Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Bard and the Bardic Tradition

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

As we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Swan of Avon, William Shakespeare, who died on his 52nd birthday, April 23rd, 1616, it is timely to consider his other epithet: The Bard. For many people this is probably their only association with the term. It originally denoted one of a tripartite caste in ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Britain: the druid (priest/ess; philosopher; lawmaker); ovate (Seer; healer); and bard. The latter became associated with the Welsh oral and literary tradition (and as Fili, in the Irish) where they lived on, preserving many of their original functions: genealogist/historian; storyteller; poet; wisdom-bearer; magician of words; and remembrancer. I would like to consider these in detail here and see if Shakespeare and his ‘complete works’ (chiefly the 37 plays penned by him in brief, astonishingly creative life) fulfill any of these.

Genealogist/Historian: The Iron Age Bard would relate the genealogies of the tribe – the ancestral bloodlines, stretching back through the generations, validating the claims of chieftainship, of a tribe’s association with the land it lives on. Shakespeare continued this aspect of the bard, drawing upon the pseudo-lineage created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 13th Century History of the Kings of Britain, for lives of the Romano-British Cymbeline and the mythical King Lear (the son of King Bladud of Bath, who is also mention by Geoffrey, but is not honoured with the Shakespeare treatment). Throughout his plays he raids the ‘myth-kitty’ for magical, folkloric elements (Herne the Hunter; Robin Goodfellow; Puck; Ariel; Caliban; the 3 witches; spells, prophecies, curses and customs) – the smoke and mirrors of theatre offering a sympathetic magic for depictions and deconstructions of enchantment. Yet much of Shakespeare’s uncanny shenanigans are framed by ostensibly historical settings, giving them verisimilitude. The uncanny and the actual jostle on stage as we are spell-bound by bloody history.

Through his History Plays[1], Shakespeare is, for many, their first introduction to the infinite complexity of English history. In his dramas, relating the rise and fall of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, we see recurring themes of hubris, madness, revenge, fateful misunderstanding, fatal flaw, nobility and infamy. The good, the bad and the ugly. He engages our hearts and minds more than any history book could – bringing alive other centuries in an immersive, full-bloodied way. Before hit TV shows and movies, before historical novels, this was the only way to time travel in Elizabethan England: The Globe was Shakespeare’s TARDIS. We visit it not for historical accuracy, but for emotional accuracy, for escapism, a ‘mirror to our times’ and a visceral experience.

Storyteller: Shakespeare is a consummate storyteller in both his plotting and characterisation. We would not remember his histories if not for the storytelling. For the way he brings these dusty figures from the past alive, gives them immortal lines that will live on in the English language long after we have forgotten who spoke them. Through his comedies[2] and tragedies[3] (some of which slip between the two) he reveals all the foibles of the human condition: the cruelty and kindness, pettiness and greatness, hilarity and horror – the whole gamut of emotion. He tells, through the particular, archetypal stories which have been adapted into virtually every medium and translated into almost every major living language – for they express something universal.  As though he plays the three strains of the harp – the bard’s classic instrument – Shakespeare can make us weep (Goltai), laugh (Geantrai) or soothe us into a peaceful sleep (Suantrai). So well-crafted are Shakespeare’s plots that they have been cannibalised by countless writers and directors either directly (e.g. the legion of adaptations of the plays in ballet, opera, TV, film, computer game, prose fiction or manga form) or indirectly (e.g. West Side Story; Kiss Me Kate; Kurosawa’s Ran or Throne of Blood; Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books). Even just a quote from a Shakespeare play can provide a drama or novel with imported gravitas and thematic coherence. Shakespeare oeuvre has become the DNA of drama, its coding interlacing with the genetic material of the author’s own imagination, creating endless mutant variations. The ‘Swan of Avon’ virus has permeated every aspect of culture.

