Category Archives: Britain

Sounding the Rift

The Agency of Place in Fantasy Fiction

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Hadrian’s Wall, Kevan Manwaring 2014

In classic Fantasy novels places often seem like characters in their own right – think of the grotesque decrepitude of Gormenghast; the prelapsarian loveliness of Lothlorien and the Industrial nightmare of Mordor; the donnish eccentricity of Narnia; the heterogeneous archipelago of EarthSea; the Mooreefoccian Jordan College and the rugged fastness of the Svalbard Peninsula in His Dark Materials; the chrono-labyrinths of Ryhope Wood; the TARDIS-house of Little, Big . Agency in Place has be there from the earliest forays into Fantasy, in the monstrous uncivilisation that threatens Babylon in Gilgamesh, in the drear fen of Beowulf and the doom-laden fells of Gawain and the Green Knight. And it is to be found in modern cartographies of such liminal zones, in, for example, Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time (a helter skelter through the epochs hidden within a rainforest) and Tom and Nimue Brown’s Hopeless, Maine (an island in limbo from which no one can ever leave).

In my contemporary fantasy novel The Knowing setting plays a key role. In some ways the narrative emerged as a conversation between places: between the Scottish Lowlands and the Southern Appalachians primarily, but also between cities (Asheville and Glasgow), between the rural and urban, the wild and the tamed, as well as between worlds: the worlds of the Sidhe and the human – the Silver and the Iron, as one of my favourite characters puts it. Sideway Branelly is a Wayfarer, a trader between the worlds with an uncanny ability to find the hollers and low roads that link them. Although freer than many characters he is associated with the location in my novel I am most proud of and intrigued by: The Rift. This is an ever-widening gulf between the worlds …. a chancy No Man’s Land caused by the Sundering – a catastrophic sealing of the Borders between the worlds. This ultimate Debatable Land was part inspired by the psychogeography of the Scottish Borders – its long, bloody history of Border Reivers, blackmail, skirmishes, land grabs, cannibals, and uncanny goings on – and by Hadrian’s Wall, which I walked the 84 mile length of in 2014 with my partner folksinger Chantelle Smith*. The latter is an impressive if ultimately futile feat of engineering and hubris which seems eerily resonant – following the dramatic line of crags that rise between Newcastle and Carlisle, a natural line of defense augmented by mile-castles, vallum (parallel ditches), auxillary towns, and a twelve foot high wall, the Wall seems, in its derelict state (masonry stolen for local buildings) particularly Ozymandian. If it was designed to keep the ‘other’ out (i.e. the wild Pictish tribes to the north – the ‘Kong’ of our Skull Island) it failed – but it is possible it was used to control trade as much as anything, and demarcate the northernmost extremity of the Roman Empire (when the Antonine Wall was abandoned farther north). It was clearly a power statement saying, among others things: look what the might of the Roman Empire can achieve; and, the savage north is ungovernable and thus economically useless. What we cannot control we disown, casting out beyond the pale of our ‘civilisation’. Of course, the Picts might have seen it conversely – that the Wall marked the end of freedom, and the beginning of control. What makes Hadrian’s Wall more than just some impressive military archaeology is the glimpse it affords us into the beliefs and lifestyles of those that worked and lived upon it – the temples to Mithras; the shrines to other, obscurer deities (such as Mars-Nodentis, or the Cucullati); the graffiti from bored, homesick Centurions; the bath-houses, store-rooms, stables, barracks; the service towns that grew up on its flanks; the whole economy the presence of Rome created. Walking the Wall gave me a lot of the time to ponder on the creative tensions of such a place. And the museums my partner insisted we visited all helped to enrich my imagination.

