Category Archives: First World War

Die – a review

An impressive meta-narrative fantasy in which a group of friends become trapped in the secondary world of their role-playing gameone that draws knowingly upon the legendarium of classic writers of the genre.

Die is an ongoing comic book series from British writer, Kieron Gillen, and French artist Stephanie Hans (along with lettering from Clayton Cowles; and design from Rian Hughes). It follows the (mis)adventures of a group of friends who, in 1991 had played a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy table-top role-playing game invented by one of their group, Solomon. They get sucked into the Secondary World it depicts, in the form of their avatar-characters, each one assigned a symbolic die (d4: Dictator; d6: Fool; d8: Grief Knight; d10: Neo; d12: Godbinder; d20: Master). Two years later, they re-emerged traumatised, wounded, and missing a group member. The story picks up a generation later, when, as dysfunctional adults, the unexpected arrival of the magical d20, an icosahedronic call-to-adventure, catalyses them to return to the Fantasy world to free themselves of the various wounds that haunt them. Here they encounter a world ravaged by a seemingly endless war between humanoid races (humans; elves; hobbits) and a mechanoid Prussian army. Here the metanarrative layering (‘real’ people playing characters in a Fantasy world) takes on a literary level, as Gillen draws upon the legendarium of the Brontës juvenilia, (Angria; Gondal; Glass Town); and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But all is perverted by the virus of its deranged demi-urge. Here, in an act of ironic instauration hobbits are cast as Tommies in a version of the First World War presided over by Tolkien himself (whose first-hand experience of the Somme and loss of two of his dearest fellowship influenced the creation of his epic). In the second volume, a gothed-up Charlotte Brontë makes an appearance as another demiurge haunting her own creation (and in one of the better sequences, the ‘backstory’ of the Brontës is related by her). In later issues other literary luminaries make appearances, such as H.G. Wells. This layering could easily become a post-modernist hall of mirrors. Endless intertextuality does not in itself make something work – indeed it can seem pretentious, overly showy (a magician drawing attention to his own tricks: ‘Look at me! Aren’t I clever!’) and can belie a lack of confidence in one’s own ideas. Fortunately, the main characters are well written – each with their exceptional skills and demons to face – and the dynamic between them convincing. This is a great ensemble piece. The dialogue is snappy. The artwork is stunning. I must admit I am less engaged with the plot. Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker brilliantly sets everything up – slickly introducing the characters, the backstory, and the inciting incident. It quickly plunges us into the glorious technicolour of the Fantasy world, where there are dragons, sexy elf queens (based on a sixth form crush of one of the characters), and a lot of action. The second volume ‘splits the party’, and the narrative traction is impaired, I felt, by a somewhat atomised plot. Characters go off and ‘do stuff’, but it is harder to relate or care. It still looks impressive, and if you are hooked by this stage, no doubt you will want more ‘fixes’ – and there are 3 collected volumes, and 14 issues to date to feed your habit. To take the metanarrative to the extreme, Gillen has created a RPG based on Die, so you can now play a person, playing a character… This is perhaps a bit mind-bending for some, but it shows Gillen’s creative verve. It certainly takes what could easily be a formulaic ‘hack-and-slay’ to a whole new level. Die is well-written and beautifully illustrated (and designed). The collected volumes come with some interesting essays and variant covers, adding to the value-for-money. This is a fine example of creative collaboration from a talented team.

Checkout Die at:

Kevan Manwaring 2021

The Long Slow Shadow of War


British Cemetery by Simon Marsden

On Sunday we remember the centenary of the Armistice of Compiègne, which took place on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11am, on 1918 – a cease to all hostilities between the Allies and Germany that finally marked the end of that bitter, pointless exercise in futility, the First World War, a conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions – a needless slaughter, and one to commemorate not celebrate (which a lot of the relentless cashing-on has risked doing over the last four years). Such events risk glorifying warfare and perpetuating the war machine. Very few seem to have actively interrogated or critique the causes and justification of the so-called Great War, or the very notion of using violence to solve anything. While it is important to remember all victims of war (and that is why I wear a white poppy), we shouldn’t just mindlessly drop in a few coins to ‘help the heroes’, for that just accepts the inevitable cost of war (on the Armed Forces anyway) and makes it normative.  The very existence of any weapon designed to destroy life is obscene. The Arms Trade should stop – and our government could choose to set a precedent, rather than doing business with odious regimes (who for example murder journalists with impunity).  That is highly unlikely to happen, I know, but we shouldn’t just all bow our heads for the two minutes silence on Sunday without also protesting the ongoing atrocity of all armed conflict.

War casts a long shadow. And ten years before the start of the centenary commemorations, in 2004, I published a novel that fictionalised the impact upon one life, a schoolteacher called Maud Kerne, whose husband, an Observer in the Royal Flying Corp, goes MIA during the opening battle of the ‘War to End All Wars’, the Battle of Mons. My novel is set nine years after then (mainly throughout 1923) and we first meet Maud ‘frozen’ in her grief, emblematic of a traumatized nation turning to the consoling fictions of spiritualism and hedonism as those left to pick up the pieces sought to cope with the telling absence of the Lost Generation.

Here is Chapter One – offered in memory of all those impacted by war.



The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Wilfred Owen

31st December 1922, Paddington Station

Maud Kerne sat down in the waiting room, an hour early as always for the 10.30 a.m. London to Penzance. Like a scratched ‘78’ she took the journey always at the same time of year – the limbo between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Time to kill in the hangover of the twenty-fifth – the glamour of the season faded with the false sentiment, smiles dropped like pine needles on the carpet.

  Life roared around her, but it seemed far away.

  Like a gas lamp turned low, Maud had withdrawn into herself, and if the others waiting to depart were not so preoccupied or torpid, they might have been unnerved by the sullen statue in their midst. The pariah.

   A woman alone.

   The sounds of the vast station echoed around her – volume modulated by the opening and closing of the frosted door. Through the window of the waiting room she saw the cathedral-like iron arches that reached overhead like a tree canopy or cage, an iron cage. A wonder of its age they had called it, or perhaps the belly of the whale for all the lost souls on life’s road. But not Maud – oh no, she knew exactly where she was going. She should do: it was a journey she had taken many times before, in honour of her husband – commemorating their first trip to Glastonbury in 1900, when he had proposed to her on the Tor. It was her pilgrimage to him, her way of remembering; not that she had ever forgotten. The events of that summer in 1914 were engraved on her mind like the hot metal of a press.

   A man with a walrus moustache rustled a copy of The Times. She snatched a half-read headline: ‘Mussolini cr— his Rubicon … marches to Rome.’ The Tatler gave an office-worker a glamorous face. Another paper veil, another wall of privacy. A poster for the new magazine Good Housekeeping showed a beaming housewife advertising a ‘miraculous’ labour-saving device called a vacuum cleaner. Just what Maud needed – something to cleanse the void inside her. Her empty life. So hollow without her Sam.  Like this echo chamber, she thought; Narcissus long vanished, announcements distorted on tannoys, some higher authority issuing incomprehensible dictums, conducting chaos.

