Category Archives: Britain

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

 

 

 

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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.

 

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

 

 

 

Walking with a Friend

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Anthony on Mynydd Du by K. Manwaring 2018

 

Going for a stroll with a friend – an amicable amble, as it were – is one of life’s great pleasures. With a good friend the logistics of the day (if it is a long hike) do not become an effort: there is an organic, spontaneous feel to things. Even if a general itinerary has been agreed upon (a rough loop around a valley, a hope to reach a certain interesting landmark) in-the-moment diversions may be taken, arborescent pathways, roads-less-taken, echoing the digressional quality of the conversation, which has a free-ranging spirit. Anything may be discussed –the profane to the profound, the intimate to the trivial, heretical thoughts and transgressive reflections. Nothing is beyond the pale of conversation’s wilderness garden. Nothing is judged weedish and inappropriate. There is no harsh judgement, cultural approbation, twitter-storm, or trigger-happy ‘outraged’ waiting to descend upon you if you say something that is not in line with the popularity morality (or perceived performance thereof).  You can enjoy a hashtag free dialogue for once, nuanced by non-verbal communication – embodied and ensouled in the actuality of the moment, not in some virtual sphere of imagined connection. Beyond the reductive dualism of the binary there is a prismatic spectrum. Bumbling along in our ‘meat-suits’ (as those who spend too long on line call them), at home in our bodies in the true eco-system of things, we ‘arrive in time’ (as Laurie Lee put it). Immersed in the world of the  senses, colours, shapes, textures, smells, sounds explode around you. You struggle up a slippery, muddy path – little more than stream bed – to emerge breathless above the tree-line, onto hoar-frosted heathland, blinding in its brilliance beneath the sharp winter sun in the naked sky. Talking clouds in the frozen air, you pause for a cuppa at a stile. Enjoy the Ice Age view and the burn in the limbs. Share tunnocks and jelly-beans. Ideas and feelings. Stand and stare in an animal state of beingness, like a wild horse on a hillside. And this is enough. With a good friend there are comfortable lacuna in the colloquy, companionable silences. These interstices, when you may walk ‘apart together’ are just as important as the moments of intersection. Critically, they allow us to expand our awareness beyond the anthropocentric, the human bubble, to our surroundings. In silent communion with a landscape, in time, we experience ‘heath-mind’ or ‘wood-mind’, ‘stream-mind’ or ‘rock-mind’. In an encounter with another form of life – a bird on a gate-post, a cow in a field, a butterfly on the breeze, a seal in the surf – our consciousness may flip for a moment. In a flash of fith-fath we may find ourselves experiencing the world from a non-human paradigm. As we walk along, alone, by ourselves, together, we may feel something start to stir, the presentiment of an idea, preparing to be born, given sufficient time and space. We may not be able to articulate it yet, but we know it is there. We incubate it deep inside, beneath layers of woolly hats, waterproofs, thermals, thick socks. Our winter plumage. The Spring in us, waiting in the wings. Too much talk, too much company, can cast these fledgling thoughts out of the nest too soon.  Inspiration needs space to grow. A good friend knows this, notices when you need a moment by yourself. In the same way that they don’t just talk about them self but allow you to respond, and show genuine curiousity and emotional engagement about your own life, so they know when you don’t wish to respond, when you would prefer to be peaceful for a while. Walking with a friend there is a leaning-out as well as a leaning-in. This mutuality, and ease of decision that goes with it, are the destressors of the day alongside the physical and mental health benefits of being outdoors, having a bit of exercise and getting away from it all. The Japanese notion of ‘forest therapy’ (“shinrin yoku,” literally “forest bathing”) walks hand-in-hand with ‘friend therapy’. A friend allows you to be yourself. With a good friend you can drop down into the deep well of your own being – without trying to be anything or prove anything, you are more fully yourself. They invite us to shake hands with our soul. We are reminded of who we truly are, of slumbering potentials and forgotten promises to ourselves. The voices and wishes we thought we’d honour – which once rang out but have been drowned by the clamour of the world, until, in a forest clearing, or by a glittering brook, we hear them again. And they were always there, patiently waiting for us.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

With many thanks to Anthony Nanson (& to Kirsty Hartsiotis, for the lovely meal upon our return and further scintillating conversation).