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Sycamore Gap, Kevan Manwaring 2014

The one place that particularly fired my imagination though was a natural wonder – an amazingly situated sycamore tree whose roots grew on both sides. Made famous by its appearance in various films (e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it inspired a poem (‘Sycamore Gap’) and the idea of a Rift Oak, which grows between the worlds, demarcating the edges of both – the ultimate border oak. I liked the idea of the natural subverting man-made borders. Of course, birds of prey, foxes, badger, deer, mice… all ignore the wall. Nature cocks a snook at man. And what if I had a character like that – who broke the rules? Who crossed a Border that was meant to be sealed? Who smuggled things – contraband, journals, people – across. And so Sideways Brannelly was born. I needed someone who would smuggle something pivotal out of the Silver, back to the Iron. And Brannelly, a reluctant hero (driven mainly by a desire for personal gain, petty revenge, and a contrarian mindset) got the job. And the Rift was forged – in the Sundering of worlds, a cataclysmic plot event which now seems eerily prescient. The Knowing’s  first draft was written against the backdrop of the first Scottish national referendum in 2014 (my initial field visits haunted by a countryside divided into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ flags, banners and signs) – little did I know then there would be (most likely) a sequel to that, Brexit (Theresa May announcing the date of the triggering of Article 50 on the day my ebook was released), and Trump’s victory, isolationism, ‘Muslim ban’ and Mexican Border wall plans (America as Skull Island). Not that I equate a bid for Scottish independence with Brexit or Trump – this time I think it is an entirely sane and justified thing to do – but they are all taking place in the same increasingly sundered world. The European refugee crisis that has played out in the last couple of years is real humanitarian disaster, but in some small way, the ‘backstory’ of my novel seems to echo it, with what befalls the victims of the Sundering in my story-world – as Ironbloods and Silver find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Rift. The results of this schism has turned this fault-line between the worlds into an increasingly perilous terroir – a chancy wasteland where a chancer like Brannelly can flourish … if he chooses to.

SIDEWAYS BRANNELLY

Sideways Brannelly’s bone-pipe – his favourite way of pondering. K. Manwaring 2017

The Knowing – A Fantasy is published as an eBook by Goldendark on 20th March and is available on Amazon Kindle

*Last year I walked another border – Offa’s Dyke, a long-distance footpath which runs 177 miles, the length of Wales from the north coast at Prestatyn to the Wye (another hubristic gesture, this time by the 8th Century King of Mercia, Offa). And this year I intend to walk the Southern Uplands Way (212). I must have Borders in my blood…

Wild Things

Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …

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An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017

I must confess a fondness for fauns. And for their shaggier cousins, especially the Urisk – described as a ‘rough hairy spirit’ it is thought to prefer the solitude of wild, mountainous places. Folklorists were careful to differentiate these from the more domestic Brownie. One cannot imagine an Urisk performing any household chores – they are as to Brownies as the Lynx is the domesticated cat. They are believed to gather once in a blue moon at the ‘Corrie of the Urisks’ in the Trossachs, as evoked in this poem by Sir Walter Scott:

By many a bard, in Celtic tongue,
Has Coire-nan-Uriskin been sung;
A softer name the Saxons gave,
And call’d the grot the Goblin-cave,
 
Gray Superstition’s whisper dread
Debarr’d the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court.

 

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Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900

Yet apart from this one mad Highland fling, when presumably vigorous moonlit capering and rutting takes place (the crack of horns, tang of musk, and primal howls thick in the air), they are solitary by nature, and perhaps even a mickle melancholic.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with the wild men of myth and legend who, driven mad by massacres, war and other madnesses of humankind, retreat to the wild. Merlin himself was said to have experienced such a dark night of the soul – fleeing to the woods of Caledon and becoming for a while, Myrddin Wyllt, ‘Merlin the Wild’. There he conversed with a pig, as recorded in gnomic verse (a resonant choice, as swine were thought to be creatures from the Underworld, being a gift from Arawn, Lord of Annwn, according to Y Mabinogi). It was not until Gawain came to find him that he was ‘talked back’ into his wits and back to Camelot. When Llew Llaw Gyffes was turned into an eagle by the betrayal of Blodeuwedd it took his wily uncle Gwydion to track him down (again, a swine guides – this time to foot of an oak tree where putrefying flesh reveals the location of the bedraggled eagle-man) and to sing his soul back home, via bardic utterances. In the Irish legend of ‘Mad Sweeney’, Buile Shuibhne, already a loose cannon, is driven mad by the Battle of Mag Rath, and flees in the form of a bird – cursed by Bishop Ronan for his disrespect – wandering Erin and beyond for many many years, before finding sanctuary in the House of Moling (another saint-in-waiting). Here he receives the milk of human kindness and the Word of the Lord, having paid for his crimes with his dilated suffering. In all these cases the ‘wild man’ seems to be suffering a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Interestingly, Robert Macfarlane describes a real life example in The Wild Places – the Leopard Man of Lewis, who roams the heath and peat naked, except for a body covered in the tattooed markings of his totem. His identity remains a mystery but there is some speculation that he is an ex-soldier acting out his PTSD.