   She pulled her rabbit fur-trimmed coat around her. Shades of brown, like the rest of her – a study in brown: hair, eyes, shoes, stockings, skirt, jacket, hat. Her skin was wan, its pallor not artificial, like those modern girls all-made up. Bold as brass, a young lady applied lipgloss in the mirror above the waiting room mantelpiece, to the withering looks of the matrons and the admiration of the stiff-collared men. Long legged, a slimness exaggerated by the long tight dress, her hair in waves. ‘Is that a shingle?’ someone wondered. ‘A dead-ringer for Louise Brooks,’ murmured a man to his friend. Thoroughly modern like Maggie, Maud’s would-be flapper friend, whereas Maud tended to blend into the background. Fine. Maud did not want life to notice her any more, but she already felt like a ghost. The phantom of platform five, that’s what they should call her.

   There was a chorus of coughing. Maud’s skin crawled at the thought of all those winter germs and bad habits, the room reeking of pipe tobacco and cough sweets. The air swirled with smoke, highlighted in the shafts of pale winter sunlight. Like the Athena auditorium, Maud thought, or a chambered barrow at midwinter, she could imagine her husband saying. He never liked the pictures. Preferred long walks in the countryside. Preferred his own way in many things. Even death, it seemed.

   Maud’s gaze wandered. Plain walls were given a touch of reflected glamour by film-posters advertising the latest releases. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis depicted a woman encased in metal, trapped, like Maud, in the city, in her life, in herself. Yet the pictures offered her escape. She enjoyed the Saturday matinees. After evenings of marking essays she needed to do something less cerebral, although nothing could match a good book – her first and deepest love. A heavy tome awaited her in her hand luggage, a Christmas present, but it could wait. She wanted to savour every page on the train, when it felt like lying in the arms of her Sam, reading in bed, rocked gently to sleep.
She looked at the time on the wall and recalled ‘a pair of glasses and a smile’ Harold Lloyd in Safety Last hanging on to the clock-face, as it buckled under his weight, as if melting  in his hands … And, oh, how she would melt into Valentino’s gaze in The Sheik. He would hypnotise her and she would be completely in his power, like Lil Dagover carried away by the spectral somnambulist Conrad in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yet looking around her at the sleepy torpor of bodies, Maud wondered, aren’t they all sleepwalking through life?
And what was this around her except smoke and mirrors?
From the counter in the corner of the room, steam billowed out from a brightly polished silver urn. ‘Tea’s ready,’ said the dumpy maid, and people began to queue up. Like pilgrims for their ointment, thought Maud. Here, in this new temple of modernity – where modern-day pilgrims flock. A Canterbury for iron horses. All around her, relic seekers returned home with their pieces of a saint – Saint Nicholas.
A red-faced porter grumbled into the grate, attempting to stoke some life into the fire. ‘It doesn’t seem to want to get going this morning,’ he said, half to himself.
Nothing does, thought Maud. The world had ground to a halt. Frozen solid. Dead still. Like her life.
She caught her reflection in the mirrored door as an old lady entered – forgetting to shut it, to a tirade of complaints about the draught. Maud looked long-faced and thin-lipped. She had never been ‘beautiful,’ whatever that was (‘You got the brains,’ her pretty sister Constance would joke) – but her summer had turned to autumn all too quickly, and winter was in the wings.
Her life had been whittled away by teaching. The faces changed, but the roles remained: the bully, the swot, the shy one, the troublemaker. Set texts and set in their ways. No room for innovation at the Lewes Grammar School for Girls – where she had commuted to from Eastbourne for the last twenty years.
Time dilated … The faces of the past rose and receded before her, like waves breaking. Where had all her friends gone? They had got on with their own lives, moved away, settled down, had families. All she had was Nubi. Her neighbour was looking after the lurcher for her – her sister would not tolerate him in the house. He must be missing her dreadfully, the great soft oaf. A pang of guilt went out to him. He had been her constant companion through these troubled years – she must take him on a long walk when she got back home.
9.49. The large clock clicked on, relentless. Forward, it seemed to shout. Forward! A speeding locomotive, unstoppable. Forget the past! Think of the future! Look! Look! Yet we exist on a knife-edge, Maud observed with the clarity of an outsider. The split-second that is now.
Maud checked her own pocket watch – a large station-master’s one. A memento of Sam’s – a gift from the railways. The only thing of his she kept with her at all times, though it was too heavy ‘for a lady’. It looked like his compass – yet she had lost true North. It had proven false. No higher authority. No guiding goodness. How could there be, for the Great War to be allowed to happen? For her husband to be ‘killed’ in the first month? To Maud, C of E, it was God who died that day. Mere anarchy was let loose, and she was left on the naked shingles of the world.
She held the watch and imagined her husband near. Imagined him setting off to work. The lines he surveyed for all of these people to travel on … like his namesake, Brunel. He had followed in the footsteps of that great man – and now she followed in his. Yet so many branch-lines had become dead-ends, failed attempts. But in his explorations he found older routes … Renegotiating the conversion of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s safer, smoother broad-gauge to Stevenson’s narrow wasn’t Sam’s magnum opus, his research into ancient alignments was to be …
But we are all tram-lined in one way or another, thought Maud bitterly. What choices had she been offered? As a woman she had few; as a widow even less. Yet she would never regret having chosen Sam – one thing in her life she had got right.
Maud caressed the watch’s smooth silvery surface like a talisman. She traced her kid-glove fingers over the lovingly polished copperplate engraving on the back:

To Isambard Kerne, surveyor for the G.W.R.

For excellence in performance of duties.



   It should have been given to Isambard when he retired – but he’d never reached retirement age. The Great War saw to that. The surveyor’s skills were needed in the skies above Belgium where, she’d remembered reading once, the average lifespan of an airman was seventeen-and-a-half hours – a little bit of trivia masking so vast a tragedy. And so it had been given to his widow as a keepsake.

   As if it could ever compensate for the lost time.

   The bells broke her reverie. At the ten o’clock chimes, Maud rose, smoothing her skirt. Time to make her way to the platform edge. A middle-aged veteran in a medalled red jacket opened the door for her, puffing out his chest like a rooster. She smiled weakly and passed.

   Outside the waiting room, life swarmed like the restless pigeons – trapped inside the iron cage like the rest of them. One of the bedraggled grey birds hobbled on a rotten leg. As she strode by they rose into the air with a bustling indignation, like WI members being told to move their meeting. To the staccato of her heels, the rustle of her fur and false silk, Maud passed through the crowds, the luggage trains, in a dream, in a daze.

   Omnibuses pulled up, disgorging their contents. All stations were desolate places, Maud thought. Everybody wanting to be somewhere else.

   She recalled holding her husband’s hand – shy smiles, the excitement of that first trip – their first time away, she still a student of English literature in her final year at Somerville College, Oxford. The innocence of the new century awaited them. Anything was possible. That was nearly twenty five years ago. Since then the century had been steeped in too much blood. It seemed tainted beyond redemption.

   Around Maud, daily life continued as if ‘The War to End All Wars’ had never happened – soldiers and flower-sellers, gentlemen and their sweethearts, dowagers with tiny dogs, businessman in bowler hats, salesmen with carpet-bags, families saying farewell or being greeted, children being told off. The hue and cry was deafening – shrieks of steam, slammings of carriage doors, blowings of whistles, trundling trolleys, puffing porters. The hustle and bustle was like a tea dance to which Maud had not been invited, the dance unknown, the music provided by a drunken orchestra.

