Category Archives: Gloucestershire

A New Awen

 

wp_20161201_21_40_46_pro

(From left) Jay Ramsay, Lindsay Clarke and Anthony Nanson, Awen Book Launch, Black Book Café, Stroud, 1 December 2016

 

On the first day of December towards the end of the slow-motion car-crash that is the year 2016, a small group of kindred spirits gathered together to rekindle hope.

The setting was Black Book Cafe, the book-lined refuge from the mainstream, which sits at the top of Stroud high street, cocking a snook to the world. This is a popular venue for spoken word events and mindful convergences – in the past it has hosted Story Suppers and Acoustic Sundays, a Death Cafe and a chess club (which in my mind blur in surreal ways!). Tonight it was the location for a book launch hosted by Awen Publications – the ecobardic small press founded by yours truly in 2003 and now run with aplomb by Anthony Nanson.

The chilly Thursday night saw the culmination of substantial effort behind the scenes by Nanson and Hartsiotis, the husband-and-wife literary powerhouse, situated in the town since relocating from Bath (where once upon a time four storytellers met and formed Fire Springs, now augmented ably by Richard Selby and Chantelle Smith: Awen Assemble!).

Three years ago at the end of November (so almost to the day) I held a tenth anniversary event in the same cafe, where I announced the end of Awen – for me at least, for I was embarking on a Creative Writing PhD and, after a decade at the helm, had found myself burnt out and nearly bankrupt from publishing some thirty titles by authors from across the world. I had given my all and had nothing left to give, so it was time to move on.

After the aftermath of that book-pocalypse had settled, a glimmer of hope emerged in a conversation with Anthony – long-term friend, walking companion and Fire Spring. He was willing to take it on and I couldn’t think of a safer and more competent pair of hands, and so I passed the whole business to him, for what it was worth, sans lock, stock and barrel (it had been running at a loss since its inception). With the spirit of a new broom, he has been busily consolidating the back catalogue and is now starting to publish new work. The first of these is A Dance with Hermes, a themed poetry collection by Lindsay Clarke (my old mentor from Cardiff University). An award-winning novelist, this was something of a departure for Clarke, although he revealed in his introduction that he had started out with hopes of being a poet, until a woman in his first audience observed: ‘You’re a good storyteller, but definitely not a poet.’ Dear Reader, he married her – there followed forty years of marriage and a successful career as a writer of literary fiction with an esoteric flavour. His best known work is the masterful The Chymical Wedding (Picador 1990), although his latest, The Water Theatre (Alma 2012) shows him getting, if anything, even better with age.

dwh-front-coverAnd so it was with a sense of fan-boy excitement I went along, happy to be a punter for once, although the seating meant I didn’t end up lurking at the back as I’d intended – but found myself inadvertently thrust into the limelight as each of the three readers kindly name-checked me.

First up was Anthony to kick things off and after he said some very heart-warming things about my input into the press, he read a poem by the late Mary Palmer, ‘Black Madonna’ (from Tidal Shift, her 2009 collected works which I published shortly after her premature death).

 It was incredibly poignant to have one of Mary’s fine poems start the proceedings – as she had performed at the first launch of Jay Ramsay’s collection, Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness, a showcase I had organised and hosted at Waterstones, Bath in 2008. It felt like full circle in some way, or rather, a spiral, because we had not simply returned to the beginning, but overlapped psychic and physical spaces as we move into the next cycle.

 Anthony then welcomed up Jay, who performed a confident and eloquent set of his poems from Places. These poems inspired and impressed me the first time I read, edited and published them, and they did again. It was like visiting old friends – his Sinai sequence had kept me company while I was in residence at El Gouna, on the other side of the Red Sea in 2010 (prompting my poetic reply, ‘Desert Brother’).

And Jay and Lindsay were similarly sympatico as the ‘Alchemical Brothers’, both having written on the subject in prose fiction (The Chymical Wedding), non-fiction (Alchemy: the art of transformation; The Crucible of Love) and poetry – the latter manifesting most recently in Clarke’s ‘debut’ collection, A Dance with Hermes.

