Monthly Archives: November 2015

Walking the Talk: Practice-Based Research

Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring - The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014

Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring – The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014

As part of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester – a novel-based project dramatizing the diasporic translocation of folk traditions from the Scottish Lowlands to the Southern Appalachians – I have explored various forms of practice-based research. Chief among these is of course the writing of the novel itself. A recent QAA Benchmark Statement on Creative Writing[1] validates the notion of writing-as-research, when it states: ‘Original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’ (4.6). Of course, research may also explore the critical discourses around the subject, the reader experience, creative process, publishing, performance and multi-media platforms. In the first of a series of three seminars hosted by the Open University’s research group, ‘Contemporary Cultures of Writing’ at Senate House, London (which I attended on Tuesday, 3rd November) research students and staff explore issues around ‘Creative Writing Research’[2]  What constitutes research and how it can be validated within the rigours of a PhD continue to be explored and expanded by those working within academe. The pressure of having a thesis rubber-stamped and passing one’s viva means institutional validation of ‘proper’ research is all too critical, and maybe constraining the often instinctive, protean and multifarious methodologies of writers. Often we ‘do it anyway’, writing blind, in the white heat of the moment, following hunches, gut feelings, flashes of inspiration, synaptic tight-rope walks, and tangential cat-a-loops … then back-extrapolate the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ afterwards, trying to sound intelligent and conscious in our creative processes.

Nevertheless, some activity is informed and intentional. As part of my novel project, I decided that a spoken word performance dramatizing some of the Border Ballads would be an interesting way to bring alive my research, widen its accessibility, and get diverse audience responses. And it would also be great fun. And so with my partner Chantelle Smith, a folk-singer, we devised a show based upon our trips to the Scottish Borders – in the summer of 2014 we walked Hadrian’s Wall from coast to coast, then pushed beyond the current Border, visiting ballad sites. Drawing upon this shared experience we devised ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, a storytelling and acoustic music show bringing alive the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – whose thematic symmetry I find fascinating. Initially last forty minutes we premiered it at the SEED Festival, Hawkwood College, in July 2015; and have performed it at three other events since, expanding it to a full hour with extra songs and an additional folk tale. The response has been favourable. One audience member commented afterwards: ‘Loved the interplay of word, music, choreography, and the unexpected humorous asides – and also the landscape of folkloric detail.’[3] I have also performed a solo version of the show in the States, on a recent field trip. The show’s strength, however, is in the dynamic created between my partner and I on stage, and the alternation between modes of narrative: primarily storytelling (myself) and ballad (Chantelle). Harp, shruti box, bodhran and bells are also used to create ambience and weave the spell. The shift in register between my (spoken) voice and my partner’s (sung) voice modulates the aural experience and demands of the listener. We shift in and out of character, not fully acting, not fully ourselves, but inhabiting a third space, and breaking the fourth on occasion with the odd humorous aside, responding to the actuality of the performance space – noises off, a mobile phone, a passing siren, etc. The show inhabits a liminal space – in terms of its location/s (the Scottish Borders; Elfhame); its gender politics; the creative tension between the magical and the mundane; the cross-fertilisation of art-forms; the chancy terrain of national identity (Anglo-Scottish fault-lines); and in its rich symbolism. In many ways liminality is the key note of both ballads – both physical (hillside; tree; stream; crossroads; well) and temporal (twilight; midnight; Halloween) motifs crop up, often echoed in each ballad. In ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ it is the male protagonist who is our ‘Everyman’ – it is he who undergoes initiation, gaining the gift of prophecy (‘the Tongue that Cannot Lie’) and the appellation of ‘True Thomas’. In ‘Tam Lin’ it is Janet of Carterhaugh who facilitates listener identification – it is her Third Person Limited Omniscient perspective that we follow – as she undergoes her own rite-of-passage into woman-hood and self-actualisation. Both Thomas and Janet experience a change of status, brought about by what RJ Stewart has termed the ‘Underworld Initiation’. The Queen of Elfland is the catalyst behind both – more directly in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ Morgana Le Fay-way in ‘Tam Lin’. She is ostensibly the same queen but seems very different in each ballad: in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ she appears as the Muse figure, a Gravesian ‘white goddess’ on her white horse, with her bells and spells. In ‘Tam Lin’ she is a Kali-figure, goddess of vengeance, cursing Tam Lin for his ‘faithlessness’ – terrifying and implacable. As the male performer in the show, I naturally channel Thomas and Tam Lin; my partner similarly channels the light-and-dark queens and the feisty Janet. The experience is visceral and deepens our understanding – and compassion – for all aspects. They seem part of a spectrum. I have devised, based upon this practice-led insight, a workshop and accompanying diagram I call ‘The Wheel of Transformation’, which I field-tested at both a pagan camp in Britain and in America. In both cases I was impressed and surprised by the results. Participants role-played scenes from the ballads – and, without much prompting, took on characters of different genders, ages and backgrounds to their own. It seemed liberating to all involve – that we could move around the ‘wheel’ and inhabit any of the roles, fith-fathing like Tam Lin in Janet’s arms. All participants managed to find something to relate in the ballads – there are universal patterns being played out in them; akin to the Orphic (Orpheus and Eurydice ) or Eleusinian (Demeter and Persephone) Mysteries, in terms of their ritual and archetypal. It would seem the ‘Fair Maiden’ (the anima; or untainted soul seeking the grit of experience) is perennially being lured to the Underworld by some dark, charismatic Lord – where the chymical wedding occurs, and the nigredo of the soul’s dark night leads to the gold of transformational rebirth. For self-knowledge to be achieved, the Underworld journey must be taken and the Shadow embraced.

