Monthly Archives: August 2009

Bardic Birthday Bash

40th Birthday Bardic Showcase

22nd August

the green man at 40 - birthday bash, Bath

the green man at 40 - birthday bash, Bath

Oh, my head…!

I turned forty last Wednesday (had a lovely dinner party in my garden with close friends) and decided to push the boat out with a big bash at Chapel Arts Centre on Saturday. Having had a few quiet birthdays, I mulled over how I would like to spend my fortieth and decided that I could think of no more agreeable a way of celebrating than having a bardic showcase featuring my friends, and so, with this in mind I set to work.

I planned it months in advance, but as ever, everything seemed to need doing at the last minute. After a fraught week it all fell into place.

My good friend from Iceland, Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson secured the venue, prepared the buffet and MCed the evening – what a giant! He had returned from his homeland the day before (I half expected a beard rimed with hoar-frost, fresh back from the ‘land of ice and snow’ but he was, as ever, freshly shaven ;0) We caught up over a quick drink at the Brazz and then…we set to work.

While we ‘hunted and gathered’ for the buffet in the sterile wilderness that is Sainsburys, Jonathan the venue manager for the night set up the sound and lights.

Everything was prepared, ready – and looking great (cabaret style seating, atmospheric lighting, a showreel of embarassing photos, good tunes…) by the time the first guests arrived.

And the party began!

Svanur introduced the evening and got everybody to sing happy birthday to me in Icelandic!

Happy Birthday in Icelandic - courtesy of Svanur

Happy Birthday in Icelandic - courtesy of Svanur

Then I came on and did a couple of ‘old classics’ of mine: Maid Flower Bride (for all the women who’ve blessed my life – and had to put up with me!) and One with the Land (my green man poem – for all the guys). I got everyone to join in on the second one – and it seemed to work. Relieved of my bardic duties, I then got down to the serious business of making merry.

I sat back and was entertained by my dear, talented friends…

Jay Ramsay, poet and psychotherapist from Stroud, did some wise and heartfelt poems, delivered with complete authenticity and passion.

Brendan the pop poet, and 6th Bard of Bath did a couple of his classics on request.

Brendan the pop poet rhymes again

Brendan the pop poet rhymes again

Saravian, sexy jazz siren performed some lovely cool numbers.

Anthony Nanson, fellow storyteller of Fire Springs, performed an amazing feat of memory with his wonder voyage of Bran mac Ferbal. A lost island myth close to my heart!

Then … no Bard of Glastonbury, (lost in the mists of Avalon…?) and so we went straight to the break, as we were running a ‘bit behind’.

This was fine – allowed people to chat, for me to mingle with my guests and be inundated with more presents, rapidly filling up the front of the stage. Oh, and drink more champagne (mixed with mead in a dangerous concoction called ‘Druid’s delight’ – although after the hangover it gives me I think it should be renamed ‘Bardic blight’)!

Things were going swimmingly –  the second CD had kicked in, ‘Dancin’ Pants’ and the atmosphere was buzzing, the hall looking pretty full  – there had only been a couple of technical hitches. We couldn’t get the Chapel’s system to play my first prepared CD, ironically it was called ‘Let the Ceremony Begin’! And the projector proved temperamental – at one point the photo showreel disappeared completely and Jonathan struggled to get it back. He finally gave up, but suddenly, during the second half we had my desktop projected onto the stage. I struggled to relaunch the showreel – my cursor wavering behind the heads of the performers. Hilariously, I wasn’t able to see the image clearly as I didn’t have my glasses – so I just had to hit and hope and fortunately, it kick-started the photos again.

There was a fantastic crowd, but also absent friends – and I missed my dear old Dad (rest his soul), brother and sister not being there – but many of them were represented in the photos, which was an inadvertent portrait of my relationships/friendships over the years as much as anything.

Marko - a man you don't meet everyday

Marko - a man you don't meet everyday

After the break we had Marko Gallaidhe, a man you don’t meet everyday. He was somewhat caught on the hop and in the gap – while he made his way to the stage – everyone sang me happy birthday, which was very touching. I felt truly blessed.

After Marko did a couple of fine tunes (‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Between the Tweed’) Richard Selby came up and did a great story.

Another Fire Springer followed, Kirsty Hartsiotis, with a tale and a beautiful poem by her mum, inspired by me called ‘Bard Song’ (below), which blew me away.

Then, it was the turn of Wayland, who was delighted to see had made it down from his Smithy in Oxfordshire to perform a fine story. A former bardic student of mine – he has come into his own as a good performer.

The first of a pair of friends from Northampton came next, Jimtom Say – a true shaman bard who shared some of his incredible poetry and a song.

Peter Please was next on, but was nowhere to be seen – but then he turned up right on cue, just arrived from his singing group … and, a true pro, was able to go right on stage and deliver his great stories.

Finally, it was the turn of my oldest friend, Justin, who delivered a blazing set of poetry and music, culminating in a poem especially written for me, for my big day – based (bizarrely, but brilliantly) upon the Billy  Joel tune ‘He Didn’t Start the Fire’: ‘2009: A Kevan Odyssey’! Hilarious and impressive:

‘He didn’t start the fire, but he his Bardic learning helped me keep it burning.
He didn’t start the fire, but he helped me light it … though I tried to fight it.’

