Outside the Box – transdisciplinary conversations

OUTSIDE THE BOX – transdisciplinary research seminar series

Autumn Programme 2021

Tuesday, 5th October – AUTHENTICITY & CREATIVITY

There’s a reason people don’t swim in dresses – Sally Tissington

Sally Tissington mixes performance art and creative writing in order to energise her writing and art practice (imagework, and arts-based autoethnography) through taking greater creative risk. The risk-taking involves stopping self-censoring and instead acting on all ideas that arise from the unconscious, making these ideas visible as a piece of art. She then uses the art pieces as inspiration for her creative writing.

Sally Tissington is a writer and artist with a published novel and many short stories. She has worked at the universities of Warwick and Coventry teaching creative writing and writing for wellbeing. Recently she has worked with Headway, the brain injury charity, designing and delivering an art and creative writing for wellbeing course. Website – makingstrange.me

The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge’: researching a historical novel – Kevan Manwaring

In researching a dual narrative novel, set in both the mid-18th Century, and the Nineties, Kevan Manwaring drew upon historical research and autobiographical experiences of living in the city of Bath for 14 years. Bringing to life figures from Hanoverian Bath, was coupled with the ethical and aesthetic challenges of fictionalising memories from twenty years ago. Bound to a specific location, writing the novel involved researching circulating libraries, architecture, secret societies, folklore, and local history. Autofiction collides with the counterfactual, blurring notions of authenticity and fictionality.

Dr Kevan Manwaring is the Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth. He is the editor of Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes from The British Library; Ballad Tales: traditional British ballads retold; and author of the prize-winning novel, Black Box, adapted into an audio drama by Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. He is a contributor to New Writing, Writing in Practice, Axon, TEXT, Revenant, and Gothic Nature. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

Tuesday, 9th November – ECOPOETICS & FEMINISM

Poetry / Landscape: ecopoetry as restorative act – Helen Moore

In examining and decolonising notions of landscape, I show how my ecopoetry is an interdisciplinary practice with its roots in animistic European traditions. Drawing on poems inspired by landscapes in Australia, the north of Scotland, Somerset and Dorset, I illustrate socially and ecologically engaged work with an activist intention, which aims to highlight and restore ecological and cultural dimensions that Western industrialised societies, in particular my own (white British), have marginalised/erased. It is poetry as restorative act. A signpost towards regenerative cultures, where we value the Earth, and particularly the land/bioregion we inhabit, as our community.

Helen Moore is an award-winning British ecopoet with three collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins(2012), ECOZOA (2015), acclaimed as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (2019) exploring British colonial history. Helen has shared her work on international stages, including India, Australia and Italy. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, which guides people on a creative writing journey into deeper Nature connection. Her work is supported by Arts Council England, and she is currently collaborating on a cross arts-science project responding to pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems. www.helenmoorepoet.com


A Girdle Round the Earth – Mary-Jane Holmes

‘The future of feminisms is in the transnational and the transnational is made through translation’ Olga Castro states. Within this transcultural context, through a deep engagement with poetic form and formal transference I hope to extend the possibilities of language beyond essentialist constructions of genre, race and sexuality while finding expression for a new set of experiences. 

My creative project experiments with poetic devices ‘borrowed’ from a medieval Iberian strophic fixed form called the Muwashshaha; devices such as diglossia, interweaving several languages together, codeswitching, voice appropriation and contrafacture, as well as translating the Muwashshaha into an English version of itself with the potential of opening a discursive, transnational space for female poets seeking to express themselves on their own terms. 

Mary-Jane Holmes is currently studying for a PhD funded by the AHRC in poetry and translation at Newcastle University. Mary-Jane’s poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. Her award-winning pamphlet Dihedral is published by Live Canon Press her novella Don’t Tell the Bees, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction and a new Flash fiction chapbook is published by V.Press on September 6th.   

