Once upon a Taffy

Taffy Thomas started out with fire-eating and dancing on broken glass. Today, he keeps audiences of all kinds – even prisoners– enthralled.

Taffy 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Taffy 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s not every day that you get to sit down with the British storyteller laureate (albeit honorary) and a holder of an MBE – Member of the British Empire, for the uninitiated – award from the Queen, to boot.
So, how does one address the holder of such an illustrious office and royally endowed medal? Sir Taffy? Lord Thomas? Your Excellency? “Plain old Taffy is fine,” says the 61-year-old, setting the tone for a predictably entertaining interview in between gigs at this year’s Storyteller Festival in Givatayim last month.
Taffy Thomas resides in a quintessentially verdant English part of the world, the picturesque village of Grasmere in the Lake District – which, fittingly, is where Romantic Age poet William Wordsworth lived for 14 years and is buried in the village churchyard. Wordsworth was moved to describe Grasmere as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”
It is also in Grasmere that Thomas serves as director and storyteller in residence of the Northern Centre for Storytelling, a not-for-profit organization based in a National Trust property.
But as his name suggests, Thomas does not hail from the northwest of England; in fact, he has non- English roots. His father was a Welshman who, finding work hard to come by during the Great Depression, moved his family south to Taunton, Somerset, in England’s southwest. Young Taffy attended a boys’ school there which rated sporting achievement very highly. However, Thomas’s sporting career ended before it started when he was diagnosed with a cardiac problem at the age of only eight.
“I had to do something else, so I turned to the arts,” he observes.
Thomas was first introduced to the world of storytelling when, at the age of 16, he was taken to meet a legendary and somewhat mysterious woman called Ruth Tongue, who also lived in Somerset and had become something of a guru for the British storytelling community.
“I am probably the only storyteller left alive today who sat with Ruth and heard stories from her,” notes Thomas. “She said to me: ‘Well, Mr.
Thomas, I’d better tell you a story.’ And that was it – I was hooked.”
Later, when he was at college, the folk music revival was in full swing and he tagged on to the burgeoning music scene with his folk stories. It was around this time that he founded his Magic Lantern street theater troupe, which began by performing shadow puppet routines as an embellishment to storytelling. The puppeteering subsequently evolved into a couple of seemingly daredevil stunts – fire-eating and dancing on broken glass.
The latter sounds like a painful way to keep the wolves at bay. “Not if you do it properly,” observes Thomas, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “The important thing is to use wine-bottle glass, and not milk-bottle glass, because wine-bottle glass is colored, so, when you get the odd splinter, it’s easier to find and extricate from your foot.
“My wife Chrissy did a lot of that in my first year of dancing on glass,” he said.
The Magic Lantern outfit eventually petered out and Thomas put together a new ensemble, with the improbably named Fabulous Salami Brothers act, which, as Thomas puts it, “performed feats of strength, skill and stupidity.” The show’s repertoire included songs of a political satirical nature, and a sketch which parodied the dangers of nuclear war and poked fun at, among others, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
“We had circus skills interspersed with penetrating songs of social comment,” Thomas put it succinctly.
So he evidently doesn’t shy away from matters political.
“Not at all,” he declares, “but the main message is one of love” – which, surely, is anathema to politics.
“Not really,” proffers Thomas. “I would go along with [English children’s and political and satirical songwriter] Leon Rosselson who once said: ‘All my poems are love poems, it’s just that some are angrier than others.’ That suits me too.”
Over the years, Mrs. Thomas has had a lot more to contend with than just pulling bits of glass out of her husband’s feet. When he was 35, Thomas suffered a stroke which left him unable to speak for a while. He now has only partial use of one arm and difficulties with walking.
“When I went to Buckingham Palace to get my MBE, I was told by an equerry-in-waiting that after I received my award, I was to walk away from the Queen backwards. I told the equerry that I had trouble enough walking forward.” However, Thomas managed to follow royal protocol, albeit with a degree of difficulty.
“There was some dowager duchess sitting right behind Taffy,” recalls Chrissy, “and I was very concerned about him ending up in her lap.”
Despite his physical disabilities, today Thomas says he has no complaints.
“I never thought I would be grateful for having a stroke,” he says. “But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have started storytelling, and I wouldn’t have ended up at this festival, unless [artistic director] Yossi [Alfi] had put on a festival of street theater.”
Prior to the stroke, Thomas had made a living as a literature and drama teacher in Dudley near Birmingham, in England’s Midlands. After a while, however, he found it increasingly difficult to juggle his daytime job with his extracurricular street theater activities. Often he’d finish the last class and get in his car and drive down to London to do a street theater gig.
“I didn’t really have time to eat or sleep properly,” Thomas recalls. “One day I fell asleep in the middle of a class I was giving and one of the kids woke me up when the bell sounded at the end of the lesson. Very kindly, the boy promised not to tell the headmaster about it.” Enough was enough, and it was then that Thomas decided to leave formal education and go full time with his theatrical activities.
Since his change of professional tack, Thomas has greatly developed his storytelling activities and now has a repertoire of around 300 stories which he can – and does – tell at the drop of a hat.
On the subject of the latter, he often dons his special showtime apparel, a sumptuously designed storytelling coat and hat. The coat was specially made for him by a designer from Yorkshire called Paddy Killer and features characters from some of Thomas’s stories.
The idea is that children can go to Thomas, point at one of the figures on the coat and hear the relevant story.
Despite earning his bread from talking, Thomas says listening is even more important and he is always on the lookout for new material. He has a simple anatomical explanation for his order of priority.
“If speaking were more important than listening, we’d have two tongues and one ear,” he states. Being on the road a lot, up and down the byways and highways of Britain, with some foreign travel betwixt and between, he has come across stories of many ilks which have found their way into his own burgeoning body of works.
Mind you, there has been the odd occasion when even Thomas was left wondering how to deal with certain cultural and social differences.
“I was in Cairo last year, and I wanted to tell some ghost stories to some children who lived there in the City of the Dead. How was I supposed to tell ghost stories to children who live in a cemetery? It seemed a bit pointless.”
For Thomas, telling stories goes far beyond entertainment.
“These days there is something of a breakdown in family structures. There is a generation of young people who could do with more shape and structure in their life, and you can get that structure and shape through folk tales.”
In a nutshell, Thomas defines his craft as providing what he calls “the three Es – education, entertainment and enlightenment.
All those three connect, according to the material and the situation.”
Today, Thomas takes his craft literally almost anywhere.
“I go to schools and prisons. One of the challenges I’ve set myself is to mainly learn stories from oral sources and to respond to every situation. They say that in prison you have a ‘captive’ audience, but you don’t. I’ve got to tell them stories in their free time when they could be doing anything else – watching TV, or anything.
“But I always have packed gigs at prisons.
They love things like fairy stories, which take them to a different world. Of course that applies to lots of people, not just prison inmates.”
For Thomas storytelling is not escapism, it is a labor of love. He has put out several volumes of stories and a CD to date, runs a storytelling training course and spins a yarn or two wherever he can and practically to whomever he encounters. He takes his mission of spreading the storytelling word, far and wide, very seriously – but not too seriously.
“I always say that after I tell someone a story, it is theirs to do with what they want.
They can retell it in their own way, even if it’s not exactly the same as the story they got from me. That’s fine, as long as the story lives on.”