Profile: Duncan Saunders

Issue 115/09, p62, 01.09.2015
A magician cum ‘extreme reader’ whose raison d’être is to get children reading.
Duncan Saunders is the front-of-house manager, volunteer coordinator, retail manager and “extreme reader” at the Story Museum in the centre of Oxford.

The museum, which was founded in 2003, began by taking stories and storytellers into schools and communities. Saunders previously devised spooky scare-attractions at Oxford Castle and is also an amateur magician.

We’re sitting comfortably, so let’s begin by talking about the Story Museum. It aims to involve young families and children with storytelling at all levels and in all forms. It is not just about literacy – the hope is to get people enthusiastic about storytelling at a young age so that they can use it in everyday life.

What does an “extreme reader” do? Are you the Bear Grylls of books? I’m a globetrotting librarian who finds unusual situations, places and ways of reading. It’s the idea of reader as explorer, reading in unlikely places.

I dress up with all the kit you would need to be a storyteller going up the Matterhorn – pith helmet, thick tweed jacket, golden glasses, brown briefcase – and perform experiments such as reading minds, reading fast, reading upside down and reading maps out loud. It’s about getting children to think about what they like to read and making recommendations.

Who’s your favourite storyteller? I like storytelling with visual images and simple forms. Shaun Tan writes about people living everyday lives in fantastical worlds and has also produced books with no words that still communicate a huge amount.

I also like Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese film-maker, and Hergé, the creator of the Tintin books. How did you scare people at Oxford Castle?

The site was both a castle and a prison until the 1990s so I introduced a walk-through theatrical experience. I used objects from a police collection in a locked-room puzzle: people could only get out if they solved clues.

It attracted the Inspector Morse crowd. Talking of television, I also appeared in Jedward’s Big Adventure as the expert resident in a tricorn hat teaching the pair about 18th-century highway robbery. I believe that I improved their knowledge slightly.

Tell us about your interest in magic. Puzzles, wordplay and the tricks and mechanisms of magic fascinate me. The most exciting thing that I have done was for a ghost hunt that took place in a prison. I was in a padded cell where I was tied to a chair by my wrists and ankles. I also had a bag on my head.

The group closed the door and when they opened it again they found the name of a local ghost had been written around the room in big letters – I was still tied to the chair with the bag on my head. They were quite glad to leave after that.

Could you saw a curator in half? The people I work with now would all be amenable to it, absolutely.