(J. Porter, after B. Joel)

Justin gets his groove on - Birthday Bash, Bath

Justin gets his groove on - Birthday Bash, Bath

I thanked everyone and then … it was time to dance! I was looking forward to this and it was great to ‘cut some rug’, even if we risked looking like the adults that were embarrassing to watch dancing when you were a kid! But that’s was all part of an old git rites-of-passage I guess!

It was great to get down with my friends.

you can dance if you want to...

you can dance if you want to...

Alas, all good things …. after a few stomping tunes, we’d passed the curfew and the music was turned down – but I had allowed for this, arranging to go around the corner to the Lounge. About twenty of us left for this ‘promised land’ – Sara insisted I led my merry band, mead horn in hand. We piled downstairs, where we took over the room. Unfortunately the music was rather jarring – hard techno – so I went back to get my CDs only to discover their machine ‘couldn’t play them’. Instead, Marko did a rousing ballad after I had revived him with a glass of wine. And then Justin led the Southern Baptist song ‘Down to the River’, which we all joined in with in a drunken religious fervour! It felt like the foundation of some kind of guerilla folk republic – but it was short-lived, as the music came back on. Fortunately, this time it was decent Latin Jazz, and suddenly we were up dancing. It was a great way to end the evening. After that, things went downhill – J got a round of tequilas in, then knock them over before we could knock them back. Maybe should have seen that as a sign…It was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had to be helped home – the guys managed to get a taxi to take me after some difficulty. I somehow got home and into bed – it’s all a blur…

The next day, I suffered…In the immortal words of Withnail ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head’. A weak, pathetic bed-ridden thing unable to hold anything down or even hold a conversation for long, I wallowed in my self-inflicted misery. Fortunately, the guys got it together (three of them had crashed in my living room). My old friends Justin and Jimtom went back to clear the place and collect my stuff – stars! – amazingly I hadn’t lost anything in my drunken stumblings. They dropped Wayland off at the station – and hit the roads themselves … onto another party!

I went to bed.

Yet, despite my sufferings – it had all been worth it. Without a doubt, one of the best night’s of my life. I glow with happiness at the memory of it all. Never had I felt so truly blessed. It felt like the first forty years of my life had … meant something.

That evening, slowly recovering, I savoured opening the many presents I had been showered with. I have a pile of beautiful things, for which I am deeply touched, but, of course, true friendships forged (old and new) are the greatest gift of all.

To all those who made the effort to come, and made it such a success – thank you!

PS there were many talented friends there at the Chapel – not all of them could perform, but I would like to share some of the beautiful words they gave me (stars all):

To Bardic Kevan

Shaman of his clan,

word spinner,

story weaver

from the warp and weft

of Celtic love.

Miner of the Loadstone

of Arcana,

May you wear

your star studded

cloak of wisdom

with youthful ease,

even as this birthday

heralds a milestone

in your timeline.

Brian Goodsell

Stuff and Nonsense

‘They’ say that life begins at forty

but ‘they ‘are really rather naughty

for life, we know, starts on day one

and only ends when all the fun

and games are well and truly done

No-one can say when that will be

It is the greatest mystery

of many that elude our knowing

so all our days can be spent growing

and intimations of mortality

serve just to make us feel more free

forty’s not old if you’re a tree!

‘live in the moment’, ’embrace the now’

though nobody can tell you how

it’s no rehearsal one time show

you write the script, as you well know

So I hope today we’ll celebrate

and dance and sing until it’s late

and night brings sleep and golden dreams

and all that is and isn’t seems

to melt into a tale of things

yet to be told by Kevan Manwaring…

…within these pages perhaps

Happy Birthday!

Yvonne (accompanying a lovely journal)

Bard Song

He sings the song of the earth.

Finds among the rocks a small seed,

nurtures and tends

and from it grows

The tale.

Rooted and strong limbs stretching,

Reaching, unfurling.

The words seek out the shy creatures,

Give colour to the flowers

And music to the hum of life.

He sings the song of the sea.

Words like waves

Rolling, flowing,

Tell the tale.

From deep and secret caverns

The bubbles rise and burst,

Rush to the shore

and sparkle, glowing.

He sings the song of the air.

Flying free, words like wings

Tell the tale.

Up over the green earth

Over the blue, grey sea.

As one.

He sings the song of the world.

Brings life into the earth song,

Finds depth in the sea,

Spills light into the air song.

And gives, of himself,

The tale.

To Kevan, Happy Birthday from Cherry Wilkinson

Advertisements

Rescue Dawn: Snowdonia

aka Rescue Dawn: Snowdonia

11-15 August

Llanberis Path from the Pyg Track

Llanberis Path from the Pyg Track

‘Help, I’ve come on holiday by mistake!’ These words, paraphrasing the classic Withnail & I, were ringing around my head as I prepared to leave Cae Mabon, Eric Maddern’s inspiring eco-retreat centre in Snowdonia. Having been up for the May Day weekend, I wanted to go back and experience the place some more. I was planning to go up first week in August for one of the open weeks, but circumstances prevented me. So, instead – unwisely as it turned out – I decided to go up the following week. A deep ecology group called Green Spirit were running what they optimistically called a ‘wild week in Wales’. I got the impression it was meant to be open to all and a chilled out, co-created thing, with everyone pitching in ingredients to the catering and the ‘programme’, so I understood from the blurb:

‘People who attend are invited to bring something they can share, like a workshop, stories, songs, favourite recipes, musical instruments…Ideas and suggestions are welcome.’

