Monthly Archives: July 2008

Journey of the Bard: Hawk of the East

Rocks East Woodland

 

Wednesday, 30th July

 

The fierce shriek of a hawk caught our attention. We looked up and, yes, there, through the branches of the pine trees, we caught a glimpse of a hawk – its jagged silhouette a distinctive black arrow cut out of the sky. We had just finished planted a commemorative acer tree for Tim Sebastion Woodman, Arch-druid of Wiltshire, at Rocks East Woodland – on the borders of Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucester. I knelt by the tree, talking with Angela Long, old friend of Tim’s and first Ovate of Caer Badon. The others had already left, heading back up to the centre for a cuppa and I must admit I was keen to join them – planting a tree for a lost friend along with some of his (unground) ashes is thirsty work. Tim would’ve wanted a drink too – but of a stronger variety! Yet something made me stay a little while longer, to ‘stand and stare’ and savour the moment. There had been a flurry of activity as a small group of us applied ourselves to the task (Miranda, Rob, Steve, Angie, myself and Marylyn and Philip from the centre). It was all over rather quickly. Some words were said – I read out Tim’s song, from his Gryphon days, which we’ve quoted on the plaque, Steve read out a new poem and Angela lead the Druid’s Oath. We chanted the awen three times as well. And then time seemed to slow – pausing between each awen.

 

I had often seen a pair of buzzards up there, but not a hawk – if that’s what it was. I’m no twitcher, but it made a sound very similar to the one I heard when a hawk had nested in the spire of St John’s – the tallest spire in Bath, right in the city centre – to nurse a couple of its chicks. They became local celebrities, with film crews and tourists recording them. I was going to the station early one morning when I heard the shriek – an incredible primal sound, as though a pterodactyl flew above the city! I looked up to see an extraordinary sight: a body of a pigeon being cast out of the nest. Followed swiftly by the mother, who plunged down and caught it in mid-air (like some fancy stunt out of a Hollywood movie) before flying around the spire with it, terrifying any other bird in the area with her defiant cry. It seems she was trying to coax the fledgling hawks out of the nest, using the bird-carcase as bait. But they were still too timid – and I must admit it even made my spine tingle. Mother’s around their young can be the fiercest of creatures – as I experienced with my mum’s cat last week. She’s just had a litter – now a couple of months old – but still she hisses when I come into the room.

 

I love seeing kestrels, or windhovers, by the roadside. You can see clearly where they got their nickname from. Their control, sometimes in strong winds, is impressive. I’ve often spotted them on the flanks of hillforts on a blustery day – hovering, seemingly effortlessly, when it no doubt involves great skill and will to ‘hold your centre’ when buffeted by forces around you. This for me is one of the things the hawk represents – absolute focus. Their eyes are amazing – they rivet you to the spot.

 

Apparently a hawk got killed, mobbed by fifty seagulls, at a bird of prey display in Glasgow this week. Hoody birds! Glaswegian ones at that. Obviously not taking kindly to this fellow predator on their turf. They ganged up on it, when one-to-one they wouldn’t stand much chance.

 

One of the very first films I saw at the cinema (the second in fact) was Ken Loach’s Kes – a slice of social realism, telling the story of an estate kid who rescues and rears a kestrel.

The bird symbolising freedom, nobility and the unattainable lifestyle deprived to one of his class. Such birds traditionally were the province of Norman royalty and falconry still is a royal past-time in Arabia. Tomorrow I’m off to the Forest of Dean and I hope to have a chance to go off into the forest on some trips, perhaps to Symonds Yat – where I saw a mating pair of hawks a few years ago, along with lots of excited twitchers.

 

The hawk waits, watches, and plunges down to strike with no indecision. It teaches us to act with accuracy and alacrity. To be decisive. It can come across as fierce, but in fact it is just focussed. No time for dilly-dallying. For foolery. When an opportunity presents itself – grab it. Don’t make apologies, don’t justify, just act.

 

A merlin has been my companion for the last three years as I’ve worked upon my bardic series of novels, The Windsmith Odyssey. In my story Merlin the magician, has been trapped in the form of a small hawk, his namesake – in his legendary esplumoir, a ‘moulting cage’. We all must reside in our own esplumoir at some point in our lives, when we must wait for nature to transform us into what we need to move into the next phase of our existence. Often, this time can feel frustrating, as we wait to move on. For a new opportunity to present itself. It feels like we are stuck. That things are out of our hands. But we must use this time to incubate, then, when the window of opportunity arises – to act.  As Mr Morrison once said, ‘No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn’. The early bird, does indeed, catch the worm.

 

 in the tales of Arthur, it is the Pendragon’s nephew, Gawain (originally Gwalchmai) the Hawk of May, who acts when his uncle hesitates – perhaps constrained by his position. Gawain is the ardent young knight, idealistic, hot-headed, completely guileless. He is tested by both Lady Ragnall – when he is forced to marry the hag she appears to save Arthur’s honour – and by Lady Bertilak, the wife of the man who turns out to be the Green Knight in disguise, with whom he enacted the Beheading Game at midwinter. The Green Knight is very much the holly king to Gawain’s summer king (Hawk of May – Beltane was traditionally the start of summer). Gawain’s symbol is the pentagram, which he carries on his shield and is said to represent the ‘five Christian virtues’ although this could be a Christian gloss, for the five-pointed star is an ancient symbol of protection and now one associated strongly with paganism. It could also be the shape of a hawk, seen from below. Gawain acts for the good of the court. He accuses Guinevere of infidelity – only he dare speak the truth that all know but none utter. Yet, although he may seem forthright he is sent by Arthur in the Welsh version of the story of Tristan and Yseullt to persuade the errant knight back to court, and he does so – through his eloquence, during a ritual colloquy. He wins Tristan’s trust with what could be called the ‘hawk-tongue’ – the gift of eloquence. There is an obscure tale of a young boy, asleep on the mountain who dreams of a green-garlanded god. in the morning he awakes to find he has the ‘hawk-tongue’. Bards were often said to be able to speak the language of birds, and in Wales there was the belief that the eating of a white snake would give you the gift of tongues. Eurgain, Maelgwyn’s daughter was said to have ‘set the candle to the wild birds to show her lover the way to Wales’. And the red kites are there to this day – the most famous raptor of Wales. Perhaps it was one of these which chased Gwion the wren?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bardic Poetry: In My Father’s Garden

This is for my Dad, who died suddenly earlier this year and whose 70th birthday we commemorated last Wednesday. K

In My Father’s Garden

 

I can still hear you,

digging away in the garden –

the hiss of the spade

as it slid into the soil,

and the silent strain

as the sod was hefted to one side,

or turned over and chopped up.

 

The bedroom window open

onto a summer of thirty year’s ago

when the heatwave would last for weeks –

tarmac soft underfoot,

the reek of creosote on endless fences.

The ice cream van’s crackly jingle

always on the air –

tempting us, tormenting us

until you buckled and treated us

to a block and some wafers.

Or there would lemon and barley water,

Corona bottles to collect

some coppers from.

 

You would sit,

T-shirt sleeves rolled up, or just in your shorts,

tatty sun hat on, battered boots off,

slowly basting on an orange plastic chair

in your sun trap by the old coal bunker.

Day off. You could hear the collective sigh of relief across the estate.

The hard-earned siesta accompanied by

the Roberts radio playing the chart countdown,

or there might be a match on the telly –

the never-ending roaring of soccer fans

like an angry sea crashing against a shore,

exhausting its strength.

 

The smell of Sunday dinner would

waft up, Mum always busy in the kitchen,

making her mountain ranges of Yorkshire Puddings,

meteor strikes of roast potatoes,

oil spills of gravy, rockeries of cakes.

Conjuring something out of nothing

to placate rumbling bellies.

 

You would fill the room

when you entered it.

A big man with a slow walk –

a John Wayne swagger –

folk would move out of the way

if they saw you shambling up the street,

broad shoulders filling the pavement.

You looked like you meant business

and it normally involved a pint or two,

a jar of smooth down the Horse,

or sinking one down the Loco.

 

At odd hours you would bring back

space capsules of curry,

still steaming on landing in their tin cartons,

a gladiatorial buckler of Italian bread,

a big slab of fruit ‘n’ nut,

and fall asleep in front of the big game.

You’d wake up if we turned it over,

say: ‘I was watching that.’

 

Your massive presence

filled the house,

a snoring giant,

mess everywhere,

hoarding of random junk,

shed full of shopping trolleys,

garden stacked with breeze-blocks,

railway sleepers, railtrack fencing,

buckets and bins, tyres and tools,

ladders and lethal looking implements,

as though planning an invasion,

or stocking up in case of one.

 

Someone forgot to tell you that war’s over.

 

Digging

with steady determination –

pacing yourself like a man

used to a day’s graft,

as you were –

you would shift tonnes.

Digging your trench and bank

vegetable patches, commando rose garden,

as though digging in for a scrap

still a signalman in the National Service,

cap rolled under shoulder strap,

short back and sides,

puttees around spit-and-polished boots.

 

You would build bean-poles out of scaffolding

until the garden resembled a wartime beach,

skeins of wire fencing, panels, planks –

a personal compound,

recreating the Civilian Internment Camp on Stanley Peninsular

you’d endured between the ages of three and six,

between your mother and hardship.

 

But you weren’t a mummy’s boy.

