With the wonderful weather this weekend, it seemed a shame to stay indoors and contemplate the prospect of an Easter holiday filled with exam stress. Thinking that one day off couldn’t possibly hurt, I headed into the city to a sun-glazed Brindley Place for this month’s edition of Birmingham Book Festival’s Tell me on a Sunday. Storytellers and listeners alike were welcomed into the bright, airy cafe of the IKON Gallery to cluster round small tables complete with tea-lights and orange flowers, all enjoying a late lunch or afternoon tipple. This month’s story theme was ‘Hope and Glory’.
Cat Weatherill’s spirited introduction captured the room as the lighting dimmed to create an intriguingly intimate atmosphere. Beginning with her own story, Cat told of the money troubles she faced during the early years of her marriage and how she was inspired to apply for the TV game show Wheel of Fortune. In a captivating telling, Cat relived the suspense, excitement and enthralling hope that the chance of winning the show’s cash prize gave her. Even through to the final moments she kept the audience in the dark, not revealing til the last moment that she was to succeed in winning. Cat held the room in complete focus throughout her story, displaying the power of hope and how that hope transpired to the glory of her much needed victory.
Next to the stage was Gavin Young to tell of the racial inequality he witnessed as a child in his native South Africa. Without pretence, he described the harrowing nature of segregation, outlining in small memories how the prejudices faced by black people entered his consciousness. Movingly, he remembered the confusion he felt by the divisions society insisted on creating between him and his childhood friend. Finally, he gave an impression of the changes that have taken place since his youth, outlining a vision of hope brought about by changing opinions and a gradual regression of racial prejudice.
In a distinct contrast of subject matter, a lady stepped up to the stage to share the hope she experienced through realising her identity as a mother. In a moving, yet somewhat graphic description of events surrounding her daughter’s birth. Though sometimes being in danger of isolating some younger members of the audience, she managed to lighten her story with comedy and bold similies to keep the room on her side. Another lady told of her escape to Europe with friends during a rough patch in her marriage, reliving the freedom that she felt in her youth with humorous tales of drinking, flirting and running off without the group. This was introduced as an attempt to ‘experiment with reality’, a claim that was soon brought to life through the description of a talking fox with an aristocratic English accent deep in the French countryside. However, this telling was certainly set to continue for far more than the prescribed seven minutes, so with regret, the story was left ‘to be continued’ in next month’s session.
Following this was Natalie Cook, who seemed to bring light to the room in her bright red dress and a jauntily placed flower in her hair, telling of the hope brought to her by a particular moment from her past. She described being on a long car journey with her partner. When a certain song on the radio reminded him of an emotionally significant childhood memory, Natalie recounted the connection she felt with him, encountering the rare case of knowing that another person understands the world the way you do. Her story invoked the importance of memory and the clarity that certain moments can hold; even if they are from a distant past or an unfamiliar life, they can still be held as a precious source of hope.
Finally came a story from local writer and musician Richard Stokes, who with fantastic energy and charm told of his time working in a record shop in London. Through a combination of disenchantment with his job and mild frustration with his boss, he found himself one day ordering nine hundred and ninety-nine copies of blues singer Albert E. King’s Greatest Hits out of spite. This was, understandably, to the great rage of his boss, but equal amounts of amusement to Stokes’s Sunday audience; a truly engaging, fantastic telling.
As acknowledged by some of the storytellers, Tell Me on a Sunday is certainly gathering a regular following, with a growing audience returning to the event each month. The chance to experience performance storytelling of this standard, and in such a perfectly welcoming venue, is indisputably rare. These are stories that will make you think, make you feel and challenge your perspectives, all whilst making you laugh. This event is a real Birmingham gem.
Words and photography by Anna Lumsden