“Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling” – by Philip Pullman

From that moment I first set eyes on the deep red hardback cover, and textured-like effect of the jackdaw artwork by John Lawrence evocative of the linocut works that have long stirred something in me, I knew I must have this book.

Obviously, the content of the book was of more than a passing interest too. Until fairly recently, I had been a lecturer in public relations and communications, and keen to explore dimensions which took the subject away from the strictly literal and functional. I had passionately tried to shoehorn ‘storytelling’ into the curriculum as a framework for exploring professional practice, as well as a starting point for reflecting on my own effectiveness (or not!) as a PR in years gone by.

‘Daemon Voices – Essays on Storytelling’ by Philip Pullman

Daemon Voices‘ is a heavy tome though, and this thing of beauty stayed on my bookshelf longer than it deserved. Although I do not know why, Philip Pullman himself had never really entered my life. When ‘His Dark Materials’ was, however, dramatised by the BBC, I got to see what I was missing – and my reason for finally reading the book was activated.

This collection of lectures given during Pullman’s career do not simply provide a guide to being a successful author, and writing books. Yes, ‘the jackdaw’ does provide some very precise insights on the craft of writing, and how best to make a success of it, but the thrust of the book is a eulogy to the majesty of storytelling, with signposts on how to take delight in the act of it, and provoking enchantment in your audience its delivery.

In exhorting this, Pullman reignited my interest in discovering what I might synthesise from reading such a book about storytelling with regards to PR too. While too many corporate spokespeople – not to mention with the daily coronavirus press conferences, ineffectual politicians reading from a script given to them by a PR giving the discipline a bad name, and ‘megaphone’ social media practices – I remain keen to get to the heart of whatever first gave me an interest in, and defined my practice against others’. I think the prism of storytelling – as opposed to fiction – may have something to contribute.

That said, first and foremost, I was determined to read ‘Daemon Voices’ in its own right. The book is stuffed full with reflections, tips, anecdotes, signposts and rules, coming at the subject from all directions.

In the lecture selected to open the book – ‘Magic Carpet’ – Pullman focuses on the responsibilities of a writer – to themselves and their family; to language; to the audience; to truth; and to the developing story itself – a useful ethical reflection for most dimensions we all might find ourselves in. Another similar point of discussion is whether his ‘profession’ is part of a bigger ‘struggle’ to make the world a ‘better place’, or just a job, something more frivolous.

[Above: Ralph McTell pens a song about the current Covid-19 crisis. Storytelling comes in many forms]

“Of course, there are several views about the relationship between art and the world, with at one end of the spectrum the Soviet idea that the writer is the engineer of human souls, that art has a social function and ha better damn well produce what the state needs, and at the other end the declaration of Oscar Wilde that there is no such thing as a good book or a bad book; books are well written, or badly written, that is all; and all art is useless.”

Also in that opening lecture, there is some valuable, practical advice on making a reality of taking responsibility for yourself, as a writer. The plea to ensure that you get paid as profitably as possible for the writing delivered might sound narrow, but he explains that in doing so, it not only helps you, it helps others – and you must remember why you ultimately seek it.

“I feel not a flicker of shame about declaring that I want as much money for my work as I can get. But, of course, what that money is buying, what it’s for, is security, and space, and peace and quiet, and time.” And obviously, that will help produce better stories, and better writing.

The next responsibility he explores is to language – the way it works and our relationship to it. “This is the sort of taking-care-of-the-tools that any good worker tries to instil in an apprentice – keeping the blades sharp, oiling the bearings, cleaning the filters.”

For example, as well as looking after words, “we should take care of the expressions, the idioms. We should become attuned to our own utterances; we should install a little mental bell that rings when we’re using expressions that are second-hand or blurred through too much use. We should use language to illuminate, reveal and clarify rather than obscure, mislead and conceal.”

When it comes to my own reflections on what the book has to say, and its relevance for PR, I am particularly provoked to do so by some shocking examples of late during the lockdown crisis, and before that, during the Brexit debates, which go further than bring the discipline into disrepute – they downright undermine its very reason for being. Helpfully, Pullman makes some connections himself.

“The language should be safe in our hands – safer than it is in those of politicians, for example; at least people should be able to say that we haven’t left it any poorer, or clumsier, or less precise.”

He has been more direct in a recent essay.

Pullman has something clear to say about the responsibility to the truth or “- emotional honesty. We should never try to draw on emotional credit to which our story is not entitled. A few years ago, I read a novel – a pretty undistinguished family story – which, in an attempt to wring tears from the reader, quite gratuitously introduced a Holocaust theme. The theme had nothing to do with the story – it was there for one purpose only, which was to force a particular response and then graft it onto the book. An emotional response from the reader is a precious thing – it’s the reader’s gift to us, in a way; they should be able to trust the stimulus that provokes it.”