The author decided the best way to introduce the poems was … to read the introduction, and I am so glad he did, because it was like sitting in on one of his lectures – which I remember so fondly from my Masters). A Cambridge-trained, Classicist, this was no mere display of erudition or elitist knowledge, but a download of wisdom. In the Q&A that followed I likened it to an invocation to Hermes, for it really felt Clarke had manifested the god of communication and cunning in the room by the end of the evening, with his ludic and lucid poems, which danced with form and content in delightful and daring ways.

A Dance with Hermes, crafted with care and handsomely published, boldly announces Awen is back in business – with wings on its heels.

I left the bookshop fired up by a reconnection to the profound triple-aspect mystery which had inspired me to start Awen in the first place: fellowship, inspiration, and art.

Kevan Manwaring, 8 December 2016

ecobardicshowcasewaterstones20-030-09

Publisher and MC Kevan Manwaring (far left) with Peter Please, Mary Palmer, Richard Selby, Jay Ramsay, Anthony Nanson, Kirsty Hartsiotis, Helen Moore, Ken Masters, and David Metcalfe at the  original launch of Places of Truth, Waterstones Bath, 2008.

FFI: http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

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?

houdini_photo_20

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:  http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop

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

http://www.doggerland.info/

 

 

Running on High

20160403_124722

Running on Malvern Hills solo – 12 miles. Worcs. Beacon  (1394ft),  3rd April 2016

 

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…

It’s just before sunrise, early January. I yank myself out of bed and pull on my running kit – full leggings, gloves and hat as it’s subzero out there. Selecting Martyn Bennett’s ‘Grit’ on my MP3 player I head out the door and start running. The cold hits like an electric shock. There’s frost on the ground. Hardly any traffic yet so I don’t bother to wait for the green man – I am him, as I strike out along the tow-path, over the railway crossing and up the steep track. I pause to take in the nimbus over Golden Valley, the sun not quite arisen yet. Two horses in the field turn to look over, snorts of breath visible. Rooster announces the day from the top of his hen house. I push on up to the Quiet Lane, then descend through white fields of icy virgin blades. The sun breaches and I feel reborn, sloughing the shadows of winter.

IMMANENT MOMENT COVER IMAGE WINTER LANE BY KEVAN   MANWARING

Winter lane, Kevan Manwaring

I get hooked on the buzz. The promise of endorphins gets me out of bed with the lark. Twenty minute runs grow longer. My first four-miler up on Haresfield Beacon feels exhilarating. To be high up, running on a ridge, drinking in the light and rich air – it makes you feel like you could run for days. It’s the intimacy with nature that draws me – to be up close and personal with the wild, following your instincts through the trees; desire-paths of the fauna; seeing the land wake up, the first shoots, the snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, and birdsong. As though I was running up the Spring, a Jack-of-the-Woods, sap in the blood, green fire in the head.

20160407_193816

Beware the MAMIL! (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra)

 

Running up a path that is a stream that is a waterfall in the heavy rain. Laughing at the insanity of it all. Slipping over and getting back up again. Splattered and smeared with mud. With scratches, grazes, bruises and blood. War-wounds in peacefulness. Stillness in motion. Zen mind. Wordless. At-one-ment. Every footstep says ‘here’ and ‘now’. Every heartbeat shouts ‘alive!’ Each day’s run pulls a nail out of the coffin.

20160508_133406

By the map of the route – after the Stroud trail. 8 May 2016

Running by yourself. Running with a friend. Fell-runner wisdom, stamina and northern no-nonsense banter. Distances increase as training begins. 4 miles, 6, 8, 10… 12 miles running the Malvern Hills solo. My old ‘long’ runs become short ones. We become acquainted with the hills. New paths discovered. Old ones seen in a new light. Every steep path becomes a training opportunity. Legs become more confident. Fitness improves. The body tones up and the fat burns off. Slowly. Miles convert to inches, ounces, stones. BMI to Bloody Marvellous Insanity.

 

20160508_133105

After the Stroud Trail – Kevan, Brendan & Paul, 8 May 2016

Running alone together. With headphones. Without. In companionable silence. At the speed of chat. Pacing yourself. Pushing yourself. Discovering that you can go further than you think. Enjoying the graft of the hills, the satisfaction of reaching the top. Cruising on the flat. Enjoying the view you’ve earned. Tearing down a hillside. Suicidal tracks. Sweat and a tan. Warm down. Afterglow.

