Monthly Archives: June 2010

Midsummer Magic

Pipers at the Gates of Dawn

`O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’  The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

24-27 June

The Gates of Dawn by Herbert Draper


 

 

We have been blessed with magnificent weather the last few days – the sun has well and truly had his hat on. When the sun doth shine, the English summer is a glorious thing and I would not want to be anywhere else on Earth. Shaman-poet of The Doors, Jim Morrison once said ‘No eternal reward shall forgive us now for wasting the dawn,’ and having missed the solstice sunrise I thought I’d better make an effort to see it while it was at the same place (over the solstice period the sunrise & sunset stays at the same time for 3-4 days: 4.44am & 9.22pm in England), so on Midsummer morning I awoke before dawn and, after listening to the exquisite pre-dawn chorus over a cuppa in my back garden, I headed up the hill to Bathampton Down (home of an Iron Age tribe – who sculpted it into earthworks and field systems; an effigy of the triple-aspect goddess was discovered dating from that period in the road above mine). I made a bee-line for Sham Castle, a local folly which I thought would be the perfect place to greet the midsummer sun. While I waited in the brightening light I made some notes and had a flash of inspiration for a story, which I wrote up later that day (‘The King of the Sun and the Queen of the Moon’). Although the sun decided not to make a dramatic debut that morning you could still feel the quickening of nature – the surge of energy rippling across the land like a tidal bore. On this wave of solar power – the ‘high tide’ of the year – I launched my latest book the next day…

Launching The Way of Awen - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, June 25th

The 25th June was the official launch date of The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, and I planned to do something to ‘wet the baby’s head’ in Bath – when I discovered that penbeirdd Robin Williamson was playing at Chapel Arts Centre on the same night (an event I did not want to miss) I decided to find a way of bringing the events together, so I booked the Live Arts Cafe downstairs for 6-8pm (with the help of my friend, Svanur, centre manager) leaving time to see Robin’s show after – and it all worked beautifully. Robin had generously contributed to The Bardic Handbook – which came out four years ago – and so it seemed apt to combine the events. He was most accommodating about it, and popped down at the start, after I had given him a hand bringing in his instruments. To have him there was such an honour, as he’s been such an inspiration – so to Greywolf, aka Philip Shallcrass (late of the British Druid Order), who was one of the key people to introduce me to the concept of Awen in the mid-Nineties. I was delighted when he turned up with his friend Eva and his son Joe.  I thanked both these awesome bard-druids at the start of my talk – presenting them each with a copy – before reading extracts from the book. There was a good crowd – including Franklin, the Bard of Basswood all the way from Buffalo, USA – who seemed to respond well to what I shared. The mead flowed and the atmosphere was pleasant – helped enormously by the graceful solutions of Saravian, who kindly created a lovely ambience at the start, with candles, incense and her beautiful music. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Saravian gets the awen flowing at my book launch

In many ways it felt like a very successful launch – it’s important to honour achievement of any kind, to mark the completion of a project, the manifestation of vision, craft, co-operation and sheer hard work. Afterwards, we decamped upstairs to enjoy a fabulous concert from Robin Williamson – probably the best I’ve seen him do. He did some amazing Celtic tunes on his harp, weaving stories, jokes, anecdotes and songs seamlessly together. He did a fantastic cover of Dylan’s ‘No Direction Home’; some of The Beatles ‘Within, Without You’; a slow, beautiful version of ‘The Irish Rover’; and even a blues number – on the harp! It was a pleasure to hear a couple of his new songs, and some from his back catalogue (eg the ever poignant ‘Political Lies’), a deeply touching one about his son, Gavin, as well as one from his time in California in the Sixties. He did a couple of classic British ballads, ‘The Death of Robin Hood’ and ‘Lord Barnard’ – overall, an impressive set showing his incredible range. One could really appreciate the fact this was a man who has been performing as long as I’ve been alive – his technical virtuosity and repertoire is awesome. He truly is Britain’s greatest living bard. To enjoy such a concert after my book launch really was the icing on the cake – when one works on such a big project like my book (really 20 years in the making, as it draws upon journals and notebooks from that period), organise the launch, entertain everyone, play the host, give a reading, etc, one can feel depleted – but a concert like Robin’s really replenishes the well.