Life had toughened you up too much.

 

An alpha male,

always surrounded by your doting dog-pack,

drooling shadows you’d indulge with titbits,

perhaps remembering how, in the camps, you’d have to eat

stray ones to survive, the mangiest of mongrels,

back in those lean days under the Rising Sun.

 

Your step-brother, Joseph Read, got bayoneted

running for grub outside the compound –

for two eggs he nearly got beaten to death,

until his mother took the blows instead.

He survived,

but the wound got him in the end,

aged twenty six.

 

Your dad, Arthur Edward, lost his leg

because of the diseases which riddled the Jap camps,

the poor sanitation, the starvation diet.

And you nearly lost yours –

pincered by a rogue forklift, plagued by infection.

Terrified of doctors – of losing your leg –

you wanted to die with your boots on.

Perhaps you knew that house-call would be fatal.

When the doctor came, it was too little, too late.

 

Yet you laughed at the Reaper enough times –

a young man swimming Hong Kong Harbour,

with the shark-bites on his back to prove it
(showing us the mottled scars on your shoulders),

a middle-aged man, parachuting for fun,

until you broke an ankle.

 

‘Only the best, forget the rest,’

‘End of story,’

‘I won’t be here forever’,

you had your favourite sayings,

your favourite yarns, related in hysterics.

 

You would be deliberately dumb,

wilfully miss the point of

what we were trying to say or ask –

but you were good at making your own.

 

Yet you weren’t demanding.

 

A postcard, the odd phonecall,

Nothing more.

Independent, standing tall –

asking nothing of nobody.

Charles Bronson’s brother,

you could lay out a man

with a single punch.

Once thumped your sergeant

for some dark remark.

 

Your silk-thread began in Hong Kong,

ended up in Cotton.

Marooned on a Thirties’ housing estate,

carrying his whole past locked up inside of you.

Occasionally, you’d let a memory out,

but mostly tease us about

‘coming over on the banana boat’.

 

Yet at His Majesty’s Pleasure

you sailed the Southern Hemisphere

in not so slow boats,

moving between Naval Bases as a boy –

Manila, Singapore, KL, Auckland, Sydney, Suez –

finally making landfall on British Soil aged sixteen,

in a two-up, two-down on Delapre Street.

 

Emilia Ku, your Cantonese mum from Lima,

bringing a touch of the exotic

to the black-and-white movie of Fifties’ England,

with her furs and foreign tongues and

the first curry in Northampton.

 

Your first job was as a projectionist in the Tivoli,

beam illuminating the blue collar fug

of usherettes and cigarettes.

Then you started work at Howards –

a job you’d hold down for a quarter of a century,

becoming the captain of your gang.

 

But back then you were a dapper young Oriental Elvis,

with slicked DA and smart duds when

you met your future wife at the Salon,

Christmas Eve, 1960.

Married sweet sixteen Christine

three years later and, in ’65, ’67, ‘69

three children came along – two sons and a daughter –

chips off the old block. And grandchildren,

too, to carry on your name.

 

Dad. How we miss you.

You was always there for us

if not always all there –

away in some boozy cloud of

rugby, pet theories and randomness.

You never told us what to do,

or how to do it.

We had to figure it all out for ourselves.

Cut us plenty of slack,

for you wanted plenty yourself,

to go on your ‘walkabouts’,

up to Scotland or down to Malta.

You didn’t try to impress anyone,

neither leader or follower –

you ploughed your own furrow.

 

Stranded on the far side of the world,

no parents, grandparents or siblings left.

Drinking mates aplenty, when you wanted them –

but often you would stand alone,

adrift in a different sea.

 

In the Sixties,

you would’ve got on the boat to Australia for a tenner,

but Mum stood her ground,

and so you spent your days off

digging your way back to home.

 

For seven decades you walked this Earth

and now you are free of its gravity.

Ashes scattered over the Abbey

– where you loved to walk the dogs in the snow –

mortal remains

a frost in summer

on the blades of green.

 

Your mighty spirit finally

flying home.

 

Husband, father, friend –

you’ll always live in our hearts.

 

Goodnight, Dad.

 

with love,

Kevan Manwaring

 

 

In memory of Gerald George Manwaring, 1938-2008

on the occasion of his 70th birthday memorial celebration

23rd July 2008

 

Journey of a Bard continued

20-24 July Northampton

Bardic Picnic, Delapre, 20th July

Bardic Picnic, Delapre, 20th July

Just got back from a demanding few days in my old town of Northampton. Went up on Sunday  – a nice sunny ride on the bard-bike through the Cotswolds – to take part in the Bardic Picnic, an event organised by John Morrisey for the Bardic Chair of Northampton. I was asked to be the judge, which was a honour but, typical of the town, no one entered. There was some good performers on the day – local musicians and poets – but nobody was willing to make the commitment to be the Bard for a year and a day. This is what often cuts the wheat from the chaff, and distinguishes Bardic Chairs from the Slam scene. It’s not just about turning up and winning on the day – it’s about being able to serve your community for the coming year. Despite this disappointment, and lack of a good-sized crowd, it was still a pleasant afternoon for those pleasant. For once, it remembered to be summer and the sun shone. There were some old friends there – Justin and Jimtom, both who deserve the title ‘Bard of Northampton’. I was relieved in a way they hadn’t entered as I would’ve been forced to make a difficult decision! It was very poignant, being at the event, which was next to Delapre Abbey – my sanctuary as a child. I spent the majority of my childhood over there, day-dreaming by myself, and now here I was, performing with others. I read out two poems: my Northampton poem, ‘Born of the People’s Strength’ and ‘Roaming Home’, to tie-in with the Bardic Chair theme of ‘coming home’. I was interviewed with John by a local film-maker. The first attempt was difficult against the backdrop of drunken music coming from the stage, so we repaired to the ‘grove’, as I call it, inside the wilderness gardens of the Abbey. Here, we could hear ourselves think at least! John was wiped out, because he had practically organised this event single-handedly. He had done all he could, but it was clear the Bardic Chair idea wasn’t going to take off in such a town, despite its abundance of local talent. There’s a good music scene, some great wordsmiths, but the ‘Bard’ thing is perhaps too esoteric or exotic for most to get their heads around or accept. The town has endemic cynicism, and sarcasm is the default attitude/defence mechanism. No one there likes anyone else to succeed – perhaps because it highlights there ‘failure’ or lack of ambition, and so there try to bring anyone down who tries. A bard would have a hard job there – they would get a severe ribbing wherever they went. It is, on the whole, a very working class prosaic place. Not a place conducive to flights of fancy – unless your on some drug-induced high like Alan Moore! He, if anyone, is the Bard of Northampton in all but name. He has tapped into its dark soul, and like John Clare on the Fens, found inspiration in the most unpromising of soil.

When the event wound down, things degenerated when kids were allowed to play with the microphone and started singing painful pop tunes or nursery rhymes. It got excruciating, so I made my exit as quickly as I could. It was time for some dinner anyway, and I made my way along the drive to my Mum’s, just around the corner. There I caught up with her over some tea.

The following day, it was time to attend to business. The other main reason I was up in Northampton was to help with scattering my Dad’s ashes and celebrating what would have been his seventieth birthday on Wednesday. I had also offered to help lay my Mum’s patio – as we needed it for the party.

However, on that Monday things moved unexpectedly fast – my Mum decided she wanted to scatter the ashes then and there. I was still finishing my lunch. When my sister Julie had arrived we had discussed what to do, and it seemed we had agreed to scatter them either Tues afternoon or Wed morning. Suddenly we were doing it right away – my Mum and sister having changed their minds. I was annoyed, because it felt rushed and not a consensus decision. But I found myself going with Mum and Dad’s ashes in Julie’s car over there. It was a beautiful sunny day at least.

Afterwards, we went for a much needed cuppa in the tearooms. I found a poetry book about gardens and read one out that seemed appropriate. I gave the book to Mum as a consoling ‘souvenir’, wishing her the ‘solace of gardens’. After that, it was difficult to do anything. I was numb. Wandered over the Rec to the Co-op, posted the letter I had written to Jenny (I had visited Delapre earlier that day) and then I decided to go for a walk around the lake – the ‘gravel pits’ – where Dad used to take the dogs for a walk. This would allow me time to remember him and reflect at my leisure. Events had moved too fast for my liking. I was expecting a three day cycle, but now it felt like I could go back already. Certainly my heart had gone out of the party. What was the point of arranging something when decisions were ignored or changed around at the last minute? I’m all for spontaneity, but when you’re organisng an event you need some consensus. My spirits were low, but I was saved by a visit from Jimmy, a great bloke and neighbour – an old drinking pal of Dad’s. He invited me along to watch a pool match that night at the King Billy. It was just what I needed – something down-to-earth, a distraction. It was good to watch the match, chat with the Golden Horse team, and have a beer or two.

The next day I got stuck into the patio, helping Norman – a kind friend of my Mum’s, who with his wife Helen had done loads on the house. It was satisfying to focus on hard physical work for once – and achieve something solid and practical. That night I stayed in and relaxed, feeling fatigued in a good way.

The next day would have been Dad’s seventieth, and so we planned a party for him. The wake had been suitably sad, and so we wanted this to be more an upbeat celebration of his life. I had been working on an elegy for Dad – only now was I able to put pen to paper, six months after the funeral.

