Monthly Archives: November 2011

Turning the Wheel

Turning the Wheel

book launches 25 & 27 November; 1 December

On Friday I launched my latest book, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, with a ‘book launch celebration’ at (what was) first ‘the British School’, then the Five Valleys Foyer in Stroud (it changed its name half-way through my publicity campaign to Open House – ah, truly sensei, the nature of reality is impermanence ;0). With the help of my partner, Jenni, dropped off the wineglasses and books and I set up. A good crowd turned up to watch my slideshow and talk. Josie Felce provided some lovely live harp music and Gabriel Millar, a poem about the month of the dead, talking briefly about Thanksgiving – this lead into an interesting discussion on how we celebrate the turning of the wheel. Tired, but happy afterwards I felt like I had well and truly wetted the baby’s head. Thank you to all those who came along (a couple came from Yeovil)!

Friends view the book

On Sunday I travelled down to Totnes to give a talk on the book to the Wessex Research Group. The attendance was very low – but I had an interesting chat with one chap afterwards, who told me about the ‘Wheel-turners’ in Buddhism. I knew about the Buddhist resonance in the title, but the idea of an actual role intrigued me. Called Chakravartin (S); Chakkavatti(P), literally, “Wheel-turner”, it is defined as: the ideal king who practices, supports and spreads Buddhism (“Turning the Wheel of the Dharma”).

The Dharma Wheel is one of the earliest and most important symbols in Buddhism. The symbol refers to the story in which post the Buddha’s enlightenment, Lord Brahma descended from the heaven and asked Him to teach by offering a Dharmachakra.

The Dharma Wheel is a symbol of the Buddha’s teaching of the path to enlightenment. The Buddha is known as the Wheel turner and as per some Buddhist Schools, He turned the Dharma Wheel few times. The first, to which all the Buddhist agree, was when the Buddha preached the five sages at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The later turning of wheel account are not always same. They vary, however what is concluded from this is that the dharma wheel needs to be turned thrice for a student to understand dharma (De La Soul got it right – three really is the magic number).

The Dharma Chakra has eight spokes that stand for Eight Fold Noble Path. These spokes have sharp edges that are believed to ward off ignorance. The shape of the wheel is round which conveys the completeness and faultlessness of the dharma teaching. The spokes stand for wisdom, the hub for discipline and the rim for concentration. Discipline is extremely important in meditation, similarly concentration is of utmost significance to hold everything together.

I love the idea of the spokes standing for wisdom, the hub for discipline, and the rim for concentration – this could easily be a metaphor for riding a motorbike (one is always conscious of where the wheels and the road connect) and for the Middle Way, of course!

By ‘turning the wheel’ one can literally change one’s luck, or wyrd (to use an Anglo-Saxon concept). The very act of travel can become an act of prayer. Whenever I jump on my bike and go for a blat I feel I ‘shift’ something – even if it is just blowing away the cobwebs. More conscious acts of journeying (ie to sacred sites on pilgrimage) can really enhance one’s karma.

So, as I keep turning the wheel, I send out a prayer: May my luck turn also! And bring good fortune to all those I come into contact with.

I caught the train home the next morning – feeling wiped out by my big ‘push’ to launch the book. All this publicity and promotional stuff can be exhausting, but is unfortunately part of the author’s lot these days. No hiding of light’s under bushels!

Earlier in the week I had conducted interviews for BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Gloucester (a great interview with Faye Hatcher). I got to listen to Phil Rickman’s book review programme Phil the Shelf upon my return – the interview seemed to go well, but was predictably butchered to ‘soundbites’: shame he focused on the salacious side (the aphrodisiac qualities of a certain waterfall in North Wales) and kept getting my name wrong. What I thought was a serious book show turned out to be one that focused on the gimmicky and weird – a kind of ‘odd box’ programme. I was lumped with the weirdoes. Oh well!

Perhaps I can take some consolation in Rickman’s response to the book: ‘Inspiring stuff’. And he said of my Pistyll Rhaeadr account: ‘the kind of incident from which folklore is formed.’ which can’t be all bad…

If anything, this week’s media floozing has just reminded me again what a fickle mistress she is! I felt slightly grubby afterwards – tread softly, for you tread upon my dreams!

