Monthly Archives: November 2008

Bardic Busyness

dancing-for-the-earth 

 

25 Nov-30 Nov

 

A triptych of bardic engagements this week. The first one was at St Andrews Primary School, Congresbury, on Tuesday afternoon. I was to perform Greek Myths with two classes of Years Five and Six. One of their teachers, Dan Wilson, had booked me after finding my website via a search. (It’s nice to know the website pays off now and again!)

I had to go by train, still being bikeless – shame because it was a beautiful cold, clear sunny day. Dan picked me up from Yatton station at lunchtime. I grabbed a roll from a nearby shop, ate it on the way back, and prepared myself for the first class, warming up in a spare classroom.

 

I performed three tales: Phaethön and the Sun Chariot, The Judgement of Paris, and Jason & the Golden Fleece (approx 30 minutes in total) before fielding general questions about being a storyteller. Then I repeated this all over again for the second class (about 30 each time). The kids were respectful and pretty attentive, although it was the afternoon, and energy levels/attention spans were probably not at their best. Still, they asked some good questions. Some were clearly in awe of me – sitting wide-eyed at the front, right under my feet!

 

I had to get a taxi back to the station and the driver asked what I did. Sitting at Yatton station, gazing at the tracks, diminishing to their vanishing point into the west, I had time to reflect upon my life as a bard on the road. It was good to be getting gigs again, although the teaching is demanding virtually all of my time and energy, and so I’m not at my best when I perform at the moment – I’m low on battery and virtual memory!

 

The teacher sent me this email message later: Thanks for coming today – the kids really enjoyed it. I’ve had a look at the resources that you sent – they look really useful, thanks very much! 

 

Dancing for the Earth, an event co-organised between Jay Ramsay and Anthony Nanson, took place on Friday, 28th November – in honour of William Blake – at the ‘Bristol Old School’, Stroud. There were a plethora of performers contributing: Fire Springs – Anthony, Kirsty, David and myself. Phoenix members – Jay and Gabriel Millar. Plus Helen Moore, a fellow Bard of Bath; a poet called Jeff who recited his ‘Valentine’s to Albion’, and Kirsten Morrison, who performed a 20 minute set with her brother – a showcase for her extraordinary operatic voice. There wasn’t a huge turn out (the hall was half full or half empty depending on your point of view, although we did get a few more in the second half) but it still felt worth it – a coming together of bardic kindred spirits and ‘Children of Albion’. We ended with dancing, with music supplied by Jay’s partner, Christina McLaughlin. It was a great chance to ‘shake the feathers’ and to break down the artificial demarcation of audience and performers. It helped to ‘shift’ my mood a little – releasing some endorphins. Alas, it was over all too soon, and the music wasn’t all my cup of tea (lots of frantic trance stuff). It was bit like being at a school disco, being a wallflower, waiting for a good track to come on! Oh, for some good ole’ rock and roll!

 

I got a lift back with David and despite both being tired, we had one of our lovely chats – one of the joys of such ‘adventures’. When he dropped me off I gave him a wee present to show my appreciation – he has been a rock to Firesprings, and as a friend, throughout all of life’s ups and downs – The Drovers’ Roads of Wales (in our first show, Arthur’s Dream, he created a framing narrative about Dafydd the Drover who stumbles upon the once and future king and his knights, slumbering under a Welsh mountain until Albion needs them once again…).

 

Afterwards, Anthony described it thus: “Every act was magnificently professional, passionate, and committed. Despite the small and delayed turnout of the audience, I think we did something really significant together. I hope the relationships between us all will continue to deepen and lead to other things.”

I had to get up early the next morning (6.15am) to catch the train to my next engagement – a big stately home called Compton Verney – which involved catching three trains to Banbury, then a taxi, shared with Kirsty Hartsiotis, my co-performer, who had set these gigs up (3 weekends worth – I was standing in for her partner Anthony today who had a prior engagement in Yate, at the Heritage Centre, where I’ve performed before).