chatting with Robin Williamson after my launch/his concert - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, June 25th

The next day I had to get up early and get my act together for a creative writing dayschool in the lovely Wiltshire town of Devizes, followed by a camping trip with friends. The plan was to rendezvous at the Barge, Honeystreet, but when I rolled up there on the Triumph Legend I found it to be completely jammed with revellers, there for the bicenternary bash – a mini music festival. You couldn’t swing a cat, let along pitch three tents and park three vehicles. I looked around for my friends amid the merry but mellow crowds, to no avail. I procured a pint of Croppie – brewed by the Barge – in my pewter tankard and supped it on the canal bank, cooling off after a hot day’s work and riding. After trying to contact my friends I discovered a text explaining the change of plans – they had found a campsite in Bishop Cannings – and so I togged up again, into my sweaty leathers, and set off down the backlanes.

Daw, Helen and Daryl at Bishop Cannings camp

To my relief I found my friends, pitched up in a quiet campsite. I was offered a cold beer – things were looking up. I finally managed to pitch my tent, somewhat hampered by the ale. The campsite – little more than a lawn – could hardly have been more different than the chaos at the Barge. Yet later, after a meal, my poet friend Jay arrived and drove us over to soak up some of the Bacchanlian vibes. A band called The Hub was on – young, loud and belting out various covers with the same three chords and hoarse vocals – but the crowd was dancing and Jay and I joined in. There was a certain hick chic to the whole thing. You really feel you’re in the Wild West Country, at the Barge, with its eccentric demographic of boaties, croppies, bikers, yokels, druids, bards, boozers and glampers (glamorous campers – the word of the weekend). We didn’t stay long enough to incur brain damage – from the cider or the music – shooting off into the tranquil night with a little relief (and great relief at not camping there). Jay insisted we visited Avebury in the light of the midsummer full moon, which was truly enchanting and worth the effort.

'...like sleeping in a Samuel Palmer painting'

We three poets – Jay, Dawn and I – wandered around in the silvery light, savouring the spell-binding beauty of the place. There wasn’t a soul in sight – and the place regained its ancient glory in the glow of the moon, the enchantment not challenged by the traffic and crowds of the daytime. We processed along the chalky ridge – as hard and bright as compacted snow – our shadows proud on the opposite bank like an ogham. Dawn and I spotted a shooting star exploding like a firework over the hill towards Silbury. I made a wish for a loved one. At the beech grove, contained within its matrix of roots, we lent against the smooth grey trunks and nearly descended into Rip Van Winkle-like slumber, from which it was hard to extricate ourselves. With the honey moon lambent through the leaves, sheep huddled quietly nearby, a deep peace over the land, and a benign golden warmth pervading everything, it was like falling asleep in a Samuel Palmer painting. The next day, after resurrecting ourselves, we struck camp and headed up to the Wansdyke, parking up in the droveway by Milk Hill and heading up to Adam’s Grave to enjoy the 360 degree view. The cool breeze was a relief – it was scorching – and the light and space helped to clear my head. You can really get a perspective on things at such a place. Starting to feel weak – having only had a handful of strawberries for breakfast – we wended our way over to Avebury, where we grabbed some lunch at the Red Lion. I bumped into my biker buddy Nigel, who had been up for the whole week. He had played the Oak King in the ceremony at Stonehenge the day before – duelling with, and ultimately being defeated by, his rival/brother the Holly King, who takes his place as consort to the Goddess for the second half of the year. This was my third visit to Avebury in a week, (it’s the hub of things at this time of year, as it probably was thousands of years ago) but I wished to be there for my friend Michael Dames’ launch – who was celebrating the publication of his new (and apparently last) titles, Silbury: resolving the enigma, by The History Press.

