Category Archives: Bardic Contests

Bard of Hawkwood 2016

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The winner of the Bard of Hawkwood contest 2016, Anthony Hentschel, sits on the Bardic Chair. Behind stand fellow contestants & judges (from left to right): Katie Lloyd-Nunn, Anthony Nanson, Chantelle Smith, Dominic James, Steve Wheeler, Richard Maisey.

Founded by Kevan Manwaring in 2014, the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is part of a modern bardic tradition stretching across Britain and beyond. The Bardic Chair belongs to its community, the winner is its steward, and the gorsedd (i.e. the bardic circle which supports it) its guardians. It is a celebration of local distinctiveness, and a platform for creative expression. 

The 2nd Bard of Hawkwood contest took place on May Day bank holiday Monday at Hawkwood College’s lovely annual Open Day. The dark clouds gathered but didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. However, we wisely chose to hold the contest inside, as opposed to the front lawn where it has been held (and in 2014, announced) in previous years. This was a smart move as we had a full house in the Sitting Room as everyone piled in out of the rain! The judges this year were outgoing bard, Dominic James, folksinger Chantelle Smith, and our ‘chairman’ Richard Maisey (who kindly lent his original Eisteddfod chair from 1882 for the contest, kickstarting the whole thing off). They each took a turn, showing they know their stuff – with Chantelle getting everyone to singalong – then the contestants were introduced and took turns to perform, according to lots. I conjured up some awen with an excerpt from my poem ‘Dragondance’, then the bardic gloves were off. First up was storyteller, Anthony Nanson (author of Gloucestershire Folk Tales and co-author of Gloucestershire Ghost Tales with Kirsty Hartsiotis), who performed a gripping tale from New Caledonia with great gusto, voices, and gestures. The expressions of the younger members of the audience were priceless! Next up was creative powerhouse Katie Lloyd-Nunn, who shared a lovely song with a heartfelt introduction and accompanying statement. Katie was followed with dignity by Peter Adams, well-known local homeopath, activist and poet, who shared his wise owl poem complete with night-sounds! The penultimate performer was wordsmith Steve Wheeler, with a very engaging and amusing story about his childhood home and that yearning is shared through the generations. Finally, we had Ruskin Mill’s own Anthony Hentschel, who performed a barnstormer poem on the theme (The Way Home). From toddlers to senior citizens, the audience were mesmerized throughout. The judges left to deliberate and I MCed some impromptu floor spots. We had an impressive green man praise song from our resident jack-of-the-woods, Paul; a punchy poem from Jehanne Mehta; a bold contribution from Gill; and I shared my ‘Robin Hood’ poem, Heartwood. Then the judges summed up, praising each of the contestants in turn, before announcing the winner with a drum roll from me: Anthony Hentschel, who had impressed them all with his tour-de-force. The awen had been clearly with him, and the choice seemed to be popular.

Bardic Chair of Hawkwood 1882The new bard was robed, and holding the silver branch of office, sat in the Bardic Chair while everyone blessed him with three awens – and so we ended on a note of harmony. Anthony Hentschel offered a Shakespearean sonnet as his winning piece, and the spirit of The Bard was very much with us (along with the shade of Blake). Anthony will now serve as the Bard of Hawkwood for a year and a day, honouring his bardic statement, and choosing the theme for next year, when the contest will be once more held at Hawkwood’s Open Day. Anyone who lives in the Five Valleys around Stroud can enter an original poem, song or story on the theme. Details will be announced by October 31st. The Hawkwood College website will post information. An anthology will be produced of the contest. All contestants and judges from this contest and previous years are invited to be part of an ongoing bardic circle. Anybody else who wishes to be involved are asked to get in touch.

Finally, the winner of the Bard of Hawkwood 2016, Anthony Hentschel, gave the following statement:

I believe, as John Cowper Powys put it, that “Man should be capable of believing Everything and Nothing.” Thus the rational insights of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens and the mystical insights of Rumi or Llewelyn Powys are to be equally applauded. The title Bard of Hawkwood will hopefully furnish me with the confidence to carry the living Word of Poetry into local schools, prisons and Retirement Homes. If anyone out there would like to invite me, and perhaps some of my friends, to such institutions, please get in touch via my email: anthonyhentschel@hotmail.com.

