I'm an author, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing teacher and storyteller. I teach for the Arts University Bournemouth. My research is into Fantasy, folklore and creative writing. Come on in, say hi, the kettle is on.
There is a light in the darkness of the world that gleams – and the true of heart, the doughtiest of pilgrims, will finds its flame in the gloom. They know, in their ‘deep heart’s core’, as WB Yeats put it, that it exists – and that the maddening world is changed by its existence. Even the darkness is redeemed. The fallen Earth is transfigured. Even if only one frail light flickers somewhere there is hope. It cannot be put out as long as one person believes. The King of the Wood patiently awaits in His grove of peace, where the world of the noise fades. There, the first bold bird breaks the silence of the long night. Its vigil is over as it heralds the coming day. Even though it cannot be fully seen yet, the first bird knows the true light of the risen sun is on its way, and it starts to sing. The promise of the nimbus is enough.
Arriving to stillness. The patter of tiny raindrops on the slender tent; the baaing of sheep; the wind through the birches; and a distant murmur of life beyond the moor – yet here I feel the delicious solitude. I have arrived at my first destination: the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor – a small stone circle, surrounded by at least seventy cairns – within a birch grove (nearby is the village of Birchover). It feels good to be on my way – and wild-camping at last (much better than a campsite, which I nearly went to, fatigued from my journey and floundering – yet I persevered; found the Cork Stone entrance and parked up). I made myself some food before striking out across the Moor in the twilight – eager to find the stones and pitch my tent before it got…
Bardfest ’22 was as an evening of creativity in celebration of community across borders. Initially due to be held at the Bridport Arts Centre, but due to the management changing their mind at the last minute (concerns about the Bridport Carnival turned out to be ill-founded), it eventually found a home at the Women’s Institute Hall on North Street. Despite this unfortunate disruption after months of planning, the evening went ahead and flowed smoothly thanks to the good will of all involved and all who came.
After the signage, soundchecks, seating, and altar setting up (in front of the stage by Susan Paramour, who performed later with her band) Bardfest was ready to go. The evening kicked off with the local Wyld Morris, who raised the spirits and blessed the hall with their lovely music, singing and dancing. After a short intermission for folk to mingle and check out the book stall, the main part of the programme got under way.
The organiser and MC, 3rd Bard of Bath and Bridport newbie Kevan Manwaring, introduced the evening with a short meditation on ‘home’ and an original poem written in the early Spring shortly after moving to the town (just as the war in Ukraine was starting in earnest): ‘The Blackbird’s Shadow is Brightness.’ Next, Estelle Phillips was welcomed to the stage who performed a couple of poems from her debut collection published by Jawbone, including ‘Reaper’, which has been translated into Ukrainian. You can watch the powerful video here. This was followed by Estelle’s publisher, Peter Roe – a poet in his own right. His poem about the Cold War was especially resonant. Continuing the run of local talent, we next had Ged Duncan, Rob Casey, Tom Rogers who entertained us with their brilliant monologues (Arthur Thwartle; Wayland the Puppet) and poems. We finished off the first half with a fantastic tale of the Crow King from the Ukraine, by Martin Maudsley. What wordsmiths of West Dorset!
After the break we had talent from further afield – starting with Stroud-based storyteller, Anthony Nanson who regaled us with another Ukrainian tale – that of ‘The Baal Shem Tov and the Flaming Tree’. Next, Tick Rowley, 22nd Bard of Bath, performed her lovely poems; followed by a great story from Kirsty Hartsiotis (also of Stroud and Fire Springs along with Anthony, her husband). Then we returned briefly to Bridport for a muscular performance from poet Dylan Ross. We finished off the evening with two musical acts: Car Dia – a pagan ‘supergroup’ from Glastonbury, Avebury, Salisbury, and the edges who enchanted us with their mighty magical songs; and then Dr Space Toad -all the way from the 7th (or possibly 77th) Dimension, whose Spanish guitar and soulful songs eased us back down to earth.
The evening raised over £200 for the UN Refugee Agency, and was a heartwarming affirmation of creative, inclusive community.
The spoken word & music scene is thriving in the West Country.
friends to the rooks redstarts and hawk-moth friends to the phantoms caught between stations
‘Ash’, extract from Orlam by PJ Harvey
This is the 2nd collection by twice-Mercury Prize winner musician PJ Harvey, and it astonishes, disturbs, provokes, and exhilarates as much as her impressive back-catalogue. Drawing upon her own Dorset childhood, ‘especially its landscape and folklore’, this verse-novel set over a year tells the story of the 9-year old Ira-Abel Rawles and her dark miseducation amid a cast of sinister and comical grotesques, not least her own family and her monstrous father. Seeking solace in the local Gore Woods, she develops a strange relationship with a Christ-like ghost soldier called Twyman-Elvis. The work is steeped in local folklore and is written in the Dorset dialect, which offers a pungent word-hoard, e.g. ‘button-crawler’ (wood-louse); ‘chattermag’ (magpie); ‘chawly-whist’ (ashamed); ‘dungy’ (downcast, dull); ‘farterous’ (father-like); and ‘red bread’ (vagina) to give but a few examples. By adopting this approach Harvey picks up the baton left by Dorset’s unofficial laureate, the 19th Century polymath Willam Barnes, and carries it into the modern era. The ecolect is enervated by its juxtaposition to the grubby remnants of contemporaneity: abandoned cars, condoms, ‘a car battery/ a jerry-can/the electric fence’. This is poetry of the Anthropocene by way of Radiohead’s ‘green plastic watering can.’
