Life & Culture

The professional storyteller telling tales of peace

When Sef Townsend dug up his Jewish roots, he found his calling in life


Once upon a time there was a man called Sef Townsend, the decendant of Uzbek travellers. He spent his childhood battling a serious eye condition, which meant lots of trips to hospital, then spent years as an actor, living in Amsterdam and New Zealand before coming back to England, 30 years ago, to take an art degree.

It was only then that he was inspired to dig into his Jewish roots, and found his calling in life. Sef is a storyteller who performs around the world. “The Talmud has been an inspiration for many of my stories, and I tell them to people of all faiths,” he says. “I’ve learned that everyone loves a story, even people who don’t understand the language I speak.”

Townsend is a natural performer who appreciates the power of costume as well as language to engage his listeners.

In Marrakesh, where he will take part in the second annual International Storytelling Festival next week, he will don colourful kaftans, and for our chat in London’s Royal Festival Hall he is wearing a tailored jacket, a fez and a flamboyant Tibetan blanket.

The storytelling started, he tells me, when he was seconded to a London school to help immigrant children learn English. “They loved the story I made up on the spot, including a little song, and clamoured for another when I went back. This time I showed the characters — a man, a woman, a donkey, a tree — in drawings.

“The teachers said whatever I had been doing with the children I should keep on doing because they had been asking for the English words for everything they had encountered; they were understanding nouns and wanted to grab hold of the language.

“That’s when I realised storytelling is magic.”

Language-learners continue to enjoy his stories, and in Greece and Belgium as well as the UK he has performed to unaccompanied child refugees. In 1992, while still an art student, he was caught up in the IRA bombing of the Sussex pub in London’s West End. Since then he’s visited northern Ireland as well as Israel and Palestine, Armenia, Azerbaijan and South Africa on peace and reconciliation projects.

As for the festivals, Morocco is just the latest venue in a list that includes Argentina, Colombia, China and Sudan as well as Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. “It’s hard to make a living, but I get lots of word-of-mouth [recommendations], and the more well-known you are, the more work you get.”

For the Queen’s Jubilee he had two days work telling stories connecting Elizabeth II with Elizabeth I and telling stories of the river.Twice a week he has a regular gig in London schools as one of a multi-cultural roster of storytellers.

Although he lives in South London, where he achieved a dream of building his own wooden house in which he still lives, Townsend is an active member of Beit Klal Yisrael in Notting Hill, whose Liberal ethos was what he was looking for in a synagogue — “It’s very socially concerned.” He had a late barmitzvah there at 45 and spent 15 years leading services.“To me Torah is everything.”

He loves “the argumentative process, the hair-splitting that arises out of Judaism; it’s why we have so many lawyers” and also delves deep into Jewish mythology, loving the traditions of golems, dybbuks and demonological tales: “Many come from rabbis who were in Venice in the 14th century and used them to warn their congregations about what not to do.”

Townsend is a founding member of COJAM (the Community of Jews and Muslims), which organises cross-cultural p icnics and other social events.

“We started in 2014 at the Quaker Meeting House in Hampstead Garden Suburb; 30 Jews and 30 Muslims exactly turned up, as though we had planned it, and from there we decided the best way for people to meet is to share food and just be together. There is no agenda and people form friendships.

“Lockdown has made it hard, but summer is coming, and perhaps we’ll have more picnics in the park.”

Before that he’ll be at the festival in Marrakesh, which has a centuries-old tradition of nightly storytelling in its central square. He’ll emphasise co-existence: “I think it’s very important in these times to show how much we’ve got in common.”

Sef Townsend will perform at the Marrakesh International Storytelling Festival from February 12-19. His book ‘London River Tales for Children and London Folk Tales for Children’ is published by History Press

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