Category Archives: Creative Writing

Coming Down the Mountain

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

Comin’ down the mountain
One of many children
Everybody has
Their own opinion

‘Mountain Song’, Jane’s Addiction

I stood on the precipitous summit, a heart-stopping pinnacle, 13,435 ft up, looking down over the rainforest fastness of Borneo, exuding its mist like a tropical collective unconscious – the intoxicating, dangerously wild dreams of the jungle. It was 1996 and I was 25 and I had just climbed the highest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th most prominent in the world, topographically. It was an exhilarating experience, but even then I knew my achievement was relative. For me it was a ‘peak experience’, a personal high, whileas in mountaineering terms, it’s a cake-walk. Thousands of people climb Kinabalu every year. That doesn’t make it easy – it is an interminable slog, one that requires overnighting halfway up to make it possible to reach the summit for dawn. Even if packs are carried by porters or left at base-camp, the steep trek through the sticky heat leaves one dripping sweat until you get higher up – and then the air starts to get thin. But this isn’t Everest base-camp (which at 17, 598 ft is 4000+ ft more). Still, it felt like an effort – and the final ascent, across the plateau to the ironically-named Low’s Peak, is out of this world.

I was reminded of this incredible experience by my recent Viva (Monday, 29th October) and its immediate aftermath. It is a truism, but a wise one, that the most dangerous part of climbing a mountain is the descent – for that is when over-confidence, and fatigue, can kick in. There have been waves of euphoria over the last few days – each time the reality hits me – but also, at times, an emptiness and malaise. This is not surprising – I’ve been pushing myself, hard, for days, weeks, months, years. I’ve handed in my thesis and passed my viva. Apart from some minor revisions, the show is over. And so no wonder it feels like the post-gig blues, the ‘adrenal-out’ as my partner calls it. The endorphins have been discharged and you are left with a serotonin low. It is hard to find the motivation to do anything. Yet life continues – marking, teaching, preparation for dayschools, filling in application forms, etc. I should allow myself a few days to recover. It has been an intense time, and I do feel completely wiped out. It hit me last night at a Halloween gathering – when I found myself struggling to stay awake. Maybe by next week I’ll start to feel myself again. For the PhD isn’t over yet. It is akin to the last day of my Pennine Way hike. 13 miles in I had reached the highest point of Windy Gyle, but there was still 12.5 miles (and several summits) to go. This was the hardest part of the hike as culminative fatigue set in (from 17 days of 15 mile hikes in a heatwave). I had to really draw upon inner reserves – but I had been building towards this for over two weeks, and I was ready. Also, I knew I didn’t have to hold anything back, for the next day I would be jumping on a train and heading south. A few blisters and aching limbs wasn’t going to kill me – but it was still painful, as my feet really reached ‘peak blister’. I had to ration my water carefully in the heat, but after training up for half-marathons I knew I could go for 6 miles without a sip. Just as well. My dwindling supply of jelly beans saved the day. The combination of exhaustion, heat, pain, adrenalin and mild euphoria at the prospect of reaching the end made me slightly bosky, and at one point I ran down the steep paths of the Cheviots, with my full pack on, singing my heart out to a song that I had kept in reserve for a final boost. I would have looked quite a sight, running down the mountain. It was a crazy, reckless thing to do, which could have easily led to an accident – but … I lived to tell the tale. As I reached Kirk Yetholm my fellow hikers (all of whom had split the 25 miler by either getting picked up and dropped off by the guest house in Byrness, or bothying it, unlike Muggsy here) burst into cheers and applause, as I came hobbling into sight. Wainwright advised not to expect anyone to care when you walked into the bar at the Borders Hotel, but here I was, getting the hard-won respect of a dozen or so Pennine Wayfarers. And similarly, these last three days I have had the pleasure of receiving heartfelt congratulations from many dear friends – which has meant a great deal. One undertakes these things alone, and to achieve them is a long, lonely effort – with the odd, deeply appreciated bit of supervision or support along the way – so this sense of acknowledgment feels like an important stage of re-assimilation into the community. One has had the vision upon the mountain. Now it is time to reincorporate it (and oneself) into the tribe. Time to chop wood, fetch water. Each day, a slow descent back to the Plain of Being where the existential challenge of life continues.