This section particularly resonated with me.

From the second of the lectures, ‘The Writing of Stories’, there was some really practical advice. First, that there are two sides to the ‘process’ – ‘the making up part’, and the ‘writing it down’ part. Second comes advice on where to begin. He suggests ‘science’ as a happy hunting ground for inspiration. One term he has raided from dynamics is ‘phase space’ (it refers ‘to the profound complexity of changing systems’), which represents “the notional space that contains not just the actual consequences of the present moment, but all the possible consequences.”

A path begins to develop from that ‘phase space’, twisting and turning through the wood. (Photo: path leads away from Yateley Common, Hampshire).

You begin from a ‘phase space’, and from that, the path develops which is your story, which twists and turns through a wood on either side.

For me, this had much resonance in academic PR with Grunig and Hunt’s much maligned ‘four models of PR’, and their relationship with systems theory. While not necessarily telling the whole truth of contemporary practice, as with Pullman’s recommendations, they have much to say for themselves with regard to achieving excellence, and keeping relationships nourished, alive and alert – and performance and delivery as reflexive as possible, able to change, and respond to as required, rather than plough on regardless in robotic fashion.

Stay alive and alert to what is happening in the wood – but don’t stay too far from the path! (Photo: Eversley Forest, off the Welsh Drive, Bramshill, Hampshire).

Pullman develops this idea in a lecture called ‘The Path through the Wood‘. The ‘wood’ is that ‘phase space’ – the sum of all consequences, while the path through it – from A to B – is the actual story. As a storyteller, we mustn’t be tempted to stray too far off that path – by all means, we can slow down and admire the wood, but we must not wander off! We can only do that in other circumstances, when for example, we are telling the story of the story – backstage stuff, for example. That being said, it’s by staring out into the woods that I often get most creative inspiration when I’m out on a long walk with the dog, whilst still sticking to a path or track.

Your job is to get the reader from A to B – not lost in the wood. (Photo: woods at Bramshill, Hampshire).

Pullman returns to many of these themes, and others in subsequent lectures. He looks at specific influences too – Blake, Dickens and Milton, for example – the impact of self-consciousness of the act in art and writing, and storytelling specifically for children too, as part of a wider consideration of the writer’s relationship with their audience.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this part, but one bit which did fascinate me came when he was discussing how he didn’t think there should be a separate class of fiction seen as books only for children – he subtitles the lecture ‘Children’s Literature Without Borders‘ as ‘Stories Shouldn’t Need Passports‘.

He argues that the best position to maintain – with respect to reaching a mixed audience – is by donning a ‘veil of ignorance’ with regard to the position we occupy in society. As such, he compares this to that of the ‘original position’ in John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”. By doing so, he argues that we maintain the most open of positions with regard to all the potential possibilities – and it helps with regard to writing with clarity, and thinking clearly yourself. Despite this, it is never for the writer to tell the reader what the story means – that is for them to work out, and not to be imposed.

Another point Pullman makes in this lecture is how storytellers no longer rely on ‘passing people’ to pitch up, and listen to them plying their trade, or pick up their book. In this respect, they are like most other disciplines – they have become reliant on the services of a raft of ‘professional experts’ like publishers, booksellers, literary agents, critics – indeed, PRs! – to help them reach that audience, and make them and their stories more attractive. Pullman is obviously not amused, as they have become “security guards. They are another branch of the same service that watches the border. They’re interested in the audience, rather than the stories.” Ouch! As such, they chase segregated audiences, by a whole host of measurements, and he argues that shuts out, rather than invites in.

Having retired from PR in recent years, I plead ‘guilty as charged’. Claiming to help ‘understand audiences’ on behalf of those we represent is one of our key responsibilities, but as I did when I was head of PR at BBC Radio 1 (and as I did when working elsewhere), I made it my mission to know and love those I represented, and the crafts or businesses they created. I took the time to take delight in what they did, so I could tell their story, not just issue press releases in their name.

At times, I like to think I maintained an almost childlike fascination with those people and things I was representing, and telling stories on behalf of, so this really made sense. One of my neighbours reminded me that she still associates my essence with the five year old me that she used to watch from her window, singing and swinging on the front gate.

One of my favourite metaphors which is repeated in the book, can be found in the lecture ‘As Clear as Water‘. “Just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for a jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can. Like jazz, storytelling is an art of performance, and writing is a performance too.”

In the lecture ‘Poco Poco’, Pullman makes the point that stories are not just words, but that there are ‘fundamental particles’ of narrative, which can be traced through different stories. He looks at these ‘events’, and explores the patterns and relationships between them, within larger patterns, which help go towards creating our stories. As such, we draw on our own memories of what happens in other examples of these smaller particles happening – and so the story unfolds. In doing so, this makes story ‘discovery’ rather than ‘invention’.