   Beneath a banner of ‘Blood and Fire’, a Salvation Army band were playing Christmas hymns on a collection of brass wind instruments. They had just launched into a dour rendition of ‘Silent Night.’ A black-uniformed woman rattled a tin at onlookers. Then a squeaking made Maud look down: on a make-shift cart a man with no legs, dressed in a soiled threadbare uniform, but with a medal on his chest, wheeled his way in front of the crowd, wielding an empty tin cup in his teeth. He dropped it in his lap and caught her eye. ‘Spare a penny, missus?’ Most tried to ignore him, but an enraged gentleman, whose wife was in tears, asked the guard for the beggar to be removed. Maud dropped in a ha’penny to scowls and carried on. ‘God bless you, lady.’ She did not look back.

   Feedback pierced the hall, then a metallic voice on the tannoy announced, ‘The 10.30 Penzance Express is now boarding, platform 5.’ There was a sudden movement of people – but she was already there, at the head of the queue forming behind her. Maud flashed her pass at the ticket inspector. He smiled, knowing she was ‘one of them’ as a staff dependant. She bridled at his knowingness – she detested all forms of familiarity. Indignantly, she passed through the gate on to the platform.

   Porter’s trolleys rattled passed. Her luggage had already been sent in advance – a trunk sewn into canvas. All she had with her was her hand luggage. So efficient, these thoroughly modern times, as Maggie kept reminding her. Everything moving faster and faster – to where? Where did that sacred cow Progress get them? Mechanised warfare. The wholesale slaughter of a generation.

   The flower girl shivered by her dried blooms.

   Maud walked through the station like a ghost. No one could hear her in this dumb show, which had become like a silent motion picture to her, flickering in black and white. The train hurtled towards her. The damsel on the tracks. No one to rescue her. Her husband had been tied to his job, and she to him. Yet the Suffragettes on the railings had not wanted rescuing. Had all their efforts been in vain? Now she had to pay her own way, or it was the poorhouse for her. Her parents were gone, and she was too proud to ask for her sister’s charity. She could imagine the smugness of Constance – it was bad enough that she gave Maud her cast-offs. How skew-whiff, for the oldest sister to be living off hand-me-downs! Yet, she had been living in someone else’s skin all her life.

   Maud could feel a migraine coming on. The scene diminished as if she looked at it from the wrong end of a telescope. She saw the newly-deads alighting, or queuing up for their next life. The carriages brought fresh arrivals, singly or in pairs from disease, assaults or traffic accidents, to whole villages from massacres and disasters. Confused and lost, with questions on their brows – ‘There’s been a mistake on my ticket …’ ‘I got on the wrong train …’ ‘How do I get home?’ ‘Where’s Mummy?’ An old lady called out for her husband – on a different train.  The guard could not stop the train, would not let her get on; panicking, forgetting decorum, she ran along, crying, until she fell, sobbing. Her husband placed a hand against the window, his breath misting the glass. Maud’s mind whirled. She steadied herself against a girder.

   ‘Dear me. I have to sit down,’ she sighed to herself, ‘– just for a moment.’

   There – on a pile of cases. A gang of grubby children hung about there. They danced around in a circle, singing over and over again:

In Fleet Street, in Fleet Street,

The people are so fleet;

They barely touch the cobble stones,

With their nimble feet.


The lads run like a windy day,

The lasses run like rain,

From Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill,

And then run back again.

   Recovering a little, and concerned that people would notice, she pushed passed them, irritated. Maud hated to be late. To have to rush. She had got there in good time. Had it all planned to perfection. Life ran like clockwork until people got in the way.

  From unheated Third Class blue-faced passengers stepped from the open carriages. Everyone knew their place on God’s Wonderful Railway. It was a cast-iron caste system.

   On billboards, pastel seaside posters for the ‘Holiday Line’ promoted the golden delights of the Cornish Riviera. Yet the colour was drained from the land, and from the people beginning to feel the pinch of hard times. Thin-shaped women; thin faces; thin lives. It was a threadbare world. From a dog-eared and mouldy poster, Lord Kitchener challenged with his pointing finger: ‘Your Country Needs You!’

   Disgusted with its lies, she hurried away and bumped into a tall smartly-dressed man. The impact made Maud drop her purse. It fell at the feet of the stranger.

   ‘I’m terribly sorry! Here, let me help you.’ Immediately, he leant down to pick it up.

   Flustered, Maud snatched back the purse, all composure gone. She offered a polite but icy ‘Thank you’ and, before the man could speak, she scuttled on. The shock of intimacy had unsettled her more than the accident. He had looked right at her!

   Ever since her husband’s vanishing, she had been twitchy around men. She lived her life half-expecting one to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Maud, darling, it’s me – your Sam. I’m back!’ So jumpy had she become of the opposite sex, she had acquired a reputation in her small social circle as something of a Suffragette.

   Maud tried to regain her composure as she approached the platform. The gleaming engine was resplendent in the GWR livery.

   She had to get on that train before any more unexpected encounters!

   There was a scurry of movement towards the carriage – its doors gaped open, ready to eat. As the throng swarmed down platform 5, there seemed to be a commotion holding everybody up. First the purse, now this – it was one of those mornings! Cursing under her breath, Maud pushed past – and then she saw what gripped the bystanders’ ghoulish attention

   A young man was having a turn. He was dressed smartly enough, Maud thought – he couldn’t be a derelict. It looked as though he was having some kind of fit – twisting, frothing at the mouth, holding his head, staring wild-eyed at the people around him.

   Then he screamed: ‘Heads down! Heads down, lads! Heads down! Hunhunhunnn. Nuhnuhnnunnnn.’

   Bystanders stared at him like at a freak show, or an exhibit in a medical museum, talking about him as if he wasn’t there or was some kind of dumb animal.

   ‘One of those shellshock nutters, by the looks of things―’

   ‘The noise must have triggered it off―’

   ‘Shouldn’t be allowed in public―’

   ‘Cowardice – that’s what it is. Not a real man. Should take it on the chin. My Albert did―’

   ‘It’s just an act―’

   ‘Why isn’t he in a home?’

   ‘Electric shocks – that’s what he needs―’

   ‘Walk in the country―’

   ‘A good woman―’

   The soldier looked at Maud. Stared into her soul. She blanched.

   Don’t. Stop. His eyes implored.

   Then, bursting into speech, he addressed her. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary. Got a light, mate. Got a light?’

   Maud’s eyes widened. She was transfixed, as if her deepest desire or terror was displayed before her.

   ‘I – I don’t smoke,’ she said.

   ‘Light?’ he pleaded.

   ‘Sorry – I’m so sorry.’

   He noticed her response. She was not mocking or shouting at him.

   Sensing some rapport, the man walked quickly to her, stumbled on to his knees, reached out, whining, drooling. Maud flinched, horrified.

   Children screeched with laughed, teasing, dancing around him, singing:

            The lads run like a windy day,

            The lasses run like rain.

   To their terror and delight he joined in, slathering, swaying, clapping hands out of time.

   The station clock read 10.27. Out of time! Maud had to get on that train, but the onlookers blocked the platform.

   ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses … We all fall down, we all fall down … All the king’s horses, all the king’s men … Couldn’t put Humpty together again … He marched them up to the top of the hill … All fall down … Jack fell down and broke his crown … And Jill came tumbling after. And Jill came tumbling after …’

   Maud recoiled, distraught. She had to get away. She had to get on that train!

   And scared Miss Muffet away.

   With a final effort she stumbled onto the carriage, heart pounding.

   And Jill came tumbling after.

   Men grabbed him, but he pulled free, and lunged at window, screaming. You’re different, he seemed to say with his eyes: you understand.

   Steam screamed from vents like ghosts in the machine. Shafts and pistons shifted, spat. The juggernaut groaned to life. A whistle blew. A police constable had been called over.

   ‘C’mon, laddy. Straighten up. You’re upsetting the ladies. Pull yourself together.’

   ‘Pack up your troubles in the old kit bag,’ he sang.

   An attempt was made to grab him. There was a scuffle. The constable’s hat was knocked off. The crowd watched on, amused. Faces leered from the carriage windows.

   ‘Mummy, why is that man silly?’

   ‘Because he was in the war, Berty.’

   ‘Right, I am arresting you. Name?’ said the red-faced policeman. ‘Name?’

   ‘I don’t know.’

   ‘He’s the Unknown Warrior,’ someone joked – but it died.

   The guard blew his whistle, then jumped into the brake van. The engine let out a burst of steam. There was a shunt, as all the carriages fell in line – then slowly, ponderously, inexorably, they moved off. Well-wishers waved at the departing, or blew kisses, determined to play out their own script regardless of disruption, deliver their rehearsed lines, against a backdrop of hecklings.

   Suddenly, the man broke free and lunged at the window, pressing his face against the glass. Bloodshot eyes fixed Maud in the corridor of the carriage. He could be my lover, wishing me goodbye. My Sam.

   Then he was grabbed by policemen and dragged away.
Shaking, Maud reached for her watch. It always reassured her in times of stress. She stared at the frozen filigree hands. In a stupor, she checked the time again: 10.01.
Panicking, she tapped it. Shook it. Listened for its tick. It could not fail – it was her only anchor! She had only wound it that morning, as always taking meticulous care not to overwind.
With sickening realisation, she knew: it must have been the collision with that gentleman.
She held the watch tightly, pressing its cold metal against her skull as the train creaked west.
‘Tickets please.’ A sallow-faced ticket inspector opened the carriage door and asked where she was going with a West Country twang to his voice.
Where was she going, indeed?
‘To Glastonbury,’ she curtly replied. To Avalon, she thought, remembering her husband’s fey comment when they had first made that trip, the Isle of the Dead.
Maud wanted to cry but nothing came. She had not been able to cry since her husband had vanished. People thought her callous. But every grey hair upon her head spoke of the tears she had not shed. She hid her face behind her hands as the rain began to fall.
The face of the soldier haunted her mind. She could still see him, pressed against the window screen, like a portrait of anguish – The Cry of Munch made flesh. And in the rhythm of the carriage and the rain’s drumming, she heard the taunting echo of the children’s song:

The lads run like a windy day,

The lasses run like rain.


Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2004

The Long Woman by Kevan Manwaring, the first in the series of The Windsmith Elegy, is available from Awen Publications

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Walking with Thomas

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

                                                                                  The Sun Used to Shine, Edward Thomas



Near Dymock, K. Manwaring, 2017

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, poet, who died at the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, after only two months in France, my friend Anthony Nanson (writer, editor and cousin of  the Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett) and I undertook a memorial walk around Dymock, Gloucestershire, where he lived for a brief while with his family at Oldfields, just over the field from his fellow adventurer in verse, Robert Frost.


Setting off on the Poets Path, K. Manwaring 2017

It was a glorious Spring morning when we set off from opposite the Beauchamp Arms (where Frost and Thomas liked to sink a pint or two), the sun was shining as it did upon their famous ‘walks-talking’ (‘The Sun Used to Shine’), the sky was a freshly-scrubbed blue, and the fields were brimming with wild daffodils, daisies, anemones and bluebells.


Reading by the Old Nail Shop, A. Nanson, 2017

We walked an indulgent ten hours, from 10am-8pm, at an ambling pace – stopping intermittently to read poems in situ – on a 13.5 mile route that took us around the old stomping ground of the Dymock Poets, as they became known (close to Frost and Thomas lived Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, who along with John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke, formed the loose band of bardic brothers). We followed some of the Poets Paths (2 routes which take in the key sites, although in a poorly-signposted and badly-maintained way), but quickly struck out on our own way, a road less travelled, taking us via the Greenway crossroads, site of the Old Nail Shop (Gibson’s former residence) through Brooms Green and Bromesberrow, before striking out on the ridge up to southern tip of the Malvern Hills and our destination for the day, Ragged Stone Hill, another Dymock ‘hot spot’ (as marked by Gibson’s eponymous poem).


The view from Ragged Stone Hill, looking backward towards Dymock, May Hill in the distance, K. Manwaring 2017

It turned out to be a hot day, so we took it easy, finding frequent excuses to stop, stand and stare (as advocated in ‘Leisure’ by WH Davies, a visitor to the Dymocks). Supertramp Davies was not only an epic walker (even with a wooden leg, having lost one while freight-car hopping in America) but also an animal lover (see his poem, ‘The Dumb World’), and he would have enjoyed the many encounters we had today – splendid pedigree horses; a whole colony of pigs, the sows feeding their litters of lively piglets; proud ewes with their sprightly lambs; frisky young bulls (a herd seeking to harangue us from one end of the field to the next until I waved them off). There must have been something in the air, because the livestock seemed to get increasingly frisky towards evening. At one point I had to fend off the challenge of a feisty black bullock with my walking stick.


One Man and his Stick, Kevan on Chase End Hill, A. Nanson, 2017

Along the way we talked about many things – the writer’s life, lecturing (we both teach in universities), cabbages and kings and everything under the sun. We read out poems by Thomas and the Dymocks along the way – I choosing mine at random, Anthony selecting his from the contents page. Here’s what we shared:

Early one morning – ET (KM)

The Lane – ET (AN)

The Old Nail Shop – WG (KM)

May 23 – ET (KM)

The Bridge – ET (AN)

The Ragged Stone  – WG (KM)

Iris by Night – RF (KM)

Celandines – ET (AN)

But These Things Also ET (KM)

The Poets: ET – Edward Thomas; RF – Robert Frost; WG – Wilfrid Gibson
Readers: AN – Anthony Nanson; KM – Kevan Manwaring


Anthony reads The Bridge, K. Manwaring, 2017

The views from the ridge were magnificent, looking back across the Dymock vale – May Hill in the hazy distance (another favourite jaunt of Frost and Thomas) – the vibrant shades of green upon the trees, the meadows festooned with flowers, every detail picked out by the golden afternoon sun. This part of England, where Gloucestershire meets Herefordshire, is so quintessential it is positively Arcadian (at one point we strolled through a handsome country estate where lambs hopped, skipped and raced about by the shores of a royal blue lake, a pastoral idyll that just needed a shepherdess to complete the picture). To connect the flat fields of Dymock with the dramatic peaks (or rather ‘Marilyns’) of the Malverns was satisfying – a transition that Frost and Thomas would have enjoyed, heading for the hills to get a perspective on their lives, away, for a day’s meandering, from families, bills, deadlines and looming war.