Yet here the fossil record is the protagonist’s own embodied memory box, unearthed and picked through. It is as though Harvey herself is showing us the mulch of her imaginarium. Although she emphasises this is a ’work of the imagination’ it is hard not to see the development of her darkly distinctive style as a songwriter, singer and musician in these (possibly) analogous experiences. How much autoethnographical material the poet draws upon, only she and her closest friends and family could say – but there is a sense of a coded confessional here.
Yet such a reading risks intentional fallacy; and the calendrical sequence can be savoured for its own literary merits. It is a heady, often disturbing brew – a deep dive into the psychogeography of Dorset, which shows how the hills and dells shaped the lives of those who live among them. Avoiding nostalgia and the pastoral, Harvey seems at pains to deconstruct any hoary notion of a rural idyll: there is abuse, bestiality, violence, madness, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll – Harvey’s own musical chops now doubt informing the latter. Pop culture references intermingle with the folkloric, the Biblical, and the literary. Everything is entangled, as though one has come a-cropper down a Dorset Holloway.
And yet the poems themselves are disciplined, without an ounce of fat upon them. Pared back, at times brutally so, the reader is left to interpret the negative space of what isn’t said. Harvey obfuscates and occludes, but this makes their magic more potent: many have the lexical energy of spells and charms (as do some of her songs), and at times they are reminiscent of the loricas and incantations of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gaedelica.
Yet here in the West Country is something as numinous and destabilising of consensus reality as anything from the rarefied fastness of the Highlands: a secret commonwealth of sooneres (ghosts), bedraggled angels (wet sheep) and veäries (fairies). The supernatural element is pervasive. All is watched over the titular ‘Orlam’ – the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, Mallory-Sonny. Miscarriages, premature births, afterbirths, the still-born, and ‘ash-wraiths’ of lost children haunt the woods of Ira-Abel’s world. Along with the more-than-human, this crowded ecology evokes an animistic paradigm informed by an indigeneity perhaps stretching back, like Laurie Lee’s Slad, to the end of the Ice Age.
Certain there is a strong sense of vertiginous deep place; and yet also something atemporal and beyond the material, as in Dylan Thomas’ dream-town of Llareggub. And the way Harvey ranges between lives and voices evokes Under Milk Wood. At times Orlam‘s heteroglossia feels like a spirit-radio. Out of the crackle and hiss of white noise, the ‘noiseless noise’, emerge the lost voices of the marginalized. And this echoes the liminal status of its viewpoint character who straddles the perilous terrain between girlhood and womanhood – and at its heart Orlam is a bildungsroman about her coming-of-age. Which codes and signals should she heed, and which should she ignore? The whispers in the static – the voices of the dead, the earth – often come through the loudest; whileas the living cast become shadowy presences whose baleful influences, like a Hardyesque heroine, she struggles to escape.
The uncompromising use of dialect (counter-balanced by the translations by Don Paterson, Harvey’s poetry mentor) creates a similar effect to Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker; or the dark speech of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. And yet this remarkable tour-de-force is 100% PJ Harvey – it shows the sui generis workings of an arrestingly original voice. It is a sequence worth delving back into again and again to find riches – echoing the biodiversity one can find in a quiet Dorset backlane where beauty and ugliness, death and the maiden, and the sacred and profane can rub shoulders on any day of the year.
Kevan Manwaring, 13 May 2022
Orlam is published by Picador
Know you every tree-tear in these woods, every place of good and not-good,
‘tween sleep and wake and bellyache, each path unhealed and stumpied.