 

 

 

 

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The Old Ones Speak

Aberfoyle graveyard by Kevan Manwaring.jpg

Aberfoyle churchyard. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring (2014)

Tonight is Halloween, or Samhain in Gaelic (‘Summer’s End’) – traditionally a time to honour the ancestors. For me, coming a couple of days after my PhD viva, it is overwhelmed by the emotional aftermath of that intense experience and the euphoria of passing (with minor revisions). I am still getting my head around the prospect of becoming a Doctor, which becomes official once I graduate but since fellow academics (my examiners, my referees, including Professor Ronald Hutton) are already calling me ‘Dr Manwaring’ it is feels like the change of status has already occurred and the minor revisions, a formality. The project that enabled me to achieve this long-term (6 year) goal is, when you drill down into it, all about the ancestors. My protagonist, Janey McEttrick, is a musician based near Asheville, North Carolina. She plays in a jobbing rock band and works part-time in a vintage record store (a hauntological nod there). She is spinning wheels, or perhaps worse – on the slippery slope of alcohol and drug-addiction. For she is in denial of her gifts, her heritage: for she is descended from a long-line of singer-seers, gifted, troubled women: the McEttrick Women. Through extensive research I sought to bring alive the voices of nine generations of these women, stretching back three hundred years to the time of the Rev. Robert Kirk, Episcopalian minister and author of the sui generis monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691/1815). Only by coming to terms with who she is can Janey finally find peace – in doing so she will discover her own authentic voice, as she aligns with her remarkable lineage and heritage. To do this she has to travel to the old country, Scotland, and release the trapped spirit of the Reverend, who according to popular belief in the Aberfoyle area, was ‘taken’ by the Good People, and remains trapped there as punishment for revealing their secrets – a folkloric Edward Snowden, permanently held in limbo beyond the pale of loved ones and the soil of his soul. This is a process sometimes called ‘ancestral clearing’ – a form of karmic irrigation which will free up the blocked energies of her blood-line (‘blockage’ or ‘usurpation’ being key criteria of the Sublime). This convoluted tale colonised my imagination for around 6 years. I didn’t choose it; it chose me. One day, Janey walked into my head, picked up her guitar and started playing – and she refused to leave until I told her story, and the story of her kin. The ‘old ones’ wanted to speak, to be heard. In their the story of the McEttrick Women I’ve told the story of many families, who experienced the dislocation of the Clearances (Highland; Lowland) and the Famine, forced into permanent exile, their soul-songs becoming cianalas, songs of longing piquant with sehnsucht.  It has taken me a substantial part of my life and considerable time, energy and effort – in short, sacrifice – to ‘sing’ this song of longing on behalf of these marginalised voices. Now, I feel I am finally being released – free to sing other songs. My own wish now is for these subaltern voices to be heard by as many people as possible, and so I seek the best possible home for my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, so that the work of Kirk and the lives of the McEttrick Women lives on.

Much of the transmedia elements of the novel and my research are accessible to all via my website: www.thesecretcommonwealth.com

The Dog Has Its Day

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

A Review by Kevan Manwaring

The Gallows Pole

This extraordinary novel exudes sense of place like a slab of gritstone and peat, oozing copper-coloured water. Myers, through his painstaking evocation of idiom and ecolect, brings alive his neck of the woods (Mytholmroyd) and its social history is loving detail. It is the kind of deep mapping that can only be achieved through a slow-burn relationship with a place and its people.