Light and shadow co-exist in Thomas’ poetry. K. Manwaring 2017

The flanks of Ragged Stone hill have a Faerie quality to them – alive with Earth energy. Perhaps this is not surprising as it is said to be a nexus of ley-lines, as initially discovered the original ley-hunter, Alfred Watkins (who described his theories in The Old Straight Track). Next to it is the Whiteleaved Oak, said to be the site of one of the Three Perpetual Choirs (as cited in the Welsh Triads), along with Glastonbury and Ely. The harmony of the land was maintained by the choirs there, and to this day the Three Choirs Festival takes place in the area. In a way, perhaps the Dymock Poets, with their songs of verse, were also maintaining the land’s equilibrium. I really do believe that for a brief while they created, with their inspiring creative fellowship, a Little Eden in a quiet corner of England. And whenever kindred spirits gather together to share their stories, songs, verse, laughter and love, it can happen again.


A well-earned rest on Ragged Stone Hill, only 4 hours back to the car! K. Manwaring 2017

As the sun set, the trees silhouetted by its evanescent golden after-glow, the ink of shadows oozing from the earth, we made it, foot-weary but happy, to the Beauchamp Arms, were we raised a pint in memory of Edward Thomas.  In Steep and Aldestrop there had been memorial events also on that day, but here in Dymock, Anthony and I, in our modest little way, had perpetuated the choir of the Dymock Poets with our walks-talking, in the spirit of Frost and Thomas.

frost and thomas

Elected Friends, Edward Thomas (left) & Robert Frost.


The Road Not Taken


Wellow Lane

”Two roads diverged in a wood, And I – I took the one less travelled by…’ Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, Photograph by Kevan Manwaring 2017

On the anniversary of the death of the poet Edward Thomas on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, at the Battle of Arras,  I wanted to share a screenplay I co-wrote with a fellow Dymock Poets enthusiast, Terence James back in 2010-2011, ‘Little Edens’ (or The Road Not Taken). It hasn’t been produced, but it has been performed in a script-in-hand read-thru the ‘Spaniel in the Works’ theatre company in Stroud. I share it memory of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost and the special friendship they enjoyed. I am an avid believer in  creative community and in celebrating the ‘little edens’ of the everyday – the golden moments shared with friends, loved ones, animals, nature, and the spirit of place.

‘Little Edens’ – A Writer’s Statement

I want to develop this project because I am a poet and a lover of the British countryside, and this story celebrates both. I am interested in the period (Edwardian-Georgian-Twenties) having set my first novel, The Long Woman, in it (in its celebration of the English landscape and the Lost Generation, my book echoes some of the concerns of the screenplay). I am haunted by the artistic response in times of conflict – how can we ‘justify’ such rarefied activities as writing poetry in the face of conflict? – and I think the story of the Dymock Poets mirrors our own times and predicament, a hundred years on. Against the shadow of war, there is a brief, bright flowering of creativity in a small corner of the Gloucestershire countryside. This would be precious enough in its own right (one of the ‘little Edens’ of the film) but the fact that this convergence of poets and their muses produced some of the most memorable poetry in the English language shows that ‘something special’ occurred. Thomas might not have been able to ‘write a poem to save his life’, as he so poignantly said to his devoted friend, Eleanor Farjeon, but his poems have given him a kind of immortality – through them he lives on.

I am also fascinated by the influential friendship between the two poets, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. When they first met, in October 1913, the former was yet to establish his literary reputation and the latter had yet to turn to poetry. Through their friendship, they inspired and encouraged each other. Thomas wrote favourable reviews of Frost’s early work, helping to launch his career, and Frost encouraged Thomas to try his hand at poetry, which he did from the end of 1914 – the year the film is set – up until his death in April 1917, in the battle of Arras. During this time he wrote the 150 poems that made his career. Frost returned to America with a burgeoning literary reputation – he went on to become a four-time Pulitzer Prize winning ‘grand old man of American poetry’. This trans-Atlantic friendship is the heart of the film – in microcosm, it mirrors the wider circle of the Dymock Poets and their wives. I find their fellowship heartening, especially in the face of war – and the community they share, the coterie at Dymock, a model for creative living. For a brief while they created and shared something golden.
The Dymock Poets (and the wider clique of the Georgian Poets, to whom they mostly
belonged) have fallen in and out of fashion over the years, but the astonishing convergence of talent (Frost, Thomas and the ‘Adonis’ of the Bloomsbury Set, Rupert Brooke) at such a poignant time deserves to be more widely-known. I picture ‘Little Edens’ as being a deeply beautiful and moving film – with many of the scenes filled with wide shots of lush English landscape; sleepy hamlets; faces a-glow around the hearth; evenings of poetry, cider and fellowship; the embryonic lines of classic poems; the colloquy of poets out on their rambles; contrasting with the harsher scenes of war and its consequences. Imagine elements of ‘Bright Star’; ‘Regeneration’; ‘A Month in the Country’; ‘Hedd Wyn’; and ‘The Edge of Love’.

A logline might be something like: ‘For one brief summer they found paradise — until the world found them.’

Kevan Manwaring Copyright © 27 August 2010

Here it is:

Let me know what you think. Film producers and directors especially welcome!



Houdinis of Bewilderland

Creative Escapology in the Age of Austerity

by Kevan Manwaring

This article was written as a commission for the Doggerland journal –  to make it more web-friendly, I will serialize it here in digestible extracts. It’s initial title was ‘Prepping for the Art-apocalypse: creative survival in the Age of Austerity’ but I decided that just fed into the current Neoliberalist, survival-of-the-fittest, paradigm and its predilection for ‘disaster-porn’. I want to offer a more  positive approach, although the question I started it with still stands:

In an era of philistine-funding cuts in the arts, corporate-controlled channels of consumerism, and a fear-fuelled conservatism in commissioning and programming, what strategies are available to us to foster artistic survival?


Part One

Welcome to the Smeuse-House

The whole is made up of holes. We stitch together our rags and tatters and make something out of nothing. Slowly the picture emerges. Metonymically, to the arrhythmia of the new fin de siècle. Fragments are offered. And we make of them what we will, piecing together a narrative of (all)sorts. The future archivist looks back and sees the crumb-trail, the pioneering projects, the unseen visionaries, the coteries and communities, the salvage-culture sculptors, apocalypso bands, escape artists of an imploding neoliberalism. Those who have found the gap in the hedge and wriggled through. Houdinis of Bewilderland, the artists and poets who wander amongst the ruins of the failed project of civilisation and etch broken songs onto singed codices.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

Next: Rhizomes with a View

This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.



The Golden Room

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

On the 24th June, 1914, two days before the birth of Laurie Lee, a famous literary gathering took place in Gloucestershire. Just outside the village of Dymock, a group of friends met at The Old Nail Shop – the home of Wilfrid Gibson and his wife. Also present were fellow writers Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. There they shared their poetry, their words, their wit and wisdom and dreams. They went on to inspire each other to write some of the best-loved poems in the English language (‘Adlestrop’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘The Soldier’ among others), many of which first saw light in their self-published anthology, New Numbers. They became known, years later, as The Dymock Poets. That first night was immortalised by Gibson in his poem ‘The Golden Room’ and on Saturday modern writers (many of them from Stroud and Gloucestershire) gathered in the Subscription Rooms to celebrate their legacy.