Michael Dames launching his latest Silbury book, Avebury, June 27

He was standing outside the National Trust shop with a kind of ‘art altar’ illustrating his theory of the hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, aligned with the phases of the moon at certain times of the year. He gave a colourful demonstration, placing his model of Silbury on his head at one point. He seemed prepared to act the clown, but like many clowns, he was prone to fits of grumpy despondency. Yet, he would ‘revive’, like John Barleycorn, regaining his sunny persona and merry twinkle and pass round glasses of wine. I chatted with the publisher of my Lost Islands, Bob Trubshaw, (Heart of Albion Press) who videoed the whole thing for posterity.

sitting with Michael outside the National Trust shop, Avebury

I was wilting by this point – after alot of sun, beer and little sleep – and so I headed home for a much needed ‘quiet night in’ (watching Christopher Eccleston on superb form in ‘Lennon Naked’). I felt I had truly made the most of this exceptional weekend – apparently a time of great cosmic events (full moon; lunar eclipse; Grand Cross; the sun and moon in alignment with the centre of the galaxy…!). Exhilarating and exhausting and utterly memorable.

This extract sums up the last few magical days perfectly…

‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ – from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces–meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.

Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.

Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.

`It’s gone!’ sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. `So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

`Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. `O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. `I hear nothing myself,’ he said, `but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

20-21 June

Bard and Stone, Avebury, Summer Solstice 2010

The summer solstice is one of those deadlines of the year – it is for me anyway. Everything seems to build up to it and there’s a millions things to get done before it, as though … time will stop after. Of course, it will carry on just as before but, like the millennium or 2012, significant dates – lines in the egg-timer sands – turn normally sensible people into headless chickens, and the ‘doom’ that we expect becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (our mounting panic causing accidents, hysteria, conflict, suicide, down-sizing to a remote Scottish islands, etc). On a microcosmic scale, summer is the ‘silly season’, when lazy journalists, recovering from long liquid lunches, dig deep into the odd box. But it’s not hard to find stuff – druids at Stonehenge being a favourite ‘isn’t life a bit weird sometimes/don’t worry about the economy’ piece. Images of ragged revellers at the World Heritage Site – usually with some wally raving on a trilithon – marks the turning the of wheel as iconically as a groundhog in the States or bluebells over here.

I have attended the Stonehenge celebration at the summer solstice (when they first re-opened it to the public after 10 years exclusion) but found it complete chaos and as far from sacred as you can imagine – with many people off their heads and so much conflicting energy/attitudes it defeated the point. It seemed to me the ‘mob’ where desecrating that which had drawn them to a jumble of stones on Salisbury Plain very early on a June morning – a sacred site at a sacred time. Any attempt at ceremony became a circus show spectacle – tolerated in the libertarian atmosphere, or laughed at. Priests were mocked. Anarchy ruled. It might as well have been a dodgy football crowd: ‘Innggerrrlunnddd’. Couples got handfasted in the hurly burly. Others snogged, skinned up, threw up, danced naked, chanted, shouted or blew horns. A feral lad tossed somebody’s ashes into the crowd and they blew into our faces. A group of Maoris looked on aghast – was this how we treated the dead? I felt ashamed for my country. Stonehenge is amazing – and at other times of the year (winter solstice can be more civilised and atmospheric) or via private access, you can feel the awe and majesty of the place – and connect with something sacred. But unless you love the mob experience, avoid summer solstice.

But what of my own revelries?

After an intense couple of weeks meeting all my (mainly marking) deadlines I was looking forward to a couple of days of downing tools and just enjoying the sun – and he certainly had his hat on for us, which makes the world of difference. Nature smiled – filling everything with a benign quality.

Solstice Picnic on Solsbury Hill

I went to a picnic on Solsbury Hil, organised by my friends Peter Please and Kirsten Bolwig. Rocked up there on the Triumph and found them to one side, underneath a rocky ledge. There ended up being about twenty of us – a splendid picnic with splendid people. Poems and songs were shared. We ‘broke bread’ together and relaxed in the sun.