Awen for All

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Founder & Grand Bard of Hawkwood, Kevan Manwaring 2nd May 2016

http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/

The Bardic Handbook: complete manual for the 21st Century bard 

by Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image, 2006

http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html

 

The Heart of Poetry

0009_009Poetry by Heart is a national recitation competition for 14-18 year olds, held across Britain in early Spring each year. It was started by Sir Andrew Motion, former poet laureate and now involves 100s of schools and students around the country. School heats produce winners and runners up who go onto to compete for the county finals. Then the winners of the county round go onto the regional and national finals held in the hallowed halls of Homerton College, Cambridge, in March. The event is recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 4, and the footage of previous years is available to view on the Poetry by Heart website. The contestants have to commit two poems to memory to perform on the day: one from pre-1914 and one post, or from the First World War. The fecund competition anthology has a wide selection from Beowulf to 21st Century poets, reflecting the diversity of voices within the British Isles and beyond. To hear these young voices reciting such material is inspiring.0001_001

On Wednesday 10th February I co-ordinated and MCed the Gloucestershire Finals at Hawkwood College. The result of a lot of organizing, the day itself ran smoothly, thanks to a team of professionals which I selected: the 3 judges (Jay Ramsay; Gabriel Bradford Millar; and Dominic James, the current Bard of Hawkwood); the accuracy judge and prompt, Anthony Nanson; sound tech support from Chantelle Smith; photography from Fred Chance; and guest poetry from Adam Horovitz; and not forgetting the warm-hearted support of Katie Lloyd-Nunn and her team at Hawkwood. It was a prime example of creative collaboration.

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I love providing platforms for people to shine in – and that’s precisely what this afternoon was. We were all there to support the young bards and provide the most conducive space possible for them to perform in. Adam Horovitz gave them some top tips to help them use the mike and the space to the best of their ability. To step up to the mike and perform from memory two poems in front of a crowd of people takes a lot of guts – something I couldn’t have done as a young schoolkid (without serious coaching). But it is enormously empowering – it builds confidence and self-esteem, and such public speaking skills will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life, as will a poem or two up your sleeve: life wisdom at the drop of a hat. I can vouch for this having won the Bard of Bath competition back in 1998 with a feat of memory and creativity (my epic poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath). That was for me, a defining moment, and one that launched my creative career. Perhaps for some of the young contestants of Poetry by Heart, their participation will be the start of a life-time association with the spoken word – it will certainly be a significant experience that will stay with them. Poetry becomes not just something to study, and then forget, after school, but a life-long companion.

Learning a poem by heart embodies its rhythms and wisdom – internalizing it in a way that no intellectualizing could by itself. It becomes a visceral experience that can set your heart pacing. In the same way that performing an exciting myth, legend or folk tale can be a thrilling experience, so too with poetry. You are living the words. The electric current of the initial inspiration is restored to the text and you get a frisson of what inspired the writer in the first place. The poem is resuscitated with meaning, coming alive off the page. It is a phoenix-like act as a poem decades, or even centuries old, becomes a living, breathing thing again – having resonance and vitality to modern ears and minds. The young poet learns the power of the conscious utterance – the magical power of language. They learn to listen, to speak wise and beautiful words, and they learn the power of memory. To make the effort to learn a poem, reciting it again and again until it becomes fixed within the long-term cortex (downloaded to our internal hard-drive, as it were) is to be given the keys to the palace of memory. That vast temple reveals itself and a lifetime of discovery awaits. Away from the ubiquitous devices that dominate modern life we rediscover the breath-taking potential of the human mind.

And surely this is something that all teachers and schools should be supporting – with the funding from government to make it viable. The training of memory is a significant by-product, but more than this it is to return heart and soul to education.

Poetry is good for the soul’s growth. It ennobles us and deepens our humanity. 0012_012

 

Initiatives such as Poetry by Heart enable all to tap into and experience the living Bardic Tradition. To discover more about the Bardic Tradition, check out:

Tea with the Bard: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/tea-with-the-bard

Day of the Bard: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/day-of-the-bard

Bard of Hawkwood Contest: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/bard-of-hawkwood-competition

The Bardic Handbook by Kevan Manwaring (Gothic Image, 2006): http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html

Copyright Kevan Manwaring 14 February 2016

Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” - Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” – Is there Peace?

As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War there is a hyper-abundance of media-attention and a plethora of TV dramas, documentaries, plays, albums, shows, and so forth, flogging a dead war horse… One could be forgiven for a certain fatigue – and we’ve got four more years of it to go! Yet there are some stories that break open the heart.

