Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Bone Orchard

At the weekend I went back to the old home town, Northampton, to plant a tree for my Dad with my Mum and sister a year on from his death – a positive thing to do at an otherwise gloomy time. This is the fourth time I’ve had to do this for a loved one or friend (fifth, if you count a green burial I went to about 20 years ago – the first in the county). It seems the greenest way to go – far less damaging to the environment than cremation, although ashes make good compost, encouraging new growth. A woodland burial is the ultimate form of recycling, and certainly my preferred choice. A memorial tree is a positive symbol of new life and can be visited by loved ones for years to come. Here is the sonnet I wrote for this most recent occasion:

Poem for Memorial Tree

Belov’d slender sapling of tender years

Earth-bidden you are to set spirit free.

From this soil, may your soul soar heavenward

Aspiring skywards like limbs of this tree.

In good measure, may the sweet, sweet rain fall

And water with precious tears thy young roots.

Though bewintered and bare be your branches

Memory offers the rarest of fruits.

Soft, soft light of sun smile benign on thee,

In fertile shadows feed deep from good earth.

Spring come! Bring forth bud, shoot, flower and leaf.

And let all who wander here see your worth.

Hallowed corner, with our loyal hearts we lease.

Where kith and kin shall pilgrim, be at peace.

Kevan Manwaring

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Return of the King

20th January

 

A truly historic day, when the world changed: the day President Obama was inaugurated, becoming the first African-American Commander-in-Chief of  USA – and the first intelligent holder of that post for at least eight years. Eight long hard years that are finally over – the end of a bad dream.

Obama’s election is a victory for diversity, for equality, for common sense, for hope. His campaign ticket was ‘change’ – something this world sorely needs, in its current beleagured state. It is interesting that this momentous day takes place a day after Martin Luther King Day (an echo which no doubt Obama was deeply aware of) and on the day of St Agnes Eve – when it is said young women would dream of their future lover (as immortalised in Keats’ poem, The Eve of St Agnes). Well today proves dreams can come true. Obama’s inauguration earlier in a chilly, but sunny Washington was in many ways the culmination of Luther King’s dream.

What pleased me most about today’s ceremony – on a microcosmic scale – was the inclusion of music and poetry amidst the pomp and ceremony. Four world class musicians performed a piece composed by John Williams; Aretha Franklin sang an ‘alternative’ National Anthem; and Elizabeth Alexander, Yale Professor of Poetry, performed her Whitmanesque ‘Praise-Song for the Day’ – these contributions framed the vow-making and made it feel quite bardic. They provided a symbol of a renewed harmony – after nearly a decade of discord – hopefully ushering in a new era, as when Aragon sings at his coronation in Jackson’s  version of ‘The Return of the King’, which today’s ceremony in Gondor-analogue Washington echoed, visually at least (although there was no bowing to Hobbits, unless you count Obama’s charmingly present and colourfully attired daughters, or the fact that Obama began his speech by saying ‘I am humbled’… in a similar way to Aragorn’s ‘this day is not for one man, but for all Men’). After too many bad kings it seems the Western world may finally have a good king – let’s hope Obama achieves all that he sets out to do in his inspiring, but practical speech – for all our sakes. He is a master orator and his eloquence is heartening, especially since it seems matched with ability, commitment and integrity. Here is a man of action as well as words. Yet his fine words show how powerful the ability to express oneself can be – to match one’s thoughts and feelings with phrases of pertinence, of eloquence, that do them justice. When words and the world collide, synchronise, make each other real.

Here’s to better days ahead: may they be ‘the Days of Peace’.

 

Banishing the Bad Spirits

18th January

On 17th/18th January across Somerset (and these days, as far afield as America) Old Twelfth Night is celebrated with the wassailing of the apple orchards – from which the famous Somerset cider is made. A libation of cider is poured on the roots of the oldest tree, chosen to represent the Apple Tree Man. The tree is ‘toasted’ with toast soaked in the Wassail bowl – usually an alcoholic concoction. The Bad Spirits are banished with loud noises and the Good Spirits welcomed in with Wassail carols and general merriment. It’s a great community event encouraging people to connect with the land and its natural cycles.