Dad's 70th celebration

Dad's 70th celebration

That morning, I awoke early and finished off the patio, then got ready for the party. I blew up some ballons and put up a banner. We dug out a picture I had drawn of Dad, and placed it in a chair at the head of the table. Julie turned up after work and helped make some sandwiches. A handful of others turned up – Mum didn’t want a big gathering – and we had quite a pleasant time, sitting in the sun on the new patio. I read out my elegy and it seemed to go down well. People laughed or nodded when they recognised something about Dad. This was a vindication of my bardic path – bards would traditionally composed elegies. I think I did him justice – praising his mighty spirit, ‘warts and all’, rather than sycophantically making him out to be perfect. People only seem to achieve perfection when they die, whereas in life we are usually dysfunctional, flawed, human.

The following morning I was keen to get back – I was meant to be giving a talk in Dorchester that night – but my bike had other ideas. A bolt sheared off just as I reached the roundabout at the top of the London Road (near Queen Eleanor’s Cross – another memorial to a lost loved one; a surprisingly touching gesture from Edward Ironshanks, who sought to crush revolt in Wales with his ‘ring of iron’ fortresses). It seems the town was trying its best to keep me – but Norman came to the rescue. I managed to limp back to his place, and he set to work – the amazing Mr Fix-it! I knew if anyone could sort it out, he could. It was with relief I finally hit the road, making it back two and half hours later than planned, tired, but relieved to be back home.

Bardic Poetry: Last Rites for John Barleycorn

Last Rites for John Barleycorn

 

Twilighters,

Roam with me…

 

Through the Gates of Herne

To find a kernel of truth,

Confront the stag of the seventh tine,

Decode the marks of his horned hoof.

 

Down the familiar paths we trod,

Frequenting our earlier selves;

Sharing our picnic of the past –

Feasting with Pooka and his Elves.

 

Then over the bloodstream

And through the iron turnstiles,

Two into one –

Led by the Maiden of the Corn

To the barrow to be reborn.

 

Along a tunnel to the light –

Spurred on sperm, a wheaten worm,

Wisely upstream wriggling.

To germinate where we are but a gleam –

Prodigal suns returning.

 

Walking between the worlds,

Through fields of alien wheat,

To the place of hallowed dreams,

Where all our tomorrows meet.

 

Rising to that yawning cleft;

Between that baked earth, right,

And bearded barley, ripe –

Beyond all that is left.

 

Demeter mourns for her lost youth,

Russet cloak unleavening

The burgeoning Lammas-scape

In her widowed wake.

 

Yet, if she lifted up her downcast eyes

They would glimpse a gladdening light

That could demystify those

Night-stung tears of dew.

 

Rekindle a faltering love

Which was once so bright;

Tinderbox heart sparked ablaze

By this Promethean view.

 

Look! His dazzling smile already melts

Her frosty gaze –

The heartening land smiles welcome

As the colour returns to her cheeks.

 

With a God’s eye view

We discerned the canvas

Upon which he painted –

Pigments selected from a divine palette,

Sable-soaked, laden with morning hue –

As elegantly across the vast vista

He swept it.

 

Drowsy textures arose –

Dormant tints, awoken by his touch.

As our orbs imperceptibly peeled

An earthairfirewater colour

Was unveiled.

 

Rich vermillions, sombre umbers,

Occult ochres, verdant viridians,

Were presented by this prismatic parade

As if such a spectrum had never before

Dared to emerge from the shade.

 

Blinded by an unearthly faith,

We now rubbed our eyes

At this dawning creation

With a renewed belief.

 

Breathtaken, we breathed it back:

Pulling the sky towards us

In lungfuls of light –

Then exhaling,

The clouds dispelled like dandelions.

 

An impromptu pantheon,

Recreating the world

In our own fractured image.

Raise an eyebrow to influence the air,

Lift a finger and the crops would soar,

Invert a thumb and harvests fail…

 

But who are we to judge,

When from afar, we appear mere

Dot-to-dots,

Yearning for a common thread?

 

Yet the lionheart’s golden mane

Is not ours to wantonly flay;

Braided bails of spiralling corn

The only evidence

Of a God that passed this way.

 

Now hush – for fields have ears

And silence is as golden as the sun.

 

From the dancing trees

Our forest kith could be heard;

Amongst the bustling stalks

The flower kin spread the word.

 

It was a choral dawn like no other –

The morning eavesdropped upon by Adam

When first he emerged from the

All-Mother.

 

A myriad of voices chattered away,

But in the same tongue spoken.

Revealed! The lost language of the fey –

Our ears had awoken!

 

The gloaming star winked green:

It knew a secret – we did not.

The champion waited for

Was finally seen, borne in his sacred cot.

 

Lugh! He soars by bronzed chariot.

Lugh! He strums with a solar lyre.

Lugh! He sings with honey lyric.

Lugh! He sees through eyes of fire.

 

We toasted the rising king

With wide eyes and barley wine,

Our joy expressed in sundancing –

Jumping alive with ecstatic mime.

 

Lost in the landscape of Lughnasadh,

The moment telescoping,

Outside time.

 

It was ourselves looking at our elves,

Which the Outsiders insighted –

A frame within a frame.

The burning gallery ignited.

 

Rocketed by déjà vu (again)

A product of eternal combustion,

This glimpse of infinity’s spark?

 

For the answer to that endless question

We had to go where none return:

Down amongst the dead men,

Hoping in the dark.

 

Skull walls leered in silent mockery,

A sarcophagus whistled

A deadly tune;

Lulled, rolling into the barrow,

Returning to the tomb…

        

Way, way down there:

A rag, a bone, a hank of hair –

Would that be all that is left

To resurrect us?

 

O Lazarus, O Lazarus.

 

Ashes to – what then – Ashes?

 

Dust to – nothing more than – Dust?

 

As cold clay kissed awake,

Mannequins of the Fire Drake.

 

Charged in this earthen kiln,

Ossified, lacquered and brittle,

Until dropped, and shattered

At the marriage of the Quick and the Dead.

Each shard indicative

Of the punishment or pleasure

Stretching ahead..?

 

No,

Not whilst friends remain

To keep one’s memory alive –

Though tempests torment us,

Storms in our cracked cup.

Join hands

and we will endure.

 

The dead talked

Amongst themselves;

Thick as thieves –

They kept their secrets,

 

We kept our lives.

 

For now we had descended

To the summit’s peak,

Casting our reflections

Upon the waters of the deep.

 

It was time to go,

To leave a votive offering behind.

Confronted,

The past’s shadow was exchanged

For something of worth to find.

 

The sacred place resanctified,

By rites of passage outworn,

We emerged remembered,

Reconciled, reborn.

 

Crawling blinking into the brightening world,

We learnt to see again, through fields of vision.

 

Back down to earth

We cloudwalkers gently floated.

The grease of our harvest supper

Still upon empty mouths –

Terra firmly devoted.

 

The Bacchanalia was over –

Boozy God of derangement

Rent asunder: his goodness shared,

Blood into wine, flesh into bread.

 

John Barleycorn is dead!

John Barleycorn is dead!

 

The parched soil drank him dry:

The Goddess takes back what once was hers.

 

The power returns to the Mother.

The power returns to the Mother.

 

As we turned to the crimson-smeared day,

Imbibing the drunken sun,

Wetstone-slicked sickle in hand,

                           Ready to make hay.

 

***

 

Kevan Manwaring 1994/2007

Bardic Poetry: The Chair of the Sea

The Chair of the Sea

 

Sitting on the stone chair of Ynys Enlli,

surveying the azure ring of sea

encircling me like a gorsedd robe.

Astride the mountain-hill, 

eyes wide,

westering sun shining a bright road

to the Irish horizon.

Mona to the north –

faint, like the ghost of a grove.

Snowdonia’s fastness to the west

across the boar’s ear of the Llyn –

Eyri rising, a dream in the distance.

Gwyddno’s Bay sweeping south

to the blue stones of Preselli.

 

Nonchalant sheep and feathered skies

my only witness

as I sing my praises.

Finally awoken by awen,

alive in this sacred moment.

 

Counting cetaceans like saints –

twenty thousand, it’s told,

sanctify its weathered folds.

Four hundred and forty four acres

between man and his maker.

 

Here, where Merlin flies in his sleep,

the veil as thin as vellum,

the Divine glows

through the illuminated runes of ruins,

the vivid hues of the red and white lighthouse,

yellow dory, mustard lichen, seal-pup’s belly,

brown rams, black-backed cattle, wayward birds.

 

The book of my dream brought to life.

A road of many words to this point.

The sea’s ink waiting for its pen,

the parchment of sky to quench its thirst.

 

Kevan Manwaring

Bardsey Island, 18th -26th September 2005

(Ynys Enlli, the Island of Currents, is the Welsh name for Bardsey;

Môna, the druid’s name for Anglesey; Eyri, the old name for Snowdon)

 

From Thirteen Treasures, Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2008

Bardic Poetry: Agglestone

Agglestone

 

A full stop on Studland Heath.

Devilthrown sandstone

erratic forty tonnes

tipped to one side –

like a landlocked ship at low-tide.

Scuppered,

surrounded by a sea of golden gorse,

punk-spiked furze.

Peopleless, except for us –

two companions alone together in peace.

Cocksure, a robin lands on a branch and looks.

Somewhere, crows clear their throats.

