Posted by: Bard on a Bike | September 29, 2014

North of the Wall: Eildon Tree

Eildon Tree

The Rhymer's Stone - marking the spot of the Eildon Tree. Photograph copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

The Rhymer’s Stone – marking the spot of the Eildon Tree.
Photograph copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Two slim trunks entwine like lovers.

Words, ripe as rowan berries

hang poised for the plucking

from the quickening air.

Here, at the Rhymer’s Stone

worlds meet

and poetry is born.

The sun shines its benedictions down,

a fey breeze stirs the trees.

A nameless bird sings,

is replied to.

Stillness after the city,

meeting the Muse for a coffee,

hoarse from the Fringe,

heartsore from love’s disappointments,

she points me the way on the battered road atlas –

three roads to choose from:

cairn or kirk or loch.

Roots snake deep into the peat,

draw up the sap of inspiration

conjured from the alchemy of

sunlight, rain, wind and night.

I lay like Thomas of Ercildoune on Huntlie Bank,

and the Queen of Elfland rides into view –

a woman cyclist in her lycra and helmet,

exchanging a bit of banter with two old characters

about the secrets of the gates

known only to them.

They had been sitting behind the hedge

putting the world to rights.

Had I overheard?

The Eildon Hills in the distance - and a visiting Bard on a Bike. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

The Eildon Hills in the distance – and a visiting Bard on a Bike.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Beneath the Eildons’ three peaks,

split it is said by a demon that

wizard Michael Scot confounded,

still to this day failing to make rope

from the sands of the Tweed,

the magical and the mundane rub shoulders.

The upper and lower get acquainted.

The unfathomable realms of man and woman,

the eternal mystery of their dance

come alive in timeless tableau.

Climb up behind the Queen,

let her guide you to her hidden kingdom.

The jingle of her rein sends you into a trance.

Long hair coiling, blood lips enticing,

the tendrils of her song

piercing your heart.

Follow her siren call

to the end of all that you know.

Be prepared to not be

the same upon your return.

The Rhymer's Stone photography copyright  Kevan Manwaring 2014

The Rhymer’s Stone
photography copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Kevan Manwaring Summer 2014

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | September 22, 2014

North of the Wall: Walking to Maia

Day 4 - Sycamore Gap to Holmhead (14)

Hadrian’s Wall – looking east towards Craig Lough. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

WALKING TO MAIA*

‘…pronouncing in silence this long sentence of stone’ Noel Connor

Walking to stillness,

walking to wind through the dry grass,

walking to the gentle lap of the outward tide.

I’m walking to Maia.

Walking away from the bullshit,

walking away from the banks,

walking away from Westminster,

from the politicans’ self-interested dance.

Walking away from the rolling news bombardment,

vomiting violence 24/7,

making us fear the other,

fear our neighbour,

nurture a culture of fear,

and feed the cycle

that sells the news,

sells the guns, sells the bombs,

sells the panic rooms, the state-of-the-art tombs.

I’m walking to Maia,

walking away from the High Street,

everything-must-go-closing-down-forever-two-for-one-75%-discount-sale.

Walking away from Legoland and Lego people.

Walking away from servile stations,

from motorway gridlock,

from toomanycars,

from the littering doggybagshitters in the parks.

From animal sadism

and people masochism,

from zero hours contracts,

and fat cat bonuses.

I’m walking to Maia.

Walking away from Putin and Netinyahu.

Walking away from Isis militia and Ebola.

Walking away from everyday sexism and FGM.

Walking away from childhood hero child abuse

and internet porn – the virtual voyeurism which is the norm.

Walking away from the NSA, from GCHQ and hacking hacks.

I’m walking to Maia,

I’m walking to Maia.

Along my long straight road

following a wall of will,

to the vanishing point,

where I hope the land runs out

before my legs.

Six days of feet jazz,

of sheep bleat and stile hop.

Six days of tracking white acorns

and map origami on windy crags.

Six days of hostel hopping,

of top bunk grabbing,

of soggy sock drying,

of full English (veggie),

of caloriecarbcramming,

of sugar-jamming.

Six days of waterproof-dancing,

of goretex and sunhats,

of tshirts and wax jacks,

of blister-feet and sweaty backs.