It is a feisty dramatisation of the Cragg Vale Coiners (AKA Turvin Clippers) – a band of desperate, disenfranchised and marginalised Yorkshiremen, who during the time of King George III, ‘clipped’ coins in the Calder Valley area, led by the charismatic and dangerous local tough, the self-styled ‘King David Hartley’, and his brothers. As a historical novel, this obscure fragment of British working class counter-history, might have had limited appeal (although the story of financial shenanigans has a topical resonance – the micro-scale of the Coiners’ fraud has ironic distance when compared to the global, institutionalised, and legitimized banking crisis that came to light in 2008 – when the crooks not only got away with it, but our governments forced us to pay for their Casino-like behaviour with the economy by propping up the morally- and financially bankrupt banking system and issuing in an Age of Austerity),  but the whole episode is not only grippingly-told, but rendered in exquisitely tough, localised prose.

The structure alternates between a vividly retold account of the rise and fall of the Coiners’ fortunes (the memento mori of the title means there are no spoilers here) and Hartley’s prison-based ‘memoir’, written in thick, phonetic dialect evoking his ‘ill-education’ but also the indeterminate nature of English, which had not yet been standardised through widely available dictionaries. Even language had been politicized and monetized, for only the ‘educated classes’ (from wealthy, privileged families) had control over it – through their legalese and use of the available media: the printed word on posters, newspapers, books and bibles. The oral tradition belonged to the poor, where a rich, alternative literacy flowed through the land.

Hartley is depicted in a visceral, unvarnished way – there is nothing civilised about him. He is no Romantic anti-hero (ironically it is one of the chief protagonists, the solicitor Robert Parker, who apparently was a possible inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff). Hartley is a brutish Alpha Male who bullies his way into power and through his pack-like influence on his followers, controls his empire through thuggish proto-gangster violence, while at the same time bringing a reversal of fortune to the lives of the Valley folk. As the Coiners prosper they ‘look after their own’, and Hartley is, to local eyes at least, a Robin Hood figure, one who sticks it to the man (‘Clip a Coin and Fuck the Crown’). One can imagine the actor Tom Hardy doing a turn, playing him (as he once did play Heathcliff in full mumblecore mode), but before the film rights are sold (the book has been critically-acclaimed, winning prizes, and providing a breakout hit for the small press, Blue Moose) savour the prose of Myers dark tour-de-force. This is strong beer that is challenging to read at times – for it does not pull back from the ugly struggle of life – while simultaneously being a remarkable paean to the local universe of the Yorkshire moors, which are lifted to almost mythic heights, having a presence and power which bestows upon them a tangible (non-human) character and agency.

In a Nutshell

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 10

Walnut

Today I have been looking at introducing and summarising one’s thesis. One of the first questions the candidate is likely to be asked in a Viva is – ‘So what is it about?’ or words to that effect. Sometimes this is used as a good ‘warm-up’ question, to ease the student into the Viva, but also, critically, to assess whether the thesis is indeed their own unique work. Many students focus so much on the micro-detail that they sometimes come unstuck in this bigger, more obvious question. It is useful to have an ‘elevator pitch’ type response anyway, for those occasions when you may be asked about your research at a conference, or in less formal circumstances – the ‘BBQ speech’ as the Thesis Whisperer so wittily puts it. Much emphasis these days is on ‘widening access’ and academic brownie points are gained by being able to share one’s research with non-specialist audiences. This came up as a key theme on Monday when I co-hosted an Arts/Science showcase on Artificial Intelligence with a mathematics professor in the ‘Everybody’s Reading Festival 2018’, at a cool arts venue in Leicester (LCB Depot). We had a real cross-section in the audience – from the ‘lay’ to academics leading research into consciousness at De Montfort University. It was important to connect, to communicate, with them all. If one is only able to communicate with other specialist audiences within one’s own narrow field, then the research doesn’t really go very far – it becomes almost entropic (according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics). We have to be prepared (and able) to reach out beyond our particular bubble.

I’ve attempted an embryonic summary here – a first attempt. Not to be eligible for the 3MT competition (it is about 5 minutes, so I’ve failed the criteria already), but just to practise talking about my research. It felt like a useful exercise. See what you think. Does it communicate my research? Does it make you want to know more?