Alas, we had to shoot off – I had a previous commitment to run the Independent Creatives Forum at the Gaynor Flynn’s Being Human weekend, Frome. The venue – a warehouse tucked away in the obscure outskirts of the town was difficult to find. A couple of small easy-to-miss arrows pointed in vague directions. Finally found it – after a few dead ends – and it felt like a lazy Sunday afternoon chill-out with a small group of friends (in publicity it looked like it was going to be some amazing ground-breaking happening, not a house-party). My forum was meant to take place in a yurt – which had been taken over by children. I managed to claim the space and set up; the event was announced and … I had one person come in. I can’t blame folk for wanting to sit in the sun and drink beer (I wouldn’t have minded doing that myself). Sunday 2-5pm is the wrong time to have an intellectual forum. Nevertheless, we had a nice chat about creativity (there were four of us in the end). One woman who had come all the way from East Grinstead for the event said she was so glad I had come along – all weekend she had been hearing discussions about technology and I was the first speaker to talk about people, about … being human. If you connect with one person, or make one person’s day – sowed the seed of something, an idea, a thought, inspired in some way – then it’s all been worthwhile. It was nice to bump into my fellow Bard of Bath, Helen Moore and her partner, Niall from London. There’s a healthy creative scene in Frome and Gaynor’s outfit is one aspect of it – showing that provincial life doesn’t have to be parochial. Later Banco de Gaia played and a little backstreet of a sleepy Wiltshire town became plugged into the global groove.

My solstice Bard-B-Q starts

Returned at speed to finish setting up for my annual solstice Bard-B-Q, with the help of my friends Sally and Ola. It was a lovely gathering, blessed by a perfect summer’s evening, with friends sharing poems, songs and stories.

Saravian - wild, free and beautiful - entertains us at my Bard-B-Q

I got my mead-horn out – as I am wont to do as such occasions – and we offered heart-felt toasts as it was passed around. This jump-started an excellent discussion on the BP oil disaster, and I found myself having successfully facilitated a creative forum after all, albeit in my own home. So many lovely talented friends turned out – old and new. Particularly resonant was the appearance of a Dutchwoman called Eva, whom I met on Glastonbury Tor exactly 19 years ago – on solstice eve, 1991. We had been in the tower, dancing along to the drums, trying to keep warm. I had lent her my waistcoat. Later we caught up in the campsite over a cuppa. A couple of years ago we bumped into each other at a Druid Camp – and then I met her at the OBOD bash a week ago. And now, here she was, on my doorstep!

Solstice friends - me and Eva, 19 years on

It was special to connect with her again after so long. When you celebrate such times, the ghosts of all the other solstices jostle side-by-side. This was my fortieth, but only the twentieth I had consciously celebrated. Not many, and each one stands out – especially the people you celebrate them with. I thought of ‘absent friends’ and I raised a meadhorn in their honour. It was special night – one of my best gatherings.

Afterwards, a guest Verona, said: ‘You have the gift of getting people together and to make their  talents shine!’

After a lazy breakfast – getting up at sunrise would’ve been a bridge too far – I have learnt to be gentle with myself lately (the solstice doesn’t have to be a triathlon, although it can feel like that, racing from event to event) – I headed over to Avebury for midday with my friend Sally on the back. It was a lovely run in the sun and we got there just in time to catch the noon ceremonies (solstice was 12:28).

Revellers worshipping a stone egg at Avebury, Summer Solstice 2010

gong show - Avebury summer solstice

A wonderfully raggle-taggle mixture of sun worshippers hung out between the stones – the atmosphere was relaxed. No doubt the all-night/or early morning revelries had worn out most. Avebury is big enough to accommodate for everyone’s ‘thing’ – the energy is far more feminine and less antagonistic than Stonehenge, which I feel have been tainted over the years by all the conflict that has focused around them: stones of contention. One group was having a dual gong shower. Another, sat in worship around a giant stone egg. Druids in full regalia chanted hand in hand. People meditated, picnicked, slept – it was hard to tell. Everyone was in a kind of placid state, like a load of … cows in a field, contentedly chewing cud. Stoned bovines. If anyone was on grass, they were keeping it discreet as the token bobby strolled around. There was no crowd control trouble here – many had come from Stonehenge that dawn, but something about Avebury chills people out. We did a ceremonial ambulation – with frequents stops in the scorching heat – before culminating in the ritual pint at the Red Lion, where the party continued on the benches outside. We sat in the leafy shade of the ‘fertile triangle’ nearby and ate our sandwiches. Bumped into an old bardic friend, Jim, who updated me on all the ins and outs of the druid scene.

