Monthly Archives: November 2009

Stories to Save the World

26-29 November

A flurry of fabulous events over the last few days – a feast that I’m still digesting…

Thursday I was invited back to be a guest panelist in the Cafe of Ideas, this time held in Bath at Chapel Arts Centre – once again discussing narrative and its impact on things. The audience was ‘intimate’ – it was hard to compete with a Hollywood movie star turning on the lights – but it was a quality event nonetheless, with a thought-provoking discussion evolving from questions from the host, Pete, and the audience. I talked about one of my favourite themes, the Hero’s Journey, and cited as an example the event up the road: the celebrity switch-on of Bath’s Xmas lights, relating it, with a nod and wink, in mythic terms (the discussion had been largely dominated by economics – perhaps not surprisingly as a banker was on the panel)… A benighted land devastated by the great dragon, Recession, needs a hero – fortunately one lives close by (until recently a house in the Circus, and Midford Castle). A man called Cage comes to aid of the townsfolk, who have gathered together in anxiety – hoping their prayers will be answered. Cage is the Lightbringer – with his electric power he banishes the night and, all hope, the dragon Recession, bringing prosperity and happiness to the town once more. The tills rang out and the shopkeepers lived happily ever after. The end.

Narrative is all around us – the myths we live by, the consoling fictions, the grand narrative that dominate the Way Things Are. By being aware of them, we can work with them, even change them. Certainly change our own. The world needs different ‘stories’ to live by, because the ones we have are clearly not working.

And without narrative, life is meaningless – we are storytelling creatures, pattern-makers. Story is how we make sense of the world, our messy lives.

And even the storyteller needs to be to told a story now and again – to simply listen and be held by another’s narrative.

On Friday I went to see a play of my friend and fellow gardener, Svanur – a two-hander called The Big Deal, followed by a play called The Small Print – a brilliant ‘double-act’ (the two talented actors played different roles in each – a suicidal woman and an ‘angel’; a Council worker and an inquisitive old woman). As great concept often are, it’s very simple – a play in a pub – but I haven’t seen it done so well before. The staging, production and direction was all professional. The show is going to Clifton, Bristol, later this week – the Lansdown Inn, Thurs-Sat. Worth catching!

Saturday was the event of possibly the year – Heaven’s Gate, Stroud’s first festival of storytelling, poetry and music, co-organised by my friend Jay Ramsay and Rick Vick to celebrate William Blake’s birthday. It was a night of a thousand bards (but only one bar – which unfortunately closed before I could get a well-deserved beer … waiting til after my set, which wasn’t until gone eleven! It had been a long-haul – a Bard Day’s Night) I was performing along with a fantastic line-up including Robin and Bina Williamson (they bumped into me while looking for the venue); Phoenix (the supergroup of Stroud – Jay and friends); Kirsten Morrison; Aidan and his lovely pianist companion from Prague; Anthony Nanson, storyteller; William Ayot; Paul Matthews and a host of other poets – plus, most magnificently of all, Irina Kuzminsky, who had come all the way from Melbourne to launch her book, Dancing with Dark Goddesses, published by my press, Awen, with an incredible dance-recital tour-de-force. After the gig, I popped the champagne to wet the baby’s head with Irina and Angela, the designer – a fab team effort, as was the evening in a larger sense, a collective act of art. Everybody shone and the audience were very supportive and appreciative – the Sub Rooms, a large venue, were packed out. A fantastic success!

I performed a story I wrote especially for the event, The Gate, inspired by Blake’s phrase – Heaven’s Gate (reclaiming it from its associations with Michael Cimino’s ‘disasterous’ overbudget flop). I responded to Rob Hopkins challenge in a recent Resurgence:

there are a paucity of stories that articulate what a lower-energy world might sound like, smell like, feel like and look like. What is hard, but important is to be able to articulate a vision of a post-carbon world so enticing that people leap out of bed every morning and put their shoulders to the wheel of making it happen.

This, coupled with Blake’s gate, was my inspiration, and that is what I set out to do with my simple parable, which I kept deliberately ‘light’ (following the notion that we can enter the kingdom of heaven as children – by letting ourselves be ‘held’ by a story, in a state of Keatsian negative capability, or Blakean innocence). The response was very positive. I believe art, at its best, is a gateway (rather than a mere mirror of the world) and get us closer to achieving this goal. We need stories of hope and deep beauty to defeat the gloom, the paralysis of despair, and the denialists.

