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Telling tales

Patience Agbabi

(Canongate, 2014)

Review by Shara Atashi


To start with: Telling Tales is prodigious in force, craft and ingenuity. 

Since its publication in 2014, Patience Agbabi’s revoicing of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has been widely praised for its boisterous humour. I, however, stagger about in the infinite darkness of Chaucer’s tales remixed and carried into the 21st century with astonishing flair and tact. But Telling Tales is also in harmony with the controversial nature of the originals. Additionally, at the end of the book Patience has created 50-word ‘Author Biographies’ for the storytellers, who mount a Routemaster bus from Tabard’s Inn to Canterbury Cathedral.

Composed in a fast grime beat, the General Prologue bears some apprehension towards darkness while drawing upon inspiration in its literal meaning: April ‘breathes’ into Harry ‘Bells’ Baily’s ‘overtaxed mind’ and ‘fires’ him to make music and tell stories from ‘the South-East’ (of London), which are going to be authentic: 

cos we’re keeping it real, reminisce this:

Chaucer’s Tales were an unfinished business 

The ‘winning story’ for me is ‘Sharps an Flats’, by Missy Eglantine, owner of a beauty studio and rapper poet ‘training 2B lay preacher’ (The Prioress’s Tale). The spirit of a seven-year-old boy sings to his mother in a grime rap and clarifies how it came that his throat was cut. He, who at the age of seven,

…. spoke like a thesaurus,

wrote long stories, opened my throat like a dawn chorus

in God’s gang, my chords sang Alma Redemptoris

He was not paying attention while singing and should have ‘shut the f**k up!’ while taking the shortcut through the tower blocks, because his ‘backchattin in Latin’ made his killers think he was ‘backstabbin’. He urges his mother to imagine him now and how he is singing, and to keep peace until she joins him, and that ‘love conquers all’ (the motto on the original Prioress’s golden brooch, ‘Amor vincit omnia’). 

Agbabi draws on the case of Damilola Taylor who was stabbed to death in Peckham by a gang of two boys, a scenario very similar to the original tale by Chaucer. She has purged Chaucer’s tale of its murderous antisemitism. The attackers are from the ‘caned class’: ‘gets a boy slain in the vein by the caned class’. Anyone who kills, kills a brother or sister. To move beyond the melting point of everlasting hate and vengefulness, we must make a jump. And it’s the purpose of tales to improve human nature . 

Every tale in the book is a gem of surprise. Agbabi plays with everything in her singular way – from form to transformation, from beat to rhyme and free verse – and most of all with language. ‘Sharps an Flats’ reaches beyond the musical jargon (of being two groups of notes that differ from natural ones) and invokes both the sharpness of the killing blade and the flats in slums which provide a fertile ground for violence.  

I was lucky to see the poet perform her art in March 2022 at Ty Newydd Creative Writing Centre in Wales. With elegance, she borrows grime and rap from rude boys in hoodies who gesticulate with their hands in an established style, to present it to people who, like me, are new to it. I never thought I would find the pleasure and pain of grime through a backdoor to The Canterbury Tales and draw such lungfuls of fresh inspiration in dark times.