Category Archives: Britain

The Moon as Muse

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I have long been fascinated by the moon. It has inspired many poems by writers over the centuries, and looking back through my own work, I realise I have written a fair few myself…

Here’s one I wrote during a long walk – the West Highland Way – after a particularly memorable wild camping pitch.

 

Full Moon, Bridge of Orchy
All is still
after a twenty miles of rain
as fierce as the Battle of Ardrigh
falling like swords into a lochan.

The seething shadows
making it impossible to linger.
Up here, the air bites you.

But on arrival, the errant sun
breaks the spell like a knight
making a dramatic entrance.

A dizzying stillness after a day’s march,
an ale in the bar, afterglow of achievement,
ramblers’ banter, measuring our folly
in tall tales, modest boasts, blisters.

Wild pitch by the knuckle of bridge.
Making my way on the Way.

Here I make stance,
a road-weary drover,
numb limbs cooling like cattle
cropping the sward.

The river sings its perpetual song –
a complex skein of sound.
Countless rivulets negotiate
the tongue of rock,
the sounding chamber of these hills,
the twin peaks of bard-praised Beinn Dorain
and Beinn an Dòthaidh.

A cry of nature in the crease of the night.

The July moon illumines
a Samuel Palmer landscape.
Peace, deep as peat,
settles.

 

From The Immanent Moment by Kevan Manwaring from Awen

Moon Heart & Monsters

I like to support upcoming and/or neglected fellow creatives, as we’ve all needed that leg-up or boost at some point. I’ve recently come across a very talented young musician/scholar down in Portsmouth, where I taught a couple of years ago. She’s Eilis Phillips, and she’s recently launched a new EP, Moon Heart. I’ve reviewed it and asked her a few questions below…

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Moon Heart – a Review

If there is such a thing as Space-Folk then Eilis Phillips’ new EP ‘Moon Heart’ is it. Through its five slickly-produced songs, Phillips charts a moonshot of self-empowerment, loneliness, and a stardust-sprinkled wanderlust. Alternating between the defiant and melancholic, the collective effect is of a boldly pioneering but vulnerable spacewalk. Phillips songs are like messages from an astronaut stuck in orbit, strumming in her tin can. In the jaunty opener, ‘Boneshaker’, she breaks free of the conventional shackles of relational expectations and gender roles with lines like ‘I say nebulas when you say nurseries…’ and wordplay that transforms ‘captive’ into ‘captain’. She asserts in the chorus, ‘I’m not your barefoot woman…’ and we’re left with a sense of her striking out into her own uncharted space. In ‘Moon Hearted Bird’, the mood becomes wistful as she reflects on ‘…a dream you once had…’ while evoking a ‘whippoorwill cry’ and a ‘reckoning sigh’ and it would be easy to assume she is singing about herself. In ‘Malcolm’ things seem to take a personal turn, anchored by the down-to-earth specificity of the name, and mentions of ‘no jobs for PhDs’, yet the dreaming persists in the face of reality, with ‘tall ships passing by’ and ‘dreams of being an astronaut’. A sense of lost opportunity pervades this, and the ethereal vocals create a sense of evanescence. In ‘Bellerophon’ the ambience reaches its most spaciously sublime, with a song referencing childhood, backlit with glimmering sunshine vibes. This paean to the famous Greek hero who killed the Chimera is, not surprisingly, intershot with Hellenic references – Daedalus, Icarus, and of course the eponymous monster slayer himself. And in the final song, ‘Maru’, the armour comes off and Phillips offers the most personal message in a bottle, as she sings of inchoate wishes of simple pleasures and intimacy. Nevertheless she asserts she is ‘not afraid of being alone’, while evoking a lonesome mood. Yet, as with all her songs, there is a haunting melody and catchy refrain that lifts the register to escape velocity. This sonic space capsule beams back some quite beautiful messages from the existential abyss, and bodes well for future transmissions from the depths of Eilis Phillips’ distinctive creative solar system.

Kevan Manwaring

 

Interview with Eilis Phillips

by Kevan Manwaring

So, first of all, could you say a little about yourself? What’s your background and how did you get to this point in time and space?