An especially resonant one for me is that of Hedd Wyn.

hedd-wynn

‘Hedd Wyn’ was the bardic name of Ellis Humphreys Evans, a Welsh farmer-poet, who won the 1917 Bardic Chair of Birkenhead posthumously (a prize given in an Eisteddfod, the original ‘Game of Thrones’ if you will). Having had some success in previous eisteddfodau (but not the National Welsh one – the most prestigious) Ellis enlisted, having resisted the Call Up for three years. He was not opposed to War, he said, but didn’t relish the thought of killing a man. Because his parents had four sons of age, it was decided by the War Office that one of them must be sent to the Front. Although Ellis, the eldest, did not want to go, he couldn’t bear his younger brother going in his stead. Ellis felt it his duty, as big brother, to step up. Tragically, he was slain in action, but not before he had submitted a long poem to the National Eisteddfod. Fortunately the censors let it pass (though it was initially suspected of being written in code and revealing sensitive information – in fact it was a cri-de-coeur against the inhumanity of all war). The adjudicators decided that it was the best poem, and awarded the Chair – a beautiful carved ‘throne’, to the poet known only under his pseudonym, ‘Hedd Wyn’. He was killed in action before he was able to claim his Chair, but it was awarded post-humously in his honour and became known as the Black Chair.

In 1992 a moving film was released of his story – Hedd Wyn — and it went on to be Oscar-nominated for the Best Foreign-language Drama (it is in Welsh, with English subtitles), as well as winning a BAFTA for Best Picture, and a string of other awards.

Hedd Wyn film poster

Last night, a special Remembrance Sunday screening was held at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood was present – an original Eisteddfod Chair from the 1882 contest in Denbighshire. This has been in the family of Richard Maisey for decades, and he has kindly lent it to Hawkwood for the contest, which is to be held at the Open Day, May Day Bank Holiday Monday 2015. The theme is ‘Flood’ and any original poem, song or story by a GL5 or GL6 resident is eligible. Richard said a few words about the Chair, and I introduced the film. Afterwards we had a discussion about some of the issues raised by the heart-rending drama. Considering the countless voices that were silenced by the vast tragedy of the Great War – all those who didn’t make it back from the Trenches, or were injured beyond repair mentally or physically – it was felt that our opportunity to express ourselves creatively is a ‘sacred gift’ that shouldn’t be squandered. Many good men and women have died so we can have that freedom. Peace always comes at a price – and this time of Remembrance is a poignant moment to reflect upon that. To pray for peace. Watching Hedd Wyn I once again felt how could we possibly have let this happen again? Such an exercise in futility as the ‘War to End All Wars’ was, the obscenity of war should not be allowed by civilized people to ever happen again – and yet it has, again and again. By telling these true stories I hope we can make people say No! to all acts of aggression, to the Arms Trade, and the whole industry of aggrandizing War and those who fight in it. Violence is never the solution. There is always another way.

And if we forsake our creativity in the face of conflict then we have forsaken our humanity.

y-gadair-ddu

Observe the 2 minutes’ silence at the anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November, 11am GMT, and remember all victims of war. Make a donation to the Peace Pledge Union to support the ongoing campaign for peace.

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life –
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…

Life as a Cabaret

Life as a Cabaret

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd

I never got into thesp-dom, but perhaps it’s not too late to start! Within the last seven days I’ve experience theatre from both ends – as performer and punter – and I love it.

Over the last few weeks me and my bardic chums in Fire Springs (Anthony Nanson; Kirsty Hartsiotis; David Metcalfe) have been busy preparing for a commission we got for the Bath Lit Fest 2012 – a show called ‘Forgotten Voices, Inspiring Lives’, about historical personages from Bath’s glorious heritage. It was premiered at the Holburne Museum last Sunday – straight after the Bath Half Marathon, which had taken over Great Pulteney Street (not exactly helping access to our venue). You’d have to be a bit of an athlete to get to it – jumping the various hurdles and weaving through the madding hordes. With David as our bardic anchor-man – providing a through line in the voice of Bladed, Bath’s legendary founding father – Anthony, Kirsch and myself portrayed historical characters we had picked from Victorian times to the Dark Ages. I opted for Walter Savage Lander – an eccentric and cantankerous poet renowned for his strong opinions; and John Riggs-Miller, husband of Lady Miller, famed for her vase and poetical contest in Bathetic (a kind of Georgian eisteddfod). It was great fun dressing up and getting paid for it – although it was a lot of work and quite scary. The show was more challenging than our usual comfort zone of traditional storytelling. Unlike our usual extempore low-phi style, this was semi-scripted, and in costume – we ‘channelled’ the personalities, adopting their voices and manner. My gruff voice for Lander was enhanced by a sore throat! The show seemed to go down well with the audience we had – could have had a few more there, as ever, but considering it was a glorious sunny afternoon and everyone and their dog was slogging the streets of Bath, we did well. I hope we get to do the show again – perhaps at a small theatre in the city, or as part of some cultural event…?

