‘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.
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)!
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.
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…
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.’
‘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.
‘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]
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
Available from The History Press
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
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!
On Thursday night, October 31st – Samhain, Summer’s end, the time of honouring the ancestors, of death and rebirth, the Celtic New Year – a celebration was held in Stroud at Black Book Cafe to mark 10 years of Awen Publications. I founded the small press in Bath a decade ago with the launch of Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words (with proceeds going to the local Friends of the Earth group). Since the start Awen has been a community publishing initiative with an ‘ecobardic’ flavour – this quality was articulated by Anthony Nanson, who discussed the small press’ list. Anthony and I (along with his wife, Kirsty Hartsiotis, and David Metcalfe) were founded members of Fire Springs storytelling company and in our pamphlet ‘An Ecobardic Manifesto’, published by Awen, our creative ethos was explained – offering a ‘new vision for the arts in a time of ecological crisis.’ The performers who contributed to the evening’s showcase all exemplified these ‘core values’* – in their eco-conscious poetry, storytelling and music. I hosted the evening – kicking things off with a brief speech about Awen’s origins. There followed a packed programme: Anthony’s mini-lecture; poems for the late Mary Palmer read by Verona Bass and Jay Ramsay; poems of the late Simon Miles read by his brother (it felt apt to honour these two departed Awen authors on Samhain); next up was eco-poet Helen Moore from Frome; Jehanne and Rob Mehta offered a song and a couple of poems; then Gabriel finished the first half with her perfectly crafted poems.
After a short break we had a poem read on behalf of Margie McCallum, down in New Zealand (Awen is a small but our authors hail from Europe, North America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Then Dawn Gorman (host of Words and Ears in Bradford-on-Avon) read, fresh from her book launch in New York; Jay stepped up and performed a small selection of his poetry, including one of his Sinai sequence – aided briefly by Kate on rainstick; then Kirsty (author of Wiltshire and Suffolk Folk Tales from The History Press) offered a lively Japanese folk tale; before we had a sneak preview of work by two poets published by Chrysalis Poetry – a long-term initiative of Jay’s – Kate Firth and Angie Spencer. The evening was rounded off by the dulcet tones of Chantelle, who sang a beautiful version of the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’.
It was an emotive evening – the summing up of ten years’ of my life, of alot of effort (a team effort, mostly, with various talented editors, typesetters, and designers involved), and a cornucopia of inspiration. Under its aegis so many fabulous events have been held – book launches, showcases, forums, podcasts…
Awen’s future is uncertain – a dearth of funding and exhaustion on my part means it is unlikely to continue. But it is good to honour what has been achieved. Very rarely in life do we get a chance to bring closure to something – to ‘end well’ – and I hope that has been achieved.
I’ve been fighting off a cold all week, and promoting and running the evening took alot of energy – I feel ready to hibernate now, or, as I like to put it ‘smooring the hearth’ – preserving my flame through the dark winter days ahead, so that it can rekindled in the Spring – reborn with fresh inspiration and energy.
Five ‘ecobardic’ principles:
(1) connecting with one’s own roots in time and place while celebrating the diversity of other cultures and traditions;
(2) daring to discern and critique in order to provide cultural leadership;
(3) respecting and dynamically engaging with one’s audience as a creative partner;
(4) cultivating the appreciation of beauty through well-wrought craft;
(5) re-enchanting nature and existence as filled with significance.
From An Ecobardic Manifesto, by Fire Springs, published by Awen 2008
Find out more about Awen at www.awenpublications.co.uk
Posted in Uncategorized | Tags: Angie Spencer, Anthony Nanson, awen, ballad, Black Book Cafe, Chantelle Smith, Chrissy Derbyshire, Chrysalis Press, Dawn Gorman, Helen Moore, Jay Ramsay, Jehanne Mehta, Kate Firth, Kevan Manwaring, Kirsty Hartsiotis, Margie McCallum, Mary Palmer, Moyra Caldecott, poetry, publishing, Simon Miles, small press, storytelling, Stroud, Verona Bass
My garden universe, on the cusp of autumn – I walk up it at the beginning and end of the day, natural diurnal punctuation, the parenthesis in which my life fits. The various fruit trees this neck of the woods is graced with are like sephiroth on a Tree of Life – or one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology… Appleheim, plumheim, pearheim… I pick blackberries in the rain, and my fingertips turn pink. I return to the hyperabundance of the orchard and pick a bagful of different varieties (and some plump toms). Then, one more time for kindling. Thank you, bountiful garden. Now I have a crumble in the oven and firewood ready for burning. Its lashing down on my conservatory, but my heart feels blessed.