Over the valley, the buzzing of a chainsaw.

But here, the emptiness

of a sky full of silence.

A cruiseship glides into Poole Harbour

ignored by the red squirrels of Brownsea Island.

In the uncertainty between sea and sky

the Isle of Wight floats,

the Needles ivory like the gates of Avalon –

and I imagine Tennyson sailing there with his wife,

tempest struck.

At my back, my mast in the storm,

an anchor of time,

quietly remembering.

Humans, cursed with amnesia,

leave their scrawl – a dyslexia of names

etched into red rock,

heiroglyphs of graffiti,

eroded by ice and rain and wind.

And here I make my mark –

ink on paper,

lines in the sand,

blackbird on chalk.

Finally still, after a month travelling,

sharing my land song,

and listening to those who came to listen.

Peace, after so many words.

Stillness, after so many roads.

I feel akin to the Agglestone –

carried along by a long woman

with glacial will –

moulding the mindland

and being moulded by it,

until deposited at this terminus,

weathered and weary,

but with new stories gathered to tell

around the hearth of winter.

Kevan Manwaring 23rd November-3rd December 2004 

 

Journey of a Bard

As a bard I follow what I call the Way of Awen. Awen is a Welsh word meaning ‘inspiration’. For me, being a bard is  not just something ‘weird I do at the weekends’ but it is a my life path. I perform professionally as a storyteller, run workshops, give talks, host events and judge contests – but that is only part of it. That’s the public part – and constitutes only, say, 10% of a bardic life. The other 90% of the time I am journeying both outwardly, to sacred places, places of inspiration and renewal, and inwardly, into the well of imagination – the deep place I have to go into to write, to bring something new into the world. So, when I’m out of sight I’m reading, studying, teaching online, writing, composing, rehearsing, relaxing, socialising & remembering to eat, sleep and play!

Recently I secured a contract for my new non-fiction book The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, and as part of the process of writing it, I am keeping a journal. My thoughts and feelings go initially into an actual physical journal which I can take with me on field trips, as below (I know you can use a laptop, but I prefer pen and paper when I’m in nature). This blog will give me a chance to share something of ‘the journey of the bard’ along the way. A journal is, as the name suggests, the perfect place to record a journey. Journey, of course, is originally a French word: ‘One journey meant one journée, a full day’s march, perhaps thirty miles.’ (Sahara, Marc de Villiers) Every day we live, we go a little bit further along our journey, even if we don’t physically move out of the house! Much of my writing here is based upon actual trips to places, either as part of my research or as part of my life as a working bard: gigs, talks, events. I hope you find it, at least, mildly distracting – and if it inspires you to visit these places, find your own ‘awen-zones’, or even walk the Way of  Awen yourself it would have served some good.

See you along the Way,

Awen Always,

Kevan 

Tallyessin and the Way of Awen

Tallyessin and the Way of Awen

A New Awe

The Way of Awen is about seeing the nascent wonder of the world, the miracle of every moment. It is Blake’s opened doors of perception – when everything is shown as it truly is, infinite. Truly, awe is at the heart of awen.

 

Sunday 1st June, 2008, Brownsea Island

 

Here on Brownsea Island – on the south coast of England – in the second largest natural harbour in the world I begin my book on the Way of Awen. It feels like a good place to start: Baden-Powell sowed the seeds of his international youth movement here, and there’s perhaps something of the ‘bad boy made good’ through rites-of-passage in Gwion Bach, the originally hoody! One could imagine him as a hoody these days, a ‘menace to society’ to a master bard via his journey to Deganwy. He has a long way to go before he can call himself a bard. He may have spent a year stirring the cauldron but the hard work that makes a boy into a bard is about to begin. He has scalded his fingers in the three drops splashed on his hand (like the three rays of awen) and imbibed the potion of inspiration meant for Afagddu – he’s had the ‘overdose’ of awen, which has released his potential, but now he has to fulfil it. First, he has to escape the wrath of Ceridwen: he has split her cauldron in two! (a kind of Caesarean; the waters have broken – but he is not yet ‘twice-born’). Realising he’s in hot water he hightails it out of there in the form of a hare, thanks to the power of shapechanging he has gained from the potion: the druidic gift of fith-fath. The chase is on!

 

The Changing Man

The way of awen is about the ability to change. All real journeys change you. If you are no different from when you set out then no real journey has been undertaken. For Gwion to become Taliesin he must undergo the journey of the bard or he remains simply Gwion. The process began for him with the seemingly monotonous hard work of cauldron stirring (symbolic of the sexual act – Gwion’s spoon a wooden phallus; Ceridwen’s cauldron her labia/womb – leading, eventually, to the ec-stasis of orgasm?). he had to put in the graft, in the hours and elbow grease. Such rhythmic activity can be trance-inducing. Watching the spoon turn and turn, hypnotic (love spoons are a traditional gift in Wales to a sweetheart). A spoon is not dissimilar to the shaman’s beater, as well. It would alter Gwion’s hyperactive adolescent brainwaves from alpha to theta – to a state of mind conducive to making lateral leaps, from hare to salmon, salmon to tiny bird, to grain of wheat: meta-state metamorphoses. Gwion must become the changing man.

 

(While I wrote this, one of the wandering peacocks which had been eyeing my  vegetarian Sunday roast leapt up onto the table and took at a greedy stab at my pie with its beak – plunging it right in! This impertinent bird could be seen as a kind of Gwion – who gobbles up the drops of awen meant for disadvantaged Afaggdu – but the truth was the bird wasn’t a peacock; it was a pea-hen! It seems the filching of a man’s ‘chips’ is endemic to the female, whichever the species!)

 

Monday, 2nd June, Isle of Purbeck

 

Here at Burnbake, on the morning after the Wessex Gathering I prepare to take to the road. Last night I ran the bardic cabaret around the campfire, which went well. It’s always a popular night – everyone’s chance to shine. I summoned some bonhomie from somewhere and played the congenial host, but in truth after my day out on Brownsea Island I was in a better mood than when I had left the camp – wearied out by being around people. I started the cabaret by invoking both the awen and Taliesin, with my ‘Song of Taliesin’ – to inspire the performers and audience. It all begins with Penbeirdd. It is his shining example, quite literally, which inspires all on the Bardic Path. He walks by our side – all the way to Deganwy.

            (from here, on the south coast of England, to North Wales, it’s a winding 255 miles – but it’s the spiritual and transformational distance which is the most significant).       

            First we need the alacrity of the hare – to flee ‘Ceridwen’s wrath’. As I sped off on my bike yesterday I felt like Gwion the hare. It was an exhilarating feeling. Sometimes it’s the best thing to do: if a situation doesn’t agree with you, just leave. No point enduring it, for the sake of it. (or exhaust ourselves trying to confront it, change it, etc). We often put up with too much – feeling it’s our lot to grin and bear it – our masochistic culture. As Brit’s we don’t like to complain. Make a fuss. Cause a scene. So we suffer in silence. Stew. Stagnate.

            So with Gwion the Hare’s speediness, it is time for me to strike camp and hit the road – hightail it out of here, jinking to confuse my ‘pursuers’, non-literal, right-brained leaps of logic. Hare-brained.

 

Stopped off at Badbury Rings on way home – a fairy place, full of deep peace, the consoling green of trees, everything fecund, heavy with summer… After the hustle and bustle of a public event it is essential to ground yourself and recharge the bardic batteries. Replenish the cauldron. Before speech, silence. After speech, silence. Return to the sacred silence. Let the buzz of voices, of personalities and opinions, fade away, until you can hear yourself think again.

           

9 June 2008

I catch the silhouette of a heron flapping its way across the fading glory of sunset

 

12 June 2008

Awen is universal – which is not surprising since it is ‘flowing spirit’. One thing it is similar to is Grace – possibly not the first definition of the noun (‘unmerited divine assistance given to human beings for their regeneration or santification’), although there’s elements of that – but certainly the second (‘a state of being pleasing to God’); and also ‘a charming trait or accomplishment.’ When one performs and the awen is with you, it feels like a state of grace – it comes through when we act gracefully and at the same time makes us act so. John O’Donohue, in his book Divine Beauty said ‘real presence is natural’. When we shine we are fully ourselves – the soul-light pours out of every pore. And yet, however desirable, its ways and appearances are mysterious: ‘No one set the limits on the flow of grace. Its presence and force remain immeasurable and unpredictable.’ It comes and it goes. Sometimes it is indisputably with us – when we are ‘on fire’. Sometimes, it is not. We ‘die on our feet’. All we can do is make ourselves willing channels. As Shakespeare said: ‘the readiness is all.’ I call this state ‘creative preparedness’. We create the frame for it to manifest – we become the field of potential.

 

14 June, Flag Fen

I sit by the Mere at Flag Fen. It is a sunny afternoon. I hear the conversation of birds, the fen winds soughing through the reeds in the lake, the willows on the shore. Clouds move with stately grace across the sky like ocean liners leaving port. Ripples undulate across the surface, giving the illusion it is going somewhere – busy about its business – when in fact it is staying put, protecting the remains of the ritual island and causeway beneath it. Stillness. Peace. Bliss. It is good to have arrived.