20160420_181409

Trig-Martyr…

Then the day of the race. Suddenly it’s not just some nutty hobby. Crowds of people – from the superfit to the newbies like me. Running clubs, running buddies, lone wolves, silver foxes, dark mares and white hares. The starter’s gun and off you go, dragged along by the lycra shoal. Ignoring the race, and finding your pace.There is always someone faster, someone slower. We all have our own mountains to climb. For me, this was my first half marathon, and getting around was enough of an achievement. The only runner I was competing against was myself. Fourteen hot miles to go yet. Selsey and Minchinhampton await. The slog begins. 23 Degrees and counting. Trying to enjoy the wheeze of it all. Sucking up the pain. The jelly babies. Water guzzle. The slurp and the dash. Slogging through the wall. Wear the limp like a medal. Crossing that finishing line with my running buddy. One small step for man, one giant leap for Manwaring-kind. It was only a half, but it was my first, and I did it. But thank goodness for the physio!

(and for Chantelle & Brendan for getting me going and getting me there!)

20160508_185816

Medallion Man AKA Stroud Trail survivor. May 8 2016

 

 

Behind the Mask

Border Morris, a radical tradition

by Kevan Manwaring

 

STYX FIRST DANCE OUT PF WESSEX 9 APRIL 2016

Styx of Stroud, PF Wessex, 9 April 2016 by Paul Horton

Border Morris is an evolving tradition, which has its roots in the Welsh Marches and the counties where it was originally identified (Herefordshire; Worcestershire; Shropshire) by E.C. Cawte in an influential 1963 article[1]. Cawte was the first to define this distinctive form of Morris, proposing the term ‘Welsh Border Morris’. The prefix has been dropped over the years and now ‘Border Morris’ denotes any Morris-style dance performed with sticks (never handkerchiefs) by predominantly black-faced dancers dressed in ‘tatter-coats’, with a simply-stepped, repetitive choreography, and delivered with much whooping and gusto. Although it is predominantly a tradition of the Welsh Borders/Cotswold Edge there is evidence of such dancing farther east: ‘In 1850 Northamptonshire morris team sometimes danced with sticks, ‘flourishing and brandishing them about’, and dancing round the sticks laid on the ground. This was called Bedlam Morris. Possibly this took place somewhere near Brackley. The source is not clear.’[2] As a Northamptonshire lad now living in Gloucestershire, I feel heartened by this – it makes me feel I am connecting to my roots by dancing in a Border Morris fashion.

 

The presence of Border Morris in Gloucestershire has been questioned by some (although there is an unconfirmed account of the young Gustav Holst watching Border Morris, with blackened faces, dancing outside his Cheltenham home), but I feel that it is essentially a movable feast, and to bind it to a particular place or style is a mistake, missing the point entirely. The very idea of ‘borders’ is the epitome of liminality – a threshold place betwixt and between: a place of peril and transformation. Border Morris must retain its edge if it is to stay true to its defining spirit.

The great innovator, John Kirkpatrick, was inspired in part by Northamptonshire’s Bedlam Morris to start his own influential side in Shropshire in the early 70s. And this is the style which as ‘gone viral’ to use a modern term – and is the style I now dance with Styx of Stroud, the Border side I belong to – so full circle (or ‘Brackley Roundabout’)!

It’s worth looking at Kirkpatrick’s approach in more detail The Border Morris style which Cawte identified was given a contemporary spin by John Kirkpatrick with his Bedlam Morris (an approach articulated with provocative wit in his 1979 article, ‘Bordering on the Insane’[3]), who advocated a looser, more eclectic magpie-ish approach: taking what they fancied from existing dancers and customizing them to suit their tastes. This was tantamount to heresy in the conservative circles of the Morris Federation and Morris Ring. Kirkpatrick’s iconoclastic, ‘punkish’ approach was perhaps indicative of the time (the mid-to-late 70s). The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could not seem further from the bucolic idyll perpetuated by the jingle of bells, squeezebox and fiddle and clack of sticks on a summer’s day outside a pleasant country pub, but Bedlam Morris’ (Kirkpatrick’s group) radical approach to dancing turned Border into the punk of Morris: emphasizing speed and energy, phallic-dancing pushing the bounds of taste, jeans and trainers worn beneath the more ‘traditional’ Morris regalia to blend the traditional and modern (‘the fusion of new and old that I was searching for’, JK), the hollering and lusty clash of staves an antidote to what he memorably described, in contrast to traditional Morris, as:  ‘far more ferocious and flamboyant than this mincing middle-aged antiquated eye-wash.’