The next morning we had a post-gig breakfast in Costa (the only cafe open in Stroud on a Sunday. We would have preferred lovely independent wholefood eatery, Star Anise… Instead, we turned this chain into the Left Bank of the Cotswolds for a couple of hours, as the surviving bards gathered). We were all wiped out from an epic night – but this broke down any remaining barriers. There was warmth, there was awen – and something wonderful happened. For a little while, the gate opened… Such a huge act of love will not go unnoticed by the universe! Well done to Jay, Rick and all those who performed and made it happen. Absolute stars, all of them – shining beyond the light pollution of the mainstream, the gaudy dazzle of the Media. Blake would have been touched by such a show of artistic solidarity … the City of Art descended and Albion’s children shone.

Bards and the Bees

16-22 November

It’s been a week of inspiring eco-artiness and inspiration.

Eric Maddern - eco-storyteller

Monday I went to see the fabulous show by Australian storyteller, Eric Maddern, What the Bees Know: Songs and Stories to Sustain and Restore the World – an engaging and galvanising blend of story, poetry, song and environmental awareness raising. I saw a preview of this at the Ecobardic Minifest at Cae Mabon, Eric’s amazing eco-retreat centre in North Wales way back in May, but it was well worth seeing the full show, which had so much more in it. Eric’s charismatic presence filled the Chapel Arts Centre and took the small but committed audience on a 2 hour ‘bee-line’ from the malady to the remedy, honey being a traditional cure-all, and one of the rich gifts these industrious pollinators bestow upon humankind: beeswax, royal jelly, mead, various medicines, and most of all – the pollination of plants. The UK bee population dropped by 30% in 2007 – in Spain, it was 50%, and the USA is experiencing similarly sobering trends. Without these key pollinators, the cycle of life could grind to a halt (25% of the global species depend on plants pollinated by bees). Uber-brainbox Albert Einstein once said: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”…Despite the gloomy predictions, Eric’s show left the audience feeling uplifted – the creative act is affirming in itself, and is another example of the remarkable power of the human imagination, with which anything is possible – including solutions to these mounting environmental problems. Homo sapiens may be the problem, but is also the solution – and has proven over the millennia, since it first discovered fire, flint and the paintbrush back in the caves of our ancestors – that it is nothing but ingenius.

There are various good folk offering ‘plan B’, notably The Global Bee Project. We can all do our bit (eg plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden).

Eric is still touring his show – catch it next Spring, or even book it for your venue or group. Next month he’s off to Copenhagen – the place to ‘bee’ for such a committed eco-campaigner. Long may the story-honey flow from his lips.

it's been a long time coming ... Image from Home, words from Eric Maddern

On Saturday I went to the spectacular setting of Bath Abbey to see a film by Earth from the Air visionary, Yann Arthus-Bertrand called Home – deeply beautiful and moving. The Abbey was packed out with nearly a thousand people. It was very forward-thinking for the Abbey to allow this film to be shown. It was an interesting experience – the large screen in front of the altar, the haunting music drifting up into the vaults, hushed reverence, enduring the discomfort of the hard pews … a kind of surrogate religiosity pervaded the film – I would argue a genuine one, based upon awe of Creation, the miracle of this precious and fragile planet we live on. Perhaps if they had more events like this the Church would find its houses filled once more. Many are overwhelmed and despairing at the crisis facing us. Is it time for eco-churches – centres of energy descent, where folk can ‘pray’ not for their own salvation, but the salvation of the planet? The consolation of faith perhaps has its place – life without a spiritual dimension is shallow and ultimately futile – but we have to act now, before it’s too late. A good place to start is the Transition Movement, as mentioned last week. Read about the burgeoning Transition Culture here

In a week of extreme weather ravaging Britain, this seems more poignant than ever.  The flood gates are open.

Heavy Weather, Grey Wethers

Bath to Avebury

14-15 November

new bike 021

My new 'time machine' at Silbury Hill, 2400 BCE

A contrasting weekend. Yesterday went to the Big Transition Bath Event at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute (BRLSI) – a day of talks, workshops, networking and inspiration organised by Transition Bath. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, opened the event with a sobering but galvanising talk about the effects of climate change – and how we can respond to its challenges (as the Maldives is doing, becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country). There followed a triple programme of interesting and empowering talks. Oh, and some nice cake.