Getting us in the mood and showing how far we have to come as actors, was an impressive one-man show Anthony and I went to see on Friday night with a couple of fellow storytellers, La and Mark, at the Rondo Theatre in Lark hall (where we made our professional debt as Fire Springs over a decade ago with our first show, Arthur’s Dream). Phoenix Rising – about the early life of DH Lawrence – was performed with complete authority and commitment by the astoundingly talented Paul Slack. His was a committed and intense tour-de-force – embodying not only the older Lawrence, but also his younger self, his mother and father, his first muse and flings. It was astonishing to see – it was as though Lawrence was in the room with us, and considering we were in the front row – up close and personal at that. It was such an embodied performance – and was not only a feat of memory, but also energy. Yet he kept the small but attentive audience gripped until the end. This wasn’t just our good will – but because he was magnetic, exuding Lawrence charisma, his atavistic lean. Both down-to-earth and visionary – cutting through the crap with his unpretentious Northernness, while at the same time pushing the envelope of the times – Lawrence was a flawed prophet who reached beyond his age. We chatted to Paul afterwards and he was very approachable and generous in his respect for the storytelling craft. He had performed the show about sixty times – right across the world – and was looking forward to a change now. Having spent a lot of time with Lawrence, one can perhaps understand his need to move on. DH might have been one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but he was probably difficult company.

This week I visited London – ostensibly to see another one-man show – although the highlight was actually catching up with a dear old friend from Northampton, Rob Goodman – an actor. He’s been living in London for a number of years now and has been in several films, TV shows and ads, as well as treading the boards as both actor and director. A true thesp, he’s also very down-to-earth (comes with being Northampton born and bred…) and amusing. We had a lot of catching up to do – twenty years worth … but it felt like the ‘old days’, back at 13 East Park Parade – where a weird convergence of artists, occultists, actors and ‘perfumed ponces’ gathered in the early Nineties. It was pure Withnail and I – with myself cast as Marwood. I won’t say who Withnail was!

Watching the play called The Attic – about the Scottish poet Alan Jackson, going out of, or rather into his mind, when he decides to spend a year staying in an attic room in the heart of Edingburgh – reminded me a bit about those intense times back then! It was an uncompromising self-examination and shamanic ‘vision-quest’ into the dark night of the soul. The belly of the whale and back. Very demanding on the audience, and the actor, Andrew Floyd – a fellow Stroudie – who gave the role natural gravitas. The performance took place in the tiny, quirky Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead – home of much legendary bohemian luvviness over the years. You had to get to the auditorium through the box office, like a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole. The stage took up half the space, so it felt like we were in the attic with this ‘poet on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. There was nowhere to hide – and Alan/Andrew explored every nook and cranny, every wart and flaw of his psyche. ‘I am going to go and stand in my own fire’, wrote Jackson, and so he did. The dispatches from the fiery abyss are dense, coded, with flashes of lucid luminescence and righteous ire. At times I wondered if this would work better on the page, than the stage – and it risked becoming a terribly self-important and self-indulgent anthology show of Jackson’s life and works. And yet you have to admire the old goat – standing on his isolated mountain precipice, looking down on the world with scorn and wonder. The fact that he survived, and was able to articulate his experience is an achievement in itself. Poetry redeemeth the man – as art can so often redeem life. It transforms the raw materials we are given into something if not always wonderful, then certainly memorable – we have existed and we have left our mark. Our daubings in grease-paint and ink occasional touch another life – and we pass on the fire.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

20-21 June

Bard and Stone, Avebury, Summer Solstice 2010

The summer solstice is one of those deadlines of the year – it is for me anyway. Everything seems to build up to it and there’s a millions things to get done before it, as though … time will stop after. Of course, it will carry on just as before but, like the millennium or 2012, significant dates – lines in the egg-timer sands – turn normally sensible people into headless chickens, and the ‘doom’ that we expect becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (our mounting panic causing accidents, hysteria, conflict, suicide, down-sizing to a remote Scottish islands, etc). On a microcosmic scale, summer is the ‘silly season’, when lazy journalists, recovering from long liquid lunches, dig deep into the odd box. But it’s not hard to find stuff – druids at Stonehenge being a favourite ‘isn’t life a bit weird sometimes/don’t worry about the economy’ piece. Images of ragged revellers at the World Heritage Site – usually with some wally raving on a trilithon – marks the turning the of wheel as iconically as a groundhog in the States or bluebells over here.

