Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Treasure on our Doorstep

Bardic Banquet  Northampton 18 Dec 2013

Bardic Banquet
Northampton 18 Dec 2013

Sometimes we have to travel far before we discover the treasure on our doorstep, before we appreciate the riches beneath our feet. Many of us over the festive period have been travelling home these last few days to spend time with family, and open presents by that symbolic axis mundi – the Christmas tree, marking the centre of our world, for a while. In the week leading up to Christmas I journeyed back to my birth-town, Northampton, to perform in the Bardic Banquet on Wednesday (a merry knees-up organised by my old friends Justin and Jimtom on 18 Dec at the Labour Club). I performed stories from my new collection, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, which I had researched over the last two summers – travelling the county on my Triumph Legend motorbike, folk tale goggles firmly in place (Google Glass eat your heart out – I have the best apps possible: imagination and curiosity). While in town I popped into WH Smiths and Waterstones, to sign copies of my book – signatures have never been more satisfying (on Tuesday, under the whole of the moon, I went to see my long-time faves The Waterboys in Bristol, at the Colston Hall, and got Mike Scott to sign his autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy – now I was signing my own books)!

Mike Scott stands behind

A happy fan – and personal hero, Mike Scott stands behind – a real gent

 

Mike Scott and me - backstage after The Waterboys awesome show, Bristol 17 Dec 2013

Later in the week, back in Stroud, I hosted the Story Supper on Solstice Eve (20 Dec) at Black Book Cafe; and then a Winter Solstice Soiree at mine (21 Dec), where my friends gathered to light a wheel of light, making wishes and offering prayers to our loved ones and a better world; before sharing stories, songs and poems around the hearth over a mead-horn (Wassail!). Truly, the real magic of Christmas is found in such heart-warming hearth-gatherings.

A Winter Solstice wheel of light 21 December 2013

A Winter Solstice wheel of light 21 December 2013

Here are a couple of stories from my recent collection which relates how someone discovered the treasure on his doorstep…One is printed below, the other can be viewed via the Youtube link…

http://youtu.be/AeQkRksXEzU

029. Angel and the Cross

The Angel and the Cross

Do you know where the centre of England is? This has been a matter of debate and dispute for centuries, but the matter was finally settled by divine intervention.

It began far from England, in the heat and dust of the Holy Land.

The weary pilgrim placed down his staff and sat down by the side of the rubble-strewn road and rubbed his sore feet. His shoes, made by his own fair hands – like father, like son, he had carried on his family’s trade – had served him well, carrying him across Europe and into the Middle East, along long perilous trails – braving wildwood, bandit, war, tricksters and peddlers of false grails.
Taking off his hat, sporting the scallop-shell of the pilgrim, he fanned himself with it – it was so hot here, so bright. Coming from a softer, damper land, he had still not got used to it. Squinting, he looked up at the city before him – the various temples and spires competing for dominance. Bells rang out over the hustle and bustle of thousands of people coming and going through its gates. It was the 8th Century of Our Lord, and he had made it to Jerusalem. His soul was surely saved by this pious act. And he needed salvation. His soul was in a poorer condition than his poor old feet.

He acted the penniless and penitent pilgrim here, but back home he was a man of power, of influence. He had been cruel, yes, and vain. He had acquired wealth for himself in countless dubious ways. His coffers were full but his heart was empty. All of those glittering coins and trinkets had left him unfulfilled.

There had to be something more.

And that is when, one day, walking amid the noisome stalls of Sheep Street, he had an idea. He would go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to purge himself of his sins.

The pilgrim lined up and entered through one of the gates, under the stern eyes of the guards. And then he was in! Jerusalem, in all its glory, opened up before him. He stopped and stared, only to be elbowed out of the way, making him step in the gutter. Yet, he was so euphoric from the ardours of his journey, he didn’t care. He had made it. He looked around, grinning like a moon-touched loon. The narrow streets were full of noise and colour – the cries of trinket sellers, icon hawkers, fortune tellers, farmers with their produce arrayed before them – such exotic wares the likes of which he had never seen before. With the last of his coins, he purchased a large, succulent looking fruit and held it to his nose, savouring its smell. It was enough to make him salivate. The pilgrim imagined its cool juice, running down his throat, assuaging his burning thirst.