Poet: Every line of his plays fizzes and crackles with poetry, to the point that it is almost pointless to select any examples. One simply has to read a page at random from his Complete Works. Metaphor. Simile. Alliteration. Assonance. Consonance. Metre. Shakespeare’s English shows what can be done with the language – it is multi-layered and exquisite to the ear. It takes a moment to attune to but when we do, we realize what a watered down version of our mother tongue we get these days. To drink deep from Shakespeare is to drink from the source.

So many of Shakespeare’s lines have entered the English language and imagination to the point that they have become as familiar and loved to our linguistic landscape as daffodils, chalk figures, Stonehenge, the village green, and ruinous castles by winding rivers have become icons of this ‘sceptred isle’. Here are only a smattering of examples:

“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” (As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I).

“Off with his head!” – (King Richard III, Act III, Scene IV).

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II).

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see”. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 6).

“Why, then the world ‘s mine oyster” – (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene II).

“What ‘s done is done”.- (Macbeth, Act III, Scene II).

“‘T’is neither here nor there.” – (Othello, Act IV, Scene III).

“I have not slept one wink.”. – (Cymbeline, Act III, Scene III).

We spout Shakespeare in our daily conversation but do not realize it, and we turn to Shakespeare – to his plays, to his sonnets – to help us fathom and articulate every permutation of the human heart, of which he is our most eloquent ambassador.

Wisdom-bearer: What distinguishes a bard from a mere minstrel is the deeper understanding of the symbols and meaning behind the words, the stories. Bards do not simply repeat ‘classics’, like a pub singer doing hoary covers. They have connected to the living reality of the story or song or poem, inhabited it, lived and breathed it, and embodied it in their daily lives. They are able to impart the underlying wisdom behind reality and offer an insight into the human condition. This is what separates them from the average wordsmith – the hack journalist, potboiler novelist, copywriter, political speech-writer – who push words around their screens like so many fridge-magnets, never going beneath the surface, the veneer they are creating. The bard conveys wisdom, not simply knowledge – a hard-won wisdom tested by life’s ‘slings and arrows’, by solitude and deep journeying. Shakespeare, whose life was struck by hardship and tragedy (e.g. the loss of his son Hamnet, aged eleven) does this time and time again. His plays dredge the depths of humanity and reaches to its heights. Even in the darkest scenes of his plays there is a sense of majesty – that is, in the sheer creative effort of learning lines, acting, choreography, set design, lighting, costume, music, directing, and active listening, one is glimpsing what humans are capable of when we transcend our differences and collaborate.

Magician of words: The classic bard channelled the awen (Welsh, f. noun, ‘inspiration’) the creative force behind existence, through their words and music. Shakespeare in his plays, in his poetry, provides evidence of this gramarye. He re-enchants language, gives it a spell-binding, incantatory, talismanic quality – one that could conjure worlds, draw tears and laughter from the audience, make us look into the recesses of our own souls and the fabric of our lives. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, we have, in the character of Prospero, an alter-ego for the playwright himself, adept at conjuring and dispelling worlds with his words:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot 2055
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice 2060
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder 2065
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth 2070
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 2075
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.   (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1)

Remembrancer 

Finally, I would add to the list of Shakespeare’s bardic credentials that of Remembrancer. Traditionally, bards had to learn an impressive repertoire of 350 tales, as well as grammar, glosses, oghams, orations and poems, over a 12 year training period. Before literacy was commonplace bards were the walking libraries of the tribe. They had stories for every occasion: wooings and weddings, births, battles and funerals. Shakespeare, as an actor, had to line a large and adaptable repertoire. His own company, The King Chamberlain’s Men, had to master many of his plays, his long poems, and other popular pieces of the time. As Polonius says, such as they are:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.

And, finally, with his incredible legacy, Shakespeare has inspired countless actors – from schoolchildren to veterans of the stage – to memorize and master his exquisite words. Whenever Shakespeare is performed live we experience the power of memory combined with the beauty of language. In this regard, the Shakespearean tradition is in effect a bardic one, a global bardic college which specializes in the development and dissemination of the bardic arts: word, memory and wisdom.