I’m walking to Maia,

alone together,

in conversation, in silence,

in solitude, in company,

in high spirits, in doldrums,

in heel-to-toe iambs,

in hiking trance,

in hyper-awareness,

walking awake-asleep,

walking into your body

and into the land.

I’m walking to Maia.

The end of the Wall - Bowness on Solway. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

The end of the Wall – Bowness on Solway. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Arriving to estuary emptiness,

the Solway at low-tide,

a dog licking its wounds –

lazy lap on mud-flats,

skirl of a lonely gull,

tang of salt and seaweed.

A terminal shack interpretation,

no victory pint from the closed pub.

The world returns to

tea-room and bus-stop.

Over the water, Scotland awaits.

The wind whispers

it’s the journey.

Walking to Maia.

Mantra of footstep

And breath. Balancing

Inside the Roman

And the Pict.

* Maia is the name of the last Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Bowness-on-Solway, West of Carlisle, 84 miles from Wallsend, the start, East of Newcastle.

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | September 6, 2014

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life -
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | September 6, 2014

Midsummer Glory

Originally posted on Cotswold Word Centre:

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

It was an epic solstice weekend which began with me riding on my Triumph Legend motorbike down to Avebury, picking up my partner on the way for a solstice eve picnic on the banks of the mighty henge. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain and for my money the most magnificent. Many folk gathered here for the solstice sunrise (but nowhere near the insane numbers of Stonehenge) but it was peaceful enough to enjoy a pleasant picnic in the early evening sunlight. In the distance the obligatory drumming circle had started; and behind us a cricket match was just finishing. You could almost hear the land hold its breath in anticipation of the longest day of the year. For once, it truly felt like summer, and what a glorious place England is to be at such times –…

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Posted by: Bard on a Bike | January 19, 2014

Breaking Bard

http://schmoesknow.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/BBR-1.jpg

Going for a drive in the country

‘The chemistry of poetry…’

Yo, listen up! This is how it goes. A world-weary creative writing teacher called Graham Gray discovering he has a case of terminal boredom decides to venture into the sleazy world of rhyme. He enlists the help of a unpromising student, Gwion Pinkman. Together they compose batches of illicit verse, which they disseminate among the poetically-starved. Haiku is the gateway drug to this dark underbelly. One ode and you’re addicted. Graham Gray is forced to maintain a respectable front – a muse and home to support – while all the time transgressing in realms of the imagination. Writing to the edge, he becomes hooked on breaking literary taboos. Gray and his accomplice at hounded by the threshold guardians of the establishment – the Dull Enforcement Agencies of the status quo – keeping one step ahead. Each week we thrill at their escapades. Gray’s condition worsens – he’s de-composing. Undergoing rhymotherapy, the Chef of words loses his ‘flashing eyes and floating hair, which identify him as a Romantic. He is forced to become a Realist and write painfully self-aware novels about his so-traumatic childhood and the Way The World Is. The laudanum had unfortunate side-effects anyway.

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | December 29, 2013

The Treasure on our Doorstep

Bardic Banquet  Northampton 18 Dec 2013

Bardic Banquet
Northampton 18 Dec 2013

Sometimes we have to travel far before we discover the treasure on our doorstep, before we appreciate the riches beneath our feet. Many of us over the festive period have been travelling home these last few days to spend time with family, and open presents by that symbolic axis mundi – the Christmas tree, marking the centre of our world, for a while. In the week leading up to Christmas I journeyed back to my birth-town, Northampton, to perform in the Bardic Banquet on Wednesday (a merry knees-up organised by my old friends Justin and Jimtom on 18 Dec at the Labour Club). I performed stories from my new collection, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, which I had researched over the last two summers – travelling the county on my Triumph Legend motorbike, folk tale goggles firmly in place (Google Glass eat your heart out – I have the best apps possible: imagination and curiosity). While in town I popped into WH Smiths and Waterstones, to sign copies of my book – signatures have never been more satisfying (on Tuesday, under the whole of the moon, I went to see my long-time faves The Waterboys in Bristol, at the Colston Hall, and got Mike Scott to sign his autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy – now I was signing my own books)!

