Aka the ‘white haired, white bearded stranger’, as if descending from a wizard tale, British JOHN ROW, writer, poet, storyteller, has kindly granted us an interview, talking about the importance of storytelling and its impact on children or inmates, about poetry and music, about his strong bond with Romania, and particularly with picturesque village of Colibita, where he owns a house, about past, present and future and many more…
In an extensive discussion about the old and the new, about how simple things make a difference, starting from a pure child soul to the pristine nature, about books, stories, traditions, folk festivals, about personal creeds that become projects for the community, but also about misconceptions hanging over Romanians’ head in UK, you will get to the writer’s heart at every line, so that, at the end of the interview you’ll get the impression you have just disembarked from a fairy tale.
So, we invite you to sit over this story, while also finding out Mr. Row’s plans and how his Romanian bond has come to life.
Mr. Row, if you could first introduce to our readers.. where you were born, some information about your educational and professional background.
I was born in Barking on the outskirts of East London and grew up in Harlow New Town. The new towns were a post war creation replacing houses bombed in cities during the war. The arts were very important to this social experiment and I was influenced by coming in daily contact with sculptures by contemporary artists like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth as well as visiting orchestras and ballet companies as a child.
At sixteen I moved to rural Suffolk and stayed in the area for the next forty or so years apart from a few years in London in the late sixties. Again I was in a centre for the arts when London at its most exciting.
Now I rent a small flat in Swindon near Bristol in England and have a house in Colibita which I get to as often as I can.
My education has been varied. My father was in the navy and it was considered essential that children had a man’s influence so I was packed away to an all-boys rural Grammar school where I boarded from the age of eleven. At sixteen I went to art school which I dropped out of after a year. After meeting Sir Alec Dickson who founded Voluntary Service Overseas and Community Service Volunteers I joined CSV and was sent as a housemaster to a school for physically disabled children. I then went to train as a teacher but these were radical times and I was not allowed to finish my teacher training. After working as a porter in a hospital for three years I went to the University of East Anglia and gained a degree in American studies and later a post graduate teaching qualification. I taught for a short while but by this time I was determined to make my living as a poet. For a few years I toured with a music and poetry show called Stereo Graffiti with another poet Nick Toczek. Over the next thirty years I worked with a number of musicians and other poets.
I managed a book shop for four years at Colchester Arts Centre in the late eighties. It was here I first took an interest in traditional stories and storytelling as well as visiting prisons as a writer for the first time.
Throughout the nineties I developed as a storyteller and worked with excluded children and prisoners.
In 1999 I became the first storyteller in residence in a British prison at H.M.P. Wayland. Here we launched the first storybook dads scheme where prisoners record stories for their children. The international publicity we got for this led to similar schemes being set up in several countries.
Since then I have visited over thirty prisons.
As well as prisons I tell stories at music and folk festivals throughout the UK in the summer months and I have also visited hundreds of schools on four continents as a visiting writer. In the far east and North Africa most of the schools have been international schools. Visits to International Schools finance the trips and allow me to visit local schools that often have no money without charging. So far in Romania I have only told stories in a couple of local schools in the Colibita area. I believe listening to stories helps children learn English as an additional language. I have done this with children as young as three in Vienna as part of their language programme. Of course I would love to be invited into international schools in Romania as a visiting writer not least because this would help finance my story collecting project here.
Where are you residing at the moment and how have you developed this bond with Romania? If you could tell is how it all started…
I am spending more time in the UK than Romania at the moment partly because of financial reasons and partly because my girlfriend has a daughter who will be at school for a couple more years so her travel is restricted however I anticipate spending more and more time in Colibita as the years go on. Like most things in life it was coincidence that brought me to Romania. My sister married a Romanian from Mijloceni Birgaului near Bistrita, Radu Capra who, in his time was the national body building champion. For years he talked to me about the beautiful area he grew up in. When the opportunity arose his family found me a house in Colibita and I came over and fell in love with the area. His family welcome me and look after me while I am there. That was two years ago. Now Colibita is a part of my life that increases in importance every day. I try and read as much as I can about the history of Romania and the more I read the more fascinated I become. For instance, when the rest of Europe was burning witches and putting people to death for subscribing to the wrong religion the first laws about religious tolerance were being enacted in Cluj, the birthplace of Unitarianism.