And so I would conclude that William Shakespeare, a priest in the Chapel of Memory. does indeed live up to the epithet of ‘The Bard’. And I do not think the definite article here is too presumptuous – for as an actor and a writer who skilfully straddled the worlds of the stage and the page Shakespeare showed he could ‘walk his talk’, and his incredible legacy – both prolific and of the highest calibre – qualifies him in my and many people’s eyes as the greatest bard that ever lived and wrote in the English language. And if his epithet makes the curious look closer at the origins of the word, and the tradition it denotes, then that is a many-splendoured thing too.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 25 April 2016

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

 

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

The Puzzle of the Wood

I seem separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then?

The Bardic Academic

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?

Ted Hughes, Wodwo

There is something about walking in a wood which stirs something within us. The dappled sun filtering through the canopy, the twisty roots and gnarled boughs, the dripping moss, ferns and fungi, the green silence. It gets the imagination going. We start to see things, or daydream – as though the wood draws out our dreams and give them form.

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This was the late, great novelist Robert Holdstock’s flash of genius – one that came to him in a writing workshop in Milford-on-Sea in 1979, which resulted in an award-winning short story (1981)…

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Souls of the Earth

Soul of the Earth launch Waterstones, Bath, Spring 2011

When I published Soul of the Earth in 2010, it felt like the culmination of the small press I started in 2003. Awen’s first book, Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, was the outcome of a course I ran on ‘creative writing and the environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre. It was a group effort: I encouraged the students to contribute not only their words, but also to the editorial, design, and marketing process. Our modest vessel was joined by a number of other, more established writers, and I am pleased that familiar names from back then reappear in this later anthology. When Soul of the Earth was launched at a splendid event in Waterstones, I felt conscious of how far we, as a press, had come (in our craft; in our thinking) and how far we, as a species, still had to go (in our collective effort to live in more sustainable, harmonious ways).

As I write this the world looks in even worse shape than it did then. Not only are rapacious ideologies and practices continuing which damage this precious Earth (so much so that this epoch may be designated the ‘Anthropocene’ because of the lasting legacy we will leave in the Earth’s fossil record due to our massive impact upon the biosphere), but humanity seems intent on tearing itself apart. Conflict in the Middle East, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere continues to create human suffering on a massive scale. The war in Syria has resulted in the largest migration since the partition of India. The European project is fracturing. Right-wing extremism is on the march once again. Campaigners lobby for the closure of borders, for breaking away from the EU, for increasing parochialism. With such a bunker mentality, with selfishness, fear and loathing, and a perpetual heightened state of terror becoming the ‘new normal’, it is perhaps more poignant than ever to think of ourselves as ‘souls of the earth’.

The title I came up with for this collection, finely curated by Jay Ramsay, seems increasingly resonant. Perhaps we need to have the perspective of British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station and remember what unites us: the sheer unlikeliness and precariousness of our existence on this fragile blue jewel. To remember our common humanity. If I may paraphrase the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: the only nation is the imagination. We can choose hope or despair. In the Anthropocene epoch, perhaps, rather than allowing ourselves to be paralysed by the magnitude of what we face, we should reframe it as a ‘call to adventure’. Rather than leaving a legacy of environmental denudation, of ecological catastrophe, of mass extinction, why not a fossil record of artistic activity? We need to live here and now, of course. And ensure the planet is left in a better condition. But it is also wise to take the long view and hope that what will survive of us will be the love we lived by: for each other, the planet, and all that lives upon it.

With that wish we cast this message in a bottle into the ocean. May this new edition find sympathetic shores.

And we do hope you spread the word. If you believe in our vision, please spend a few minutes to share your reviews, comments, and thoughts through whatever medium you revel in. Words matter and, combined with meaningful deeds, can help to make a difference.

Kevan Manwaring

PS Happy Birthday, Jay 20 April!

