Category Archives: Extraordinary People

Underland – a review

UNDERLAND: a Deep Time Journey – by Robert MacFarlane

a review by Kevan Manwaring

Underland Cover

This remarkable book, which MacFarlane has been working on for about a decade has now irrupted, like an underground river, into broad daylight – astonishing us with its force and volume of news from the underworld. Underland: a deep time journey is a speleological journey into some of the world’s most astonishing underground spaces and systems. It charts a katabasis through its triadic structure (First Chamber; Second Chamber; Third Chamber) – a mythically resonant dramatic arc of descent, testing, and return. A guide of impressive interdisciplinary erudition, insight, and humanity, MacFarlane undertakes a kind of hero’s journey – in Britain, Europe and the North – while clearly emphasising the knowledge, skill, daring, and down-to-earthness of his guides. Most of the chapters recount meetings with remarkable people in remarkable places, and thus deconstructs the notion of the sole, male explorer striking Caspar David Friedrich type hero poses on lonely crags, or above fathomless abysses. This is a book about relationships, complex systems, interdependence, and consequences. Nothing is isolation. Everything is interconnected – mycorrhizzal networks of mutuality. The human is always present in nature and vice versa. MacFarlane parses the anthropocentric engagement with the underworld into three categories of usage – to shelter, yield, dispose:

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

The author explores iterations of these in some familiar and obscure places – from the Mendip Hills in Somerset, to the catacombs of Paris, the war-torn karst landscape of the Adriatic coastline, to the glacial fields of Greenland and the nuclear storage facilities of Finland. These extraordinary vertiginous deep-dives are framed by a fictionalised opening which serves as our own access point – a kind of fictive portal – into the subterranean.  The literary and mythical haunt the scientific, geographical, and historical layers throughout – although MacFarlane does not make heavy weather of the intertextuality, being a sharp-eyed and cool observer. Not that his prose is cold, technical, or sterile. He brings alive each experience in a gripping, visceral way. Some sections are overwhelmingly intense and claustrophobic. This travel/nature-writing/memoir/cultural history is as riveting as any well-written thriller. At times it evokes the Sublime of the Romantic, John Martin’s apocalyptic vistas, and Tolkien’s Mines of Moria; at other times it conveys a chilling science-fictional aesthetic. The book is uncompromising in its clear-eyed assessment of the Anthropocene, of humankind’s unquestionable impact upon the planetary ecosystem and geological record. This is a book every Climate Change denialist should read. Yet it goes beyond a kind of literary activism to appeal to the most humanistic instincts – of caring for one’s children, grandchildren and future generations, about being deeply aware of the legacies we leave behind. It is a sobering time-capsule, a message in a bottle from the future – like the teleological warning on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, designed to communicate the extreme biohazard of the nuclear waste stored there in a 100,000 years time:

We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do.

This could be the premise of the book, although it is more than just a series of cautionary tales. It is imbued with profound wonder, appreciation, and praise-singing for the natural world, for human courage, and ingenuity. MacFarlane returns into the light with tales to set your hairs on end, but also with a sense of hope – a hand held out in friendship, in aid, in love across generations, across time.

 

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2 May 2019

NB this is an extract. The full version of this review is to be published in TEXT: the journal of writing and writing courses in the Autumn. http://www.textjournal.com.au/

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Moon Heart & Monsters

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

Moon Heart front cover.jpg

Moon Heart – a Review

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

Kevan Manwaring

 

Interview with Eilis Phillips

by Kevan Manwaring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the interesting questions, Kevan!

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

https://eilislaphillips.wordpress.com/

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

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

 

Fool for a Fisher King

SILBURY: the miraculous balance – Peter Please & friends

Silbury Lammas 2018 by Kevan Manwaring

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

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

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

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

Kevan Manwaring, 3 August 2018

 

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