Monthly Archives: April 2010

Awen in the Mountains

Way of Awen weekend

Cae Mabon 22-25 April

View from the main hall at Cae Mabon - a place of inspiration and beauty

Way back in 2004 I ran a series of ‘bardic development weekends’ at picturesque settings around the country – these led to The Bardic Handbook. Now, as its follow-up, The Way of Awen, is due to come out (in June from O Books) I decided to run a new event, partly based upon its contents. And so I organised a weekend up in North Wales in an inspiring location, Cae Mabon, an eco-retreat centre, which I first visited last Spring (though I had known about it for a number of years).

I have enjoyed visiting Wales around this time of year for a while – a chance to reconnect with ‘the Source’, which although is I believe ‘all around us’, it seems closer to the surface in the mountains. Blake as ever, put it best: ‘Great things are done when Men & Mountains meet/ This is not Done by Jostling in the Street.’

After 10 days of storytelling workshops in NE Italy I knew my cauldron would need replenishing – but I hadn’t counted on the difficulty of getting back! The volcano in Iceland erupted, closing all UK and many Continental airports – this made getting home a feat of Odyssian proportions (many are still struggling). I did not want to accept the consensus that it might not be feasible getting back until the weekend – for it would have meant my long-planned weekend in the mountains would have been cancelled. I managed, with the priceless help of my native-speaking hostess Silvana, to secure what seemed like the last train ticket out of Italy – all the trains from Milan had been booked until mid-week at least. I had to go via Austria and Switzerland, but would at least make it to Paris by Tuesday teatime, then I reckoned the train to Calais, and crossing over on the ferry as a foot passenger would be my best bet. Finding out anything was impossible – as websites had crashed, phonelines were jammed. Fortunately, I had a friend in Paris who was able to get me the ticket to Calais, so at least I knew I could reach the coast. I had been stuck in Paris he had a friend who could’ve put me up for 10 Euros a night (the cheapest bed in Paris!) which was nice to know. Thank goodness for friends. But I kept going, despite being in sore need of a bed after an 18hr train journey across Europe. I figured it would be better to queue up at Calais, even if it meant a dreary night at the terminal, then get there late the following day and risk not getting home until Wed evening. I was meant to leave for N Wales the next day and desperately needed a day to recover – a day of stillness! The gods of travel were with me and I got on a ferry at 00:25hrs Wed am (GMT+1), back in Blighty 01:00am, losing an hour on the way. Caught a bus to London – arriving, bleary-eyed, at 3.30am. No coaches or trains… shared a taxi to London Paddington and caught the first train out, though it was over-priced. It got me back to Bath by 7am – which was beautiful to behold in the early morning Sunday. Finally I stepped through my front door and collapsed – 33 hrs constant travelling, but it had been worth it. A day to recover – the weekend had been salvaged.

The next morning I prepared my handouts and finished packing, then set off at 1pm – arriving just after 6pm (couple of stops for petrol). It had been a lovely run up in the sun on my Triumph Legend. It felt good to be travelling under my own steam again – master of my destiny once more! Nothing worse than hanging around – feeling trapped. It had been, nevertheless, a powerful lesson – that I am still processing, not having had much chance to ‘catch up with my self’, for now I had a weekend of workshops to run. No rest for the bardic!

As I passed the dramatic threshold of Pen-y-Pass, at the apex of Llanberis Pass – the awesome glacial scar through the flanks of Snowdon – I felt a certain elation. Against all odds I had made it. I snaked carefully down the mountain road into Llanberis, taking care to take the right turning to Fachwen (last time I was here I took the wrong one, and ended up half-way up Snowdon, passing bemused walkers!). Llyn Padarn was on my right and I followed it around, crossing a small stone bridge and then the narrow lane that wound up into the foothills through massive Symplegades of granite. It feels like one long wrong-turning, but eventually the entrance to Cae Mabon is found – down steep hairpin bends, along a pot-holed track. I pulled into the ‘car park’, glad to see the smiling face of Mabon, beaming over the wooden gateway. Made it!

I amused myself with the theory that the place had been given its name, because that’s what you feel like saying when you finally find it: ‘Fachwen!’ It actually means ‘little, white’, after the stream that runs along the side of it – cascading down from a series of waterfalls.