I’ve spent most of my working life as a gigging bass player & singer-songwriter playing round Northern Ireland, England, and some other more far flung parts of the world when the opportunity allowed. I’m from Hong Kong but I grew up in Belfast. In 2012 I enrolled at the University of Portsmouth on an International Relations and French undergraduate degree, but that has somehow morphed into a History PhD, which, all being well I should submit next year.
You seem to be actively engaged with things in Portsmouth – DarkFest, etc. Can you tell us about the scene there?

Ah it’s great! Portsmouth is fairly small and contained, but that hasn’t stopped a really vibrant & open creative culture from developing. Darkfest had its third incarnation this year, and every year it seems to bring out new people and events. It’s a month-long celebration of the macabre, the noir, the weird, the supernatural….We embrace all kinds of styles: immersive theatre, storytelling, gigs, art workshops, academic talks, film screenings and kids events. My wonderful PhD supervisor, Dr Karl Bell, created the festival with the help of some really talented local artists, writers, and promoters; it’s thanks to him that we have this vibrant festival that brings out the best in our town’s culture. I’m very lucky to be able to work with him, and the rest of the Supernatural Cities team – our research group based at Portsmouth Uni. We are always cooking up new ideas for how we can link our research to what’s already going on in the local arts scene.
It looks like you’re into some fascinating stuff. Can you tell me about your research?

Thanks, I’m studying nineteenth-century cultural history. Much of what I research is about folklore formation and people’s religious, supernatural or what were deemed ‘superstitious’ beliefs or stereotypes. In particular, I research stories about different kinds of monsters. I’m mostly interested in learning about why different members of the working-class were depicted as monstrous in the period’s press. I’ve done case studies on ghostly miners, demonic arsonists, goblin servants, and currently I’m looking at cannibal sailors. So never a dull moment…

I would love to hear about your creative outputs – your music. What inspires it? Does it intersect with your research in any way?

Yes, I think my research always creeps into my writing, but it’s not always an overt theme in the songs. My previous record, Fear No Faerie Voices, was very folklore-based, and the personal themes – what I was experiencing in my life – were hidden very much beneath the fairy tales. Fairy tales have always been allegories, that’s what they are for, largely. To convey complex life lessons using repeating, familiar motifs. Moon Heart is the other way around, the personal reflections are front and centre, and the folklore (and Sci Fi) references are just flourishes really.
You have a distinctive look in your videos and publicity photos – each seems to be a different character. Can you talk about them/your approach?

I guess the looks tend to be quite expressive and they are definitely their own characters. I feel more comfortable playing a role in photoshoots than I do trying to be me only ‘fancy’. There is so much pressure on women to look a certain way – I try to avoid and subvert that when I can. For the Moon Heart shoot I wanted minimal make-up, and an androgynous look. Album artwork should be iconic, to me. It should give the listener a feel for what inspired the music. I have to give full credit to Kris Telford at Silent Canvas Media for most of my artwork throughout the years. He makes incredible art and can turn even the most prosaic scenario into something really eye-catching.

Who are your inspirations, creatively, critically, and in life, generally?

Astronauts. Teachers. Brave, kind, compassionate people. Musically, I am going through a real Frank Sinatra phase at the minute. To my mind, he’s the greatest singer of our age. The amount of feel and pathos he could inject into even the most throwaway line, is just incredible. My main influences growing up were Simon and Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan…just great songwriters.

What’s on the horizon for you? Any exciting plans or projects?

Quite a few exciting collaborations on the agenda for 2019. I’m very lucky to be co-organising our fourth Supernatural Cities conference – Magical Cities  – which will be hosted at Portsmouth Uni in June next year. Our CFP is now live and we are accepting submissions until 31st January. I’m also heading back to Northern Ireland in January to gig with Jackie Rainey & the Sweet Beats – always fun – and to hopefully will be recording a new music video and sneaking in a photoshoot. So that’s exciting. Other than that, people can keep up to date with my events and gigs at my website eilislaphillips.wordpress.com.

If you could sum up your ethos, your approach, or ‘mission statement’ what would it be? What key message are you trying to get across?