It turned out somewhat differently.

Feeling a bit ‘iffy’ on Monday I delayed coming up rather than ‘risk giving them all swine flu’ as I explained to Hilary, the organiser, over the phone. Perhaps I should have listened to my body and misgivings – and not gone at all – for I had a lot to get on with. But I felt summer was slipping by without me making the most of it, so I decided to cease my slothful whimperings and head for the hills. I woke up Tuesday morning, feeling full of beans, and did just that. It was long but lovely ride up in the sun, on what turned out to be the best day of the week. I took the Welsh Marches route and the last section of my journey through the Llanberis Pass was spectacular. After inadvertently taken a wrong turning and ending up on the first part of the actual Llanberis Path up Snowdon passing lots of amused and bemused climbers on my bike, I finally made it to Cae Mabon (I had been following Eric’s directions, which said take a left at the first roundabout when you reach Llanberis, which I did … but they turned out to be the directions coming from the North! After 6 hours on the road, I think I’m allowed to make this kind of dumb-ass mistake). Spaced out, but exhilarated at arriving, I rollled into the Cae Mabon carpark (which was going to become familiar – more later). It was about 2.30pm. I met one of the group on the way in, lugging my stuff down, sitting on the Pilgrim Bench overlooking the valley of Llyn Padarn, Llanberis opposite. Bumped into Hilary – they had finished lunch, but I was offered food. I said a cuppa would be fine, having had my sandwiches in Betws-y-Coed, where I stocked up on Welsh beer and a Welsh scarf, having left mine at my brother’s and feeling the chill on my neck as I rode along. I was handed a cuppa and an apple was made welcome – so far, so good. I dumped my stuff in the Chalet allocated me.

My home for the week at Cae Mabon - Black Sheep ChaletMy home for the week at Cae Mabon –                  Black Sheep Chalet

With its bunkbeds it’s not the most charming of Eric’s fabulous eco-buildings, (perhaps because the others are so beautiful, everything else pales in comparison) but I was glad of a roof over my head – and that I wasn’t sharing. At least I had somewhere to go when I needed ‘my own space’ – this became essential as the week progressed.

Hobbit Hut - Cae Mabon - opposite my chalet

Hobbit Hut – Cae Mabon – opposite my chalet

I chilled out, unpacked, read, then went for a swim in the lake (there was a warning about the blue-green algae but we all took care and were fine). I was told it was nude bathing, so I stripped off and dashed in, only to discover half the people there had costumes on. Ah, well!

In His Element

Skinny dipping in Llyn Padarn,

washing off the dust of the road.

Shocked awake

by its cold embrace.

After the resistance,

relief. It’s not so bad after all.

I bask in its stored sun

Boundaries challenged, blur.

The stream flows into the lake

to become one.

***

Snowdon beyond Llyn Padarn

Snowdon beyond Llyn Padarn

Dinner was at 7.00pm in the main hall. By this time, after my long journey, my stomach was making noises. I was ready to tuck in, but we had to all stand and sing ‘Grace’, Green Spirit style – some tuneless ode to Mother Earth. I brushed this off as charming eco-fluffiness, but it became apparent over the week that I had misjudged the nature of the group. Although coming across as a New Age green group, with ‘Creation Spirituality’ at their core – which I took as a take on Deep Ecology – it turns out they are mainly a bunch of Christian eco-fuddy duddies (not that I have anything against anything green, wrinkly or Christian – in small doses – I have a couple of good Christian friends and I’m planning to go on a pilgrimage to Iona next month for another, whose book I’m publishing). The average age of the group was 60. At 39, pushing 40, I was suddenly the ‘young ‘un’ of the group (and ended up feeling typecast as the ‘grumpy teenager’ all week – I can see why they get like that: disenfranchised, refused a voice, a vote, a chance to contribute). When we met at 4pm to plan a Council of All Beings ceremony I jokingly said, when introduced to the group – ‘So, is this the Council of Elders’. I wasn’t being rude. I had in my mind (mistakenly) that was the ceremony planned – which sounded good to me, as it might have served as a rite-of-passage as I approach 40 (next Wednesday). Alas, it was not the case. Another woman called Hilary (‘an Everest of Hilarys’ I suggested as a collective pronoun) decided we were all going to do this and take three days over it – this was accepted by the group without question. Suddenly the week was looking less ‘organic’ and co-creative, and more like a kind of Green Fascist Butlins. The first part of the ceremony was called a Truth Mandala, where there would be four quarters in which to share grief, sorrow, worry and not knowing. Having spent the first half of the year doing all of those things in abundance, I didn’t fancy spending ‘however long it takes’ wallowing in them on what was meant to be some light R&R in the lovely Welsh countryside. It was agreed to be ‘okay’ if you didn’t join in – I took their word on this – but, being the only one who opted out, felt something of the black sheep.

