Natural Contests


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.


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