I unloaded the bike and lugged my kit down to the ‘hobbit village’. In the hall four of the participants had arrived – five, with our special guest, baby Lily, who was to charm us all weekend with her cheekiness and amazing ability to pick up new words. Someone made me a mug of tea and I slumped into a chair. That night we took it easy – a couple of women from Glastonbury didn’t make it until late. They had the groceries. Fortunately, there was some stuff left over from the last group, complemented by some of Eric’s veggies, so we got a curry on the go and settled in. It was getting close to 9pm (arrival was 4-6pm) and we were getting worried. I managed to find the mobile number of one of them on an old email and we called them – they were just coming down the track. They were grateful for a plate of hot food when they arrived. By now it was about ten and I was certainly flagging. Eric asked me about the nature of Awen and I explained it as best I could in my semi-comatose state. After clearing up, some of us jumped in the hot tub, which Julia had fired up earlier, with the help of Ken – a Kiwi resident. It was wonderfully soothing – apart from gashing my finger as I leapt into the icy mountain stream, shouting ‘Fachwen!’ Eric joined us, soaking like some Celtic king in a cauldron. The stars glittered and the waxing moon shone through the tangled trees. The heated water and sound of the stream helped smooth away the rigours of the journey. It was time for bed and a good night’s sleep.

My home for the weekend - the lovely cob house.

In the morning, after breakfast, I outlined the day and asked for any suggestions/contributions. I left some space in the programme for either free time or extra workshops offered by members of the group. Ola kicked things off with an African dance workshop. This got us warmed up for my Poetry in Motion workshop – working through the animals of the Taliesin story, which I told – we used movement to inspire poetry. Before each ‘dance’ I got someone to read out one of the animal poems from The Taliesin Soliloquies I wrote as part of The Way of Awen book. This triggered individual responses – as each participant imagined themselves inhabiting respective animal’s consciousness. They moved around the site, between the standing stones and trees, or around the stream – communing with different elements. The exercise seemed to work very well and produced some excellent poetry – fresh and sinuous, visceral and full of vitality.

After lunch I took people on a walk up to the waterfall and viewpoint. It was a lovely sunny afternoon. We napped in site of Snowdon, overlooking Llanberis and Llyn Padarn. Alas, on the way back Wayland felt weak and had to be helped every step of the way. I had to carry Lily for Liz – she fell asleep on my shoulders, her snoring becoming ‘bubbling’, as she dripped snot on me! Together, we eventually got back – Liz coming to pick us up in the car after we had to do a large detour to avoid the stone steps Wayland struggled with. It was a relief to get back and have a cup of tea! I finished off my poetry workshop with a session on remembering and performing poetry, which seemed to go down well. Folk spent some time learning poems while dinner was being prepared. I ran through Dragon Dance – my epic Praise Song to Albion – but I was so tired I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Even though I hadn’t done it for many months – since last summer? – most of the 14 pages came back to me. I was going to have another go after dinner, but decided to do a classic poem closer to where I was ‘at’: CP Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’.

I got the fire going in the roundhouse and we gathered there around nine. I started things with the awen, then my poem Ithaka. We took turns to share a poem, song or story. It went well, but I was very tired – and despite being able to do WB Yeats’ ‘The Celtic Twilight’ off the top of my head, I suffered bardic droop when it came to doing my flower maiden poem, which is linguistically tricky. By then the wine and fatigue had taken its toll and I retired.

Saturday we were blessed with even better weather. Today I ran my ‘Climbing the Beanstalk’ workshop in the morning – it culminated in some excellent performances. My participants managing to learn and perform (well) a Greek Myth in 2 hrs. After lunch there was a faerie card talk/workshop from Amanda; a fascinating talk on Iron Age archaeology from Julia, a phD student; then I led a brief brainstorming discussion on what kind of celebration/ceremony we wanted to end the weekend with. After dinner, we had another session in the roundhouse, ending early so we could enjoy the hot-tub again.

Way of Awen weekend participants in front of round-house - with face paint!

Sunday we prepared for the ceremony after breakfast – practising chants, movements, songs, getting face-painted – it was a great team effort. I suggested a structure based on the 3 Cauldrons we had been working with over the weekend – connected to the body, heart and spirit. We would process between the three circles of the roundhouse, labyrinth and fire circle with percussion and singing, honouring the divine masculine, the divine feminine and the divine child on the way. It flowed beautifully and ‘felt right’ – in the moment, responding to the spirit of place and the awen. Everyone had a chance to contribute something, to shine, and we did – as Eric pointed out – in our lovely facepaint from Amanda, seeming ‘more’ ourselves somehow. We ended in good spirits, sharing a final lunch – a much-welcome carrot and coriander soup thawing us out and bringing us back into our bodies. We had self-catered over the weekend – everyone had pitched in – and we enjoyed some lovely meals. This was part of the spirit of the weekend – a team effort. Everybody contributing ‘ingredients’ to the cauldron… Everyone had a talent, a gift, knowledge and skills to share. We all contributed to the bigger pattern.

