Category Archives: Books

Wetting the Baby’s Head

A Review of the BALLAD TALES launch showcase, Fri 9 June, Open House, Stroud

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What is the usual format and purpose of a book launch? The author talks a little bit about her latest work, they read a sample extract, maybe answer a few questions, then sits behind a desk to sign purchased copies and exchange a few niceties with the book-buying public and, perhaps if they’re enjoying some success, fans. So far, so banal. The culmination of a couple (or more) years of effort and the collaborative ‘ecosystem’ of writer/s, commissioning editor, copyeditor, designer, illustrator, indexer, etc, is worth celebrating (and valuing – as those who casually ask for freebies should bear in mind).  And yet the book launch should be about more than just merely ‘pushing ink’. Yes, it’s nice to start generating sales, but those who organize such an event with just that in mind are often disappointed. It’s more about wetting the baby’s head – blessing the new endeavour with good vibes – and giving all those involved a collective pat on the back. If this can be made enjoyable to the general public, then they get something out of it as well – otherwise it’s just a mutual ego massage. And the meaning is definitely not the massage! It is about conjuring up some of the ambience of the book, some of the spirit in which it was born – remember that initial flash of inspiration? The excitement as you scribbled down that idea? The adrenalin rush of getting the proposal accepted and seeing it start to come together?

What all that in mind I put together a launch showcase (one of many I’ve done over the years) for Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, published by The History Press. On Friday 9th June I gathered with a dozen of my fellow contributors in what used to be called the ‘British School’, Open House’s hall-for-hire, tucked away behind the arts cafe, Star Anise, the very sanctum sanctorum of Stroudiness. My partner and I, Chantelle Smith, started setting up and were soon joined by other willing hands. The secret of these events is to make it a team effort, to ask for volunteers and not to try and carry it all by yourself. One wants to be able to enjoy the evening after all, and it’s hard to do that if running from pillar to post, sweating buckets, and doing an impression of Roadrunner-meets-Inspector Gadget. Clipboarditis is best avoided. Do your bit and trust everyone else is doing theirs. Try to stop and chat to people, exchange a joke, perhaps have a drink or just simply take a few breaths  – relax and enjoy yourself and others will to.

So, the doors were open and folk started to drift in – in typical tardy Stroud style. Fortunately the room started to fill up, and around half an hour in I began the evening with my introduction. This included the usual housekeeping, which, for some reason, folk found amusing. In such situations I open my mouth and it’s like a trapdoor to my subconscious – all kinds of stuff comes out. I had a ‘plan’ of what I wanted to say (mainly the ‘thank yous’ and toast) but it’s good to be spontaneous and add a bit of levity to the proceedings. The serious stuff is in my written introduction to the anthology for those who want to read it (and maybe they’ll just skip to the stories). Anyway, my intro served to warm the crowd up, and then I went into full MC mode, introducing each of the respective acts as they took their turn.

The showcase got off to a powerful start with Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus performing their song ‘Corn King’ from their Heartbeat of the Earth album. Their latest (Belas Knapp, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder volume 2) is out 24 June, continuing their evocative exploration of ‘Gloucestershire horror folk’. I had invited Candia to write the foreword for the collection after listening to their Barrow Wake album last year. Next up we had Horsley-based storyteller, Fiona Eadie, performing an extract from her iconic version of ‘Tam Lin’. Travelling further north, we then had Chantelle Smith read some of ‘The Storm’s Heart’ followed by her version of ‘The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry’. Then fellow Fire Spring David Metcalfe performed ‘The Three Ravens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’ back-to-back, which was fascinating, as the latter seemed to be a satire of the former. Nimue Brown (of Hopeless, Maine fame) offered an impressive blend of story, song and exegesis on her ballad choice ‘Scarborough Fair’ and her prose retelling ‘Shirt for a Shroud’. And Kirsty Hartsiotis (Fire Spring spotting – gotta catch ‘em all) finished the first half with flair, with her spirited 20s retelling of ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’, ‘There ain’t no sweet man’. She dressed in Flapper style for the occasion.