Mike Scott stands behind

A happy fan – and personal hero, Mike Scott stands behind – a real gent

 

Mike Scott and me - backstage after The Waterboys awesome show, Bristol 17 Dec 2013

Later in the week, back in Stroud, I hosted the Story Supper on Solstice Eve (20 Dec) at Black Book Cafe; and then a Winter Solstice Soiree at mine (21 Dec), where my friends gathered to light a wheel of light, making wishes and offering prayers to our loved ones and a better world; before sharing stories, songs and poems around the hearth over a mead-horn (Wassail!). Truly, the real magic of Christmas is found in such heart-warming hearth-gatherings.

A Winter Solstice wheel of light 21 December 2013

A Winter Solstice wheel of light 21 December 2013

Here are a couple of stories from my recent collection which relates how someone discovered the treasure on his doorstep…One is printed below, the other can be viewed via the Youtube link…

http://youtu.be/AeQkRksXEzU

029. Angel and the Cross

The Angel and the Cross

Do you know where the centre of England is? This has been a matter of debate and dispute for centuries, but the matter was finally settled by divine intervention.

It began far from England, in the heat and dust of the Holy Land.

The weary pilgrim placed down his staff and sat down by the side of the rubble-strewn road and rubbed his sore feet. His shoes, made by his own fair hands – like father, like son, he had carried on his family’s trade – had served him well, carrying him across Europe and into the Middle East, along long perilous trails – braving wildwood, bandit, war, tricksters and peddlers of false grails.
Taking off his hat, sporting the scallop-shell of the pilgrim, he fanned himself with it – it was so hot here, so bright. Coming from a softer, damper land, he had still not got used to it. Squinting, he looked up at the city before him – the various temples and spires competing for dominance. Bells rang out over the hustle and bustle of thousands of people coming and going through its gates. It was the 8th Century of Our Lord, and he had made it to Jerusalem. His soul was surely saved by this pious act. And he needed salvation. His soul was in a poorer condition than his poor old feet.

He acted the penniless and penitent pilgrim here, but back home he was a man of power, of influence. He had been cruel, yes, and vain. He had acquired wealth for himself in countless dubious ways. His coffers were full but his heart was empty. All of those glittering coins and trinkets had left him unfulfilled.

There had to be something more.

And that is when, one day, walking amid the noisome stalls of Sheep Street, he had an idea. He would go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to purge himself of his sins.

The pilgrim lined up and entered through one of the gates, under the stern eyes of the guards. And then he was in! Jerusalem, in all its glory, opened up before him. He stopped and stared, only to be elbowed out of the way, making him step in the gutter. Yet, he was so euphoric from the ardours of his journey, he didn’t care. He had made it. He looked around, grinning like a moon-touched loon. The narrow streets were full of noise and colour – the cries of trinket sellers, icon hawkers, fortune tellers, farmers with their produce arrayed before them – such exotic wares the likes of which he had never seen before. With the last of his coins, he purchased a large, succulent looking fruit and held it to his nose, savouring its smell. It was enough to make him salivate. The pilgrim imagined its cool juice, running down his throat, assuaging his burning thirst.

But, just before he sank his teeth into it, a passerby bumped into him, making him drop it. The pilgrim cursed under his breath, casting the stranger an evil stare – but it was too late, the perpetrator was lost in the crowd, and his fruit was rolling away from him.

Quickly, he pursued it as it rolled down the alleyways, away from the main crowds. Soon he was lost in a maze of passageways – perfect for thieves – but he could only think about his fruit.

He would not let it go!

He had come so far, endured such adversity – he would not let such a simple thing thwart him.

The fruit occasionally caught the odd dusty beam of light which penetrated the maze.

Nearly … within … reach.

The pilgrim lunged, just as the fruit rolled down a gap between two tumble-down buildings.

Cursing he knelt down and peered in. Luck! The object of his desire had got stuck against something blocking the narrow gap. The place smelt foetid, but he had to get that fruit. Gingerly, he stuck in his arm and, straining, reached for it. Something scuttled over his naked arm. A large black rat darted out of the gap and along the edge of the buildings! He quickly pulled out his arm, rubbed it vigorously. Then, composing himself, he tried again. Nearly … nearly … there! He had his hand around it – and triumphantly pulled it out. He rubbed it free of filfth and sank his teeth into it with a satisfied sigh. For a while he was lost in the pleasure of the taste – sharp but refreshing. Then, wiping his mouth, he peered into the gap out of curiosity. What was it that had blocked it?