Of course ‘green men’ have haunted the folk consciousness for centuries, if not longer. Their wild eyes and foliating mouths and nostrils convey a feeling of being overwhelmed – the irruption of chthonic longings, the inside turned out. The sheer boskiness of such fellows (and they are commonly adult males, although green women and children do crop up) is best expressed in Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Wodwo’:

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

Yet the Green Man is also brilliantly evoked in other masterful poems, especially ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament’ by John Heath-Stubbs, and ‘Lob’ by Edward Thomas – based upon a character Thomas met on his restless peregrinations, ‘Lob’ evokes the genius loci of the Chalk Downs:

At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring,
An old man’s face, by life and weather cut
And coloured, – rough, brown, sweet as any nut,
A land face, sea-blue-eyed, – hung in my mind
When I had left him many a mile behind.

Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas

It is interesting to note how ‘wild men’ seem to haunt the wilder fringes of the world – both in poetry (Grendel in Beowulf) and folklore (the Wendigo, Sasquatch, Big Foot and Yeti…). It is as though we must give wilderness a ‘human’ face – personify it to make it vaguely relatable. There is little scarier than the nameless unknown, the disinterested void that shakes our anthropocentric solipsism. We want to turn it into something cosy – a bescarfed and pleasant Mr Tumnus in Narnia; or hauntingly beautiful, such as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows. And yet it is good to remember that the ‘pan-ic’ we can feel in nature – that frisson of fear at the prospect of being benighted or lost – is thanks to Pan, and that satyrs are little more than priapic rapists, lusting after an passing nymph.

And yet these creatures of the wild – perhaps uncomfortably like us except for the ‘grace of God’, the ultimate hobo fallen on hard times – can sometimes bestow an adrenalin shot of wildness into tame lives, bestow wild gifts – though at a price (as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Musical Instrument’), and drive us into maenaedic raptures with their devilish music (listen to The Waterboy’s ‘Return of Pan’ and see what I mean).

I speak from experience, having had an Urisk jump into my latest novel, The Knowing. He certainly livened things up! I enjoyed spending time in his feral company, as did, I think, the Reverend Robert Kirk – author of the monograph, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’ – a respectable Episcopalian minister in his parish of Aberfoyle (in the Uriskish Trossachs) until his field-work got out of hand…

The Knowing – A Fantasy by Kevan Manwaring is released for preview as an ebook on 20th March.

Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:

Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-musical-instrument/

Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:

https://allpoetry.com/poem/8495307-Wodwo-by-Ted-Hughes

Read ‘Lob’ in full:

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/lob/

A great blog on Urisks:

http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/corrie-of-urisks-trossachs.html

 

 

In Praise of Friendship

dorset-rainbowEmpathy born of good will is often the only genuine communication between individual consciousnesses, and must be nurtured as an antidote to loneliness.

Introduction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne

 

In an age where aggressive competitiveness, isolationism, and rapacious use of shared resources (aka a Neoliberalist agenda) seems to have won the day, it is more essential than ever that we celebrate our communities, our connections and our camaraderie.