After the break, Laura Kinnear continued on the style front, in vintage fashion, as she read out her retelling of ‘The Bristol Bridegroom/The Ship’s Carpenters Love to a Merchant’s Daughter’, ‘The Shop Girl and the Carpenter’, which is set wittily in homefront World War Two.  Then we had Karola Renard’s powerful reimagining of ‘Sovay’, ‘A Testament of Love’ (with the ballad sung magnificently by Chantelle); followed by her husband’s version of ‘Barbaran Allen’, ‘The Grand Gateway’ (with Mark on vocal duties for that).  The final story of the evening was from Anthony Nanson (Fire Spring #5!), who performed an oral version of his ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’, which felt incredibly resonant after that day’s general election results. Indeed each of the stories had impact, felt engaged with the world and the issues that face us (while avoiding any heavy-handed didacticism or proselytizing). As the evening drew to a close I performed a lively duet of ‘The Twa Magicians/The Coal Black Smith’ (one of the two ballads I adapted for the book) with Nimue – the audience spontaneously joining in the chorus. Then I invited Candia and Tony back on stage for one of their powerful pagan anthems to round things off. The evening had been a great success, and I got all the balladeers up on stage for a final photo opportunity – a lovely souvenir of a splendid gathering of talented folk.

One can usually tell if an evening has gone well by the atmosphere in the room afterwards – there was a lovely buzz as folk lingered to chat and make connections. I heard one person say that it was the best book launch they had been too. This confirmed to me that our creative, collective, bardic approach, paid off.

Let the awen flow and good things will result.

BALLAD TALES NEW COVER

The next Ballad Tales event (hosted by David Metcalfe) will be on Monday 19 June – Bath Storytelling Circle, upstairs at The Raven, Bath, from 8pm. All welcome.

http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Story

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Ballad Tales contributors perform at the Launch Showcase, Stroud, 9 June, 2017

The well-known African saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ can be applied — as an extended metaphor — to almost any creative project, for it is through the cross-fertilisation of ideas and grassroots collaboration (rather than neo-liberal competitiveness) that often the most sustainable art is born: art that is not the manifestation of a solitary artist/writer/musician ‘making it’ (picture a tall, spindly and ultimately unstable structure that so often collapses), but the flowering of an ecosystem, with healthy roots and branches that enrich and empower all who are involved. The whole forest benefits.

This is how I conceived ‘Ballad Tales’ — a book that is a showcase that is a community. Ostensibly, it is ‘an anthology of British Ballads retold’, published by The History Press and available from all good bookshops. But in truth it is so much more. Conceived in a flash whilst walking the West Highland Way back in the summer of 2015, the vision that came to me on my solo trek culminated in a book featuring 20 talented artists, writers, storytellers and musicians.  Many more could be involved in future iterations. We celebrated our mutual achievement with a fabulous launch showcase featuring a ‘bardic dozen’ of the contributors (see above) — Tony McKormack, who accompanied Candia, made it up to 13 and their fabulous songs began and ended the evening with a bang.

I believe it is important to celebrate creative labour, to wet the baby’s head, and this we did with a superb revue evening that was so much more than a mere book-signing (‘The best book launch I’ve been to’, said an audience member). The buzz of this — the warm response of a good audience — can help reciprocate a little of the effort involved — and the ‘feelgood factor’ it generates ripples out into the community, inspiring future projects and cultivating a sense of living in a place ennobled and enchanted by artistic activity.

Whether a book, a story (or collection of stories), an album, or an exhibition, art produced with the love of shared endeavour continues to be ‘raised up’ by its village — whether that is a physical community or community of intent — by those who view, buy, read, listen to, discuss, and contribute to its artosphere, for, truly, the story never ends with the last syllable or the song with the last note.

Read next: Nimue Brown’s account of the launch showcase on the Awen Publications blog: awenpublications.wordpress.com

Next Event: Bath Storytelling Circle Ballad Tales special, Monday 19 June, The Raven upstairs, Quiet St, Bath, 8pm, free.

Buy the book: http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

Ballad Tales final cover

A BALLAD is a poem or a song that tells a popular story and many traditional British ballads contain fascinating stories – tales of love and jealousy, murder and mystery, the supernatural and the historical. This anthology brings together nineteen original retellings in short story form, written by some of the country’s most accomplished storytellers, singers and wordsmiths. Here you will find tales of cross-dressing heroines, lusty pirates, vengeful fairy queens, mobsters and monsters, mermaids and starmen – stories that dance with the form and flavour of these narrative folk songs in daring and delightful ways. Richly illustrated, these enchanting tales will appeal to lovers of folk music, storytelling and rattling good yarns.

ISBN: 9780750970556

192pp, £9.99

Published by The History Press

 

 

The Illustrated Novelist

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Illustrations based upon Robert Kirk’s 17th Century notebooks by Kevan Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

 

I have long been an appreciator of illustrated text. Being a writer coming from a Fine Art background, this is perhaps not surprising, as I enjoying doing both – playing with words and images in my stories and drawings – revelling in the incredible freight and flexibility of letters and the infinite potential of the line, the mark.