Tuesday, 7th December – GEOPOETICS, DANCE, & MOVING IMAGE PRACTICE

Circling and Circling (again) – Ceri Morgan and Anna Macdonald

This presentation reflects on Circling – an interdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory project on persistent pain. Bringing together geopoetics, dance and moving-image practice, we devised prompts/scores for participant workshops, with the aim of fostering different ways of thinking about and experiencing pain. The project led to six new films (Anna Macdonald), along with writing and images by participants. The artworks can be viewed in an online artefact, Circling (again): http://www.circlingartproject.co.uk/. Collectively, they offer a sense of the way pain can affect everyday journeys, and change people’s senses of scale and perspective.

Professor of Place-writing and Geohumanities, Ceri Morgan works on geopoetics as a participatory practice, leading workshops or ‘happenings’ on a variety of themes, including mining, food, and deindustrialisation. Anna Macdonald is a dance and moving image artist, based at Central St Martins Art School (UAL), who specialises in participatory and interdisciplinary arts practice.

All events will be on Zoom 6pm-8pm. To register contact Dr Kevan Manwaring, Arts University Bournemouth: kmanwaring@aub.ac.uk

Riding with a King

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The highlight of the route: at the top of Butser Hill, South Downs Way. Worth it for the view looking towards the south coast. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

Riding with the King

While working full-time at the University of Leicester I had the pleasure of being able to cycle to work, which meant I rode most days. This got me back into cycling on a regular basis, although I have been cycling all my adult life, and first enjoyed going on rural cycle rides as a boy, exploring further afield than I would get comfortably on foot: this expanded the ‘map’ of my world considerably. I always remember reaching the edge of a village, and looking out from its hill-top site over the vast unknown landscape beyond, and feeling a certain frisson of ‘here be dragons’. To a lad who hadn’t travelled far at that point, this was terra incognita.

            I have loved getting to know a landscape under my own steam ever since. By walking, running, or cycling a landscape you get to ‘know’ it in a visceral, embodied way. You have a physical sense of the lay of the land, not just a mental map. And this makes where you live (and its environs) so much more tangible. You have come to know it through your feet, or effort.

The end of Day 1 – and the first 60 miles. Honeystreet, Wiltshire, after a much-needed pint! Photo by Chantelle Smith.

Having recently purchased a shiny new bike through work (a Specialized Diverge E5) I thought I would try out the King Alfred’s Way – a 350km circular off-road cycle route created by Cycling UK, and launched in 2020. As this passes close to where I live (near Avebury, Wiltshire), and where I used to work (Winchester) it seemed like a tempting one to do. I have done some cycle rides in my area on my old mountain bike, and despite a tumble earlier in the year which left me with serious gravel burn, I was determined to get back in the saddle and to hit the road.

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Lord Wantage’s monument to his wife, Ridgeway National Trail. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

Bikepacking is very much in vogue. Back in the day it used to be called cycle-camping, and to my mind there isn’t much difference, except the popularity of pricey kit for mountain bikes (e.g tail-packs and other funny shaped bits of micro-luggage designed to fit onto the frame). Well, having invested in a pair of really decent Ortlieb panniers I thought they would be more than adequate. Some advise against low-slung panniers, but I didn’t have any issues – it was more likely that the pedals would clip the top of a rut if anything. I took the bare minimum I needed for 4 days of wild-camping: food, shelter, and warmth (water, snacks, and meal pouches, stuff to make an essential cuppa and my morning porridge, a sleeping hammock and tarp, and thermals and fleece for the evening). Nothing more than I would carry on my back if backpacking – which I did earlier in the summer, walking the Wessex Ridgeway. Letting the bike take most of the weight makes a huge difference, although of course one still has to exert energy to make progress, especially up those hills! Unlike walking though, one has the joy of coasting – the reward for all those ascents; and of whizzing along an empty country lane. On a bike one can cover greater distances (my average was 55 miles a day; on foot it’s 15); see more; and get through long, boring sections quickly (e.g. traversing a long section of road, or escaping a city).         