I have long been inspired by creative fellowships and artistic communities, and here in Stroud, Gloucestershire, my home since 2010, we seem particularly blessed by such an eco-system (the natural analogy is intentional, for I believe that by drawing upon examples from the natural world we can learn to survive and thrive in a sustainable way).  The town and its surrounding valleys has a long tradition of creative activity, one I was aware of stepping into when I upped sticks and moved thirty miles up the road from Bath, which, despite being beautiful, steeped in heritage and lively with creativity activity, lacks the community feel of Stroud (a fault of cities more than the individuals who live there). A small town mentality can, of course, be stifling, but here the risk of provincialism is countered by a ‘Think Global, Act Local’ ethos in its Farmers’ Market, Transition Town and Green Party conflux, by lively arts festivals, and by the cross-fertilisation with artistic and intellectual nodes elsewhere in Britain and beyond. That feeling that ‘everyone knows everyone else’s business’ can be claustrophobic, but also instils accountability, mutuality and a sense of collective ‘holding’. We look out for each other. Few are allowed to fall through the cracks, unlike in a city where you can die in your bedsit and not be noticed for months. A death here is like a great tree falling in a forest, with devastating effects on the community. The unwell are showered with healing, the infirm with practical care, and the bereaved are supported. New arrivals, unions of love, anniversaries and achievements are celebrated joyously. Funerals are transformed into moving ceremonies of deep beauty. In Stroud’s many circles and support networks feelings and thoughts are shared – through movement, word, art, prayer, food and fun.

On a personal level I feel the need to celebrate the creative circle I am part of – you know who you are – all very talented, intelligent, witty, open-hearted individuals.  With hand on heart, I salute you all! But wherever you live, you can enjoy such creative camaraderie. Create the circle you want to be part. Open your heart, give something to your community, and it shall be returned threefold.

The tribe and the gift are separate, but they are also the same – there is little gap between them so they may breathe into each other, and yet there is no gap at all, for they share one breath, one meal for the two of them.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: how the creative spirit transforms the world.

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based r

 

esearch in the creation of a novel

 

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A writer’s retreat. View across Gairloch Bay, Wester Ross. K. Manwaring 2016

 

In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot.  The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014  when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.

I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.

A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.

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The grave of Robert Kirk, the Fairy Minister, Aberfoyle, K. Manwaring 2014

I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.

And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star …  Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:

  • In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
  • From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
  • Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
  • In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
  • From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
  • In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
  • I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
  • This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
  • While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
  • Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
  • I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
  • While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
  • In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
  • My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
  • And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
  • Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
  • Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.

And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…

 

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Field Research. On the road to Applecross, looking towards Skye, K. Manwaring, 2016

 

 

 

 

Wall in the Woods

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Along a tangled way I wended

unpicking the stitching of my thoughts,

revisiting the mind’s invisible divisions

 

until there it stood.

 

Tumbledown barrier

overcome

by stumbled trees,

storm-snapped branches.

Wedges of limestone

covered in maps of lichen,

thirsty moss, panting ferns,

rusting vines of wire

grafted to the bough’s skin.

 

A good few days’ graft –

each stone an effort;

a rough-thumbed thought,

a pipe’s pungent respiration.

Chosen and placed

with deliberation;

held by gravity’s cement.

Demarcating

 

space.

 

Green air

the same on both sides.

A wildernessed wood

criss-crossed with rotting boughs,

a paradise of fungus.

An Eden of decay.

Gap-toothed wall,

an absence big enough to walk through.

 

What good does it do?

 

What good

these barriers

we place between us

when

in the end

we are in the woods

together?

 

Kevan Manwaring © 2010

From The Immanent Moment, Awen, 2016

http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-immanent-moment.html

 

*****POSTED IN SUPPORT OF THE BRIDGESNOTWALLS CAMPAIGN******

On 20 Jan 2017, we’ll drop banners off bridges around the UK, pledging hope for the future & to take a stand against the rise of the far right.

http://bridgesnotwalls.uk/

THE CASTLE OF WORDS

ON WRITING RETREAT AT HAWTHORNDEN CASTLE

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Hawthornden Castle, Midlothian, by K. Manwaring, 2015

The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle was founded to provide a peaceful setting for creative writers to work without disturbance …’ So begins the official leaflet describing the international writers’ retreat situated in Midlothian, the Scottish Lowlands, in the former home of the poet William Drummond (1585-1649). The original castle dates from the Middle Ages, but Drummond made alterations (dismantling some fortifications as though in defiance of its former status as a Border Castle, and adding a new range), and others were added in the 18th Century – the dining room, drawing room and additional bedrooms. Built upon a crag riddled with ‘Pictish’ caves, it dominates a dramatic bend in the river gorge of the Esk, which tumbles jauntily below. With its turrets, courtyard, balcony and ruinous tower, it is the very picture of a Romantic retreat, a fortress of quietude and literary industry.