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Motif for ‘Bethany’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

From Palaeolithic cave art onwards we have illustrated our lives, representing symbolically our fears and dreams, our gods and demons, or simply the miracle of our existence: the handprint that says I am here, I exist, I belong. We have used art to express what is significant to us. For a long time art was used to express the Divine, but also to make sacred narratives relatable: in exquisite illuminated manuscripts, in beautiful Books of Hours, in the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals, in the illustrations of canonical texts. Of course art was also used to convey power and status, in the iconography of heraldry, coats of arms, portraits of the wealthy and what they owned: landscapes were as much about who owned them as what they contained. The frame did not simply delineate the edge of the picture, it implied ownership, the border of privilege, the ha-ha divide between the haves and have-nots.

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Motif for ‘Molly’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

With the printing press came a new democracy that allowed, ultimately, art and text to be read, shared and owned by all sections of society.  The first illustrated books were still the luxuries of the elite, but as printing presses became more efficient and economical handbills, chapbooks and broadside ballads started to be disseminated from street-corners, often with crude, but thrilling illustrations recycled for different contexts – a new song, the latest scandal, a bloody execution. Penny Dreadfuls and illustrated newspapers fed the public’s appetite for text and image. The comic strip, commonly a syndicated three-panel trick, was born. It developed into the comic book and the so-called graphic novel, now glossy full-colour affairs – largely the flagships of lucrative franchises (with shining exceptions from the smaller presses and up-and-coming artists) – but when I started  reading them, they were black and white weeklies, printed on newsprint quality paper, costing a few pennies and often seen as ‘throw-away’. Fortunately I realised their worth and avidly collected them, building up my own personal library.

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FBI motif, K. Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

My obsession with comics lasted for a couple of decades, and for a while I had ambitions to become a writer or illustrator of them, but I developed a taste for more sophisticated texts, while not losing my enjoyment of illustration. My own idiosyncratic exploration of this form has led to personal favourites: the luminous ‘songs’ of William Blake; Aubrey Beardsley’s La More D’Arthur; Gustav Doré’s Paradise Lost, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Don Quixote; illustrated Fairy Tales, especially the work of Arthur Rackham; John Tenniel’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the magnificent editions produced by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press; and later, the Hogarth Press – John Stanton Ward’s Cider with Rosie. The simple charm of Antoine de St-Exupery’s The Little Prince; Mervyn Peake’s fabulously grotesque Gormenghast trilogy; Tolkien’s self-illustrated The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Then, as my tastes developed I fell in love with the watercolours of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (Paper Tiger); the nightmarish art of Dave McKean (who as well as providing the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, also collaborated with Iain Sinclair of tomes such as Slow Chocolate Autopsy); Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would not be the cult classic it is without the wild art of Ralph Steadman; Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls for me will always be the defined by the art of Jim Kay; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, by the intricate motifs which emulate those of Lyra’s golden compass, the Alethiometer. When I read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, it was Charles Vess’ illustrations which enchanted me as much as the story. It created a certain aesthetic, evocative of Victorian classics, as did Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, a homage to the adventure novels of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. Visual ‘furniture’ has been deployed in fiction since experiments in the novel form began – it is there in Laurence Sterne’s 1759 Tristram Shandy with its blacked out pages, in Daniel Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), and can be found in books as recent as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (which uses an app with visual representations of narrative pathways) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (both 2016). I knew I would always revel in these paratextual elements.

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Motif of ‘Clarence & Constance’, The Knowing 2017

And so it is small wonder that I decided to incorporate them into my PhD novel project, The Knowing – A Fantasy. This decision was influenced by not only my lifelong ‘guilty pleasure’ but by archival research. Upon examining the primary source material of Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister of Aberfoyle’, I discovered within his notebooks remarkable illustrations (see my blog on ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’). Kirk also owned an exquisitely illustrated Book of Hours. Discovering the fact that the young Kirk was prone to doodling not only ‘humanised’ him, it also revealed the workings of his subconscious – a gift to a novelist attempting to bring him alive. He became more than just a formidable minister of the Presbytery, he became flesh and blood. By copying his artwork, mark by mark, I felt as though I was slipping into his skin.