I have attended the Stonehenge celebration at the summer solstice (when they first re-opened it to the public after 10 years exclusion) but found it complete chaos and as far from sacred as you can imagine – with many people off their heads and so much conflicting energy/attitudes it defeated the point. It seemed to me the ‘mob’ where desecrating that which had drawn them to a jumble of stones on Salisbury Plain very early on a June morning – a sacred site at a sacred time. Any attempt at ceremony became a circus show spectacle – tolerated in the libertarian atmosphere, or laughed at. Priests were mocked. Anarchy ruled. It might as well have been a dodgy football crowd: ‘Innggerrrlunnddd’. Couples got handfasted in the hurly burly. Others snogged, skinned up, threw up, danced naked, chanted, shouted or blew horns. A feral lad tossed somebody’s ashes into the crowd and they blew into our faces. A group of Maoris looked on aghast – was this how we treated the dead? I felt ashamed for my country. Stonehenge is amazing – and at other times of the year (winter solstice can be more civilised and atmospheric) or via private access, you can feel the awe and majesty of the place – and connect with something sacred. But unless you love the mob experience, avoid summer solstice.

But what of my own revelries?

After an intense couple of weeks meeting all my (mainly marking) deadlines I was looking forward to a couple of days of downing tools and just enjoying the sun – and he certainly had his hat on for us, which makes the world of difference. Nature smiled – filling everything with a benign quality.

Solstice Picnic on Solsbury Hill

I went to a picnic on Solsbury Hil, organised by my friends Peter Please and Kirsten Bolwig. Rocked up there on the Triumph and found them to one side, underneath a rocky ledge. There ended up being about twenty of us – a splendid picnic with splendid people. Poems and songs were shared. We ‘broke bread’ together and relaxed in the sun.

Alas, we had to shoot off – I had a previous commitment to run the Independent Creatives Forum at the Gaynor Flynn’s Being Human weekend, Frome. The venue – a warehouse tucked away in the obscure outskirts of the town was difficult to find. A couple of small easy-to-miss arrows pointed in vague directions. Finally found it – after a few dead ends – and it felt like a lazy Sunday afternoon chill-out with a small group of friends (in publicity it looked like it was going to be some amazing ground-breaking happening, not a house-party). My forum was meant to take place in a yurt – which had been taken over by children. I managed to claim the space and set up; the event was announced and … I had one person come in. I can’t blame folk for wanting to sit in the sun and drink beer (I wouldn’t have minded doing that myself). Sunday 2-5pm is the wrong time to have an intellectual forum. Nevertheless, we had a nice chat about creativity (there were four of us in the end). One woman who had come all the way from East Grinstead for the event said she was so glad I had come along – all weekend she had been hearing discussions about technology and I was the first speaker to talk about people, about … being human. If you connect with one person, or make one person’s day – sowed the seed of something, an idea, a thought, inspired in some way – then it’s all been worthwhile. It was nice to bump into my fellow Bard of Bath, Helen Moore and her partner, Niall from London. There’s a healthy creative scene in Frome and Gaynor’s outfit is one aspect of it – showing that provincial life doesn’t have to be parochial. Later Banco de Gaia played and a little backstreet of a sleepy Wiltshire town became plugged into the global groove.

My solstice Bard-B-Q starts

Returned at speed to finish setting up for my annual solstice Bard-B-Q, with the help of my friends Sally and Ola. It was a lovely gathering, blessed by a perfect summer’s evening, with friends sharing poems, songs and stories.

Saravian - wild, free and beautiful - entertains us at my Bard-B-Q

I got my mead-horn out – as I am wont to do as such occasions – and we offered heart-felt toasts as it was passed around. This jump-started an excellent discussion on the BP oil disaster, and I found myself having successfully facilitated a creative forum after all, albeit in my own home. So many lovely talented friends turned out – old and new. Particularly resonant was the appearance of a Dutchwoman called Eva, whom I met on Glastonbury Tor exactly 19 years ago – on solstice eve, 1991. We had been in the tower, dancing along to the drums, trying to keep warm. I had lent her my waistcoat. Later we caught up in the campsite over a cuppa. A couple of years ago we bumped into each other at a Druid Camp – and then I met her at the OBOD bash a week ago. And now, here she was, on my doorstep!

Solstice friends - me and Eva, 19 years on

It was special to connect with her again after so long. When you celebrate such times, the ghosts of all the other solstices jostle side-by-side. This was my fortieth, but only the twentieth I had consciously celebrated. Not many, and each one stands out – especially the people you celebrate them with. I thought of ‘absent friends’ and I raised a meadhorn in their honour. It was special night – one of my best gatherings.