‘A Noiseless Noise’, extract from Orlam by PJ Harvey
April Doyle’s debut novel imagines a near future Britain ravaged by the impact of Colony Collapse Disorder, and its knock-on effect on the pollination of crops. With the devastating decline of bee populations – a keystone species in the ecosystem – the consequences on food production are catastrophic. Doyle’s Britain is not that dissimilar to the one we already live in – with food banks in more demand than ever, and parents having to make hard choices about how to feed their children – but taken to the extreme. With the rationing system and the constant background gnawing hunger of the characters it feels reminiscent of WW2 and the lean Post-War Years. Folk are forced to rely on their ingenuity, or willingness to transgress the narrow line between civilisation and barbarity. All of this could have been rather grim – Children of Men, Survivors, The Road … we’ve seen it all before: the cliché of dystopia; the tropes that have been done to death. But here, Doyle does something refreshingly different. Although the shadows are clearly present in this starving Britain (and sometimes devastatingly centre-stage) the author on the whole chooses to focus on her small cast – a farmer and his wife and their two young daughters, an old friend, a scientist and her assistant, a boyfriend and an ex-lover. Although they all endure hardship (or worse) their struggles have a life-affirming quality to them. Due to the nature of the scenario Doyle posits, food takes on an almost sacramental quality, as does the ‘miracle of nature’ itself – the wonder of bees, the cycle of life. The entomological aspects are well-researched and are intrinsic to the plot. Use of ‘found’ paratext from scientific journals, documentaries, and so forth deftly weave in exposition between the chapters, providing an interesting shift of register and scale. These could have come across as just a way for Doyle to show her research in an unleavened form (rather than working it into the fiction) but it becomes apparent the orthography of these infodumps have narrative relevance. The novel gains new energy with the addition of nanodrone technology (courtesy of an old flame), developed as replacement pollinators, and this conflation of nature and science is fascinating to read. In the hands of another author (e.g., Michael Crichton) this would have been a tech-thriller, but although this element catalyses things Doyle pulls back from punchy, full-throttle prose. Indeed, it is least convincing when she is forced to describe violence (although the death of one of the main characters is very moving). The chapters sometimes feel too brief, and the final reveal lacks foreshadowing (it is set up, but then strangely forgotten by the characters). Nevertheless, it is a well-told tale, one that was an engaging, enjoyable read. With ‘soft force’ it nudges the reader to think about food and where it comes from. By focusing on a single aspect of the ecosystem – bees – Doyle’s book has greater resonance and authority than those that adopt a wider approach. It is a welcome addition to the growing canon of ecofiction.
Every year we celebrate our birthday, as we should, but every year we also pass through another equally significant date: our Death Date.
Of course, there is no telling when the Grim Reaper may come for us – it could be tomorrow or in ten/twenty/thirty years’ time – unless you happen to be William Shakespeare, who was born and died on the same day, 23rd April, which also happens to be, perfectly, St George’s Day, and thus the Swan of Avon even rhymed even in death (although actually the dates are approximate too, and could be within a 2-3 days window as records were far from reliable back then). Unless you have a terminal diagnosis, or an extremely hazardous lifestyle or profession, your DD hopefully won’t be for quite some time yet … although going by recent geopolitics and the terminal diagnosis for our one and only biosphere and all life as we know it spelled out by the IPCC reports it could be a lot sooner for all of us.
Even with all of that in mind, I am not feeling morbid or doomist. I have just moved house and I am enjoying starting my new life in my new hometown, feeling hopeful while aware of all of it (the paradox of this, especially in the Springtime, I’ve articulated elsewhere). I suspect what has prompted these speculations have been a couple of things: my late parents’ anniversary, who both died suddenly and traumatically; and a dear friend diagnosed with cancer who is deciding whether to undertake chemotherapy or to enjoy what quality of life he has left until it claims him. So, these factors have prompted me to engage with ‘death consciousness’, as it has been called. Now, I am aware that certain religious traditions (e.g., Buddhism) and initiatives (e.g., Death Cafes) fully engage with this too, but this is my approach:
Decide on a Death Date – this could be picked at random using an online random date generator, or extrapolated on by one’s physical health, presence of diseases within one’s family, average age of deceased relatives, etc.
Create a countdown clock – again these can be found online; download an app to your phone.
Plan your life accordingly – what quality of life do you wish to enjoy? If you wish to stay healthy and fit, then think about your diet, exercise, and habits. What are the most important things in your life? Family? Work? Hobbies? Friends? Travel? If you wish to write that masterpiece or go on that dream trip – start planning it now. As well as these mid to long term ‘goals’, think about your daily routine…
Consider your core values. What is the fundamental most important thing in your universe: Spirit? Family? Creativity? Place that at the core of what you do and plan your life around that. Perhaps it is a Venn diagram of 2 or 3 things – that’s okay, but you’ll need to be clever at planning and prioritising. Ensure each gets the energy they deserve.
Plan your perfect day, and use that as the template as to how to live your life – but be prepared to modify that according to circumstances, your wellbeing, etc. You will have to consider others or changing circumstances. Don’t be set in stone. The key principle here is to be fully conscious, to live with intentionality and mindfulness, not to become a creature of petrified habits. Be spontaneous. Seize the day whenever it takes your fancy. If it looks like it’s going to be a gorgeous sunny day, go for a walk with a friend, suggest a picnic, or head to the beach.
Live each day fully, savouring every moment, knowing that will be the last time you will experience that unique day on this Earth at this precise stage of your life. Tomorrow, you will be a day older and a day closer to your death date… will that late night binge or lie-in be worth it? Can you afford to waste another sunrise or sunset?