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Motif of ‘Margaret’, Robert Kirk’s 2nd wife, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

And so, inspired by this, and by creative decisions around how to best present a multi-linear narrative, I decided to create a series of motifs to represent the different ‘voices’ within the text. These will provide signposts for the reader, to help them navigate around it. In the e-book version, by clicking on the embedded motif you can be taken to the ‘side-text’ (if you wish); then, when you’re done, you can return to the main text by clicking on the plectrum (which represents my main character, the musician Janey McEttrick). On our computers and phones we are used to using similar icons in the form of apps and tiles on our desktop. An unobtrusive motif can adorn a block of text like an illuminated capital in a manuscript, and it is up to the reader whether to explore or not. This feels like a more elegant solution than footnotes (which threatened to overwhelm the otherwise marvellous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel), and I liked the idea of hypertext links being akin to faerie portals, taking the reader-traveller to a different reality. In the end I created about 20 motifs for The Knowing, enjoying the process of selecting a suitable motif to epitomize each key character. This chimed deeply with a central plot device I deploy (a series of heirlooms which allow my protagonist to connect vicariously to her ancestors). I also created a frontispiece and an ‘eye’ motif, based upon one of Kirk’s drawings. The latter also adorns the cover and sums up the insight and illumination of those with the ‘knowing’ of the title – Second Sight.

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Kirk’s eye of illumination, based upon an original in his 17th C. notebooks, by K. Manwaring 2017

So, with the book complete, I can add The Knowing to a list of my books I have illustrated: Spring Fall (1998); Green Fire (2004); The Bardic Handbook (2006); Oxfordshire Folk Tales (2012); Northamptonshire Folk Tales (2014) and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (2017), as well as a continuing series of literary walks for the Cotswold Life magazine. My love affair with text and image looks likely to continue as I continue to discover new and wonderful examples and practitioners, and I hope in the future to collaborate with other artists and writers.

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Detail from the grave of Robert Kirk, by K. Manwaring 2017

Kevan Manwaring Copyright ©2017

 

Walking with Thomas

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

                                                                                  The Sun Used to Shine, Edward Thomas

 

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Near Dymock, K. Manwaring, 2017

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, poet, who died at the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, after only two months in France, my friend Anthony Nanson (writer, editor and cousin of  the Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett) and I undertook a memorial walk around Dymock, Gloucestershire, where he lived for a brief while with his family at Oldfields, just over the field from his fellow adventurer in verse, Robert Frost.

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Setting off on the Poets Path, K. Manwaring 2017

It was a glorious Spring morning when we set off from opposite the Beauchamp Arms (where Frost and Thomas liked to sink a pint or two), the sun was shining as it did upon their famous ‘walks-talking’ (‘The Sun Used to Shine’), the sky was a freshly-scrubbed blue, and the fields were brimming with wild daffodils, daisies, anemones and bluebells.

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Reading by the Old Nail Shop, A. Nanson, 2017

We walked an indulgent ten hours, from 10am-8pm, at an ambling pace – stopping intermittently to read poems in situ – on a 13.5 mile route that took us around the old stomping ground of the Dymock Poets, as they became known (close to Frost and Thomas lived Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, who along with John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke, formed the loose band of bardic brothers). We followed some of the Poets Paths (2 routes which take in the key sites, although in a poorly-signposted and badly-maintained way), but quickly struck out on our own way, a road less travelled, taking us via the Greenway crossroads, site of the Old Nail Shop (Gibson’s former residence) through Brooms Green and Bromesberrow, before striking out on the ridge up to southern tip of the Malvern Hills and our destination for the day, Ragged Stone Hill, another Dymock ‘hot spot’ (as marked by Gibson’s eponymous poem).

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The view from Ragged Stone Hill, looking backward towards Dymock, May Hill in the distance, K. Manwaring 2017

It turned out to be a hot day, so we took it easy, finding frequent excuses to stop, stand and stare (as advocated in ‘Leisure’ by WH Davies, a visitor to the Dymocks). Supertramp Davies was not only an epic walker (even with a wooden leg, having lost one while freight-car hopping in America) but also an animal lover (see his poem, ‘The Dumb World’), and he would have enjoyed the many encounters we had today – splendid pedigree horses; a whole colony of pigs, the sows feeding their litters of lively piglets; proud ewes with their sprightly lambs; frisky young bulls (a herd seeking to harangue us from one end of the field to the next until I waved them off). There must have been something in the air, because the livestock seemed to get increasingly frisky towards evening. At one point I had to fend off the challenge of a feisty black bullock with my walking stick.