And so the journey begins. The wheel of transformation keeps turning and these pliant ballads are re-invented in new forms with each performer, each performance. The fith-fath does not threaten their integrity, only strengthens it. Their mutability is part of their resilience, their enduring appeal. This practice-based research has deepened my understanding of them – and consequently some of the core themes underlying my novel, underpinning its mythic resonance. It gives the creative/critical endeavour of my research a breadth and groundedness, making it feel less abstract, more embodied and owned. I walk my talk, and the material becomes a living reality.

Kevan Manwaring 7 November 2015

https://taleandsong.wordpress.com/

http://www.chantellesmith.co.uk/

[1] http://www.qaa.ac.uk/publications/information-and-guidance/publication/?PubID=2986#.Vj4rmbfhDnB

[2] http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/contemporary-cultures-of-writing/events/creative-writing-research-investigation

[3] Anthony Nanson, SEED Festival, 2015

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The Intoxication of Memory: Laurie Lee & Cider with Rosie

CiderWithRosie.jpg

Cider with Rosie, 1st Edition, 1959, Hogarth Press

Origins

Cider with Rosie by Stroud-born author Laurence Edward Alan ‘Laurie’ Lee (1914-1997) was published in 1959 by Hogarth Press, with illustrations by John Stanton Ward (who had previously worked on HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May, 1958). Stanton Ward’s exquisite line drawings as as locked into our aesthetic experience of the book as John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (150th anniversary 1865-2015) and Through the Looking Glass. They evoke the organic life oozing from every page of the book; their unfinished lines suggestive of the impressionistic quality of Lee’s writing. Published as ‘Edge of Day: boyhood in the West of England’ in 1960 in the US, it took two years to write, and three drafts.  Becoming canonised as part of the national curriculum, it became known to countless school-children and has sold over 6 million copies worldwide. With the royalties Lee purchased Rose Cottage in his beloved Slad. It has been adapted for stage (initially by James Roose-Evans), radio (narrated by Kenneth Branagh) and screen (1971; 1998; 2015). Cider with Rosie was not its first title – earlier versions were called Cider with Poppy and Cider with Daisy. Although the eponymous ‘Rosie’ was later identified as Rosalind ‘Rose’ Buckland, Lee’s cousin by marriage, who died in 2014, a few days before her hundredth birthday) a perhaps telling detail (Laurie Lee liked his women; but also, the way Lee has shaped his memories to his purpose). This subjectivity is acknowledged by Lee is a Note preceding the text:

The book is a recollection of early boyhood, and some of the facts may be distorted by time.

From the writer’s own admissions and the analysis by Valerie Grove’s in her 2000 biography, (The Well-loved Stranger; republished as The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee in 2014) we can interpret ‘may be’ as ‘undoubtedly’ (distorted by the writer’s imagination).

Structurally the book is arranged into thirteen thematic sections:

  1. First Light
  2. First Names
  3. Village School
  4. The Kitchen
  5. Grannies in the Wainscot
  6. Public Death, Private Murder
  7. Mother
  8. Winter and Summer
  9. Sick Boy
  10. The Uncles
  11. Outings and Festivals
  12. First Bite at the Apple
  13. Last Days

There is a loose chronology about this sequencing, from his first arrival at their new home in Slad, aged three, to his loss of ‘innocence’ (First Bite …), to his ‘birth’ as a poet. The book is a self-penned creation myth, describing the evolution of the writer. A serious illness (Sick Boy) leads his awakening into ‘valley consciousness’, with the sensibilities of a poet. The book ends with him picking up the pen to start writing poems.