The weather was suitably ominous – like the start of some disaster movie. This particular ‘pathetic fallacy’ was simply a pain in the arse for most of storm-battered Britain. Unfortunately, it will probably take some extreme weather event (London flooding – a la New Orleans – to shock the majority of people, including the government, into action). Most people are still in the denial stage – prefer to see Climate Change as a myth (an morally outrageous & unscientific stance perpetuated largely by the Oil Industry), in itself a consoling fiction for those who wish to stick their heads in the sand and continue their carbon-emitting lifestyles. Yet it is very difficult for even the greenest person to lead a carbon-neutral lifestyle – from the day we are born we become a burden to the planet. In this ‘new paradigm’ the sin of carbon can be absolved by the purchase of carbon credits – the modern equivalent of medieval ‘indulgences’. Carbon-traders are the modern Pardoners, giving people the odour of sanctity with their invisible benedictions. Climate Change gurus are the new priests, the greener you are, the ‘holier’ you are – as people try to outdo each other in what could be called ‘hair-shirtman ship’, eg ‘I turned green twenty years ago’; ‘I went green twenty five years ago…’) and there’s even a happy clappy song to go with it: at the end of the day a guy called Chris got everyone to join in his ‘Climate Change’ anthem, which had the lyrics: ‘Energy … Descent … Plan  – Transition Culture!’ I don’t think they’re going to win over many people with that – they need to work on their song-writing! Green art doesn’t have to be bad art – and the last talk I went to (and the most interesting for me) was a session on Imagineering led by eco-poet, Helen Moore – where we discussed such matters, and the ‘spectre of the preacher’ as I put it: people don’t respond to a hectoring tone (I certainly don’t – and I’m sympathetic). You have to enchant people by sheer quality – entertain, impress, then you have their attention. Ask tough questions, but don’t spoonfeed answers. Light a candle, don’t fill a pail (although a few buckets today – when the heavens opened – wouldn’t have gone amiss).

Afterwards went to Bristol for something completely different – ostensibly – a critically-acclaimed Tobacco Factory production of Uncle Vanya at the marvellous Old Vic, but as it turned out, it had a strong ecological subplot, as advocated by the Doctor, with his forests, his love of trees, his vegetarianism. And in its stark depiction of how we have to keep on living – even through depression and despair, Chekov perhaps hints out how we might also ‘keep going’. It was surprisingly funny – and shows how much humour is an essential for life on Earth also (the probes being sent out across the Solar System should be scanning planets for it as well as water).

Avebury today by Kevan Manwaring

The Great Circle of Avebury in the winter light

Today, the skies miraculously cleared, so I made the most of the window in the weather to take my shiny new time machine (a Triumph Legend) out on a long run to Avebury. I’d been working hard –  after two weeks of marking OU papers I needed to blow away the cobwebs (all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and I didn’t want to do a  Shining: ‘Here’s Johnnny!’) I first went to Silbury Hill (Europe’s largest man-made mound, dating from 2400 BCE), then walked up to West Kennet long barrow (3650BCE), enjoying the glorious light, the wind, the space. Hardly a soul around.

Good to get away from computers, etc, in this vast sacred landscape temple… ancient technology that has stood the test of time. The incredible West Kennet is still standing after nearly six millennia – how many things these days would last so long?

West Kennet long barrow - 5659 years old and still looking good

Then I rode the short distance to the massive main circle and had my packed lunch in a copse of beech trees, enjoying being back in this magnificent sacred space where I have been coming for twenty years (‘I’ve been coming for twenty five years!’)

The standing stones are made up of what are known locally as ‘grey wethers’ (because they resemble sheep in poor light – many of which were manically munching away amidst the megaliths, bulging-eyed grass addicts). I walked all the way around the henge, stopping occasionally to scribble in my field journal – notes for my new book. Out in the sun on my shiny new steed – working on my new book … life is good.On Dyrham hill fort, Remembrance Sunday

Doing my bit for Climate Change ;0)

Blazing Bright in the Year’s Midnight

28th October-2nd November

James Hollingsworth setting the night on fire at the first Garden of Awen - photo by Crysse Morrison

Now the light falls

Across the open field, leaving the deep lane

Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon

(East Coker, TS Eliot)

Finally have a chance to catch up after a hectic few days of bardic busyness – it’s that festival feeling again, as a flurry of events occur around Halloween, the deadline of the year (in Celtic Tradition the festival was celebrated as Samhain, summer’s ending, and Celtic New Year – for Celts, midnight was considered the middle of the day, and so the ‘midnight of the year’ – as I feel Samhain is, more than the Winter Solstice, which has a glimmer of light, as the sun is ‘reborn’ – would similarly be its negative axis – the dark pole around which the wheel of the year turns).

As Mary Queen of Scots put, stitching the shortening threads of her alotted time: ‘In my end is my beginning’ and as TS Eliot added in The Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end.’  It is an Alpha/Omega time of year (although in truth, things are always ending and beginning – it just depends on when our awareness starts). With the nights drawing in, it feels like a shift of focus, a turning inward – nature hunkers down – but life, alas, has other plans for us human animals! Hibernation is not an option!