Available thru Awen: http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/soul_of_the_earth.html

Behind the Mask

Border Morris, a radical tradition

by Kevan Manwaring

 

STYX FIRST DANCE OUT PF WESSEX 9 APRIL 2016

Styx of Stroud, PF Wessex, 9 April 2016 by Paul Horton

Border Morris is an evolving tradition, which has its roots in the Welsh Marches and the counties where it was originally identified (Herefordshire; Worcestershire; Shropshire) by E.C. Cawte in an influential 1963 article[1]. Cawte was the first to define this distinctive form of Morris, proposing the term ‘Welsh Border Morris’. The prefix has been dropped over the years and now ‘Border Morris’ denotes any Morris-style dance performed with sticks (never handkerchiefs) by predominantly black-faced dancers dressed in ‘tatter-coats’, with a simply-stepped, repetitive choreography, and delivered with much whooping and gusto. Although it is predominantly a tradition of the Welsh Borders/Cotswold Edge there is evidence of such dancing farther east: ‘In 1850 Northamptonshire morris team sometimes danced with sticks, ‘flourishing and brandishing them about’, and dancing round the sticks laid on the ground. This was called Bedlam Morris. Possibly this took place somewhere near Brackley. The source is not clear.’[2] As a Northamptonshire lad now living in Gloucestershire, I feel heartened by this – it makes me feel I am connecting to my roots by dancing in a Border Morris fashion.

 

The presence of Border Morris in Gloucestershire has been questioned by some (although there is an unconfirmed account of the young Gustav Holst watching Border Morris, with blackened faces, dancing outside his Cheltenham home), but I feel that it is essentially a movable feast, and to bind it to a particular place or style is a mistake, missing the point entirely. The very idea of ‘borders’ is the epitome of liminality – a threshold place betwixt and between: a place of peril and transformation. Border Morris must retain its edge if it is to stay true to its defining spirit.

The great innovator, John Kirkpatrick, was inspired in part by Northamptonshire’s Bedlam Morris to start his own influential side in Shropshire in the early 70s. And this is the style which as ‘gone viral’ to use a modern term – and is the style I now dance with Styx of Stroud, the Border side I belong to – so full circle (or ‘Brackley Roundabout’)!

It’s worth looking at Kirkpatrick’s approach in more detail The Border Morris style which Cawte identified was given a contemporary spin by John Kirkpatrick with his Bedlam Morris (an approach articulated with provocative wit in his 1979 article, ‘Bordering on the Insane’[3]), who advocated a looser, more eclectic magpie-ish approach: taking what they fancied from existing dancers and customizing them to suit their tastes. This was tantamount to heresy in the conservative circles of the Morris Federation and Morris Ring. Kirkpatrick’s iconoclastic, ‘punkish’ approach was perhaps indicative of the time (the mid-to-late 70s). The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could not seem further from the bucolic idyll perpetuated by the jingle of bells, squeezebox and fiddle and clack of sticks on a summer’s day outside a pleasant country pub, but Bedlam Morris’ (Kirkpatrick’s group) radical approach to dancing turned Border into the punk of Morris: emphasizing speed and energy, phallic-dancing pushing the bounds of taste, jeans and trainers worn beneath the more ‘traditional’ Morris regalia to blend the traditional and modern (‘the fusion of new and old that I was searching for’, JK), the hollering and lusty clash of staves an antidote to what he memorably described, in contrast to traditional Morris, as:  ‘far more ferocious and flamboyant than this mincing middle-aged antiquated eye-wash.’

To Kirkpatrick’s initial discomfort, Border Morris sides began to pop up adopting his general approach, but customizing it to their tastes. Yet this is the spirit of Border Morris and the reason why it continues to flourish whereas many traditional Morris sides are sadly dying out. Alot of the more traditional sides have ageing members and a problem with recruitment, although the age issue has apparently never been a problem for Border, if the report of a super-annuated side is to be credited: an account of a side in Hereford from 1609 which reports the members being between 96-120 years old, with an average age of 103!