Count the days off, but be fully present. Cut whatever is extraneous – knowing that any time and energy you are investing in it, you will never get back. Learn to say ‘no’ to that which does not serve your god/s – your core values. And to say ‘yes’ to that which nourishes, enriches, challenges, and develops you.
Put your affairs in order, as they say: set a will, a letter of wishes, and funeral plans and leave them somewhere your people can find it. Don’t leave a mess for folk to sort out. Think about getting on the donor register and making charitable bequests.
Keep a reflective journal, diary, or blog about the process. Document it if you wish.
Talk to others willing to embrace the concept, and gently broach to those who aren’t. Start sensitive, honest, non-judgemental conversations around death. What do people believe? Ask them to share their perspectives about life after death, and life before death. What really matters right now knowing you only have a finite number of days left on Planet Earth, beyond which you will cease to exist (at least, that is what I believe, and I am okay with that)? Of course, nobody really knows what happens to us when we die, despite what many have claimed. We won’t know until it’s ‘too late’, so act now according to the inevitably existential reality of your death. Make friends with it. It awaits, so don’t be a stranger when you finally meet.
Every year celebrate your Death Date – your own personal Día de los Muertos. Put on the skull makeup, decorate your house with skeletons, and party!
If you decide to engage with this concept, let me know. It’ll be good to start that conversation. Whatever you choose, I wish you a fulfilling life and a beautiful death.
This year certainly has been one of peaks and troughs. Which year isn’t, I hear you say! But 2021 has been ‘peakier’ and ‘troughier’ than most for me, with some amazing highs and some real lows. Of course, we live in especially challenging times – the debacle of Brexit overwhelmed by the omnishambles of the UK government’s response to Covid-19 and its variants, and in the background the vaster wave (like the iconic Japanese woodblock print, The Great Wave) of the Climate Crisis: the real tsunami threatening human ‘civilisation’, such as it is. I argue that this creates an underlying mental health crisis across the country, even before the vicissitudes of life exacerbate things — a Zabriskie Point everything must struggle upwards from. But, I am here to celebrate a rich year! So, if you would allow me to put that triple-headed apocalypse aside for a moment, I shall sum up the highs (and lows) of my last twelve months.
The most exciting development of 2021 (for me) has been securing tenure as a permanent Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth (AUB). I started there in April, and have enjoyed getting to know the staff, students, campus, and surrounding area – including morning runs along the promenade, and swimming in the summer. A hub of the creative industries, it is a colourful place to work. Originally coming from a Fine Arts background it feels like a good fit. For Earth Day (April 22nd) I organised a 2-day symposium on creative writing and the environment, with guest speakers, workshops, a book launch (my British Library anthology, Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes), and an ‘Earth Bards’ showcase for the students.
At the end of the academic year I headed to Cumbria to work on an eco-SF audio drama with my new lovely friend Chloé Germaine, a writer and academic based at Manchester Metropolitan University. We had an inspiring, and industrious week – writing 6×30 minute episodes, which Alternative Stories and Fake Realities are due to produce in the new year. I also enjoyed getting back into roleplaying games with her, husband Jon and friends – something I hadn’t done for decades. Things have moved on a lot since I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulu, and Traveller with my schoolmates. There is an explosion in indie game design, with some brilliant reimaginings of classic genres and tropes. It is a fascinating form of collaborative storytelling, which is often ‘ecological’ in its design as well as content (I also organised some more traditional storytelling concerts with friends at The Henge shop, Avebury, to celebrate the turning seasons).
I have long been concerned about the environment (organising my first fundraiser concert – for Greenpeace –in 1991), and I have been running creative writing and the environment events since 2003, but in the last few years my writing and research has increasingly focused on this area, and in 2021 I pitched a proposal to Palgrave, and authored a chapter for a forthcoming book on bioethics from Routledge (Coastal Environments in Popular Culture), and an article on Coleridge’s ecological vision for the English Review. Since starting at AUB my research activity and profile has increased dramatically. Being supported in my research with a designated ‘research day’ in my timetable, and being now eligible for funding as a member of staff means I’ve been able to apply for various grants. I’ve won a RKE Fellowship to undertake field research next summer on environmental aspects of Fantasy (and to deliver a paper at the ‘Once and Future Worlds’ conference in Glasgow in July), and I have been made a finalist in the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers 2022 scheme! This is particularly exciting, as if I make the final selection I will be able to make my very own programme for BBC Radio 3, as well as appear on various panel discussions.
In terms of my own creative writing I haven’t stinted either, penning a new novel about the city of Bath in the 1990s (when I used to live there) and the 1750s (slightly before my time!). This was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2021, and garnered keen agent interest.
Over the summer I walked the 136 mile Wessex Ridgeway from my current home on the Marlborough Down to Lyme Regis (having a peak experience on Pilsdon Pen) and I have been returning to the Jurassic Coast a lot since. In the autumn I was the module leader for a unit on place-writing, and took the students on various lovely field trips in the area. And in the new year I am moving to within a couple of miles of that stunning heritage coastline. So, big changes!
