Category Archives: Extraordinary Places

The Secret Fire

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

A Review

‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)

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Samwise Gamgee – inspired by the working class soldiers Tolkien fought alongside in the Somme.

This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation.  Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.

Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)

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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.

Gauguin

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/

The Visionary City

William Blake’s London

Another England there I saw,
Another London with its Tower.
Another Thames and other hills,
And another pleasant Surrey bower.

 

London 1803

Wapping Docks, 1803

 

 
In April 1803 the visionary artist and poet William Blake left Felpham and returned to London. He wrote to his patron Thomas Butts that he was overjoyed to return to the city: ‘That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & Prophecy & Speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.’ For Blake, London was his dreaming place. As a youth he was said to freely wander the streets of his beloved city and ‘could easily escape to the surrounding countryside.’ And in one famous incident (related by his early biographer Gilchrist) the young Blake was startled to ‘see a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.’

There are many Londons. The visitor can choose which one they wish to slip into – whose skin, eyes, feet to experience it through. For me there is only one choice. The London of Blake, who lived and died within its purlieu...

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(to be continued on http://immanencejournal.com/blog/ soon… )

Kevan Manwaring Copyright © 2017

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

 

Walking the Southern Upland Way – The End

 

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The lonely trek across the Lammermuir Hills, K. Manwaring, 13 July 2017

Day 13 – Lauder to Longformacus (15.4)

 

Crossing the bleak and lonely Lammermuir Hills today was a physical and psychological slog today. Clearly I was feeling the effects of the many days and miles (breaching 200 today), because normally this is the kind of hill walking I love. Having blistered, bruised and bunioned feet didn’t help and I felt my body shutting, wanting to stop – but as a long-distance walker you simply have to keep going, pushing through each wave of fatigue. To keep my spirits up I sang my growing repertoire (a dozen songs for this walk – adding ‘Ol’ Groundhog’ today). At least it stayed dry for the most part, as the Lammermuirs are not somewhere you want to get caught out in inclement weather.

 

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Twin Law, K. Manwaring 13 July 2017

The only shelter was provided by the remarkable Twin Cairns, a distinctive landmark of two ‘beehive’ stone-men, with little niches to sit in out of the wind. Here, I rested and ate my lunch – miles from anywhere and anyone, or so I thought until two heads popped up: a couple of walkers, having their lunch in a dip. They seemed to make a brisk exit from this spot, and talking to them I discovered they had been disturbed by an adder, so I had a look when they left, and sure enough, saw one slither into the undergrowth there – clearly instinctively wary of humans, even in such a remote spot. But a thrilling moment, the blessing of the wild. I quickly signed the log-book in the other niche, and left, feeling the temperature drop (not surprising as it’s 445.7 m above sea level). There is an interesting legend behind the place-name:

 

There was once an ancient Scottish chief named Edgar who had twin boys. When the twins were infants, Saxon assailants attacked Edgar’s village, killing many and capturing those not killed. The twin’s nurse was able to escape alongside the chief, but only managed to conceal one of the twins from the invaders.

Many years later, old Edgar and his men again came up against invading Saxons, this time upon the hilltop of the Lammermuirs. As the two sides prepared to fight, the Saxon leader challenged one mighty Scottish warrior to a one-on-one battle. Edgar sent forth his son and an epic battle ensued between the two champions who were matched physically. Steel clashed and blood flowed from the Saxon and Scot, but they fought on until finally the Scot set the final blow upon the Saxon.

Lamenting the death of his leader, an aged Saxon let slip the true identity of the fallen Saxon warrior. He was in fact the lost twin brother, captured in infancy then raised Saxon. Frantic with remorse, and suffering heavily from the battle, the Scot tore the bandages from his wounds and died on the body of his long lost brother.

The two armies, aghast at what had happened, worked side by side to raise two large piles of stones. They stood in a line from the burn to the hilltop, and hand by hand passed stones up the hill to build a lasting memorial to the fallen twins.