An interesting question – I suppose my mission statement would be to embrace curiosity, and live tenaciously. Strive for the best in yourself, always. See it in other people and encourage them not to give up on their hopes and dreams.

Any final advice to those starting out creatively &/or academically?

Focus on what makes you, personally, want to write and create or research. Don’t do it for other people, do it for yourself. Make yourself proud.

Oh, and I suppose I should say something practical so…musicians, you never know when you’re going to need gaffer tape so always keep some handy – don’t be afraid to spend money on spare equipment. A bag of spare leads and a mic are a life saver.

Thanks for the interesting questions, Kevan!

Find out more about Eilis, her research and her music, here:

https://eilislaphillips.wordpress.com/

Fool for a Fisher King

SILBURY: the miraculous balance – Peter Please & friends

Silbury Lammas 2018 by Kevan Manwaring

This beautifully-made companion piece to Peter Please’s album of the early 80s, Uffington, Silbury: the miraculous balance, released on a limited edition vinyl, completes a remarkable long-term project of deep mapping that was instigated by The Chronicles of the White Horse (1982), and extended in a singular direction by his love letter to a Wiltshire water meadow, Clattinger: an alphabet of signs from nature (2008) – unique artefacts that between them triangulate a numinous corner of the county (Uffington; Clattinger; Silbury), one replete in ancient monuments, biodiversity and a mulch of social history.

Silbury draws upon a pair of Peter’s previous works (Clattinger, and Spoken Idylls: everyday illuminations) cherry-picking key extracts and giving them new voices and sometimes musical settings. It is a fecund work of creative collaboration. Included in this bardic ark are the talents of Paul Darby (The Yirdbards), The Bookshop Band (Beth Porter and Ben Please), Richard Secombe, plus the Silbury Pop-Up Choir conducted and arranged by Masha Kastner; not forgetting the gorgeous cover art by Caroline Waterlow.

The seasonal quarter of ‘The Swillbrook Song: spring/summer/autumn/winter’, provides a loose circadian framing narrative. Instrumental pieces interweave with spoken word and songs, choral pieces, chants and ‘raps’. It is an eclectic mix – like a traditionally-managed hay meadow strewn with rare species. There is a whimsical, fey, sometimes elegiac quality that evokes the ambience of an ‘Incredible String  Band’ album. It has been released in 2018 but could have been released in 1968 – a time-capsule of re-enchantment for our modern wasteland, a fool for a fisher king, an old goblet found in a field that turns out to be the Holy Grail (possibly).

Peter describes the ‘miraculous balance’ of the album (‘Between time and eternity, earth and heaven…’ as: ‘a still point to view our relationship with a bewildering complex world.’ It offers a counter-spell to our disembodied, virtual lives, grounded as it is in place and community. In its quiet, undemonstrative way it offers a way through: ‘by making the land a sacred part of [your] community.’ By knowing the land we come to know ourselves, and each has a place in the circle. Silbury hill, mysterious chalk mound, raised by many hands 4,500 years ago, is a testimony to this kind of mutual effort and wish to connect with something greater than ourselves, and Silbury, the album, does so to, in its singular way, rising against the chilly zeitgeist, an audial and ageless ‘Winterbourne’.

Kevan Manwaring, 3 August 2018

 

Silbury: the miraculous balance is available from Away Publications http://www.peteralfredplease.co.uk

Songwalker

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Going for a song. Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring July 2018