The aim of the weekend was for participants to untap their creativity – to express the awen in whatever way it manifested – and through dance, poetry, storytelling, singing, cookery, face-painting, friendship, ceremony and speaking from the heart – it certainly did that.

After, we tidied up and had a few team photos before folk scattered to the wind. The atmosphere was positive. It seems the weekend was a success – phew! – although it took its toll on me… Coming after ten days’ of storytelling workshops in Italy, followed by five days getting home, then a long ride here, I was not going to be at my best (if the volcano hadn’t shut down the airports I would have had a week between the two to recover). I spent most of the weekend trying to keep up my energy levels and positivity, but inevitably the exhaustion manifested in a certain crabbiness and eventually, a short fuse. The intention of the weekend was (for me) to ‘replenish the cauldron’ but it felt like it had ‘depleted the cauldron’, in my case, anyway. This is the price, I guess, for running events – I had to hold the space and carry the group for the weekend, attending to their needs, personalities and peccadilloes (and they mine). It’s hard to fully relax in such circumstances, even though the place is beautiful and I did have ‘moments’ (like sitting by the lake, simply watching the glittering water) but I wasn’t able to relax sufficiently to get into the creative space I was helping people to all weekend. Ironically, I was the only one for whom the awen didn’t flow over the weekend – but, I am only human. I had burnt out, perhaps unsurprisingly, after my intense few days (3 weeks – I left for Italy on 6th April). I needed to stop, to be still, to be silent – for several days (after many days of talking and teaching I was ‘worded’ out). I was glad to hit the road and its solitude for a while.  As a left Cae Mabon I paused by Llyn Padarn, reading the poem plaque by Gillian Clarke about Snowdon (‘But for how long?’) and taking in the view. It is an awe-inspiring place. I hoped to take a little bit of its awen back with me. ‘Holding the dream’ I set off. The ride home wasn’t as pleasant – dodgy dense fog crossing the hairy roads of Snowdonia, then driving rain along the Welsh Marches – but it was good to be finally going home.

By Llyn Padarn – on my way home
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April Tricks & Easter Fools

April Tricks & Easter Fools

1-5 April

Tricks & Fools at the Garden of Awen, Easter Sunday

The lead up to Easter has been a busy time, with the completion of teaching commitments and publishing projects and the tying up of loose ends. Good Friday serves as a severe deadline – the hiatus of Easter is imposed on us, whether we like it or not, as everything shuts down for at least the Easter weekend, although the holiday can stretch over one or two weeks. As with Christmas, it has become a national time to ‘down tools’ and after the hectic Spring term it comes as a blessed relief – thank God (or maybe we should thank the Romans, that ‘great civilisation’, for nailing a 33 year old from Bethlehem to a cross).

The Little Mermaid April Fool Copyright AFP 2010

The morning of April Fools Day has become a time to take everything with a pinch of salt, for it is the customary time for pranks, practical jokes, hoaxes and general foolery. The media ran there usual brace of dubious ‘news’ items – the Circle Line is to be used as a substitute for the Large Hadron Collider; ferrets are to be used to deliver broadband cables; AA men will use jetpacks to beat the traffic jams; Shakespeare was French; England didn’t win the World Cup in 1966… My favourite was in Denmark – recently the famous Little Mermaid statue had been removed to be displayed in the World Expo in Shanghai, leaving her rock bare – someone had replaced it with a mermaid skeleton.

David Lassman - The Art of Self-publicity

We joined in the spirit of this by announcing the launch of The Art of Self-publicity in the Bath Chronicle (‘Hungry for Self-publicity? Then this is the book for you’). In the Editor’s column, (‘Spotted our April Fool yet?’) Sam Holliday asked: ‘…perhaps you are convinced that our April Fool joke this year is that we have given publicity to a man who has written a book about … how to get publicity’. Actually, the book is genuine (the latest title from my small press – under the imprint, Writers Workshop – the first in a series of practical guides) and we decided to use April Fools to gain some publicity – and it worked! It was due to be launched on Easter Sunday and we wanted to let people know about the event in advance – part of my Garden of Awen. Typically, we were on tenterhooks about the books arriving on time (no matter how well-planned our new books are this always seems to happen). Yet by Thursday I had the first batch arrive from Stroud Print – phew!

We weren’t the only ones launching a book that day – controversially, Philip Pullman was in town talking about his new book at Topping & Company: ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’.