If you please tell us a little bit about Colibita. We published a piece of news this year about you, saying you bought a house there… How is the village? The locals? How is to be a foreigner in Romania and in a small village like Colibita?
Colibita is a hidden gem. The people have welcomed me into their village and I have been inspired to start painting again since I have been there. I am looking forward to meeting more people from the area who are working on and are far more advanced than me on the subject of local folk lore. The short film on Digi 24 has meant some great people have got in touch with me. I am at a disadvantage because despite trying daily, my Romanian is progressing very slowly and the main second languages in the village are Spanish and German. Despite this we seem to be able to communicate.
I feel close to nature when I am there and I enjoy the pace of life. It reminds me of the rural areas I used to cycle round when I was young where everybody had time to greet each other. I am aware this is a romantic view but it suits me.
We also know about your project of the bilingual fairy-tale book in Romania. What is its stage?
The book is not as far along as I would have hoped by now. A lot of the ground work has been done and the publicity the project has been getting has increased the number of people I can speak to and collect from. It is already having a positive effect on the Romanian community in Ipswich in the UK. Through schools and Ipswich Community Media I have been talking to Romanian children who live in Ipswich in the UK and they have been enthusiastic about exploring their own heritage and to have a visitor talking about their stories helps them take a pride in being Romanian. This has been particularly the case among Roma children. This is part of the motivation for the book. Working in prisons I have seen the disastrous effect cultural dislocation can have on young people whatever their heritage.
The book itself is going in an unexpected direction with many of the stories I have been collecting being anecdotal but including supernatural beings as opposed to fairy stories and local legends. I am hoping for more of the latter as time goes on.
Do you think Romanian folklore, customs and myths could represent a valid „row material” for the international book market at present? And to actually sell potential book based on them?
I think there is a growing market for books that use folklore, certainly in the U.K. There is also a fascination for what is perceived as the real deal. Romania is already a step ahead here. Bram Stoker created the fiction and people want to know what the real folklore is of the region.
And having this in mind, storytelling has become a real industry lately, overhauling the field of the stories for children and becoming a real benchmark in the business, advertising and PR communication, and particularly with the outburst of social media and online news. From your experience so far, working with children, or other social categories, is storytelling the best way to communicate things and spread information nowadays?
Storytelling is a wonderful way to communicate information. It is the perfect medium for the modern world. It does not matter if we are speaking of the oral tradition, the written word, graphic novel or film. There is a growing cynicism over bare facts and figures and stories help illustrate a point. It can also combat prejudice. When people know of a refugee’s story it softens even the hardest heart. Of course we have to be careful how contemporary or old stories are used. They can reinforce prejudices and twisted history can reinforce jingoism and the worst forms of nationalism as happened in Serbia.
Also from your vast experience, it seems you have worked with children, from various countries, more or less wealthy countries, but also you have run the project across prisons, what is more difficult, working with children or with inmates? How have these experiences changed your life?
Children are children where ever they are in the world. They are fascinated by everything around them. Sometimes they are difficult but a smile goes a long way. I have worked in the UK children facing huge difficulties but they have all shown the capacity for joy and love for each other even if only for short moments. I was listening to a woman who worked with children who had been excluded from school and she said bad behaviour was only a failure to communicate. I have to agree. I am lucky as I am brought into both schools and prisons as a communicator so I rarely have to deal with the difficult side. In Morocco last week I was followed by gangs of smiling and laughing children who were fascinated by the white haired, white bearded stranger who had wandered into their area. These were children being children something they get less and less chance to be in the west as they are kept off the streets and are forced to retreat into their electronic worlds.
As for prisoners, a lot of the men I meet have had their childhoods stolen from them. They are often victims themselves. Doing drama, sharing stories, playing music, if they choose to participate are ways of replacing a lot they missed earlier in life and opens windows to the future. I have never been threatened or felt in danger in any prison I have been in any more than any school.
Working in these environments has, I hope, made me less judgemental and it has taught me to value my own children and grandchildren and the relationship I have with them more.