As lockdown eased over the summer and the nation got jabbed up it was so lovely to celebrate my birthday in August with a small group of friends at Manton. Over my birthday weekend I hosted the annual Bardfest online, with a great line-up of contributors performing to raise money for Water Aid.
Back on campus in September I organised two new monthly events – Outside the Box transdisciplinary research seminar series, (where I invite two guest speakers to discuss their research) and L’arte Laureates: an open mic I set up for our creative writing students, which has taken on a life of its own, being now co-hosted by the Writing Society. It’s been lovely seeing the students strut their stuff while socialising off-campus. The more real world stuff like this we can off the better in my books.
Despite this busyness I jealously guard my downtime to ensure quality of life – making sure I have time to savour the simple pleasures: ‘fodder, flax, fire, and frigg’, as the Norse put it! I have made the most of living up on the Marlborough Downs – going for frequent runs, rides, and rambles and getting to know the local wildlife well (it was lovely to see the brown hare in the Spring, and the red kites are a constant in the big, open skies). The green space has been a lifesaver during lockdown, and after a busy week, and I have enjoyed getting into a bit of en plein air daubing on the downs.
But most of all, I’ve especially enjoyed quality time with friends – going on walks, or spending an evening with them for a good, old heart-to-heart: these are my true family – kindred spirits who ‘see’ me, and value my company. They are very dear to me, so it has been upsetting to discover two of my dearest friends have cancer – both are fighting it valiantly, but it is a sharp reminder to appreciate people while they are around.
I decided to enjoy a late summer trip to Cornwall, where I stayed at a vicarage with German friends, and got to experience the amazing St Just Ordinalia – a religious cycle that is only performed every 20 years. Afterwards, I camped on the Lizard peninsula, and developed lighthouse awareness.
I have loved being able to see films at the cinema again. The blockbusters I saw left me cold, unfortunately, but Nomadland (rereleased after its Oscar triumph), and The Green Knight were amazing – the latter was definitely my film of the year. Read my review of it here. Other cultural highlights including visiting exhibitions such a Downland Man (Eric Ravilious) at the Wiltshire Museum, The Museum of Mystery and Imagination at Bridport Arts Centre, and Unseen Landscapes at St Barbe’s, Lymington. It’s also been good to hear live music again, although I’ve only managed to catch a couple of bands. I didn’t fancy going to any festivals, but it was nice seeing folks enjoying themselves out and about again.
Yet the year was not without its challenges. Viruses are very much in the air, but with my good immune system, constitution, and level of fitness (e.g. I ran the Bournemouth Half Marathon) I normally shrug them off, but in March I went down with a really nasty infection, which absolutely floored me for a week. This however resulted in a most profound experience, which I related in The Star Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed getting back into cycling, but in May I had a nasty tumble on my mountain bike while riding on the tracks near my home on the Marlborough Downs. After heavy rains the tracks were flooded in parts and very muddle and I ended up face down in the gravel when the bike suddenly went from under me. Fortunately I was wearing goggles and helmet, but I still had to be rushed to A&E by my partner covered in mud and blood. The abrasions and gouges on my face, hands, and knees took quite a while to heal and really shook my confidence. I liked the return to face-to-face teaching, but not in this instance! As Mike Scott and The Waterboys sing, ‘Everybody Takes A Tumble’, but the trick is to get back up, and, in this case, get back on two wheels. I joined the Cyclescheme at work, and purchased a really good gravel bike (hybrid road/mountain bike), which I have been using mainly for commuting to campus from my temporary accommodation in Bournemouth during the week, but over the summer I ‘broke it in’ undertaking a 4 day 225 mile off-road trail, the King Alfred’s Way. I loved cycling the Ridgeway and the South Downs, and the highlight was wild-camping on Butser Hill. You can read an account of my trip here. I am certainly looking forward to more cycle-camping trips, although have my reservations about ‘bike-packing’ (the trendy name for it, with attendant overpriced gear)! Panniers, and a good map are all you need.
The end the year with a complete change of scene (much needed after 2 years of lockdown and limited travel) I am finally travelling to Iceland to spend time with my Icelandic friend, wife, and family, and my German friend who is joining us. I am looking forward to (hopefully) seeing the northern lights and that epic landscape of ice and fire.
I am glad to say I am carbon negative after planting over 200 trees with Tree App – and I heartily recommend it to all (see below). It has been satisfying planting a tree in various conservation projects around the world every day, and I am looking forward to putting down roots on the Jurassic Coast.
Wherever and however you celebrate (or not) – noisily, peacefully, alone, or with family and friends – have a great new year and I hope to see you along the road!
