Category Archives: Climate Change

Extinction Cabaret Podcast

Dr Greenlove

‘Welcome to Extinction Cabaret!’                                                          Kevan Manwaring performs as Dr Greenlove

 

Come to the Extinction Cabaret and sing the songs of the Earth! Share your praise-poems for our precious planet! Recite your monologues of love and sorrow! Weep and laugh at the madness of it all, and inspire yourself and others to take positive action!

Extinction Cabaret was organised by Kevan Manwaring, and took place on Sunday, 13th October, Downstairs at The Western, Leicester, 7-10pm. It was part of the Everybody’s Reading Festival 2019.

Listen to the Podcast here.

TRACKS

  1. Planet Blues: Sara Vian
  2. Introduction: Dr Greenlove
  3. Choices: Kevan Manwaring
  4. Extinction Rebellion: Judy from XR Leicester
  5. House on Fire: Sara Vian
  6. Do What’s Best for the Planet: floor spot from Tony
  7. Lament for the Trees: Paul Francis
  8. 3 Short Poems: Steve Wylie
  9. When Life Gives You Lemons: Sara Vian
  10. Zero Time: floor spot from Greg
  11. Washing the Sea: Paul Francis
  12. Blessed is the Mother: Kevan Manwaring
  13. Keep Your Faith: Sara Vian
  14. Bellwether: Kevan Manwaring
  15. The Sailor and the Magician: Paul Francis
  16. The Calving of the Berg: Kevan Manwaring
  17. Beautiful Love: Sara Vian
  18. Silent Watchman – Steve Wylie
  19. Beautiful Soul – Sara Vian
  20. Don’t Push the River – Paul Francis

Thank you to all the contributors, especially to our special guests Sara Vian and Paul Francis, to Everybody’s Reading Festival, to James and the staff at The Western, and to Chris Watson from Music Eye for recording it all.

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Sara Vian

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Paul Francis, Troubadour from the 7th dimension                            aka Dr Space Toad

 

Time To Get Out the Shovels

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A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle –

A  Retro Review

This novel feels eerily relevant even though it was published in 2000. Boyle tragic-comic novel imagines the world in 2025 – one of perpetual Climate Chaos, Biblical deluges, mass extinctions, resource stress, and an endemic breakdown of civilisation. Yet despite this bleak (and all too plausible) scenario, Boyle somehow manages to import some black humour into the situation. The central protagonist is the colourfully named Tyrone O’Shaughnessey Tierwater (mirroring the author’s own Celtic nomenclature), a septuagenarian environmental activist turned glorified zoo keeper for a Mick Jagger-esque super-rich rock star, who has a wish to preserve the unloved species of the planet – the hyenas and other scavengers – within the compounds of his West Coast estate.  We find Tierwater drolefully eking out his autumnal years, obsessed with his failing body and lack of sex life, when the arrival of his ex, the deadliest of species, Andrea – a formidable, and still attractive powerhouse – and an annoying tag along, April Wind, who wishes to write the story of Tierwater’s daughter, Sierra: a heroine of the protest movement. The narrative bifurcates at this point – between the dramatic present, told in first person, and the vivid flashbacks, related in close third person. The vignettes from the more reckless, seemingly resource plentiful past, provide an ironic counterpoint; and the accounts of Tierwater’s increasingly reckless direct actions offer a poignant thumb-in-the-dyke to the consequences of a world past tipping point, where the floodwaters rise and no Noah is going to save the animals. The monkeywrenching is comically related, and Boyle’s book consciously picks up the baton of Edward Abbey’s 70’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang – updating it with millennial sensibilities. Boyle’s book is filled with brilliantly rendered characters and a vividly-realised, convincingly researched world. Even in the chaotic cascade of it all, one still comes away with a crazy sense of hope, but one tempered by the reality checks of the severity of what we face, and the fallibility of those who must deal with it: the Augean Stables of it all. Time to get out the shovels.

Kevan Manwaring

The Golden Room podcast: Episode #1

The Golden Room Logo

The Golden Room podcast #1

An Ecobardic Showcase (pt 1)

Welcome to The Golden Room podcast – a celebration of poetry, storytelling, music, song, conversation, and creative fellowship.

Created and hosted by writer, poet, and storyteller Kevan Manwaring, the plan is to release a new episode on the 3rd Sunday of the month – with this double launch on the Autumn Equinox being the exception! Roughly an hour long, each episode offers an immersive and relaxing medley of contributions – ideal to commute to, cook to, or sit back and unwind to: however you listen you are most welcome into The Golden Room.

