Monthly Archives: December 2008

Mummery on Boxing Day

26th December

Boxing Day (so-named because servants and tradesfolk were given gift-boxes on this day by the larger houses – although now it seems synonymous with sales at places like Ikea – different kinds of boxes! Perhaps it should be renamed Flat-pack Day), AKA St Stephen’s Day is a traditional time for Mummers Play, at least round these parts. The oldest is in the Cotswold village of Marshfield, just north of Bath – now famed for its icecream and flapjacks! –

The Old Time Paper Boys by Kevan Manwaring

The Old Time Paper Boys by Kevan Manwaring

where at noon today the Old Time Paper Boys gather to perform their seasonal rite at five locations along the High Street (which is just as well, because it’s often hard to catch what they’re saying if they happen to face the wrong way, or if the wind is up – none are professional performers, so we shouldn’t expect them to project. The cast is drawn from a motley of real local characters – the butcher, the baker, a farmer, a postman, etc. They become such memorable moochers as ‘Saucy Jack with his family on his back’, Beelzebub with his club, Ten Penny Nit, Old Father Christmas, St George of course, and the Doctor (Who is now I regular feature on Xmas TV!).I once shared a flat with a guy – Marshfield born and bred – whose grandfather used to take part: the costume of paper rags was stored in their house, along with the script, such as it is (at one point, apparently, the costumes were made of leaves – which thrilled me with the thought of some primal fertility rite taking place in a forest clearing; this notion was somewhat disabused when I discovered the Mummers, the oldest in the region, probably only date from the 19th Century like alot of ‘ancient’ folklore). Still, it is wonderful to behold and gives Yuletide a refreshingly real, earthy quality after the tinsel and 2-D entertainment of Christmas – a sobering shock to the system, standing in the rain or freezing fog, watching a death and resurrection show. The script is fabulously nonsensical, tantalisingly fragmentary – like some half-understood radio transmission, cultural Chinese whispers (rather like the Mabinogion, the 13th Century collection of older oral Welsh tales written down by unwitting monks). There’s other Boxing Day Mummers locally in Southstoke and Keynsham. And on New Years Day the Widcombe Mummers perform their play – this has only been going for five years, and is open in its ‘newness’, featuring an anachronistic cast of traffic wardens, hobby horses, fools, and local figures such as ‘the King of the Beggars of Holloway’ (which my friend the late Tim Sebastion Woodman researched and first performed – indeed the last time I saw him fully conscious was in the Widcombe Social Club, New Year’s Day, 2006, when he had just watched the Mummers – too ill to perform that year, my friend Ian Davidson stepped into the role. Tim allowed the Mummers to use his Wassail Bowl – which was passed onto me after he died a month later). Every year, the Widcombe Mummers incorporate some topical issues, for instance a satirical stab at the Spa fiasco. This year they plan to bring in King Bladud’s Pigs, which stormed the city this summer.

I’ve been working on my own plays recently – dusting off the Mummers Play I wrote in 1994 (‘The Head of Winter’) which has only been performed once publicly so far, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in 1998 in a commedia dell arte style in a chilly Walcot Chapel. My Bardic Chair winning poem, Spring Fall, was inspired by the ancient Mummers mask found under Stall Street, and now on display in the Roman Baths museum. It got me wondering what kind of play would have been performed in the Temple Precinct (a theatre was also discovered). And so I set about writing a mystery play about the springs – Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath was the result.

I also dug out a play I wrote about the perils of genetic engineering – an updated version of the Taliesin legend called ‘The Child of Everything’. This I typed up and sent off to a script competition at the Bristol Old Vic. I love the idea of grafting modern themes onto ancient myths (and vice versa). Mummers have always brought in topical references – witty asides to cock-a-snook at whoever deserves public mockery, usually those with too much money and power and too little sense. Guised in their shaggy costumes, often with blacked up faces, their anonymity allowed the Mummers a degree of satirical freedom. Their identities were kept ‘mum’. The pantomime is a later derivation of the Mummers Play and indeed the Mummers – relating right back to early Greek tragedy, performed in static masks – could be seen as the prototype of theatre. The masks of tragedy and comedy are still the symbol of theatre, summing up the most ancient repetoire and the bittersweetness of life.  (Incidentally, on Christmas Eve, the playwright Harold Pinter died of cancer of the liver, aged 76. One of the greats of modern theatre).