Sadly the cairns were used for tank and artillery practice in the Second World War (!) – which says it all about what the war machine makes of brotherly love – but were lovingly restored, and the trig point bears this verse from a ballad about the legend:

“And they biggit twa cairns on the heather
And they biggit them round and high
And they stand on the Twinlaw Hill
Where they twa brithers lie.”

Day 14 – Longformacus to Cocksburnpath (10)

 

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The Route. K. Manwaring, 14 July 2017

 

Some blessedly easy walking today on my last day – which was just as well, as my poor old feet had had enough. But dosed up with painkillers and ‘brassing it out’ (as Peachy says to Danny in The Man Who Wold Be King) I set off, singing my final song of the walk, the beautiful Irish love-song ‘My Lagan Love’ – the remarkable ups-and-downs of its melody seemed to mirror the peaks and troughs of the last two weeks. Perhaps it was just as well no one was there to hear me, but it kept me going. Having got used to seeing no-one I was somewhat surprised when a man appeared behind me, mid-warble, with a little Scottish Terrier. I caught him up eventually and we exchanged pleasant walker banter. He was an early retiree, filling his days with rambling. He was attempting the Southern Upland Way in day walks. When we came to a field of cows, he didn’t want to risk it (his dog was on a lead, but even so, they can make cattle nervous). I suggested he walked with me, and I would ‘ride shotgun’, so to speak – not having a problem seeing off a herd of cows. All you have to do is wave a stick, or make a loud noise. Show them whose boss, and all that. But he didn’t fancy it. So I walked through the field – at first the frisky heifers bolted, but then cut me off before I got to the far gate. So I sang at them and this set them all off lowing. I could hear their song across the fields for quite a distance. Eventually the man and his little dog did reappear, having plucked up the courage – emboldened by my passage through the herd. But the highlight of today was seeing the North Sea for the first time – a sight I had worked hard for. Such a change of landscape (west coast to east) we take for granted today – it’s a journey that could be completed in three to four hours by car – but on foot, by one’s own sweat, it’s another thing entirely. Every landmark, every view, is earned. Changes in geology, in terrain, happen slowly. Step by step. So, beholding the distant glimmer of sea was a euphoric moment – made more so by a collie dog which intercepted as I passed through its farm.

 

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The pleasant Abbey of St Bathans, by Whiteadder water, K. Manwaring, 14 July 2017

As with a black lab I met at St Bathans, it licked me to death (perhaps it was the salt on my skin, although I do tend to attract animals). This canine greeting at my journey’s end made me think of Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, being recognised by his old dog, Argus, who had waited for him, spending his days pining on a dung-heap, until, seeing his master return, he finally expired. This collie, however, trotted off, having seen me through its property. Reaching Pease Bay was a most satisfying moment – and even the unsightly holiday park, with its sardine tins of trailers, didn’t dampen my delight at walking onto that beach, whipping off my boots and socks, and bathing my hot feet in that cool sea. I had made it! #the last couple of miles along the coast to Cockburnspath seemed like a formality really, and the official end point, an anti-climax. There was no fanfare, and no pub to buy a celebratory pint – just the warm glow of having achieved something I had set out to do.

 

 

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‘That was the River, This is the Sea…’ Pease Bay, C. Smith, 14 July 2017

 

I left the Borders with not only an immense sense of satisfaction (combined with blisters and fatigue) but also a deeper knowledge of this fascinating area – I had walked it from coast-to-coast, and its history, geology and psychogeography had been brought to life to me in a visceral, embodied way. I had been inspired, visually, to pick up paint-brush and pencil again; as well in a literary way – writing poems, ideas and this journal and blog. I had a couple of brainwaves on the walk for big creative projects and one I pitched to a publisher (who had asked me for ideas) upon my return. I returned home with a lingering sense of inner peace and quiet determination. Those wild, lonely moors and hills will stay with me. Cultivating your physical stamina translates, I find, into mental stamina; fortitude – against whatever life throws at you; and staying power – to achieve your goals.

 

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End point of the Southern Upland Way, C. Smith, 14 July 2017

 

***Thanks to Chantelle for all her support along the Way***

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 26 July 2016

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