The themes of the stories were meant to allude to the various exhibitions in the house. We had plenty of scope…North, Winter, hunting, animals, forest, etc. I focussed on tales from the North, and animal tales. I did three sets – Mabon and the Oldest of Animals in set one; Raven’s tale and Fenris the Wolf in set two; then two solar myths, Bladud and Baldur in set three. The first two went well, but the third was disappointing – we were down to two by the end (a mum and her five year old son) although Bladud and his swine went down well. The problem with all of the slots was the really young members of the audience – five and under (!) playing on the ‘Once Upon a Time’ rug like it was a kindergarten. It is difficult to perform to under sevens, you have to do something especially tailored for them (e.g. balloon-puppetry, clowning, tricks, etc) and we are not trying to be children’s entertainers. Time and time again this has happened, despite us pointing out the fact we offer entertainment for adults and older children. We happily accommodate a mixed age audience, as long as the majority are adults, and children are seven plus. Otherwise, you’re just wasting energy trying to fruitlessly engage the youngest and end up losing the rest of the audience. I spent the majority of my performance time staring down at the carpet of toddler, trying to keep them interested – rather than maintaining eye contact with everyone. It’s hard to, as you can in a normal mixed audience.

 

Kirsty was better at engaging the really young ones – perhaps less scary than a tall, shaggy man! She is really shining these days. And to think how nervous she had been when she first performed at the Bath Storytelling Circle eight years ago, when we did Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin together (after I had persuaded her to give it a go – it was to be her first storytelling performance). And now we’re professional storytellers – Kirsty mainly performing with her partner, Anthony, the founder of the circle.

 

We were both tired afterwards. I was glad not to be doing it five more days, to be honest – although Compton Verney staff looked after us, and the place is very impressive. The gardens were designed by Capability Brown and it was a shame there wasn’t an opportunity to explore them.

Our erstwhile taxi driver turned up – we were relieved to see him, thinking he may have got lost again! – but it was merely the time of day and the conditions. I was happy not to be riding today, as it was a real pea-souper outside, like some Hammer horror story about a couple who take a wrong turning and end up in a village that doesn’t exist… The taxi driver made his slowly cautious way back along the narrow windy lanes, each turn giving us palpitations as he seemed to only notice it at the last minute! Finally arriving at the station he asked if he should make the receipt out for £30 not £27 (the actual fare), but Kirsty refused. He had charged us £30 before on the way there, after getting lost, so he had conned us out of a tip anyway (we had been quoted £25). Good job Compton Verney were paying travel expenses – but the taxi cost as much as the train, more in Kirsty’s case. Fortunately, Anthony will be driving the rest of the time.

By the time I got home I was too tired to go out again, or even do anything much at home – I had popped into On the Video Front on the way back from the station, and just stared at the rows of films like a zombie. Uninspired by any, I left. The storyteller had wanted a tale told to him for a change… Instead, I went to bed early with a good book – the most reliable entertainment!

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Mist Over Pendle

Men with Hats!

Men with Hats!

16 November

 

Clitheroe & Pendle

(written in Gloucester Station)

 

Boots still damp from bog-trotting on Pendle Hill today – walked up there with Anthony Nanson, fellow writer and storyteller. He had arranged a joint reading in his old home town of Clitheroe, Lancashire, where he went to Grammar School (‘Like The History Boys, but without the homosexuality!’). We stayed with his parents, Simon (ex-headmaster) and Cynthia (ceramicist and mean cook), who were most hospitable. I even got to sleep in Anthony’s old room. It was really special to let into his past like this.

 

The next morning we dropped some books off at the shop, looking perhaps a little bohemian for a small Northern town with Anthony’s Aslan-ish mane and my devilish hat. Afterwards, as we had a few hours to kill before the gig, Anthony took me up to ‘the Cut’, a notch in Pendle Hill frequented by revellers on Halloween (not a place to hang about, according to Anthony’s schooldays reminiscences, but very much part of the mythic landscape of his childhood). Here, with a dramatic vista either side we rehearsed our stories, slightly apart from one another.

 

Failing to raise Old Nick with our ‘incantations’, (our mythic mumblings would have probably had us burnt two or three centuries earlier) we drove into ‘witch country’ – now clearly sign-posted (as the Pendle Witches have been marketed as local heritage) although we still managed to have a moment of ‘navigational uncertainty’, at a suitably bleak crossroads, where the signs seemed to point all the wrong way (which, as it turned out, they did – having been bent round! It was all getting a bit ‘Blair Witch’…) We found the village, which seemed rather pleasant and harmless, as no doubt the ‘witches’ were – persecuted for political ends or local grudges. With the temperature dropping, we wended our way back to the town. Time to get to work.

