Rima Staines is an artist, musician and illustrator, puppet-maker, stop-frame animator, clock-maker, theatre designer and one half of Hedgespoken with her partner Tom Hirons. Tom is a writer of poetry and prose and teller of traditional folk tales. Together they created ‘Hedgespoken’, a travelling off-grid storytelling theatre run from a 1966 Bedford RL lorry, converted to be a home and a go-anywhere stage. On one bumper it says ‘Vehicle for the Imagination’ and on the other ‘Imagination, Liberation’. They travel, present stories, share artworks, having raised the money to convert the vehicle through a crowdfunder.
We met one morning at a local café with their energetic young son, and over the space of a couple of cups of tea we talked imagination, storytelling, the visual arts and much more. I started by asking them to tell me more about Hedgespoken, and how, for them, it acts as a focal point for their work around imagination.
Rima: When we drive past, when we drive through a town, peoples’ mouths drop open and they wave and they smile, and they’re totally delighted to see something that’s so beautiful and unusual with all this beautiful writing. “What is it?” It makes them stop, and smile…
Tom: In the same way as Rima’s art does, it reminds people of something, something that maybe didn’t even exist in their lifetime, but the whole notion of the travelling show, the itinerant storytellers. Something peculiar and fascinating and kind of self-contained, like the truck, arriving somewhere, and then moving on. There’s a cultural memory of that …
Like the fair coming to town…
Tom: It’s very like the fair. It occupies a very similar space, but the fair coming to town is a big thing, whereas this – it’s something coming to the edge of the village, or the town, and then being gone, whereas the fair might stay for a week or something and be this great community event. This is a little bit more like glimpsing some elves or something at the edge, having some kind of encounter, and then gone. But people recognise that. That fires their imagination in a very lovely way.
Rima: It has a very liminal quality, of the edges, in the sense that many travelling folk do, which causes a wariness in people as well, but also a romance. That awakens in people a sense that they’ve come from elsewhere, and with them they’ve brought news and otherness. You know, colour and ideas and languages and music from somewhere else. Obviously now in our day and age that’s a totally different experience because we’re so global, but that memory of that magic is still in people, so there’s this lighting up of their hearts with this otherness coming into town.
Tom: And because that has happened, people tell us stuff. Because they know, I think, that we’re moving on, partly, but also because we deal in the currency of soul, in a way, with art and words and all of that, people are often opened in a really humble way to tell us things about their lives. Just quiet little stories of things that have happened, or amazing things that have happened.
There seems to be this healing quality of the imagination and connection with the soul which seems to be a function of the truck, as well. It’s not just this ascendant flighty thing of the imagination, it’s something very real, human and gentle, as well. There’s real beauty there.
Rima: Also because the truck itself, we dreamed it up, and then we made it happen by crowdfunding to raise the money to build it, we had this preposterous idea that’s sort of essentially ridiculous in a pragmatic world, and yet, we told everyone that we want to do this thing, and people gave us money because they went, “Yes, this has to exist! It’s really important. We believe in it. We want it to exist.” And because of that it exists.
It is evidence as it drives around in the world that dreams can be made real and made manifest, and in its preposterousness, it’s very beautiful. It’s not just functional. That causes a reaction in people as well. It’s, “Oh, that thing that I’ve been told all my life, that you can’t really believe in dreams and imagination… you know, it’s all very well as a kid, but now we just have to have a job and mortgage. But look, it’s not just a story – they’re parked in the garage, in the supermarket car park.” That does something to people as well.
Tom: It’s a thing that exists in the world that came about through story. We told this story. It captured people’s imaginations. The whole thing, from the beginning of the dreaming to what we’re doing now is all about story and firing people’s imaginations.
I wonder how you would assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018?
Tom: Depends where you go. In our bubble here, right now, I’d say the imagination is pretty well. People are valuing it in the creative sub-culture, as you’d expect. The imagination is still valued. The internet and smartphones and the rise of that kind of technology I think is problematic for the imagination. It occupies the same space in us, like some kind of soul receptor, as the actual imaginal realms. But it’s thin and doesn’t give us the same nutrition that the actual experience of using the imagination does. It’s fantasy I’d say rather than imagination.