A piece of advice I can truly concur with is given in the lecture ‘Folk Takes of Britain‘ – “And that is the greatest danger for stories such as these: if they remain undisturbed, they will die of neglect. They should be taken out, and made to dance.” There is always new to be gotten out of old.

Pullman writes cogently, and passionately about the twin subjects of writing, and storytelling in the lecture ‘Balloon Debate’.

“At its simplest, what you’re doing is making up some interesting events, putting them in the best order to show the connections between them, and recounting them as clearly as you can, and your intention is to make the audience sufficiently delighted or moved to buy your next book when that comes out in due course.”

“But fiction doesn’t merely entertain – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways; in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together, and that actions both spring from character, and help t shape it.”

“They also teach an attitude – a temperament. One writer’s temperament might embody (for example), a passionate interest in the physical world, so that the narrator of the story notices the colours and smells and sounds of things, and makes them vividly present to the reader, while aother writer’s attitude will demonstrate a sharp sardonic worldliness in the way the story describes behaviour, so that we learn what it’s like to see people like that – and so.”

While the emphasis is on the importance of generating ‘delight’ and ‘enchantment’ both among your reading audience, and in your own story-generating efforts, Pullman is not averse to paying attention to some of the practical questions of the business, but with clear explanation as to why.

But that emphasis on ‘delight’ is what I take away most strongly from the book as a whole.

“Because most of all, stories give delight. That’s the point I began with, and I’ll come back to finish it up: they beguile. They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral; they hold children from their play, and old men from the chimney corner. The desire to know what happened next, or whodunit, or how Odysseus and his men escaped from the Cyclops’ cave, or what is the meaning of the enigmatic words The Speckled Band or The Black Spot, or whether the single man is possession of a good fortune will, as we all hope, succeed in marrying Elizabeth Bennet, or what Mr Bumble will say when Oliver Twist asks for more, or what Achilles will do now that Hector has killed Patroclus.”

“The desire to know these things is passionate and universal. It transcends age and youth; it ignores education and the lack of it; it beguiles the simple and enchants the wise. It was as enchanting in the fire-lit cave as it is in the seminar room.”

While I would have preferred it if this book was one of those stories, taking us from A to B – it might have made it an easier book to devour. It still brings delight to my bookshelf, and plenty of insight long after the first read.

And it is the image of that ‘jackdaw’ that remains with me.

Frank Cottrell Boyce once asked Pullman in an interview for the Guardian (22/10/2017) which animal would be his own daemon, should he have one – and he picked the cover star of the book.

“I think she’s a raven. She belongs to that family of birds that steal things – the jackdaws, the rooks, crows and magpies – and I admire those birds. I applaud their enterprising way of dealing with the world and their intelligence. I love the way ravens fly: they are the most acrobatic and daring birds. So I would be very pleased if my daemon were a raven.”

I used to think a ‘jackdaw’ summed up the public relations curriculum well – insights from marketing, business, psychology, economics, journalism, research methods – so many different strands. I did my best to ‘eek’ out a small corner for storytelling. I used to draw strongly on it, and while many people’s professional practice may be beyond salvation, it may still bring hope for a happy ending for others.

Other storytelling influences (see below):

Others sources I have used to over recent years to glean insights (or ‘jackdaw’ from) on storytelling have included:

The Faraway Nearby” – Rebecca Solnit; (2014), London: Granta

Once Upon A Time” – Marina Warner; (2014), Oxford: Oxford University Press

Stranger Magic – Charmed Stories & the Arabian Nights” – Marina Warner; (2012), London: Vintage

What’s Your Story? Storytelling to Move Audiences, People, and Brands” – Ryan Mathews & Watts Wacker; (2008), New Jersey: FT Press

The Storyteller’s Secret” – Carmine Gallo; (2016), London: Macmillan

Sheherazade and Sultan Schariar. Ferdinand Keller / Public domain

And of course, the story of Scheherazade herself, the Persian Queen telling stories each night because her life depended on it, which forms the basis of the collection of tales known as the One Thousand and One Nights or ‘Arabian Nights’.

I’d never realised before putting down ‘Daemon Voices’ either that ‘Jackdaw’ was cockney rhyming slang for ‘Book’ (as in ‘Jackdaw & Rook’ – Book. ‘Apple and Pears’ – Stairs is similarly often shortened to just ‘Apples’). In this respect, the name of the bird could be deployed to signfy a ‘Story’ – and as famous cockney once said, “not a lot of people know that”.

Time for more dancing.

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