SINGING THE WAY

Recently I walked the Pennine Way national trail – a 253* mile footpath that runs from Edale Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. It follows, roughly, the spine of England – the Pennine Hills – into the Cheviots, and crosses three national parks: the Peak District, the  Yorkshire Moors, and the Northumberland national park, as well as the North Pennine Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I walked it solo (except for a couple of days when a dear friend joined me) over 18 days, with a couple of half-day rest-stops in Haworth and on Hadrian’s Wall. I wasn’t attempting to break any records or myself – it was my summer vacation ‘wind-down’, a detox from all things digital and academic, and I wanted to allow myself time to stand and stare, or sit and sketch, wild swim or wander lonely as a cloud, as the mood took me. To keep myself going over wild stretches of moorland, dusty tracks, or hot hillsides, I sang. This is the fourth long-distance path in which I’ve found singing has really helped me to ‘keep on keeping on’ – putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile, hour after hour, day after day, and, more, it really enriches the experience. Each day I chose a song – either learning it on the hoof, or drawing it from my repertoire. If it was a new song, I would sing each verse until I had committed it to memory, then moved on to the next, and so on, until ‘the form [had] patterned in my head’ (as the memorable poem, ‘Real Property’ by Harold Monro goes). Then I would sing it over a few times, finding my way into the song, finding the right voice for it. Often the song’s content, its mood, its message, would chime with the morning, with the landscape I was moving through, in synchronous and profound ways. It sometimes felt like a way of ‘giving thanks’ for the day, for reciprocating what I was experiencing – a praise song and a focalisation of my phenomenological interface with place and its ontological layers, or, to put it more simply: grooving on the genius loci.

Here are the songs I sang, in order (they represent the main ‘song of the day’ although others came and went organically). I selected songs that were thematically-apt or simply ‘jaunty’, amusing and morale-lifting.

Day 1, Edale to Torside: Mist-covered Mountains adapted from the Gaelic by Malcolm MacFarlane, version by Chantelle Smith.

Day 2, Torside to Standedge: Ramblin’ Man by Hank Williams.

Day 3, Standedge to Mankinholes: John Ball by Sydney Carter.

Day 4, Mankinholes to Haworth: The Skye Boat Song by Sir Harold Boulton.

Day 5, Haworth to Ickornshaw: The Boatman by The Levellers.

Day 6, Ickornshaw to Malham: Above (plus ‘Pendle Song’ shared by Anthony Nanson).

Day 7, Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale: The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl (plus ‘Scout Song’ by Anthony Nanson).

Day 8, Horton to Hawes: Green Grow the Rushes by Robert Burns.

Day 9: Hawes to Keld: Crooked Jack by Dominic Behan.

Day 10, Keld to Baldersdale: Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

Day 11, Baldersdale to Langdon Beck: A Place called England by Maggie Holland.

Day 12, Langdon Beck to Dufton: Wayfaring Stranger (Norma Waterson version)

Day 13, Dufton to Alston: Pilgrim on the Pennine Way by Pete Coe.

Day 14, Alston to Greenhead: This Land is Our Land by Woody Guthrie.

Day 15, Greenhead to The Sill: King of the Road by Roger Miller.

Day 16, The Sill to Bellingham: Carrick Fergus (Marko Gallaidhe version)

Day 17, Bellingham to Byrness: Man of Constant Sorrow (based upon a song by Dick Burnett)  John Allen / Victor Carrera / Scott Mills.

Day 18, Byrness to Kirk Yetholm: Caledonia by Dougie Maclean; Both Sides o’ Tweed by Dick Gaughan.

I would highly recommend this way of experiencing the landscape**. To start the day with a song in your heart lends wings to your feet. It is also is very liberating for the voice. In the middle of nature you can sing your heart out, without fear of criticism or ridicule. It hyper-sensitised my hearing whenever I fell silent (which was often for long stretches of time). And time and time again I found it created interesting encounters with animals. Song changes our relationship to nature – it plugs us into the grid of Creation. Many traditions talk of ‘divine utterance’ and the way the world was sung into being. In some small way, by songwalking, one feels part of this choir – both singing praise to the world and singing the world into being as each step reveals new wonders to our reawakened senses.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2 August 2018

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Cairn above Byrness, dawn of final day. Only 26 miles to go: songs don’t fail me now! K. Manwaring, July 2018

*The route can vary between 253 and 268 miles depending on optional routes, and distances of accommodation at the end of each day!

**If you are interested in songwalking get in touch. I would be fascinated to hear of your experiences, and would love to share a walk with you. Wayfarers of all abilities (poets, storytellers, artists, musicians, sound artists, etc) welcome!