Rima: I think of it as a form of travel and we have this amazing capacity to be able to travel elsewhere in our imagination. Our spirits can be sent off, in a kind of shamanic sense, elsewhere, which is an incredibly vital and amazing thing that humans can do, and the internet totally fills up that hole in us because it allows us to travel elsewhere and see all kind of things and endlessly, endlessly, endlessly it hooks us while we’re there.
We stop trying to do the imagination travelling because that part of us is being fed with junk food. As Tom says, it’s not nutritious and what we bring back from there doesn’t have the same kind of value. Obviously there’s interesting stuff on the internet, that’s not kind of the point. It doesn’t feed us in the same way.
What are the ingredients of a good story, of a compelling story? I talked to Martin Shaw who talked about using communitas, that when you’re telling a story, when people lean into the story, you know, what are the elements of a good story, do you think?
Tom: I don’t know. I don’t think that you can reduce it to, ‘This is what makes a good story’. People have written and spoken about this for centuries, about what is it that makes a good story. There’s a bare bones way of looking at it. There’s a great book by Robert McKee, Story, which analyses what makes a good story, about that thick.
But there’s story, and then there’s storytelling. When I’m teaching storytelling workshops, which I do every so often, and try and communicate the little that I’ve learned, I say there’s story, and there’s the storytelling, and all you have to do is know your story really, really, really well. Then tell it, really, really, really well. That’s all. That’s fine. It’s easy. Do that.
But what makes a good story? A story is like a flight. Talking about journeys into the imagination or the imaginal realms, it is a flight, and when you’re in a story – whether that’s reading a story out loud, or telling a story to an audience of one or hundreds – I certainly regard it as we’re all going on a journey and there’s take-off, there’s being in the air, and then there’s landing.
Part of my responsibility as a storyteller is to make sure that those two crucial bits, where the bad stuff can happen in a way if you’re on a flight – take-off and landing – that those are done well and in such a way that everyone comes on that. Up there for all the tumult of the story and then down safely at the other end, with a sense of completion and the whole thing being held and coming back. In a way, the beginning and the end, that’s what makes for a story well completed.
“Once upon a time” and “happily ever after”?
Tom: We have these formulae, don’t we, for signalling that we’re going into that other space. Some of those techniques, some of those code words in a way, actually have echoes of shamanic techniques in them as well.
For example in this country we have ‘Once upon a time’ as our standard way of going into story. And then at the other end, we have ‘they all lived happily ever after’. ‘Okay, are you sitting comfortably?’ is another one. Something about the body and then, ‘Once upon a time’, so in another place. So, do something with the body, then go off. Then at the end, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’, everyone knows that it’s finished and it’s safe.
In other cultures there are very interesting ways of opening and closing stories. For example, there’s one we use occasionally that says:
“Once upon a time there was an orchard, and in that orchard there was an apple tree and I was passing by that apple tree this morning, on the way here actually, and I saw that there was a little bead of dew on that apple. I looked at the bead of dew, and inside that little bead of dew, there was a city, and in that city, there was a castle, and in that castle there was a king and queen, as there has to be. The king and queen, they’re having a feast, and the cook of the feast is working away at the pots, but in the fold of her apron is a flea, and in the belly of that flea, there is a kingdom, and in that kingdom, once upon a time, there was a hunter.” And you’re off.
So you’re doing this thing with scale. Rolling the imagination through this kind of tumbling and it’s unsettling, because you haven’t got anything to hold onto. You think you’re in one realm, and then you’re in the next. It’s a technique of kick-starting the imagination through dragging it through these repetitions of different phases.
What are the unhealthy stories that we tell now, and what would the healthy ones be?
Tom: How long have you got? The story of unlimited growth. The story that we are separate. Any number of stories about who we are and our place in the world, and what it means to be alive. Most of them, it seems, in our mainstream culture are crazy. They’re not accurate, for a start, let alone looking at them through any kind of moral lens. They don’t make sense.
They certainly don’t work as stories that take us any closer to any kind of goodness, on the whole. They are the kind of stories that we tell ourselves when we know we’re deep in the shit but we want to convince ourselves that it’s okay. They’re rationalisations of our predicament rather than wisdom stories, I suppose, which is terrible and is an appalling state of affairs.