Between a Thing and a Thought

‘A picture has been said to be something between a thing and a thought.’
Samuel Palmer

Review of Gauguin: The Other World and Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment.

I have recently read two excellent examples of the graphic novel form (and these definitely do justice to that term, being complete, complex narratives), which share a commonality of intent and execution, being both biographical in nature and mirroring in their artistry the artistry they exalt.

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The first is Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori, published in translation (Edward Gauvin’s) by SelfMade Hero as part of their high quality Art Master series in 2016. Dori’s style evokes the spirit of Gauguin’s work with skilled confidence. Some directly reference the French Synthesist’s paintings, while others draw upon a more atavistic style inspired by Tahitian art, but each panel is virtually a work of art in itself. This does not mean the pages are stilted, a series of static vignettes, for each panel subsumes its own wonder to the sequential flow. This is a mature form of visual storytelling, Bande Desinée having evolved their own aesthetic rules, just as much as Manga. It has the feel of a French art house movie more than a Hollywood ‘biopic’. Yet it is never obscure and unrelatable – Gauguin’s story is well-dramatized. The subject is a classic malcontent anti-hero – self-obsessed, uncompromising, flawed, the artist is rendered with feet of clay. Dori’s Gauguin offers us a fully-rounded portrait of this ‘driven’ visionary who abandoned his aristocratic heritage, successful career as a stockbroker and Danish wife and family to pursue his vision to a Polynesian Eden. The story is boldly-structured, with the framing narrative being an Underworld Journey, the deceased Gauguin being led through the archipelago of his memory by a Tahitian psychopomp. Dori deploys Polynesian cosmology and eschatology in a striking way, relocating the ‘gaze’ from a white, Western perspective to an indigenous one. Gauguin is the intruder in paradise here and he is observed and judged throughout by the ancient spirits of the islands he moves to in search of his muse. The locals are depicted far more sympathetically than Gauguin or his fellow Parisians back home, without them becoming ‘Noble Savages’. His native wife, Teura, is far from perfect but clearly has her own agency and power. In the end it is clear Gauguin is his own worst enemy. This is no hagiography, but it nevertheless vividly brings alive his remarkable life and artistic achievement, and as such it serves as an excellent introduction to the artist and his work. To help provide a clear-eyed, factual overview there is an excellent essay on Gauguin’s life at the end of the graphic novel by Céline Delavaux – a classy finishing touch to a classy production.