I managed to miss two such events on Saturday – it was lashing down by the evening, which didn’t make the prospect that enticing, even to a ‘hard-core’ apple wassailer. I had also been invited to a 60th birthday celebration to perform, but I still felt a little disappointed to miss out, especially since I was looking forward to seeing the Weston Mummers. But I made up for it the next day – it felt like a very different world. The storm had blown itself out and there were patches of blue sky aboive, spring shoots pushing through below.  What really thrilled me was the prospect of going for a spin on my recently repaired bike (I finally got it back on Friday after two months of nightmarish entanglements). I got suited and booted and, checking everything over, took the bike on one of my favourite short blats – to Stoney Littleton long barrow. The narrow lanes were strewn with storm detritus and flooded in parts, so it was a good back lane test of my riding skills. I got there okay and enjoyed the walk up to the barrow in the sunlight. I ventured inside the ancient Neolithic ‘tomb/womb’, crawling to the very end chamber. There I crouched in the dripping darkness – savouring its anonymous shadow, silence and stillness, before emerging ‘reborn’ and ready for what the new year may bring. It felt like a symbolic enactment of my ‘Underworld’ journey of the last year – a difficult year for many, by all accounts. With a flurry of personal good news last week, it felt like that had finally come to an end and the new cycle was beginning; the Bad Spirits had been banished – and thank goodness!

This is happening on a grand scale tomorrow with the inauguration of the new President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, and it feels, with the departure of Dubya, that the world is waking up from a bad dream. I ardently hope so.

Tomorrow, humanity should rejoice at the dawn of a new era: one that proves, with enough vision and will, another world is possible.

This new ‘buzz’ seemed to be present in microcosm later when I made it over to Willsbridge Mill, Somerset Wildlife Trust’s HQ, which was holding its annual wassail. Hundreds of ‘Shire folk’ turned up – families with little ones, all wrapped up warm – to enjoy the numerous craft activities. I joined in – carving toast (to make letters of the wassail song to hang on the Apple Tree Man); making a musical shaker (to make noise); and a crown of greenery (to present to my Apple Queen later). I sat around the campfire, toasted bread and enjoyed some spread with local honey (a rare commodity, with the worrying decline in the bee population). A local primary school did some Morris-dancing, complete with hobby horse – it was lovely to see some young ‘uns doing it – they looked like little fairy folk (the Morris scene is apparently struggling to recruit new blood and is also in danger of dying out): no wonder I get accosted to join every time I watch some). A wassail queen was chosen to pour the libation, plus a princess and a ‘holly lad’ to beat the bounds. It was a charming affair, which brought a smile to my face. It felt like the first inklings of Spring, and also wonderfully Hobbity: a scene from the Party Field, beneath the Party Tree, in Hobbiton.

By riding there and back again (in the dusk) I too banished my own bad spirits, dispelling any ghosts of November. I enjoyed the freedom my wheels afforded and look forward to ride-outs this coming year.

I can’t wait to head for hills. Here’s to brighter days ahead. 100_00742

Twelfth Night Wassail

5th January

This evening I held my annual Twelfth Night Wassail – to thank the orchards for their fruits and to mark the end of Yuletide. This is a lot nicer than just taking down the decorations, as we are meant to do by the 6th (Epiphany). When so many Christmas trees lie discarded by the roadside, and the pavements are heaped with blackbags destined for landfill sites I think it is more important than ever to thank the Earth, rather than take from it. Certainly, the credit crunch has made people more circumspect in their consumerism although the impact upon the environment of Christmas was probably just as devastating. Still, rather than get all preachy about it, I think it is far more positive just to thank the Earth, and that’s literally what we do at my wassail – braving the freezing temperatures to gather round my apple tree at the bottom of the garden and wassailing it, that is toasting its health. I ushered my guests out into the darkness, equipped with the necessary wassailing regalia. I got the fire going dramatically with a little help from a petrol can – not ideal, but it was a freezing night. I asked people to imagine what dreams they wanted to bring through this year and to visualise them as apples on the branches. Then, taking up my old blackthorn shelaghley (formed from a Gloucestershire wodwose) with its gold nob, I rapped the trunk of the tree chosen to be our Apple Tree Man. I asked my guests to call out, ‘Wake up, wake up, Apple Tree Man!’ three times. Then I poured a whole bottle of ‘Wurzel Me’ Somerset cider onto the roots. Next we toasted the tree, literally, with triangles of toasted bread dipped in the steaming wassail bowl impaled on the bare branches of the tree. These offerings were to thank the tree for its generous bounty and to welcome in the ‘good spirits’, ie the birds. They had a feast too! To finish our ceremony, we scared away any ‘bad spirits’ with loud noises – using party poppers instead of the customary shotguns, the weapon of choice in some Somerset orchards (Carhampton being the most famous on 17th January, Old Twelfth Night )! My work done, I asked Richard to lead us in a couple of wassail songs. It was so dark it was hard to see the words, and the temperature was dropping as the fire peetered out, but we valiantly carried on carolling. I performed Song of Wandering Aengus in the interlude, and then we gratefully decamped inside, where we carried on the circle with more singing, poetry and merriment, fuelled by more mulled cider, baked pomme de terre (apples of the earth: potatoes!); and numerous other nibbles: the last of the Yuletide feasting. Chrissy Derbyshire, a budding bard over from Cardiff, was eventually persuaded to sing – and what a lovely voice she had, offering something from Blackmore’s Nights repertoire, before she had to dash to catch her train. Mairead led us in some rounds. Richard read out Rose Flint’s specially commissioned Wassail poem. Peter Please offered a couple of excellent tales (the one about a wounded bird guiding a friend of his to its trapped mate was especially enthralling) before generously gifting me a copy of his new book Clattinger: an alphabet of signs from nature – a beautiful tome made with elven craft. Sheila Broun, arriving late, sang a haunting song. Steven Isaac read out his poem about birch trees from Writing the Land, and I recited the  poem ‘Wheel of the Rose’, fortunately remembering the words despite the intake of mulled cider and beer! The conversation flowed, but I was flagging after a sociable few days and was relieved when most departed by midnight. I felt I had done my ‘bit’ for the season – three gatherings around my place, and was looking forward to taking down the decorations the following day and getting stuck back into things. Time to strip away the frippery and knuckle down to some work. Yet my heart and my hearth had been warmed by friendship, merriment and awen.


