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Nottingham Castle

Interview: Pete Davis - 'the Storyteller'

13 November 10 words: James Walker

A former fireman turned storyteller who’s been entertaining locals for the past couple of decades with his unique tales of local life...

You went to that posh High Pavement School, didn’t you? What did you learn there?
They taught me to speak proper, which was a great help in alienating me from my mates. I spent the whole time looking out of the classroom window, as there was bugger all interesting scratched on the desktop.

And then you became a fireman…
It was the Seventies, so all I had to do was lob off my seriously long hair. After doing my stint in various barracks, I ended up at Carlton Fire Station. I was told by an old sweat that I was now in a profession where, when everyone was running down the road, I would be walking up it. It was a bit melodramatic but spot on - being a fireman is a weird mix of pissing about, constant training, talking to schoolkids and then short bursts of mayhem where you earn your money. I stayed in the service for thirty years, until I had to leave because of age discrimination. I was 55.
That must have been difficult.
Just before I left the service I was swamped with management tossers who were drafted in to show us how to do things. They talked bollocks and sucked money out of what had been a great job. If I had my way, I’d get all the whinging fox hunters to chase these scrounging twats and tear them to bits - thus saving nice foxes and killing vermin in one go. I really miss the mess-room banter and the swearing; it was of Olympic standard. Some blokes didn’t seem to need any proper words to communicate.
The fire service seems the perfect training for storytellers…
Well there’s always something to talk about. I remember turning up to a house fire to see a nice lady running out bollock naked, except for a wide-open fur coat and her jewelry in her hands. All my mate could find to say was; “She’s dyed her hair, you know”. Sharing these experiences when you get back to the station naturally lends itself to storytelling, particularly as another part of the job is spent sitting around waiting for something bad to happen. You learn to fill the hours with banter and a few beers. Yes we drank on duty in the good old days.
When did you start professional storytelling?
About 13 years ago at The Trip. I watched some people do it and thought, I can do that. But I couldn’t. It was hard and I had to learn. The bloke who ran the Trip sessions gave up when the Arts Council money wasn’t forthcoming and I took over and set up The Storytellers of Nottingham, which has been running for ten years.
What makes a good storyteller?
To be a good storyteller you have to be able to imagine your stories. It’s no good trying to just learn words, as this is no fun to watch. You have to see the story in your head as you speak it, and even to walk around in it and see new stuff as you go along. When you lose consciousness of yourself then the story seems to flow through you and it’s like some other person is telling it. It’s a very weird but lovely feeling.
What tips have you got for performing?
Look the audience in the eyes. Make them feel they are in the story with you. The rule is: If you believe it, so will they. To work as an oral storyteller you have to remember the pictures and events that make up the story. I rehearse in our kitchen, a bit like Shirley Valentine talking to her cooker. My wife often walks in and catches me jumping up and down and pulling faces.
What kind of reactions do you get from people when you tell them you’re a storyteller?
I hate telling people what I do, because they usually say; ‘Ooh, do you do the ghost walks?’ If I wanted to walk round in the pissing rain shouting at people, I would start drinking meths. Or; ‘Do you know lots of Robin Hood stories?’ I want to run off screaming.
Best and worst venues you’ve played?
Worst was a pub in Wolverhampton. One drunken twat tried to beat my mate, up even though he could see my mate had to walk on crutches. When I got outside, a woman said; ‘Christ, you’re lucky there’s still wheels on your car.’ The best was a school for children with learning and physical difficulties. We had a great day and made up a new story about werewolves and stuff. At the end we gave a performance to the whole school, and one lad who had cerebral palsy got up and shouted out his line. Afterwards, a very shocked-looking teacher came up to me and said the kid hadn’t spoken in the two years he had been at the school. I went home proud that day.
Other projects on the go?
I like to work at keeping alive local stories and memories. I’m a big advocate for older peoples’ involvement in the arts - and I don’t mean the sort of shite that involves them listening as if they’re gaga while some young Arts Council tit tells them what he thinks they want to hear. Old people are capable of performing and creating, they are vital to culture, and the reason I think that they are ignored is so that we can be sold the same old bollocks again and again without ever gaining from previous generations’ experiences. By the way, I’m sixty and have just been given my Christmas heating allowance, which I shall spend in Booze Busters.

What about your stint at our oldest professional football club?
I was asked about three seasons ago, just pre-Munto, to do a book for the Notts County Supporters Trust. I hated football at the time and went down with my audio recorder to do vox pops with the crowd. It was like being in a home for depressives, and I began to think about self-harming after the tenth interview. My favourite interview, though, was with the groundsman, who told me he regularly found condoms in the centre circle in the morning. County’s version of the Mile High Club, I suppose.
What inspires you?
I just love to perform. It’s the best thing ever and although tiring, it keeps me alive and thinking. Let’s be clear; storytelling is a way of holding a story in your head and performing it, not the material itself. You can tell stories about anything at all. I have material about tramps in Nottingham, about the crap in my garage, about vampires with regional accents. Mind you, I’m always in trouble with the storytelling establishment who get very irate about making up new stuff as they only want to do things they’ve found in the library or have heard someone else do. New material is frowned on, but hey-ho. Sod ‘em.
What’s Nottingham Lad?
Following a book I wrote for Newark and Sherwood Arts called Memories Are Made Of This I put together a one-man show called A Nottingham Lad which is full of authentic memories of growing up around the city and includes a recording of Under Bestwood, my unique take on the Dylan Thomas classic. Nottingham has its own lovely voice and should not be sent up by the southern-softies who try to do a Midlands accent on the telly. We like a laugh no matter what, so the show is a must-see for anyone who loves this mad city of ours. And especially those of you who can remember their Co-Op Divvy number.
Why is storytelling important?
Storytelling is the most subversive art form there is. When all else fails, word of mouth will carry on. Dictators may burn books, but they can’t stop us speaking or imagining. No matter what crap they feed us, someone will always have that quiet word that cuts through to the reality.
The Storytellers of Nottingham meet on the last Thursday of every month at the Olde Trip To Jerusalem, except in August.

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