Bards of Avebury and Bath - Jim and Kevan, Summer Solstice

He’d played 4 gigs that morning (!) and was involved in getting the ancestral sculpture to Stonehenge. He was excited about the media coverage they had gained – Jim is sincere and committed about his cause, but druids can be complete media tarts, preening and pontificating in front of the cameras. Certainly, it can be used as a platform to discuss real issues, but often the media treat such people like a novelty news item (‘And finally…’) Jim’s band, Druidicca, feature in a new movie partly filmed at Avebury called The Stone. He talked at length about his big scheme to bring all druids together. Good luck to him. We stopped off at Silbury Hill to hail the ‘Mighty Mother’, then hit the road back home.

Visiting Silbury Hill

Rounding off the solstice revelries nicely was the Bath Storytelling Circle, which happened to be on at the Raven that night. I went along and contributed a story and a poem, and enjoyed the ambience, helped by a couple of ales.

Satisfied, I returned home. Finally I was able to be still – which after all is what the solstice signifies. The sun puts its feet up for three days and has a well-earned rest!

Bards on a bike - me and pal Sally about to set off when an English Heritage volunteer took our snap

Making Hay

Making Hay

11-14 June

Green Scythe Fair - deepest Somerset

Just back from three days in Avalon – Scythe Fair today, book launch yesterday and storytelling show on Friday (which was actually in Taunton, but it was called ‘Otherworlds’ so I’m including it!).

Friday afternoon Richard and I made our way down in the sun to Taunton – where we had a gig at the Brewhouse. We compiled an anthology show called ‘Otherworlds’ – I did a couple of stories from hotter climes (Al-Andalus; Yemen) and an Irish myth. Richard did stories from Scotland,

Ireland and ‘the fifth quarter’ – Romney Marsh. The set seemed to complement and flow well – but we could have done with a few more. We were competing with a squaddie dance company in the main auditorium – clearly more to Tauntonian taste (or perhaps it was the footie and the sun). Still the venue was impressive, felt well-received by our small but appreciative audience (‘absolutely brilliant!’) and had an enjoyable jolly. We sank a couple of well-earned beers (‘Wayland Smithy from the White Horse Brewery) when we got back. It was good to be doing some pro-storytelling again (last time was Italy).

Launching The Way of Awen at Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury

The next day I prepared for my big book launch at the Cat & Cauldron in Glasto that afternoon. I enjoyed riding down to Avalon on my Triumph Legend with a box of books on the back. It promised to be a special night and it didn’t disappoint. We had a decent turn-out at Trevor and Liz’s shop – the launch had been timed to coincide with the OBOD bash in Town Hall. When I launched the companion volume, The Bardic Handbook, four years ago at Gothic Image we had a great turn out – with the late John Michell; Philip Carr-Gom; Ronald Hutton; and Michael Dames turning up (it turned out they were in town for the OBOD bash which I didn’t know was on – afterwards I was invited along – so I organised this one to synchronise).

The Bard and the Druid - Philip Carr-gom pops in to my book launch

Making it feel like full circle was having the first Bard of Glastonbury, Tim Hall, there who kindly played a mini-set, as he had done at my launch in 2006. It created a lovely atmosphere.

Tim Hall plays at my launch, Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury - with friends Amber & Phil

I introduced the book and read out a small selection of poems, which were well received. There were some good questions and the vibe was good. I left with only a couple of copies of the book – one of which I gave to Ronald Hutton and Ana Adnoch when I bumped into them at the OBOD gathering. It was great to go there afterwards, as a guest – launching a book 20 years in the making deserves a good knees up! Thanks to Philip I also got my friends, Nigel and Karola, in as well. We got ourselves a plate of food and enjoyed the bardic entertainment. Ended up having a dance with my old Dutch friend Eva – who I met on Glastonbury Tor one solstice twenty years ago! Bid farewell to my friend Nigel and staggered back to Amanda’s yurt, which she had kindly offered me for the night. My friend Karola had the short straw – sharing with me – and having to put up with wine-induced snoring but we’re good friends and she didn’t kick me once!