The day was co-organised by Stroud-based poets Kevan Manwaring and Jay Ramsay, with the former arranging the daytime programme of speakers and presentations, and the latter, the evening showcase of poetry and music.

The day started with a keynote speech from Chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets, Jeff Cooper, who had come all the way down from his native Lancashire to introduce the Dymocks. As he is the grandson of their founder, Lascelles Abercrombie, this was especially resonant.

Next we had Anglophile American Linda Harte (a long-term resident of Malvern), the author of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire, to give a more detailed survey of the Dymocks, focusing on her fellow compatriot Robert Frost. She brought with her rare editions of Georgian Poetry (the movement-defining anthology of the era) and a complete set of New Numbers.

After the break we had the first of two short films by Scott Anthony and Geoff Poole – evocative interpretations of the works of Edward Thomas in music and image, and a welcome break to overheating left-brains.

There followed an engaging presentation on editor and critic Edward Garnett by Anthony Nanson, related to Garnett through his grandmother Barbara Newstead-Garnett. This once key figure, who mentored major literary figures of the early Twentieth Century (DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, HE Bates, WH Hudson, and Edward Thomas among others) was justly brought into the limelight at last. Nanson emphasised not only Garnett’s perspicacity as a critic, but also his conviction that literary worth should be the chief criteria for publication, not commercial potential. This, and his championing of writing with environmental sensibilities, makes him an avant-garde and topical figure.

After lunch we were shown a film about composer and First World War poet, Ivor Gurney, entitled ‘Severn and Somme’, named after his iconic collection. This was made by Bristol-based film-maker Diana Taylor, who showed up just in time to answer questions about her self-funded, and moving portrait of the impact and tragedy of war.

Richard Carder, a composer and poet from Bath (Chair of the English Song and Poetry Society) followed this up with a presentation on Gurney and his music, giving several examples of his pieces – settings of the works of Thomas, himself and others – some of which Carder himself plays on in the recordings selected. Musicality and awareness of musical genres (folk, classical, music hall) run through much of the Dymocks’ work so this was a welcome addition to the day.

The final paper of the day was by Kirsty Hartsiotis, Curator of Decorative arts and Designated Collections at the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. She talked to us about ‘Cotswold Characters’ – focusing on Dymock poet John Drinkwater and his connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds in a fascinating and well-illustrated presentation which unearthed many treasures – some of which can be found in the Wilson!

The daytime programme concluded with a plenary discussion about the themes of the day. Creative fellowship is the main thread that underpins not only the Dymock Poets story, but also the very special Stroud scene, which this was largely the fruit of (and which the evening showcase especially illustrated). An environmental sensiblity (what Nanson, Manwaring, Hartsiotis & Metcalfe term ‘ecobardic’) and a strong anti-war sentiment were also perennial themes that the works of the Dymock poets convey to us across the century, making their legacy more relevant than ever.

The evening showcase, hosted gracefully by Jay Ramsay, kicked off with the hypnotic sound of the HangHang Duo – Barry Mason and Lina Lotto playing the Swiss hang drum. There followed an exemplary succession of strong Stroud voices: Adam Horovitz, Marion Fawlk, Steve Morris, Gabriel Millar, Jay himself, followed after the break by Rick Vick, Jehanne Mehta, Karen Eberhardt-Shelton, Polly Howell, and Anna Saunders (from Cheltenham Poetry Festival). Each poet took at least one of the poems of the Dymocks and responded to it in their own way – conducting a conversation across a hundred years. These creative responses critically brought the focus of the event into the present day – for these are (some of) the Gloucestershire writers living and working in the county today, and, each in their way, carry on the work of the Dymock Poets, especially through the spirit of creative fellowship which pervades in this remarkable town.

This long, hot day of poetry and colloquy celebrated a special gathering and in doing so created its own ‘golden room’ – and whenever kindred spirits and creative souls gather together and share their awen, that golden room lives on.


For Kevan Manwaring, co-writer (with Terence James) of the Dymock Poets screenplay, The Road Not Taken, this event was the culmination of several years’ interest. His ‘Dymock fever’ brought him to the county and he hopes that he and his fellow contributors managed to pass it on to the audience by the end of the day!

‘I feel inspired by the ethos and imaginative vision of the night and feel Stroud has a lot to teach Cheltenham. I’ve written two new poems since the event and feel that many of the poems I heard, have now influenced my own aesthetics.’ Anna Saunders, Director, Cheltenham Poetry Festival

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken performed by Spaniel in the Works, Theatre at Mr Twitchetts, Stroud, 11 July 2014

The Road Not Taken performed by Spaniel in the Works, Theatre at Mr Twitchetts, Stroud, 11 July 2014

Friday night saw the premiere of a play about the Dymock Poets (‘The Road Not Taken’) I co-wrote with Terry James from Bath. It was designed as a feature-length screenplay, and so it was interesting to see how it was going to work on stage, in a script-in-hand performance by members of Spaniel in the Works. It was performed as part of their monthly scratch theatre nights at Mr Twitchetts, the Subscription Rooms, Stroud. Although it was (sadly) poorly attended their players were true professionals and soldiered on – delivering a moving ensemble effort. Due to low numbers, the cast had to double or even triple up in roles – but they did this with aplomb. John Bassett was a great Robert Frost, Swithin Fry a superbly dry Edward Thomas, and the rest of the cast brought to life Eleanor Farjeon, Helen Thomas, Bott the gamekeeper, Rupert Brookes, and others. It was rivetting to see my words come to life before my eyes.

I hope this production gets seen again – because it deserves it.

It was intended (in part) as a warm-up event for The Golden Room centenary symposium and celebration of modern Gloucestershire writers, planned for Saturday 26th July, in the same venue. That plans to be a very special gathering – with a superb programme – and we hope we get a decent turn out for it. The theme of the event is ‘creative fellowship’ and we hope it will be in that spirit that you all join us … in the Golden Room.

Inky Interview: Lesley Proctor interviews Kevan Manwaring

Kevan Manwaring is a writer, storyteller, and performance poet.  He has also taught on all three Open University creative writing modules.  Other projects include The Cotswold Word Centre.

Kevan Manwaring pic

To start off, please tell us a little about where you are based.

I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds – I moved here end of 2010.  It is a small town with a great community feel – and a vibrant creative scene.  There are a lot of poets, storytellers, writers, musicians, freethinkers, etc.  The Green scene is big, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous countryside, where I love to walk.

Having taught A174, A215, and A363, what do you find most rewarding about teaching with the OU?

When I see a student have a breakthrough – when something sinks in, the penny drops (in terms of the theory), or comes together (in terms of their practice).  When I hear of a student’s success, eg publication or winning a competition (I’ve had students get book deals with major publishers and win national competitions).  With some students returning for A363 I’ve seen them develop over two academic years – so it’s satisfying to see this fuller arc and the development of their writing.

Many of the Ink Pantry staff and its readers are budding writers.  What would you say is the most common mistake new creative writers make?

Overwriting, in terms of density of style, purple prose, exposition, etc.

Under-writing, in terms of not writing every day and not writing the thousands and thousands of words you need to hone your practice.

