Jon Mason is a storyteller, performer, and PhD research student. His PhD project is entitled “Re-storying the City: Applying Urban Perspectives to Eco-Storytelling”.

Tell us a little about your academic background and your career up to this point:

I’ve always been fascinated by history of all kinds: I did a BA Hons in History with Archaeology 1998-2001 at what was then the University of Wales, Bangor – mainly for the archaeology, but it blew my mind open to social history in all periods. Over time I found myself asking questions about how all this tied in with identity and popular culture, which led to an MA in Contemporary History at Sussex 2011-2013 – but at the same time I’ve always had a parallel love of mythology and folklore, so around that point I also began a career as a storyteller. And I’ve combined the two interests ever since, incorporating public history into my storytelling work and looking at how cultural myths inform what we believe about the past and the present. And all of this has led very neatly to my PhD: I’m looking at the impact on selfhood and environmental awareness that comes from knowing more about the folklore and history of the place you live. 

What first attracted you to this particular area of research? 

I’ve always been preoccupied with place and identity, without always realising it. A lot of it comes from the classic English middle-class suburban kid’s malaise, but having family in both England and Wales cast that into a certain relief, plus I was always very strict about checking my privilege and working out what was really the relationship between where I lived and who I was, for bad and good. And in my twenties I also became empassioned about radical history: the bottom-up account of events that didn’t make the official story, but created the world as we live it. I started to wonder how this might change people’s view of where they lived, just as it was changing mine. And then as I began both probing popular culture and pursuing my work as a storyteller, I added in questions about folklore and magical stories: what part have they also played in explaining the world around us? Have they been lost, or simply adapted? How has vernacular culture changed over time?     

What are you currently working on?  Image of Jon Mason leading a walking tour in Brighton

I am leading a Radical History Tour of Brighton in this year’s Brighton Fringe! It’s very exciting as it takes me back to where I came in, in a  way, with the focus on overlooked political events from local social history. It developed out of a very good fun collaboration too, with Latest TV and Brighton Trades Council: we’ve made a film, soon to be streamed by Latest TV, that celebrates the recent centenary of anarchist thinker and local resident Piotr Kropotkin, and takes a look at various other bits of radical local history too. 

And, at the same time, I’m one of three CMNH PGRs on an internship as researchers for the BBC podcast, You’re Dead To Me (“The history podcast for people who don’t like history… and those who do”) – which has been great fun and another fantastic insight into work in the media.  

Who or what has been a major source of inspiration in your area of study in recent years and why?

Alan Garner’s novels and non-fiction have always been a guiding light to me, now more than ever – he asks profound and difficult questions about how the deepest past continues to shape the present, and shows how mythology is still invaluable to modern life. But I also want to give credit to the late, great Utah Phillips, a US storyteller and songwriter whose work very much set me on the path of sharing tales from radical history. 

Who would you like to engage through your research?

Everyone! But, more specifically, I want to engage people who haven’t already thought about history or folklore: I want to reach outside the academy, to give as many people as possible a fuller awareness of the lives and stories of their predecessors, and what we’ve gained from them. 

Answer one question you would ask yourself? Or anything in particular that you’d like to say as a member of CMNH? 

Did you ever think five years ago that such a great opportunity as this PhD would open up for you? And the answer is, no, but I’m incredibly grateful to be part of CMNH: the interdisciplinary community here is such a far-sighted setup and fits me so well – I used to struggle to define myself as either a historian or a folklorist or a performer, but for now at least I can follow my path within all three categories and don’t have to pigeonhole myself! 

Favourites

Book or article (academic): Penny Summerfield, “Culture and Composure: Creating Narratives of the Gendered Self in Oral History Interviews” in Cultural and Social History Volume 1, Issue 1, 2004 – my introduction to the understanding that all personal interpretations of the past (and present) are just stories by which we achieve composure in our lives. 

Fiction book: The Deverry Series, by Katharine Kerr – fantasy fiction as social history, years before Game of Thrones! And some of the most poignant, humane stories I’ve read. 

Music: Bruce Springsteen – after all, what IS flesh and what is fantasy? 

Film: The Lord of the Rings films – the original three outstandingly capture Tolkien’s vision, and I still feel sad for anyone who doesn’t see how fantasy like this is relevant to modern life. 

Image of Jon Mason leading a walking tour in Brighton

Since speaking to Jon, both of his Brighton Fringe Radical History Tours sold out, and he received great feedback from attendees:

A big thank you to Jon Mason for his Radical History Tour of Brighton. I have lived in the city for 35 years, but it seems there is so much I didn’t know. From smugglers to suffragists to trade unionists, there’s a story around every corner. The tour itself was very relaxed and informal giving people the chance to chat between points of interest and Jon’s enthusiastic and engaging style had us all entertained when he was describing the people places and events in our shared radical history. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.”

 

Find Jon on Twitter: @jonmase

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jonmasonstoriesandmusic

Instagram: @jonthestoryteller

and his website: https://jonthestoryteller.com/

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