Swimming in the River of Time

News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1890) by William Morris

 

 

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Kelmscott Manor, the beautiful home of William Morris. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

News from Nowhere is an iconic ‘fantasy’ novel from the Arts and Crafts visionary and polymath William Morris. Although it is an important work for its lucid dramatisation of Morris’ Socialist ideals, on the surface it appears to be a work of the Fantastic (a timeslip narrative with a loose science fictional device): a man called William ‘Guest’ (a thinly-veiled alter ego of the author) goes for a swim in the river Thames in the late 19th Century and emerges in the early 21st Century, to see a vision of England transformed into a place of restored beauty, craftsmanship, and co-operation. Guest explores this land, with the Thames providing the common link, as he slowly wends his way upriver. The novel’s extent is demarcate by two of his homes: in Hammersmith and Kelmscott, and focuses on a stretch of the river that Morris knew well. In this sense the novel is geographically unambitious, but in many other ways, it was thinking big – certainly beyond the consensus reality of his day. Morris reimagines reality according to his principles, providing a blueprint to aspire to, for some at least.

Morris’ utopia is vividly imagined and alluring on the surface, as pleasant to dip into a wild swim in a glittering river on a summer’s day: an aesthetic and harmonious Arts and Crafts utopia, with an emphasis on ‘work for pleasure’, common ownership, co-operation, and liberty to choose where one lives, one’s profession, and one’s morality. The self-governing anarchists live in beautiful houses, wear beautiful clothes, and make beautiful things. It is perhaps all too good to be true, and in most fictional utopias this is when the protagonist discovers the ugly truth, the mask slips, and they find themselves trapped in some nightmare.

Well, for some, Morris’ utopia undoubtedly would be.  It is perhaps a bit like living in a Tolkienesque Shire – a bucolic aesthetic that belies some worrying subtexts. For a start, it is completely Anglocentric – Morris depicts a very English utopia: what has happened to the rest of the world is not discussed, except for a brief, disparaging reference to America being reduced to a ‘wasteland’. There is a worrying emphasis on women being pretty – every female Guest meets is assessed in this way. The novel is clearly written from a male gaze. There is nothing ‘wrong’ about appreciating female beauty – but when it becomes the chief characteristic, the defining trait, that is problematic; in addition, the women are on the whole portrayed as being content in domestic roles, or being a bit empty-headed (except for the stonemason and the free-spirited Ellen, who is inquisitive and seems to know more than she lets on – a portrait of Jane Morris, similarly ‘snatched’ from the working classes; in the way Guest is clearly Morris himself?). Also, New from Nowhere is very white, cis-gendered, and straight, but Morris was writing from his time (late 19th C) even though he was imagining the early 21st Century. His imagine didn’t stretch far enough to imagine alterity. His vision seems impossibly idealistic, and relies upon the common decency and common sense of the masses – everyone being nice and abiding by agreed values – which, as we can see at the moment, is very unlikely, even when laws are enforced…There is the odd crime of passion, but these are forgiven by society as the perpetrator is left to come to terms with their actions. Yet human nature doesn’t tend to be that enlightened. Even if one society achieves this level, there will always be other groups wishing either to seize its resources or simply destroy it (as Aldous Huxley imagines in his heartbreaking utopia, Island).

Yet, Morris’s ‘utopian romance’ is a hopeful act of positive visualisation – a thought experiment for the world the Socialist Morris wish to see manifest. For him it was a vision much-longed for; and one he tried to implement with his restless energy and huge output. He perhaps achieved in at Kelmscott and the other centres of Arts and Crafts activity.

Now there is an appreciation of artisan skills, of the hand-made, the hand-crafted, the home-grown – farmers markets and craft markets are very popular; and Transition Town schemes are skilling people up for the ‘power down’… Alternative currencies such as LETS and Timeshare have been trialled, but the lack of money seems the least convincing of Morris’ notions – though with the devastation caused by Neoliberalism, perhaps the one that needs addressing as urgently as the environmental one. We need the replace the false economy of venture capitalism, of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ (based upon finite, dwindling resources and catastrophically damaged biosphere) with the more sustainable one of Deep Ecology.

Morris’ vision is a message in a bottle cast in time’s stream, and although it has many alluring qualities, perhaps it is not radical enough, as it clings to some medieval paradise that never was, yet these thought experiments are worth undertaking. Morris throws down the gauntlet for us all to imagine the world we would like to live in.