Certainly many of the sides in the ‘mainstream’ Morris scene do look geriatric, but when you see them jigging about in a vigorous manner with broad grins and cheeky twinkles in their eyes you realise that Morris-dancing is the perfect way to stay lithe of limb and spirit. Most of all it evokes an ageless joie-de-vivre, which beyond all intellectualising, academic hair-splitting, and politically-correct hand-wringing is the over-riding impression one gets from watching it and, even more, from joining in. It is damned good fun and, in a boringly sensible and norm-core modern age, wildly impractical, uncommercial, and slightly bonkers.

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Styx of Stroud dancing at the Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

With Border Morris there is a frisson of the wild – a pagan, chthonic energy bursting forth in broad daylight. The blackened faces, outlandish costumes, swirl of rags and tatters, mock battles, shrieks and hollers, boom of the drum, relentless tune earworming its way into your mind, convey something of a dream or nightmare, our collective Shadow brought out into the light.

In terms of my own research (which currently is focused on the Scottish Borders) there is an overlap of motifs, in terms of the longing, liminality and transgression I see recur in the ballads and tales of the Lowlands (and the Southern Appalachians, where many of the songs and stories were taken). Certainly in the latter two are tangible in any Border Morris dance: liminality, in terms of watching something from the Borders, often at ‘liminal’ times of the year most importantly May Day, bordering on good/bad taste, in/sanity, and ancient/modern; transgressive, in terms of the possibility of sex and violence which lie beneath the dances – which take that energy and transforms it. The transgression for some would also be in the apparent appearance of racism, a controversy which lingers around Border Morris like an elephant’s fart in a room – which I will address below.

In brief, then. The blackened faces associated with Morris has been associated with the notion that Morris dancing was actually a bastardisation of ‘Moorish dancing’ (The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century; but the earliest references to its etymological ancestor, Morisk dance,moreys daunce, morisse daunce, start to appear in the mid-15th Century, when there was a fashion for ‘Moorish spectactle’). There is a tantalising possibility that such dances were just called ‘Moorish’ simply because they seem wild and pagan, something ‘exotic’ or ‘other’, and that was merely a contemporary analogy, like saying one film reminds you of another – but with the important caveat that: these dances were probably more ancient that, but were only defined as such at that point. The point at which something gets written  down does not necessarily fix in stone the point at which it came into being. Convention demands that we are bound by the paper trail, but can make educated guesses about what isn’t there. We are, after all, pattern-makers by nature. Another theory suggests it is to do with disguise: because begging was made illegal (Vagrancy Act of 1824). In lean times out of work farmworkers and itinerants would would ‘guise up’ – using the easily available materials of soot and grease – an effective way to keep ‘mum’, to anonymise oneself (a strategy deployed by the Mummers Plays, which usually involve outlandish disguises). A third, rather dubious, theory is that the blackened faces are directly related to the Music Hall traditions which culminated in the notorious ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. This last one has been vehemently defended by the likes of Chloe Metcalfe, but the fact is there is too much evidence of disguises being used centuries before any such phenomenon to accept that is the reason. The first two factors seem most likely to have influenced Border Morris over the centuries; the third seems a trendy theory wheeled out by academics wanting to make a name for themselves (akin to the tubthumping Marxist critique of the Folk Tradition, Fakelore (Harker, 1979), which Georgina Boyes took up the cause for in her influential treatise, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival, 2010). Yet no one can categorically say there is a single ‘smoking gun’.