Recovering from a serious infection, the accompanying enforced detox and fast resulted in a life-transforming visionary experience with profound implications…
I had been off sick for a week with an unexpected illness. For the first couple of days I didn’t know what it was, and prompted by my fluctuating temperature, I booked a Covid test, which fortunately came back negative. I finally got a diagnosis and some antibiotics, but these turned out to make matters for worse – triggering nausea and nocturnal vomiting. In my weakened state I had to trek into town to get the right meds, but from Saturday my infection started to clear up. I was able to go for a triumphant walk down to the Devil’s Den – our local prehistoric monument all of twenty minutes away, although it felt like a twenty mile hike in my debilitated condition. I was unable to eat anything solid. Sunday I was beginning to feel a lot better, although I was weak from a lack of food and the exhausting night’s I’d been having (Saturday night I purged the last of the previous prescription out of my system). I felt bruised and battered, and relieved to be no longer feeling nauseous. But I felt I needed to lie down. So I lay on the bed, with the lights off, staring at the ceiling. A particular cluster of Artex seemed to contain a matrix of ancient letters, which threatened to coalesce if I focused too long on them – like an alphabet version of the scene from The Queen’s Gambit … sentences in arcane tongues, rather than chess moves, rearranging themselves above me.
And then it happened.
It felt like all the lights went on in my head. I was looking at it from the inside, and could see every neuron and synapse, like some kind of encephalogram scan. The ‘brain scan’ pulsated like coral in the endless darkness. I likened it (at the time) to a ‘glass cathedral’ – but it was no longer possible if I was looking at my mind or a map of the universe. Ultimately the distinction seemed to dissolve into irrelevance. Spellbound, I gazed upon nebula … the birth and death of stars, the auric fields of gas giants, white dwarves and supernova: everyone a world, a civilisation, a consciousness. I felt like I could see into the heart of the universe, into the heart of the Great Creator – and it did strike me that this pervading intelligence was sentient, benign, and compassionate. It cradled its creation with care – a master craftsperson admiring their handiwork. I felt myself rising through my skull towards this cosmic centre – it felt like the most natural thing in the world to simply float ‘upwards’ towards it; but then a voice or sound disturbed me (my partner’s, I think) and I descended once more.
But still I felt bathed by this revelation – electrified by it. I had an incredible clarity, and felt I could turn my consciousness to anything and perceive its inner ‘cathedral’, and if a blockage of any kind occurred, I would want to fix it, to allow the flow to continue – like a cosmic plumber, or perhaps, more profoundly, a physician. Every being had this unique cluster of energies – a grid of life. It is only natural to want to allow it to flow.
But then, in the next phase I had a somewhat disturbing, but equally as fascinating experience: as soon as I ‘broke through’ to this higher level, as though a space rocket breaking through the stratosphere and other layers of Earth’s atmosphere, I was descended upon my a host of powerful presences, who appeared to me as grotesque faces, gurning at me from the abyss. They seemed curious, but worse, territorial, almost colonizing – if I had let them I felt they would have flooded my consciousness, and taken me over. I had not slept properly all week – I was exhausted, and just wanted to rest – and so I imagined a sphere of hard light, and expanded it infinitely, pushing these presences away. I had to do this two or three times before they finally got the message, and left me in peace. Another time I might have been curious to ask them questions: Who or what are they? What do they want? Yet, I was just relieved I could control, to a certain extent, this giddying revelatory experience. I had experienced enough in that time – how long had passed, who can say? Half an hour? Two or four? I felt an incredible crystalline clarity, combined with a deep compassion for everything.
After this I slept profoundly. There was so much to write down, to record, but I also needed to rest.
The next day I woke up ostensibly ‘better’ and able to have breakfast at last – but then I experienced a nosebleed (I used to have them lots as a child). It didn’t last long, but really had an effect on my energy. It felt like the plug had been pulled out of me. I experienced a plummeting blood pressure. My partner had gone off and I was left by myself. Whenever I tried to do something the nosebleed threatened to come back. By midday I was forced back to bed. I can’t remember when I saw the email – something about a job application – but it triggered a galloping panic attack, which was not something I had experienced before and was really horrible. I felt like I went from heaven (on Sunday) to hell (on Monday). I really struggled and seemed to go through an existential crisis. It felt like I was being tested or ‘judged’ in some way by vast forces, and so … I surrendered to the Great Creator. Ultimately I was a leaf on the wind, and not really the captain of my destiny.