Basically, it felt like the unwritten protocol was ‘you can do what you like as long as it’s what we have planned’.

Later, I tried to establish what the rota was for cooking and washing up, but the answer I got was ‘we all just pitch in’. The notion of 14 people trying to simultaneously do these chores seemed a little absurd to me – and I wanted to know when I was ‘on duty’ so I knew when I was off duty. Instead each meal time turned into a possible guilt-trip. I decided to myself to would help once with each as my share, and that would be that. It was hard to find my footing, to find out what ‘The Rules’ were, for there certainly seemed to be some. Everyone else seemed to know them except me. When to eat, when to stand, when it was okay to offer a contribution to the ‘open mic’, when music was okay… I couldn’t discover how things were arranged – when all these rules were decided. They seemed to be no opportunity for negotiation…or for offering alternatives to ‘the programme’. Then slowly I discovered the majority of the group had been coming since the mid-Nineties. They were, except for one other, all old friends. I had ended up on a private holiday where everybody knew the jokes except I. I was in a paradigm ruled by a super-annuated oligarchy. It was like something out of the remake of the Survivors, earlier in the year. Welcome to Paradise. This is our way of doing things. You vill obey.

Now, I feel they are all probably good people – certainly pretty harmless – but just not my scene. Despite the apparent common ground they were coming from a very different place, which is fine – I’m all for accomodating paradigms in principle – but I don’t want to have it inflicted on me for a week, on my ‘hols’. My mistake, I know – although the website perhaps gives the slightly wrong impression. I imagine I may well become a green wrinkly one day – and certainly risk becoming a grumpy old git – but not yet I hope!

In the roundhouse later I was looking forward to a loose ‘bardic circle’ of poems, songs and stories. To my surprise I was handed a song sheet…which in the dark, without my glasses, I couldn’t read even if I wanted to. It was all very Sunday School. I don’t mind the odd person doing a tuneless song (everyone else had head-lamps to read the song-lyrics by – like a Dalek choir) if it’s the best they can offer around the campfire – but when you are more or less expected to join in, it becomes quickly tedious. Then someone read out a long ‘poem’ by Les Barker (the Benny Hill of poetry), who should be put on trial for crimes against poetry – what could be called versicide. I once had the misfortune to see him at Priddy and was astonished by how popular he was. It is clear that the masses have no taste, except for what they are spoonfed (‘the public wants what the public gets’). Like the doggerelist if you must, but don’t make me listen to it! I had come to Snowdonia for enchantment in the mountains, not Pam Ayres meets Songs of Praise (Barker puts on a ‘knowing fool’ act – a faux naif style, which simply is a mask for truly awful poetry). I shared my Bladud story (my home town tale) and a couple of poems – to the green man and to Mother Earth, then I went to bed. I had other poems and stories I could have offered, of course, but never got a chance over the week … maybe I could have made an opportunity, but my heart went out of it quite quickly.

The next morning I took it easy, reading my novel and the manuscript of The Way of Awen, which I had optimistically brought up to proof-read (I managed about 74 pages of the 220). In the afternoon I gave the ‘Truth Mandala’ a wide berth, hoping to see Eric, the owner – but he was out and so I went for a walk in the area to try and wake up (I spent most of the week feeling sleepy – Cae Mabon is one of those Sleepy Hollow places – nod off against a mossy rock and you risk waking up 300 years later). I guess the journey and the last few weeks had taken their toll. But I had sufficiently recovered by the next morning to climb Snowdon, which I had been meaning to do for a number of years but circumstances had conspired against me until now. It is possible to walk up Snowdon and back from Cae Mabon in a day. I walked into Llanberis and got the Sherpa bus to Pen-y-Pass. From there I opted for the Pyg Track. I walked all the way back down on the Llanberis Path (boring on the way up, but offering spectacular views on the way down). Two hours up, two hours down – not that I was racing or anything. I went at my own pace, giving myself plenty of time to ‘stand and stare’. I spent an hour on the summit, savouring the experience. I had ostensibly gone up to ‘get in touch with my animal’ for the Council of All Beings. Snowdon is known as Eyri, the Eagle’s Nest, so I felt connected with the mighty bird as I gazed out across the void, the mist occasionally parting to reveal a vertiginous chasm (although the only birds I spotted was a seagull, eyeing me as I ate a Snickers, and an extraordinary ‘fat grouse’ –  perhaps this was my power animal! – who waddled about nearby, oblivious to the hordes swarming around the summit). Being on a mountain gives you a perspective on things – whatever the visibility. It felt great to get away and achieve this by myself – it had made the whole trip worthwhile, whatever else I experienced (or endured!)

***

Climbing the Mountain

It stands there,

always waiting for us.

Sombre, mute, magnificent.

Magnetised with all our expectations.

Looming over the hustle and bustle,

the tittle tattle,

calling to us.

White nodes of longing.

We spend half our lives

wanting to get there.

Half our lives trying.

And in the struggle, the

breathless slog,

when, red in the face,

puffing like a steam train,

we somehow keep going,

we are never more

fully alive.

All our efforts of life

are in that ascent.

Some flicker of belief,

a flash of vision,

sustains us.