This is territory I am familiar with. While studying my Fine Art degree I got obsessed about the Fool archetype and made a film called ‘My Life as a God’, which had a main character who was part-fool/avatar/insane/even an ODed drug addict having a near death experience. Alot of it was filmed in guerrila style around the mean streets of Northampton. I remember one scene where my fool character dragged a ladder up the street as though he was carrying the cross up Golgotha. A black woman harangued me – probably justifiably. It wasn’t very subtle satire on religion – a low budget Life of Brian. Yet behind it was ideas influenced by my research into mythology and Jungian psychology. Cecil Collins’ book My Life as a God was particularly inspiring. This project culminated in a free May Day festival I launched called the Fools’ Fete in Abington Park – this I saw as the completion of the Fool’s Journey – from setting out like Chaucer’s pilgrims at the start of April, to becoming feted as king-for-a-day, Lord of Misrule. Thousands of people attended the Fools Fete, which ran for three years, with the help of the Umbrella Fayre people, who have since gone on to run the Green Fair which happens in September. Yet I started the ball rolling – I recall walking by the bandstand one day and thinking: ‘this would be a great venue for a festival’. I came up with the name and format of the first Fools Fete, booking the bands. All creativity starts like this – with an act of awareness. Blake said: ‘If the doors of perception are cleansed, man will see things as they truly are – infinite.’ Being a big fan of LA psychaedelic rock band The Doors at the time (who took their name from Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, inspired by Blake) I identified with this, perhaps too closely!

Good Friday came along and I found myself munching on a hot cross bun, like alot of the population – a strange custom to remember a crucifixion. My friend, Kevin Williams, RNR officer, shared with me a wonderfully quirky custom which takes place on this day:

The History of Bun Day (as related by Kevin Williams to me in the beer tent of Mells Daffodil Fayre, Easter Monday 2010)

A young sailor went to fight in the Napoleonic Wars – wrote to his mother asking her to save him a hot cross bun for Easter, when he plans to be home. Alas, he fails to return – but the mother dutifully saves a bun for her son that year and every year since, until her death. The pub goes through various phases – from The Bun House to the Widow’s Son, named in honour of the woman. It is pulled down and rebuilt, burnt down and rebuilt, mirroring the resurrection connected with that time of year. Every year Navy personnel gather to honour the tradition with alot of drinking and singing (including the modern ‘tradition’ of karaoke) and the ‘hanging of the bun’ when a bun is ritually placed, by the youngest sailor present, in the net above the bar. The bar is in the east end of London, in the Stratford area – rough-and-ready locals and Navy guys mix together.

The following day, Easter Saturday, I loaded up the Triumph Legend and set off over the Cotswolds up to Northampton – to visit my Mum and sister, whom I haven’t seen since last summer (Winter isn’t the time for long bike rides). It was great to catch up with them and my friend Justin, that night down the Malt Shovel – we opted for a relatively quiet pub because we too had alot of catching up to do. Earlier that evening I had sat down with a meal cooked by my Mum (a rare treat) and watched the new Doctor Who – starring Northampton-born Matt Smith – it felt like being a child again! Watching Doctor Who Saturday teatime was a childhood ritual for many of my generation. Who would have thought it would become popular again? I can’t say I’m wildly keen about the new incarnation, but for one night it was heart-warming trip down memory lane.

The next day, after visiting the memorial tree planted in memory of Dad in Delapre Abbey with my sister and her toddler, (and enjoying a mighty Sunday lunch cooked by my dear Ma) I bid farewell and set off – roaring back over the Cotswolds. I decided to break the journey about halfway at a place of literary significance: Adlestrop, one of the soul-springs of England. Here, in June 1914, Edward Thomas, on a train (possibly to Dymock) paused and made some notes – later, when he started to write poetry, encouraged by his friend Robert Frost, he wrote ‘Adlestrop’ which has become a classic of English verse, much anthologised and imitated. It was very poignant to stop there, kill the engine and hear the birdsong he wrote about. I sat in the bus stop which has a large station sign and Thomas’ poem engraved on a brass plaque, and soaked up the peaceful ambience of this quintessentially English hamlet, a corner of England which motivated men like Thomas to go and fight – to live and die for.

Stopping at Adlestrop - one of the soul-springs of England

I returned home in time to listen to a Radio 4 feature on the Blakean poet Michael Horovitz, who has recently turned 75. Hearing his antics inspired me to make the Garden of Awen a lively ‘happening’ later that evening – after I had ‘regenerated’. Somehow I summoned a second wind and set off to the Chapel, bag bulging with books and goodies.