 

I’m here at this Bronze Age ritual centre to host the inaugural eisteddfod to find the Chief Bard of the Fens, organised by Jody Copestake and the Ancient Muse team. It was an honour to have been asked. Previously I have hosted the Lammas Games Eisteddfod and been involved in the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon in my home city of Bath. Bardic Chairs are springing up all over Britain. Next month there’s one scheduled in my old home town of Northampton, just down the road from here – in my old haunt of Delapre Abbey. The area around Flag Fen was the stomping ground of so-called peasant poet, John Clare, one of my literary heroes. I made a pilgrimage to his grave in nearby Helpstone in 1992, the year of his bicentenary, and took part in poetry readings around Northampton in his honour (Clare was to spend the last quarter of a century of his life there, incarcerated in Northampton County Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. On day-release he would wander the town and hand out poems to passers-by, written on the hoof and lost forever). In Helpstone graveyard Clare’s modest memorial bears the inscription: ‘Poets are born and not made’, but the last letter is worn away by the centuries  and so it seems to read, ‘Poets are born and not mad’…And yet it seems to come with the territory. To want to be a poet is perhaps a sign of madness. There’s at least a couple of places in Wales, where, if you hazard to spend a night you could end up ‘dead, mad or poet’. Well, having climbed Cader Idris and made pilgrimage to Bedd Taliesin half a dozen times by now, I must have come down a ‘dead mad poet’!

 

In my introduction to the contest I suggested Clare should be made Honorary Chief Bard of the Fens. This would be a respectful gesture, for Clare was the Fens poet-of-place par excellence. He witnessed the Enclosures Act first-hand and was able to sing its subtle beauty with far more authenticity and intimate knowledge than many of the Romantic poets on their high horses – for he worked on the land as a labourer; his hands and feet knew it. Psycho-geopgrapher Iain Sinclair and East Anglian storyteller Hugh Lupton (with Chris Wood) have honoured the poet in their own distinctive ways, and I featured Clare in my first (and still unpublished novel), The Ghost Tree, written 1992-1994. One of my first published poems was about Clare in a local anthology of Northampton Poets. Knowing this bard of quiet beauty on my doorstep inspired me as a young poet, setting out on my own journey.

 

…I believe (the way of awen) is about living in the flow all of the time. When we’re not – that’s when it goes wrong. This current book deal came about because I was ‘in the flow’. It all fell into place – though not without a little nudging. The Way of Awen is not about just ‘going with the flow’ – it is about knowing the flow. Being proactive, rather than reactive. About hooking into the current of life and responding to its vibrations, its variations, a spider on the web of life!

            A moor-hen just flapped madly through my legs and shot out onto the lake in a flurry of wings and white water: Awen!

            The WoA is about finding inspiration in unexpected places! It is the craft of inspiration – not waiting for it, but seeking it in every moment, fully present. Living life as though one is a character in a tale from the Mabinogion, journeying through a landscape of vivid symbolism. It could be called lucid living, akin to when we know we are dreaming – being fully conscious of being alive. In the moment. In the Awen.

 

Later, by the fire in the roundhouse

It begins in fire and shadow… Afaggdu and Creirwy… Utter darkness and fair face… The primal darkness and the primal spark… I write these words by firelight in a Bronze Age-style round house at Flag Fen. I enjoy the fruits of my efforts: a bed earnt by my bardic efforts, a fire built by my own hands. The grey matter of thought placed, twig upon twig, stick upon stick, branch upon branch, until the vital spark occurs. The spark at the kindling is akin to the Divine Spark.

            The fire around which the people gathered to keep the night at bay, the day’s work done. The storyteller’s fire. Ancient and timeless.

            In the Taliesin story fire is fundamental. First there is the cauldron in the iron house – heated and escaped from by the chthonic deity, Tegid Foel and his giantess wife.

Strange and awkward – the embarrassing relatives. They stick out in the Taliesin tale – not quite fitting in with the rest of the narrative, Tom Bombadils. What does it mean? We’ll return to those later…

            And then there’s the fire that cooks the potion of inspiration. Stoked by Morda the ancient of days, and stirred by Gwion the little boy. For a year and a day. Imagine the dedication. The tedium. The trance-inducing monotony that leads to a flash of inspiration. Its like any long-term project that you have to keep chipping away at, any reward a long way off. You need staying power. The journey, not the destination. Process, not goal. Attention to detail along the way. Of course, fire is the element of transformation, of quickening. We all get a chance to shine.

 

I went to say hello to my neighbours in the other Bronze Age roundhouse – a small group of family and friends – and one of them turned out to be Robin Herne, whom I didn’t know but had heard of. We had a pleasant evening, chatting by their fire and they were most hospitable, offering me a welcome vegetarian alternative to the BBQ organised for those on site. I returned the favour later with some Guiness after the session in the large, less smokier Iron Age roundhouse. I thought there was something special about the man, a spark in his eye, for the next day Robin was to win the Eisteddfod, as judged by Bobcat, Ben Haggarty, Albion Conclave’s Stefan Allen and a Flag Fen representative – the Awen was with him! It needed to have been – for it was a tough contest, the standard was high, and the day went well. Yet I had a long ride home, and the heavens opened as I left. Fortunately, after a pitstop in Northampton at my Mum’s, the skies cleared and the rest of the ride home, over the Cotswolds, was pleasant as I raced the sun into the West.

 

Solstice Madness in the West Country

18-22nd June

Very full-on solstice few days, typical of the season. Midsummer madness! Everything intensifies around these festivals, and the full moon didn’t help.

19th Book launch in Glastonbury at the Cat & Cauldron (kept waiting, but only because it was a pleasant atmosphere – Trevor wanted to give folk plenty of time to mingle…but it didn’t help me to relax. I found it difficult to enjoy until afterwards). A meal afterwards in The Hawthorn, courtesy of Trevor and Liz, which was nice of them.

21st-22nd: Alice in Wonderland show at Tyntesfield, National Trust – Sat & Sun. 4 20 min sets: White Rabbits, Red Queens, Mad Hatters, Terrible Twins. Fearsome Beasts. All the way to Bristol and back, then back to Bristol in the evening. (Picked bike up at 4pm from Croscombe Mill Garage). Cosmic Acoustica gig, Bristol – Oisin and Niamh, and Dragon Dance, which went very well. It was worth the effort of getting there – a magical, awen filled evening of beautiful music and poetry. An excellent kora player, a good singer-songwriter and a spectacular performance poet called Analiese, whom I connected with, already we didn’t seem to get off to a good start. When I arrived there in my bike leathers, she was by the door – turned, and exclaimed ‘Oh god!’ The heavens opened in the middle of the evening, and the sky flashed with lightning. It was indeed, a dark and stormy night…Atmospheric, but I had to ride back in the storm. Not fun. Could hardly see. Had to ride almost by intuition. If I had gone with the flow it would’ve been easier to stay over in Bristol. Exhausted the next morning but had to go in – it was touch and go whether it was going to happen or not, because of the dodgy weather. Was praying for a call to say it was cancelled, but no such luck. Had to drag my sorry bones out of bed (so wanted/needed a lie-in that morning) and get to Tyntesfield. It was actually a pleasant day. Breezy, but sunny. And had punters! Not loads, but enough to make it seem worthwhile. Did six slots in the end (to make up for the two missed yesterday due to lack of audience). Felt like the white rabbit racing back and forth: ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’

23rd: We said farewell, and I returned to Bath and finished my OU marking. It was a day to tie up loose ends before I headed for the mountains.

24th: Freedom! I spent the morning packing, and was off by around 1pm. I was prepared for the long haul. The weather stayed kind and got to Corwen by just before 7pm, after a couple of stops on the way. It was a nice ride up. Traffic flowed okay and bike ran sweet.

 

Off to the mountains…!

 

25th June

I have embarked upon my journey to Deganwy – and I’m nearly there! I set off from Bath yesterday – relieved at finishing my duties and commitments – and had a good run in the sun up to Corwen, right in the Welsh heartland with its magnificent statue of Owain Glyndwr seeing off the English. This charming place was the adopted home of my literary hero, John Cowper Powys, who rendered his own vast version of the historical legend. Stopped to pick up some supplies and called Kirsten to let her know I was nearly there. Didn’t reckon on the obscurity of the location and the really steep lane to get there! Eventually found Kirsten’s place – Hafotty Gelynen – a smallholding she’s staying at near Maerdy, after one wrong turn and several steep tracks. It was great to see a friendly face at the end of the track, waving as she opened the farm gate. Last time I saw Kirsten was in London, I think. She’d organised a bardic workshop for me at Treadwell’s, Covent Garden. And now I’m working on a new bardic book. Finally I can stop. It’s been relentless until now. Last night was lovely sharing stories, songs and poems over a bottle of organic mead from Glastonbury. Kirsten cooked the food over a campfire, despite the intermittent rain (using vegetables picked fresh from their poly-tunnel) and we sat outside, enjoying the view until the rain had other ideas. Then she brought the fire inside, using a shovel to transport the logs, practical woman! And we got cosy by the burner. So satisfying, having a real fire. It’s so conducive to camaraderie, conversation and contentment. The fire of awen crackled and glowed. Kirsten sang a spine-tingling version of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. I recited my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and my own poem ‘Heartwood’. Midnight came, eyelids drooped and I retired to my caravan, armed with fleeces and blankets. Its great to wake up in Wales. To open the double caravan door and be greeted by a vista of vale and mountain, rain-washed colours subdued, subtle and soothing.