Yet when we get there

we find

the misty summit so crowded

there’s a rota,

puffins jostling on a rock,

a teashop,

key rings, mouse mats,

people chatting on mobiles:

‘I’m on the mountain!’

Taking photographs,

filming fog.

Their holy grail is a cup of hot chocolate,

a flushing loo,

an oggy or bun.

A whistle blows, they leave,

back to the grind.

On the way up

they had passed by

the very thing they had

hoped to find.

Kevan Manwaring

14/08/09

***

Summit on Snowdon - misty mountain hop

Summit on Snowdon - misty mountain hop

I returned to Cae Mabon feeling great (if rather sweaty & sleepy). I showered, then soaked in the hot tub with a beer (Snowdonia Ale, from Purple Moose Brewery, ‘Bragdy Mws Pys’ or something, in Porthmadog). I was asked if I was still intending to join in with the ceremony the next day – yes, and I went and painted my mask in preparation, listening to some Sigur Ros on my laptop (the ethereal music of this Icelandic group beautifully expresses dramatic landscapes – mountains, deep valleys, glaciers – and thus, echoed my walk up Snowdon). Later, when dinner was served I asked ‘would anyone care for some gentle music to dine by?’ you would have thought from the reaction I got that I had suggested eating steaming faeces as a hors d’oeuvre. ‘Certainly not!’ one of them snapped and the others tutted and scowled in sympathy. ‘Could I put it to a vote?’ I asked, hoping for a little bit of democracy. One of them put their hand up in support – others might have felt inclined but clearly didn’t want to breach the party line. Shame I didn’t get a choice whether to listen to their tuneless warblings or not.

It was then I realised I had nothing in common with these people.

Fortunately, Eric was in and I took up a couple of beers. Having a chance to chat to him made up for a week with that lot. It was like breathing air in comparison. The conversation flowed.

Then late that night something dramatic happened which proved the final straw.

The only guy I really connected with out of the group was a chap called Don. At 3.15am he had some kind of seizure – crying out in pain and falling out of bed. This woke Ian, sharing the hogan, who found him unconscious. He was unable to revive him. Thus followed a surreal drama, made more so for being in the middle of the night when everyone was half asleep. The first I knew about it was waking up to go to the toilet at 4am (funnily enough Don had talked to me in detail about his prostrate problems that morning over breakfast). Maybe I had sensed the comings and going, but it was a call of nature that got me out of bed. However, as soon as I stepped out of the front door I was accosted by Richard, who briefed me on the situation and warned me to ‘stay out of the way’ for a helicopter was on its way. I said ‘I’m not planning to a do a circle dance, I just want to go for a piss if that’s okay!’ It seemed like I had spent the whole week being told what to do or not to do, and my patience was wearing thin. Having relieved my bladder I went back to bed, only to be woken up by the helicopter hovering over the site. Half asleep, all I could see were lights through the trees, which were being whipped into a frenzy. The sound was deafening. It was like a scene from a sci-fi movie, perhaps Forbidden Planet. Some monster was coming through the trees to snatch one of our number away. When it finally left, I thought it had taken Don with it and I wished him well. It turned out they hadn’t managed to collect him as the winch on the Sea King wasn’t working! They had to go back to the base to get another chopper! Just as well Don wasn’t dying of a heart attack, because their mistake might have cost him his life. Finally they returned and by now it was starting to get light. I was woken again by the incredible noise directly overhead. I pulled on some clothes and went outside to behold the helicopter hovering over the main circle. From it a medic was winched down, like some kind of spaceman in his gear – sharply contrasting the Iron Age-style roundhouse he landed in front of. Two other medics were already attending Don. By this point he had recovered a little and was able to be escorted out to the circle, where he was fitted into the harness and winched up with the medic and his enormous pack. And then the yellow chopper flew away into the morning light – a Welsh Rescue Dawn. Having read about Arthur being taken to Avilion to heal of his grievous wounds earlier (and discovered that Llyn Llyndaw beneath Snowdon is associated with the famous scene, when a barge comes with three queens to take the mortally wounded king to the Otherworld) I could not help see the mythic resonance of the whole scene. But it was upsetting. Don was the only one I really got on with – and now he was taken. The rest of the week was looking rather bleak. After a dreary day (the weather had worsened) with everyone in slow motion after a sleepless night, exhausted from the high drama and worry, I decided that I’d had enough and wanted to leave. I hated to leave ‘under a cloud’ but I couldn’t bear another night there with those self-righteous people. Don’s drama had brought us all together a little – through common concern – but it didn’t change what they were like. With everyone else taking charge, etc, I felt more the outsider than ever. I packed and lugged my stuff up to the carpark and loaded my bike. I went to see Eric before I left and again our conversation redeemed the experience. I felt I had connected with one human soul at least. Strangely chiming with the Arthurian mythic theme ‘streaming live’ into Cae Mabon, Eric was the picture of the wounded king. The last time I was up, he had recently injured his Achilles’ tendon – and it had got worse over months. Earlier that day he had gone into Llanberis for a doctor’s appointment and returned with a serious foot support, which looked like the kind of footwear Darth Vader would wear. He showed me the scar where he had received surgery – and it was refusing to heal properly. Yet, despite this, Eric’s ‘kingdom’ was far from a wasteland. Cae Mabon was going well – but it must be hard work to maintain and very difficult with such an injury. I had my own wound, I realised – and Don’s collapse and departure (possibly to the otherworld – for it seemed to be serious), brought it up for me. The prospect of this likeable man being taken so abruptly was a painful repeat of my various bereavements over the last five years. Hearing that he was out of the danger zone and possibly coming home made me feel a little better about leaving, but the Fates had other plans. All togged up and ready to hit the road, I turned the ignition and nothing happened. I tried various methods to fire up the old girl but nothing worked. Cursing my luck (so much for a swift exit!) I was forced to ring for my own ‘rescue’, via Green Flag. A garage from Caernafon was arranged. Unfortunately, as it was a bike, they weren’t able to send someone out until the morning. Aargghh! Reconciling myself to another night with the Green Wrinklies, I put basics in the caravan in the carpark (which Eric had suggested I could crash in if I couldn’t hit the road) and went back down to the site. It was dinner time and I was called in. Fortunately I had missed grace, if they had done it (I had pointed out to them that on Wednesday the dinner was late in coming and they were so hungry by the time it had arrived they had just fell to it without ceremony: I found this an amusingly endearing act of human weakness, but I feel my observation didn’t go down well). It seemed I was destined to put my foot in it with these people (on the morning I went to Snowdon I visited the compost loo, only to accidentally come across one of the ladies about her business. I apologised and quickly shut the door (no locks!) and used the next cubicle. I passed her on the way out and said ‘sorry about that’ but she just gave me a frosty look as though I had done it on purpose, that I was some kind of twisted pervo who got his kicks out of bursting in on ladies on the throne. Give me patience!) The final meal passed relatively painlessly, although the singing that followed seemed to rub salt into the wounds (‘Country Home Take Me Home’; ‘I Shall Be Released’…) I finally managed to get a word in edgeways, offering a poem of Don’s which seemed strangely apt, ‘Angel Wings’ from his book Moving On. Immediately afterwards, Hilary1 was called out by a text – Don was on his way home. I went up to the carpark and waited in the caravan – listening to some suitably melancholic Nick Drake. Finally Ian and June returned with our wounded adventurer and I helped escort him down into the site with my torch (it’s a steep path and perilous in the dark). I made the travellers drinks, and relieved that Don seemed well enough to eat and chat, I hit the sack. It meant a great deal to me to have someone, for once, come back, from the brink of death. It felt like I was meant to be there for that moment of his return – and now finally, I could leave. In the morning, after saying goodbye to Don after breakfast, the man from Gwalia (a nice scouser, with whom I blathered like a man just let out of solitary) Garage finally turned up and, quickly identifying the problem, but unable to fix it on site, we pushed the bike into the van and I was whisked to Caernafon (my own Rescue Dawn) where it was soon fixed (flat battery due to a dodgy connection) and I was finally on my way. It was lashing down but I didn’t mind: I was on my way home!

