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Interview with master storyteller Brian Hungerford

Written on March 7, 2014

brian hungerford and caracvan“The first time I saw him tell a story, tears rolled down my face and I didn’t know why. Afterwards I couldn’t move for a long time” Audience member comment about Brian Hungerford. I had a similar experience.

While there is nothing like live storytelling, if you want to hear some of Brian’s magic, listen to him tell one of my favourite tales, Me and Me Grandma’.

My colleague Brian Hungerford, who gave me mentoring in my early years as a teller, has been described as a national living treasure. He is without doubt a master storyteller with a very devoted following. He has told stories in 19 different countries for UNESCO, FAO, the BBC and the British Council. He is also a writer and playwright. 

At Woodford Folk Festival, he can attract an audience of 200- 300 people and tell one hour long story in way that makes time stand still. As I sat in the audience at Woodford this year, I heard a man sitting nearby say he loved the way Brian made myths so accessible, because as he tells, he unravels the meaning of the myth in a very chatty, humorous way.

Interviewing Brian by email for a storytelling magazine called ‘Swag of Yarns’ some years back (now defunct) gave me the opportunity to pose all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask him! BRIAN HUNGERFORD

When did you first start telling stories?

I think I have always told stories. As a young boy I lived in a world of old people, no electricity, no easy transport and lots of jobs. It was my job to cut the firewood for cooking and heating and as we had no inside tap, it was my job to keep the big kettle (then called a fountain) full of water from the outside tank. Every morning I woke to the sound of distant diesel engines starting up around the valley. The engines powered the milking machines. Well before five, I would get up, get dressed and run out to bring in the cows for milking. It wasn’t hard work, but seven days a week. We had 70 Jersey cows and one bull. At six I had decided that the bull was not only dangerous, but useless. By eight o’clock all my work was done. While the grown ups continued with the endless jobs of cleaning equipment and feeding the cows I ate breakfast and left for school. It was a three mile walk and usually Tommy Vigal would come past on his big Clydesdale horse called Captain. I would climb up behind him. A mile father down the road we would collect Shirley Schaefer. The school had its own horse paddock next to the playground. We didn’t use saddles, so it was only necessary to hang the winkers and rope reins on the gate and run in. Sometimes Captain was hungry and determined to nibble grass on the side of the road all the way. Those days we were late. We always had good excuses for being late and that was the beginning of my storytelling career. It came through listening to all the excuses. The best one for not presenting homework came from Shirley who said she had done her homework, but left it on the rump of Captain. We all went to search for it, but to no avail. Shirley was certain Captain had eaten the entire book. 

When did you first start telling stories professionally?
I had great trouble learning to read as a boy. My mother and brother were great readers. My brother and I shared the same bedroom and at night he would read aloud to me. It was wonderful. He had a passion for Persian mythology and I would lie there taking in every word. At school I could recreate all the stories. These days I would be seen as Dyslexic and unable to recognise the shapes of words. Consequently, I relied on listening intently and learning everything by ear. Strangely enough music was easier to read than the written word. Mind you, once I heard the tune I would then pretend to read the music. First, it was the piano, but on the side I loved the mouthorgan. Then I was given a concertina and life was full of adventure. 

I left school with the usual matriculation with top marks in botany and agriculture. While at high school (there were five of them – eleven schools in all) I started writing verses. I shone as an actor and debater and wrote sketches for the school concerts. 

Despite being a dreadful speller, I determined to make my living as a writer and I managed to get a job with the ABC working with the wonderful Australian poet, John Thompson. I voraciously wrote dramatised features and one-hour plays for the ABC and these were subsequently resold throughout the English-speaking world. As an evening student at Sydney University I had lots of poetry published in university journals and took out the drama prize with a three-act play called The Ugly Duckling.

In 1960 I was living and writing in Spain. My aural training soon had me speaking Spanish and life was extremely beautiful. The trouble is you cannot live on beauty alone and I moved to London and work in the BBC writing talks and conducting interviews for the World Service. 

In 1966, I was seconded to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN to work as an “Expert” on communication in Spanish-speaking countries of the Third World. I was perfectly at home. I was living and working with illiterate people. I began teaching the use and skills of informal drama and listening to village storytellers. I studied their methods and voices. These were people who could earn a living with their stories – even in poor communities. 

I returned to Australia in 1983 and wondered how on earth I would settle down. I filled in time wondering, by writing a set of stories which were published in literary journals and on the ABC. I was asked to “Read” my most popular story “It’s Him” at a literary event. Half way through the story I felt so fraudulent, standing there reading literature. I stopped reading and simply told the story. It was a success and I haven’t read a story since. I am a professional storyteller who continues (among friends) the tradition which has existed since the days of the cave. My last breath will be the end of my last story.

Could you divulge some of your favourite books of story collections?
I doubt I have a favourite book of stories. I am more interested in agriculture, draught-horses, folk music and cultural traditions than I am in the written word. I would love to be able to read easily, but reading is difficult for me so I tend to take the easy way out and I depend on my ears.

What would be some of your favourite books on the art storytelling and the meaning within story?
Of all the material I have tried to read, Joseph Campbell has inspired me the most. His writing is easy, but so full of insight I can hear his voice in the pages of his books. I listen to the inner man in him who listened to the inner man in the mythologies of those he lived with. 

What do you love most about storytelling as opposed to your writing?
I love storytelling because there is no end to it. Each time I tell a story it is different. For this reason, I suppose, I tend to favour long stories. I have to find a quiet place within myself to tell the story well and the audience has to equally find a quiet place within themselves to be able to take part in the listening. When I write, and most of the stories I now tell I have not written down at all, I still write for the spoken word. At present I am a full-time student with a branch of the ANU in Canberra on a theatre course. I am involved in the writing of a three-act stage play based on the life of a wonderful convict woman in early Australia. The play will be produced early next year and I will get satisfaction from that. But every time I tell stories I get a lift inside me and there are magic moments, which cannot be planned for when the simple story you tell for the sake of pleasure, entirely alters the life of one of the listeners. 

Have you learnt many stories direct from other tellers in your wide travels or in Oz? 
I haven’t learned stories from other tellers here in Australia. I am often asked if I do Aboriginal stories. I like to hear them, but I feel we have robbed them of so much of what was theirs, I have no intention of now stealing their stories. But I have taken stories from poor people in Third-World countries and earned a living doing so. This alone raises a question many of us may not like to answer.

Has your gypsy heritage affected your storytelling?
I am of Gypsy descent (please never use the lower case g for Gypsy). Like 50,000 other Australians I am proud of that tradition. We are an ethnic group within society preserving the oral tradition of the nations we pass through. We don’t build much, but we don’t destroy either. We don’t tell many stories about Romani people or customs. We leave that to others. We talk about the world as we travel.

My apologies for the lower case g and thank you thank you Brian, for those terrific tales of your storytelling beginnings! I’m so glad I asked!

Published Swag of Yarns, Australia’s National Storytelling Magazine, Winter 2004, Vol 7
NB: The magazine Swag of Yarns is sadly now defunct.

I asked these questions and Brain answered them some years back and now  happy to report in March 2014, that after a great deal of nagging from several of his fans, including me, Brian is finally recording some stories.

Read about another tale he tells, The Oldest Tale in the English Language.

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