Discover the origins of the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) at the University of Queensland here:

https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/about

View winning examples here:

https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/watch-3mt

Check out advice on preparing a 3-minute thesis here: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2010/07/01/how-to-sell-your-thesis-in-3-minutes-or-less/

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 5-8

Real Life: challenges or opportunities?

AI showcase - Prof Jeremy Levesley LCB Depot 1 October 2018 by Kevan Manwaeing

Every situation is a potential training or practice opportunity.

I’ve been unable to blog the last few days due to being intensely busy: five days of work which took me from Gloucestershire to Somerset, Bath to Heathrow, Wroughton to Northampton, to Oxford, Leicester and Stratford-upon-Avon,  before finally back to Stroud: leading a batch of bardic tours (my main source of additional income, which have enabled me to pay my PhD fees these last four years); running a writing workshop; and co-hosting an Arts/Science showcase in the Everybody’s Reading Festival. It’s been an exhausting time, especially with the travelling – but that’s all part of the reality and challenge of completing a PhD for most of us. Real life doesn’t stop happening. As John Lennon said: ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans’, or to paraphrase, it’s what happens while you’re carefully planning and preparing for your Viva!

I have been making good progress, but all of that went out of the window since Friday. But now I can come up for air and continue – and things aren’t so bad. I am more or less on schedule, and most importantly feel like I’ve ‘got my head’ around the whole Viva process and refamiliarised myself with my thesis (critical commentary and novel). I’ve made copious notes, and read all the relevant material. I’ve drafted a list of questions – which I extended today with ‘Easy’, ‘Nightmare’ and ‘General’ questions. Now the priority really is to just keep practising. It is very easy to find Displacement Activities rather than face the cold, sobering reality of the forthcoming Viva (now imminent for me – at the end of this month). But as Polonius from Hamlet said: ‘Procrastination is the thief of time!’ It is easier to just get stuck in. Being rested, fed, refreshed, etc, really helps with this. Eating well, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep is just as important (if not more so) than speed-reading a stack of books. However, I am finding identifying and reading relevant literature really helpful – especially critical works that will help maintain an ‘academic  consciousness’ (and provide useful theoretical underpinning too boot).  At the same time having something else to read when you’re relaxing is important too. You can’t stay switched on all the time.  Reading an excellent novel is just as vital in my subject-area and discipline as non-fiction critical works. And over the last five days I have used other essential Viva skills: presenting in front of diverse audiences; sustaining a high-level discussion and defending my ideas in the AI showcase; managing complexity, and unpredictable, stressful circumstances. Life, even in its distractions, can provide ‘training experiences’.

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Honouring

The friends in our life are a true measure of success – the harvest of a life well-lived.

I am fortunate to know many talented people who I find inspiring and good company to boot. To be around them is a buzz, and their achievements mutually empowering. We raise each other up by stepping into our own power, by not being afraid to shine. I love seeing my friends do well. I praise their successes, cheer them on. Because I know something of their journey, of their struggles and sheer effort. When I am with them I feel more complete, because in some mysterious way they ‘hold’ something for me, an aspect of my own personality that they manifest in full. They are fully themselves, of course, but something in them draws me to them. I sense a kindred spirit. We share common ground – interests, experiences, obsessions, ambitions, sense of humour, wounds, or beliefs. They may just make me smile, make me feel alive, or make me feel more like me. I can be myself around them. The conversation flows. I feel listened to, received, and reciprocated. Seen. Heard. Held. They catch me when I fall, and without a second’s thought I do the same for them. I feel ‘greater than’, instead of ‘less than’, in their presence – not diminished or undermined, but raised up – not in an egotistical sense, but in an ennobled one. In such company I feel somehow things fall into place: a little piece of the universe’s puzzle slots home.