Yesterday, enjoying a quiet Christmas, I wrote the first draft of a new play, ‘Wassailing Avalon’, which dramatises the wassailing traditions of the West Country, which commonly take place on Old Twelfth Night, 17th January, weaving in local mythology… I hope one day to see all of these performed!

A friend gave me a copy of Hugh Lupton’s and Chris Wood’s ‘Christmas Champions’, which I heard when first broadcast on Radio 4 a couple of years ago and I highly recommend it – an enchanting and moving evocation of a tradition that connects people and place, combining storytelling, poetry, song and archive recordings of the original players. Put it on, pour yourself a glass of good cheer, sit back and enjoy.

Long live the Mummers!

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Winter Solstice poem

Solstice Sunset at Stoney Littleton

Solstice Sunset at Stoney Littleton

Here’s a poem I wrote after witnessing winter solstice at Stoney Littleton long barrow three years ago.

 

 

Kevan

Follow the Sun Road Home

 

Awakening to a dreaming world,

The road winding,

The mist rising,

Shadows in the valleys,

Ancient shapes in the land.

 

Crossing the faerie bridge with a kiss,

The brook running deep and clear,

Climbing through fields wet with tears,

To the slumbering barrow on the hill,

The door to the Otherworld is there still.

 

Follow the sun road home

Called by the song of the Sidhe.

Follow the sun road home,

Over the westering sea –

Beyond this world of bones

To the place where the spirit is free.

 

Within the chambered tomb

We wait for the crack of dawn.

Within the dripping darkness

We wait to be reborn.

 

In the stillness and the silence

We listen to our forefathers.

Before the horn of solstice blows

We heed the heartbeat of the mother.

 

Then we feel the thrill of Earth’s quickening.

The gathered hold their breath,

Gaze through the grey –

Wordlessly praying for

A Grail for the sickening.

 

Chorus

 

A  swift kestrel takes wing

The new sun has risen.

Friends depart and wheels turn –

May we meet over the

horizon.

 

Follow the sun road home,

Follow the sun road home.

Down the hollow lanes,

And shining leys,

Following the sun road home.

 

Winter Solstice, 21st December 2005  Kevan Manwaring

Solstice Celebrations

Solstice Sunrise

Solstice Sunrise

22nd December

After a busy week, tying up loose ends and completing projects – last classes, admin, the first draft of my radio drama, The Rabbit Room – a flurry of seasonal celebrations this weekend, from which I’m still recovering!

Saturday, Helen (8th Bard of Bath) and her partner, John the blacksmith, held a gathering at their new shared house over at Southstoke, a large house on the edge of Bath owned by Phil and Jenny. There’s about 8 living in this ‘unintentional community’, which has a green ethos as it’s bedrock. Helen read from her new children’s book, Hope and the Magic Martian, plus a couple of her poems by candlelight, and then there were open floor spots. I did a couple – my mistletoe poem (‘All heal’) and ‘Follow the sun road home’, which I wrote after visiting the nearby long barrow at Stoney Littleton on 21st December 2005. Jay Ramsay was also present and performed some of his profound, heart-felt poems. We also had a good heart-to-heart. And it was lovely to connect with Helen and John again – it’s been quite a while, although I saw Helen at ‘Dancing for the Earth’ late November. As with Jay, Helen is completely committed to her path – and performs with absolute conviction. A woman of integrity and talent.