As soon as I did so, I felt ‘held’ by a giant star-bear type energy (this is the only way I can describe it, but of course even at the time I knew it nothing so relatable: it was beyond analogy, beyond comprehension even), who embraced me to their warm bosom. I gave myself over to this vaster power. I was nothing. So frail. So easily extinguished. I made vows of pilgrimage, oaths of loyalty to a truthful life. I devised a simply blessing – the quartered cross – to protect myself in this dark night of the soul. Later, after I had tried to relate this to my partner, to my dismay she fled upstairs and shut herself in her room! She had tirelessly looked after me all week, but this was too much. I had glimpsed the half moon and realised that ‘full truth’ was something to work at, and not something one should inflict on another without their consent. I realised I had to be mindful about who I shared my revelations with, and how. I had to be a little circumspect, when my very instinct craved complete clarity and openness. I stared at the whorls in my wooden desk, and realised that in any given situation there are rings of complexity – one could go microcosmic, or macrocosmic. But the other party needs to be willing to participate in this level of scrutiny. I felt a little like Ray Milland, in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. I could see how one could go mad with such consciousness ‘switched on’ all of the time. Having rocketed from heaven to hell within twenty-four hours I felt I needed to find a healthier, more sustainable balance. And this began with eating good, nourishing food. The first food I really tasted after unexpected ‘fast’ were olives – and they tasted like the food of the gods. I felt all the toxins and cravings had been blasted out of me – I no longer desired coffee, alcohol, stodgy food (anything that would dampen my consciousness). I want to remain fully ‘awake’. I have had glimpses of this kind of perception before (a long time ago, and fleetingly, on mountain summits, etc) but this feels like the most tangible vision yet. It felt like a bona fide revelation about the true nature of the cosmos. I feel blessed by it, and chastened by what followed: don’t climb too high, too soon, otherwise you risk crashing back to Earth.
For days afterwards I was haunted by this vision – and I sought out sympathetic, ‘spiritual’ friends to discuss it with. At the time it felt like an intensely visceral, and real confirmation of a transcendental reality. There is no doubt in my mind that what I perceived was the ‘real reality’ – one I had long intuited. The challenge was to live every day as if this was so – while not coming across like some ‘born again’ idiot, keen to evangelise to all and sundry. Whatever I experienced was not something that could be pigeon-holed easily within one religion. It was beyond such narrow divisions. It was felt like a direct encounter with the divine consciousness at the heart of the cosmos – beyond the intercession of priesthoods, liturgies, ceremonies, and rites. Such a transcendental experience has transformed the way I perceive things, and made me reconsider my priorities while in this body, on this Earth, living this life. One of the initial lingering effects was an ego-less compassion for all. The clamouring for status, wealth, materiality, etc, we fill our days with felt so silly. We are here to help each other; and to help every soul find its way home. To return to the stars – not in a literal sense, but by connecting to the cosmic mystery inside all of us: by thinking ‘beyond’ while simultaneously being grounded, fully alive in the moment, in one’s body. Like the whorls of the wood-grain – it is a spiral both outwards and inwards. There is no end or beginning, and after such a revelation the challenge is to continue living in an everyday way. The key is to embody this awareness, while not feeling oneself special. To fully live in the moment. Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
There is endless wisdom to digest and reflect upon here – perhaps a lifetime’s worth – but the key lessons I take away from this are ones that were encoded into me in an intensely visceral, embodied way (a ‘system reset’ as my friend put it that I shall never forget): we are an infinitesimal but significant filament of cosmic consciousness and the more fully we are truly awake in the world, the better we serve this higher purpose; and to surrender to the grace of this humbling realisation — that despite all of our hubristic self-determination we are never fully in control – and you will be held.
‘…he finds himself in the infinite room that lies inside the axis of our wheeling space. Space, like the world, cannot but move. And like the world, there is an axis. And the axis of our worldly space, when you enter, is a vastness where even the trees come and go, and the soul is at home in its own dream, noble and unquestioned.’ DH Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent
To date I have written 13 novels over the course of my writing life. It is interesting to look back and consider this harvest of the imagination – what connects them, if anything? Certainly a strong strain of the Fantastic – most are explicitly within the Fantasy or Science Fiction category, with just a couple of anomalies: my first novel, which could be categorised as Weird or Timeslip; and my latest, which is my most ‘mimetic’ to date – being set entirely in this world, with no element of the Fantastic (except perhaps through the combination of extraordinary characters in an extraordinary place – albeit both within the purview of the possible). From the very first a strong sense of place has been a key element of my fiction. I am also inspired by myths, legends, folk tales, and folk songs, so what I call ‘mythic resonance’ permeates all my work (indeed, I called my Fantasy novels ‘Mythic Reality’). Nature has always been more than a backdrop in my writing – an ecoliteracy informs them all. And increasingly, there is a keen sense of the Climate Emergency – this has manifested most tangibly in Black Box and Thunder Road. Finally, I think I am drawn to hybrid, marginalised voices – characters caught between worlds in different ways. These are the voices that interest me the most.
So far, only 8 have been published (one as an interactive novel), although my SF novel, Black Box, has manifested as an audio drama via Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. Hopefully, the others will see the light of day at some point. Otherwise, to keep writing them without guarantee of publication is a kind of madness – I call it my Obsessive Narrative Disorder. I just can’t stop writing. I have so many ideas, and novels just pounce on me and don’t let me go until I’ve written them. With my current novel, The Bath Circulating Library Society, I have set up what I hope to be a long-running series – I have several plot ideas already sketched out, enough probably to keep me busy until the end of my days. Let’s hope I get a publisher for them soon!