50th BIRTHDAY POSTER new

The first two episodes offer a chance to eavesdrop upon An Ecobardic Showcase, a special evening which took place in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 17th August, 2019. It was a double-celebration of Kevan Manwaring’s 50th and his doctorate. Proceeds went to Tree Aid – a worthy cause which you can still donate too, here:

https://www.justgiving.com/treeaid

The evening was excellently MCed by the inimitable Anthony Nanson. His links and much of the convivial atmosphere is edited out, to tidy up the raw recording (expertly done by Chantelle Smith; with help from Brendan Georgeson on PA, and thanks to Simon Fairbourn for loan of the recording device), but we hope you still get some sense of the atmosphere. Finally, many thanks to BAFTA Crew composer Rosemary Duxbury, for kindly allowing use of her sublime track, ‘Reverie’. Check out my interview and review of her latest release, ‘Thread of Gold’, after listening to the show.

LISTEN TO THE GOLDEN ROOM PODCAST #01 HERE

Tracks:

  1. [00:00] Intro: Kevan Manwaring
  2. [00:47] Reverie: Rosemary Duxbury  (Catherine Musker, viola & Patricia Siffert, piano)/[02:15] The Golden Room by Wilfrid Gibson, read by Kevan Manwaring
  3. [07:59] Welcome: a song by Chantelle Smith
  4. [08:22] Fifty: a poem by Kevan Manwaring
  5. [10:46] Mist-covered Mountains: a song by Chantelle Smith
  6. [13:20] The Dog: a story by Wayland the Skald
  7. [21:21] A Valentine for New Albion: a poem by Jeff Cloves
  8. [29:18] Overheard at Ascot; What the I Says: poems by Gabriel Bradford Millar (with Anthony Nanson)
  9. [32:35] Pan at My Window: a poem by Richard Austin
  10. [34:44] Planet Blues: a song by Sara Vian
  11. [37:51] Therapy: a poem by Brendan the Pop Poet
  12. [40:22] The Earth, She Moves Within: a poem by Joziat Khimba
  13. [45:45] The Butterfly Bishop: story by Kirsty Hartsiotis
  14. [55:21] Claw-hammer: Banjo by Scott Freer
  15. [59:10] Outro: by Kevan Manwaring/Reverie – reprise.


NEXT: THE GOLDEN ROOM EPISODE #2 An Ecobardic Showcase pt 2 – available from 22nd September. 

Look out for episode #3: 20th October – An Extinction Cabaret special!

 

 

Striding Edge

Striding Edge

Striding Edge, Helvellyn, Cumbria, K. Manwaring, 2019

Striding Edge

To walk in the light

after hours, years,

of effort.

The view from up here

is vertiginous,

the visceral kick

a real high,

as long as you hold

your nerve.

Stay straight and true,

make each foot fall

count.

Every step up here

counts for hundreds

below.

And then, heart pounding,

you are on the other side,

and can look back

full of pride and relief,

before you turn to the

cliff that awaits

to be climbed.

 