As of happens this time of year there was more than one party happening on the same night, and I wanted to pop into Kim and Phil’s later – but the taxi driver had some trouble finding me, out in the sticks, due to being misdirected by his office. He finally caught up with me as I hiked along the road back to ‘civilisation’. I made it to the second party, high above Bath on Richmond Place at about 11.30pm! Although folk were surprised to see me, the party was still very much in full swing and it was nice to see folk. I didn’t stay too long as I was seriously flagging by this point, and there was alot to do the next day…

As was glad I had done the bulk of preparation for my solstice celebration the day before, as I woke a little late and a little delicate! Still, I managed to give the place a quick clean and have everything ready for when guests would arrive after the solstice ceremony in the Circus, which I dashed to. Here we publicly declared ‘in the eye of the sun’, Master Duncan as the new Bard of Bath, and celebrated the turning of the wheel with a good ceremony from Sulyen Richard Caradon and his partner, Misha, former Ovate of Bath. There was only eight of us but we did the works, and it felt good – especially as the sun came out in the middle of David’s story, right on cue! Hearing Master Duncan perform one of his poems which started ‘There’s too many poets…!’ was great as well – his voice booming around the three crescents of the Circus. I wonder if Nicolas Cage was listening in?

Afterwards, I swiftly made my way back to flat, joined almost straight away by Richard, Misha, Lizzie and Mairead – and so the party began! It was a relaxed afternoon affair – which was just as well after the night before! There was a lovely atmosphere created as folk gathered around my hearth and shared stories, songs and poems on light, rebirth, renewal and winter in general. Mairead led us in some singing ’rounds’. Sheila sang some beautiful Gaelic carols. Richard shared his ‘green song’. Svanur arrived later to share with us an Icelandic tale, which was a treat. Also had Mika, a Finnish research student and his wife, Maarit, present – so with all our ‘tales from the North’ we had a distinctly Arctic feel. Anthony told the amusing story of how the bear lost its tale, and his partner, Kirsty, shared her own funny story. I asked a couple of people to recite SpringFall, my bardic chair winning poem, (10 years old!) and David and Misha kindly obliged. It was a real thrill to hear it being performed by other voices for the first time. It was designed for two actors, a man and a woman, and was originally performed by myself and Emily at ‘Enchanted Wood’, Walcot Chapel, Summer 98. I have just produced a tenth anniversary edition of the booklet, and today was the launch. In the spirit of MR James, I read out the previously unpublished ghost story, ‘Taking the Waters’, from the new edition. All I needed was a smoking jacket!

The gathering slowly wound down by about 7 or 8, which was my intent. The final stragglers left and I cleared up the aftermath – well worth the mess! It was great to have a gathering at the Cauldron again – I haven’t felt like it since last Twelfth Night (my Dad dying five days after). It was wonderful for the house to be filled with awen and good cheer again – the lovely warm atmosphere in the room after everyone had departed was a clear sign it had been a successful event, as was my own ‘warm feeling. Forging such memories fill one’s heart.

After a dark, difficult year in many ways, for many of us – it really felt like a rekindling of the light.

I felt so fired up afterwards, that I typed out my old mummers’ play, The Head of Winter, also performed ten years ago at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in a commedia dell arte style by local friends – it had been hand-written back then and needed tidying up. Having worked on drama for stage, screen and radio lately I found it easy to lick it into shape. The next morning I posted it on the Silver Branch forum – offering my merry contribution for midwinter amusement.

All Heal

 

Between the earth and the stars

it hangs like a threat

of love,

a promise of bliss.

White bubbles to

burst on your lips like a kiss.

 

This is old druid magic, ancient fertility

 rite in your living room,

live in front of plasma screen.

Raise a glass to the golden bough,

to Baldur’s bane,

Aeneas’ passport to Hades and back.

 

On oak and lime and apple

how the mistletoe glows

like a swarm of green bees,

berries of awen waiting

for the glint of sickle

in the virgin midwinter sun.