There, he could see it now. An old stone cross – wedged inbetween the buildings. How odd. Perhaps it might be worth something.

Maybe his fortune had changed.

Laughing, he reached in and strained and strained until his fingernails scraped the stone. Slowly, painfully, he worked it towards his grasp – there, he had it! Making sure no one was around, he carefully pulled it out and, dusting it free of cobwebs, he inspected it.

It felt old, very old. Solid and heavy.

As he ran his fingers over it, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt he was being watched.

A strange light filled the darkened alleyway, and a benign warmth.

The pilgrim slowly turned and beheld before him a dazzling figure, glowing in rainbow colours – overlapping planes of light like a stained glass window in a cathedral.

The being spoke to him – directly, into his heart – in a voice warm and enfolding.

‘Who are you…?’

‘Take this cross and bury it – in the very heart of your homeland.’

‘Where…?

‘The precise centre… Do so, and all will be well.’

The vision faded, and the pilgrim was left shaking. What had he seen? Perhaps there had been something wrong with that fruit. Afeared, he threw the pulpy core away. The stone cross was solid enough in his hand. That felt real.

Heart pounding, he got up.

Wrapping it in a rag, he placed the stone cross in his satchel and made his way quickly along the alleyway – walking with increasing purpose.

The pilgrim beheld his old home town with a sigh of relief. The journey back had been hard. Many a time he had come close to losing his sacred relic, but he had held onto it for dear life – amid the stormy crossings and dark nights. And now he was finally and he wept at the sight of Hamtun. Humble as it was, it was his home … and he was overcome with emotion at seeing it again. There was times when it looked as though he never would. But something had driven him. The words of an angel – yes, that is what it was. He knew that now. He had not told a soul – he did not want to risk the magic leaking away in the cold light of day. This had happened to him for a reason. It was his sacred duty.

He went to St Peters to pray in gratitude for his safe return. As he knelt there, the Holy Spirit descended and told him precisely where he must bury the cross.

A man on fire, he set about his task with a fervour.

In the middle of the night, when not a soul was in sight, he took his spade and dug. The spirit guided him – here, here was the very centre of England.

Who would have thought it? The bottom of Gold Street, at the crossroads with Horsemarket Street. This was the heart of the land. Every day, countless folk cross it unknowing that they tread on sacred soil. The cross was buried deep, the hole filled in, the soil patted down, so that not a mark, not a trace would reveal its whereabouts.

Yet he knew.

The hidden cross in the soil … marking the very centre of England by divine revelation!

Notes: with thanks to my fellow Northamptonian, the now London-based actor Robert Goodman – who first told me about this over a cup of tea in London.

From Northamptonshire Folk Tales by Kevan Manwaring, published by The History Press, 2013

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | December 11, 2013

The Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer's Quest, published by Compass Books - contact them and order an advance copy now]

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | December 4, 2013

Creating a spoken word performance to promote a new book

I began performing at the same time I began writing in earnest – back in 1991 – and so it is second nature to me to create a spoken word show based upon my latest publication, Northamptonshire Folk Tales (The History Press, 2013). When I started out I quickly learnt getting folk to read your poetry was like asking them to do your Tax Return (and my early efforts were probably as excruciating), and so I realised that to ‘get my work out there’, I literally had to step up to the mark (or the mic). I started performing at ‘open mic’ events in my old home town, Northampton – badly to begin with, making all the classic beginner mistakes (reading from a text; speaking too low or too fast; avoiding eye contact with the audience; apologising, etc). In a live performance you quickly ascertain what works and what doesn’t. Instant feedback is visceral (clapping, tears, laughter), useful, but nerve-wracking. I learnt (the hard way) that the more effort you put into a ‘reading’, the more the audience appreciate it. Take the effort to learn it by heart, and the audience will generally give you the time of day. Suddenly, your performance has gone up several notches: there’s no paper-barrier between you and the audience; you can make eye-contact; you can use both hands for gesture… All you have to do is remember it!