To Kirkpatrick’s initial discomfort, Border Morris sides began to pop up adopting his general approach, but customizing it to their tastes. Yet this is the spirit of Border Morris and the reason why it continues to flourish whereas many traditional Morris sides are sadly dying out. Alot of the more traditional sides have ageing members and a problem with recruitment, although the age issue has apparently never been a problem for Border, if the report of a super-annuated side is to be credited: an account of a side in Hereford from 1609 which reports the members being between 96-120 years old, with an average age of 103!

Certainly many of the sides in the ‘mainstream’ Morris scene do look geriatric, but when you see them jigging about in a vigorous manner with broad grins and cheeky twinkles in their eyes you realise that Morris-dancing is the perfect way to stay lithe of limb and spirit. Most of all it evokes an ageless joie-de-vivre, which beyond all intellectualising, academic hair-splitting, and politically-correct hand-wringing is the over-riding impression one gets from watching it and, even more, from joining in. It is damned good fun and, in a boringly sensible and norm-core modern age, wildly impractical, uncommercial, and slightly bonkers.

20160116_142530

Styx of Stroud dancing at the Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

With Border Morris there is a frisson of the wild – a pagan, chthonic energy bursting forth in broad daylight. The blackened faces, outlandish costumes, swirl of rags and tatters, mock battles, shrieks and hollers, boom of the drum, relentless tune earworming its way into your mind, convey something of a dream or nightmare, our collective Shadow brought out into the light.

In terms of my own research (which currently is focused on the Scottish Borders) there is an overlap of motifs, in terms of the longing, liminality and transgression I see recur in the ballads and tales of the Lowlands (and the Southern Appalachians, where many of the songs and stories were taken). Certainly in the latter two are tangible in any Border Morris dance: liminality, in terms of watching something from the Borders, often at ‘liminal’ times of the year most importantly May Day, bordering on good/bad taste, in/sanity, and ancient/modern; transgressive, in terms of the possibility of sex and violence which lie beneath the dances – which take that energy and transforms it. The transgression for some would also be in the apparent appearance of racism, a controversy which lingers around Border Morris like an elephant’s fart in a room – which I will address below.

In brief, then. The blackened faces associated with Morris has been associated with the notion that Morris dancing was actually a bastardisation of ‘Moorish dancing’ (The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century; but the earliest references to its etymological ancestor, Morisk dance,moreys daunce, morisse daunce, start to appear in the mid-15th Century, when there was a fashion for ‘Moorish spectactle’). There is a tantalising possibility that such dances were just called ‘Moorish’ simply because they seem wild and pagan, something ‘exotic’ or ‘other’, and that was merely a contemporary analogy, like saying one film reminds you of another – but with the important caveat that: these dances were probably more ancient that, but were only defined as such at that point. The point at which something gets written  down does not necessarily fix in stone the point at which it came into being. Convention demands that we are bound by the paper trail, but can make educated guesses about what isn’t there. We are, after all, pattern-makers by nature. Another theory suggests it is to do with disguise: because begging was made illegal (Vagrancy Act of 1824). In lean times out of work farmworkers and itinerants would would ‘guise up’ – using the easily available materials of soot and grease – an effective way to keep ‘mum’, to anonymise oneself (a strategy deployed by the Mummers Plays, which usually involve outlandish disguises). A third, rather dubious, theory is that the blackened faces are directly related to the Music Hall traditions which culminated in the notorious ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. This last one has been vehemently defended by the likes of Chloe Metcalfe, but the fact is there is too much evidence of disguises being used centuries before any such phenomenon to accept that is the reason. The first two factors seem most likely to have influenced Border Morris over the centuries; the third seems a trendy theory wheeled out by academics wanting to make a name for themselves (akin to the tubthumping Marxist critique of the Folk Tradition, Fakelore (Harker, 1979), which Georgina Boyes took up the cause for in her influential treatise, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival, 2010). Yet no one can categorically say there is a single ‘smoking gun’.