 

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The river Thames begins near Kemble, K. Manwaring 2018

 

 

Kevan Manwaring 17 June 2018

 

 

 

The Democracy of Water

Walking the Isis Way
(5-7 May 2018)

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Sun- and water-worshippers by the Isis, Port Meadow, Oxford, 6 May 2018

Over the May ‘bank holiday’ weekend (a funny way to mark a very special time of year – Beltane or International Workers’ Day are far more meaningful) blessed by glorious weather (for once!) I walked a 50 mile section of the Thames Path, a national long-distance footpath. Earlier in the year, when it had still felt chilly, I had run to the source from my house – a brisk, muddy ten miles – where a stone in a sleepy meadow near Kemble marks the official beginning of the 2nd longest river in England. It is rather shy to begin with, and doesn’t show its face until a field or two away. By the time it intersects its first road, it is a mere gleam in the grass, pristine as a May morning. It seems delicate, vulnerable, like any young soul – but it tentatively makes it way in the world, growing more confident with each winding mile, nurtured by supportive brooks and underlying acquifers, and in its hesitant movements it is as beautiful as a foal. Reeds flow like a mane beneath its transparent veil. It is hard to imagine this pellucid stream grows up to become TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’ but a great destiny awaits it – monarchs and bards will grace its currents, commerce and history will crowd its banks.

 

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The mighty Thames begins. Kevan Manwaring, Early Spring 2018

 

 

I walked this first section, to Cricklade, with a poet friend of mine, Brendan Georgeson, a couple of years ago. And then I walked the next section, from Cricklade to Lechlade, with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, in the early Spring – when it was still a bit nippy and dreary. Still, a lovely pub lunch awaited us, which made it all worthwhile.

And so to this early May weekend – with temperatures reaching the hottest on record – I set off for a solo three-day trek, picking up where I left off, from charming The Riverside Inn, Lechlade, and making my way to Dorchester-on-Thames, a sweaty forty-five plus river miles later. Although the Thames Path continues all the way to the Big Smoke, officially ending at the Thames Barrier, I was most interested in this section, the bulk of the Upper Thames, which technically terminates at Goring and Streatley, but I had walked into that area in 2004, when traversing the Ridgeway. And I had my sights set on the prominent and well-loved landmarks of Sinodun Hills, aka Wittenham Clumps, aka Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, as an end-point. Immortalised by the landscape painter, Paul Nash, who painted them obsessively, I had been drawn to them for years and finally visited them while researching folk tales of the county (Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2011).  They once were claimed by Berkshire (hence another one of their saucy epithets, the ‘Berkshire Bubs’), but for the purposes of this trip, I was claiming them as my place of psychogeographical pilgrimage.

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Wittenham Clumps sketch in watercolour, ink & chalk, Paul Nash (1912)

Also, the idea of walking the Isis rather than the Thames, appealed to my mythopoeiac sensibilities – reclaiming the name from its contemporary negative connotations (it belonged to an Egyptian goddess long before silly men got hold of it), this is the traditional name of the river until it reaches Dorchester-on-Thames (where it is conjoined by the river Thame), only then is it truly the Thames. Interestingly, its Celtic name was Tamesis (‘darkly flowing one’), which is uncannily like a compound of ‘Thames’ and ‘Isis’. To the Celts every body of water, spring, well, pool, lake and river, was a potential gateway to the Otherworld and many had a resident spirit to which offerings were made. In Bath, where I used to live, the goddess of the springs, Sulis, was worshipped. Even the conquering Romans acknowledged her, shrewdly assimilating the local cult by rebranding her ‘Sulis-Minerva’, and naming the city Aquae Sulis. Around Bath flows the river Avon, not the Avon of Stratford fame, but this is a common river name, derived from ‘Afon’, a Brythonic word for water. I suspect the locals were reluctant to reveal the name of the goddess, although we know of Sabrina (Severn), Belisima (Ribble), and of course the Thames (Tamesis), to name a few. Note they are all female. It is so telling that a feminine river is turned into a man: Old Father Thames. His statue (a hefty patriarch by Raffaelle Monti) once adorned the source, but was moved to St John’s Lock in the mid-70s after vandalism. It is an impressive sculpture, but I can’t help feeling it should be in Dorchester, and the Upper Thames should be graced with a monument to Isis (or Tamesis). After all, it has its own distinct geology and ‘feel’, as distinct from the Middle (London Borough) and Lower (downriver and estuary) Thames.