 

As we had watched the snakes of flame we talked about serpents: Kirsten was going to have a Celtic snake tattoo to mark her move to Wales. I mentioned Lydney, the healing temple dedicated to the apparently unique Celtic God Nodens – dramatically situated on a wooded headland overlooking the Severn (several hound icons were found there – an interesting Ceridwen overlap). We agreed it would be good to spend a night there, sacred dreaming. Lydney is akin to Epiduaros in usage, Asklepios the Greek Nodens – associated with snakes: his caduceus still a symbol of medicine to this day. Interestingly it is also associated with Hermes, who held a rod – sometimes depicted with snakes and wings. Thoth: Hermes: Mercury – all brothers of Taliesin, I think. The penbeirdd is part of the same lineage, if not the identical archetype/deity/energy. The spirit of inspiration, of eloquence and communication, that ‘enters’ people so their words flow – like the waters of Llyn Geironydd, Lake Silvertongue, which I plan to visit.

 

Hermes’ rod, Aesculapius’ caduceus … healing words.

 

Dames said the ancient Welsh believed if a white snake was eaten all the tongues of animals would be understood. There is a Taliesin-type story about a boy who has a dream about a ‘green-garlanded god’ and receives the ‘hawk tongue’, the bardic gift – and perhaps a double-edged one, like the Tongue that Cannot Lie which Thomas the Rhymer received from the Queen of Elfland.

 

Llyn Geironydd, 25th June

 

I sit on the base of the stone erected for the Chief Bard of the West, by the glittering shores of Lake Language. Can’t believe I’m here – it was quite a journey! The roads here from Trefiw were very narrow, steep and slippery. Gravel and rain – the biker’s nightmare! And it’s not the easiest of places to find. There’s a dearth of signage, as though the locals want to keep it for themselves. I initially ended up at Trafnant, but I was going in the right direction. Always trust your instincts! If yesterday was like being a hare, hightailing it to the hills, then today has been like being a salmon – riding in the rain, winding my way along the serpentine roads, which shadow the water courses, returning upstream, higher and higher, against all odds, back to the source – to Taliesin’s birthplace. I’m home!

 

In Michael Dames’ Taliesin’s Travels (Heart of Albion Press 2006 – coming out after I had conceived of this book – one of those ‘in the aether’ things), which is superb for following the ‘Taliesin trail’ he writes: ‘He arrived at Llyn Geironydd entirely drained and literally speechless.’ This is how I feel after a very demanding first half of the year: book launches, gigs, eisteddfod, courses, making a living and dealing with death. I am ready to have some time off the wheel, some time away from the crowd, sometime for myself. Time to replenish the cauldron.

 

Llyn Geironydd is said to be the birthplace of the 6th Century Welsh bard, Taliesin. At one end stands an austere monument erected by Lord Willoughby in 17850 to the ‘Chief of the Bards. The remote lake was also the site of the poet Gwilym Cowlyd’s annual ‘Arwest’ – a cultural festival, ‘less Anglicised’ and formal than the eisteddfod. Held annually until 1927.  The Taliesin Festival has been held more recently. I was invited last year to perform in the ritual drama of Taliesin and Ceridwen by the poet Gwdihw (‘little owl’) but was prevented due to the floods of Summer 2007.

 

…A lake filled with silence. From this silence everything comes. This is where the Awen is born. First comes not the Word – but the Silence. The Taw. It is wonderful to listen to the gentle sounds of the lake, the trees, the wind. Peace is sacred. There is much to much noise in the world. White noise. Stopping us thinking straight. Unlike pink noise – calming and conducive to lucid thoughts, to deep wisdom. O, to spend a season here – to have a house here, on the shores of Llyn Geironydd (gay-ree-on-ith). To be plugged into this source. Hydro-powered Awen! Listening to the sacred silence.

 

Deganwy Castle

 

I arrived in Conwy in glorious sunshine and so decided to ‘make hay’ and headed for the castle of King Maelgwyn. It concluded my journey to Deganwy rather prematurely! But it was worth it (and in hindsight, a wise decision, as the weather turned for the worst for the rest of the week). It was absolutely stunning on top – spectacular views over the Conwy estuary and the sea towards Anglesey. I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. Maelgwyn’s fortress always looked so forbidding in the photos, and maybe its just the associations: a stern ruler. Taliesin arriving in winter, a frosty reception. The scariest eisteddfod. Apparently, Maelgwyn would force bards (poets and harpers) to swim across the Conwy, presumably to cut the wheat from the chaff or to prove his power (an Alan Sugar of his day, making his wannabe apprentice’s jump through hoops) – only the poets could perform because it would be in their heads, whileas the harpers’ instruments would be ruined! Professional sabotage!

            The only way to the castle now was via a housing estate which crowds its flanks (what would Maelgwyn have made of this suburbia?). Maybe there’s a more direct route but it alludes me (another non-signed ancient monument). Place names like Castell Close give me clues. I parked my bike somewhat incongruously in amid the bungalows and took the footpath between them into the field. And there it was! I instinctively sat on rounded stone protruding from the nearest hillock rather than head straight there. I needed a moment to prepare myself, like Taliesin waiting to enter Maelgwyn’s court – it felt right to wait. On the other side the two hills (one rounded, one rocky – feminine and masculine?) I found the ruins of the gatehouse, at least the remains of one from the 13th century according to an inscribed sign: proof! This is from later than the Taliesin tale’s setting if not composition – contemporary with Edward Ironshanks’ ring of iron – but the site was probably in use for centuries (Conwy Castle was in military use until the 1700s). it holds such a strategic position, overlooking the Conwy and surrounding landscape. Standing upon top of this ‘Amon Hen’ one certainly feels like the King of the Castle – lord of all one surveys. It has a resonance of temporal power, of saturnine male energy – the dark father archetype. Taliesin as Luke Skywalker, Maelgwyn as Darth Vader here in this ‘Cloud City’: ‘Yes, (heavy breathing), I am your step-uncle!’ On the summit of the ‘male’ hill there’s a kind of dungeon – an open air, steep sided pit on the top. I spotted a rotting sheep carcase down there. One could easily imagine Elphin incarcerated there – in silver chains because he was the royal nephew after all. Maelgwyn is the stone king, par excellence – he rules ‘the world’ from his stern fortress crag, a fastness of Cambrian rock.

 

I will set out on foot,

To the gate I will come,

I will enter the hall,

My song I will sing,

My verse I will proclaim,

And the king’s bards I will cast down.

In the presence of the Chief,

Demands I will make,

And chains I will break –*

Elffin will be set at liberty.

 

Taliesin, ‘Journey to Deganwy’

 

Taliesin’s famous journey – undertaken at the age of thirteen – was with one prime purpose: the vindication and emancipation of Elffin, which could be seen as a metaphor for the freeing of spirit (Elffin/Elphin/Elf/Fairy/Fey – otherworldly energy). Liberty from the bonds of Maelgwyn – from matter. It is also his defining moment – his gorsedd of efficiency, as Morgannwg would put it. This is when he proves himself as a bard, against Maelgwyn’s best – and wins the Chair of Deganwy. Interestingly, in the above poem, it mentions the bloodshed of Arthur’s battle – at Badon (Caer Badon: Bath). Taliesin has fled from here, from the wanton slaughter, like Merlin, into the hills. I have ‘fled’ from Bath too! From the pell-mell of life. Weary, bardic batteries worn low. I would love to live up here, in the mountains, where you can feel the dragon in the land, and see it!

 

Blake wrote of the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ and railed against any form of enslavement. His work celebrates the emancipation of the imagination. We all need to find freedom from the bonds of matter, from the treadmill of work. Only Spirit can set us free, can completely fulfil us – for with matter, we always want more. There’s never ‘enough’. We have to find our Source, like Blake, from ‘Another Sun’.

 

Orme’s Head to Capel Currig

 

‘I seek what is lost,’

Taliesin, The Chair of Deganwy

 

Made it to Capel Curig – finally out of the rain. Everything is soaked. Even this journal got damp! And all my clothes inside the tail-bag! Thank goodness for the drying room! Now I have a cup of tea, some Welsh cakes in my and a lounge. Guess rain is to be expected in Wales, especially Snowdonia – but this monsoon has come suddenly. After waking up to rain pattering on my tent it cleared up, but I decided to go, thank goodness! Conwy Touring Park wasn’t that atmospheric (an old quarry?). The rules stipulated ‘no groups of bikers; only couples and families’, so I don’t know why they let me in then!

            This morning I went to Orme’s Head – rode around some of it on the Marine Drive, then visited the summit. Almost immediately the weather turned for the worse. So I had some lunch at the ‘Captain’s Table’ with the pensioners – the summit-restaurant had the ambience of a kind of Valhalla for OAPs. Awful muzak and kitsch Fifties décor. Aborted my full loop of the Orme and scarpered down the hill in the lashing rain to a town, where I took shelter in a pleasant coffee shop. Served by a nice local lass with blonde hair who made me think of Eurgain – Maelgwyn’s daughter – whose name means ‘bright’, ‘gold,’ ‘gloriously radiant’ (Taliesin’s female equivalent, says Dames). I decided to visit Bryn Euryn (‘little gold coin, gold jewel, darling’) which seems etymologically connected to Eurgain. This was a revelation – showing a different aspect of Maelgwyn (like Olwen – the flower-maiden daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, the father-in-law from Annwn). On one level Maelgwyn’s bright, golden daughter is literally that: his monetary wealth. This is the prize the bard who convinces Maelgwyn of his merit – Maelgwyn a kind of Dark Age Alan Sugar to Taliesin’s bardic apprentice. But shining-browed Taliesin chooses to be ‘fired’. He wins the contest but does not seek the hand of Eurgain (your-gain?). Elidyr wins it instead. If Eurgain is symbolic of fortune (the Goddess Fortuna?, Lady Luck), then Taliesin’s choice shows he knows what true wealth is to the authentic bard – not Maelgwyn’s bright-gold, but the Way of Awen. He turns his back on worldly riches. Only to the Muse-Goddess does he belong.

