Opinion

The Story Hive: A treasure trove of storytelling from an old friend

The Story Hive is a new website created by friend of The Big Issue Phil Ryan that's entirely devoted to storytelling

Phil Ryan

Phil Ryan: from The Big Issue to writer, singer, raconteur and now king bee at The Story Hive. Image: Supplied

Once upon a time I was at the Edinburgh Festival – oh, circa 1988 – watching a truly gifted comedian telling a story. Confessions of a Furtive Nudist by the late and great Ken Campbell was a monologue delivered in a voice that was a cross between Ken Livingstone (former London mayor) and Russell Brand, current campaigner for all manner of social good. 

The story was gripping, and in the audience I fell into conversation with comedian, performer and writer Anna Chen. And it was she who told me about Phil Ryan – singer, songwriter, storyteller, author and the first appointee I made when launching The Big Issue a few years later. We took tea after the introduction, and when Gordon Roddick of The Body Shop said he would support me in starting a street paper I thought back to Phil and his lively array of talents and skills. 

One of the most extraordinary things about Phil, apart from his never-ending writing and publishing, is that he can make up a song about you and everyone else in the room that is comic and tuneful. 

After The Big Issue he devoted himself to his music career and, among other things, sang to 100,000 people as the lead singer of The Animals. Although music still dominates his oeuvre he is also writing – books, stories and sometimes plays. But now probably his largest project is a completely free audio story website called The Story Hive.

It is vast, and written and spoken by Phil himself. A towering Wagnerian-scale endeavour, it’s full of thrillers, romance, observational and literary literature; even children’s stories. Ghost and horror sit side by side with these genres, so fear and fun go hand in hand. Phil’s cabinet of voices is also spot-on – though I believe I do a better Glaswegian than him. 

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I too am a seriously addicted storyteller, as most who have meetings with me will affirm. A few weeks ago, I told my story about being dumped in an orphanage following eviction just after Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. I had a few people, not many, hug me in the street. But as I have often said, I wouldn’t change a thing other than the early death of my mother –coming up 50 years this August 3. My mother told buckets of Irish stories and got me practising from an early age. My children are likewise following me down the garrulous road to perdition. 

Phil and I came together perhaps 10 years ago to combine our skills in a storytelling tour and though the audiences were anything from three to 60, we certainly made them laugh and at times cry. We have plans to do more. Taking that idea of going about, Phil is going to be doing his own tour: coming to a tavern, theatre, scout hut – who knows, shopping mall? – near you. And if you want to host the fella, do get hold of him on the website shown at the bottom of this page. 

No, Phil Ryan hasn’t paid me to write this piece. Admittedly I love the chap after 35 years of friendship and I want everyone to flock to his website and help make it super big so that he can get all those ads and make a few bob out of it. But I know what he loves most of all is an audience for his wares. Like we all do. 

I did, by the way, watch every inch of the coronation last week looking out for signs of excessive ritualism. It was extraordinary to me to reflect that the sword, the sticks and the glove were all invented. Of course they were. But just imagine, there was a time when it seriously meant something. 

I was concerned, though, that Charles looked ill at ease and he must have given many sighs of relief when it was all over. I did not see Elizabeth’s coronation, except for a few snatched moments on Mrs Jinks’s black-and-white TV that got repossessed a week or two after the event. 

King Charles Coronation - John Sheehy
King Charles Coronation by John Sheehy

Will Phil be offering us a subtle, thoughtful story using the coronation as the backdrop? I don’t see why not. Please flock in your thousands to The Story Hive: free audio storytelling to extend your imagination. 

May I also take this opportunity to praise the painting that John Sheehy had in last week’s Charles Big Issue. It was so wonderful to behold that I have ordered a print through the Big Issue shop. John is a seriously major painter in his own right. I refuse to see him as anyone other than up there with the best, minus a label. From the school of hard knocks, John has soared. 

Back to Phil: perhaps I should charge him. After all I’ve done for him. I mean where would he be if I hadn’t…?

Visit The Story Hive here

Order a print by John Sheehy here

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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