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River Itchen, Winchester. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

The guide book from Cycling UK (recommended for planning and info about the features along the way, if not the mapping – which at 1:50,000 is not useful at the nitty gritty level) suggests between 2-5 days (or stopovers). I opted for 4 nights, as I didn’t want it to be a complete slog. Unlike some people I don’t like turning the countryside into a backdrop for some macho endurance competition – hats off to those who do, but it’s not my bag. I just love the great outdoors, and during the ongoing global pandemic crisis, a local bikepacking adventure seemed like a sensible choice, and one also good for the environment.

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Waiting for the train to Winchester, Bournemouth Station. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

With my bike fully-loaded, I caught the train to Winchester – South West Trains has free bike spaces on their local services. You can’t book ahead for these, but I was in luck. Deciding to set off on Thursday early evening I managed to avoid the bank holiday weekend rush. This meant I could make a start on the trail, and hopefully avoid the crowds I had been told to expect (as it turned out, I saw maybe half a dozen cyclists doing the King Alfred’s Way). Getting out of Winchester, and finding somewhere to pitch up in the rapidly fading light were the first challenges. I tried to use Komoot with the downloaded GPS map of the route, but found it very unreliable and frustrating: trying to use that, plus the guidebook map and compass, created a cognitive dissonance: 2 different mapping systems and mindsets clashing. Having intended a digital detox as well, I found the constant focus on the GPS distracting and jarring (that sat-nav voice shattering the bucolic idyll!). And so in the end I opted to just go analogue. I found it easier to navigate the old school way, although map-reading on a bike is hard! One is going faster, and there is less thinking time. One can keep pulling over, but that becomes tedious and time-consuming. The problem with the King Alfred’s Way is it is not signposted like a national trail (with the good old acorns in England, or thistles in Scotland), so one has to orienteering continually – except for the mercifully well-signposted sections of the Ridgeway and South Downs Way. This really reduces the enjoyment: it is just tiring, especially at times when you are not entirely sure if you’re going in the right direction. Even the best maintained trails can have obscure sections. Trail signs can fall over, or be damaged or obscured. I’ve navigated several long-distance trails successfully over the years by myself, so I know I can use a map and compass. But when you are tired – after several hours of walking or riding – you inevitably make mistakes. I would not recommend undertaking the King Alfred’s Way without a decent GPS device like a Garmin (as opposed to just some app on your phone). Also, I found the trails a bit too hard-core at times for bikepacking. Okay for the seasoned mountain-bikers with minimal kit (luxuriously staying in B&Bs and dining out every evening – which makes for a pricey holiday). I don’t mind pushing my bike up a steep track, but coming down some was pretty hairy on a top-heavy bike. I must admit to preferring smooth country lanes to rubbly tracks, which were bone-juddering to ride along. There were some lovely sections following peaceful B-roads through pretty villages, but the route-planners had obsessively avoided roads – sometimes resulting in ridiculous and very obscure diversions when the common sense thing was to simply go straight ahead. I like the concept of off-road trails, but not when it’s the choice between a pleasant green lane, and a miserable rutted track. There was something rather anorak-ish at times about including certain off-road sections, e.g. the Pilgrims Trail into Winchester, when it would have been far nicer just to have continued coasting into the city, rather than have to detour up another undulating, rocky track. Also, it baffled me why they planners made the route go through the sprawling city of Reading – which was mercifully quiet on a Sunday morning, but still an urban maze – when it would have been far nicer to have come off at Wantage (a key Alfred site), and avoided most of the densely populated conurbation along the Thames Valley into Hampshire altogether. A route westwards across the Somerset Levels to Athelney would have been far more meaningful, but it didn’t feel like King Alfred’s story was made much of on the trail – it seemed like an arbitrary way to created a route, and not one hard-wired into his narrative. There were also key sites on the Ridgeway that could have been mentioned. And Westbury – site of Alfred’s famous battle – could have been included at the expense of a tedious trek across the middle of the militarized zone of Salisbury Plain.