What should be more down-to-earth and satisfying is the next date on my ‘Turning the Wheel Tour’. For a start, this one I can walk to. On Thursday I give a talk in my fab local, the Crown and Sceptre – literally, the end of my lane – precisely one year on from moving to Daisybank. It feels like I am thoroughly ensconced in my community. It is nice to be made to feel so welcome. The friendly pub is run by a biker, Rodda, and has a lovely community feel – serving the patrons of the Horns Road area and beyond. The town seems to have a concentration of creative types, and most of them seem to live along my street! Is there something in the water (or the ale)? I think I need to investigate further…

More talks are coming up …

Turning theWheel Tour

dates confirmed so far…

2011
25 Nov – Five Valleys Foyer, Stroud
27 Nov – Wessex Research Group, Bogan House, Totnes
1 Dec – Crown & Sceptre, Horns Rd, Stroud
3 Dec – Isbourne Holistic Centre, Cheltenham
9 Dec – The Bear, Holwell
10 Dec – Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury
15 Dec – Waterstones, Bath
21 Dec – Midnight Sun, Lansdown Hall, Stroud

2012
5 Jan – Bonn Central Library, Germany!
28 Jan – Swindon Brunel Waterstones
1 Mar – George Hotel, Bridport
29 Mar – New Brewery Arts, Cirencester
21 April – PFNE Conference, York
28 April – Trowbridge Waterstones
7 May – Hawkwood Open Day

Hope to see you on the road – turning the wheel together.

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Riding with Gerry

Gerald Manwaring, aka 'Gerry' (1938-2008)

‘We won’t be here forever…’ This was one of my Dad’s favourite sayings. Although I knew this – and found it a little irritating – it came uncannily true sooner than anyone had expected.

Gerald George Manwaring (known as ‘Gerry’ to his mates) died suddenly in early January 2008, aged 69. The family pulled together through this difficult time – my sister and I supporting Mum. I spoke at the funeral service about his life. We planted a tree for him and scattered his ashes over Delapre Abbey, where he loved to walk the dogs. In the summer we held a celebration of his life on what would have been his 70th birthday. When a small payment finally came through from his pension fund, I decided I wanted to buy something large and solid to remember Dad by, for that is how he came across. I wanted something physical to show he had existed. And so I purchased Triumph Legend motorbike – I’d had my eye on a Triumph for sometime, thinking I might get a Bonneville, but this 2001 model seemed apt, since Dad was something of a legend. Whenever I went for a ride on it, it would be a way of remembering him – in a way, going with him on trips to places I wished we had gone while he was alive. He loved his ‘walkabouts’ as he called them – going on random excursions to, say, Scotland, just to check out a few whiskey distilleries. As a child he had travelled wildly with his father, naval-base hopping around the Southern Hemisphere. If Mum was the ‘fixed point’ of my childhood universe – always at home, her ‘realm’ – Dad was the heavenly body, orbiting – always out and about. Mum symbolised the hearth; Dad, the world. Of exotic heritage, (born in Hong Kong, his mother was from Lima, Peru) he was a worldly bloke – and you could sometimes get him to chat about his travels over a pint or two.

And so, with this in mind, I planned a year-long trip around Britain. The best way we can honour the dead is … to live. When a parent dies, it gives one an intense sense of mortality. There’s almost a sense of duty – to savour each sacred moment. To live life ‘for them’ (…well, almost – ultimately, it’s for oneself) and enjoy the years they should have enjoyed, that were stolen from them. You are their DNA, after all – projected into the future. Living beyond their mortal coil. Thus, we continue, in a way (the only way?). How often does an obituary say: ‘he is survived by his wife and two children’? Saying that, I feel more than the sum of my parents… ‘They come through you but not from you’ (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet). Still, I feel obliged to honour their memory. They did give me life after all. Raised me, as best they can. Set me on my way.

And so I rode the roads of Britain in my father’s memory – exploring how we make and mark the ‘turning of the wheel’: seasonal festivals and customs. My Dad loved Christmas, Pancake Day, his birthday – anything that involved food and drink! I didn’t quite feast my way around Britain (though that would be nice!) but wherever I went I partook of a kind of communion – imbibing the atmosphere, the genius loci, for Dad. I opened my senses and relished it all – experiencing fully this thing called being alive. It made the numerous trips more poignant, to say the least. It was as though my father rode pillion. I wish I could have taken him out for a spin – and, in a way, I was.

Sight-seeing with a ghost.

Yet, it wasn’t as macabre as it sounds. Whenever something went wrong – I got lost, broke down, misplaced something – I could imagine my Dad laughing. He was there, reminding me not to take it all too seriously, to lighten up, to enjoy the ‘craic’, this precious gift called life.