The theme of the evening I had chosen was ‘Tricks & Fools’ – this was probably tempting fate (in my intro I talked about the Fairy Tradition wisdom: Never test the Crew that Never Rest). The trickster was making his presence felt when I arrived to find the place locked up. We were told somebody would be there from 6pm – it was 6.30pm. David and Terry arrived – we sat over the road in the Lamb and Lion and anxiously waited. I had tried to ring the director, but he was away on holiday in Cornwall. He had left his team in charge… Fortunately the bar manager turned up at 7.15pm, and let us in. We hastily set up – doors opened at 7.30pm – and the evening kicked off. Phew! We had a good crowd – the place was packed – almost standing room only, until they got some more chairs. I had arranged some champagne (well, Prosecca) to toast David’s new book, and there was free chocolate on the tables. The atmosphere was great – there was a colourful crowd of creative types present, including a group of girls from Glastonbury all dressed up as Victorian harlots!

Victorian harlots at Garden of Awen!

I kicked the evening off with my mobile phone poem ‘Phone Tree’ (asking people to leave their phones on for the performance), then David gave a talk about his book – regaling us with Adventures in Media. There followed an open mic section – with some excellent contributions from the floor: poems and songs.

During the break David signed copies of his book. I put on Patti Smith’s classic ‘Horses’ (starts infamously with: ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’). A friend of an older member of the audience asked me to turn it down because she had a hearing problem!

I welcomed people back by asking for forgiveness for playing the Devil’s music on the Lord’s day – save our souls! Then I asked for a moment of silence – as I recounted my visit to Adlestrop earlier in the day, before sharing my version of Thomas’ famous poem (with apologies). The second half formally started with a fabulous set from Crysse Morrison, poet from Frome. More open mic, including an improvised shambles from Ben and friends – Ben was going around Britain recording songs, a kind of British songline. It was a brave attempt at something experimental, which is what I love to see. Afterwards, I said: ‘Creativity is an act of folly – a leap of faith. You step off the cliff and hope for the best.’ I observed how many great artists and poets of history have been perceived as foolish, even mad in their day – and to emphasise this I shared my poem, ‘The Man from Porlock’, written in the voice of the personage who notoriously interrupted Coleridge while he was working on his poem Kubla Khan. Such people are always there to test your tenacity! A pox on doubters and critics! Blessed are the doers, the finishers.

We finished the evening with a sublime set from singer/songwriter/guitarist Ali George (whom I discovered one night in The Star – he was jamming in the corner with a friend, playing a Van Morrison cover). Ali treated us to new songs – he’s a talent to watch. This is exactly what I want the Garden, and Awen, to be for – a platform for up-and-coming talent. Grassroots genius – happening without the ‘filtering of the Fat Controllers’, as I put it – right here, right now. It was a great night – my folly had paid off for once!

Ali George plays at Garden of Awen

One of those attending (and contributing a poem) Lizzie, said afterwards: Congratulations on creating a lovely, fun evening at The Garden of Awen event last night. I am so glad to see this happening in the heart of the city at a community space.. It is what our city needs!’

Another successful Awen launch

The following day went to the Mells Daffodil Fayre with a couple of friends. Kevin drove us over in his 1985 Mercedes SL ‘panzer’ with Creem blasting out – very Withnail-like but not doing much good for my hangover. Still, it was a merry way to travel. Pulling into the carpark we were let in for a quid as a ‘classic car’. I got us all a hot drink and we took in the atmosphere – everyone and their dog was out, gorging on chips and beer, listening to the bands in the marquee, or elbowing their way down the packed narrow streets lined with stalls. I showed Kevin the grave of Seigfriend Sassoon, First World War poet and personal hero. Then I took them into the church to show them the Burne-Jones designed tapestry. Mells is such a charming, unspoilt village – preserved in a kind of time-warp: a perfect setting for a Hammer House of Horror episode (a couple lose their way in the fog…). Today, it couldn’t have been merrier, or more picturesque – the grassy banks glowing with daffodils. In previous years the daffs have often passed their prime by the time of the Fayre – but with the late Spring this year, they were in their glory. We supped beer, browsed the stalls, missed the Morris Dancing and checked out the lovely Manor House Gardens. As the afternoon progressed we become ‘daffed’ out – I offered ‘tea and buns’ back at mine, so off we set, finishing off the last of the hot cross buns. Agreeably bulging, I found it hard not to nod off on the sofa. The week/end had taken its toll, but it had been a memorable Easter. Thank Christ we don’t have to do it for another year!