 

The ‘reading’  (more a performance, as we didn’t use the texts) took place in Kaydee Bookshop – where Anthony worked for a year. We were co-promoting Anthony’s short story collection Exotic Excursion and my non-fiction tome, Lost Islands – a good combination. We told thirty minutes of material each, alternating ten minute slots. After Anthony’s introduction I started my set with the opening of Oisín and Niamh, including the poem, ‘Delightful is the land beyond all dreams’. In the middle I did The Spirit Bride, an Algonquin tale (which I last performed in Malta last November at Metageum). I ended with two modern stories – a Climate Change one about the ‘discovery’ of a found island, Nymark, in the Arctic, due to melting ice; the other was about how the Onge tribe of Little Andaman survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami thanks to the thirty to fifty thousand years of folklore. Anthony was thoroughly professional and engaging as usual. He hesitated doing his last ‘spoken fiction’ story from Exotic Excursions – because of an incursion by mainly teenage girls halfway through the event, but after apparently listening to Spirit Bride they up sticks and left, so luckily we got to hear Anthony’s movingly subtle rendition of his lakeside epiphany – an experience perhaps you appreciate far more, the older you get. It would be nice to have someone to share such a moment with. Indirectly, I supposed we had…a small but committed audience listened attentively (mostly Anthony’s family and friends, including an old Primary school teacher). We sold three books each, and they took six more of Anthony’s title on sale or return. The long trip certainly wasn’t reciprocated financially – most of it went on petrol and trains – but in other ways it felt worth the effort. It was great to have a break away from Bath after a heavy fortnight of teaching and marking. I hadn’t really been away from Bath properly since late September (OOTO/Long Man). Also, I have had a hard time lately – separating from my partner and, earlier in the week, having a motorcycle crash. I survived (a bruised knee and bank balance) but my beloved Zuki is in the garage awaiting repairs – the last thing I needed in these difficult times. 

          I was appreciative that Anthony was allowing me into his past – as we walked streets ghosted with memory. Later that evening, after the gig, we went into town with Andrew, an old Grammar School friend of his. We holed up in the Castle, by a merry fire. The old friends got caught up in a discussion about economics, while I yearned for some more feminine company. Anthony said I go to a pub to drink, but actually I want to connect with my emotions – not my intellect – after a tiring week’s teaching. I find a political debate not that relaxing, whileas some love to argue the toss (they had both been members of the school’s debating society and you could tell). I wished I’d gone into the other room to watch the musician, but by the time I decided to do this, he had finished. When we got back, I just hit the sack. It had been a tiring day.

 

          Sunday, the weather miraculously cleared up after an overcast start. Togged up, we set off with some basic supplies – from Anthony’s ‘iron rations’. We parked in the pretty village of Barley and followed the line of reservoirs up – the effort warming us up, as it was chilly. We stopped to savour the black lines of bare trees against the silver water, the steep flanks of green hills beyond, the reddish bracken in the foreground. It was cold, clear – with a Celtic clarity about it, like one of those Medieval vignettes, perhaps the Gawain poem – one could have easily imagined the Green Knight dwelling up one of the cloughs, the sound of him sharpening his axe ringing in the brassy air. We carried on up passed the Boar of Wembory Clough, a jagged gulley down which iron knots of water gurgled. We were meant to follow the V of the main beck (?) all the way up but the path seemed to vanish into muddy, rocky slopes – so we struck out across country, hoping to intersect the lost track, but found ourselves bogtrotting over spongy ground riddled with treacherous ‘holes’ of brackish water. It was tiring slog, but at least it was sunny. It would have been grim going in wind and raining. This wasn’t a place to linger in such conditions. It had a wildness about it, an abode of trolls. After a determined yomp we hit the stone slab pathways – what bliss – which led to the top, the ‘Big End’. After ritualistically touching the trig point we went to the brow of the steep side to enjoy the spectacular view over the Ribble Valley. It had been certainly worth the effort. We enjoyed the prospect despite the noisy group of ramblers nearby, stopping for their summit snack like us, before the temperature made them move on. It was a clear day, and the Big End afforded fine views. We scoffed some crisps and chocolate and got moving again, making a small diversion at my request to Robin Hood’s Well, from which we both sipped. It was a romantic place, one could imagine the wolfshead slaking his thirst here as he looked back to his possibly native Yorkshire. I asked for cunning and agility, for it was also known as Fox’s well, but this was probably after George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, who had a vision on Pendle which inspired him to found his new religion. It was easy to see why – this place lent itself easily to noble thoughts, to vision. We now stood on Mount Epiphany, in the footsteps of prophets, and drank from those same waters…Having supped from the source, we gladly descended, body temperature plummeting. Down the steep rock steps passed the hordes of visitors flocking up, some ill-attired for the heights or a sudden turn in the weather. It was good to descend to milder climes now, although the land retained its wonderful rugged quality. We followed a merry beck lined with tangled hawthorns back down to the carpark, and, after purchasing some placatory jam (a token gesture to my kindly hospitable hosts) we wended our way home to Anthony’s parents for a lovely lunch, before hitting the road in earnest – South, a long but agreeable ride down the Welsh Marches. Anthony dropped me off at Gloucester station, where a dull long train ride home awaited (3 hours!). I wearily made it back to the Cauldron, ready to collapse – but first I finished off the stew I’d made earlier in the week, and hit the sack with toddy and bottle. A tiring jaunt, but I was certainly better for it than if I’d stewed at home all weekend. Nature is most certainly the best medicine. I agree with GM Trevelyan, who said: ‘I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.’ I am grateful to have both.