a Legend by the Tor

The next morning, after a much needed full monty (breakfast) and walk up the Tor, I went to the Green Scythe Fair in deepest Zummerset – riding passed scores of bikers on classic bikes out for a blat heading in the other direction, and hamlets with names like Little Gurning, I finally found the site – a campsite called Thorney Lakes near a village called Mulcheney Ham. It was only a fiver to get in – and you got free tea and cake if you came on a bike – I tried my luck but didn’t convince the lady in the tea tent (who had come down on a Bonnie). I bumped into folk and bimbled about, enjoying the ambience. You felt like you were breathing in carbon credits just walking about. It’s a very positive event with lots of green solutions – alternative fuel, food, housing, clothing, education – as well as being relaxed, picturesque (and picaresque) and just the right size. If it had a theme tune it’d be ‘Heavy Horses’ by Jethro Tull. It was very Hardy-esque and felt like something you’d expect to see Gabriel Oak at. There were scything championships – all very serious stuff (involving plenty of liquid preparation). Competitors carefully whetted their blades and assessed the quality of the grass. There were lots of wonderful craft stalls, info tents and music – including my friends Tim Hall and the Architypes (sic), who performed on Sangers fabulous horse-drawn solar-powered stage. There were bands with names like ‘Bag o’ Rats’ – who played ‘psychedelic folk’ to a good-natured crowd mellow on zider. There was plenty of fresh grass cuttings for kids to play with – and it kept them amused for hours (a Battle Royale grass fight; several grass burials took place). The sky had been darkly ominous all afternoon (a bit Bergman-esque with the reapers hanging around – as though waiting for a game of chess with Max Von Sydow). At one point the heavens opened and I found myself standing under a gazebo in a sandpit to stay dry. A rainbow came out soon after. After a suitably drunken delay (a missing cup) the scything champion was announced (4th year in a row) and the MC said the standard was so high he was confident we were now ‘ready for Europe’ – though the World Cup and Olympics might have to wait. I made my way back soon after – glad to get back after a fine weekend away.

I though the magic would be over with a stack of OU marking facing me Monday morning, but then a call from my friend Helen at midday meant I ended up going on a lovely trip down the river Avon to celebrate her birthday (‘life’s too short,’ she said, and she’s right – carpe deum!). We found a sunny spot to stop for a fabulous picnic. I read out some of my poetry, including ‘Let Love Be Our River’, and on the way back recited some Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Thomas the Rhymer as the ladies rowed (they insisted after us guys had rowed on the way out). It was all very Wind in the Willows. Very relaxing!

picnic by the river - Helen's birthday

Reaching Ithaka

All you need... Sunrise Celebration with friends

1-9 June

And if you find her poor,
Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
So wise as you will have become,
so full of experience,
you would have understood by then
what these Ithakas mean.

CP Cavafy

With relief I boarded the plane at Hurghada that would take me home – after a lovely send off by my new friends the night before (a soiree at Angelica and Daniel’s place, then one (or two or…) for the road in the Smugglers Inn with the Tropical Gangsters – of which I was made an honorary member) I was leaving Egypt with some good memories, my second draft, and a batch of new poems. It had felt like a long month and I was looking forward to: a long soak and my own bed; British woodland; decent beer, music and books; Marmite; and my friends!

The flight was unexceptional – the usual being-sucked-through-a-tube, crammed-in-like-sardines experience courtesy of your average Queasyjet budget airline. They obviously base the ergonomics of the seating on Oompa Loompas – not longshanks like me. Typical of the British transport system that it took longer to get from Gatwick to Bath than Hurghada to London. My flight arrived in around midnight and I had to hang around in a chilly Paddington until 5.30am to get the first train back. When the coffee shop opened up at 5 I was there first customer – needing a hot drink to thaw out. Yet on the train home I loved seeing the landscape of England unfold in the grey dawn light – verdant, damp and ancient. When I caught sight of the White Horse of Uffington (I always notice it when I’m on the London train) I knew I was finally home, in a landscape whose language I could read.