 

Eurgain it is said:

 

‘set the candle to the wild birds to show her lover the way to Wales

 

An amazing, arresting image – echoing the enchanted birds of Rhiannon, and perhaps seen in the flame-coloured red kites that have come back to the valleys of Wales.

 

It seems Maelgwyn’s prophesised death is connected to that which he hoards and lusts after:

 

‘A most strange creature will come from the sea marsh of Rhianedd.

As a punishment of iniquity on Maelgwyn Gwynedd;

His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold,

And this will bring destruction upon Maelgwyn Gwynedd.’

 

As in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, gold is eventually the downfall of all men who crave power and immortality. This prophecy might be referring to Y Fad Felen, the yellow plague which broke out in 547 AD across Wales.

 

Visited Caer Eurgain in the pouring rain  – meant to be connected to Taliesin, but this seems spurious fancy. Locals refer to it as Derthin, the Bear Fort…Certainly felt surly, brooding, massive shoulders hunched against the rain. If the bear-bard was here, he was hibernating.

 

Pennies from Heaven…The relentless rain has made me stop and take stock – as I hung my clothes and biker accoutrements to dry. Warmth, shelter, peace, a warm drink, hot food, a soft bed – these are true wealth. I succeeded in my quest – I made it Deganwy – and, so far, I have lived to tell the tale…

 

(earlier I had a potentially nasty confrontation with a van as I tried to make my way up the ridiculously steep roads to the obscure YHA. The van appeared suddenly around a blind bend. I was only going about 20 miles an hour and I’m always careful on country roads, slowing right down if I can’t see what’s around the corner. A combination of gravel, rain, narrow road and fatigue made me take a spill – the bike nearly went under the front wheel of a white van which had come hammering around the corner. It stopped … just in time. I was undamaged – thanks to my protective gear – and the bike seemed okay. It started up again. The guys helped me back on and where apologetic. Relieved, I rode off. Later I discovered the front headlamp was cracked but I mended it with some wire and black tape – adequate to get me home).

 

I discovered to my annoyance it wasn’t even the right road (the YHA had an absence of signage). When I eventually found the right road, the way got steeper and steeper until, beaten, I had to stop the bike and walked up the hill, to scout ahead. Nothing in sight. I asked a local woman, who pointed ahead…up and up. The YHA was a white speck on the mountain side. No chance, not on my jinny, loaded with gear. I gave up and headed for Conwy YHA. It was full up! I had a couple of cups of tea until 5pm, when I rang to Capel Curig, the next nearest hostel, to check there was a bed. And then, I set off, thru the driving rain…

 

I had wanted to visit the ‘Bard’s Stone’ the next morning, but nature and circumstance had other ideas.

 

The Way of Awen can be hard…But H Rider Haggard said: ‘There is no journey upon this earth a man may not make if he sets his heart to it.’

 

There’s some serendipity here though – Capel Currig was renowned for its harp-making up until the 17th Century. The village of the bards, hail!

 

After I had dried out, eaten, rested, settled in I went to the local pub to enjoy their open fire, real ales and Welsh whiskey – reading my enchanting De Lint novel, The Little Country, while gazing out at the flood waters…(from the heavy rains earlier –water always finds the quickest path).

 

 

28 June

 

I’m sitting in the caravan at Keith and Annie’s place, a small farm cottage in the rugged backcountry above Porthmadog, slowly waking up after a lovely night of food, fire and conversation. The awen manifests in such moments – in lively discussions between friends. Points of view expressed like synapses firing. In the love felt between old friends, kindly tolerant of each others’ foibles and quirks. It was great to get here and get warm and dry again after another near drubbing. The rain came again yesterday – instead of going up the mountain (toyed with climbing Snowdon) instead I went with the flow, revisiting Llyn Geironydd (to walk around it) and then Swallow Falls – this is the way of awen too. Rather than resisting the water – going with it. Make your enemy your friend. Attune to its element. Learn from it. Well, I think I have learned the lesson of rain now!

 

Bikes and Bards in Bala

 

Had a good run from Porthmadog to Bala via Dolgellau road and Trawsfynydd, which turns out to be a favourite blat-track for bikers, as I discovered upon arriving in the town: there were dozens of bikers there congregating outside a couple of the cafes on the high street. I had stumbled into a weekly bike-meet. I parked my humble 125 amidst the ranks of big boys bikes, and went to get myself a baguette and a tea. I didn’t get chatting to any of the bikers. Sure some of them were fine, but I dislike the snobbish machismo and clan mentality in the biking fraternity – the size of your penis seems to depend on the cc and make of your machine. Most of them seem middle-aged blue collar types, and the odd wannabe rebel executive. Not much edginess or bohemia really. Just everyone in their biker bling, their uniform of rebellion. Pretty harmless really. The wild ones grew old, had families, settled down. Now they have family estates or people carriers and bring their bikes out at weekends. To counter that, you have a nice camaraderie on the road – most nod or wave (can you imagine every driver doing that?). Some pull over, if they see you by the ride side apparently struggling (especially if you have L plates). A guy on a blue Yamaha Fazer pulled up by me on the windy Trawsfynydd road as we waited for some roadwork lights to change. We got chatting briefly – instantly friendly. I asked him where he was heading and he said: ‘Just following my wheels’, and roared off. Cool.

 

Anyway, it made an interesting atmosphere for it was Eisteddfod Proclamation day in Bala. Families were lining the High Street in expectation of the procession. I asked an old lady who explained it all, pleased to see my interest. A newspaper stand said: ‘New Bala UFO spotted’. Bikers, druids and aliens. It was the silly season alright! It was great to watch the procession when it finally passed – local VIPs, community groups, arch-druids in gold regalia, banner-carriers, a sword-bearer, a woman carrying the Hirlas Horn, another the Blodeuged, and the battalions of bards, ovates and druids in their blue, green and white. It was a real community affair, with the spectators people-spotting as much as anything, the locals enjoying it with a mixture of pride and good humour. This wasn’t a fringe thing – but the heartblood of the community, of the nation.

 

The ceremony was all in Welsh, of course, which was lovely to hear – especially the singing (there was also some beautiful harp-playing as the procession spiralled inwards to the gorsedd circle, taking their places). I spoke to Keith this morning about how singing spontaneously is a way of giving praise. I felt it at Tyn Llwyn (when I felt instinctively like chanting the awen when confronted with the stunning view – realising this is how the famous singing in Wales must have originated, as a natural response to the landscape) and I saw it at Bala green today, as the ranks of blue, green and white gorsedd members sang around the gorsedd stones. It seemed familiar from over a decade of attending such ceremonies in England – obviously very inspired by the Eisteddfod, itself largely the invention of a fertile mind – Iolo Morgannwg’s.

 

I sit looking towards Bala and its lake now – in a lovely little wooden seat, which I’ve had to ‘contest’ with a couple of local ‘fairies/pixies!, kids belonging to a large family gathering nearby (who have a marquee set up, a couple of BBQs and mean business!) interesting that I got them talking about fairies (because they were acting like a couple of cheeky ones) because the lake is said to be frequented by various kinds: including Plant Annwn (Children of the Deep) and the eponymous Y Twlywth Teg (possibly connected to Bala/Llyn Tegid’s own Tegid Foel). Tegid Foel is said to be the father of Taliesin and he has his own story-thread – Chieftain of Penllyn (where Gronw comes from, rival of Llew Llaw Gyffes for the love of Blodeuwedd) the five parishes around the shore of the eponymous lake. Apparently Tegid continues to dwell with his supernatural bride in the submerged ‘temple city’ below Bala’s glittering surface. It too has a legend about a well that was negligently forgotten to be covered: ‘one evening the task was overlooked’. Thus, the spring, Ffynnon Gawr, still is believed to flow below the lake like the Well of Segais of Irish legend. Another tale says how a minstrel was told to play at a festival there, but a ‘bird lured him to the hill, where he fell asleep. In the morning he awoke to find Llyn Tegid covering the city’; and, most memorably of all: ‘on the lake’s surface floated his harp’, a haunting image reminiscent of the Bard of Thessaly, Orpheus’ head, floating with his lyre down the Hebron. Fishermen are said to see chimney pots and hear church bells on calm days, or after a thaw. Bala is also said to be the home of a monster, and a lost city! It seems its deep waters provide a dark mirror to people’s fantasies and fears. And yet its pure waters perhaps feed the racial consciousness here – the purest form of Welsh is said to be spoken in Bala. So today’s eisteddfod could not have been more appropriate. Bala’s deep streams inspire many to this day.