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One Man and his Stick, Kevan on Chase End Hill, A. Nanson, 2017

Along the way we talked about many things – the writer’s life, lecturing (we both teach in universities), cabbages and kings and everything under the sun. We read out poems by Thomas and the Dymocks along the way – I choosing mine at random, Anthony selecting his from the contents page. Here’s what we shared:

Early one morning – ET (KM)

The Lane – ET (AN)

The Old Nail Shop – WG (KM)

May 23 – ET (KM)

The Bridge – ET (AN)

The Ragged Stone  – WG (KM)

Iris by Night – RF (KM)

Celandines – ET (AN)

But These Things Also ET (KM)

The Poets: ET – Edward Thomas; RF – Robert Frost; WG – Wilfrid Gibson
Readers: AN – Anthony Nanson; KM – Kevan Manwaring

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Anthony reads The Bridge, K. Manwaring, 2017

The views from the ridge were magnificent, looking back across the Dymock vale – May Hill in the hazy distance (another favourite jaunt of Frost and Thomas) – the vibrant shades of green upon the trees, the meadows festooned with flowers, every detail picked out by the golden afternoon sun. This part of England, where Gloucestershire meets Herefordshire, is so quintessential it is positively Arcadian (at one point we strolled through a handsome country estate where lambs hopped, skipped and raced about by the shores of a royal blue lake, a pastoral idyll that just needed a shepherdess to complete the picture). To connect the flat fields of Dymock with the dramatic peaks (or rather ‘Marilyns’) of the Malverns was satisfying – a transition that Frost and Thomas would have enjoyed, heading for the hills to get a perspective on their lives, away, for a day’s meandering, from families, bills, deadlines and looming war.

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Light and shadow co-exist in Thomas’ poetry. K. Manwaring 2017

The flanks of Ragged Stone hill have a Faerie quality to them – alive with Earth energy. Perhaps this is not surprising as it is said to be a nexus of ley-lines, as initially discovered the original ley-hunter, Alfred Watkins (who described his theories in The Old Straight Track). Next to it is the Whiteleaved Oak, said to be the site of one of the Three Perpetual Choirs (as cited in the Welsh Triads), along with Glastonbury and Ely. The harmony of the land was maintained by the choirs there, and to this day the Three Choirs Festival takes place in the area. In a way, perhaps the Dymock Poets, with their songs of verse, were also maintaining the land’s equilibrium. I really do believe that for a brief while they created, with their inspiring creative fellowship, a Little Eden in a quiet corner of England. And whenever kindred spirits gather together to share their stories, songs, verse, laughter and love, it can happen again.

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A well-earned rest on Ragged Stone Hill, only 4 hours back to the car! K. Manwaring 2017

As the sun set, the trees silhouetted by its evanescent golden after-glow, the ink of shadows oozing from the earth, we made it, foot-weary but happy, to the Beauchamp Arms, were we raised a pint in memory of Edward Thomas.  In Steep and Aldestrop there had been memorial events also on that day, but here in Dymock, Anthony and I, in our modest little way, had perpetuated the choir of the Dymock Poets with our walks-talking, in the spirit of Frost and Thomas.

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Elected Friends, Edward Thomas (left) & Robert Frost.

 

A Wayfaring Stranger: Interview & Reading with Kevan Manwaring

Jack Ratcliff, mules and small covered wagon, bw photo Pritchett

Listen to a 30 minute interview and reading with Rona Laycock, on The Writers’ Room, Corinium Radio, about my new novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy. Meet Sideways Brannelly, a trader between worlds, and hear about the research that went into the novel, my other books, my teaching, and up-and-coming events…

https://www.dropbox.com/s/f1ho0haidu94e8p/044%20-%20The%20Writers%20Room%20Transmission%2027-03-17.mp3?dl=0

http://www.coriniumradio.co.uk/

 

 

The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk

Kirk notebook - EUL - K Manwaring 2015.jpgFigure 1 One of Robert Kirk’s notebooks. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring 2015 (with permission of the Edinburgh University Library Special Collections).