And so I did.

I hope you do as well.

The author hits the road with Gerry

Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels by Kevan Manwaring, is published by O Books, 25th November 2011. ISBN: 978-1-84694-766-7

Available from all good bookstores or order direct from: www.o-books.com

Join me on the Turning the Wheel Tour – for dates, visit: www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

In Comes I!

In Comes I!

Saturday 19th November

The Fine Lady of Banbury, photographed at the Hobby Horse Fair 2010 by Kevan Manwaring

Today I took a sunny ride down to Bath to experience the raggle taggle delights of the first ‘Mummers Unconvention’ – a gathering of performers, academics, enthusiasts and support teams involved in the obscure world of ‘Mummers Plays – the possibly ancient folk street theatre traditionally performed over Yuletide by amateur locals, who wear a colourful variety of disguises (hence, guizers) to ‘keep mum’ – affording them a certain degree of anonymity, so their satirical skits can cock a snook at the lord of the manor/figure of authority, or, in modern palance – stick it to the man. Although these whimsical ritual dramas, seem far from being anarchic – harmless English fun, to some, along with Morris-dancing, to which it is joined at the ankle (by bells).

It was a beautiful sunny November day, as I rolled into town, noticing the Occupy camp set up in Queens Square. Good on them! (tis a pity they didn’t join in the Unconvention to spread their message: I can imagine a modern day Mummers’, with ‘Old Father Capitalist’; ‘the Whore of Babylon’; ‘Lord Mammon’; the ‘Universal Protester’; ‘PC Plod’; ‘Cokehead the Stockbroker’, etc – depicting the death and resurrection and death of the ailing Economy, aka ‘the Boom and Bust Show’!)

I parked up and walked to the Cross Baths, where the various teams were gathering – an outlandish array of characters: clowns and kings, damsels and knights, men with beards in drag, in a mufti uniform of eras, straddling pantomime horses, others blacked up – like dodgy extras from a League of Gentlemen skit. There was something surreal and slightly disturbing about this defiantly unPC entourage standing there in broad daylight – as though the guilty contents of forgotten dreams had erupted into the light: a cast of archetypes, stereotypes, shadow-dwellers and Id-merchants we keep a collective lid on. Yet it brought an explosion of joy and colour to the streets of Bath. As the Mummers queued up alongside BHS like bargan-hunters in the January sales, waiting for the start of the procession, they brought bemused and amused expressions to the faces shoppers and passersby. And then they were off, wending their way through the hustle and bustle of Stall Street. The home-made ‘moochers’ provided a welcome relief to the bourgeois boutiques of the High Street. This was unchic, anti-fashion. If there’s nowt so queer as folk then this was a Pride Parade of the mad, glad and ungainly! The Mummers were just what Bath needed, to stop taking itself too seriously. Yet the elegant Bath architecture provided a photogenic backdrop for this buffoonery – the presence of the Mummers transformed familiar landmarks. The golden Bath stone glowed brightly in the afternoon sun as they made their way accompanied by drum, squeezebox and pipes. It could have been a Wicker Man re-enactment society, except these folk were for real – inhabiting their roles with serious silliness: ‘Make way for the fine lady!’ called one of the Fine Lady Revellers from Banbury (home of its own Hobby Horse Festival), sweeping a path with her broom. It is rare indeed to see so many Mummers Players together – as most only perform at Yuletide, in one locale, and don’t travel around like Morris sides often do. They are fixed to their location and ‘traditional’ time of year. This was ‘the first attempt of its kind to bring together groups from all over the country and beyond, as a way to spread the word about this fascinating and vibrant drama.’ The ‘unconvention’ was convened by Ian Gilchrist – of the Widcombe Mummers (who perform on New Year’s Day in the Widcombe ‘village’ area). They were conspicuous by their absence today (as the host team) but I did bump into their hobby horse man – Rob Miller – who had made his own ‘oss’ and joined the side… Much-missed local folklore expert, druid and bonzo soul Tim Sebastian played the part of ‘the King of the Beggars of Holloway’ (an actual local character). He would have loved today, having been responsible for instigating a number of absurd traditions himself including cheese-blessing and cucumber-dancing!

