fraction". He pointed out that stop-motion animation is a fine metaphor for this. He works on something for ages, just to end up with a few seconds of footage, “like running through treacle.” But the jumping off point for this train of thought was his fourth birthday party: “When I was four, I was told I had to wait a year for my next birthday party – a quarter of my life at the time. I flipped out.” All of his thoughts about the relative passage of time were poured into his short film The Eagleman Stag which you can watch here.

Fiona Romeo gave a fascinating talk about something that I hadn't ever really thought about before: the way in which museums think about narrative and story to propel people through exhibits in a compelling and engaging way, with particular reference to the High Arctic installation at the National Maritime Museum, and The Science of Spying which appeared at the Science Museum in 2007. The creation and gestation of these projects in turn inspired some of the individuals involved to create further narratives based on their work, such as Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother. It was also interesting to hear Romeo talking about adopting the Walt Disney theme park idea of “plussing” - finding ways to improve upon an idea even when you think you've done everything you can with it. (There's a great write-up of Fiona's speech by David Cornish for Wired here.)

Writer and academic Alice Bell has always been fascinated with the history of poo in children’s books. Which led to the observation that “we call it ‘kid’s media’, but it's made and designed by adults”, arguing that performers like Timmy Mallett are taking part in a kind of “generational drag” - adults who dress up and behave like children in a way that children never actually do. The revelation for me was discovering that Don Cheadle appeared as Captain Planet in a series of Funny or Die videos. Like this one (which has embedding disabled. Damn you, Captain Planet!)

The day ended with a blistering and very funny rant from B3ta co-founder Rob Manuel on that pernicious phrase “the bottom half of the internet”. As in “ignore the bottom half of the internet” or “don’t read the comments”. In an all-too compelling, excoriating tirade (in addition to adding the word “commentard” to my vocabulary), Manuel tossed out the following:
“The 'bottom half of the Internet' is like the servants' quarters below the house.”
"The word troll is the equivalent of chav for cyberspace. It's a loaded term, used to demonise those without power" 
"The bottom half of the Internet is the people!"
"Media, don't kick down, kick up. The work could disappear and you could end up at the bottom of the Internet"
“Lob word bombs at the top of the page”
"Fight back: Don't retweet the top half of the Internet."
But that doesn't do him justice and certainly doesn't capture his vitriolic energy. Click here to read his “Open Letter to Columnists” on the same subject.

Oh, and I can’t remember which speaker referenced this on the day, but here is Noam Chomsky’s “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream” from 1997.

I've barely scratched the surface. I haven’t even written about how great it was to see Edwyn Collins singing and talking and recalling how he found his way back after his stroke in 2005, which led him to last year’s album Losing Sleep and the work-in-progress documentary In Your Voice, In Your Heart. But it’s impossible to capture everything from that day in one blogpost. You had to be there. The countdown to The Story 2014 starts here...


anon said...

Wonderful overview! It was Rob Manual who referenced Chomsky :)

AKA said...

Thanks! I thought it might have been Rob Manuel, but I wasn't sure. Thanks for letting me know.