Afterwards, a guest Verona, said: ‘You have the gift of getting people together and to make their  talents shine!’

After a lazy breakfast – getting up at sunrise would’ve been a bridge too far – I have learnt to be gentle with myself lately (the solstice doesn’t have to be a triathlon, although it can feel like that, racing from event to event) – I headed over to Avebury for midday with my friend Sally on the back. It was a lovely run in the sun and we got there just in time to catch the noon ceremonies (solstice was 12:28).

Revellers worshipping a stone egg at Avebury, Summer Solstice 2010

gong show - Avebury summer solstice

A wonderfully raggle-taggle mixture of sun worshippers hung out between the stones – the atmosphere was relaxed. No doubt the all-night/or early morning revelries had worn out most. Avebury is big enough to accommodate for everyone’s ‘thing’ – the energy is far more feminine and less antagonistic than Stonehenge, which I feel have been tainted over the years by all the conflict that has focused around them: stones of contention. One group was having a dual gong shower. Another, sat in worship around a giant stone egg. Druids in full regalia chanted hand in hand. People meditated, picnicked, slept – it was hard to tell. Everyone was in a kind of placid state, like a load of … cows in a field, contentedly chewing cud. Stoned bovines. If anyone was on grass, they were keeping it discreet as the token bobby strolled around. There was no crowd control trouble here – many had come from Stonehenge that dawn, but something about Avebury chills people out. We did a ceremonial ambulation – with frequents stops in the scorching heat – before culminating in the ritual pint at the Red Lion, where the party continued on the benches outside. We sat in the leafy shade of the ‘fertile triangle’ nearby and ate our sandwiches. Bumped into an old bardic friend, Jim, who updated me on all the ins and outs of the druid scene.

Bards of Avebury and Bath - Jim and Kevan, Summer Solstice

He’d played 4 gigs that morning (!) and was involved in getting the ancestral sculpture to Stonehenge. He was excited about the media coverage they had gained – Jim is sincere and committed about his cause, but druids can be complete media tarts, preening and pontificating in front of the cameras. Certainly, it can be used as a platform to discuss real issues, but often the media treat such people like a novelty news item (‘And finally…’) Jim’s band, Druidicca, feature in a new movie partly filmed at Avebury called The Stone. He talked at length about his big scheme to bring all druids together. Good luck to him. We stopped off at Silbury Hill to hail the ‘Mighty Mother’, then hit the road back home.

Visiting Silbury Hill

Rounding off the solstice revelries nicely was the Bath Storytelling Circle, which happened to be on at the Raven that night. I went along and contributed a story and a poem, and enjoyed the ambience, helped by a couple of ales.

Satisfied, I returned home. Finally I was able to be still – which after all is what the solstice signifies. The sun puts its feet up for three days and has a well-earned rest!

Bards on a bike - me and pal Sally about to set off when an English Heritage volunteer took our snap

Bardic Yuletide

Yuletide Gathering at the Cauldron, Dec '09

Yuletide Gathering

19th December

Although I am not a Christian (but not un- or anti-) and Christmas means little to me in terms of its specific religious symbolism I can appreciate the wider mythic meta-tropes at work in narratives about the return of the light in the depths of winter – be it in the form of an avatar, sun king, solar deity, or simply the sun itself – and I enjoy Yuletide with all its festive trimmings. I love the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe, the tree, the candles, the wassailing, the rosy-cheeks of the carol singers, the shining eyes of the children and most of all – the gathering around the hearth and connecting with loved ones. Beyond all the consumerism and emotional blackmail (the Scrooge story hauled out every year to make curmudgeonly humbugs buckle) this is ultimately what the season is all about, as encoded in the message that is often forgotten in the stressful run-up to the big day: Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Mankind. A message often drowned out in the endless partying, the booze-ups and bust-ups, the relentless television and shopping frenzy. Yet I decided to try and ‘do my bit’ and acquit myself socially by opening my doors to friends last night for my Yuletide Gathering.

I spent the day preparing the house – cleaning, decorating (with holly and ivy I had gathered outside), making food, sorting out music and so forth. It was quite relaxing – especially the cooking: nothing elaborate, just a vegetable winter stew, mulled wine and mince pies. Once the fairy lights were up and I had hung the mistletoe and lit the candles and some frankincense and myrrh, I felt I had created a lovely Christmassy ambience. All I needed now were some guests … I guess I shouldn’t have expected anyone to turn up on time, but when it was 7.30pm and still no one had arrived I was starting to feel a little anxious … the nasty goblin in my head telling me ‘you don’t have any friends, nobody likes you!’ – then I heard footsteps and they all started to arrive. Suddenly the party was happening!