White Horse of Uffington - the heart of England

from notebook, 1 June: glimpsing the white horse in the damp light of an english dawn…blessed rain – after a month in the desert i feel it on my face, smiling as i walk home

Arriving back home was a blessed relief. After a 16 hour trip I crashed, only emerging later for a lovely homecoming meal with a friend who had been flat-sitting while I was away. Seeing how aching and weary I was from my long journey home, she tried to give me a massage, but it’s somewhat painful when you have sunburn on your back (the result of spending my last day in El Gouna snorkelling in the Red Sea)!

I spent the next few days catching up and de-pressurising (it felt like coming up from a deep sea dive and I had to avoid the ‘bends’). I had a stack of exam marking to do, but my brain was still somewhere over the Med.

Thursday evening went for my first rideout to the Weston Bike Night – a lovely run along Chew Valley in the westering sun. There were hundreds of big shiny bikes there. Even the sands of Weston-Super-Mud looked agreeable in the sunset. I mingled with the crowd. Drank a coffee. Had a Mars bar. Took pics. It was nice to do something normal for a change!

Friday met up with some friends at Green Park Brasserie, watching an Arabic troupe, of all things – more belly dancing! Seeing it back home in Bath, after a month in the desert, made me feel strangely at home. The rock legend happened to be in the audience and I plucked up courage to speak to him – and we chatted for about five minutes about his latest album. He was pleasant – as long as you didn’t act like a complete tit (a friend sidled over as we were chatting and said ‘Can I talk with you?’, and Robert turned around and said, ‘No.’) After, we went to the mirrored splendor of the Speigeltent on the Rec to see another legend – Martin Carthy, the granddaddy of the British folk scene. It was nice to sample some of the delights of the Bath Fringe – eccentric creativity at its best.

Saturday evening I caught up with my friends Marko and Jay. I enjoyed having my first pint of Guiness for some time – and having a heart-to-heart with kindred spirits.

Sunday went to the Sunrise Celebration down near Bruton with Jay and Sally. I’ve been going to festivals since 1989 but haven’t made it to this relatively new festy until this year – it seems to have taken the place of the sadly demised Big Green Gathering, and felt like an early version of it – indeed alot of the stalls, bands, cafes and crew were the same so it’s not surprising. It looked beautiful, had a nice vibe, was easy to walk around and had a positive ethos. For once, it was nice just being a punter and enjoying the whole thing without having to worry about performing somewhere or giving a talk. I saw Tim Hall and friends perform their enchanting harmonies, jigged to Seize the Day, listened to some wacky New Age talk and had the usual random festival experiences, eg dancing with a tree…

Dancing with Treebeard at Sunrise Celebration

Monday I had to get up at ‘stupid o’clock’ to go to Milton Keynes for an OU exam marking meeting – if anything was going to bring me down to earth with a bang, this promised to. But it was a chance to visit Northampton nearby and see my family – which made the whole thing worthwhile. Being back in the ‘dirty old town’ (the Pogues song always rings through my head as I walk by the gas works and Carlsberg back to my folks place) certainly made me feel I had finally ‘landed’. You can’t get more prosaic – but it was nice to catch up with my kin. My nephew was now a strapping young man – he’ll be twenty this month – a veritable Telemachus (I still remember him climbing over my head when he was a terrible toddler). We went to flicks as a pre-birthday treat and I bought him a beer – it felt like I had left when he was a boy and returned when he was a man. Where does all the time go…? To continue the Odyssian conceit – ‘Argus’ was a lively little Scotty called Daisy. And my Mum continues knitting – not quite Penelope with her tapestry, but it’ll do! My sister made it down – it was great to see her as always. My young niece was bemused by my gift of a soft toy camel at first – when squeezed it sang some Arabic ditty – but eventually warmed to it, clinging to it possessively. I showed my holiday snaps – and amazingly no one nodded off.

Tuesday caught the train back home and got stuck back into things – have a mountain of stuff to sort out (marking; book launch; gig on Friday; house; publishing projects…). At least in the desert life is less cluttered! Here, there’s a thousand things clamouring for our attention, a thousand distractions. It’s been great catching up with friends, but I hope I do not lose the clarity and focus of the desert.  Yet … it lingers. As Jay and I agree (we have both spent time writing in Egypt recently) once you have been to the desert, you carry it within you always.

the peace of the desert - you carry it with you always