 

 

Kevan Manwaring

Christmas Eve 2006

 

 

Full Circle

Firesprings launch An Ecobardic Manifesto, The Raven, 15th Dec '08

Firesprings launch An Ecobardic Manifesto, The Raven, 15th Dec '08

16th December

Last night at the Bath Storytelling Circle, Firesprings – the Bath and Stroud based storytelling troupe I belong to along with Anthony, Kirsty, David and Richard – launched An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis. We each performed – (Richard, hosting, did his Cow wonder tale and a version of Alan Garner’s mummers’ play; I did Baldur and the Golden Bough; Anthony, The Story of People on Earth; David, a ballad of Scottish pirates; and Kirsty, an amusing Jack tale).  It was really special having us all there – a rare occasion these days, due to the demands of our busy lives. We all met at the circle, became friends and shortly after formed Firesprings. The Bath Storytelling Circle was founded by Anthony Nanson in late 1999 – I hosted for five years when Anthony and Kirsty left for Arcadia, but had to hand over due to somewhat more prosaic teaching commitments, which I was finally free from after 12 weeks. And after nearly ten years (we celebrate the first decade next winter) it is still going strong – we get on average forty people, and that’s without even a listing in the Chron. Word of mouth brings newcomers every month. Yet there is a bedrock of core regulars who have provided a through-line of quality and consistency over the years. It was nice to see some of them last night – considering it’s a busy time of year, socially, we had a healthy turn out and the atmosphere was merry, enhanced by some excellent performances, both seasonal and timeless. David provided an introduction to the manifesto shortly before the interval – it seemed to do the trick, as 18 were sold (albeit with special circle discount). We gathered briefly for a hasty photo shoot – for the press release. Afterwards, we finally managed to gather around the same table and raise a glass to our collective ‘baby’. It was a satisfying and affirming conclusion to the year. Firesprings’  journey has run parallel with the circle’s – they started within six months of each other, the former emerging from the latter (like an away team shuttle craft from the Starship Enterprise!). As with the Bard of Bath and The Book of the Bardic Chair, it is good to have something to show for the time, but in this instance it fulls like not the end of a chapter, but a new beginning. After a pleasant chat after the ‘business’ of the evening had ended – over a mug of ‘Bristletoe’ – we departed on a feel-good high. After a tough year, when the integrity of many things have been challenged (and continue to be) it’s heartening to feel that our tiny vessel and its ‘mothership’ feels

stronger than ever.

Natural Contests

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Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath

Sunday, 14th December

A kestrel hovers in the wind, wings wavering then knife-edged, against a cold winter sky. In perfect equilibrium with its element – its will and skill counterpoised with the icy contours of air. It drops a dozen feet, but keeps air-borne – a sword of Damocles hanging on a thread, keeping me on tenterhooks. I dare not move. A little closer and I could scare it off, break its concentration. Then it plunges, wings tucked in – beak first, a deadly arrow out of the blue. It disappears briefly from sight amongst the frost-bitten tussocks, then it emerges triumphantly, a black limp parcel clutched in its talons. It flies away to devour its prey, justly plucked from the austere larder of the land.

Further on, I watch three crows harangue a buzzard above a naked forest. They heckle it, attack it, yet it bears their assault with a stoic grace – flying away, out of sight, pursued by the black hooded hoodlums.

I was walking on Bathhampton Down, enjoying the cold sunlight, peace and space, after last night’s Battle of the Bards.

Nature is red and tooth and claw – it is part of life. That doesn’t mean we have to be cruel to each other, but that we should accept that a certain healthy competitiveness is also part of life (from the quickest sperm to the most successful predator – evolution encourages excellence. Nature isn’t sentimental. If you don’t make the grade, you don’t endure).  