I served up goblets of mulled wine as folk arrived – wrapped up on a chilly night (it did try to snow earlier; and the country is beset with wintry conditions – flurries of flakes on the tracks!) and offered them some stew. Folk brought offerings and soon the kitchen surfaces were overflowing. After the majority of the guests had arrived and made themselves comfortable I asked for some peace to start a session of sharing – beginning with a poem about stillness, to tie in with the time of year. I talked briefly about how the solstice means stillness: the atmosphere changed, became ‘sacred’ – just through the simple act of going round in a circle and sharing. People offered poems, songs, anecdotes. There was a poem in Icelandic by my friend Svanur and a song in Korean by Jin (a government-censored protest song about ‘dew’). I ended the first session by getting everyone to read out a verse of Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, The Twelve Days of Christmas, from the Radio Times – very topical and amusing in places. It allowed those who didn’t have a chance to join in.

Later, I asked people to sit round once more to share the meadhorn – an ‘old tradition’ of mine, which actually has precedents dating back to the Dark Ages. It’s mentioned in Beowulf and in the 13th Century a custom was observed that involved toasting ‘Wassail!’ and replying ‘drink hail!’ before passing on the wassail bowl/meadhorn – with a kiss. Everyone joined in this with gusto – the first time, folk were a little embarrassed and came out with relatively trivial toasts, a little glib or silly. The second time it got a little bit more authentic, and the third time, folk were being far more genuine. It worked its simple magic. A powerful but effective way to create sacred space.

And then the partying started in earnest – whether it was the mead, or the tension release, but suddenly, dramatically the atmosphere changed to something far more merrier than before. Songs were sung and everyone joined in – corny Christmas carols, but good fun. There was some Icelandic blues (!) from Svanur and other ‘campfire classics’ like the Pete Seeger song, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ It turned out to be truly great night. There was the perfect amount of people there, and a good mix. Everyone seemed to get on and didn’t seem to want to leave…

The best sign of a good night is the atmosphere of the room afterwards. There was a lovely warm glow. Good vibes. Everyone was said goodbye with hugs and kisses. There wasn’t too much to clear up – the worst was tidied away, the washing up left til morning. It was late. Went to bed in good spirits and awoke with fond memories. – and a head not too fuzzy, considering. A good fry-up and a walk in the winter sun and I was feeling on top of the world.

Changing of the Bards

20th December

Jack Dean, the 14th Bard of Bath

On Sunday night I went along to the annual contest for the Bardic Chair, this year held at ‘Back to Mine’, a nightclub – another first! Each bard gets to stamp their identity on it. Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath, being our youngest to date (until tonight!) has appealed to a younger demographic with his hiphop style and topical lyrics. Tonight he pulled out all the stops to create an entertaining night blending poetry, music and dance.

The dancefloor ‘well’ was transformed into a grove with Christmas trees from the farm of one of Duncan’s contacts. Birdsong was piped through the PA, creating an effect very similar to my Garden of Awen, started two months before… Ah, well – a sign of flattery I suppose. The first half consisted of a cabaret of various acts: a powerful singer-guitarist; a rapper; a flamenco guitarist; and a rather raunchy dance troupe called Nice-as-Pie.

swansong - Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath. Final performance as Bard

After the break, MC Duncan performed a couple of his poems as his final performance as Bard of Bath, before the contestants were called up. A coin was tossed and called. ‘Tails never fails’, said Jack Dean, and sure enough it was, though Duncan thought it was ‘heads’! Perhaps he had a suspicion that it would have been easier on Dave Selby, the other act, because Jack’s blistering tour-de-force was a hard act to follow. Not wanting in ambition, he interpreted the theme, ‘The Last B—-‘, in a Biblical sense, telling us he was going to do a version of the Bible! Although this wasn’t strictly the case, he did cover the history of the universe up until 2012, ending in a kind of armageddon – the finale being an ‘8 Mile’ rap battle between Jesus and Jack! Funny and technically impressive, as he performed over his backing track in perfect time.

The other contestant, Dave Selby, had a tough job following that, but soldiered on like a trooper. Although hampered by a Withnailian weakness, he entertained the crowd with a grim fairy tale delivered in a louche Dave Allen style. Quite distinctive! He made people laugh, and it help make it a contest – and should be applauded for his contribution.