All good material, anyway ;0) When you’re a writer, nothing is wasted – everything experience is redeemable. However excruciating at the time, such experiences are, for a writer, priceless. Thank you, Green Wrinklies. I had hoped to find inspiration in Snowdonia, and I certainly did!

About to leave Cae Mabon - when my bike is fixed!

About to leave Cae Mabon - when my bike is fixed!

The Last Survivor

Harry Patch Memorial, Wells

6th August 2009

Harry Patch procession to Wells Cathedral

Harry Patch procession to Wells Cathedral - captured by various media!

On Thursday I went down to Wells with my friend (and former bardic student) Matt, aka ‘Wayland’, to pay our respects to Harry Patch, the last veteran of the First World War trenches, born in Combe Down, Bath, who died on the 25th July at the incredible and symbolically apt age of 111 – a numeric echo of the Armistice Day, signed 11am on the 11th November 1918. To the end Harry’s message was peace and reconciliation (‘”Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims”.) – and to me, this makes him a hero – not the fact he got caught up in the ‘War to End All Wars’, like so many young men of his generation. He was the quintessential accidental hero, and the fact he was ‘an ordinary man’ was emphasized again and again at the moving service at Wells Cathedral, witnessed by a 1400 inside, many outside on the green in the rain (including us,  happy to be ‘with the people’) and countless others around the world via TV and internet.

the ginger hulk outside Wells Cathedral

The Ginger Hulk outside Wells Cathedral

Matt had called me, expressing an interest to attend Harry’s memorial (which was going to be a full state funeral, until he and fellow veteran Henry Allingham quashed that notion). I researched the details and applied for tickets. Matt is partially sighted and would have struggled to get to Wells as there was no direct rail link – it required a long and winding 80 minute bus journey from Bath over the Mendips. To his credit he made it to Bath Spa and booked himself into the White Hart hostel. I met him the next day and we caught the bus from Bath’s new terminal (the ‘transport hub’ resembling a some kind of kitchen appliance). Matt’s balance is poor, because of a hearing impairment (which seems to be selective – the trigger word being ‘chocolate’ or ‘cheese pasty’) and so taking him pillion on my bike wasn’t an option – and so we were ‘Bards on a Bus’ for the day! Oh, the joys of public transport…

We sat at the back at Matt’s insistence and began gabbling away when we were soon interrupted by a man who turned out to be a journalist from the LA Times, no less, who was on his way down to Wells to cover the memorial. We ended up chatting to Henry Chu for a good half an hour and he asked us why we, a 39 and 33 yr old, were going to a funeral of someone we had never met, from a generation thrice removed.