As with any tradition there is an element of syncretism – a jackdaw creed which will shamelessly filch anything if it’s fit-for-purpose. This includes modern pop culture such as Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, which features Morris (Guards, Guards; Reaper Man; Lords and Ladies, etc), and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (which has inspired a morris side, and even a type of bells). It has spawned what has been called ‘Dark Morris’, which is more amusing than it sounds, basically adopting a satirical, Pythonesque approach to the whole thing. This has given rise to sides inspired by Biker culture (Hells Angels Morris), Neopaganism (Vixen and Wolfshead Morris), Fantasy (Mythago Morris), and Steampunk (Steampunk Morris). Border Morris has become a meme – one that is continually absorbing cultural influences: a modern ‘Celtic’, if you will. With no official set of parameters beyond the bare essentials (sticks, rags, blackened faces) each side customizes, and each individual member tailors, adding their idiosyncratic accretions to their costume (e.g. fairy lights adorning top hats at Chepstow Wassail, January 2016).  This is part of the appeal – personal creative expression within a group, and subculture where, critically, idiosyncratic quirkiness is accepted. Border Morris is very much in affinity with a Bowie-esque ‘kookiness’, a broad church where difference is celebrated. Critics of Border Morris’ ‘unPC-ness’ need to realise this. The vast range of iterations as witnessed at any large-scale Morris event (Hastings Jack-in-the-Green; Upton-on-Severn Folk Festival; Chippenham Folk Festival, etc). is a celebration of diversity, of local distinctiveness as championed by the environmental N.G.O. Common Ground.

Any association between black faces and people of colour (a term so bland as to be meaningless – unless you live in a black-and-white movie we are all people of colour) is in the eye of the beholder – it is certainly not in the consciousness of the performer. There is an important difference between the colour black and shades of brown/diverse flesh tone. If anyone has problem telling the difference then they  probably need their eyes (or shaky beliefs) testing. Black has a symbolic value, as seen in diverse, indigenous cultures around the world e.g. the Kanak tribe of New Caledonia (Nanson). It often denotes the Underworld, death, night, the ancestors, and many other things. Across many of the First Nations tribes of North America black face paint denotes ‘victory and strength’, and as warpaint ‘power, aggression and strength’.[4]

The fact that the word ‘black’ has come to mean people of colour and rarely the actual colour black is an example of what is called semantic bleaching. Now, when we see black it is perhaps inevitable, though incorrect, through cultural conditioning, to associate the colour black with people of colour, but this link within the individual’s mind, and is not one that dancers are responsible for. Tags are prescriptive, often prejudiced, and limiting – hence the resistance by many within the intended demographic against the controversial B.A.M.E. (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) acronym. The same with ‘L.G.B.T.X.’. Who does not wish to be seen and accepted as an individual, not a type? Labels make people lazy. They stop you looking or thinking. The designated is mentally pigeon-holed. They stop being perceived as the unique human being they are. Self-definition is the only safe and acceptable option. So let’s not get signs mixed up with signifiers. Let the sign point where it wants to. N.B. in Border Morris sticks are directed at fellow stick-wielders, nobody else! We are only play-fighting amongst ourselves. Mock-combats transform antagonistic energies, as in the dance popularly known as ‘Feud’.

The fact of the matter is that many Border Morris wear the black because it gives them a degree of anonymity when dancing in public, and it’s as simple and as innocent as that. People can project whatever they want onto Border Morris – who become Rorschach inkblot tests to the onlooker’s subconscious. The overwhelming consensus is that ‘people of colour’ do not seem offended by Border Morris, indeed delight in it (and a fair few dance in Morris and Mummers themselves[5]). It would seem, from numerous anecdotes within the Border Morris community, to be only white people who seem bothered and wishing to complain. Who then, pray tell, is the liberal academic complaining on the behalf of? Of course, any form of prejudice needs challenging – but what often is just a form of Postcolonial posturing is just another form of ‘othering’, of imperialist patronisation (the unelected spokesperson speaking on behalf of an imagined wronged minority). Let’s hear it from horse’s (or Mari Lwyd’s) mouth.