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The Courtyard, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring 2015

Since The Alchemist playwright Ben Johnson walked from London to Edinburgh in 1619 to visit Drummond, who recorded their Conversations, Hawthornden has been a place of colloquy and inspiration. From its fastness the esteemed Hawthornden Prize is administrated (founded by Alice Warrender in 1919 for works of imaginative literature in poetry or prose by writers under 41 years of age, its prize-winners reads like a who’s who of wordsmiths from the last hundred years) and its magnificent library hosts many signed first editions by both winners and retreatants – the latter are invited to stay for a period of one month to work upon a literary project of their choice in the company of (usually) 5 other writers. Each retreatant (selected by the admissions committee based upon published works, references and project) is allocated a snug room named after presiding geni literati (Yeats, Shelley, Pope, Johnson, Bronte, et al) and adorned with the names of previous guests whose project has gone on to be published … Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, Andrew Greig, etc, etc … the roll of honour is impressive and a little daunting.

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After breakfast, retreatants are expected to spend the day writing. Lunch is brought up to the rooms in Fortnum and Mason hampers – delicious soup, sandwiches, fruit and the obligatory babybel, which became almost a bartering currency during my stay. There are no phones and no wifi. Any research needs to be done in advance or in the old-fashioned way – from books (the library has an extensive reference section among many enticing novels and poetry collections, art books, biographies, etc … one could easily spend hours if not days there and I half expected to stumble upon a skeleton of a former guest, bony digit forever pointing at a suitable epitaph). If not for dinner, when guests are expected to gather for a pre-prandial sherry in the luxuriant lounge, then make small-talk or exchange literary bon mots over beetroot soup or one of the Cordon Bleu chef’s famous fish pies or puddings, one could spend days without seeing another soul, or hearing another human voice. It is a profoundly peaceful place – with none of the white noise of the apparent world we anaesthetize ourselves to – traffic, roadworks, TV, CDs, youtube, ipods, phone-calls, neighbours, emergency services and parties. Hawthornden truly lives up to its motto: ut honesto otio quiesceret – to be at peace in decent ease.

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My desk overlooking the Esk. K. Manwaring, 2015

 

From mid-November 2015 I spent a month as a guest writer at the Castle to work on a 2nd draft of my PhD project, My Big Fairy Novel as I fondly call it. I was there with 4 other published writers: two poets (Irish; English), a playwright (American) and a short story writer (German). We were supported in our writing by being fed, watered and undisturbed in our rooms. Apart from dinners, no socialising was expected.

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Dinner is served at Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

Using the extensive feedback received from my supervisor, my partner, and an American friend I redrafted my novel dramatically. I began with a MS 146,396 words in length. After removing the last 100 pages (!), as Harry advised (never let it be said I can’t take feedback. I happily murder my darlings) the MS was 120,00 in length. By the end of my time at the castle, I had written an extra 40,000 words, and edited 160,000 words in total. To be so industrious was testimony to the powerfully conducive environment. To have such headspace and focused writing time was, in hindsight, a real privilege and rare luxury (as I know all too well, trying to write another novel in the midst of a busy academic term).

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Retreatants await the feast. Hawthornden 2015

 

On top of this, I wrote 3 new poems (The Corvine Tree; Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood; The Apprentice Pillar) to add to my poetry collection, Lost Border, which I copy-edited while there. It was published by Chrysalis upon my return in time for Yuletide, a two week turnaround. It seemed I had brought some of that focus back.

I also undertook extensive research in the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh Library. There I examined the original 17th Century archives of Kirk’s work: the various known versions of his 1691 monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; his notebooks and Book of Hours. To hold these works was thrilling – to examine Kirk’s actual handwriting, his thoughts, musings and marginalia, was like looking down the well of time.