The contest for the thirteenth Bard of Bath took place at the Mission Theatre on the edge of the city. I was asked to be one of the judges by the outgoing bard, Thommie Gillow, along with fellow Bard of Bath, Brendan Georgeson, and Sulyen Richard Caradon, Druid of Bath. There were five entrants, all who made a good effort. The theme, chosen by Thommie, was appropriately for the 13th Bard, ‘Superstition’. Most chose to simply list superstitions in verse, but a couple interpreted the theme more imaginatively – local screenwriter Dave Lassman performed a clever story about ‘the Cursed Screenplay’, which got the audience involved; but he was pipped at the post by an impressive performance by up-and-coming bard, Master Duncan. He entered last year, but was hampered by nerves and a joky approach which didn’t do him justice, but this year he had plainly taken it more seriously and had put some real thought into his piece. He deconstructed the theme with some intelligence and ingenuity. He couched the core message within an amusing framing narrative, but the heart of the piece, with its very bardic song, showed his true colours. He has a good folk voice – which, combined with his hip-hop style and satirical style offers an interesting hybrid. A bard should be able to walk between the worlds, and it sounds like Master Duncan might be able to reach out to younger audiences, as he has been doing to a certain extent already with his fortnightly Speakeasy open mics. He plans to continue his work, spreading the word – and he’s got off to a good start, with Channel Four trailing him yesterday on the run up to the contest (as one of the contestants). Amazingly, C4’s choice won. The other participants were interviewed before the winner was announced and some of the evening was filmed – to feature in one of the ‘3 Minute Wonder’ broadcasts. It seems Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has been down-sized – another victim of the credit crunch? It was a good evening, professionally hosted by Simon, of Emporium Cabaret. Ironically, it took place on the same night as the ‘X Factor’ finals (yawn). What a contrast! There seems to be a tendency in popular culture to dumb things down, so it was good to see the winner of our contest wasn’t the ones who simply played it for laughs. Although his style is accessible, Master Duncan had a serious message which his poem, ‘The Idiots are in Charge’, which he performed on receiving the Chair showed.

Some people dislike the nature of such contests – preferring a wishy-washy hippy approach, usually to avoid making hard, but critically valid, qualitative judgements (as at the Peat Moors Centre Bard of the Avalon Marshes contest, where the winner was drawn from  lots). Certainly everyone who enters any contest is a ‘winner’ in the sense that the fact of entering is an achievement. It takes some pluck to stand up there and be ‘judged’. Not pleasant, but as they say – ‘you have to be in it, to win it’. Obviously the desire to win the accolade (of Bard of Bath) is sufficient to push the participants beyond the ‘fear’ threshold. It is good to rise to a challenge. It helps us to grow. Such contests encourage excellence in the arts, rather than rewards mediocrity. Many prefer mediocrity – perhaps because it makes them feel better about themselves, but actually most of intuitively respond to excellence – when we see a true ‘star’ perform, in a film, in a play; or when we behold a work of art by a genius – a painting, a book. I don’t think this appreciation of the finer things is elitism, it is simply a respect for true craftsmanship, for mastery of a form. Virtuosity is dazzling.  It shows what human beings are capable of. Surely we should strive for our highest potential? Certainly the Bard of Bath isn’t elitist, as last night proved. The winner seemed to be a popular choice – and Master Duncan’s success sends out a clear message, that the Bardic Tradition is something for everyone and at home in the Twenty First Century.  As he pointed out we must ‘evolve or die’. This is what I’ve been striving for these last ten years, since winning the Chair myself in 1998.

And it occured to me, as I watched the 22 year old Master Duncan perform – standing up there and shining – that we was watching a modern re-enacment of the Taliesin legend. The youthful bard wins the contest, defeating the older bards of King Maelgwyn’s court. The awen shone out of him, and Taliesin’s spirit lives on.

Richard, Brendan, Thommie and myself ‘initiated’ Master Duncan into the Gorsedd with the Druid’s Vow and an Awen on stage; and then I presented our youngest, newest member with a reference copy of The Book of the Bardic Chair – which should give him all the background he needs to fulfil his bardic duties over the coming year.

May the Awen flow for him, and may many be encouraged to come forth to enter (or re-enter) next year.