Let me tell you a story…

The six-year-olds were silent. No big deal? OK. The six-year-olds were silent for nearly an hour. It was a Friday afternoon at the Science Museum in London, and I watched as they sat enraptured, listening to Ben Haggarty tell stories. Ben is a professional storyteller, and I, too, was spellbound – I don’t use the word lightly – as Ben, with no props other than his sombre black suit, bright yellow shirt and a rather extraordinary Burmese temple bell, told stories of magic and monsters that turned the austere lecture theatre around us into a flickering cave of wonder.

But Haggarty – one of the foremost figures in the British storytelling revival of the past 20 years and a co-founder (with Hugh Lupton and Pomme Clayton) of The Company of Storytellers – doesn’t just tell stories for children. I first encountered him at the British Museum, flanked by winged Assyrian lions, telling a two-hour version of the 5,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh. His account of the wildman Enkidu’s frolics with the Holy Whore was not for the under-sevens.

"I’m interested in the speaking image, the image that speaks," he tells me as we sit in a Polish cafe, with lemon tea and cheesecake. His voice is strong and flexible, compelling even when he is not in front of an audience. "Something has happened just before; something will happen afterwards, but that moment, there, is full of all that’s been and all that’s going to come; the art of storytelling is knowing how to choose that moment."

On the eve of World Book Day it seems well to remember that long, long before the book was the story. "Most of the world’s literature is oral," says Marina Warner, whose latest work exploring myth and literature, No Go The Bogeyman, was published by Chatto & Windus last year. "Many of the things we think of as ‘written’, such as the Gospels, are actually presented as a kind of transcript. It is only recently that the written has come to be considered ‘authentic’, and the oral somehow lesser, or debased."

Michael Ignatieff, the author and critic who has seen Haggarty’s work, notes that while novels such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet testify that we haven’t lost our patience for big stories, oral culture has been reduced to little more than stand-up comedy. But the traditional story still has great value: "The story is the basic organising device for giving information meaning. Our need for information is incorrigible; so our need for stories is incorrigible, too. The danger is when it all gets packaged out to Disney."

Ben Haggarty has no doubts – as no one who has ever heard him would doubt – about the authenticity and continued existence of oral culture. His tales are not memorised but improvised, following a determined path but taking the listener on a different journey each telling. One of the tales I heard him tell was the terrifying Eaten Father, Eaten Mother, of East European origin, which finds a young prince in flight from Death. ("Kings and death, that’s what most storytelling’s about," Ben says.) "Once upon at time," he begins. "Once – not twice, not three times, but only once and never again" – that is how it is, the story unfolding in front of you now and now and now.

So what makes a storyteller special? Can anyone tell a story? Haggarty makes a sharp divide between the hearthside, or informal, tradition and the professional one. Medieval Irish storytellers, he says, could be trained for up to a dozen years. He clearly sees his own apprenticeship in these terms; he is no amateur. He has a repertoire of about 250 stories, some of which are tellings of the great epics such as Gilgamesh, the Mahabarata or the Welsh Mabinogion, and some of which, like Eaten Father, Eaten Mother, are drawn from many different traditional sources but fashioned by him.

He has always been drawn to stories with aspects of magic and epic. He thought, at first, that he would find what he was looking for in the theatre. In the late 1970s he spent time with the radical theatre company Welfare State International, which had moved away from conventional theatre toward myth and masque. It was while working as a scene shifter – "I was a Cosmic Midwife: I had huge cardboard tits and a big hat with plastic babies hanging from the rim" – at an outdoor performance that he realised he was on the wrong track.

"It had rained and I had to vacuum up all these puddles. And then, just when they were about to start, it began to rain again and I had to vacuum again. We were staying in caravans on a reclaimed rubbish tip, and when I went back to my caravan someone had left a copy of a magazine with photographs of Peter Brook’s company performing The Conference of the Birds – Helen Mirren and all these people being birds in their ordinary clothes…and I just thought, **** it, I’ve spent the whole day vacuuming up bloody puddles! All this cardboard tits and stuff – it’s too complicated."

So Brook, he assumed, would provide the answer; he took himself to Avignon in 1978 to watch the Brook company over and over again. But Brook convinced him to choose another path. "He helped me to realise that I wasn’t interested in plays – nothing I saw on stage was as good as what I saw in here," he says, a finger at his temple. "It dawned on me: why don’t you just go and tell the stories?"

He put in his "flying time", as he calls it, working with multicultural projects in West London in the early 1980s; working in schools, where his vibrant tales can give children of all cultures access to each others’ stories, is still a large part of what he does, although changes in school funding have meant that, to his great regret, he is called in less often. He remains involved with London’s Crick-Crack Club, of which he was a co-founder in 1987; by 1989 he was in charge of a 15-day international storytelling festival at the South Bank with a budget of Pounds 87,000. "That," he says somewhat ruefully, "is what turned my hair grey."

He was an adviser, too, to the Storyteller series with John Hurt from Jim Henson Productions: he chose the tales, Anthony Minghella wrote the scripts. With The Company of Storytellers, he continues to be involved with that and with the international storytelling festival Beyond the Border – "Womad without the tunes," as he calls it – at St Donat’s Castle in Wales. He’ll be at the Hay Festival with other storytellers. It’s a fairly itinerant life. How many people do you know who can start a sentence: "So I met this Lakota Sioux woman in Stockport …"? Home is now in Worcestershire with his wife, Waz, a painter, and their two children – Blade, 12, and Bethany, ten – but he is hardly ever there.

The sacrifice seems worth it to him. He does what he loves to do and he possesses a rare skill. He says he is never tempted to write down his stories – a tape he made some years ago he withdrew from sale. For a writer this is a strange concept; but Haggarty seems to balance easily between the notions that while what he does is his alone, the stories are not. American storytellers, he tells me with a sigh, have begun to sue each other for possession of their tales. It is not something he would ever resort to, which he explains by telling me of a trip he took to India a few years ago. Travelling in a rural area, he happened upon a wonderful artist, bought one of his paintings and went off. Two hours later he returned: "And there was the guy – he had rolled out another piece of paper and was repainting the same work I’d just bought. I heard this voice inside me which said ‘No! that’s mine!’ – that’s what the West, with its culture of the individual artist, had taught me. I realised that from his point of view, it wasn’t mine. It was a painting he had sold; he would make another one."

The book remains on the shelf, static; although a reader’s response to it may change with each reading, and each reader will understand it differently. The storyteller’s work is elusive: the price of your ticket doesn’t give you anything you can take away. But if you have a chance to hear the tales which have shaped the dreams of humankind, tales of the gods and monsters that haunt us still, then sit down and listen. You might just discover that you, too, find the plot.