Fast forward several years – I became Bard of Bath after winning the local eisteddfod in that city back in 1998. I started trying my hand at storytelling – even more terrifying, it seemed, as there’s no ‘script’, no safety net. The storyteller performers extempoire, or completely improvises. I became a professional storyteller in 2000 when I went freelance, getting bookings in schools, libraries, art centres, museums, and so on. I have since performed across Britain, live on BBC TV, and abroad.

After moving to Stroud in late 2010 I worked on a commission for The History Press – a collection of folk tales, as part of their county-by-county series. I opted for Oxfordshire – the ‘bridging’ county between my East Midlands roots and West Country home. For that I collected (and rewrote in my own words) 40 tales – the idea is that each has to be ‘performable’, that is not a verbatim performance script, but written with a sense of orality and aurality. This is where my experience as a spoken word performer cross-fertilised with that of my writing practice. To ‘test’ the material I performed it, whenever possible, to a live audience, before committing it to paper. After the book came out I toured it in venues across Oxfordshire to diverse audiences (Woodstock Bookshop; Alice Day, Guildhall Oxford; Beatnik Albion Bookshop; Oxford Folk Weekend).

Encouraged by the success of Oxfordshire Folk Tales, I wrote a second collection, drawing upon tales from my old home county of Northamptonshire. This was published in October 2013. I am now gearing up for performances based upon this latest book, but I also wanted to offer something different. Looking at my two books I decided I wanted to create a show based upon both. What could link them, beyond the folk tale genre? Earlier this year I took part in a project for Bath Literature Festival – based upon the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (Roud; Bishop 2012), local storytellers were asked to re-interpret them as narratives. The show I performed in was entitled rather memorably as ‘Tales of Lust, Infidelity and Bad Living’. Inspired by this, and by the many theme-based shows I have helped co-create with my Bath-and-Stroud-based storytelling group, Fire Springs, over the years, I decided to find a thematic link for the show, and thus was born ‘The Rose and the Snake’, partly inspired by the flowers associated with the respective counties, but also by the sexual politics which run throughout the material (as symbolised by my leitmotifs). Some stories are based on what are called Murder Ballads – and so love, death, revenge, and bizarre magical shenanigans are common tropes. This new show would be a collaboration with folksinger Chantelle Smith, who would complement my stories with ballads, thereby providing sonic texture, i.e. different registers of voice. Previously, when performing solo, I have achieved this by switching from story to poetry (I am no singer, but I am an experienced performance poet). Working with a musician widens out the appeal of the show tremendously. It is hard work, even for a word-junkie like me, to sit through a whole evening of poetry; or long stories, without variation. At sixty minutes, our show is intentionally lean and mean. With over 80 stories and countless ballads to choose from, the different configurations of material are vast – thus offering the possibility of numerous ‘sets’, differentiated according to the time of year, venue, and nature of the event. The Rose and The Snake is now available for ‘weddings, barmitzvahs and christenings’!

originally posted on http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/WritingTutors/

Kevan is performing at the Bardic Banquet, Northampton, Wed 18 December 2013

Oxfordshire Folk Tales by Kevan Manwaring Northamptonshire Folk TalesAvailable from The History Press

 

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | November 27, 2013

The Rabbit Room

At the sign of the 'Bird and Baby', Oxford, by Kevan Manwaring

At the sign of the ‘Bird and Baby’, Oxford, by Kevan Manwaring

The Inklings have been in the news alot recently. Who were they? A group of writers who met on a regular basis, sharing their work in progress (often over a pint) might not be extra-ordinary, but when you consider their core members consisted of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and others, whose works have become some of the best-loved books in the English language, it is worth taking note. Recently the 50th Anniversary of CS Lewis’ passing was acknowledged in the media with various documentaries and radio plays. Of course, the latest instalment of Peter Jackson’s ‘re-imagining’ of The Hobbit is coming up (The Desolation of Smaug, 13.12.13), and Tolkien’s birthday is on the 3rd January. So it seems like a timely time to revisit the Rabbit Room, the name of the snug bar they used to gather in the Eagle and Child, Oxford… I have written a radio drama about this, but here is the short story version, featured in my Oxfordshire Folk Tales (The History Press, 2012). Pull up a chair, sip your pint, and enjoy…

