Digital Poet-in-Residence Nasim Rebecca Asl talks to Tom MacAndrew and Eleanor Perry of Bedtime Stories for the End of the World about retelling myths, universal storytelling, and growing their series during a pandemic.
The end of the world may have never felt so close. Temperature records are being broken annually. Last week, rain feel on Greenland’s ice sheets for the first time in recorded history. We’ve all just been through the first pandemic in a century. When we do end up in a dystopian future, what we will have left? The answer, for Eleanor Penny and Tom MacAndrew, is stories.
“Writing and stories are what people have always used to try and explain the world around them”, says Bedtime Stories for the End of the World podcast co-founder Tom MacAndrew. His co-founder and poet Eleanor Penny continues: “We try to engage with the question of what we’re doing when we’re telling stories at this particular and particularly challenging time in history, where it feels like we’re kind of writing into an extremely unknown future.”
“Those universal stories have something sticky about them, something robust that has allowed them to survive the various tests of time. Why it is that particular writers find themselves continually drawn back to certain stories rather than others? That’s an interesting point of tension when we think about how, as creative people, we survive and adapt to this particular moment. The drag of it throws up a lot of personal flotsam and jetsam in a way that I think is as important and as urgent as the more broadly structural questions that these stories can touch on as well.”
Bedtime Stories is three seasons in – over the course of 21 episodes, myths and fairytales from all corners of the world have been reimagined, and characters like Prometheus, La Diablesse and Baba Yaga have been explored. Poets such as Helen Mort, Malika Booker and Jay Bernard have taken part alongside a range of new voices.
Eleanor and Tom met through Tom’s other venture, Outspoken Press. Their first episode aired in 2018, and the book the podcast spawned was released in 2020 , complete with gorgeous illustrations by Inkquisitive (Amandeep Singh).
The podcast has reached tens of thousands of listeners around the world. “The geographic spread is ridiculous. We have listeners in Australia, the US, New Zealand, listeners in non-English speaking countries”, says Tom. While lockdown put a stop to the usual recording process, in which writers would gather in London, it recalibrated the possibilities for the podcast. “We’ve been able to work with people who were hundreds or thousands of miles away and get them into a digital space together. We’ve been able to adapt more easily to things like care responsibilities”, Eleanor mused.
“What’s been amazing about this series is being able to involve writers who were in New Zealand and writers who were in the US. Our travel budget isn’t that big!” Tom joked, before reflecting on what the new systems mean for the podcast going forward. “I actually don’t know if we’d go back to getting people in a room because it allowed us so much more freedom to work with different artists”.
While there are countless podcasts for murder mysteries and comedians to chat, we’re not spoiled for choice when it comes to poetry podcasts. It’s this gap in the market Bedtime Stories were trying to occupy. Eleanor is a “big podcast listener. My first experiences with books were being read to and listening to audiobooks as a kid. There’s something really powerful and intimate about that moment. Practices of passing stories on, and that space of oral storytelling is something we really wanted to engage with.”
Tom sees the medium of podcasts as part of the wider history of storytelling too. “All the stories we’re asking writers to reimagine and reinterpret are traditional stories, stories you were read to as a kid or those passed down in oral traditions. The podcast format really suited this idea – we’re all at a campfire, we’re all around this burning brazier at the end of the world.”
If they found themselves at this brazier, Eleanor and Tom have very different ideas of what stories they would tell. Eleanor’s choice is slightly more traditional – the Ashkenazi Jewish story of the Golem. “I think it raises a lot of interesting questions about survival”, she explains. “I’m struck by the idea that there is this kind of sleeping defender that is just retired in an attic somewhere in Prague. The myth says ‘when we need him, the Golem will return’ and I’m like, where is he? What’s happening? How can we just go about the day knowing that there is this possibility for salvation that is not being taken? When I look at the news, the IPCC report, that’s kind of how I feel.”
Tom’s answer is slightly more modern. He laughs as he says he’d want Tintin to join him in a dystopian future. “I grew up on Tintin books. If I can’t sleep, or if I’m super stressed, I will dig them out. I’ve recently moved house and everything’s in boxes but I know exactly where the Tintin books are. That’s my comfort reading. It’s not necessarily great literature, it’s problematic in many ways, but it’s my happy place.”
The fact that Bedtime Stories allows them to engage with poets is a source of joy for both Eleanor and Tom. “For me, commissioning new stories and work is genuinely the best bit of this job”, says Tom. “There’s this real thrill about being one of the first people to read or hear these poems. I love the episodes where the poets, the pieces, by some sort of alchemy, end up speaking to each other. You just think, to do this for a job is pretty nice.”
Eleanor smiles as he speaks. “It feels wonderful to be involved in that process”, she agrees. “We’ve had quite a few moments where we’ve approached someone for the project, and they’ve gone ‘Yes, I’ve always wanted to write about x, y, z’ but I’ve never had a format or permission to do it in the way that I want before’. To be able to offer that space has been a real joy. It’s also been wonderful to see people who were part of our emerging call, who were part of the first or second season now publishing their first collections.”
It’s not just emerging poets Eleanor’s pleased to have reached with the podcast. “It’s just been a really nice way of presenting poetry in a more accessible format. As long as you have an internet connection, you have access to the kind of conversations that you might not otherwise be surrounded in, to this shrouded cultural phenomenon that you can only access when you have particular kinds of languages or access to particular kinds of spaces, if you live in a small town, work nights, have caring responsibilities.”
For now, not long after wrapping their third series, Bedtime Stories is on hiatus while both Tom and Eleanor work on other projects. But, much like the Golem, they’ll be back at some point – “the world’s not ended yet”, Tom smiles, “so we’re still around.”