20160116_144257

Mari Lwyd, Chepstow Wassail, Jan 2016. K. Manwaring

Dancing in a Border Morris side one feels inside a tradition. One might feel nervous, excited, preoccupied with the technicalities of the dance, the practicalities of the performance space, the next beer or bowl of chips, the friendly faces in the crowd, and a plethora of other concerns – but never about the colour of the face-paint you are wearing. Because, as the performer, you cannot see that – you’re on the inside looking out. Even facing a fellow dancer you are more likely to be concerned with the position of the sticks than anything. What seems extraordinary to onlookers has become normalised to those within the group. And for those dancing it feels joyous – a selfless public act. This is the spirit in which Border Morris is danced: light-hearted anarchy offering, briefly, a shattering of the status quo. For those who question its validity or rationale, all I can say is: have a go. Come and clack sticks and let’s have a beer afterwards. We’ll see how you feel about it then, once you’re on the other side of the mask.

20160116_144553

Our awesome drummer Dave, at Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 12.04.2016

 

Styx of Stroud: https://styxofstroud.com/

 

Key Sources:

  1. C. Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire,’ Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), pp. 197-212.

John Kirkpatrick, ‘Bordering on the Insane’, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979 (cited on http://www.johnkirkpatrick.co.uk/mo_BorderInsane.asp)

Chloe Metcalfe, ‘To Black Up or Not to Black Up: A Personal Journey’, The Morris Federation, Winter newsletter 2013, https://www.academia.edu/5468139/To_Black_up_Or_Not_to_Black_Up_A_Personal_Journey

‘Morris Dancing’, Pepys Diary website: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/6217/

 

 

[1] EC Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire’, 1963.

[2] ibid, 1963: p197.

[3] Bordering on the Insane, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, By John Kirkpatrick, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979.

[4] http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/color-meanings-symbolism.htm

[5] And I have seem Mummers actually change the usual ‘Saracen or Turkish knight’ to something less obviously charged, such as ‘Bold Slasher’, to avoid any obvious Islamophobia. This shows a sensitivity and cultural reciprocity which Morris and Mummers are rarely credited with.

The Puzzle of the Wood

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?

Ted Hughes, Wodwo

There is something about walking in a wood which stirs something within us. The dappled sun filtering through the canopy, the twisty roots and gnarled boughs, the dripping moss, ferns and fungi, the green silence. It gets the imagination going. We start to see things, or daydream – as though the wood draws out our dreams and give them form.

20160228_121110

This was the late, great novelist Robert Holdstock’s flash of genius – one that came to him in a writing workshop in Milford-on-Sea in 1979, which resulted in an award-winning short story (1981), which led to a multiple prize-winning novel, Mythago Wood (1984), and spawned a series seven connected of novels over the ensuing 25 years. If Holdstock never visited Puzzle Wood in the Forest of Dean (he tragically died of an e-coli infection aged 61, in 2009) then it feels like it visited him – as though it had sprung from his fecund mind.

20160228_120531

The 14 acre stretch of ancient woodland deep in the heart of the Forest of Dean is riddled with pathways which snake their ways amid the rocky outcrops, tangle of trees, creepers, ferns and roots. The result of a collapsed cave system which was mined by the Romans for iron – the mineral yew trees love, as is evidenced by the many mature specimens there, rising from the rock they both cling to and shatter with their tensile roots and long bow limbs. For centuries this curious sylvan labyrinth has drawn visitors to wander and wonder at its origins and denizens. It is easy to imagine it being frequented by all manner of elves, gnomes, goblins, dryads and dwarves. Some believe Tolkien visited it and found inspiration (in fact he visited the nearby Lydney Park, which boasts similar workings – known as ‘Scowles’ – cheek-by-jowl to the ancient temple to Nodens – being surveyed at the time by the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There, hearing of the ‘Lord of the Mines’, as Nodens was called, and seeing the legend-soaked ruins gave him some serious material to conjure with). Yet the magical associations with Puzzle Wood have lingered, enhanced in an interesting way by the many recent TV and film productions shot there: Merlin; Atlantis; Wizards vs Aliens, Dr Who, Jack the Giant Slayer and the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise: The Force Awakens. Walking amongst the weird tree-scape of Puzzlewood the ‘mythagos’ (to use Holdstock’s term for archetypal forms generated by a human imagination interacting with the wood’s ‘consciousness’) conjured are drawn from the very same pool of myth as his cast (Merlin; King Arthur; Morgana le Fay; time-travelling wizards; Jack the folk hero; dark lords with fiery blades and Force-full maidens) but it is one fed to us from movies and TV series, rather than the oral tradition or literary folk tale. A similar process is occurring as perhaps might have transpired in the Middle Ages, when villagers ventured into the wood, all too aware of the perils to be found there to their souls: demons and witches, wodwoses and wyverns, the Good Folk and Old Scrat himself, evoked by thunderous sermons and stained glass windows – the cinema of its day. The green men and gargoyles that linger in the corners of church architecture were always there to pounce upon the wayward soul.