 

(last year I visited Bala for the first time, staying with Rowenna Williams, whose father owns the land through which flows the Stream of the Poisoned Horses, Aber Gwenwen Y Meirch – it was, in fact, a beautiful burn flowing through a wooded vale. I was honoured to be taken to it, and up to its source. I also walked down to where it flowed into the lake. Such places bring the legends alive).

 

28 June, Llyn Tegid

 

By the shores of Lake Bala, listening to its endless stories – a bottomless cauldron of myth and legend. Awen is like this deep and broad lake – an endless source of inspiration. It is always there, waiting to be tapped into. One just has to sensitise to it, sit, listen, wait…like a fisherman of words, wait for a line to catch. The Muse to bite. Lady of the Lake, lake maiden, goddess of the subconscious, mistress of dreams. Swifts dart like the shuttle of a loom, creating the warp and weft of lake life. Soothing song of the lake – let it work on your weary body, ease your soul. Hwyll to Taliesin’s father, Tegid Foel, and his ‘sunken city’ (the treasures of the subconscious).

 

A stone head below the water – ancient and mute. Raise it from the deep. Let it speak. What would it say? Would it talk of Tegid’s lost city, of monsters and lake maidens? How do we discern real dreams from false? Have they arrived to us from between the gate of horn, or ivory?

 

The lake must be replenished, otherwise it runs dry. It gives freely of itself to the river, while fed by many streams.

 

Over the last couple of years, while researching my book Lost Islands, I collected tales of ‘lost lands’ around the British Isles, of which there are a plethora. I particularly like the one associated with Cardigan Bay (Seithennin, the drunken steward and Cantre’r Gwaelod). Here is one I stumbled upon at Penmaenmawr: The Tale of the drowned palace

 

‘When the tide is low take a look over Trwyn-yr-Wylfa and towards the sea. It’s possible to see rocks in the sand. It is believed that these rocks were the foundations of a palace belonging to a wicked prince named Helyg. One day his wickedness was punished and the sea came in drowning his land and palace. Helyg and his family ran for safety to nearby Trwyn-yr-Wylfa.’

 

From Conwy walk guide pamphlet

 

29 June, Sunday  Aberystwyth

 

The Way of Awen is, among other things, about going with the flow and I certainly have done that today. Making a slow start at Pen y Bont campsite because of the rain and feeling slightly groggy – a good night’s sleep but one filled with dreams of lake maidens! I wended my way from Bala along the lake, stopping briefly at Llangower at midday, but the rain drove me on and I ploughed on to Machynnleth – over stunning scenery, no doubt, but in the driving rain I could see or appreciate it little. I had to completely focus on the road, although a tune did come to me as I rode, whether original or remembered I could not say. I passed by Cader Idris and made it to Mach, thawing out in a local café over some leek and potato soup. My fave place, The Quarry Café (run by the CAT people) was closed, so I had to go in a real local place – in my dripping bike gear. It was busy and the only space was sharing with a couple of folk. I asked if I could and they nodded. I got chatting with a fellow ‘biker’ – an Israeli girl who was cycling around Britain, which pit my own jaunt into perspective. I wouldn’t want to tackle these hills on pedal power! Refuelled, I made my way to Tre Taliesin – stopping off at the ‘Half way House’, with its hobbity waterwheel, and surely one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Wales – not large, but lovely, right at the divide of the Dyfi. It was easy to imagine a water nymph frolicking in the clear water – moon-pale skin, long white hair flowing over a svelte figure in a green velvet dress. I certainly could as I sat there, eating my cheese baguette and apple! I went on to Bedd Taliesin, paying my respects to the penbeirdd, reciting Dragon Dance in the mist on the mountain side. A hareglow grew from the grave. I felt a sense of stillness and completion. Then I blatted down to Borth, to the realm of Glyndon Garanhir. The waves rolled in – refreshing – but the place has a desultory air, the desolate feel of a seaside resort out of season, even though it’s late June and summer, apparently! Feels like winter! The endless rain is depressing and draining. It would’ve been a sad note to end my trip on – a feeling of flatness, rather than euphoria – so I followed a whim and rode along the winding, hilly coast road to Aberystwyth, which was a pleasant surprise, bathed as it was in sunlight under – finally! – clear blue skies! I parked the bike and walked up to the castle, and stood upon the gorsedd stone. Full circle! I’ve decided to stay the night – rather than slog it back. And visit the National Library tomorrow, and check out a couple of bookshops I’ve spotted. This is awen-town!

 

Wyrd epiphany in Aberystwyth

 

Stood on the end of the pier gazing along the sun road, thinking about the second half of the year and all the things I have to do… and about the Way of Awen – and it dawned on me what it actually is. Arriving in Aberystwyth and changing my ‘wyrd’ illustrated it brilliantly. Not just going with the flow, for that shows lack of will, a lack of ambition. It is about living by inspiration. Being spontaneous, in the moment, fully present, fully conscious – not just being blown by the winds of fate, but living consciously. It is just like a performance – rather than worrying what is going to happen next, trusting in the tale and your craft. Let the Awen come through you. If you worry, then you forget, then you stumble. It is about attaining a certain level of grace, of equipoise and equanimity. Living with dignity and wisdom.

 

Watched the sunset from a promenade bar with a sense of completion. So glad I stated – a gentle, satisfying end to the holiday, rather than a long slog home in the evening. I still have to do that tomorrow, but then I have a Monday mindset – a ‘back to work’ attitude. This is the first day I really felt like I had stopped and relaxed fully. I was overcome with tiredness earlier – it finally hit me, after pushing myself all week. I was too tired to head back yesterday. Besides, it’s not everyday I get to see the sun slide into the sea. This has probably been the first day that’s been possible for a week in Wales. Rainland! Still, I feel I’ve got what I came for. I’ve kickstarted my book. I’ve definitely embarked upon the Way – and gained insights along the way.

 

Now it’s time to bring them home.

 

Total mileage of journey to Deganwy: 698 miles – hardly ‘Long Way Down’, but enough for me this week.

 

1st July    Bath

 

I am back home after a long ride yesterday. Had a good night’s sleep and a hot bath and feel better – although I’m still stiff and it’ll take at least a day to recover. Mind is still ‘groggy’. Shows how tired I was – yesterday wrote ‘Shrewsbury’ on my bike directions instead of ‘Hereford’ and ended doing an 80 mile detour! And so the journey back took two hours longer – 7 hours in total since leaving Aberystwyth, although about an hour of that was taken up with pitstops. Guess I didn’t want to come home, for I was heading back to north Wales!

 

Now I have to assimilate what I learnt last week, and channel it into the book. I began this journal exactly a month ago, and have had some good experiences to get the Awen flowing. I could use extracts of this in my book, or use it to jumpstart the Awen (as in the Morning Pages exercise). The main thing is to let the Awen flow every day I’m writing it – would be lovely to be based in a cottage by Geironydd – rather than use loads of quotes. I want the text to flow, to come from embodied wisdom. From the heart, not the head.

 

6 July Bookbarn, Hallatrow

 

Sitting in the vast ‘raiders of the lost ark’ Bookbarn warehouse – Britain’s ‘largest secondhand book warehouse’ apparently – as the rain lashes down outside. The wild elements rage – and all we have to counter them, to placate these ferocious gods, are countless words. An elephants’ graveyard of books. Pile after pile. Aisle after gloomy aisle. A labyrinth of words. What minotaurs lurk there? Anyone brave enough to enter its endless maze was a possible Theseus. It was the kind of place you could lose your sanity if you took a wrong turning. Were there gibbering bibliophiles wandering these corridors, lost in their search? The odd skeleton of a bookworm? I could imagine doorways to other worlds here – each book a portal. It would make a great setting for a story, as I’ve noted in another notebook last year. How could such an inconsequential thing as a book hope to encompass the world? How can the frailest, most insubstantial of things counter such wild vastness, the unpredictability of creation? A bookshop is a good example of a practical manifestation of the Way of Awen. If one attempted to run through the shelves methodically (difficult when there’s only the vaguest attempt at cataloguing here) it would take forever and a day. Instead, it is best to trust to intuition. Often the first book you lay your hands on is the right one. I came here with the intention of finding a copy of Voss by Patrick White – and I found one, a lovely old ’58 hardback for £3. I used the computer catalogue to see if they had any Charles Williams, for I wouldn’t know where to start – where is there poetry section? It revealed they had a copy of Taliessin Through Logres at a snip for £90! I ordered his Selected Writings instead for a more reasonable but still pricey £12. A lad, possibly the boyfriend of one of the ‘book-muses’ behind the counter had to run the gauntlet to fetch it from the other barn. I waited in the café, enjoying a coffee while writing this. I wonder what other treasures lay undiscovered here? I carefully wrapped my finds and sealed myself into my biker gear. The ‘typhoon’ had eased, but it was still raining. Time to get home with my spoils from this book-Annwn.

 

Later, looking through Charles Williams’ rich bardic verse, I came across this quote.

 

But I was Druid-sprung;

I cast my heart in the way;

All the Mercy I called

To give courage to my tongue,

Charles Williams, ‘Taliessin’s Return to Logres’

 

This is all the committed bard can do – ‘cast your heart in the way’ and hope for the best. We must trust our hearts to the Way, and hope it will guide us through the vicissitudes of life. Ship of Awen, carry me through the storm!

 

 

 

 

 

Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour

Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour

awen - the spirit of inspiration

awen - the spirit of inspiration