What do the healthier stories look like? What are the stories that a healthy culture tells about itself?
Tom: The kind of stories we tell!
Tom: It would be perilous to generalise but you kind of have to anyway, but they mirror the complexity of what it is to be a sentient being on the earth. Alive. Part of the difficulty of our moment is it seems like we have to create new stories, and a lot of my favourite stories are very, very old. And they’ve been told and told and told and told, and shaped by time, culture and change. They’ve migrated and become other things, and they’re constantly evolving. But, they’ve got deep, deep, deep roots that go down into that bone memory and it’s that the gives them the juice.
There’s this thing, isn’t there at the moment, of “what are the new stories that we can make?” What you’re saying about, ‘How do you connect that bone memory level with the new stories?’ is the tricky bit because if you make a new story by its nature it hasn’t been tumbled in the river for centuries and centuries, so you can see the cut marks on it. It’s still got the label on, and all the smells of the Febreeze if you got it off eBay and there’s no way round that.
But if you go into the bone memory, by whatever method you use – I do rites of passage guiding as well, and that fasting out on the land, that’s a way to get to the bone memory layer – then you find that your own self, and myth, and the land, and the wider world, are all far more over-layered than you thought when you were in the head world.
I wrote a poem several years ago, Sometimes a Wild God, which we made into a little book, and that came from bone memory and it’s taken off all over the world. It’s mental. Largely keeps us in bread and butter and keeps the truck wheels turning. Part of being creative is trusting that what you bring back from those bone memory places when you don’t filter it through what you think is going to work or appropriate, all of that, is going to be of value.
That’s a success story, that one, isn’t it? Of, “Go there, bring something back, here we are” and people go, “That’s got the juice”. They can tell, because everyone can. They don’t always necessarily know how to because we do accept the toxic mimic but when they come across something that’s got the gold juice, it’s that thing Rima was saying of, “I remember that. That reminds me of something that I didn’t quite know.” That’s because it’s the soul’s world.
Rima: As the person making the thing that causes that kind of recognition in people, it’s necessary for you yourself to be able to trust that you’re getting material from that place, and that you need to keep going there. You need to have a practice that, whatever that is – whether it’s painting or walking or praying, or your particular way of going to that place – that you can learn to trust what comes from there. Because it’s hard to distinguish when you’re in this day and in this body and in this mind of everyday stuff to distinguish, as you’re creating something, what’s me and my ideas and thoughts.
Not that they’re totally irrelevant either because they help to craft a thing, but that the lifeblood of it somehow comes from that soul world. And that does take practice. I’ve noticed that you get better at trusting something that might feel a bit weird or unfamiliar, but it’s come through. It’s quite strong. For me, although stories are quite intrinsic to what I do as well, I feel like I’m speaking a different language, and that’s a visual language. One of imagery. It goes in in a different place for people, but essentially is doing a similar sort of thing.
You mentioned you’ve got a workshop coming up with artists about how to reach that place. What will you be covering on that? What are the techniques or approaches?
Rima: It’s been a long time that I’ve been making my paintings and I’ve noticed through observing the way that people respond to my work that people have quite strong reactions. Some years ago I used to travel round the country in another truck that I lived in, and sell my work on the street.
I used to display my paintings just on a High Street, leaning against the wall. You would get just whoever was walking past on a High Street in a random town. The audience wasn’t at all tailored to expect or necessarily like what I was offering. It was really quite raw and full on because you got people having very honest responses. Some people looked at it briefly and recoiled and went, “Oh, I wouldn’t want one of those on my wall” and some people were very drawn in and fascinated, “Oh, wow” and wanted to talk to me about it.
They want to know what it is. They want an explanation and invariably the question everyone asks is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” They want some kind of answer that will explain the feeling they’re having. They say things like, “It reminds me of something. It reminds me of… I can’t really find the words. It’s like something from childhood, but not quite that.” It’s a deep familiarity that sometimes makes people cry when they’re moved in a warm way by it, which not everyone is.