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An old milestone, Queen Elizabeth Country Park, South Downs Way. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

So, I would have created a different route! Nevertheless, the King Alfred’s Way is a great initiative to encourage folk to get on their bikes and explore the amazing ancient landscape and more recent history of the south of England, and despite my grumbles it had its highlights: certainly the Ridgeway (my favourite section), riding across the Stonehenge landscape, and the South Downs Way (especially Butser Hill, the views from which made the effort all worthwhile). Aching from top to toe, I was still filled with joy to finally reach the end, at the King Alfred statue in Winchester: a satisfying glow of achievement, which was hard-won and all the more appreciated for it.

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The glow of a good ride.

I would certainly consider more cycle-camping trips – although I am not entirely convinced by this ‘bikepacking’ lark. Maybe with a super-light kit set up it would be a different experience. I wouldn’t be amiss to do overnight mini-adventures. Quality, not quantity I think is the key! It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do something, but how much you enjoyed it along the way. My favourite moments were when I stopped to have a brew-break and watch the world go by.

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Connect to your inner sovereignty

It is interesting to reflect that the majority of highlights on the ride were when I made a decision to come off the route: for me, this is about tapping into one’s inner sovereignty*, so completely in tune with the spirit of the way. Such trails should be seen as only guides – a suggested route and one that you should be able to customize according to one’s needs and preferences (after all, you are one doing it; only you will complete it; and it is meant to be a recreational thing, not some kind of official race). Strict adherence to every nook and cranny of the route is for completists only. It is an interesting moment – to be in the middle of nowhere, with a guidebook, trying to follow someone’s artificial route (a particular frame or narrative mapped onto a landscape, but only that), rather than listening to your body or to common sense. When we turn off the script (or the device), and listen to our own motherwit and become empowered – then we start to step into our sovereignty.

Kevan Manwaring, 31st August, 2021

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Made it! King Alfred’s Statue, Winchester, 350km later.

*Which is the main concept behind the pilgrimage route I created last year, the King Arthur Way – a 153 mile walking route from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury in Somerset.

Trapdoor in a Locked Down World

REVIEW

The Museum of Mystery and Imagination

The Allsop Gallery, Bridport Arts Centre, 15 July-20 August, 2021

Imagine if Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico had been born in the British Isles; if they had still turned out to be artists (and that presupposes that artists, and not just poets, are born and made: are natured, not nurtured). Would they have created their distinctive visionary blend of Surrealist and Symbolist art with an Anglo-Saxon sensibility? So, indirectly, this exhibition speculates – that there is a particular British form of these traditions that, it is argued, predates them. It is glimpsed in the works of William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Lewis Carroll, David Jones, and Leonora Carrington – tangible influences in the works on display here. An eclectic exhibition of paintings and ceramics, populated by strange creatures and creations from the fringes of consciousness. It is like walking into a fairy tale forest, or Cocteau’s castle from La Belle et La Bête: this is a place of chimerical metamorphosis, and ambiguous, amphibious dream-like imagery. People and animal blend into fluid hybrids, take on iconic potency in their postures and expressions. Some have the stained-glass clarity of tarot cards, or the rude energy of church grotesques. The natural world cross-fertilises with the human. There is a sexual frisson to many, but the female gaze dominates. The images suggest a chthonic female experience erupting into the waking world, defiant and empowered. A cat and a mermaid make strangely compatible companions. A naked woman hovering between two chairs explodes with flowers. In an age of heavy realism, this celebration of the imagination – blossoming out of the enforced interregnum of lockdown – is a welcome escape hatch.   

Kevan Manwaring, 7 August 2021

Thank you to the staff of Bridport Arts Centre, who kindly let me in to view the exhibition while building work was under way.

https://www.bridport-arts.com/event/museum-of-mystery-and-imagination/

Belly to the Earth

Inspired by my recent wild-camping experiences on the Wessex Ridgeway, I consider how can we live a more soulful, sustainable life.