Alice.jpgThe other graphic novel I picked up in Durham after seeing some of the original artwork in an exhibition at the Palace Green Library, ‘Between Worlds: Folk and Fairy Traditions in Northern Britain’. Pages depicting the local folk tales, ‘The Cauld Lad of Hylton’ and ‘The Lambton Worm’ led me to Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment, by Bryan Talbot, an artist best known for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, although I first came across him in the pages of 2000AD, when I used to collect it back in prehistory. I always liked his sleek style, but in this tour-de-force Talbot shows he is a ‘multiple-trick equine’. In his dazzling range of styles and bold use of technology Talbot shows he is a modern master of sequential art. Framed as an evening’s vaudevillian cabaret in the shabby splendour of the ‘Empire’, an old theatre in Sunderland, Talbot draws us in via a ‘Plebeian’ Everyman. A white rabbit-masked ‘Performer’ hosts the ‘numerous interesting diversions and entertainments’ – beneath the mask a Hermes-haired Talbot-as-Thespian is revealed. And a black-attired ‘Pilgrim’, a heterodiegetic* narrator closer to the actual Talbot (the artist, writer, researcher and resident), leads us on a psychogeographical perambulation around the city and the region. All parts are ‘played’, with amusing irony, by Talbot, the self-styled ‘Wigan Titwillow’ himself – exaggerating his best or worst qualities, as both a performance of the ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Self, but also as a way of providing his own dialectic. The Plebeian heckles or mocks, thus destabilizing the pretentious edifice the Performer builds with his indulgent digressions, while at the same time allowing him to get away with it. With one foot in the Pit and one in the Gods, Talbot leads us through a dazzling, distracting Wonderland of social history, psychedaelia, comic art theory, and serious research into the region’s connection with the evolution of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Talbot steps through the mirror of Alice myth and what he finds there is remarkable.  With the help of the PhD research by Michael Bute and other Carrollian scholars, Talbot convincingly deconstructs the popular ‘dreamchild’ theory about Carroll (Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) as the shy Oxford scholar unable to relate to his fellow adults, who nurses a disturbing interest in young girls. Celebrating the visuality of the first editions (brilliantly illustrated by John Tenniel), Talbot riffs on the eye-bending aesthetics throughout, blending in a myriad of examples that the iconic books have spawned – possibly the first transmedia ‘texts’. This is the strongest ‘thread’ of the narrative, the heart of the book, when Talbot is really firing on all cylinders as an artist and storyteller (his classic comic strip version of ‘The Lambton Worm’ is superb). The dedicated, some would say obsessive sense of place, in this extended praise song to his adopted town is admirable in its celebration of local distinctiveness and its effort to re-enchant a run-down, often neglected, and sometimes demonised, part of Britain, but these sections are the most leaden, weighed down as they are by lengthy exposition, and at times the project is at risk of coming across as a ‘Visitor’s Guide to Tyne and Wear’. When it is relevant to the Alice ‘creation myth’ he is constructing, then these asides are acceptable, but often Talbot tells us indulges too much in his local history discoveries. Some of it is interesting and overall the endeavour reinforces my idea that ‘the universal is best expressed through the particular’. Go deep enough and far enough and everything connects with everything else, as Jeremy Hooker affirms in his essay on Richard Jefferies (also accused of parochialism):

Any place is capable of being experienced as a centre of inexhaustible significance and manifold local and universal connections, especially to the people who live there. (Hooker, 2017: 20)

Despite the feeling of ‘too much information’ at times, it is in this heart-felt and full-bloodied evocation of the genius loci that Talbot’s project really nails its colours to its mast. The magic is not ‘elsewhere’, amid the Dreaming Spires of the Oxford elite or in London’s cyclopean dominance, but here and now, beneath our feet, wherever we live.

Over the millennia stories have revealed the magic in the places where they take place. (Talbot, 2017: 9)

The most effective of these ‘Rough Guide’ pages are where Talbot-as-Pilgrim meets fellow creatives, writer Chaz Brenchley and sculptor Colin Wilbourn, who co-created the Sculpture Trail that runs through Sunderland’s old dockyards. Wittily dramatized, it provides an insight into how art is created, its relationship with the environment and the community that live there.

Shining through the whole Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds exuberance of it all is a strong sense of ‘authenticity’ (performed or otherwise), of an individual voice and vision, of a maverick artist dancing with the form he has mastered.  It feels Talbot is free to do or say anything, bestowing upon the formality of the ‘proscenium arch’ pages, a frisson of gleeful wildness and creative possibility which is exhilarating and infectious. It really throws down the gauntlet.

At over three hundred pages, Alice in Sunderland is an incredible achievement – it brims with erudition, enthusiasm, wit and artistic brilliance. Talbot in ludic, lucid, Carrollian form, is really at the top of his game here. A must read for any student of sequential art.

Both graphic novels show what can be done with the form, the ‘ninth art’, and the way it can achieve far more than image or text can by themselves. As Palmer’s quote suggests (if it we may apply it to the pictorial storytelling of the sequential art) it is an art form that happens in the interstices, the stars in the gutter – the ubiquitous gap between panels where, as McCloud (1993) points out, time does mysterious things and the human imagination animates the vacuum. The little death of each frame is unfrozen from eternity back into time’s stream, as we learn to mind the gap.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

 

Hooker, J. (2017) Ditch Vision: essays on poetry and place, Stroud: Awen

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. NY: William Morrow.

*Heterodiegetic (and its sister term, ‘Homodiegetic’) coined by the academic Jeremy Scott (‘The Craft of Creative Writing’, Contemporary Cultures of Writing: Creativity, Language and Creative Writing Seminar Series, Senate House, University College London, 17 October 2017), referring to the narrator ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ the text respectively.