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The well in the courtyard, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

I appreciated being able to escape the ‘writing monastery’ of Hawthornden once a week for a trip into Auld Reekie, a 30 minute bus ride away. There I availed myself of caffeine and wifi whisky and good company! I performed stories at the Gude Craic Club (in its old home of The Waverley) and at the Story Café in the Scottish Storytelling Centre (an excellent resource designed to make a sassenach bard like me green with envy); attended a talk on the seminal author, scholar and folklorist John Francis Campbell (best known for his 4 volume Popular Tales of the West Highlands), and met David Campbell, a Scottish storyteller/tradition-bearer, as well as contemporary practitioners with whom I felt at home. Being away from ones friends and loved ones for over a month (I had presented at Literary Leicester and the NAWE Conference in Durham before going onto to Hawthornden) was a challenge – even for a habitual hermit like me – one can feel lonely and isolated, even in or especially in constant company (sharing two meals a day with five strangers can be a strain, however nice they might be individually – and sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day’s writing, is talk shop), but with my fellow storytellers I felt an immediate warmth and affinity.

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Tree of Life evening, Story Café, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, KM 2015

 

I delighted in visiting some of Edinburgh’s fine museums and galleries, cafes and bars, but ultimately the focus was always the novel and to it I would return like a dutiful husband to his spouse every day – my constant companion for a moon’s turning (and the rest – 3 years and counting). And the castle itself was the most evocative, ideal space for my project – which is partly set in a castle … in Scotland. It even had a dungeon, and caves within its grounds associated with William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie (although most caves in Scotland seem to be). Only a brisk four miles walk away is the breath-taking Rosslyn Chapel, which inspired Dan Brown whose bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, has helped to substantially boost its revenue and preserve it for future generations. Even genre, then, has its place at the high table.

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Rosslyn Chapel, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The power of words echo around this ancient, atmospheric landscape – in its ballads and odes, sermons and histories, romances and novels. In an Age of Stupid, such civilised eloquence is an oasis. Long may Hawthornden resist the prevailing tide of barbarity and be a sanctuary for literary excellence, for works which expand and deepen our knowledge of the human condition, cultivate compassion for our fellow dwellers upon this planet, inspire future generations, and for all who wish to gather beneath its Corvine Tree (the ‘company tree’ which once stood outside the castle, where the poet greeted the road-weary playwright after his long journey north). As Drummond himself put it:

The world is full of horrors, falsehoods, slights;
Wood’s silent shades have only true delights.’

Thank you to the admissions committee, to Hamish our host, Mary the cook, and, of course, to Drummond!

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Memorial Plaque in Courtyard, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring 2015

 

Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood

(Written while Writer-in-Residence, Hawthornden Castle, Nov-Dec 2015)

 

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After the snow, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The news is given casually over dinner.

Not the bombing, but:

‘It is snowing.’ The first

Of the winter. I venture out.

A white and black world

A game of draughts.

The chill exchange of one mass

For another. Boots sink into

Two, three inches. The castle

Is illumined in fairy tale

Perfection. I hold my

Breath, not wanting to

Break the spell.

The forest beckons.

It is night, but the path

Is lit up by itself – silence

Is dislodged, a thousand

Muffled falls, as though

The undergrowth teams

With wildlife. It is the stuff

That panic is made of.

Risk perverse, I stray

beyond the pale.

The forest revels in its own beauty,

Every lineament delineated by

Kohl and crystal. A deadly

Glamour. This femme

Is fatal. An ice-bound cailleach.

The snow falls unconscionably,

White fists of rage,

A furious silence

Demanding to be shattered.

I slip and stumble

On the chancy footing,

Inches from the tumbling

Black Esk precipitously

Below. A splintering crack

Shatters the night –

Wooden lightning, a tree

Toppled by the weight of the

White nothing.

A cave mouth screams,

Empty eye sockets stare

As I pass. My impertinence

Goes unpunished.

The picturesque provides

a pleasant distraction

As bombs begin to fall

In Syria. There, snow

is ash, buildings, homes,

Skin and bone, up in smoke.

Lives vaporized by a passing tornado.

Whitehall shadow falling

In negative, an optioned winter,

Radicalising the earth.

 

Featured in Lost Borders, Chrysalis, 2015

 

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After the walk, Hawthornden, Dec 2015