Among the teams present were the wonderfully named Sompting Tiptereers, Herga, Bal de Malcasats (Spain), plus the Bristol Rag (performing the Nine Lives of Brunel), Frome Valley, Gloucestershire Morris, Suffolk Howlers, Stony Stratford, Weston (Bath), Potterne Christmas Boys, Fine Lady’s Revellers, and Langport. A Motley team was put together with any members whose full side couldn’t attend.

The surreal raggle taggle procession wended its way around the city centre – along the narrow streets – ending up at the Chapel Arts Centre, where their was a ‘Mayor’s Reception’. Local MP Don Foster played to the crowd. The bar did a roaring trade.

After this pitstop the teams spread out around the town to perform in one of four locations. I caught performances on Stall Street, Old Bond Street and in front of the Abbey. The Catalan team, Ball de Malcasats (Dance of the Bad Marriages) – a traditional street drama from Vilanova i la Geltrú, a coastal resort near Barcelona, Catalunya – were fascinating to watch. Some of their patter was translated as they went along, but there was little need: it was universal, yet at the same time also very Spanish! The comic characters were instantly recognizable – the cuckold, the buffoon, the flirtatious wife, the corrupt priest, the pontificating politician, the bullying baddy. There were very similar to the cast of the Commedia dell Arte, the Comedy of Art, of the Profession – performed in Venice, in half-masks.

During the first Bardic Festival of Bath back in 1998 I had my own Mummers Play, ‘The Head of Winter’, performed in this style by local actors. It was during this festival that I won the Bardic Chair – with my poem, ‘Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath’. This was inspired in part by the Roman ‘mummers mask’ found under Stall Street by workman and now in the Roman Baths Museum. This would have been used in the theatre once part of the city-wide temple complex that existed during the Roman occupation. I wondered what kind of play would have been performed for pilgrims – a sacred drama illuminating the mysteries of the mysterious hot springs perhaps? And this gave birth to my ‘play’ (a ritual dialogue between Bladud and Sulis) performed with my partner at the time, Emily Tavakoly.

Bladud of Bath - costume devised for 'Spring Fall' by Kevan Manwaring 1998


The Storyteller's Faerie Trail - 1994 photo by Julie Manwaring

I have been interested in this form since back in my old home town of Northampton, where I devised a piece of mummery called ‘The Storyteller’s Faerie Trial’. This never happened in the end, but it set me off on my own storyteller’s adventure – taking me to Bath, where I became Bard – and onto Stroud. More recently I wrote an ‘eco-mummers’ play called ‘Wassailing Avalon’, set in the Somerset Levels and featuring many Glastonbury ‘archetypes’. I hope one day it’ll be performed on the streets of Glastonbury! (here’s a link in case you’re tempted).

Among the most powerful performances was by the super-annuated Potterne Christmas Boys, whose collective age must be a few centuries. They simply walked on in silence – forming a circle and then a line – dramatic in front of the Abbey. Then, like Quakers, they began to speak, as though seized by spirit – introducing themselves in the traditional way. The characters were the usual misfits (Old Father Christmas; Saint George; the Turkish Knight; the Doctor; plus one called Almanac – who was a bit of a druid type). The nice touch was after the ritual combat, when Saint George slew the Turkish Knight – it was the Turkish Knight who was resurrected by the Doctor,in a fine show of humanitarianism. Then they sang a song about being ‘all wounded together’ which was quite touching.  These guys you could tell were the real deal – less ‘business’ but more gravitas. Watching them really felt like a window into the past. Many of the Mummers died out literally, due to the devastation of the First World War. The living link seemed lost – and yet, it has been miraculously revived, like Saint George, and lives on ‘to fight another day’. Hip hip hooray!

All in all, a fascinating day, which very much relates to my book Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels – which features the Marshfield, Keynsham and Southstoke Mummers. Here’s to the survival of such colourful eccentricity – stopping life getting too dull or normal!

May it become an annual event. Keep Mum and carry on!