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 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet (1863)

Walking the river in solitude and peacefulness for three days I became intensely physical aware of the shape of the river, its sinuous meanderings, which it was hard not to see as feminine curves. The slow, breathy rhythm of my effort became a kind of extended foreplay, as I traced the hypnotic dance of Isis – mesmerised by her soothing song and constant flow. For much of the time I was in a non-verbal, liminal space. Thoughts were softened into impressions. I was reading the river in an embodied way, beyond language, beyond even conscious thought. The heat, light and near silence worked its spell. The scintillation of the sunlight upon the shifting surface intimated at unfathomable mysteries. Waterfowl, water- and river-bank users, the passing detail of a house, a moored vessel, a tree, or a bridge, occasionally arrested my attention – but all seemed like part of the river’s dream. It was easy to see why so many great literary classics have been borne by its waters: News from Nowhere, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Heart of Darkness…Ironically, I hardly wrote a thing. What inspiration the river gave me I carried away in my soul and soles. I taught me some valuable wisdom: surrender; grace; quietude and solitude; patience; effort and reward; flow, guidance and release. All seem blindingly obvious, but mean little without an embodied, visceral experience to hard-wire them into the body-mind.

 

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Bathers at Asnieres, George Seurat (1884)

 

Yet the egalitarian gifts of the river await all – and one need only spend some time on its banks, or in its water, to receive its gifts. A real highlight of the whole weekend was the wild-swimming. On the first day I went for a sneaky dip in the middle of nowhere and it felt almost illicit (but certainly most welcome after a hot day’s hike); but on the second I arrived at Port Meadow, on the edge of Oxford, to discover a kind of free festival of the river taking place. Crowds of water-worshippers had descended along the banks equipped with picnics, BBQs, inflatables, books, sound systems, and high spirits. It was like walking into an updated French Impressionist masterpiece: the sublime languor of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres, the bold sensuality of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the crowdedness of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.

 

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Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1881)

The atmosphere could have been overwhelming after two days of near solitude, but the prevailing energy was of sheer delight. One could almost hear a collective whoop of joy at the final unequivocal arrival of summer. There seemed to be a competition to display as much flesh as possible. Bright young things flung themselves with giddy abandon into the awaiting embrace of the Isis. The pool by Fiddler’s Island was especially popular, with teenagers lining up on the bridge to dare each other into increasingly wild dives and hysterics. Passing by much of these antics, I finally acquiesced to the irresistible tide of hedonism and, stripping down to my shorts, plunged in. Emerging from the refreshing coolness to bathe my beaded limbs in the strength of the sun, I savoured the endorphin glow – feeling wonderfully alive and thoroughly blessed by the Isis. All can enjoy the democracy of water.

 

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Bathers at Fiddler’s Island, K. Manwaring, 6 May 2018

‘A River Runs Through It’: my 4 page Thames Path feature appears in the summer issue of Cotswold Life. available from newsstands across the region now, or direct from the website:

http://www.cotswoldlife.co.uk/home

For information on the Thames Path national trail visit:

https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path

 

 

Visions of Albion

William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion

Petworth, 25th March.

Blake Another Sun

‘Visions of Albion’ offered an excellent overview of Blake’s time in the county (when he stayed at a cottage in Felpham on the south coast, 1800-1803), in the handsome surroundings of Petworth, now a National Trust property, and formerly the home of Lord Egremont and his wife, the Countess (who were both patrons of Blake and his widow).