And so I wish to honour these friendships that I feel so honoured by. There are many ways of doing this – by baking a cake, singing a song, writing a letter, handcrafting something, or simply spending quality time with them. Last month I celebrated my 49th birthday in Stroud with ‘A Night of Bards’ – a gathering of storytellers, poets and singers to ‘wet the baby’s head’ of my new book, Silver Branch: bardic poems (published by Awen Publications), launched on that date. It was a special evening, brief but heart-warming and flowing with awen and camaraderie. I took photos, as did my friends, and I’ve used some of these to recreate some of the performances in what I call ‘bardic portraits’, intended to capture not an exact likeness but the energy of the performer, their presence. I incorporate a key phrase from their contribution, and have slowly worked my way through the dozen or so performers over the last month. It has been a nice way to remember the evening, enjoying it again like a fine feast, but in particular, a chance to focus in on each bard’s unique quality and talent. To bring awareness to these remarkable friends and the skein of friendships that we share.

Other friends who weren’t present on the evening but who have performed at other events I’ve organised over the years I may get around to also. They all deserve to be celebrated. Collectively they represent an inspiring microcosm of contemporary bardism. Who knows, maybe my sketches may provide a record for posterity; but more importantly they are intended to honour the subjects while they are here – to give thanks for their being vibrantly alive at this time and place in human history, and for touching my life.

Kevan Manwaring, 23 September 2018

Bardic Portraits from ‘A Night of Bards’ (Stroud, 19 Aug. 2018) by Kevan Manwaring

 

 

Earthwards by Kevan Manwaring

 

The Alien DJ

 

Dodgy Space Themes album

A crime to art, music and science fiction, but this dodgy 1978 album got me hooked.

 

Is it me or am I the only one who finds it hard to separate Sci-Fi from soundtrack? It is almost impossible to think of the opening credits of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope without the adrenalin-surge of John Williams’ classic theme-tune blasted out to the backstory disappearing to its vanishing point (or Darth Vader and his stormtroopers without the Imperial march); the shock and awe of the apocalyptic opening of Blade Runner without the vertiginous electronica of Vangelis; and the opening of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have the same sturm-und-drang impact with Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra.

Growing up a Sci-Fi addict (thanks to Lucas’ gateway drug that made me watch anything with Special FX in however risible, and it often was) I received my ‘hit’ often via the opening credits and theme tune of classic TV shows such as Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, Dr Who, Blake’s Seven, Star Trek, and The Prisoner. 

And as an adult connoisseur of big screen Fantastika, I often find myself enthralled as much by the soaring soundtracks as much as the visuals – as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Sunshine, Interstellar, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049 to name but a few.  

So it is no surprise to discover that during the writing of my novels I often have an ‘unofficial soundtrack’ running in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is why I need to write in silence, as I need to be able to tune into this internal symphony – the mood and movement that underscores the scene or chapter I am writing. Sometimes actual music is cited in the prose. In my science fiction thriller, Black Box, the protagonist listens to Chinese death metal while out on the ice, conducting one of his endless routine maintenance circuits of the vast ice-shelf he is tasked to transport to the ends of the galaxy. Back in his tugship, out of his suit, Lake relaxes to Hendrix while shooting up an artificial opiate he has managed to synthesise. Other settings required different tracks, evoking a different ambience – very few of these are explicit, but they nuanced my depiction of each, through diction, description, and pacing – the micro-choices that create tone.

If, in some fortunate future, my novel gets turned into a movie – which since it was first conceived as one, would be a satisfying full circle – then I hope the director will choose one of the fine composers out there (Hans Zimmer, for instance!) to score it rather than opt for the populist ‘mix-tape’ approach, which worked for The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy — initially, a refreshingly iconoclastic contra-tonal device, but one that’s become something of a cliché, a lazy form of film-making (like the cheesy pop song montage sequence of the 80s it emulates) that does a disservice to the craft of the film composer, the under-rated geniuses of modern cinema, for it is they who translate the music of the spheres into reality.

Black Box is being published by Unbound – with your help! Pledge your support and pre-order a copy via this link: https://unbound.com/books/black-box/