But, just before he sank his teeth into it, a passerby bumped into him, making him drop it. The pilgrim cursed under his breath, casting the stranger an evil stare – but it was too late, the perpetrator was lost in the crowd, and his fruit was rolling away from him.

Quickly, he pursued it as it rolled down the alleyways, away from the main crowds. Soon he was lost in a maze of passageways – perfect for thieves – but he could only think about his fruit.

He would not let it go!

He had come so far, endured such adversity – he would not let such a simple thing thwart him.

The fruit occasionally caught the odd dusty beam of light which penetrated the maze.

Nearly … within … reach.

The pilgrim lunged, just as the fruit rolled down a gap between two tumble-down buildings.

Cursing he knelt down and peered in. Luck! The object of his desire had got stuck against something blocking the narrow gap. The place smelt foetid, but he had to get that fruit. Gingerly, he stuck in his arm and, straining, reached for it. Something scuttled over his naked arm. A large black rat darted out of the gap and along the edge of the buildings! He quickly pulled out his arm, rubbed it vigorously. Then, composing himself, he tried again. Nearly … nearly … there! He had his hand around it – and triumphantly pulled it out. He rubbed it free of filfth and sank his teeth into it with a satisfied sigh. For a while he was lost in the pleasure of the taste – sharp but refreshing. Then, wiping his mouth, he peered into the gap out of curiosity. What was it that had blocked it?

There, he could see it now. An old stone cross – wedged inbetween the buildings. How odd. Perhaps it might be worth something.

Maybe his fortune had changed.

Laughing, he reached in and strained and strained until his fingernails scraped the stone. Slowly, painfully, he worked it towards his grasp – there, he had it! Making sure no one was around, he carefully pulled it out and, dusting it free of cobwebs, he inspected it.

It felt old, very old. Solid and heavy.

As he ran his fingers over it, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt he was being watched.

A strange light filled the darkened alleyway, and a benign warmth.

The pilgrim slowly turned and beheld before him a dazzling figure, glowing in rainbow colours – overlapping planes of light like a stained glass window in a cathedral.

The being spoke to him – directly, into his heart – in a voice warm and enfolding.

‘Who are you…?’

‘Take this cross and bury it – in the very heart of your homeland.’

‘Where…?

‘The precise centre… Do so, and all will be well.’

The vision faded, and the pilgrim was left shaking. What had he seen? Perhaps there had been something wrong with that fruit. Afeared, he threw the pulpy core away. The stone cross was solid enough in his hand. That felt real.

Heart pounding, he got up.

Wrapping it in a rag, he placed the stone cross in his satchel and made his way quickly along the alleyway – walking with increasing purpose.

The pilgrim beheld his old home town with a sigh of relief. The journey back had been hard. Many a time he had come close to losing his sacred relic, but he had held onto it for dear life – amid the stormy crossings and dark nights. And now he was finally and he wept at the sight of Hamtun. Humble as it was, it was his home … and he was overcome with emotion at seeing it again. There was times when it looked as though he never would. But something had driven him. The words of an angel – yes, that is what it was. He knew that now. He had not told a soul – he did not want to risk the magic leaking away in the cold light of day. This had happened to him for a reason. It was his sacred duty.

He went to St Peters to pray in gratitude for his safe return. As he knelt there, the Holy Spirit descended and told him precisely where he must bury the cross.

A man on fire, he set about his task with a fervour.

In the middle of the night, when not a soul was in sight, he took his spade and dug. The spirit guided him – here, here was the very centre of England.

Who would have thought it? The bottom of Gold Street, at the crossroads with Horsemarket Street. This was the heart of the land. Every day, countless folk cross it unknowing that they tread on sacred soil. The cross was buried deep, the hole filled in, the soil patted down, so that not a mark, not a trace would reveal its whereabouts.

Yet he knew.

The hidden cross in the soil … marking the very centre of England by divine revelation!

Notes: with thanks to my fellow Northamptonian, the now London-based actor Robert Goodman – who first told me about this over a cup of tea in London.

