Tales of Britain

By Jem Roberts

The finest, funniest stories of England, Scotland & Wales, refreshed for the 21st century. By Brother Bernard, as told to Jem Roberts.

Thursday, 9 November 2017


Of all the Folklore Thursday themes to throw us, 'Local Lore' is the toughest – we have 77 tales, all chosen to be local to everyone on this island, with at least one never more than a Sunday afternoon's drive away from any Brit. Should we head to the North-East to explore the silliness of The Hedley Kow? Or visit the Kingdom of Seals up on the north coast of Scotland? Or plumb the depths of the villainous King Tegid Foel in Snowdonia...?

We could find no relevant illustrations for these on his page, but prepare to be utterly beguiled by the heart-cwtching folklore artwork by Smallfilms legend Peter Firmin, over on his site here – and thanks to Folk Horror Revival on Twitter for pointing us towards it. Firmin's illustrations come from the late Katherine Briggs' Folio Society collection, Folk Tales of the British Isles – the ultimate multi-volume collection for hardened folklorists, festooned with the basic ur-versions of our nation's lore, with all the original outdated morals and dusty stylings intact, making a fair few stories very problematic to share with 21st century audiences, without a great deal of contextualising and explanation.

As with Carolyne Larrington's brilliant The Land of the Green Man, we're so glad we never immersed ourselves in this collection before our own book was delivered to Unbound, so our 77 tales remain the result of totally independent research, we're not just riffing on someone else's work – only one of the illustrations on Firmin's site is from a tale in our collection. But particularly given the involvement of an artist as adored as Firmin, we do dearly want to own the full collection one day. It's just that we'd have to mortgage our own knees to afford that price. If only there was a more affordable collection of British folktales...

The storytelling wonder of Firmin and his Smallfilms partner, the eternally missed Oliver Postgate, are something we can only, and do, dream of aspiring to. Though Tales of Britain above all aims to bring to mind the anarchy of Rik Mayall's Grim Tales, with big doses of Tony Robinson and Terry Jones thrown in, there are so many different kinds of stories, from the silly to the vicious to the pastoral and sweet... we're confident that many of our stories would have worked perfectly in Postgate's lulling, warming tones.

This is his take on a favourite of ours which we've shared widely in the past, and which will be kicking off our special LIVE YULE show next month – The Apple Tree Man. Not quite how we see the scene, but again – this is Peter Firmin, so he wins. We have yet to agree on any illustration battleplan with the book just yet, though I have a dream shortlist of artists I'd love to work with – the problem is, affording their talents. We could keep crowdfunding this book for another two years to afford the services of an artist to cover all 77 tales, but overwhelmingly, the feeling we get from our supporters is that THEY JUST WANT THIS BOOK ASAP! Quite rightly so, we do too. For years now, parents in particular have seemed positively angry with me that the book isn't already available to own, and it's time that was finally sorted out.

And so for a first edition at least (if we do well, who knows what further editions might be possible?), we will have to find a way of making the tales look pretty on the lowest budget imaginable, and it's not fair to expect any talented illustrator to work for peanuts... It's a quandary we'll be trying to sort out in the coming months, for sure.

Two brilliant artists who deserve to be paid full whack have already supplied us with gorgeous and exciting imagery – Phillip McCullough-Downs and Perry Harris, who went out of their way to create these pics for us, and we'd like to include both in the finished book. 

Perry is Bath's own artist laureate, and Philip is a Bristol-based inky genius... so at least we're keeping it local!

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