It was a good question.

Matt seems obsessed about military history from certain periods – and he discovered recently he had a relative who served in the First World War, surname Shoesmith, and so he had a personal connection.

I’ve felt connected to the First World War since learning some of the haunting poetry from that period at school – heart-breaking windows into misery that brought it home to me more than forgotten history lessons – in the early Eighties, when Britain was fighting another futile war, this time in the Falklands (the tabloids fuelling a sickening ‘bulldog’ spirit, which went on to help the Tories get re-elected at a time when they were struggling – one could all see it as cynical manipulation of the populace. When things are difficult on the domestic front conjure up ‘the New Bad’ to distract and terrorise… plus ca change) and the constant shadow of the Cold War made the prospect of being forced into some nightmare conflict very real. The thought of conscription seemed very real at the time – being forced as cannon fodder to the front. The poets of the First World War expressed the futility, the waste, the chaos, the tragedy, the ugly face of conflict, the fact that War is Terror – there is nothing noble about it and violence is never justified, never the solution – as Patch epitomised: what is poignant about him is not the fact that he took part, but that he survived and had to live 91 years with the aftermath. That it took him 80 years to talk about it. That he could vividly recall the horror of war all that time later – the death of his comrades in one devastating blast. One act of violence – nearly a century to ‘recover’. The sound of gunfire and bombs may fade, but the impact lasts for generations. This is the terrible price normal people have to pay. War is a crime against humanity. It is obscene and all those advocate it are war criminals. Patch summed up the aftermath of war to me – of those who have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Trying to imagine what it must have been like, to be the one who survives – the one who outlives all of his comrades and most of his loved ones…the nearest I can come to comprehending it is mythopoeically – a word coined by another First World War veteran we may have easily lost, JRR Tolkien – through the legend of Oisin, who returns to Ireland 300 years later to discover all that he has known and loved has turned to dust. He shares his story with St Patrick, (as Patch did with Richard Van Emden, co-author of The Last Fighting Tommy) before finally expiring, a super-annuated soul out of his time, a living ghost left behind.

I also felt the need to honour Harry because I had recently finished my five book paean to the lost of history, The Windsmith Elegy  within a few days of both Harry and Henry Allingham dying (who briefly crops up in the second volume). It begins on the eve of the First World War and ends on the eve of the Second, linking these two major conflicts which have shaped the world we live in – and charting the ‘space between’, the Twenties and Thirties. Having spent half a million words exploring these issues, imagining the impact of these events on ordinary lives, yes, I felt connected. I felt. like I had gone on a journey and this marked the end of it

I wanted to honour this last living link, not just for the brief time he endured in that awful conflict, but the achievement of his long life, to way he kept on going. That is perhaps the hardest thing of all.

The service was a well-managed and moving combination of tributes from various people – the most eloquent was the rendition of Seager’s classic anti-war song ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ and the anecdotes about Harry the ‘ordinary man’ by the Scottish chap. Being unable to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service, we were left none the wiser as to who was speaking – although I did recognise the local Dean. Services Minister Kevan Jones observation that the day was also the anniversary of the dropping of the first bomb of Hiroshima was very poignant, as were his comments about the horror of war. I’m glad they didn’t turn it into some military trumpet-blowing exercise – although the playing of the ‘Last Post’ at the end was very moving in an iconic way. The fact that soldiers from France, Belgium and Germany helped carry the Union Jack covered coffin was a brilliant gesture of reconciliation. The crowd outside the cathedral consisted of a wide cross-section of ages and backgrounds – seeing teenagers and kids there, being respectful, showed how much Harry meant to the nation. As the hearse passed, the crowds lining the street burst spontaneously into applause.

Afterward the service, we took cover from the deluge in the Cornish Pasty shop – our stomaches offering no resistance – before we searched for a portrait of Patch rumoured to be on display in the town – we discovered it in the town hall, displayed in a stairwell – it was rather poignant to see it there, hanging quietly on the wall after all the pomp and ceremony. Depicted in a rather pop art style, with bits of glittery bling attached, the old tommy had become an icon.

Harry Patch portrait, Wells town hall

Harry Patch portrait, Wells town hall

Matt signs book of condolence

Matt signs book of condolence

We signed the Book of Condolence and then left, catching the bus back to Bath. Later on I discovered the journalist’s article on the LA Times website – he had posted a dispatch with alacrity. And there we were – cited as ‘Copley and Manwaring’ as though I’m Matt’s sidekick rather than the other way round! Still, it was a nice footnote to the day. Matt got quoted directly and my comments about the poetry and the breakdown of class divisions seemed to be included in Henry’s good account of the day. The perspective of outsiders is always fascinating, although his conclusion that as a nation we don’t seem to be willing to forget is perhaps misjudged – I doubt anyone wishes to cling to such a painful past, but we should not forgot if we don’t want to disrepect the sacrifice made by brave men and women  – and if we don’t want to make the same mistakes again. The fact that we seems to seems indicative of our collective amnesia. How can we let war happen again – indeed, even will it – after so many lives have been wasted by it, communities and countries devastated? If only the First World War had ended war.