Kevan Manwaring

Ecotopia – a review

Ecotopia Cover

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

First published in 1975, but more relevant now than ever, this is a flawed but important book. Using an epistolary form the novel purports to be the ‘notebooks and reports of William Weston’, an American journalist who undertakes a long assignment in the country of Ecotopia – formerly the western states of the USA, which have broken off from the union to follow a Green agenda and achieve an aspirational ‘stable state’ eco-economy. Chapter by chapter, Weston’s despatches methodically chart Ecotopian society, technology, culture and morality – Callenbach’s expositional device for working through virtually aspect of modern life and reimagining it in an environmental, sustainable way. Although serious thought and research has clearly gone into the wide-ranging solutions, the ficto-critical framing device feels a bit thinly veiled and unconvincing at times – a creaky means for stringing together a series of essays. There is a character arc, though, and even a ‘shift’ – a moment of gnosis – when the professional cynical, ‘hard-nosed’ Weston finally sees the light. As the querulous everyman Weston articulates the scepticism of the average reader, circumventing any criticism. Yet the exhaustive listing of eco-techno life-style fixes comes across a bit like a Whole Earth Catalog more than a novel. The introduction of Marissa, a forthright Ecotopian woman, does help to create some emotion in an otherwise concept driven narrative. As the ‘object of desire’ she animates Weston and is instrumental in his Damascus-like experience. Weston’s dilated attempts to meet with the President of Ecotopia, and his desire to return home provide rather underpowered narrative traction otherwise. Yet one suspects a gripping thriller is not what Callenbach was attempting here – but without that quality, it makes the ‘novel’ less appealing to a wider audience. It is the kind of thing read by the ‘converted’. How persuasive it would be at winning over eco-sceptics (or these days, climate change deniers) is negligible. In terms of novels which successfully explore an ecological agenda in an effective narrative form, one would be better off with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (also from 1975) – more fun, though less morally constructive. But this is the crux of the matter. Writing utopia is a challenge. It has produced some impressive, and certainly interesting (if not effective) novels: Erewhon by Samuel Butler, Thomas More’s Utopia, William Morris’ News from Nowhere, and Aldous Huxley’s Island among others. Perhaps the most accomplished eco-novel of recent years is The Overstorey by Richard Powers (although it’s bleak assessment of humanity is hardly utopian). In terms of the kind of interrogation of every aspect of society that Callenbach attempts Ursula K. Le Guin does it better – in The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness supremely so. But Callenbach’s ‘novel’ is undoubtedly a very timely book – one that dares to challenge (almost) every aspect of modern life in an accessible and practicable way (i.e. in its reimagining of the education system it seems to have devised the prototype of Forest Schools). In this sense it is ‘novel’ – it offers something new (for its time). Now over forty years ago, technology has obviously moved on, and the challenges that the Climate Emergency presents us are far more challenging. The tragedy is that we were aware of the danger signals, and knew what to do, all those decades ago and failed to act. And now it may be too late. Yet perhaps more than ever we stories of hope in the face of such a far-reaching crisis.

The Monkey Wrench Gang – a retro review

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – a retro review

The Monkey Wrench Gang cover

This iconic, influential novel originally published in 1975 inspired a whole generation of environmental campaigners – in particular Earth First!,, but also the ‘Pixie’ road-protesters of the 90s – and in the light of the recent wave of protests by Extinction Rebellion, Culture Declares Emergency, and Climate Strikes/ #FridaysforFuture (started by the inspiring 16 year schoolgirl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg), and the whole schlew of forthcoming protests (e.g. Earth Strike on 27th September), it seems timely to revisit it. Although this recent activity is impressive and impactful, it is good to remember environmental campaigning has been going on for a long time. Yes, it may be argued that it hasn’t been effective enough/gone far enough; that it is imperative to declare a Climate Emergency and take immediate action – absolutely. But the awareness we have now is largely due to careful, time-consuming science, and the tireless campaigning of numerous NGOs, grassroots initiatives, and individuals – often unsung, under the radar, but all adding the long-term effort. This latest spike in activity and media coverage hasn’t come from nowhere, and current eco-protesters stand on the shoulders of giants: Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Peter Scott, Roger Deakin, and many, many more. One of these, it could be argued, is Edward Abbey, whose book – a mere novel – has cast a long shadow. A rip-roaring anti-establishment satire and edgy eco-thriller, it seems wantonly disreputable in comparison to such esteemed company. It relates the triumphs, tribulations, and misadventures of a group of four self-elected eco-protesters (the wayward Dr Sarvis; his sometime companion, the Jewish New Yorker, Ms Azzbug; explosive Vietnam veteran George Hayduke; and wilderness guide and Jack Mormon, Seldom Seen Smith), who, over the course of a boat trip, hatch a (rough) plan to cause as much havoc as possible to disrupt the decimation of the epic canyon country of the American West. What begins as a series of relatively minor symbolic protests (the torching of billboards, the damaging of engines) quickly escalate into some spectacular destruction (the mass wrecking of whole road building operations; factories; and bridges). We may not condone any of the miscreant behaviour – it goes way beyond non-violent direct action when guns and bombs are deployed – but we can thrill to read of the colourful escapades of this modern day outlaw gang. Abbey clearly draws upon the Western genre, as well as the chase thriller (e.g. John Buchan; Geoffrey Houseshold), but his punchy, over-packed prose has more in common with Hunter S. Thompson and Chuck Palahniuk. Purists would no doubt dismiss the gang outright for, among other eco-crimes, littering – calling them hypocrites. But they are not meant to be E.C. (ecologically correct), but fully-rounded, deeply flawed characters. Abbey was not trying to write a manual for budding eco-warriors, signalling his virtue to the world – but write an entertaining novel which makes a point. It certainly crackles with an angry fire at the destruction of the remaining American wilderness, but it seems intent to be more provocative than coercive or corrective. It does not seek to offer a blueprint for a better way of living – but its wild energy and excoriating critique of the ‘System’, still can inspire to this day*. But don’t follow it literally. As Abbey, the sardonic trickster, himself warns: ‘Anyone who takes this book seriously will be shot. Anyone who does not take it seriously will be buried alive by a Mitsubishi bulldozer.’