Rabbit Holes & Chinese Whispers

In researching my novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (the main iteration of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester), I undertook extensive primary source research of the novel’s historical focus: Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle best known for his 1691 monograph,  The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. As a novelist I needed ‘telling details’ to bring him alive on the page as a fully-rounded character; as a researcher I was aware of the unreliable accuracy of the various printed versions of the monograph. Dictated from his sick-bed to his cousin, Robert Campbell (already establishing a possible gulf between ‘texts’ – the one Kirk orally related, and the one written down by Campbell); the Secret Commonwealth (as it became known, although its actual title varies from MS to MS) was not published until 1815 by Sir Walter Scott. This version, printed in an edition of 100, is riddled with transcription errors (or deliberate editorial interventions) but is one that has been most reproduced ever since – starting a century-spanning chain of Chinese whispers (Lang, 1893; Cunningham, 1933; and numerous cheap reprints). It was only through the scholarly efforts of Stewart Sanderson (1976) and Michael Hunter (2001), that this process was identified and to some extent arrested (although poor transcriptions still circulate, e.g. the ‘Lost Library’, Glastonbury edition).  I decided that the best way to avoid the risk of using an inaccurate version was to go back to the ‘original’ (easier said than done) and transcribe it myself.  It is only when I looked into the providence of the existing MSS that I realized that finding the ‘master text’ was going to be problematic. This particular challenge led me down the beguiling rabbit holes of the archives and resulted in some incredible results – but that is something I wish to discuss elsewhere. Here I shall focus on an unexpected byproduct of this quest – coming upon Robert Kirk’s notebooks. The focus of this blog will be on what I found.

But first, a summary of what we know about Kirk…

 

Robert Kirk – the Facts

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Figure 2 Kirk’s signature. Notebook. K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission of the National Library of Scotland).

 

  • Robert Kirk (born December 9, 1644; died 14 May 1692, aged 47 yrs and 5 months)
  • 7th son. Education: Edinburgh (BA); St. Andrews (MA).
  • Episcopal Minister, Balquidder (9 Nov 1664-); Aberfoyle.
  • Clerk of the Presbytery (appointed 23 Oct. 1667).
  • 1678: married Isobel Campbell, daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Mochaster.
  • One son, Colin; 1st wife died Christmas Day 1680 (carved her gravestone himself).
  • Married Margaret, cousin of Isobel. One son – Robert Kirk (Minister of Dornoch 1713-1758).
  • Moved to Aberfoyle. Minister until death.
  • 1690/91: Oversaw printing of Bedel’s Bible (into Gaelic) in London.
  • 1691: Dictated The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies.
  • 1692: Collapsed on Doon Knowe of unknown causes, died. Buried in Aberfoyle

Robert Kirk – The Legend

  •  Stepped into a fairy ring & ‘taken’ (as punishment for speaking about the Good Folk).
  • Exchanged with a changeling.
  • Rocks buried instead of body.
  • Appear to cousin at wedding; dirk over the shoulder.
  • Pregnant woman – dirk in his chair in study.
  • Offerings left at Doon Hill.
  • Still a prisoner in Fairyland.

(Sources: Rev. Patrick Graham, 1812; Sir Walter Scott, 1815; Andrew Lang, 1893; Katherine Briggs, 1940).

So far, so folklore. Already I had enough material to fire my author’s imagination. But ever one for ‘going the extra inch’, I decided to delve deeper – beyond the numerous articles – to see what further primary source material I could unearth.

 

Notebooks – The Discoveries

Within the 8 surviving notebooks (7 in Edinburgh University Library; 1 in the National Library of Scotland) there was a wealth of material to discover.  They are tiny – the size of matchboxes and very delicate. It is impossible to open the pages fully without risking damage of the spine.  The handwriting is infinitesimal, faint in places, and full of Kirk’s eccentric spelling and handwriting. Some sections are more legible than others. No full transcription of them has been undertaken. In my examination of them to date I have discovered:

  • Marginalia – signature; inscriptions, dates.
  • Drawings – several ink-drawings depicting occult symbolism.
  • Juvenilia – schoolboy daydreams, doodles.
  • Evidence of romance – poems to ‘sweethearts’, whimsical word-play.
  • The Stillingfleet episode.
  • An early version of The Secret Commonwealth.

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Figure 3 An early version of The Secret Commonwealth, as it appears in the London Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring, 2015 (with permission of EUL).

I was particularly thrilled by this quote of Kirk’s found in his London notebook (below). It leaped out at me as epigraph material. It is especially significant for being the earliest usage of the term ‘Fayrie Tale’ in the English language. For Kirk to have coined this seems very resonant, considering the nature of my project – one that explores the construction and transmission of folkloric narratives, and the juxtaposition of the historical with the fantastical.  Kirk’s rhetorical comparison between his account of the ‘secret commonwealth’ and the ‘discovery’ of the New World illustrates this superbly.  Kirk suggests that in the same way the first accounts of the New World were received sceptically – their reports, the ‘inventors of ridiculous Utopias’ – critical readers may question the veracity of his account. Kirk, the man of God, was at pains to adopt a ‘scientific’ approach to his survey (mirroring the way Kirk’s near contemporary, John Aubrey, the man of Science, seemed possessed with, at times, a kind of religious fervour in his search for and preservation of ‘antiquities).  And in this cross-fertilisation of methodologies and the fault-lines between a materialist and spiritual reading of the universe, we have the primary discourse of Kirk and Aubrey’s age. Indeed, Kirk’s whole endeavour seemed motivated by a desire to defend a spiritual interpretation of the universe against the burgeoning tide of the Age of Reason – a rearguard action doomed to failure in its day, as the wondrous became simply the curious; the sublime, ridiculous. Perhaps Kirk saw in the plight of the Good Folk – relegated to the hollow hills and the simple folk beliefs of the Highlanders  –  a foreshadowing of the fate of his own belief system and culture in the devastating aftermath of Culloden?