 

Mysteries in Cardiff

8 November

Kevan and Chrissy at her big night

Kevan and Chrissy at her big night

Mysteries book launch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

 

Tonight I travelled over to Cardiff to launch the first book by Chrissy Derbyshire – a rising star if ever there was one. It was the first time I had been back to Cardiff since my graduation in 2004. It felt satisfying to be returning as a publisher – I wouldn’t have conceived it at the time, even though I had launched Awen Publications a year before. But my small press hasn’t really taken off until this year – with a flurry of seven titles! This month has seen a hat-trick of launches – Bath, Stroud and now Cardiff.

 

I made my way through the rain to Chapter Arts Centre, negotiating the buses and the strange accents. Just getting out of Cardiff Central station was a challenge, as it had all been barricaded off as hordes of rugby fans were being funnelled to their respective coaches and trains. I seemed to be the only one going the other way, and not dressed in colours.

 

I arrived early and had a pint of Rev. James and a lite bite of Welsh rarebit in the café. Finally, Chrissy’s entourage turned up and, after introductions to her folks, we set to work, setting the place up. Chrissy’s family and friends were very supportive, taking care of refreshments and a generous bar – with lots of mead! I held back as I was due to introduce the evening. I recalled how special my first book launch was – you never forget it. Afterwards, Chrissy said it had been one of the best nights of her life!

 

After my introduction, which wasn’t as eloquent or as focussed as I wanted to be (guess my bardic energies were flagging) Chrissy impressed everyone with a good talk and a series of readings from her book. She seemed to take to the ‘stage’ naturally and is a good speaker. She also sings, but I haven’t heard her yet – fulfilling the Awen author criteria to be a spoken word performer as well, our USP. You could say we’re a bardic publisher.

 

It was very satisfying to see people queuing up around the room waiting to get their books signed by Chrissy. Virtually all were family and friends but it was still good to see. Chrissy must have been buzzing. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay and continue celebrating with her and the others as I had a train to catch! I had to dash and luckily a bus came just at the right time to get me to the station. Unfortunately, this ‘last train to England’ was packed with drunken revellers, and there was one or two altercations – one bloke being collared by a policeman for being lippy. Two gay bicyclists standing by me were getting hassled by an odious rugby fan, who objected to their bikes taking up seating space, even though that part of the carriage was dedicated to bikes. He was being far more objectionable, but when other fans piled on, they chatted away to the gay guys without a problem – it was clear who had ‘the problem’ here, and he was marginalised in his loathsome opinions. It was a sour note to end on, after a good note. But the contrast could not have been more striking. I wish I could have stayed and shared Chrissy’s success – but I’d already booked my return. This was an echo of the problem when I was studying at Cardiff. Sometimes I would stay over, but often I came back – and missed out on the social element. Chrissy’s circle, which has largely come out of the Cardiff Uni Pagan Society shows what college life can be like. Lifetime friendships can be forged. Chrissy’s circle of friends showed their support admirably – whilst I felt the ‘lone wolf’, slinking back to my solitary lair. Sometimes a bardic life can be isolated – it is not always possible to share the path we walk with others.  