In poetry: focusing on the meaning of the words, rather than the sounds.

In prose: poor structure, viewpoint slippage, and lack of telling detail.  Most good writing comes down to sufficient visualisation.  So many stories I read/assess seem out of focus – and it’s frustrating, as you know something interesting is happening there, but you’re cut off from it.  As someone who trained in art originally this has fed into my writing.  I have a very visual imagination – experiencing cinematic dreams most nights  – and I write what I see in my mind’s eye.  You need to make it vivid for the reader.

You were commissioned in 2010 by The History Press to work on a collection of folk tales.  Why do you think it is important to preserve folk tales?

Well, at the risk of being pedantic this project was more about reviving folk tales – rather than preserving them in an academic, set-in-amber, way (if it is possible to capture an authentic definitive telling, as each teller does it differently). The History Press commissioned professional storytellers like myself to gather together the best tale of our chosen county and, critically, retell them in our own words, with a sense of orality – ie for performance; not that these are verbatim transcripts, but they capture the flavour of a live telling and the style of a particular teller/author.  Many were cobbled together from fragments of local history, folklore, archaeology, fieldwork, and imagination – so they were very distinctive creations, rather than historically accurate versions.  Being a writer rather than an anthropologist, this creative freedom engaged me more.  I had the opportunity to write 80 short stories – and that’s how I approached them.

A couple of the Ink Pantry team members have been asked to perform their own poetry at special events.  We’d love some pointers on how to capture an audience when performing poetry.

From early on as a performance poet I quickly realised that if you made an effort to learn your poem off by heart then you’re going to gain the respect and attention of the audience more than just reading it.  Plus you can maintain eye contact, use both hands, and not have any barrier between you and your audience.  Other tips: cut the preamble, don’t apologise, project.  Connect to the core emotion of your poem and transmit that to the audience.  Enjoy yourself.

One of your recent projects led to a show called Tales of Lust, Infidelity and Bad Living.  This sounds like something we should hear more about.

This was a show based upon my life.  No, seriously, it was one of a series of performances based upon The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop.  Bath Literature Festival wanted to create a series of storytelling performances of the ballads and that was the one that happened to still be available.  I performed it in the Guildhall in Bath – there were a lot of French language students in the audience, who seemed to like it.

There are a lot of sexual politics in those traditional ballads – something I’m exploring in my new show, The Snake and the Rose (based upon my two folk tales collections) in collaboration with my partner Chantelle Smith who is a folksinger.

You are behind the Cotswold Word Centre initiative.  Please tell us about the Centre and the philosophy behind it.

It is a platform for language, literacy, and literature based at Hawkwood College, near Stroud.  We launched on World Book Day this year and our patron is novelist Jamila Gavin.  The idea is to provide a focus for the plethora of spoken and written word-based activity in the area: poetry readings, book launches, storytelling cafes, writing workshops, literary rambles, showcases, competitions, small presses, and so on.  It is early days yet – but there’s some exciting stuff in the pipeline.  Folk can find out more by following the link below.

You have said your new book, Desiring Dragons: Creativity, Imagination & The Writer’s Quest, is the culmination of 13 years’ teaching creative writing.  What kind of things will readers learn from the book?

They will have to read it.  But it’s more about process rather than particular techniques. I didn’t want to write another how-to book, of which there are many (some better than others).  It explores the creative process; and strategies for what I call ‘long-distance’ writing.  Many writing courses focus on teaching skills that will lead (hopefully) to publication – but what happens after that?  How can you keep going through the long haul of writing a novel (or several – as someone who wrote a five-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy, over ten years)?  Through the ups and downs of a writing life – the setbacks and successes?  This is for the writer who wants to be a ‘marathon runner’ rather than a ‘sprinter’.

Finally, you are organising a symposium on the Dymock Poets this year.  Our readers would be interested in hearing more about this event.

The Dymock Poets, as they became known, were a group of friends who gathered in a small village in Gloucestershire just before the First World War: Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke.  For a while they enjoyed long walks, cider and poetry, publishing 4 editions of New Numbers (an anthology which included the first publication of The Soldier: ‘If I should die think only this of me…’).  Frost and Thomas mutually empowered each other to go on to become the great poets we see them as today.  When war was declared the Dymocks’ idyll was irrevocably shattered.  Frost and his family returned to America.  Thomas and Brooke went off to war and did not return.  I wanted to celebrate the centenary of their creative fellowship, on the eve of the First World War when they gathered in Dymock (June-July 1914).

I have co-organised (along with poet Jay Ramsay) a daylong symposium in Stroud on Saturday 26th July.  We have some great talks throughout the day and in the evening, a showcase of modern Gloucestershire writers responding to the themes of the Dymocks.  It is this creative response to conflict that interests me more than the whole glorification of war thing.  You can book through the Stroud Subscription Rooms website.  I find the Dymock Poets story touching and inspiring – to the point of co-writing a feature-length screenplay about them.  At the moment, it looks like a drama-documentary will be made.  Anyone interested in the Dymock Poets should check out the Friends of the Dymock Poets site:

Many thanks to Kevan for taking the time to speak to Ink Pantry.  Links to Kevan’s books and some of the projects he is involved in can be found below.
Cotswold Word Centre: a platform for language, literacy, and literature

Creative Fellowship

This post was written as an article for Literature Works; but I’ve added it here as it relates directly to the Cotswold Word Centre project.

Soul of the Earth book launch, Waterstones, Earth Day 2009 - organised by Kevan Manwaring, including the much-missed Mary Palmer (in blue)

Soul of the Earth book launch, Waterstones, Bath, Earth Day 2009 – organised by Kevan Manwaring, including the much-missed Mary Palmer (3rd from left), plus bards from Bath, Stroud and Frome

In the summer of 1914 a group of friends gathered in a village in Gloucestershire to share poetry, ideas and support each others’ creative journeys – they were Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke and they became known as the Dymock Poets. The imminent First World War was to have a devastating effect on their coterie, but for a brief while the poets and their families enjoyed the fruits of creative fellowship. On their famous ‘walks-talking’, Frost and Thomas would range far over the fields and hills, discussing the intricacies of poetry and their lives. Around campfires and country cottage feasts the poets shared their poetry – washed down with plenty of cider – inspiring each other to write some of the best loved poetry in the English language: ‘Adlestrop’; ‘The Road Not Taken’; ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’; ‘The Soldier’ – many of which first saw print in their own self-published journal, New Numbers, produced in their homes, a literal cottage industry. The shadow of war reached to even this sleepily idyllic corner of England, and tore apart the Dymocks. Thomas and Brooke went to war and did not return; Drinkwater, Abercrombie and Gibson did their bit on the homefront; and Frost returned to America, where, with his reputation as a poet made by his friend and renowned critic, Thomas, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize no less than four times, reading at JFK’s inauguration and becoming known as ‘America’s beloved poet’ – and yet he never forget his time with the Dymocks and maintained his friendship with Thomas was the ‘the closest friend I ever had and I was the closest friend he ever had.’