Since moving into my new place in August I’ve seen the fabulous garden (shared with my landlords) in its summer glory, and now laden with autumn riches. I am loving ‘tending the hearth’ (inside and out) and feel blessed to have such a space. This Sunday was a particularly idyllic day – I awoke in my bell-tent, where I had decided to spend the night, to the most perfect autumnal day, the trees emerging through the morning mist, slowly burning off in the light of the new sun. Richard Jefferies wrote that ‘the dawn makes a temple of the Earth’, and that’s how it felt that day. I made porridge on my stove in the tent, and picked blackberries from the bushes to go on it. I greeted the day with my ‘Sunrise Praise’ then set to picking apples – for today was ‘juicing day’. Our neighbour had made a hydraulic apple press, and everyone on the street was bringing their apples to press. Picking fruit is a soothing and satisfying thing to do. This is ‘hand-to-mouth’ living the way nature intended.
After getting washed and dressed, I helped wash the apples collected from our mini-orchard with the children. The youngest rescued ‘chucky pigs’ – her cute name for bugs – from the dunked apples. C turned up and when went for a spin on my motorbike to May Hill – walking in the footsteps of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, exactly a hundred years on from when they first met and started to forge their creative friendship – supporting each other in their writing, while living a stone’s throw from each other near Dymock with their wives and children. They enjoyed long literary rambles, which they termed ‘walks-talking’, and visited May Hill on several occasions – a noticable landmark in this part of Gloucestershire. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we trekked up through the woods to the hilltop. Sitting on a bench we had our packed lunch whilst enjoying the stunning views over the Severn – which snaked like a silver serpent in the distance. We read out poems in situ – most notably ‘Words’, which was written on the summit.
When we got back we chilled out a bit, listening to a Poetry Please special on Charles Causley, (well C knitted socks while I had a bardic siesta ;0) before taking down the bell-tent, which had been up for a couple of months – it felt like ‘rolling up summer’, or ‘bringing the hearth inside’, as C put it. By the time we had lugged everything inside, there were three bottles of apple juice awaiting us and a small jar of tomato chutney – what riches!
With a bag of apples from the garden, we made a Dorset apple cake; and then I made a nut roast for our main course. Later, by a crackling fire we shared stories we had written – the perfect end to a perfect autumnal day.
Notes from the Garden…
(I’ve never been green-fingered, and normally like nothing more strenuous than hanging out in my hammock in the garden, but something about this new place inspires me to get ‘stuck in’ – there are raised beds, fruit trees, peace and space. It would be a crime not to make the most of it).
Tuesday 9 October
I pick apples from the espalier, near where the bees buzzed around the lavender only a few weeks ago. Logs are stacked from a tree (sadly) felled to make room for the conservatory – now my dining area. Clearing room for new growth is a part of the life-cycle of all things – if there is no break in the canopy, new trees cannot flourish. We all need some light, rain and soil, and deserve a place in the sun. In the summer, I sit by the woodstack, where windchimes spiral lazily in the breeze. Behind, a compost bin is like a seething cthulu city – its pungent loam rich, dark and warm. A yew tree shelters a cross-section of bikes – in ascending sizes, like a tree-ring of childhood. The hedgerows are neatly cut back – given a sensible short back and sides for winter. Leaves from the three plane trees planted by the owners, lie curled and brown on the lawn like screwed up of poems. The ash tree – a witches knot of trunk and branches – sits in the corner in its own realm, laden with bunches of ash-keys, wreathed in ivy, overshadowing the swings like a kindly old crone waiting for a visit. The brambles have lost most of their bounty now – the few remaining berries losing their sweetness daily. Leaves like tongues turn to flame – the colours so livid, as though they have been dipped in dye. There’s a brown patch where the tent was – the hole of summer. The tomato plants have so many red fruits – like a collection of clown noses. The apple trees, stripped of their casual treasure, have been pruned back. At the top of the garden, a secret realm – of hidden delights: a plum tree, a pear, a giant Scots Pine, guarding the border of our kingdom like some wizened sentinel. There’s a through-route for a family of foxes, their den nearby. One night I saw a trail of their burning eyes, caught in the beam of my headtorch. A pile of undersized apples moulders on a neighbour’s compost heap like unwanted metaphors – our windfalls are collected for Paul’s pigs. Standing amid the orchard is like suddenly stepping into a fairy tale – you are presented with a Goblin Market of choice. A grey cat appears – its fur like smoke. It sidles up and mewls like a baby, letting me stroke it. The walnut tree has been ransacked by Ratatosk – but I’m just as guilty, scrumping the toms, I carry a load back in the belly of my cardy like some marsupial papoose, hoarding autumn – the last blessings of summer.