Southstoke Mummers, Packhorse, Southstoke, Boxing Day

The Devil has All the Best Tunes

The Devil has All the Best Tunes

Tim Curry in devilish form in Legend

It might be a truism to suggest that old Nick could belt ’em out, as it were, but it seems to be often the case. Last week I took my lady to a great show at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham – The Wild Bride, by the ever-wonderful Knee-High Theatre company. This kinetic production of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Handless Maiden, was physical theatre at is best, mixed in with some mean tunes…played by no less than the Lord of the Flies himself. Imaginatively transferred to the Thirties’ dystopia of Dust Bowl America – the stuff of Steinbeck – the Devil appears in the ‘nick of time’ to offer riches to a man down on his luck, in exchange for not his soul but whatever happened to be in his backyard … which turns out to be his beloved daughter. The Devil, brilliantly played by Stu McLoughlin, in an inversion of the classic Robert Johnson ‘creation myth’ (the lowdown an’ dirty granpappy of bluesmen, who claimed he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for the gift of playing a guitar) is a Bluesman, playing his geetar cockily on a rocking chair and singing with a seductively good voice. His oldtime classic tunes (in the manner of ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’?) provide a wry Greek Chorus and kickass soundtrack throughout the show, which becomes very Tim Burton-like (the unlucky daughter loses her hands, but she is fashioned some out of metal by a Prince – from an old rake and a billhook). Three actresses play the handless maiden at different stages of her life – (The Girl: Audrey Brisson; The Woman: Éva Magyar; The Wild: Patricia Kujawska) each bringing their exceptional gifts and physical presence: a voice, fiddle-playing, dance. The feckless father becomes a gay Gordon-like Scotsman – Stuart Goodwin – hilariously prancing around in his kilt and Mr Magoo specs. The Devil is cheated of his prize – and so he moves onto to … ‘someone else!’ The show ends, the lights go up. The magic lingers. Professional theatre is dazzling to experience. It is such a tonic to be taken outside of yourself – and to experience it right before your eyes, live on stage, performed for you. In a world saturated by virtual experiences, a CGI-version of reality, it makes for a refreshing change. Such entertainments empowers, rather than disempowers, the individual – making them a participant rather than a couch-potato consumer, popcorn zombies.

Carrying on the devilish theme, this year sees the centenary of the publication of Ambrose Bierce’s wickedly witty classic, The Devil’s Dictionary. Originally entitled The Cynic’s Word Book, it was retitled and published in 1911. Addressed to ‘enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour and clean English to slang,’ it is full of deliciously ironic definitions. Among my favourite are:

Alcohol, n. (Arabic al khol, a paint for the eyes) The essential principal of all such liquids as give a man a black eye.

Fib, n. A lie that has not cut its teeth.

Language, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.

Love, n. The folly of thinking much of another before one knows anything of oneself.

Namby Pamby, adj. Having the quality of magazine poetry. See Flummery.

Noncombatant, n. A dead Quaker

Novel, n. A short story padded.

Once, adj. Enough

Resign, v. A good thing to do when you are going to be kicked out.

Scribbler, n. A professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one’s own.

Self, n. The most important person in the universe. See Us.

Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

Bierce’s definitions have inspired me to start concocting my own. There is a perverse pleasure to be gleaned from reverse logic. Here are some composed (at the Witching Hour last night):

A Lesser Demon’s Dictionary

Writer, n. Someone who takes longer to write than anyone else.

School, n. A place where you do not learn anything.

Pupil, n. A young person prone to look at anything except the smartboard.

Smartboard, n. A device for showing others how dumb they are.

Government, n. An institution for those who cannot rule themselves, who lack common sense and a social conscience.

Money, adj. A fleeting quality. (n) a mythic, outmoded metaphor bearing no relation to wealth.

Freedom, n. The liberty to impose on others harsh laws.

Mobile Phone, n. An instrument for torturing others within a confined space.

Bank, n. A place where your money is not safe.

The Economy, n. A system for the mismanagement of the country’s wealth.

Eurozone, n. A region of mutual impoverishment.

Entertainer, n. Someone who finds it difficult to relate to people on a normal level.

Celebrity, n. A person who is famous for being devoid of talent.

Biker, n. A middle-aged wannabe rebel – often very conservative and traditional in their views.

Punk, n. Angry old men, prone to ejecting saliva.

Hippy, n. A New Age capitalist.

Infant, n. A baby elephant.

Adult, n. A single dult.

I highly recommend this activity. It is a guaranteed way of making yourself laugh, and others not to.

To balance things out – I have been thoroughly enjoying Martin Scorsese’s superb documentary about George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It explores his spiritual quest as much as his career – the two are linked of course, as he expressed, through his sublime music, his deep response to life and the dilemmas it faces. How to be ‘in the world, but not of it’. The Cathar heresy was that the Devil was in fact the ruler of the World – and it is easy enough to believe that these days. It’s a good job he’s a Hell of a good showman. Cue: Sympathy for the Devil…