Published collectively as the ‘Red Sky at Sunrise’ trilogy along with As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. The title comes the saying: ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning’ which flags up the disenchantment at the heart of this cycle, from rural ‘innocence’ to war-torn ‘experience’. In this regard to trilogy could be regarded as a bildungsroman, charting Laurie Lee’s development from infant to adult, from boy to man.

Opinions          

Cider with Rosie is a supremely impressionistic memoir – one that draws upon ‘sense-memory’ more than verifiable fact. Lee himself said he wanted to evoke the genius loci, to capture what it felt like to live in his beloved Slad valley (a boy’s paradise, ‘scragging apples’), to chart it through the seasons, the turning of the wheel and the impact on village life of the modern and the ancient (BBC Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire: the storyteller’s landscape). This work in particular, out of all of his works, is indivisible with place, with the past, and with his passions (food; women; nature). He was, in essence, a sensualist, in love with life.

Cider with Rosie has been criticised as a work of nostalgic romanticism, painting an overly-idealised picture of village life, a Cotswold Arcadia (yet within the book there is a sense of a ‘spell that is breaking’, via the legacy of the First World War and the inexorable creep of Modernism) but this is redeemed by both its ecological awareness, (the book is bursting with fecundity and decay, the living landscape a huge presence in the daily life of Slad-folk, even invading the Lee family household; in every chapter the natural world is never far away and is not always benign) and the second and third books in the trilogy, which show a deepening political awareness. In effect, Cider with Rosie represents a lost ‘Golden Age’, as does the first half of ‘As I Walked Out…’, but this is deconstructed by the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and its aftermath (charted in A Moment of War; and A Rose in Winter). Together, they depict a journey to knowledge, from the solipsistically provincial to the worldly and battle-worn. It begins at the end of the Great War, and concludes in the midst of another.

Despite this backdrop of realism, the trilogy (and, by extension Laurie Lee’s life) has the quality of a folk tale – telling of a young lad from a sleepy village who goes off to a magical kingdom, with only his fiddle, wit and luck, and brings back the (Spanish) sun to re-enchant a damp Gloucestershire valley. Lee had no small part in forging this legend, being prone to self-mythologising, and the deliberate obfuscation of the memoirist. By shaping his past, he prevented others from doing so (until after his death). In this he shared the fears of Hilary Mantel who, terrified, that others would misappropriate her past, took it upon herself to get there first.

 

As a child raised in a family of women (his father left home when he was 3) – his mother, 3 step-sisters (and 2 brothers, one Jack who went on to become a film director in Australia), his formative years were shaped by the feminine, colonised his imagination, and shaped his writing (and lifestyle) for the rest of his life. He had numerous ‘muses’ throughout his life, but the most important, by far, was the glamorous ‘society beauty’ Lorna Wishart. When she left him for the painter Lucien Freud (Laurie Lee developed a romantic attachment to her niece, Katherine, whom he went on to marry – they had went Laurie was 21, Kathy was 5: sitting on his knee, so his wife was to reveal, she knew in that moment she would marry him. When Kathy gave birth to their daughter Jesse (born on the same day as Lorna’s child by Lee, Yasmin – a long kept secret from the family), Lee sang the praises of his ‘first-born’, and later the ‘two women’ in his life – Kathy and the infant Jesse. He was renowned as a ‘charmer’, a ‘lady’s man’, who seemed to be more at ease amid female company, the prettier the better.

Laurie Lee was, as a poet and an artist, a lover of beauty. His depiction of his childhood in Slad, written over half a century later, is infused with these sensibilities. They transform the landscape through his artist’s (and lover’s) eye. As such, his project echoes the mood of a 1911 painting by the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, ‘I and the Village’ – a dreamlike overlapping of internal and external landscapes, infused with the artist’s memories of his place of birth and his relationship to it. In both works (Cider with Rosie; and ‘I and the Village’ there is a sense of ‘village-consciousness’, or ‘valley-consciousness’ – a breaking down of Self and the Other, of the human and the natural world. (This is lucidly articulated in the chapter entitled ‘Sick Boy’ when the young Lee awakes from a fever with a heightened perception of his locality – we seem to eavesdrop upon the birth of the poet). This way of seeing is also echoed in Dziga Vertov’s docu-poem, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which dances through the diurnal round of ordinary lives. As someone who worked on documentaries in the Second World War (for the GPO film unit), whose brother Jack became a film director, Laurie Lee would have been familiar with this cinematic language, if not this actual work. A recent exhibition of Lee’s paintings (Museum in the Park, 2014; and publication of his artwork) shows how important art was to him. Lee’s memoirs and poems are intensely visual and imagist. He paints with words. Sometimes the brush-work is loose, Turneresque, at others, he renders vivid miniatures of rural life (or perhaps field-sketches in the case of the Spanish books). It is contextually interesting to note that a contemporary of Laurie Lee, fellow poet Dylan Thomas (born in the same year, 1914), wrote his own impressionistic account of village life, in his case a fictionalised version of Laugharne, ‘Llareggub’, in his BBC ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood (1954) – preceding Cider with Rosie by 5 years. Both had worked on documentaries during WW2.