Kevan Manwaring

 

*Abbey’s novel is a brilliant example of how the arts can engage with the environmental movement. FFI see Culture Declares Emergency: 

https://sites.google.com/view/culturedeclaresemergency/home

The Overstory – a review

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

This ambitious, arborescent novel is a towering achievement – I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time. Powers’ Booker-short-listed magnum opus attempts the maximalist grand narrative of the classic Victorian novel, as the title, The Overstory, suggests. Shattered by Modernism, and scattered by Post-Modernism, perhaps it is time for its rehabilitation and return in an atomised age when people are seeking stories that make sense of the world around us (hence the popularity of high concept books like Sapiens that create a meaningful narrative for humankind in a time of increasing meaninglessness). What is radically refreshing about Powers’ book is that the grand narrative it offers is not an anthropocentric one. It is a sylvan one – for trees are at the heart of this book. The provide a thematic structure (Roots; Trunk; Crown; Seeds), are intrinsic to the novel’s thesis (in a nutshell: trees as a species are far older than us, contribute collaboratively to the ecosystem, and will probably outlast, even as we denude the priceless woods of the world at an unprecedented rate). Powers has a cast of 8 main characters – an outsider artist; a Chinese-American engineer; a property lawyer (and his restless wife); a veteran drifter; a games designer guru; a bioscientist; and back-from-the-dead undergrad who hears voices. Each of these initially disconnected lives are associated with a tree through upbringing, serendipity, or temperament. We watch these fictional birth trees grow, mature, flower, and fall, over several decades. Different paradigms, aptitudes, and agendas all intersect through the growing environmental crisis in some way. As the Earth’s resources are depleted and climates change, some of these characters will become radicalised through the concern for what we are doing to our irreplaceable home: the rapacious devastation of the very biodiversity which may save us; the resources that will sustain us; the species that we share our home with and possible sentience. Thus far, the novel could have still existed within the tradition of mimetic ‘realism’, but Powers boldly imagines a non-anthropocentric perspective, and an even a post-human future – one that destabilises our (imagined) pole position in the ecosystem, the hubristic apex-predator, but does not estrange us from the interlacement of nature. Rather, it restores us to – babes in the wood, still to learn the art of being, of mutuality, and respectful co-existence. As in the Transcendentalist tradition of American nature mystics and thinkers like Whitman, Thoreau and Muir, Powers sees beyond the petty concerns of man, finding renewal of meaning and purpose in nature. Yet the vision it offers it not naïve – the complex problems of the world are ever-present, and no one here gets out alive – but profoundly subtle, sophisticated, and sustaining. The novel looks to the future continually, often sending messages back as it leaps into full omniscience. The Overstory dares to shift emphasis and empathy beyond the brief lives of its protagonists, and ‘the real world’ (i.e. the finite, flawed human world) of the here and now. Temporality and spaciality are recalibrated to a different scale. It is a Promethean project, and perhaps one destined to be consumed by the fire it seeks to seize. Powers acknowledges the challenge:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story for a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is falling precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

And yet Powers achieves just that. The fully-realised lives of its human protagonists unfold in an engaging way, but just as gripping is the great drama unfolding on a trans-human scale: Nature becoming conscious of itself, or waiting for us to realise it has been so all along. The novel brings that compassionate act of attention to the minutest and vastest miracle of the natural world. To read its 502 pages is akin to the ‘forest-bathing’ popular in Japan, it provides fictional shirin-yoku. The Overstory is of a novel of vaulting ambition – it makes the forests walk (and talk). It manages to achieve what few novels even dare, these days – it makes us look beyond ourselves (increasingly rare in an Age of Selfie and the enforced narcissism of social media). It makes us look up, look down at the earth beneath our feet, breathe, and wonder. The Overstory casts a long shadow, and its story may outlive ‘the novel’ itself (and perhaps even the people who read them).