Wild camping on the Wessex Ridgeway

How can we live a more soulful, sustainable life? This is perhaps the most important question to address in the present age. Certainly, it is one that I find myself dwelling upon – an undertow to my days as I get caught up in the endless (and often vexating and trivial) ‘to do’ list of life. It is so easy to become enmired in Maya, or Samsara – the illusion of the world, and forget why we are really here. I see this ‘illusion’ not as some do: a world of matter to be rejected, denying corporeality, the body, and this good Earth — but as the surface of things. To be fully alive is to live deeply and fully – to be awake in the moment, to be present in one’s body, in one’s life. To revel in the bountiful sensorium of it all, its vivid, messy actuality. To be grounded and real. And by doing so, tapping into the ‘immanent moment’ (as I termed it in one of my poetry collections) and to realise how every embodied experience on this Earth has many levels, and can be an opportunity to awaken consciousness – to pierce beyond the veil of things (like the Arthurian fool-knight, Perceval/Parsifal, who ‘pierces the veil’ with his pure heart and cleansed perceptions and achieves the Holy Grail). To see things as they truly are: ‘infinite’, as Blake puts it, exhorting a cleansing of the doors of perception. Or as William Stafford expresses it in his poem, ‘Bi-focal’:

So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Sometimes we have to go down into the mud to see the stars, and so it was the week I spent walking the Wessex Ridgeway, a 127 mile long-distance footpath, which runs from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As this runs by my back-door I’ve been considering walking it for a while — it sat there expectantly, like a dog with a lead in its mouth, ready for walkies. I liked the idea of walking to the sea from my doorstep – and after the most challenging academic year in living memory I, like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, heard the call of the ‘Grey Havens’. I wanted to change my skyline. The clean line of the chalk downs of Wiltshire are soothing, but there is nothing like seeing the horizon where the sea meets the sky to get a perspective on things. And so, with a full pack on my back, I set off. Carrying one’s home on one’s back certainly makes one feel snail-like, and that was pretty much the pace at times — especially on the uphill sections (which in Dorset were quite frequent). Yet slowing down, and noticing the details is part of the experience of exploring the world at walking pace

Resting my poor old pinkies

The highlight of my week of walking was the day I woke up at dawn in a peaceful flower meadow, and walked all day to finally arrive (with a lot of huffing and puffing up its steep flanks) to a spectacular hillfort, where I also wild-camped, watching the sunset as I savoured my simple but satisfying camp meal.  Although I was at one of the highest spots on the south coast, there was not a breath of wind. It was pleasantly mild, and I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, feeling like a king to be sleeping in such a place by myself.  That night I had a vivid dream, which was sufficiently stirring to wake me up and make me write it down. I dreamt of being part of an Iron Age tribe, no doubt influenced by sleeping in a hillfort (before turning in, I walked the impressive ramparts with their commanding view, and got a strong sense of what it must have felt like to have dwelled there, to call such a place ‘home’, and to wish to defend it – and your loved ones within – to your dying breath). Faced with the prospect of moving yet again (such is the life of the modern academic), thoughts of home have been at the forefront of my mind. And, having been carrying my humble little home all week, it was perhaps not surprising that my vision upon the hill related to notions of home, community, and belonging. The details of it seem less relevant than the messages I received from it, which I summarise below.

  • The importance of community – a reciprocal ‘ecosystem’, an entangled, resilient, co-supportive network.
  • The importance of leadership – of stepping into your power, drawing upon the authority of experience and self-reflexive insight. Creating and guiding, not controlling and censuring. This could manifest, for example, by running a space for the sharing of wisdom and mutual empowerment.
  • The importance of embodied ‘beingness’ – listening to the body, listening to the earth. Rejoicing in tactile, sensual, human touch.
  • The importance of living an ethical life, and showing the courage of one’s convictions – of ‘stepping up’, of speaking truth to power. Of being unafraid of being seen, heard, known for what one believes, what one knows is a ‘core truth’ – beyond the playacting, and posturing of much of modern life, the neurotic concern for status, approval, and ‘fitting in’.
  • The importance of place – of being ‘rooted’ in where you live, making a commitment to your community and digging in. Of belonging. And this is the essence of my phrase, ‘belly to the earth’ – an act of vulnerability and connection. Are you able to live somewhere so intimately, so lightly, that it is as though you are literally sleeping on the ground like a small child laying on Mother Earth? (try it – lay down on the grass, and feel the earth beneath you as you breathe upon it: simultaneously held and holding).
Sunrise on the hill-fort