As with any tradition there is an element of syncretism – a jackdaw creed which will shamelessly filch anything if it’s fit-for-purpose. This includes modern pop culture such as Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, which features Morris (Guards, Guards; Reaper Man; Lords and Ladies, etc), and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (which has inspired a morris side, and even a type of bells). It has spawned what has been called ‘Dark Morris’, which is more amusing than it sounds, basically adopting a satirical, Pythonesque approach to the whole thing. This has given rise to sides inspired by Biker culture (Hells Angels Morris), Neopaganism (Vixen and Wolfshead Morris), Fantasy (Mythago Morris), and Steampunk (Steampunk Morris). Border Morris has become a meme – one that is continually absorbing cultural influences: a modern ‘Celtic’, if you will. With no official set of parameters beyond the bare essentials (sticks, rags, blackened faces) each side customizes, and each individual member tailors, adding their idiosyncratic accretions to their costume (e.g. fairy lights adorning top hats at Chepstow Wassail, January 2016).  This is part of the appeal – personal creative expression within a group, and subculture where, critically, idiosyncratic quirkiness is accepted. Border Morris is very much in affinity with a Bowie-esque ‘kookiness’, a broad church where difference is celebrated. Critics of Border Morris’ ‘unPC-ness’ need to realise this. The vast range of iterations as witnessed at any large-scale Morris event (Hastings Jack-in-the-Green; Upton-on-Severn Folk Festival; Chippenham Folk Festival, etc). is a celebration of diversity, of local distinctiveness as championed by the environmental N.G.O. Common Ground.

Any association between black faces and people of colour (a term so bland as to be meaningless – unless you live in a black-and-white movie we are all people of colour) is in the eye of the beholder – it is certainly not in the consciousness of the performer. There is an important difference between the colour black and shades of brown/diverse flesh tone. If anyone has problem telling the difference then they  probably need their eyes (or shaky beliefs) testing. Black has a symbolic value, as seen in diverse, indigenous cultures around the world e.g. the Kanak tribe of New Caledonia (Nanson). It often denotes the Underworld, death, night, the ancestors, and many other things. Across many of the First Nations tribes of North America black face paint denotes ‘victory and strength’, and as warpaint ‘power, aggression and strength’.[4]

The fact that the word ‘black’ has come to mean people of colour and rarely the actual colour black is an example of what is called semantic bleaching. Now, when we see black it is perhaps inevitable, though incorrect, through cultural conditioning, to associate the colour black with people of colour, but this link within the individual’s mind, and is not one that dancers are responsible for. Tags are prescriptive, often prejudiced, and limiting – hence the resistance by many within the intended demographic against the controversial B.A.M.E. (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) acronym. The same with ‘L.G.B.T.X.’. Who does not wish to be seen and accepted as an individual, not a type? Labels make people lazy. They stop you looking or thinking. The designated is mentally pigeon-holed. They stop being perceived as the unique human being they are. Self-definition is the only safe and acceptable option. So let’s not get signs mixed up with signifiers. Let the sign point where it wants to. N.B. in Border Morris sticks are directed at fellow stick-wielders, nobody else! We are only play-fighting amongst ourselves. Mock-combats transform antagonistic energies, as in the dance popularly known as ‘Feud’.

The fact of the matter is that many Border Morris wear the black because it gives them a degree of anonymity when dancing in public, and it’s as simple and as innocent as that. People can project whatever they want onto Border Morris – who become Rorschach inkblot tests to the onlooker’s subconscious. The overwhelming consensus is that ‘people of colour’ do not seem offended by Border Morris, indeed delight in it (and a fair few dance in Morris and Mummers themselves[5]). It would seem, from numerous anecdotes within the Border Morris community, to be only white people who seem bothered and wishing to complain. Who then, pray tell, is the liberal academic complaining on the behalf of? Of course, any form of prejudice needs challenging – but what often is just a form of Postcolonial posturing is just another form of ‘othering’, of imperialist patronisation (the unelected spokesperson speaking on behalf of an imagined wronged minority). Let’s hear it from horse’s (or Mari Lwyd’s) mouth.

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Mari Lwyd, Chepstow Wassail, Jan 2016. K. Manwaring

Dancing in a Border Morris side one feels inside a tradition. One might feel nervous, excited, preoccupied with the technicalities of the dance, the practicalities of the performance space, the next beer or bowl of chips, the friendly faces in the crowd, and a plethora of other concerns – but never about the colour of the face-paint you are wearing. Because, as the performer, you cannot see that – you’re on the inside looking out. Even facing a fellow dancer you are more likely to be concerned with the position of the sticks than anything. What seems extraordinary to onlookers has become normalised to those within the group. And for those dancing it feels joyous – a selfless public act. This is the spirit in which Border Morris is danced: light-hearted anarchy offering, briefly, a shattering of the status quo. For those who question its validity or rationale, all I can say is: have a go. Come and clack sticks and let’s have a beer afterwards. We’ll see how you feel about it then, once you’re on the other side of the mask.