Kevan Manwaring 2019-01-10

The Sound of Snow

The Sound of Snow

falling on snow.

A deepening silence.

The city is still,

platforms empty,

roads unburdened

of their incessant freight.

Trees, shuddering in the wind,

exfoliate ice blossom.

There’s probably a word,

in a culture accustomed

and observant of its nuances,

for this kind of snow.

Powdered crystal

over softer layers –

a cake of ground glass –

impossible to roll

into a snow torso,

like making dough

without water.

Churned up by

excited scurryings,

sledge runs,

snowman trails,

the moulds of dog noses,

bird feet runes.

Squeaking polystyrene

under boots,

like some cheap special effect.

To find a snow-field

unmarked by man –

to be the first

to place one’s foot

on virgin regions.

To make one’s mark

and to know it is

the original.

Prototype,

not pirated,

Nth generation

loss of definition.

Not to follow

in the blurred footfalls of others,

but to be the pioneer,

breaking trail.

One foot after another

into freshly fallen flakes.

Boot soundlessly slipping

into the place waiting for it.

Walking on angel down.

No one around.

No direction,

except your own.

Nothing to listen to

except

the sound of snow

falling on snow.

Kevan Manwaring

from The Immanent Moment,

published by Awen 2010

***new

edition 2016***

http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Walking the Southern Upland Way: Days 10-12

 

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The ‘dappled vale of Heaven…’ The sublime Loch of the Lowes, K. Manwaring 10 July 2017

Day 10: Tibbie Shiels Inn to Traquair

A mercifully shorter walk today. Just as well as I was starting to feel the culminative effects of fatigue – forcing every mile out of my legs and poor, battered feet. After a pleasant drive along the Yarrow valley to St Mary’s Loch, I was dropped off by my balladeer and went to pay my respects at the James Hogg memorial, a handsome statue overlooking Tibbie Shiels Inn and the two lochs, which looked sublime in the soft morning light, mirroring the epitaph beneath Hogg’s feet:

Oft had he viewed as morning rose
the bosom of the lonely Lowes:
oft thrilled his heart at close of even
to see the dappled vales of heaven,
with many a mountain moon and tree
asleep upon saint Mary.

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The handsome James Hogg memorial, K. Manwaring, 10 July 2017

The midges were out in force at the Hogg memorial, making it hard to linger, but I did stop at the loch side to savour the view – which inspired me to have a go at some watercolours when I got home.  It was soothing to be in a purely visual space. After an academic year of teaching, marking and PhD research my brain needed a reboot. Walking long-distances makes me drop down into a zen-like state, my ‘mind in my feet’. I focus upon my breath, on my temperature, my dryness or wetness, energy levels and mood. I have a clear goal for the day – the tangible reward for my efforts – a hill, a view, a landmark. If I get hungry, I eat. If I thirst, I drink. If I tire, I stop. Simple core needs, very little stress, and a whole sky of head-space. Blessed solitude (which makes it possible for me to appreciate people when I see them). Today, as I crossed Blake Muir, I stopped to savour the silence – a peace so deep, so profound, that it was almost a presence. I tried to capture it in my poem, ‘Deep Peace’:

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Deep Peace, by Kevan Manwaring 10 July 2017

It made me realize how content I could be, living somewhere rural and remote, far away from the chattering world – dropping down into a place of spiritual quietude, finding my centre and hearing clearly the inner voice that would guide my pen, the inner vision that would guide my brush. Perhaps one day. For now, I was simply content to be walking in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, who visited Hogg (fêted for a while by Edinburgh society, whose fripperies he rejected, for ‘He held worldly pomp in high derision’) at the isolated farm of Blackhouse, with its ruinous 14th Century Reivers tower. The Shepherd Ettrick dwelled here between 1790 and 1800, and I can imagine it being conducive to his muse, as it was to mine.