I awoke at dawn, and with a precious mug of tea (the last of my water) watched the full orb of the sun break free of its pall of cloud. Feeling shiveringly alive, I quickly struck camp and set off on my way, keen to not forget my dream on the hill. How to manifest it felt less important at that moment than bringing it down from the heights and sharing it. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider how you can live with your ‘belly to the earth’?

Kevan Manwaring, 11th July 2021

The Calving of a Berg

The Calving of a Berg

A line in the white
writes itself
across the tabula rasa
of the ice shelf.

Black lightning
of this Götterdämmerung
for emperor penguins, base-camps,
and coastal towns.

At the suture zones the cracks queue up.

They call this
a perfectly natural process.
Human impact?
The mainstream media feigns
impartiality with its lukewarm caveat
‘probably’.

The haruspices scrutinize the markings,
utter teatime-friendly soundbites.

Yet the Anthropocene awaits
no starting gun.
The tipping point passes –
buried beneath an avalanche
of white noise,
the muzak of the mall
lulling us into impulse purchases,
the streaming trivia
distracting us, reassuring us
that it’s business as usual,
so buy bye and
succumb to the Coriolis, baby

as a berg the size of Belgium

                                                       drifts our way.

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2021

Listen to me read the poem and others, alongside great poetry by Marie-Claire Wood, TAK Erzinger, Kevan Manwaring and Sarra Culleno – from Alternative Stories and Fake Realitieshttps://www.buzzsprout.com/411730/8567031-poems-from-marie-claire-wood-tak-erzinger-kevan-manwaring-and-sarra-culleno?play=true

Read about the melting of the Greenland icesheet here

Bellwether

(for Greta)

Greta Thunberg's options for crossing the Atlantic again — Quartz

Crossing lines whine in wind’s teeth,

rigging taut as harp strings divides the endless sky.

Boom as tumblehome hull breasts another wave,

smack and sizzle of icy spray.

Brine on sun-cracked lips,

legs forgetting what dry land feels like.

Sixty foot of fibre glass between you and

the twenty seven thousand feet to the ocean’s bottom

where tectonic plates perform

the long painful process of separation.

Aboard, a schoolgirl crosses this gulf

to convince the captains of nations

to take a diametric tack –

a deadly holmgang

with the highest of stakes.

because almost everything is black and white.

Black as the mainsail, white with its legend:

Unite Behind the Science.

Powered by eight minute old photons, by subaqueous turbines,

this zero carbon craft carries her,

The Wily One.

Over three thousand miles and fifteen days,

peeing in a bucket, and eating boil-in-a-bag meals,

privacy a luxury for this girl who had no friends,

and doesn’t like crowds.

Braving a callous ocean named after the god

who once held up the world.

But the time for bedtime stories is over.

For, babassu and murumuru explode with super-heated sap.

The Ribeirinhos weep as tribal lands succumb

to Bolsonaro’s scorched earth policy –

rubber trees, cacao, brazil nut groves, nurtured

for generations, by Neoliberalism’s fire-sale erased.

And the noble Quilimbolas, descendants of rebel slaves,

wear masks of solastalgia as their universe is torched,

to grow soybeans, mine ore, raise cattle.

Carbon. Methane. Cancer.

A lung of rainforest the size of Manhattan lost every day:

a Noah’s Ark of unknown species, life-saving poultices.

And the Arctic Circle is necklaced with wild fires.

and the Greenland ice sheet debouches

eleven billion tonnes in a single day.

And still there are those who ignore her

when she says: Our house is on fire.

The Calvary congregation pray at Jacksonville Beach Pier

to Hurricane Dorian, telling it to calm down,

but the climate is the corrupted portrait of our

unsalubrious lifestyles.