Wednesday saw another Guest Writers in Conversation with fabulous female poets, Helen Moore and Rose Flint talking at Bath Writers’ Workshop, the event I co-run with screenwriter David Lassman. Helen and Rose’s work and ethos shared some common ground but also has interesting differences – teased out through the insightful talk and critical response they gave. They both performed a selection of their work and answered questions from the audience. Another superb evening – it was fascinating to hear the poets talk about the evolution of their work and themselves as writers. Lesser know writers rarely get a chance to discuss their work in such depth and have a fellow writer interview them and offer an insightful response. Both are great poets – check them out!

Thursday, after an exciting test run of a beautiful Triumph Legend – my next bike! – I went to Bristol with David for the Cafe of Ideas, a monthly forum. I was invited to be on a panel discussing narrative with a bank manager, professor and BBC presenter. Held at Co-exist, an arts collective based at Hamilton House, the space was transformed with performance poetry, music and a buffet. A sister event (same theme, format and panel) will take place at the Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, on November 26th.

Friday I was a guest performer at What a Performance! – a monthly open mic held at St James Wine Vaults, Bath. MCed by Richard Selby, keeping the spirit of Dave Angus (it’s founder and original host) alive and kicking. The evening was dedicated to the writer Moyra Caldecott – in her eighties and now unable to perform her work due to a stroke. Moyra has been a great influence and inspiration on me – she has supported my work for the last ten years – so it was a pleasure to participate in this event to honour her. I read out 3 of her poems as well as my own 14 page epic, Dragon Dance (from memory). My fellow guest performer Kirsty was on form with her three fabulous tales – and there were many other great contributions.

A Bard and a Druid at Stanton Drew by Helen Murray

Talking to Ronald Hutton at Stanton Drew

Saturday I attended an OBOD open ceremony at Stanton Drew, a stone circle not far from Bath. It was very moving, as we were asked to think about those we have lost, and what we wanted to let go of. A pint in the Druids Arms afterwards  helped to bring us back into the land of the living! Later, for something ‘completely different’ I went to a ‘Halloween Chic’ party. It was interesting – two very different ways to celebrate the same festival!

into the barrow by Helen Murray

Entering Stoney Littleton long barrow - something watches from inside...

Sunday looked like it was going to be a washout but the skies miraculously brightened after midday and I went for a quick rideout to Stoney Littleton long barrow, travelling back five thousand years as I crawled into the narrow Neolithic burial chamber to remember my ancestors at the time of Samhain.

PB010811

Anthony Nanson launches Garden of Awen with a spooky tale - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, 1st November 2009

Later, I hosted the first Garden of Awen at Chapel Arts Centre, Bath – an event I put on with Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson, whose Icepax Productions did the business once again. A guest, Rosie, said she had never seen the venue look so good. A Bath Spa art student, Jennifer, painted two great backdrops to help create an Arcadian feel. Foliage was festooned on screens. Green candles and poem flowers decorated the tables. Chapel technician Jonathan provided some snazzy lighting. Svanur brilliantly choreographed the acts: Anthony Nanson, storyteller, got things going with a gripping and stylish start with an atmospheric tale about a vampire. Nikki Bennett launched her new poetry collection, Love Shines Beyond Grief, with a bang (or a pop and a fizz – as we wet the baby’s head with flutes of Cava). David Metcalfe ended the first half with a powerful set of British death ballads and his spine-tingling poem, The Last Wolf. The second half started with a tune from Marko Gallaidhe, just back from Bampton Festival, but with still enough puff in him for a song. Richard Austin shared his poetry with aplomb. Marion Fawlk, also from Stroud, looked regal on the stage in her lovely velvet dress – sharing her deeply felt goddess poetry. The evening ended with a blistering set from guitar-shaman and sublime songsmith, James Hollingsworth. He was ‘resurrected’ for a stunning encore of Led Zep’s classic ‘In My Time of Dying’ – a suitable way to end our evening themed on ‘Death & Rebirth’.  And so, the 1st November, Celtic New Year, saw the birth of a sparkling addition to Bath’s literary firmament – a professional spoken word showcase on the first Sunday of the month. Writer Crysse Morrison, in her blog said: ‘

‘Great to see such an atmospheric venue join the local network of alternative entertainment.’

The Garden will return with its ‘high quality diversity of spoken word and music’ on the 6th December with an amazing line-up. Check out www.awenpublications.co.uk for details.

Meanwhile, I’m going to get me some quality zeds…