The Rabbit Room

by Kevan Manwaring

Memorabilia adorns me now. Quiet photographs of the legends I once accommodated. A plaque commemorating their presence. Hordes of tourists come to visit, take snaps, film it with their phones – gasping in delight at how tiny the snug is, how quaint. They pretend to enjoy a pint of tepid English beer, the stodgy food. Enthusiasts linger. Writers stay even longer. Sitting in the corner – the hallowed corner – trying to imbibe the atmosphere, to capture the ambience. They ponder on literary immortality while trying to ensure a place for their own ink-stained soul in the bardic firmament. Here is as good a spot as any cathedral or mosque. This last homely house, this Prancing Pony, is a wardrobe, a wood between the worlds, a portal to magical lands – to Middle Earth, Perelandra, Narnia, Logres. Once it was the rabbit hole to Wonderland and now it’s a knife-cut gateway to Jordan College, to quantum worlds beyond reckoning. The new chap has been in, of course, raised a glass to his antecedents, two fingers to Jack. Perhaps one day they’ll be visiting his old haunts? The God-botherers and the pagans, the atheist scholars and fanatic movie devotees in costume. All those who come to pay homage here. To breathe in the same air – well, almost – it no longer swirls with pipesmoke and cigarettes, but the fire still crackles in the grate, the pumps provide the same local ales, the kitchen offers its homity pie, the barflies their homilies, and when its quiet, when the customers don’t drown out the silence with their chatter, the voices come back, the ghosts in the wall stir, those lost lunchtimes are replayed – a decade of Tuesdays – recorded like voices from long ago on wax cylinder and reel-to-reel, by the wooden Akashic record of my walls. Listen… Hear their voices …
JRR ‘Tollers’ Tolkien, pipe-smoker, RP, but at times fast and low; CS ‘Jack’ Lewis, donnish, slight trace of Ulster, at times stentorian; Owen Barfield, solicitor, softer educated voice; Charles Williams, poet, novelist, occultist, North London accent; and now and then Charles Blagrove, landlord of the Eagle and Child, an Oxfordshire man.
One by one they would share their work and offer gruff, honest feedback. They would share tells from lands far away, and sometimes closer to home…
‘Once there was a beautiful Queen who lived in a beautiful house. It had many elegant rooms in which to entertain elegant guests. And even more lovely were the gardens. The parterre had four-and-twenty square beds with Irish yews at the corners; the Italian garden has a large ornamental pool enclosed by yew hedges and set about with statues; beyond, was a wild garden, with lime-tree avenues, shrubs, a stream and pond.
It had not always been so lovely.
When they had inherited this kingdom, her husband, the king, set his servants to work, restoring it. It was a difficult time – the country had just gone to war – a land that is always there, waiting for the foolhardy to visit.
Many brave men went to the land of war and never returned.
The Queen invited her beautiful friends, the Bloomsberries, many of whom did not believe in living by the sword. Some called them Conchies and accused them of cowardice. From the cruel tongues and the consensus madness them came seeking refuge. The bright, the brilliant, the beautiful – philosophers, poets, novelists, peace campaigners, aristocrats and socialists… They had many lovely parties where conversation flowed like champagne. To escape the war they worked on the land. The gardens prospered as the Queen’s house became a sanctuary of sanity in an insane world.

The queen took a lover and found happiness.
For a while, all was bliss.
Yet amongst them was a traitor, a turncoat, who weasled his way into their hearts until he won their trust and learnt their secrets – and then, when he left with their love and praise ringing in his ears – he wrote poisonous things about them. Some say he was blinded – others, that he had true sight and saw things as they truly are. A scandalous book was published, mocking them, and the spell of the palace was broken. The parties stopped, the gardens became neglected and overgrown, and the Queen and her husband, the King, moved out.
For a while there they had pursued and found happiness. They had held off the barbaric tides with their cultured ways, but they could not fend off the enemy within – the worm in their hearts and the fool who saw.’
The room settled back into its silence. There was a cough.
‘I detest allegory,’ Tolkien responded with a jab of his pipe. ‘At least it didn’t have another effing elf in it,’ quipped Jack, raising a glass to his old friend. The others pitched in, pulled the tale apart, yet always with good humour and a deep fondness for one another. Yet somehow, the enchantment remained – lingering in the air like pipe smoke as the conversation flowed.
Mingling with the voices – other sounds … The clink of coin and chink of glasses. Laughter. The strike of a match. The puff of a pipe, and the crackle in the grate. The rustle of papers. Murmurs of appreciation or snorts of good natured mockery. Ripples of warm applause. Coughs and scraping of chairs. Farewells…
They kept meeting throughout the war – here and at other pubs in the city, unless prevented by ‘no beer’. Later in the war, before the D-Day landings, the American soldiers would come and drink the city dry. Yet the Inklings sustained each other from deeper wells – sharing work in progress, making conversation, supporting one another, living by their myths.
Yet man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. One of them would die a week after the war ended – yet his brief time with the Inklings left its mark – one of them would find his muse again; another find joy in an unexpected guise; two would rise to fame…But this you know. My story now has ended. But if you chance to visit the city of dreaming spires, pay the Bird and Baby a visit, sit in the Rabbit Room and raise a glass – to the Inklings. Whose doorways lie open still, waiting for you to enter.