And the bellwether who heralds the bad news

is made a scapegoat by the hate merchants.


But despite the gyres of oil-lobby media,

the toxic backwash of anti-experts,

the side-winds of the climate deniers,


Still she makes landfall, carrying the virus of hope.

Listen to me read the poem and others, alongside great poetry by Marie-Claire Wood, TAK Erzinger, Kevan Manwaring and Sarra Culleno – from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730/8567031-poems-from-marie-claire-wood-tak-erzinger-kevan-manwaring-and-sarra-culleno?play=true

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2021

Tree Rings

Image by Daniel Griffin

Behind each truth another,

concentricities of awareness.

The deeper you look,

the more you will perceive.

In each moment one has a choice –

to accept things as they are and 

act and converse in accordance 

with the tacit expectations and rules

of the encounter, or to delve,

pursuing the situation or subject

into infinitesimal granularity.

Or, alternatively, soar

keen-eyed, above it – observing each

frame, each assumption. Acknowledging

and elevating, acknowledging and elevating

beyond every atmospheric envelope of lore.

Shifting magnification, we penetrate

to a deeper or higher reality, until

beyond the purely intellectual

a greater awakening awaits.

Copyright Kevan Manwaring

3 May 2021

Death’s Jester

Tyll – Daniel Kehlmann

A review

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann review – a romp through the thirty years' war |  Fiction | The Guardian

Kehlmann’s Booker shortlisted novel, first published in German in 2017 and released in a supple translation by Ross Benjamin in 2020, brings to life a mercurial figure of German folklore and history, the legendary jester, Tyll Ulenspiegel, whose picaresque exploits were first recorded in a chapbook from 1515. Here, the author skips a century to relocate the ‘eternal fool’ into a particularly unpleasant chapter of European history. Set primarily against the bleak and bloody backdrop of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Kehlmann’s tale transposes elements of the oral traditions of storytelling, balladry, and folklore onto the squalid realism of historicity. The author seems to channel the Hermes-like trickster-thief-magician qualities of the titular character in the way he deftly adopts and changes viewpoints and timelines. This structural boldness and mastery of the form, along with the ability to render scenes of scintillating wit, tension, and psychological acuity, shows Kehlmann as a master able to juggle and dance with the materials at hand in breathtaking ways. We first meet Tyll in his mockingly cruel prime, able to enchant and manipulate a village into violence. Death sweeps in with that first chapter, and his dark presence remains throughout the narrative – a perpetual memento mori. No one and nothing is safe from his sickle and the vicissitudes of fate’s wheel. Each vignette unfolds like a tarot spread, populated by the stark imagery of the major arcana: The Fool, The Magician, Death, The Devil, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hanged Man, The Empress, and so forth. The (mainly) 17th Century could almost be timeless, like some Secondary World fantasy, but then the fog clears and the mise-en-scène focalizes into thoroughly-researched specificity. Tyll’s particular character – misanthropic, amoral, mocking, or shattered by circumstance into nihilism and laughing at the cruel joke of the world – is pathologized as we discover his devastating backstory. Forged by happenstance and tragedy, it is possible to understand the way he turned out, even if he remains, until the very end of the novel, quixotic, unpredictable, and completely liberated from the stifling, ridiculous rules and conventions of community, society, and court. Like some perverted version of a Grail knight, Tyll has seen through the veil of the world – but instead of returning with the cup to heal the wasteland, he instead uses his darkly awakened perception to cock a snook at one and all. He provides a mirror to people’s vanity and foolishness,  and releases the truth of the situation like poison from a wound. As an antihero he is a formidable, unforgettable presence, and reminds me of John Gardner’s Grendel, with elements of Alan Garner’s Guizer thrown into the mix. When Tyll is in the frame the narrative crackles with energy, but I must admit to being less enamoured by the protracted sections from the point of view of the unfortunate exiled ‘king’ of Bohemia and his English wife, Elizabeth Stuart. These sections, however exhaustively researched and well-dramatised, tended to drag for me. It felt like Kehlmann was trying to do a Mantel, especially with the extended final section, which lingered on court etiquette and politics rather too long. The sections following the insufferably conceited scholar Athanasius Kircher are a bit more engaging (and more connected to the title character’s story arc), but in any of these digressions it is only when Tyll appears that things electrify again. Their breadth and depth show Kehlmann’s skill and ambition – collectively, they build up to an unflinching, atomised portrait of a broken Europe – but in comparison to the sheer brilliance of the Tyll sections they struggle to shine. In any other novel they would work perfectly well, but here they feel outclassed. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable romp of a novel, and the character of Tyll leaps off the page as a mesmerising embodiment of the zeitgeist.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 April 2021