I find the story of the Dymock Poets deeply moving and inspiring – enjoying some of that fellowship in the co-writing of a feature-length screenplay about them (with Terence James, former ITV news editor) over the last 4 years. I have been inspired by other similar creative fellowships – notably the Inklings (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others) who met every Tuesday lunchtime in a pub in Oxford to share their work-in-progress – including drafts of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. I wrote a radio drama about their story – ‘The Rabbit Room’ – and that has resulted in a collaboration with a Stroud-based theatre company, Spaniel in the Works, who have performed it script-in-hand at their scratch theatre nights and recorded it for an audio CD.

Of course, there are other famous creative fellowships – the Bloomsberries (Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Brooke, et al), William Blake and the young Samuel Palmer; Rimbaud and Verlaine; George Sand, Chopin and Alfred de Musset; and in popular music, the perfect storm of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant, and others.

Whatever the intricacies of these often volatile (but productive) liasons, what is the benefit to the modern writer?

Creative fellowships can offer mutual support; camaraderie; the creative buzz of sharing ideas and generating new ones; discussing theories and trends; experiencing and critiquing other creative works; a group identity and shared vision; a collective marketing presence which enables a bigger ‘pull’ and impact; and dear friends to share the highs and lows of one’s craft.

For ten years I ran a small press, Awen Publications, and I organised several successful book launch events and showcases – great evenings made more special because they are the culmination of a shared creative journey. By the time I handed over the reins Awen represented over thirty international authors on its lists – and I saw this as an artistic eco-system interpenetrating the wider communities in which the authors existed – cross-fertilising within the group, but also with the outer world, sharing out and drawing in inspiration (soil, water, and sunlight into oxygen). Such organic grassroots structures creates resilience in their communities – mutually empowered and sharing the load, we feel stronger. Our roots are deep – embedded in where we live, our love for our particular patch of Earth, our neighbourhood and local ‘scene’ – and our branches reach far, making creative connections.

Writers’ Cafes, writers’ networks (such as Literature Works, or the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network, co-ordinated by Rona Laycock), e-bulletins (e.g. Spoken/Written Newsletter, produced my Shane Wolfland), open mics, small press anthologies, lit-fest showcases, group book launches, and so forth, can help to facilitate these fellowships. If you lack one, and want one, then the best way is to start one – put the word out and see who comes out of the woodwork.

Here, in my neck of the woods I have recently created the Cotswold Word Centre, in collaboration with Hawkwood College, as an umbrella for all the wonderful word-based activity in the area – writing groups, book clubs, small presses, live lit performances, commissions, walks, etc.

And this summer I am co-organising a centenary symposium on the Dymock Poets, along with my friend and fellow poet, Jay Ramsay, celebrating Gloucestershire writers past and present. We wish to encourage creative responses to the works of the Dymocks, (who were writing in the shadow of the First World War); but more than just commemorate that vast tragedy, I wanted to focus on the creative response to conflict, and to the voices of those living in the area now – so we are not strangled by heritage, but have a conversation with it across time. It is respectful to honour the great writers of the past as long as it doesn’t turn the present into a museum, e.g. ‘Jane Austen’s Bath’. We can be inspired by the creative fellowships of the past in the stimulating connections we seek and make – helping us to survive and thrive in the modern world.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring April 2014

Cotswold Word Centre: a platform for language, literacy and literature (based at Hawkwood College, Best Venue in the South-West, Spark Awards 2013)

The Golden Room: a celebration of writers of Gloucestershire past and present, takes place at the Subscription Rooms, Stroud, Saturday, 26th July.

The Golden Room – Inspiration

The White Horse or 'The Inn with No Name', Hampshire, where Edward Thomas composed his first poem, 'Up in the Wind'.

And still, whenever men and women gather
for talk and laughter on a summer night, 

shall not that lamp rekindle; and the room 

glow once again alive with light and laughter;

and, like a singing star in time’s abyss,

burn golden-hearted through oblivion?

Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room

In the summer of 1914 a group of friends gathered in the village of Dymock, Gloucestershire to write and share poetry, drink cider, go on long inspiring walks, and support one other in their creative journeys. This brief flowering of fellowship was captured in Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, ‘The Golden Room’, long after the tragedy of the so-called Great War had scattered them, exactly a deadly toll.

2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War – when there will be a plethora of events exploring this devastating conflict. It is also the centenary of when the Dymock Poets gathered together in the eponymous Gloucestershire village – moving there with their families, to write and share poems, publish, go on ‘walks-talking’ rambles of the area, and enjoy the bonhomie of a brief, but important creative fellowship. From out of this coterie of six poets, comprising Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke, came some of the most loved poems of the English language (e.g. Adlestrop; The Soldier; The Road Not Taken, etc). Thomas and Brooke were to die tragically young in the First World War, while Robert Frost was eventually to become the grand old man of American poetry, living into his 80s and winning the Pulitzer Prize four times. He always talked about the special friendship he had with Thomas (‘The most important creative friendship I ever had’). The Golden Room celebrates the legacy of the Dymock Poets and creative fellowship of all kinds.

See you in The Golden Room

See you in The Golden Room

Later this summer I will be co-hosting a celebration of the Dymock Poets (26 July Subscription Rooms) with my friend Jay Ramsay. There will be talks, performances, film, art and discussion about their legacy – and, critically, an acknowledgment of writers living and working in Gloucestershires in the present day, who continue the Tradition.

Whenever a creative gathering takes place – when artistic kindred spirits break bread and share ideas, enthusiasm and inspiration – I believe a ‘Golden Room’ is created. Developing this notion, I have created a radio show of the same name – inviting writers into the studio to share their words and dreams. It was planned as a series of six monthly programmes – each one with a theme. The first one (‘Inspiration’) was due to be broadcast on Tuesday 25th February at 4pm – it was pre-recorded and edited – then last week I was notified the station (Stroud FM) was shutting down unexpectedly. It had gone bankrupt! As they had only green-lighted my show a couple of weeks before this seems like catastrophically bad planning.  However annoying and frustrating this set-back (the challenges of running a community radio station on a shoe-string…) I decided to keep going with my Golden Room project as a podcast (for now) – so here it is!

See you in The Golden Room…

Listen to The Golden Room Podcast # 1 here



DJ: Kevan Manwaring

  • La Celtie et L’infini, Alan Stivell/Intro – KM
  • Chanty’s Welcome (song)
  • Yirdbards – Tramp Song/Why is Stroud inspiring?
  • Nobody’s Business/A Tale of New York – Tim Bannon Poetry
  • Poor Boy – Nick Drake
  • Robin Collins – Woven in Stroud/Time Raft
  • Black Bird – Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
  • In My Craft or Sullen Art – Dylan Thomas (read by Peter Adams)
  • Featured Writer – Denis Gould, Letterhead Press Studio, Cycling Haiku
  • Up on the Ridgeway – Ridgeriders
  • Poetry – Pablo Neruda (read by Gabriel Millar)
  • Caroline Herring – Black Mountain Lullaby
  • Pitchcombe House – Gabriel Millar
  • Bees Wing – Mad Dog McCrea
  • WB Yeats – The Song of Wandering Aengus (read by Tim Bannon)
  • White Birds – The Waterboys
  • HSL, La Zag/Diary – KM
  • Uffington – Chantelle Smith
  • Thought Fox – Robin Collins
  • Featured Writer interview – Denis Gould
  • May You Never – John Martyn/Farewell – KM

Let me know what you think,

and look out for future Golden Room podcasts…

You never know, a radio station might pick it up!