Category Archives: Extraordinary Places

The Moon as Muse

Moon-547x364

I have long been fascinated by the moon. It has inspired many poems by writers over the centuries, and looking back through my own work, I realise I have written a fair few myself…

Here’s one I wrote during a long walk – the West Highland Way – after a particularly memorable wild camping pitch.

 

Full Moon, Bridge of Orchy
All is still
after a twenty miles of rain
as fierce as the Battle of Ardrigh
falling like swords into a lochan.

The seething shadows
making it impossible to linger.
Up here, the air bites you.

But on arrival, the errant sun
breaks the spell like a knight
making a dramatic entrance.

A dizzying stillness after a day’s march,
an ale in the bar, afterglow of achievement,
ramblers’ banter, measuring our folly
in tall tales, modest boasts, blisters.

Wild pitch by the knuckle of bridge.
Making my way on the Way.

Here I make stance,
a road-weary drover,
numb limbs cooling like cattle
cropping the sward.

The river sings its perpetual song –
a complex skein of sound.
Countless rivulets negotiate
the tongue of rock,
the sounding chamber of these hills,
the twin peaks of bard-praised Beinn Dorain
and Beinn an Dòthaidh.

A cry of nature in the crease of the night.

The July moon illumines
a Samuel Palmer landscape.
Peace, deep as peat,
settles.

 

From The Immanent Moment by Kevan Manwaring from Awen

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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/

Pen Mine

FRONT COVER NEW 3 DEC 18

In the long hot summer of 2018 I decided to walk along the Pennine Way, a 253 mile (or more depending on optional routes and distances to and from accommodation) national trail that follows the spine of England from its Black Country sacrum and coccyx in the Derbyshire Peak District to the axis and atlas of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. It had become a custom of mine to undertake a long walk at the end of the academic year as a way to unwind. This year it was needed more than ever after a particular intensive trimester involving the completion and submission of my PhD thesis. I also wished to undergo a kind of cultural ‘detox’ – from social media, from the news, from mad dog presidents, the World Cup, and the omnishambles of Brexit. The world was too noisy. I wanted to turn down the volume.  Walking for days on end, mainly solo (albeit for a couple of pleasant days when a dear friend joined me), I find de-stressing and immensely rewarding. After a few days I can hear myself think again. Ideas start to bubble up, unbidden. Although I did not set off (this time) hoping for inspiration, inspiration came nevertheless. Days of profound silence (or at least peacefulness) allows one to hear the quieter voices that are often drowned out by the white noise of modern existence.

It was while hiking from Haworth to Ickornshaw on the fifth day of my holiday that such an idea came to me: ‘to write [initially] 9 pieces exploring my core beliefs, using the visceral experience of walking the spine of England to tap into the bedrock of my belief’, as I put it in my little notebook. These ‘pieces’ were to be ‘…philosophical enquiries, each framed by my day’s walk’, but critically, ‘drawing upon my own ideas, not the digested opinions of other authors, other books’. I did so much of that, I opined, in my academic life (the almost neurotic referencing and justifying, the pedantic splitting of hairs and compulsive couching of terms – dutifully citing everyone else’s opinion except your own) it would be liberating to tune into what I think, what I believe.

 I am a great fan of the literary essay and deeply admire the mastery of Montaigne, Sebald and Solnit (to name three favourites), but I did not want this to be a performance of erudition, a showcase of my reading, of my learning to date (however useful such a process can be). I wanted to adopt a more embodied, intuitive approach, drawing upon what insights I could glean during my day’s hike, from what I felt as much as what I thought. The nearest practice that I have personal knowledge of is that of the ‘Earth Walk’, when one asks a question, then meditates upon that while walking in silence, senses open, hyper-alert to what answers nature may provide.  My approach would be simply to hold the chosen theme of the day lightly in my head and heart as I wandered along, while not allowing it to block out anything else. It would be a porous field of awareness, allowing the texture of the day to flow through it – and ‘snagging’ anything that seemed relevant, that could add to my deeper understanding of the chosen theme. It is so easy to drop down into an almost animal state when walking – it is trance-inducing, and one becomes hypnotized by the movement, by making progress, by achieving the next goal. One’s level of awareness narrows to the quotidian and visceral:  immediate dis/comfort; heat or cold; wet or dryness; hunger and thirst; fatigue and rest; motion and stillness. I wanted, in this practice, to focalise my experience – not let the days slip by, trudging along like some mindless walking machine. And so, excited by the idea, I quickly thought of nine potential themes, which I added to when I let go of my desire to punish the toponym (‘pen … nine’) so literally. I wrote up my insights at the end of the day, and I have tried to resist anything but essential editing, transcribing them here from my notebook. They capture the way the thoughts tumbled out on the day, ‘line-fresh’. They became my daily haul and however modest they may be – some may feel my micro-essais merely state the obvious; others may find them niggling or even intensely disagreeable – they nonetheless represent a fair cross-section of my core values as felt and believed in that summer of burning moors and blue skies – a vertebrae of beliefs upon which I fall or stand, an itinerant soul making his way across this wild, roaming, irreplaceable Earth.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

Order a print copy from Lulu for only £5 today:

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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.

 

 

 

 

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

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