‘And if this be thought only a fancy and forgery because obscure and unknown to the most of mankind for so long a time, I answer the antipodes and inhabitants of America, the bone of our bone, yet their first discovery was lookt on as a Fayrie Tale, and the reporters hooted at as inventors of ridiculous Utopias.’ Robert Kirk

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Figure 4 The first mention in the English language of the phrase ‘Fayrie Tale’. I have quoted this for the epigraph of my novel, The Knowing.  London Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission EUL).

The Stillingfleet Influence

Most revealing is the account of the Stillinfleet episode, as related in Kirk’s ‘London notebook’, MS. La.III.545. (EUL). Here are the key details:

  • Late 1689: Kirk in London to oversee the printing & distribution of 3000 copies of Bishop Bedel’s Bible.
  • Records various sermons he attended.
  • Meets Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), recently appointed Bishop of Worcester, giving his valedictory sermon at St. Andrews…
  • Invited back for dinner where they discuss theological and spiritual matters. Stillingfleet scornful of the Fairy Faith, but his wife more sympathetic…
  • Meets Stillingfleet’s wife (just given birth to seventh child; wished to know if it could touch against the ‘King’s Evil’). Kirk himself a 7th son. Agreed to write to her on such matters…
  • An embryonic version of The Secret Commonwealth appears shortly afterwards in his London Diary (La.III.545)
  • Dedicates The Secret Commonwealth to ‘A Lady’.

Thus, it is tempting to conclude (as I choose to do so for the purpose of the novel) that the encounter with Lady Stillingfleet provided Kirk with the MO to set about researching and writing The Secret Commonwealth – that Lady Stillingfleet provided a ‘Muse’ figure to Kirk (the 7th child connection between all three of them – the Minister, the Bishop and his wife – may have provided sufficient motivation by itself; along with the Bishop’s professional disparagement of Kirk’s ideas). If it may seem fanciful to assume a Minister would be prey to such ‘weaknesses’ then we have the evidence of the notebooks to support the theory – for within them there are several poems to ‘sweet-hearts’ (at one point he invents an anagram of his latest object of desire, Mary Napier: Army Rapier). Kirk was made of flesh and blood and prone to flattery as much as the next man. When a beautiful, elegant, influential woman took an interest in your work, it would be hard for most not to want to rise to the challenge. The intense entries about Fairy folklore – an embryonic text of the Secret Commonwealth – that follow the Stillingfleet encounter – prove how Kirk became obsessed with the project as a result.

 

From Archive to Novel

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Figure 5 A drawing by Robert Kirk (detail). Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission of EUL).

As a result of my direct contact with these precious notebooks my novel project benefitted in several ways: I was ‘gifted a new subplot, one critical to the creation of The Secret Commonwealth; I was able to identify Kirk’s voice from the many examples I read (including the subtle clues of character revealed by his handwriting); the marginalia and juvenalia I discovered conveyed a sense of his fully-rounded character (his student daydreams; his romantic musings about women; the whimsical doodles; his recurrent pre-occupations); it afforded me a real insight into Kirk’s milieu, the period detail and debates of the Age; and it revealed to me Kirk’s hitherto unknown illustrations – as someone originally trained in Fine Art, a writer-artist who likes to illustrate his own work occasionally, this thrilled me – and demonstrated a whole other, imaginative side to Kirk.