Notes: During the Thirties and Forties, in The Eagle and Child, a pub in Oxford, every Tuesday lunchtime a group of writers met who called themselves the Inklings. Amongst them were a couple of Oxford dons who would become two of the most famous writers of the Twentieth Century, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and some less well known, but equally influential to the group, including Charles Williams. Here, working drafts of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia novels and other works of literary importance were read out for the first time. Sitting in the Snug Bar, called the Rabbit Room, sipping a local ale, one imbibes something of the atmosphere that made the sharing of tales by this group of friends so conducive. It is a numinous place where storytelling, literature and listeners converge – a Mecca for all pilgrims of the imagination.
The embedded tale, which I call ‘The Queen of the Bloomsberries’, was an invented one about the beautiful Society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrel, who held famous literary soirees at the lovely Garsington Manor, on the outskirts of Oxford. She was fêted by the Bloomsbury Set – among her elite clique were Bertrand Russell (her lover), Aldous Huxley, Rupert Brooke, and others. The Manor no doubt its fair share of tales to tell too. These days it hosts annual opera gala – so I’ll end this narrative perambulation of the county with a fat lady singing.

From Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Kevan Manwaring, The History Press, 2012

Posted by: Bard on a Bike | November 21, 2013

Who Am I?

I think have an identity-crisis (humour me, it’s something to do on a chilly day in November).

Maybe I should ask my other selves to see what they think…?

Although I would like to think I’m Hugh Jackman (as would most blokes, I suspect), the sad truth is I’m probably more tangerine than wolverine – or perhaps Zelig….

Over the years, I have been mistaken for, or likened to an amusingly diverse bunch of celebrities.  Here’s the bona fide list to date. Do you recognise this man?

Most recently, Julian Assange (Prince Albert, Stroud)

Jamie Oliver (Slad Valley)

Indiana Jones (same walk, Slad Valley)

David Walliams (Green Gathering)

Gandalf (in the street)

Arnold Schwarznegger (Northampton)

Perhaps I am in fact a Time-Lord (topical, google-friendly link #36) and can regenerate myself… Number 11 (Time-lord, not Bus) is hails from Northampton – damn your cheekbones, Matt Smith, the Tardis should have been mine!

Sadly, I know I won’t get a look in now, not with Malcolm Tucker at the controls (‘Fuckity-bye, Dalek!’). To paraphrase Uncle Monty (played by the late great Richard Griffiths) from Withnail and I (another Whovian link coming up..) there’s a time in a man’s life when he realises he will never wield a sonic screwdriver. Weirdly (and wonderfully) Dr #8 (Paul McGann) co-starred in Bruce Robinson’s seminal (or similar unctuous fluid) British comedy Withnail and I with Richard E. Grant (aka the Great Intelligence). This was an insidious influence on my tender art student self – and provided a role model for years to come. Perhaps this is the closest to my true self/selves?

More worryingly, I have been accused of bizarre and random things – I’ve done my share of those, but some I know I haven’t … like crashing a van (when I have never driven) – and ‘spotted’ in places I know I haven’t been, which makes me think I have a doppleganger out there somewhere, enjoying a wilder, more hedonistic life. If you spot him out and about  – beware! He’s probably on Facebook making improper comments and tagging himself in embarrassing photos. Do not approach this man!

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