Old Hobbits die hard

4th January 2009

Yesterday I decided to hold a birthday party of ‘special magnificence’ in honour of JRR Tolkien, born on Jan 3rd 1892. I invited a select group of ‘elf-friends’ around to join me in raising a glass to the Gandalf of Fantasy, and to test-read my new radio play based upon the Inklings called ‘The Rabbit Room’. This is the only way to gauge whether something works or not – with a live reading. David Metcalfe played ‘Tollers’ (Lewis’ nickname for Tolkien); Anthony Nanson played ‘Jack’ (CS Lewis), Mika Lassander played Owen Barfield and Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson Charles Williams. David’s partner, artist Ione Parkin, was VO – the voice of the Rabbit Room, Anna Dougherty was the BBC announcer, and Maarit – Mika’s wife – the landlord and the Minister of Health (or Elf, as I punned). It was thrilling to hear the play come alive after slaving away on it in solitude since November. To write it I immersed myself in Inklings arcana – and tinkered with it obsessively over the holidays, finishing it just in time for the party, which provided an appropriate deadline.

After providing a vegetarian feast for my guests – piles of good plain English fare, which both Bilbo and Tolkien would have liked – I read out an extract from the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring – about Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party and disappearing act. For this, I asked my guests to take off their shoes and socks, so we could all be Hobbits together! Bare-footed and waist-coated, I read out the text in a suitably merry fashion. We toasted JRR, and then we attended to the main after dinner entertainment. I assigned roles, handed out scripts and we begun. It took a hundred minutes (perhaps it should have been 111) but it was a cold reading and slower than it would be when rehearsed. Some sections really flowed, others were perhaps inevitably murdered, and some evidently need work – but it was wonderful to hear it out loud. I was filled with feelings of loving warmth for such a lovely fellowship. Truly friendship is one of the most important things of life. Without it, a man is impoverished. But last night I felt ‘wealthy’ from having such beautiful talented souls as my friends.

Tolkien extolled the virtues of simple pleasures (‘fire and lamp and meat and bread, and then to bed, and then to bed’) and Lewis wrote about friendship as one of the Four Loves – and I whole-heartedly agree: there is very little better than gathering around the hearth with good friends, sharing good food, drink and conversation. The home is a sacred thing, and true fellowship is divine – a meeting of hearts, souls and minds – is a piece of heaven on Earth.

Afterwards, there was useful feedback from the group (Svanur is a playwright and director; Anthony fellow creative writing teacher; David fellow performer in Firesprings; Mika religious students research student; Maarit child psychologist and Anna an Oxford English graduate). Tolkien I think would’ve liked hearing the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic spoken that evening in my living room (his three favourite languages, except his own invented ones!) – although he might have corrected some of us on pronunciation (but not the native speakers, of course).

The hour was getting late and David and Ione departed – to relieve their babysitter from her duties. We tucked into some late Xmas pud, and then Anthony shared a sample of Tolkien’s ‘manifesto’ poem – Mythopoeia. There followed a suitably Inklings-ish discussion on a number of subjects (art, politics, popular culture) before the alcohol and awen ran out. Around midnight folk departed, except Anthony who crashed over – saving the drive back to Stroud for the morning. He agreed that we had well and truly celebrated the unique anniversary. I was pleased to have ‘premiered’ my play on Tolkien’s birthday – my way of honouring such a huge inspiration to many. The world is richer for his contribution. His vast imagination and unparalled elven-skill has provided a gateway for us all.

Long may his name and the fellowship live on!