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Our awesome drummer Dave, at Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 12.04.2016

 

Styx of Stroud: https://styxofstroud.com/

 

Key Sources:

  1. C. Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire,’ Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), pp. 197-212.

John Kirkpatrick, ‘Bordering on the Insane’, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979 (cited on http://www.johnkirkpatrick.co.uk/mo_BorderInsane.asp)

Chloe Metcalfe, ‘To Black Up or Not to Black Up: A Personal Journey’, The Morris Federation, Winter newsletter 2013, https://www.academia.edu/5468139/To_Black_up_Or_Not_to_Black_Up_A_Personal_Journey

‘Morris Dancing’, Pepys Diary website: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/6217/

 

 

[1] EC Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire’, 1963.

[2] ibid, 1963: p197.

[3] Bordering on the Insane, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, By John Kirkpatrick, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979.

[4] http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/color-meanings-symbolism.htm

[5] And I have seem Mummers actually change the usual ‘Saracen or Turkish knight’ to something less obviously charged, such as ‘Bold Slasher’, to avoid any obvious Islamophobia. This shows a sensitivity and cultural reciprocity which Morris and Mummers are rarely credited with.

No Place Like Home

 

The Gnomist is a short award-winning documentary by filmmaker Sharon Liese, supported by CNN Films. Released within hours of the 13th November attacks in Paris last year, it relates the real-life story of ‘Firefly Forest’, a fairy village established covertly in Overland Park, Kansas. Overnight fairy doors started to appear in the boles and roots of trees; then more elaborate structures including fully-decorated fairy houses, theatres, and signs, designating the neighbourhood ’12 Hollow Tree Lane’ and conveying messages of hopeful magic. What resulted is a fascinating account of modern folklore in the making, deeply moving in the way it responds to our need for consolation in the face of loss.

Watch the video – and keep the Kleenex handy…

Deep in the forest of Overland Park, Kan., little gnomes made a home. But how did they get there? This is the story of paying it forward, one little house at a time. A Great Big collaboration with filmmaker Sharon Liese and our friends at CNN Films.

On one level it shows how traditions are started. Under the cover of night the ‘gnomist’ of the title would install new fairy structures. In the day it would seem they had magically appeared, emphasizing the sense of wonder and surprise. Their presence was enthralling to local children, who would relish the beautifully-crafted details of the Little People’s domiciles with squeals of delight. For them it was a confirmation of a still-magical paradigm not yet dispelled by reality. Against a backdrop of terrorist attacks, the innocent enchantment of Firefly Forest is made even more poignant, and I would say, necessary. As TS Eliot wrote in ‘The Four Quartets’:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Within the same poem, Eliot says: ‘Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.’ (Burnt Norton). It has been said (by John Clute, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 1999), that Fantasy ultimately leads to the Pastoral, a prelapsarian state in which evil is banished and we can once more live in benign relationship with nature, both inner and outer. However, once the Pastoral is reached, tension evaporates in a narrative and the story is over. Tolkien famously resisted the convention to finish at this point, but lingered on the homecoming (or its impossibility for some) in The Shire. In the novels, harmony is only achieved after the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ when evil is rooted out from the realm of the hobbits (i.e. us). Peter Jackson’s film trilogy dispensed with this chapter, but ends symbolically with the closing of the round door: the full circle creating the reassurance of a ‘closed ending’. What began having a negative value (the One Ring – the catalyst for the whole strife-filled Third Age) ends with a positive value (the round door, with its metonymic signification of wholeness, closure, domestic bliss, the circle of life, the separation of the private and public realm, and so on.). That final shot in ‘The Return of the King’ became, in a sense, the jumping-off point for the ‘Gnomist’. Although the secret architect was inspired by a walk in woods in Raleigh, North Carolina (coming across a hollow tree, she thought: ‘That tree could use a door’), on a mythopoetic level, her endeavour resumes Tolkien’s/Jackson’s dialogic. Thus began some guerrilla folklore.