This kind of conversation has happened so many times now that I’ve started to think about what it is that I’m actually doing, and I started to describe my paintings as ‘”Waymarkers to the Other World”, because it feels like they open doors for people inside themselves, and they’re ways through to some other place which is what you might call the imagination, or you might call it faerie, or you might call it another world of spirit, or there are many, many names for it.
But it’s vital that we as human beings have access to that place, and there are people who go there more often, or the doors are open more freely for them somehow. And what they bring back from there, their work, whether it’s painting or art of whatever form, is a kind of communication and then that is for everyone else, to be able to help them open those doors for themselves I think.
So my workshop is called ‘Iconography of the Otherworld’. It’s for artists or people who already have a practice of making images and working in that way, but the hope is that we foster that pathway to that other place, that we can build it up and we can find ways to be able to go there, and so that that quality feeds our work.
If it’s truly there then the work you create has real power, and people notice it because they can smell it in the work. I know that when I do a painting that really has that quality – which isn’t every painting, I can tell, and other people do too. It’s quite hard to put into words actually, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the workshop goes because it’s not the language that I’m operating in, but I’m interested in exploring that process.
What is it? How is it that I access the imagination and who are these characters that just appear on my paper and that kind of step through? It really has that sense that’s it’s like, “Well, hello, where did you come from? ”
If there’s a set of conditions that you can identify that make it more possible to collectively imagine, can you also identify the conditions that close that down? Why is it that people really struggle, that people feel less able to do that?
Rima: For a start we’re told in our culture that it’s not real. It’s alright to have an imagination as a child, and obviously children are really, really good at it, but at some point you learn that it’s not okay any more, to see things that aren’t really there and imagine things that aren’t supposedly really there. Even subjects like art, and the creative subjects in schools, they’re not on the same level – science is like the religion.
Once you become an adult, you have to knuckle down and get with the programme of what’s sensible, and being an artist is all very well, but it’s not a proper career, and having an imagination is alright for children but at some point it’s not okay, and it stops being real. At some point people don’t really believe that you can dream of something and it can be possible, which applies both in a sort of fantastical sense but also in a sense of what you’re doing in life. That you can’t have dreams and do amazing things, because you have to narrow it down.
And school has a major part to play in that…
Rima: I think so. But it’s very much in the culture. A lot of people say to me, “Oh, I loved art when I was young, but you know, I didn’t carry on” and it atrophied, that part of people which we all have really quite strongly as children. It just dries up if it’s not used. So in order to keep that open it has to be accessed; it has to be used. That’s partly it.
In cultures where there’s a much more pragmatic belief in the everyday otherness, of beings being there and of objects and plants and animals having souls, the kind of language that we share with the world, and not just other human beings – that aliveness all around us is gone from western society, pretty much.
It feels like we live in a time when we’re seeing such a contraction of diversity in the natural world around us. Half the creatures lost during my lifetime. Does that have an impact as well, do you think, on our ability to connect with that natural world?
Rima: Yeah. There’s an extinction not only of species of plants and animals, but ideas that come in words. It’s like we’re forgetting how to communicate with the other, whatever kind of other it is, whether it’s an animal or an insect or a place or a spirit. It’s totally connected, yes, I think so. It’s a kind of death. That imaginary world, it’s alive in nature, that otherness and that magic, that kind of thing that’s not quite one thing, not quite another, it’s very alive. As it is in us, but we try our best as we go along to shut it down, like I was just saying.
Can visual art tap into bone memory in the same way that story does?
Rima: Totally. It’s helpful for people sometimes because it’s not in language and we’re so in that part of our brain that uses language and is very analytical, it’s sometimes hard—unless you’re talking about poetry or storytelling – to use language to get to that other place, access that bone memory. Obviously with beautiful language it’s totally possible, but because we’re also using it every day… We’re also using imagery. We’re bombarded with imagery but on the whole people don’t think they’re so fluent in the language of imagery, which is partly to do with what they’ve been told.
They can stand at a painting with no sort of previous expectations or ideas about what it might be about. They think they don’t know what it’s about, and yet it can touch them on some other level that goes past words. But yeah, definitely all art forms can do it, and are really important for doing that.