Greenwood – a review

Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.

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Greenwood – a novel of a family tree in a dying forest

Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 Mar. 21

Greenwood is published by Scribe

Free Speech vs Hate Speech Regulation

Is free speech a universal and incontestable right, or does it come with necessary conditions and responsibilities?

Should we be able to say what we want, when we want, to whom we want? Or should there be restrictions on such freedoms? Should free speech stay free? Yes, you might instinctively cry. But consider how we live in a complex world where, certainly within our own countries we are bound by an intricate network of rules, regulations, and etiquette. However much we may rail against some curbs on our liberty, this is part of living in any civilised society, and of the modern world. Take the current lockdown, for instance. Imagine if we chose to ignore it – apart from putting our own liberty at risk (you may end up in jail, or certainly receive a heavy fine), you are putting at risk anyone you come in to contact with, and then that risk is passed onto to anyone in your bubble. It would be unconscionable to do so, and fortunately, most people agree (excluding the odd exception who feel the law doesn’t apply to them, e.g., Dominic Cummings). Most of us are willing to abide by the law when we realise to do otherwise would be to put lives at risk. Well, the same applies to hate speech – movements to criminalise this is not about restricting free speech in general, but specifically only speech that incites or condones violence. This is very specific and does not prevent rigorously healthy debate about any issue that concerns us. It does not censor ‘heretical’ viewpoints, even very questionable ones such as held by flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or holocaust deniers. The bottom line is – does the speech dehumanise others? Does it incite or condone violence against them? If so, then it should not be given a platform. The intellectual, if provocative, challenges of free speech advocates like Christopher Hitchens and Jordan Peterson only makes sense in a world where people are educated, eloquent, and willing and able to hold rational discourse with others (and allow them to respond in similar fashion). It does not factor in the irrationality of those who, via the influence of Fake News, the echo chambers of social media, and the dog whistling of certain politicians, now mistrust scientific consensus, empirical facts, expertise, and rational discourse. Confused people who believe their civil liberties are being taken away, and who often own semi-automatic weapons such as the so-called ‘Proud Boys’, and who are willing to use them in a misguided ‘defence’ of democracy, to the point of storming Capitol Hill and disrupting the due process of that very same democracy. Right wing commentators such as actor Laurence Fox complain (vociferously) about being ‘silenced’ – a message ubiquitously (and unironically) shared on social media and national news platforms. And yet the toxic discourse of similar ‘public figures’ like Katie Hopkins and Sarah Palin is often one that wishes to silence difference, demonise minorities, and incite hatred against anyone that challenges their paradigm. Meanwhile, the historian David Olusoga is forced to defend his work that brings to light Britain’s roots in slavery, and fellow academic Professor Corinne Fowler is attacked in The Telegraph for her Colonial Countryside project. There should always be a place for reasoned discourse, and nothing should be beyond criticism. Critical thinking should be a key life skill taught in every classroom. As should debating skills. The arts of oratory, of eloquence, should be encouraged and cultivated. Until such skills are ubiquitous, hate speech needs to be carefully regulated – with self-reflexive criticality and full transparency about criteria, and process. The world is a tinderbox right now and allowing people to throw matches is complicity to arson. Do we want the world to burn? Anyone with a conscience, with compassionate intelligence, surely should not.

Kevan Manwaring, 5 March 2021