Are there any particular experiences from these projects, funny or sad stories to share, that comes to your mind? Something, a certain child, person or event/incident that you remember and is worth sharing to the public?
There are so many stories but I will relate just one.
In the nineties I was doing some voluntary work in Mexico. In the afternoon the children returned to the village from school and we all sat in the yard while I told stories. Someone was translating into Spanish for me. Half way through the story they told the interpreter to be quiet because they wanted to listen to the rhythm of the story. It was a magic moment.
Of course I have a lot of stories from prison but it is worth relating that a prisoner who had been in one of my plays continued his journey when he was released and I met him eight years later at a conference where he was a speaker. On release he had joined a drama company and had not reoffended since.
You told me in our last conversation you have just returned from Morocco and that you will be in Romania in the second week of June.. .Are the trips related to your current projects?
I was in Morocco to tell stories at a friend’s wedding. Last time I was there I met Haj Ahmed, the grand old man of Moroccan storytelling and we sat swapping stories. This time I met some drummers who have invited me to their village in the Sahara to meet an old storyteller there. Something for the future.
And speaking of projects…Are there any worth mentioning in the near future?
Apart from looking forward to a summer of festivals and working on a sort of autobiography, the Romanian project is my main concern.
Your past projects included the music & poetry shows. How much music is in poetry and how much poetry is in music? How actual do you think poetry still is nowadays?
Poetry is alive and well in the UK and USA and I believe in Romania. I enjoy combining poetry and music. Poetry has its own music anyway and music is always evocative throwing up words and images. Earlier in the month I was working with a group of classical musicians in a prison and getting the men to write down the images the music suggested to them. They managed to write about emotions they had never admitted to before.
Going to your poems book for children „The Pong Machine”, maybe I am wrong, but I haven’t seen it translated and published in Romania… However, starting from the book, the children book market is quite generous now, what do you think are the trends among topics and writing styles in the current books for children?
As yet I have not had a children’s book translated into Romanian. I do not think about trends or you end up writing for the market. I think children respect honest voices.
Getting back to Romania, have you managed to visit some other places while you were here? Can you mention some hot spots, some memorable tourist destinations in Romania that you’d recommend?
I must confess I have not even started exploring Romania, yet I love the mountain so much. I enjoyed both Bucharest when I was there for The Power of Storytelling conference in 2016 and the night train to Bistrita, rail journey I would recommend to anyone. I also love the old town in Cluj.
Of course Colibita is my heaven.
Name five things that you consider Romanians are good at…
A difficult question and not something I have thought about.
In my area there are fantastic craftsmen particularly with wood.
Hospitality, I have always been welcomed and fed well at every house I have gone to.
I think there is a cultural renaissance going on right now so which produces some exciting young artists. Don’t ask me their names.
Young businessmen I have met on the plane back and forth are full of innovative ideas, which bodes well for the country.
They are the hardest working people I have met.
What were the prejudices about Romania before coming here in the first place and what difficulties have you actually encountered in Romania?
I did not have prejudices before I came but there are misconceptions about Romanians in the UK. Criminal activity makes news, the fact that there are thousands of Romanian social workers and health workers in the UK does not. Every Romanian I know in the UK works incredibly hard but our xenophobes do not see it. I have not had any difficulties in Romania.
What do you mostly like about Romania and what do you hate the most?
I love the landscape and the hospitality of the people, I am sometimes disturbed by some reactionary attitudes. I have come across a lot of anti Roma feeling and homophobia. The latter I think is being driven by the Eastern Orthodox church especially the referendum on making gay marriage unconstitutional. Apart from my own views I think this puts Romania out of pace with the rest of Europe and will harm the country in the long run. Anti Gypsyism is not confined to Romania but is a problem in many countries including the U.K.
Have you managed to learn Romanian a little bit or to understand it? What were the first Romanian words that you have learnt? What about local dishes, food or drinks? Have you tried and liked some in particular?
My Romanian is extremely limited. I suppose the first words I learnt were good morning and thank you.
I can just about read a menu and love the sausage wrapped in cabbage leaves.
Naturally when I come back in a couple of weeks the names for everything will come back into my head. Right now it is time for coffee.