Finally, in examining these obscure notebooks, filled with occult speculation, I felt I was experiencing a Gothic trope: the classic discovery of a lost journal, ‘the found document’, one which bestows upon the ensuing text an aroma of antiquity and authenticity. In this case, the notebooks were, of course, genuine – and my experience with them helped me in the creation of my own invented journal, one that ‘ventriloquizes’ Kirk’s voice (in a similar way to Ruth Scurr’s bold biography, John Aubrey: My Own Life):

‘Aubrey’s approach to his own and other lives was imaginative and empirical in equal measure. In imagining his diary by collating the evidence, I have echoed the idea of antiquities – the searching after remnants – that has meant so much to him. I have collected the fragmentary remains of his life – from manuscripts, letters and books, his own and other people’s – and arranged them carefully in chronological order. I have done so playingly (a word he used of his own writing) but with purpose. Ultimately, my aim has been to write a book in which he is still alive’.

Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life, (London: Chatto and Windus, 2015)

In my novel I imagine the discovery of Kirk’s ‘lost journal’ – one written while as prisoner in Elfhame.  My primary source research enabled me to simulate Kirk’s predilections and distinctive voice.  Although I modulated his idiom to make it more intelligible and enjoyable to the modern reader (‘accuracy’, if that were possible, would lead to alienation to all but a specialist audience) knowing Kirk’s work gave me a ‘base-line’ to work from. I had not only read and, at times, copied, his actual handwriting, I had transcribed a complete copy of The Secret Commonwealth found in the archives … but that is another story.

There were plans to transcribe the Kirk Notebooks (Hunter 2001), but nothing yet has come to fruition and the secrets of Kirk’s formative years remain hidden away … for now. Who knows what treasures will be found in there when they are fully transcribed? To end with Kirk’s own admission: ‘Every Age Hath Some Secrets Left For Its Discoverie…’

References:

  • Dc.8.114: 1660/1-1672 (school notes on philosophy)
  • Dc.9.5: 1663-1664 (notes on lesson by Cant)
  • Dc.8.115: 1666 (mostly excerpts)
  • La.III.549: 1669 (‘occasional thoughts’)
  • Dc.8.116: 1674-1675/6 (excerpts and thoughts)
  • MS. 3932: 1679-1680 (mostly ‘thoughts’)
  • La.III.529: 1681-1683 (‘thoughts’)
  • La.III.545: 1689-1690 (London Diary)

All in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections except MS.3932 (National Library of Scotland). Source: Text-Criticism of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, Mario M. Rossi, 1949.

 ***

For an excellent overview of Kirk’s milieu and an annotated version of The Secret Commonwealth, I highly recommend The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland, Michael Hunter, Boydell Press, 2001

Extract from ‘Every Age Hath Some Secrets Left For Its Discoverie: Research undertaken for the Writing of The Knowing’ Powerpoint Presentation, Kevan Manwaring, University of Leicester, September 2016

Kevan Manwaring University of Leicester 2016 orcid.org/0000-0002-1756-5222

 Text & Photographs Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017

The Knowing – A Fantasy by Kevan Manwaring, Published by Goldendark. Available on Kindle Amazon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XKKFGFV

Step into Faerie

A Contemporary Fantasy based upon PhD research into Fairy Traditions and Folklore of the Scottish Borders  – coming soon…

 

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Cover by Tom Brown, photography by James Barke 2017

 

 

Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American folksinger descended from a long line of female singers. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, The Jackalopes, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels, she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave (since losing her daughter she’s been drowning her sorrows and more besides) until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century Presbyterian minister obsessed with fairy lore. Uncanny things start to happen… She and her loved ones are assailed by supernatural forces, until she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lie to rest the ghost of Robert Kirk. Until she accepts who she is, and the gift passed down to her by her ancestors, the gift of the knowing, Janey will never find peace.

Gripping, emotionally affecting, difficult to put down Nimue Brown

Contemporary Fantasy; Scotland; Appalachia; Second Sight; Fairy Tradition; Supernatural Ballads

 

Kevan Manwaring is a writer who lives in Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds. The Knowing is the culmination of his Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. To write it he has undertaken extensive research into the folklore of the Scottish lowlands, Robert Kirk, Fairy traditions, ballads, the Scottish diaspora in Southern Appalachia, Cecil Sharp, borders and the Fantasy genre. He has spent many hours in research libraries (The British Library, as an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies; the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House; University of Edinburgh; National Library of Scotland; App. State library & others); he has done extensive fieldwork in the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands and in North Carolina; he has walked the West Highland Way and Hadrian’s Wall; he has co-created and performed a show, ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, with his partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith; he has written a collection of poetry inspired by his field-trips, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015); and he has taught himself guitar and ballad-singing. Other books include The Windsmith Elegy (5 volume Fantasy series), The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (editor). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

 A special preview copy of The Knowing will be released as an e-book on 20th March 2017. If you would like to order a copy or would like to review it, please contact the author: km364@le.ac.uk