 

Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori (SelfMade Hero, 2016) Available from http://selfmadehero.com/

Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment by Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape, 2007). Available from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/vintage/jonathan-cape/

 

 

Between Worlds

 

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”And see ye not yon bonny road
  That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
  Where thou and I this night maun gae.” Sign outside Between World’s exhibition, K. Manwaring 30 Dec. 2017

This small but stimulating exhibition at the Palace Green Library in Durham, overlooked by the magnificent cathedral and castle, explores the Fairy and Folk Traditions of Northern Britain (including the Scottish Borders) – my main locus of interest in my current PhD research at the University of Leicester. It seeks to deconstruct the popular image of the ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairy derived from Peter Pan and other sentimental Victoriana (the byproduct of a high infant mortality and ‘cult of Childhood’). It focuses on the following: the supernatural ballad of  ‘Thomas the Rhymer’; Reverend Robert Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; the Myth of Middridge; Lady Ragnall/The Loathly Lady; The Cauld Lad of Hylton (and the Lambton Worm); and Mother Shipton. These were laid out in a rectangular ‘circuit’, with cases displaying mostly rare manuscripts or editions (this being a library-based exhibition). Low lighting (no doubt to protect the MSS) and an atmospheric  (owls, distant bells, horse hooves, rough weather) soundtrack helped to create a suitable ambience.

 

For me, the highlight was seeing the ‘other’ Kirk MS, the only one I hadn’t seen in person (only on microfilm in the University of Edinburgh Special Collections library).  Unfortunately only one page of the small bound copy was on display in its hermetically-sealed case. As it is one of EUL’s icons it is extremely rare and valuable. Still, it was good to see it, as I was able to gauge the differences from the other versions (handwriting; phrasing of title; ordering of epigraphs; date) so familiar have I become with them.

The other highlight was beholding the first handwritten version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (written down from an oral performance). It is so familiar, one forgets it was written down somewhere by somebody and sometime, and, before that, composed orally and kept alive through the oral tradition (apparently passed down through the female line). The handwriting was legible and it was reassuring to see that the wording was pretty much as I knew it. I had created an Anglicized version a long time back for performance purposes, but this wasn’t that dissimilar.

Many of the tales featured exist in ballad form too – there is a clear overlap between the two. There were headphones playing some on a loop, but perhaps more could have been made of this (I am thinking of the excellent multi-media exhibition at The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr, which really celebrates the oral culture of his work).

One thing that was lacking from the exhibition was a sense of interrogation about the forces that influenced the remarkable proliferation of folk and fairy traditions in the north of England and the Scottish Borders – something I have written about in my paper on Borderlands (presented at ‘Haunted Landscapes’, a 2014 Falmouth Symposium).

Clearly, the curators were restricted by the space – too much would have ‘crowded’ the exhibition. They had to make it accessible, and appealing to all backgrounds and ages (they had ‘fairy doors’ at child hood running around the walls and a ‘Fairy Investigators Guide’ for spotting the different residents). Overall, ‘Between Worlds’ offers a good introduction to the supernatural heritage of the region, tempting visitors to look further by visiting the actual sites or by looking up the source texts.

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A recreation of the ‘Minister’s Pine’, Doon Hill, Aberfoyle, where you could leave a wish or a prayer. ‘Between Worlds’, K. Manwaring, 30 Dec. 2017

 

‘Between Worlds’ runs until 25 February 2018 at Palace Green Library, University of Durham https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/

Walking with a King

It is a dream I have…

(Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

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Tintagel at dusk, K. Manwaring, 1 September 2017

I have just returned from undertaking a 60-odd mile walk in Cornwall on the trail of King Arthur. As I sit here nursing my blisters and aching bones (carrying a full pack – camping along the way – can be punishing) I reflect upon why I embarked upon such an apparently foolhardy quest… At times it certainly felt so as I traipsed along B-roads in the rain, facing oncoming traffic when I was left with no other choice than to take the metalled backlanes. I experienced the worst rain ever on one of my long distance walks – beating even the Highlands – a day of perpetual heavy deluge that left everything soaked and my spirits sapped. And I had to negotiate the ridiculous fastnesses of large estates with ‘private roads’ which on the OS map look just like farm tracks (in Scotland the access laws are far more lenient).