 

A Feast of Friends

A Feast of Friends at Ruskin Mill

A Feast of Friends at Ruskin Mill

7 November

 

A Feast of Friends

Ruskin Mill, Nailsworth

 

This event was organised by poet and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay, whose seminal Psychic Poetry I read long before I actually met him. In the Eighties he held an event called Angels of Fire at the Albert Hall – which might be seen as influential as the Beat readings there in 64. He performed with his poetry group, Phoenix, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in a freezing Walcot Chapel – it was amazing their harper, Fred Hargender was able to play, consider his fingers must have been numb! This event was far cosier, in the beautifully renovated old paper mill – we were in a downstairs which had a real fire roaring in the corner. This was to be another ‘fiery’ combination, between Phoenix, and our group Firesprings – a fecund meeting of bards. The line up was going to be Firesprings members Anthony (who started the evening with an ecobardic epic called ‘The Story of People on Planet Earth’), David (who offered a spine-tingling trio of ‘death ballads’), and myself, plus Bath-based poet and Awen author, Mary, who performed some of her ‘Iona’; the second half was predominantly Phoenix poets Jay, Gabrielle, Ella & her partner, Sam, playing didgeridoo, plus Geoff offering us amusing Andalucian tales to end with accompanied by flamenco guitar from his friend Dave.

 

I had had an exhausting week – with all of my teaching, with a new class starting Friday afternoon, with 5 new students to add to my other 114! When I got back home I was shattered, and just flopped. When I awoke it was practically time to go out again, with no time to eat. I was hoping to grab some chips on the way, but didn’t think I had enough time. I should have made time, as my energy levels sank dangerously low before the performance. Fortunately, Jay offered me some chocolate and I had a can of Red Bull, which was just enough to see me through the first half. Luckily, my fifteen minute slot was then. As always I got nervous before hand – worried that my fatigue would impair my performance, but as happened once in the Bath Literature Festival, during our ‘Voices of the Past’ show, when I was spaced out with a cold, I turned in one of my best performances. With nothing left to lose, I tapped into something real, something edgy.

 

I had rehearsed down by the water in the moonlight, which helped to centre me and to evoke the atmosphere I wished to evoke. I performed my ‘winter set’ – wolf in the city, the wicker man, wild hunt, one with the land, and finishing with the ‘Prophets of Los’, which I preambled by saying with imagination anything is possible (as the events earlier in the week had proven). I had been deeply inspired by Obama’s winning speech on Tuesday, which showed the power of the spoken word. I was feeling perhaps less noble though and less on an even keel than ‘No Drama Obama’ – my separation from Jennifer had left me feeling miserable, wounded, and like a wounded beast I snarled and bit back! My wolf poem performance is always a crowd-pleaser, but tonight it had real bite – at one point I made a girl in the audience gasp with shock (although afterwards she came up to thank me for my poems, and roared – she had got in touch with her own beast). I introduced my set by saying ‘There’s an animal inside all of us, and sometimes it comes out!’. Bang – straight in. A short, punchy, pithy, preamble like that is far more effective than the flabby openings I hear some people come out with – sometimes longer than the piece itself, deflating any tension it may have, making it a long-winded affair. I kept my links to a minimum. I made sure I really connected to the audience – looking at them hard in the eye, defiant, prowling, like a cornered wolf. Unashamed of what I am or what I was offering them. A performance is not the time to hide one’s light under a bushel (or as I like to say, it can ‘set your bushel alight’). You should blaze – but not at one pitch. Like a fire, vary your radiance. Flicker and glow, flare up, die down, blaze. This keeps the attention up – makes it unpredictable. Spontaneous composition.

 

I had set a book stall up upstairs – Awen’s titles nearly covered the whole table, with the addition of the newest titles, Simon’s poetry collection, The Book of the Bardic Chair launched the previous weekend. I sold some, which helped to make the event even more worthwhile. But what made it a buzz was the full house – the energy was reciprocated, unlike the gig at the Victoria Art Gallery the week before. A small audience, however willing, is harder work. Your get less energy back for your efforts.

 

We all ended the night feeling on a bit of a high – Jay was keen for us to keep the flame burning. This kind of creative collaboration we felt to be the way forward. A new working model, which we expound upon in our manifesto – due to be launched at the end of the month. It would have been nice to have had a drink with folk afterwards, especially since it was Kirsty’s birthday the next day and it was nearly midnight, but I had a face-to-face tutorial with my Advanced Creative Writing students the next day and David was the driver. Plus I was starving, and there was a chance I might catch a takeaway on the way home, which I gratefully did. It was nice to have time to chat with David, a very decent bloke, an excellent bard and a true professional.

 

This latest experience has renewed my enthusiasm for Firesprings, which I admit was flagging. Joining forces with Phoenix, in these irregular events, has given it a new lease of life. The next one is due the end of the month, on William Blake’s birthday – Blake being another rallying point, the ‘William Blake Congregation’ as Felicity Bowers and Helen Elwes like to call it. ‘Hear the Voice of the Bards!’