Throughout the performances, Richard Carder, chief druid, held his hands over his ears, sitting next to the other two judges, like one of the three wise monkeys (hear no evil). The effect was unintentionally hilarious.

While the judges deliberated the dancers came on – like a pared down Pan’s People – doing very well in such a small space!

Then finally the judges returned and Master Duncan announced the winner – milking it for dramatic effect, X-Factor style – no surprise to hear it was Jack! He was called up, stumbling over a stool (life is full of unintentionally comic moments, don’t you find?) Duncan handed over the robes and Jack performed a poem, receiving a warm round of applause. He was clearly a popular choice.

Then the Bards of Bath present were called up – which I wasn’t keen to do, being ‘off duty’ and because the ceremony is so naff. We stood in a circle, held hands and Richard half-heartedly took us through the Druid Vow (x2) and an awen (x1). It seemed ludicrous in that setting, but has become ‘tradition’. Lords know what the crowd there thought of it all! The day after we perform a proper inauguration ceremony at the Circus – noon on the solstice: this is the time for ritual, not a night-club. It was a very poor attempt to create sacred space, and I suggested to Richard the next day that we skip this element.

Miranda, who embroidered the Bardic robes and Chair backing, said to me it had lost its spirit – no mention of the solstice, or what it all means. A fair point. Tim, its much-missed founder, had a knack of relating to widely different audiences. Richard, who took over as Chief Druid, should have gone up at the start and introduced things, put it into context, but he was late arriving. I wonder how many people who came along that night realised what it was all about…? In hindsight I could have done some leaflets to place on the tables – a little background about the Bardic Chair, or had my Book of the Bardic Chair on sale… (if I hadn’t been stupidly busy over the last few days). Still, it was a ‘successful’ night – a good atmosphere, some great performances, and a promising new bard. Whether we like it or not, the Bardic Chair has a life of its own now – and looks like it will continue, in one form or another – with new blood revitalising it every year. And since the next generation are our future, garnering their interest is essential for the Bardic Tradition’s vitality and longevity.

If Dr Who can have a young actor fill the role (Matt Smith hailing from my old home town, Northampton) then perhaps we can too! As with the super-annuated Timelord, the subsequent inheritor’s of the title, have become increasingly younger (like Merlin, or Benjamin Button, living in reverse). Our annual ‘changing of the bards’ has become as much a part of the modern Yuletide celebrations (in Bath) as RTD’s rebooted Who has on Christmas Day telly – but of course, our entertainment is live, grassroots and community-focused. Long may it continue.

As I left it started to snow.

***

Jack Dean, the new bard, and Master Duncan, outgoing bard

The following day – the ‘official’ solstice – a small group of us gathered in the Circus in the centre of Bath to hold our traditional winter solstice ceremony and inauguration of the new bard. It was freezing and icy underfoot as I made my way (carefully) to the Circus, through the crowds of Christmas shoppers. I got there at noon to find Richard the druid and the two bards, outgoing and new. That was it. We were joined by Thommie Gillow, the 12th Bard, her wee bab and a couple of her friends from Cardiff. So, our small and merry band set to work. Richard led the ceremony of ‘Alban Arthuan’, as modern druids like to call it, and kept it mercifully brief. We used scripts, which isn’t my preference, but they helped since most of the participants had little experience in such things, but they all joined in in good spirits. We called the quarters: I had to call the east, my usual (Richard didn’t even ask, knowing that’s my preference – although on such a chilly day, calling the fire in the south would have been a better option!). We recited the Gorsedd Prayer and did an awen. Jack was welcomed to the Gorsedd and asked to perform a poem. Master Duncan also shared one. Halfway through the ceremony, Thommie suddenly dashed off, as though filled too full of awen – a traffic warden had spotted her car! She caught him just in time, but had to move it. All the while, her little toddler never made a sound but just stood there, with enormous gloves on, looking astonished (the default look of toddlers). Richard brought the ceremony to a brisk end … I suggested three cheers for the new bard (although in the cold, it came out as ‘three chairs’!). I took a couple of photographs for the press release and archives and then we separated, leaving only Richard and I to decamp to the Chequers for some much-needed refuelling… It’s been a Bard Day’s Night!

Sulyen Caradon, Druid of Caer Badon

***

And the bardism does not end there – tonight is the tenth anniversary of the Bath Storytelling Circle, which should be a special evening. I am going to be one of the three hosts, as one of the organisers of the circle (along with Anthony, its founder, and David, its current ‘chair’). There should be a feast of fine storytelling, poetry and song … what better way to spend the longest night of the year?

The oral tradition is very much alive in Bath … but don’t tell anyone I told you so ;0)