From Northamptonshire Folk Tales by Kevan Manwaring, published by The History Press, 2013

The Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]

Creating a spoken word performance to promote a new book

I began performing at the same time I began writing in earnest – back in 1991 – and so it is second nature to me to create a spoken word show based upon my latest publication, Northamptonshire Folk Tales (The History Press, 2013). When I started out I quickly learnt getting folk to read your poetry was like asking them to do your Tax Return (and my early efforts were probably as excruciating), and so I realised that to ‘get my work out there’, I literally had to step up to the mark (or the mic). I started performing at ‘open mic’ events in my old home town, Northampton – badly to begin with, making all the classic beginner mistakes (reading from a text; speaking too low or too fast; avoiding eye contact with the audience; apologising, etc). In a live performance you quickly ascertain what works and what doesn’t. Instant feedback is visceral (clapping, tears, laughter), useful, but nerve-wracking. I learnt (the hard way) that the more effort you put into a ‘reading’, the more the audience appreciate it. Take the effort to learn it by heart, and the audience will generally give you the time of day. Suddenly, your performance has gone up several notches: there’s no paper-barrier between you and the audience; you can make eye-contact; you can use both hands for gesture… All you have to do is remember it!

Fast forward several years – I became Bard of Bath after winning the local eisteddfod in that city back in 1998. I started trying my hand at storytelling – even more terrifying, it seemed, as there’s no ‘script’, no safety net. The storyteller performers extempoire, or completely improvises. I became a professional storyteller in 2000 when I went freelance, getting bookings in schools, libraries, art centres, museums, and so on. I have since performed across Britain, live on BBC TV, and abroad.

After moving to Stroud in late 2010 I worked on a commission for The History Press – a collection of folk tales, as part of their county-by-county series. I opted for Oxfordshire – the ‘bridging’ county between my East Midlands roots and West Country home. For that I collected (and rewrote in my own words) 40 tales – the idea is that each has to be ‘performable’, that is not a verbatim performance script, but written with a sense of orality and aurality. This is where my experience as a spoken word performer cross-fertilised with that of my writing practice. To ‘test’ the material I performed it, whenever possible, to a live audience, before committing it to paper. After the book came out I toured it in venues across Oxfordshire to diverse audiences (Woodstock Bookshop; Alice Day, Guildhall Oxford; Beatnik Albion Bookshop; Oxford Folk Weekend).

Encouraged by the success of Oxfordshire Folk Tales, I wrote a second collection, drawing upon tales from my old home county of Northamptonshire. This was published in October 2013. I am now gearing up for performances based upon this latest book, but I also wanted to offer something different. Looking at my two books I decided I wanted to create a show based upon both. What could link them, beyond the folk tale genre? Earlier this year I took part in a project for Bath Literature Festival – based upon the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (Roud; Bishop 2012), local storytellers were asked to re-interpret them as narratives. The show I performed in was entitled rather memorably as ‘Tales of Lust, Infidelity and Bad Living’. Inspired by this, and by the many theme-based shows I have helped co-create with my Bath-and-Stroud-based storytelling group, Fire Springs, over the years, I decided to find a thematic link for the show, and thus was born ‘The Rose and the Snake’, partly inspired by the flowers associated with the respective counties, but also by the sexual politics which run throughout the material (as symbolised by my leitmotifs). Some stories are based on what are called Murder Ballads – and so love, death, revenge, and bizarre magical shenanigans are common tropes. This new show would be a collaboration with folksinger Chantelle Smith, who would complement my stories with ballads, thereby providing sonic texture, i.e. different registers of voice. Previously, when performing solo, I have achieved this by switching from story to poetry (I am no singer, but I am an experienced performance poet). Working with a musician widens out the appeal of the show tremendously. It is hard work, even for a word-junkie like me, to sit through a whole evening of poetry; or long stories, without variation. At sixty minutes, our show is intentionally lean and mean. With over 80 stories and countless ballads to choose from, the different configurations of material are vast – thus offering the possibility of numerous ‘sets’, differentiated according to the time of year, venue, and nature of the event. The Rose and The Snake is now available for ‘weddings, barmitzvahs and christenings’!

originally posted on http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/WritingTutors/

Kevan is performing at the Bardic Banquet, Northampton, Wed 18 December 2013

Oxfordshire Folk Tales by Kevan Manwaring Northamptonshire Folk TalesAvailable from The History Press