Henry Chu’s article can be read here: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-britain-funeral7-2009aug07,0,995903.story

Sublime band Radiohead (who have a Bath connection through their illustrator, Stanley Donwood, a local character – author of  ‘Catacombs of Terror’, a prophetic ‘swine flu’ comedy – flesh-eating pigs running amok in tunnels beneath the city of Bath!) have released a single inspired by Harry, raising funds for the British Legion. It was recorded in Bath Abbey. You can download it via their website. http://www.radiohead.com/deadairspace/

Rest in Peace, Harry – with your mates and loved ones at last.

Bardic Picnic

Bardic Picnic, Northampton 2nd August

Justin, John & Jimtom kickstart the Bardic Picnic, Delapre, 09



This was the third year I was invited up for the Bardic Picnic at Delapre Abbey (a very special place for me) and the first year it was a real success. After the groundwork of previous years (John Morrisey declaring the Chair in ’07; last year’s slightly bigger, but not very well-attended event) my old home town finally ‘got’ the notion of the Bardic Picnic and it was a great day, thanks to the hard work of the 3 J’s: Justin, Jimtom and John – and all the crew behind the scenes. I was asked to judge the contest again – last year I came up but no entrants came forward on the day (shoe town got cold feet)! This year half a dozen had put their names forward. I rode up on the Saturday afternoon – waiting for the rain to pass – but it stayed with me most of the way there, so the usual run over the Cotswolds wasn’t as much fun. I was told crew were gathering there around 4pm – I got there about 7pm and things were still very ‘in utero’. I ended up helping putting the marquee up with a good crew of about 20 volunteers. It was great seeing people working together in Northampton. Justin and Jimtom had been running a monthly event called Raising the Awen, and this has built up a groundswell of support and performers. Finally, the marquee up, the promised BBQ got going (when the forgotten grill had been collected), beers were bought and we could start to relax. It was nice to hang out with my old friends and new there on the eve of the event, and to be able to stay over at the ‘Green Abbey’, as I called it in a poem of mine, which was a real highlight. The next morning, after waking up in a sunny glade to the strains of a harp (Justin in Alan a Dale mode) I popped over to my Mum’s to freshen up and have some breakfast (hooray for mums!), before returning to rehearse in the glade. I was ready to start at midday (I had arranged an early slot) but unfortunately the festival wasn’t. The scene before was looking pretty desperate. Stages and stalls were half-up. A broken white gazebo (the backstage) blew across the site, rolling towards my friends car until I stopped it and it was all looking like it was going to be disaster – but finally it came together and people started to arrive. Two hours later then announced, the Bardic Picnic commenced and I went on after the 3 J’s announced the start.

Performing Dragon Dance

Performing Dragon Dance

I started my set with my old green man poem, ‘One with the Land’, connecting it to the theme of the festival: ‘Northampton, my home in the heart of England.’ Then, warmed up, I recited ‘Dragon Dance’. I finished with my version of the Taliesin story, which seemed apt for a bardic contest. After this I was able to relax – I grabbed my complimentary veggie burger and beer from the bar tent and hooked up with my fellow judges, Caroline Saunders and Jimtom, both old friends. The contest was in three parts: a general performance; statement of intent; Northampton piece. Between these were some great bands and other performers including the psychaedelic prophet, the ‘Shaman of the North’. On the open mic stage, hosted by Rippin Pages, other spoken word performers got a chance to do their thing. The day was blessed with glorious sunshine and there was a lovely atmosphere as family and friends picniced and enjoyed the bardic entertainment – this is what bardism is, for my money: the arts accessible for all. Everybody there could see the Bardic Tradition in action – celebrating the cultural biodiversity of the community in an engaging way. We had to go and deliberate, then make the announcement. I was asked to speak on behalf of the judges and comment on each participants’ performance, before finally declaring the winner: a ‘blow in’ from Wolverhampton, Donna, who won the final heat with her great praise song to Northampton, ‘Finding my feet in Shoe-town’.

Donna Scott, the new Bard of Northampton, by KM

Donna Scott, the new Bard of Northampton, by KM

Afterwards, there was a great band, which got everyone dancing. Then … it was over, officially. People helped tidy up the site. The core crew stayed on site, looking after the marquee and PA. Folk stayed around chatting, glowing in the buzz of a good event. Finally, some veggie chilli was warmed up and we chilled out, enjoying the dusk at Delapre with a glass of wine. An Asian doctor called Azam strayed upon the event by accident and stayed behind, sharing our supper. It turned out he was a singer and I encouraged him to sing for us – and so we ended up having a comic version of X Factor, with folk impersonating the different judges. I ended up being Piers Morgan! Azam said he had been waiting for this for twenty years and had a truly great day. This sums up the bardic way – it’s for everyone. We all should be able to express ourselves and be heard. Three cheers to the Three Jays, the new bard and to next year’s Bardic Picnic.

Northampton has talent!

The 3 Judges, Kevan, Jimtom and Carrie

The 3 Judges, Kevan, Jimtom and Carrie