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien's 111th

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien Birthday Party

Winter walking

The first day of the New Year. The land white like a clean sheet of paper. A heavy overnight frost had transformed my corner of England into Narnia. My friend, fellow writer and all round good egg, Anthony Nanson, was staying over – we went to a New Year’s Eve party together at Mairead’s the night before, watched fireworks exploded over the city while toasting in the new year with champagne (later we had both shared bardic efforts, along with Marko Gallaidhe). After a hearty hobbity breakfast we headed for the hills – ‘into the wild’ as Strider would say, or into the Mendips at least, which usually seem tame, but today felt like more like Dartmoor: slightly edgy. A wildernessed zone of white death.

We put on our boots, drank some edifying coffee from our flasks and set off – following a bridleway up to our first destination, the 375, of Beacon Hill. The hawfrost was half an inch thick on the branches and evergreen foliage. Nature’s attention to detail was, once again, astonishing. No film set could mimic this so completely. Coleridge called it ‘the secret ministry of frost’, and I mentioned the pleasing notion that we may be walking in the Romantic poet’s footsteps – as he and Southey (who became Poet Laureate) used to walk across the Mendips. Here they hatched their plans for a pantisocracy – a utopian society based upon the idea that two hours work a day is all man needs to survive, the rest of his day spent in creative or leisure pursuts, the ultimate idler’s paradise. Anthony and I are no slackers – indeed we are both close to certified workaholics (when it comes to our writing), but the idea of a lifestyle where our own creative endeavours took precedence over the treadmill of existence sounds tantalising. We both endure the grind of marking – it’s somewhat heartening to discover that Tolkien did to. My mind was saturated with Tolkienian arcana, having just finished my radio drama, The Rabbit Room. To anyone else, my harping on would have been a bore, but Anthony shares my enthusiasm, and indeed our whole walk had an Inklings-ish feel to it, as we discussed matters literary, philosophical and spiritual as we traversed the bewintered landscape.

From the trig point, where we were surprised to discover a cluster of other hard-core walkers, who’d had similar notions of New Years Day walks – we made our way down into the forest of Rowberrow – which had its own micro-climate, lacking the frost and being noticeably milder. We then ascended to Dolebury Warren – using a convenient break in the stone wall, like the gap in the border between this world and Faerie in Stardust. No threshold guardian appeared, although barbed wire halted our progress when, breathless, we got to the brow. Instead, we followed the ridge along to a proper gate and stopped for a chilly lunch on the lee of the hillfort; some honeydew mushrooms our ‘hearth’, cheering us with their bright orange colour in the bleak landscape. I found the wintry vista sublimely beautiful and for a while we just stood and stared at the muted tones, fading into visual oblivion. I observed how ‘grey’ can have so many nuances. All the vibrant shades of the natural world were softened by the pervading whiteness. Soothingly gentle after the often garish nonsense of Christmas and New Year – a true stillpoint. Blissful stasis. The wheel, it seemed, had mercifully stopped. Fellow Firesprings David Metcalfe described it as ‘a day outside time’ – having driven over the Mendips to Wells that day. It did us both good, Anthony and I, to have a day off – having both worked over Yuletide, either on teaching obligations or our own projects. It was salubrious to be forced to focus on the physical, on simple needs – food, warmth, shelter. This was hardly a survival situation, although it easily could have become so – if one of us had slipped and broken something. But we were both suitably equipped for such predicaments, although it fortunately didn’t come to that. It was only a hike in the hills – and plenty of other people were around: mountain-bikers, motor-trikers, families… It was hardly Antarctica! What I loved was the way the frozen landscape had its own acoustic: the brittle crunch of ice beneath one’s boot, the satisfying crack of an ice-pane in a puddle, the scittering of ice-shards, the dull thud of our progress on the iron hard ground. Our words were distinct as cold pebbles, forced from blood-sluggish mouths. The frost-world muted sound as well as colour, but at the same time made them stand out even more. At one point we followed a path of ruddy soil, strangely exposed and unfrozen, flanked by endless white heathland – like a trail of blood in the snow. It could have been a scene from Fargo. Yet this was a Mendips Nifleheim and our conversation was ‘the director’s commentary’ of a different DVD. Two writers in search of a pen in a world of endless paper – the land a tabula rasa of our imaginations and ambitions.  Swinging back east towards our starting point as the brief hours of daylight began to wane, we passed the magical dell of Rod’s Pot – where Old Man Willow himself seemed to guard a stream-crossing, his mighty limbs covered in moss – and further on, Goat-church Cavern, hidden amongst the downy folds of the hills. We arrived back at the car after a good three and a half hour yomp. Gratefully back inside its artificial warm cocoon we drove through Burrington Combe, passed Aveline’s Hole and the Rock of Ages, which inspired the famous hymn after a passing Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady took shelter there in 1763. Nature had similarly provided our sanctuary that day.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.