Yet despite all of that there were breaks in the cloud – glorious mornings overlooking dramatic coves, the light sublime on silver and pewter seas, sun-dappled hollow lanes and secret paths, charming villages and harbours, and of course the legend-soaked landmarks. And yet even that may not have warranted such exertion – I had visited most of the ‘Arthur’ sites before (Tintagel; Castle Dore; Tristan stone) and there are certainly easier ways of getting to them, but that would have been missing the point – for my intent was to create a kind of ‘pilgrimage’ route. And as any pilgrim knows, the greater the effort, the greater the effect – the epiphany is direct relation to the ardour of the journey. To rock up on an air-con coach to a site, alight, take a few selfies, buy a bit of tourist tat, shove an ice-cream in your face and wobble on board again – bucket list item ticked, but not truly seen, heard, felt or savoured – is not the same experience as someone who has arrived at the site either on foot, on push-bike or on horse-back. Yes, there’s a place for all kinds of visitor – not everyone is mobile and these places are for all (as long as the tourism doesn’t destroy them).

But I know which one I prefer.

As an example, I have visited Avebury stone circle many times, but the instance that was most impactful was when I had walked there over 4 days along the Ridgeway – arriving with something analogous to the consciousness of a Neolithic pilgrim. The effect was euphoric (I’m sure those who have undertaken the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu feel the same). So, I’ve visited most of the sites on this trip recently (some this year) but this was qualitatively different. I was going it alone, under my own steam, working out the route as I went (rather than following an established trail). I like the creative challenge of finding links between places. There is a narrative there in the landscape waiting for us to notice it.

Yet, why King Arthur?

I was obsessed with all things Arthurian in my early twenties – and that compelled to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend. And in my early thirties I co-created and performed in a 2 hour show called ‘Arthur’s Dream’ with Fire Springs. And in my early forties I wrote my Arthurian novel, a dystopian vision of an alternative Britain (This Fearful Tempest). But these waves of Arthurian fever are often followed by Arthurian fatigue. My reference books lay on their shelves neglected.

And now … all of that seems so remote, belonging to a more innocent time (remember the ‘New Age’ and the optimism that built up towards the Millennium?). Now we live in times which are far more overtly cynical, dangerous and wilfully antagonistic to intellectual discourse, liberal values, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality and human rights. Don’t we have a duty to engage with that, rather than running off physically or mentally, creating castles in the air, losing ourselves in fantasy or the nostalgia of the past? Perhaps, but burn out reduces the capacity to be effective in any capacity, so breaks, holidays, retreats, etc, are essential. Also, we are most effective when using our strengths and talents – in my case, and in the case of many of my friends, that’s creatively. The ‘war’ we’re embroiled – whether we like it or not – is a war of ideas that takes place in hearts and minds. That is where toxic or beneficial concepts flower or whither, take root, prosper or die.

Ideas, as they say, are bullet-proof.

One idea that has survived the centuries is that of Camelot (e.g. JFK’s use of it in the early 60s). I am not personally interested in whether King Arthur actually existed or not – trying to prove that he was this or that person, lived here or there … I think that’s missing the point.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Lorna Smithers listing of his ‘war-crimes’ (see her provocative poem, ‘Wanted’, on her blog Signposts in the Mists) is a sobering counter-spell to the Medieval glamour which has lingered ever since, the fairy dust that will not fade – but is perhaps one extreme of a spectrum, with the numerous awful movie versions at the other end (John Boorman’s Excalibur being the shining exception) ‘truth’ being somewhere in the middle.

Yet there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.

But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route (and this is only the very earliest stages of  long-term project) is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream will require inspired leadership. But for now – I’ve had the vision, taken the first step (in fact quite a few) and I’ve had a taste of what it feels like to walk along the mythways of Arthur.

 

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Coast to Coast: walking from North to South Cornwall. The view near Polperro, 5 September 2017

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 7 September 2017