The Ghost Tree (1994 – unpublished)
The Long Woman (2004, Awen) – Arts Council Award winner
“It might have been the lighthouse spark / Some sailor, rowing in the dark, / Had importuned to see!” – Emily Dickinson
Kevan Manwaring discusses how a late summer camping trip to Cornwall inspired a profound shift into what he calls ‘lighthouse awareness’.
It was the end of the summer and I was determined to grab a last blast of sun before knuckling down to the new term, and so I headed to Cornwall – the wild, wave-besieged peninsula in the southwest of England. I wanted to blow the cobwebs away with some bracing coastal walks, camping in remote spots, and some wild swimming. I didn’t expect to have an ‘epiphany’, which has if not made me change my life, certainly made me change my priorities — the ‘myth’ I live by if you will (I took some Joseph Campbell with me), my modus operandi.
Gazing out across the glittering sea from a rocky headland it is hard not to think big thoughts — any coastline is the perfect place for some ‘blue sky thinking’, because the land falls away and the sea- and skyscape dominates. Also, there is a quality of light by the sea — a heightened effulgence caused by the sun’s beams reflecting off the water. It often feels like something is trying to break through: an immanence that is simultaneously beyond words, but also wishes to be expressed through you (maybe this is something writers feel in particular: artists might wish to paint it, dancers dance it, composers compose it, and so on). One can see why throughout the millennia mystics and visionaries have sought out such places. They are thin places where one feels closer to something transcendental. It is though something vast, ageless, and more-than-human is trying to communicate to us through a sunset, a ‘glisk’ of light (when a shaft of sunlight breaks through a cloud), the silent poetry of a soaring seabird, or the endless susurration of the waves and wind.
And so it is not surprising I started to have some ‘big’ thoughts after a couple of days of peaceful walking and swimming, when I tried not to think about anything in particular at all – but just ‘be’ fully present, in my body, in the moment: sun on my skin, wind in my hair, sand between my toes. Surrendering to it all. Letting myself be held by the swell of the waves, rising and falling like a giant’s chest.
As I walked along the cliff-top path one day around the Lizard Peninsula — where stunning lighthouses and lifeboat stations added dramatic points of interest on my walk — an idea came to me.
Forgive me if it sounds crazy, or blindingly obvious.
The sea is Spirit – it surrounds and affects everything. The land is Matter, which ‘matters’ while we’re alive (I believe we have bodies on this beautiful, broken Earth for a reason: to savour every second of the amazing, unlikely miracle of it all). The two are in constant conversation — on Earth the two collide or collude in us. Neither should dominate. The sea shapes the land; the land shapes the sea – neither ‘wins’. In the dance is the wild beauty of being alive.
So far, so good.
But sometimes some souls never quite make landfall in this life – they are ‘lost’ at sea, floundering in a fog of confusion, the classic Cloud of Unknowing. Or worse, they are suffering in a tempest, threatened to be smashed to smithereens. And so we need lighthouses – people and organisations willing to help these souls reach dry land. This may be as simple as a friendly ear, a cuppa, a hug, an act of kindness. Just being there. Listening. Not offering solutions or judgements. These ‘lighthouse moments’ may happen quietly throughout the day – in the way we choose to respond to an email, a comment; the way we choose to notice when someone seems ‘down’, when you sense all is not well. When we choose being kind over being correct. Other over ego. The selfless instead of the selfish. It isn’t about being saints though, or martyrs – just being ‘there’, a solid (or yielding), reliable, non-judgemental presence. We can be ‘lighthouses’ by just being who we are, by being role models and walking our talk. By helping others to shine. By offering the advice when asked for. Pointing the way. Sharing opportunities. Sending the lift back down, and holding open doors so the way is easier for those who come after us.
Sometimes, in extremis, we have to make direct interventions too – so, to extend the coastal metaphor, there are times in life when we need to be ‘lifeboats’. As a writer I would like to think of my writing as (ideally) a kind of lifeboat, to guide those ‘at sea’ safely ashore. A single poem can do this. A story that suddenly gives us a perspective, or a myth to live by. Someone understands what we’re going through. We are no longer alone. A hand reaches out and grabs you from the water. You weren’t waving, but drowning. But now you are saved. Works of art can be ‘lifeboats’: it could be an album, a painting, a symphony, a sculpture, a stained glass window, an installation, a podcast … anything. Remember all of the times you have found solace in something – a favourite book, film, poem, or garden. Let us make lifeboats, and let us be lighthouses. One day we may need that light, or lifeline, to guide us to safety. And even if we don’t we would still have led a good life – a brief, bright pulse in the dark – before we return to the sea’s embrace.
Kevan Manwaring, 3rd October 2021
Of course, the amazing courageous volunteers of the RNLI are helping lives at sea in a very real way and deserve our praise and support. Donate here: https://rnli.org/