Cider with Rosie is a quintessential Post-War project, alongside Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s praise songs for lost England, broadcast to the nation in his popular TV monologues. It offers a healing of a traumatized England, the re-membering of a shattered nation-self. Amid the swagger and quiff of the 1950s, the Angry Young Men and kitchen-sink realism, Lee offered a Horlicks-ish comforting window onto the past. In mythologizing his own neck of the woods, Lee created a mythscape that would appeal to millions. His bucolic pastoral conjures an almost pre-lapsarian state. The very title, Cider with Rosie, is ripe with metaphorical freight, with mythic resonance. It intimates the irretrievability of innocence, alluding to the original apple (from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, partaken of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps not surprising to note that in the surrounding Gloucestershire landscape are place-names plucked from the Bible and its imagery: Purgatory, Paradise, the Horns, the Heavens. The ‘First Bite of the Apple’ chapter in microcosm, the book in its entirety, and the trilogy in a wider sense, track a kind of rite-of-passage, in 3 stages:

  1. Temptation
  2. Transgression
  3. Transformation

This cycle would seem to play out through the rest of Lee’s life. He was forever trying to get back to the garden, whether through women, drink, living off of his own one-man heritage industry, or the numerous tourists who would come to pay homage. He was, for many years, amenable to sharing a tale or two over a pint in his local, The Woolpack. One of his favourite anecdotes was telling of a young visitor who asked him ‘where Laurie Lee was buried’. When he died in 1997 (13 May, aged 82), he was buried in Slad churchyard. His gravestone is engraved with a line from one of his most popular poems, ‘April Rise’:

If ever I saw

blessing in the air

I see it now in this

still early day

Where lemon-green

the vaporous

morning drips

wet sunlight on the

powder of my eye.

On the other side it reads: ‘He lies in the valley he loved.’

Legacy

Still loved by millions, Cider with Rosie has become, for the residents of Stroud and the Slad Valley, a kind a talisman, helping to ward off housing development several times. Lee himself was instrumental in this. When a development was planned in the 90s he wrote to all the national newspapers and fronted a campaign to stop the proposed housing scheme. Lee’s last public reading was at Stroud Town Hall, as part of an evening of local writers raising awareness about the campaign. As with Hardy’s Wessex, Dickens’ London, Jane Austen’s Bath Lee’s works have transformed how people ‘read’ his native landscape. It is almost impossible now to not visit Slad and to disassociate it from Lee. He is on the map. In 2014, the year of his centenary, a Laurie Lee Wood was created (opened by Cerys Matthews) and the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way was launched by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, with a signposted trail leading visitors around his village and valley. Lee’s poems are printed on perspex, so you can literally ‘see’ the landscape through his words.   Up the road, at Sheepscombe, the picturesque cricket ground was purchased by Lee and given to the local cricket team. The view is preserved through the power of his literary legacy. In his centenary year further ‘landmarks’ were added, included a mural in the Shambles, Stroud centre, and an exhibition at the Museum in the Park. Every midwinter, local musician Johnny Coppin performs a popular concert of his music, which includes poems of Lee’s set to music. Coppin recorded an album of Lee reading extracts and poems set to music, entitled Edge of Day, a nod back to the American edition. Stroud-based poet, Adam Horovitz (son of Michael and Frances Horovitz) wrote a memoir about Lee, A Thousand Laurie Lees, published in 2014 by The History Press. Kevan Manwaring produced a map of literary Gloucestershire for the Cotswold Word Centre, featuring Laurie Lee and other well-known writers of the area (incl Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Dennis Potter and others). Lee has become part of a local ‘pantheon’, and continues to draw literary pilgrims to the area and inspire the county’s vibrant writing community to this day.

Kevan Manwaring

Stroud 13 April 2015

Notes for ‘The Secret Life of Books: Cider with Rosie, presented by Joanne Trollope’

BBC4, 9 November 2015

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06nxssd