There’s a question that I ask everybody that I’ve spoken to. If you had been elected as the Prime Minister in the last election, and you’d run under a ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ platform, and you recognised that in education, and in work life and in many people’s lives there’s no space for it at all – it’s rather squished – what might you do in your first 100 days if you really wanted to reprioritise and strengthen the nation’s imagination?
Tom: Kill the internet.
Just switch it off?
Tom: That’s day one.
Tom: Day two. Maybe give people the chance to download stuff!
Get all their photos back that you’ve just deleted…
Rima: I haven’t got a fully formed idea about schooling yet, since our son’s only three, but I suspect starting kids at school much later, if they’re going to do school, would be a really good idea because there’s this precious time before seven – and in other European countries kids don’t go to school until they’re that kind of age – when that imaginative self is really, really alive, and not squash it too soon. And then when you do get to the whole education thing, just really obvious stuff like really valuing all the arts, and music, and story and where children’s leanings go. It’s not particularly revolutionary though. Just as a start, maybe.
Also, some way of ensuring people’s relationship with the natural world is a real and daily alive relationship. So that people can communicate with the world in a very real way, and learn that that’s important, that there’s wisdom in that.
Tom: So in the space left by switching off the internet, people are going to have a lot more time on their hands.
Rima: They’re going to be twiddling their thumbs like mad.
Tom: Going absolutely crazy with internet withdrawal, so scores of itinerant storytellers.
Trained in some army training centre.
Rima: Waiting at the gate.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. Huge hangars full of them. ‘The Firebird[?] has landed!’
Rima: ‘Bring out the storytellers!’ In our Green Goddesses. You know that when the Fire Service is on strike, they bring the old Green Goddesses out. Our truck is built on the same chassis as a Green Goddess, so it’s clearly what it’s all meant to be.
Tom: There was just a horrible misunderstanding somewhere along the way.
It’s the elemental storytellers!
Tom: So yeah, we send out the storytellers and just absolutely layer on story upon story upon story, of all sorts. Silly stories, entertaining stories, morality stories, trickster stories, deep stories, memory stories, totally superficial gossip scaremongering lies, all of it. And allow that to bubble in. Also eliminate drudgery. Drudgery surely is not an ally of the imagination. So anything that’s drudgery doesn’t get done any more.
There’d probably have to be some kind of compulsory rehabilitation to turn work into pleasure rather than drudgery. A mad totalitarian storytelling regime.
North Korea, run by Brian Cant. You’ve sold it to me. Any last imagination related thoughts before I draw to a close?
Tom: I started thinking about this thing of different aspects of the imagination as we were beginning to talk about there being some kind of discrimination between healthy imagination and unhealthy imagination. I was thinking just how it would look to nurture the imagination in different quarters of our lives. There’s a kind of imagination that’s just sheer joy of dreaming. Totally playful. Just for the fun of it.
And there’s a kind of imagination that’s the language and tools of soul work. If you can navigate your inner world, describe it, and understand it using the way of the imagination, then that seems to have value. Then there’s kind of imagination that’s more scientific, that one you were talking about at the beginning – the creativity test. That’s problem-solving imagination, and it could be put in to the shape of that being a service imagination. How do we make things better? Because imagination and hope as well, they’ve got something in common, haven’t they? They’re not the same, but they’re definitely cousins, if not closer. You can’t have hope if you haven’t got any imagination. So that kind of service imagination.
Then there’s vision imagination. The wide soaring new paradigm, or new synthesis of old stuff, but the kind of imagination that’s looking down over things and going, “This!” They’re all different kinds of imagination, so our language to speak about the imagination is quite clunky on the whole. We speak about it as one thing whereas really it is this multi-faceted thing. I enjoy looking at things in that kind of circle approach because it seems to be that holistic approach has been lost and imagination definitely passed the point of that.
Rima: Just reminded me at Embercombe they have lots of different roles that people take turns occupying, and one of those, which is a vital part of the circle, is the Dreamer – the person whose job it is to do the dreaming, which I really like. I don’t know much about their systems and ways of operating but I do like that as an idea. But it just reminded me…
One person every day has the role of dreamer?
Rima: Yeah, it’s given value, and someone’s given it as a job.