 

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Blake’s Cottage, Felpham, Photo by K. Manwaring, 2017

 

Facing increasingly financial difficulties in London, Blake took the suggestion of the poet William Hayley to move to the pleasant cottage on the coast (‘the sweetest spot on Earth’, as he described it) as a lifeline. Hayley helped secure him the accommodation and provided him with several commissions for engravings and paintings. At first these were a great boon, but Blake started to see them as a bane, draining his creative energies and distracting him from his own visionary work. Yet he was not unproductive on that front. While at Felpham he wrote and illustrated two epic poems, ‘Milton’ and ‘Jerusalem’. In the former he penned the then untitled verse that was set to music by Parry in 1917, going on to become an unofficial national anthem (what Blake would have made of Tories, Last Night Prommers and WI members singing his invocation to the spiritual city of Jerusalem, which he saw as an emanation of the giant Albion, we can only speculate). In the latter epic poem, Blake wrote, ‘In Felpham I saw Visions of Albion’, and clearly it was a stimulating time for him, reflected in the artwork and writing on display at Petworth.

 

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The Last Judgement, William Blake, 1808

Chief among these are the three paintings commissioned by the Egremonts: ‘The Last Judgement’ (painted for the Countess, who was suffering her husband’s many infidelities and was perhaps considering his fate… In the painting the Countess herself is depicted rising to Heaven with her children); Lord Egremont was to request ‘Characters from Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ and paid Catherine Blake (by then Blake’s widow) a princely sum of eighty guineas for the painting on muslin. Also on display are the luminous watercolours Blake undertook for his friend and patron Thomas Butts of Biblical subjects – the graceful lines are clearly those of a trained engraver, and the colours of muted greys perhaps reflective of the Sussex coast (they vary dramatically from the intense, infernal palette of his London engravings). His three years on the coast (the only time Blake lived away from his beloved city) lingered in his artwork – nearly twenty years later his was to limn ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) which visibly draws upon remembered seascapes. The wild seas are perhaps indicative of the fact that Blake’s time in Felpham was not all idyllic. It was punctuated most violently by an altercation in his garden when he found two soldiers (invited by the gardener) who he forcibly ejected. He frogmarched one (Schofield) to the nearby pub. Hot words were exchanged, which landed Blake in court, charged with sedition (and physical assault). The latter charges were dropped (Blake initially defended himself), but the former could have had him doing the gallows dance if not for the intervention of Hayley’s solicitor. He was acquitted, but the incident left him badly shaken, and soured his time in Sussex. Even in Arcadia the iniquities of life had found him. It was time to return to the land he knew, London.

 

 

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Elizabeth Ilives was a remarkable woman, by all accounts. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

The small but fascinating exhibition displays the legal proceedings of Blake’s trial, plus his handwritten descriptions of his commissioned work, a letter from Catherine thanking Lord Egremont and other archives – rare editions and prints, alongside Blake’s originals, still luminous and arrestingly strange after all these years. Thomas Philips iconic portrait of Blake from 1807 portrays him in a borrowed studio coat and packages him as the romantic poet, eyes fixed on higher things, pen ready to channel the divine downloads from his angelic Muse – his lightning rod to the gods of his very singular pantheon. For a brief while, during his Felpham years, patronised by nobility, Blake tasted their ambrosia.

 

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Illustration for ‘Northern Lights’, by Philip Pullman

 

Alongside the Blake exhibition is a small display of Philip Pullman ‘lantern slides’, the illustrations the author provided for ‘His Dark Materials’. Pullman, a dedicated Blakean, is the president of the Blake Society. As a writer-artist he qualifies himself to join a rarefied fellowship that included Blake, Rossetti, Peake and few others who achieved excellence in both. Pullman makes no bold claims about his own artistic ability, but the metonymic motifs are strong designs that adorn the text handsomely. They are perhaps closest too Blake’s wood-cuts, a series of which are displayed at Petworth (a commission by Dr Robert John Thornton of ‘Pastorals of Virgil’). As a carpenter, Pullman no doubt found an affinity in this exquisite working of his dryad material. Elsewhere in the North Gallery of the main house – a sizeable hall filled with statuary and paintings there are works by Turner and Fuseli (a kindred spirit in his use of symbolism). The house itself is packed with social history, both upstairs and down; the Capability Brown gardens extended as far as the eye could see but farther than legs wanted to carry; the daffodils and follies made us linger awhile but eventually we departed, knowing other treasures await for future visits.

 

Rotunda at Petworth

Ionic Rotunda, 1766, Petworth, in the Capability Brown gardens, K. Manwaring 2018