It reminds me of the time I created a midsummer fairy picnic in the pocket park opposite my house in Stroud. My study eavesdropped upon the popular play area – and the sounds of children playing and laughing would waft up to me as I worked. Wanting to do something magical for the community, I posted up ‘An invitation to a Midsummer Fairy Picnic’, courtesy of Lord Oberon and Lady Titania. I deliberately left off any real name or contact number. I encouraged folk to dress up, and bring fairy cakes, stories, music and games to share. On the day I turned up in costume and was delighted to see families in fancy dress gathered there. No one knew who had placed the invite. We shared our fairy-dust sprinkled fare and had a jolly good time. I have since moved away from that area but I understand the midsummer picnic still continues.

Most poignantly, a wishing tree became the focus of many heartfelt messages, including from one mother who had suffered the terrible loss of her three-year old daughter, Allie, nicknamed ‘Little Owl’. She wrote a note in remembrance. A few days later a fairy door appeared named after her daughter. This act of selfless compassion deeply touched the family, who found some symbolic solace in this public ‘shrine’. Knowing somebody out there knew of their loss and was willing to articulate their empathy in such a tangible way was incredibly validating. For them, the magic was real.

The mysterious development of ‘Firefly Forest’ prompted much local speculation and its presence was featured in news bulletins. The municipal park authorities grew anxious at this unplanned incursion into their domain, and a fairy house was removed. This prompted the ‘gnomist’ to dismantle the fairy village, all except the house dedicated to ‘Little Owl’.

The film finally reveals the identity of the secret architect and another poignant layer is revealed: for the fairy village was created by a family forced to move every year. They had recently moved to the area and wanted to feel part of the community. But on another level each fairy house the mother-and-sons team built seemed to symbolise their own frustrated desires, or hiraeth, for a home. The magic they created for people by their act of gift was reciprocated as they took pleasure in the pleasure they gave, visiting their handiwork in the daytime, incognito. One blogger self-identified herself as the ‘watcher*’ of this phenomenon, photographing and writing about it. The film was made (with the participation of the ‘gnomist’ and her family), connecting the lives of three women (the mother, the watcher, the film-maker).

And then, in a heart-breaking coda, the fairy architects are forced to move on, leaving the state for Utah. Their act of enchantment failed to ultimately work its magic in their own life, beyond the feel-good of their selfless act. Alas, they weren’t in Kansas anymore, and for them, there was no place like home.

Yet the transience of ‘Firefly Forest’ seemed nominatively-determined from the outset. Its mysterious arrival and unexpected disappearance was all part of its myth – echoing countless ‘Brigadoon’ type narratives. A more academic taxonomy would be that Firefly Forest was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, to use Hakim Bey’s term.   It was a powerful contemporary example of how people are more than willing to ‘buy into’ a folkloric paradigm – complicitly suspending their disbelief, wanting it to be true. And, in the participation – the writing of wishes and notes of remembrance, the leaving of offerings, and the co-creation of the accompanying matrix of folk-belief – the community collectively facilitate the re-enchantment of their own neighbourhood.

This inspiring community art project/act of kindness shows what can be done with a sprinkling of imagination, initiative and daring. It is a call to all of us to create some magic on our doorstep: you never know, you might touch someone’s life, make their day, or simply make them wonder… It leaves the door of what is possible open. Imagination is a spiritual vitamin and we are all enriched for coming into contact with it. The ‘gnomist’, the watcher, the filmmaker and her crew, and even CNN, should all be praised for sharing this magic.

 

*https://fireflyforestwatcher.wordpress.com/tag/overland-park/

 

The film-makers: http://www.thegnomistfilm.com/

Media coverage: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/13/living/gnomist-film-kansas-utah/