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Blackhouse Tower, former residence of James Hogg, K. Manwaring, 10 July 2017

Day 11: Traquair to Melrose (17.3)

A tiring day. I did pretty fine up to Yair Bridge, the 10 mile point, but seemed to hit a wall after then – slogging up Gala hill and down into the town. I certainly didn’t appreciate the SUW’s reroute into the urban nastiness of Galashiels, a shock to the senses after days and miles of rural quietude. The walk planners clearly wanted us to savour it’s, ahem, delights, but I’d wish they’d given it a wide berth – for those needing facilities and accommodation, lovely Melrose was only a couple of miles up the river. Signs were vandalised, making it unpleasant to navigate through. Losing my patience, I just headed to the Tweed and followed it along. Crazily though, the SUW insists you walk along the side of a housing estate at one point, instead of the sparkling waters of the Tweed. Nevertheless, the last stretch into Melrose along its bonny banks was lovely. The highlight of the day was coming across the Three Brethren cairns (1522 ft), expertly made in a dry-stone wall way (another Goldsworthy?), rhyming with the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, which now excitingly swing into view: Thomas the Rhymer country! Mythopoetically, I felt like I was coming home – the distinctive three peaks of the Eildons (the remains of a volcanic activity) was the first place I made pilgrimage to, as a young poet, visiting Scotland for the first time back in the early 90s. I had spent a night on them, hoping to meet the Queen of Elfland – instead, my tent nearly blew away. Perhaps she was giving me the brush-off. Today, by the Brethrens I thought of my brothers though – my male friends, who I was beginning to miss. Whenever I spend time in cis-gendered company (male or female) I find I end up craving the opposite after a while. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have bi/trans/fill-in-the-blanks-yourself company then that shouldn’t be a problem!

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The Three Brethren with the 3 peaks of the Eildon Hills in the distance, K. Manwaring 11 July 2017

Day 12: Melrose to Lauder (10)

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‘The Meetings’ – confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick, K. Manwaring 12 July 2017

A mercifully short walk today – a morning’s ramble really. I was able to walk straight from the campsite (one of those ‘Camping & Caravanning Club’ type places, where campers are marginalized – in a sports field, furthest away from the toilet block), crossing over the Chain Bridge, where, the previous night I had sung ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’, Dick Gaughan’s classic song calling for equality:

Let the love of the lands sacred rites
to the love of the people succeed,
let honour and friendship unite,
and flourish on both sides o’ Tweed.

I had learnt this from my friend Marko Gallaidhe, and I singing it makes me think of that man you don’t meet every day!

For the first time on the SUW today, I bumped into a (day) walker, whom I ended up walking and chatting with for a pleasant half hour – a retired northerner, now living in the Borders, the chap was agreeable company. Perhaps the Three Brethren had heard me after all. I also found time to stop and write an eco-poem, inspired by the news that a massive part of the Carson C ice-shelf had split off. It might seem strange to be composing a poem about climate change in such an idyllic spot, but of course such apparent environmental harmony is an illusion – the world is out of kilter.

 

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Tam Lane’s Well, K. Manwaring, 12 July 2017

Meeting up with Chantelle after lunch, we enjoyed an afternoon of ‘folkloring’. We drove to the Rhymer’s Stone, at the foot of the Eildons, where I performed my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’. Then I guided us onto The Meetings, the confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick – where a small river island is thought to have been the site of Carterhaugh, dwelling of Tam Lin. Here, at this numinous spot I had first discovered in 2014, I recorded an extract of my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, my PhD novel based upon my research into the folk traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. It was special to read out a relevant section in situ. The next day, Chantelle returned to record herself singing the ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ – all 40 verses of it by heart! We then went on to find ‘Tam Lane’s Well’ by Carterhaugh Farm. Here I had set a picnic scene, which I read out before the camera died. A couple of years ago we had created a show inspired by the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – ‘The Bonnie Road’, so it felt special to be experiencing this inspiring, ensouled landscape together.

Where wild waters weave
their plaid of shade and light
and ballads tangles in the brier,
two worlds meet, of clay and fey
and passion collides with desire.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017

 

The Sci-Fi Croft

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Sunset, the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

 As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).

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Rush-hour at the croft. K. Manwaring, September 2016.

Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.

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View from the conservatory at the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, September 2016

For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.

And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).

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The light across the bay was, at times, breath-taking, but perhaps distracting!                          K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.

I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.

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Running in the Torridons – not for the faint-hearted! K. Manwaring, September 2016.

There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.

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The End of the Road? No, actually just the single-track down to South Erradale (admittedly, a road which terminates at Redpoint…). K. Manwaring, September 2016.

In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.

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Lighting the darkness. View from Gairloch Sands. K. Manwaring, September 2016

The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.

I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.

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Croft-life. Out of this world. K. Manwaring, September 2016