By Malcolm Southan (Exeter College, 1958)
After forty years in newspapers and television, I recently returned to Oxford to try and write novels. So far, I've struggled, but what I have done is join a new storytelling society. It's life-changing – and I think you should join, too.
It meets in a first-floor room of 17 Turl Street: the tall building which has in past housed the Taj Mahal but is now home to the equally fashionable Turl Street Kitchen. If you choose your seat with care in this room you can see both Exeter College and the beautiful horse chestnut tree which overhangs the ornate gate to the Principal’s quarters in Jesus. If the tall, elegant windows are even a quarter open, you can also hear the divine hum of hopeful youth drifting upwards from the Turl.
We’re a jolly bunch, those of us who gather in that room. Our ace storyteller is – unexpectedly – a retired City Chairman and former Master of one of the City of London’s Livery Companies. He is always suited and invariably tells his story with a pint of lager to hand. Impeccable timing, an eye for unusual detail, and the relish of a born storyteller are his secret.
The person who tells the first story by custom, though, is a celebrity local radio presenter on BBC Oxford called Bill Heine: an American renowned in the city for “crashing” – his choice of word, not mine – a huge fibreglass shark into the roof of his Headington home. It's an eye-catching protest against random US bombing raids over the years, and has become as good a story among locals as the ones he weaves at our meetings.
Others include a professor emeritus, a large personality called Yorick, a female short story writer, a computer cataloguer at the Bodleian who specialises in droll tales of rebuttals and reverses, and plenty more besides. The whole lot is MC’d with aplomb by an ex-IBM executive. But the doyenne of our group – and the reason it exists in the first place – is a lady in her early eighties who can trace her ancestry back directly to Henry Fielding, founder, many would argue, of the English novel.
Sara Banerji, pictured here in her younger days, is a remarkable woman. She has lived life to the full on three continents. Sent to Africa in her teens, she went on the run – unsuccessfully as it turned out – to avoid being sent back to England. Then, having married an Indian, she raced her horse Tough Baby on the professional racetracks of South India. Her mother was a writer, as was her mother’s father. She herself has had nine novels published, the most celebrated being Shining Hero (2002).
Sara has been the life force behind Sharkspark ever since she heard about a similar organisation based at the Canal Café in Little Venice in London. The Canal Café is home to a more raucous experience than ours, with the Oxford version gentler and more supportive, but then that is perhaps its strength. All sorts of stories get told: some are intensely personal, others more anecdotal. A couple of people have steeled themselves to tell truly distressing tales from childhood, one of them adding – and he clearly meant it – that he found the experience cathartic. But that's far from being the rule.
For myself, I find the benefits more lateral. It’s not surprising to me that so many writers – and would-be writers – attend. Somehow, the experience forces you to loosen up, and that hopefully translates to your writing. But whether it does or not, that is not the main reason for being there. It’s just plain fun. And could, I suspect, be the next craze.
We meet on the last Monday of each month in the Library at Turl Street Kitchen. The brief is simple: that the stories should be true, unscripted and last no longer than five minutes. The topics which spark the stories are all expressed in one word – revenge, drink, hope, mistakes, abroad, and so on – paying tribute to a university exam tradition established at All Soul's in the early fifties. If you feel you can handle that, whether resident in Oxford or simply revisiting, you are more than welcome.
Malcolm Southan worked for the Sunday Times, Granada TV and LWT. He read Modern History at Exeter College (1958).