puzzlewood_82_by_ladyxboleyn-d6cp4ko

Today, a walk in the woods is a lot safer – certainly at the family-friendly Puzzlewood (which offers cute animals, treasure trails, café, picnic areas, and other attractions). But even in such a ‘managed experience’ there is magic to be found. All you have to do is pause and spend a while soaking in the ambience and let your imagination soar. Such a place brings out our natural storyteller, and we start to populate it with our own fanciful musings (for example, a troll beneath a billygoat bridge, as I heard one adult whimsy). A milder form of Holdstock’s mythago-generation occurs. The wood mirrors what we bring into it, but also transforms it – it takes the carbon of our mundane lives and turns it into the oxygen of ideas.

One of the wood’s charming characteristics is the way it has different levels – one moment you are looking down on a Pan’s labyrinth, next thing you know, you’re squeezing through a mossy cleft into a hidden dell. The collapse of the cavern system and the Roman quarry have, in effect, brought the ‘unconscious’ of the landscape into the light. What was hidden in the dark has now been revealed. I think this why it feels so numinous – it feels like a slippage of the waking world into the realm of dream. Suddenly, we’re in the stuff that tales are made of. To explore it is to create your own narrative thread – albeit one that inevitably gets tangled as we get lost, cross the paths of others, double-back, and basically get into a bit of a muddle. Getting lost in a wood, even in a semi-conscious way, makes us all, for a moment, Hansel and Gretel. Yet, the visitor centre is not far away, and the madding world is noisily nearby. It is impossible to forget yourself or your century entirely, but for a little while we almost can. The puzzle is not that it is there, but that we bother to come back at all. For a spell, we can pretend to be babes in the wood, until the cold drives us to the cafe!

20160228_124757

http://www.puzzlewood.net/index.php/puzzlewood-facilties/about-the-wood

Puzzle Wood reminded me of another woodland nearby (Rocks East Woodland, on the borders of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset). Rocks East has it’s own ‘valley of the rocks’ (also probably a Roman quarry), grotto, sculpture trail, turf maze, and peculiar magic. It is a place I have a special connection with – a decade’s worth of stories: http://www.rockseast.org.uk/

The Heart of Poetry

0009_009Poetry by Heart is a national recitation competition for 14-18 year olds, held across Britain in early Spring each year. It was started by Sir Andrew Motion, former poet laureate and now involves 100s of schools and students around the country. School heats produce winners and runners up who go onto to compete for the county finals. Then the winners of the county round go onto the regional and national finals held in the hallowed halls of Homerton College, Cambridge, in March. The event is recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 4, and the footage of previous years is available to view on the Poetry by Heart website. The contestants have to commit two poems to memory to perform on the day: one from pre-1914 and one post, or from the First World War. The fecund competition anthology has a wide selection from Beowulf to 21st Century poets, reflecting the diversity of voices within the British Isles and beyond. To hear these young voices reciting such material is inspiring.0001_001

On Wednesday 10th February I co-ordinated and MCed the Gloucestershire Finals at Hawkwood College. The result of a lot of organizing, the day itself ran smoothly, thanks to a team of professionals which I selected: the 3 judges (Jay Ramsay; Gabriel Bradford Millar; and Dominic James, the current Bard of Hawkwood); the accuracy judge and prompt, Anthony Nanson; sound tech support from Chantelle Smith; photography from Fred Chance; and guest poetry from Adam Horovitz; and not forgetting the warm-hearted support of Katie Lloyd-Nunn and her team at Hawkwood. It was a prime example of creative collaboration.

0020_020

I love providing platforms for people to shine in – and that’s precisely what this afternoon was. We were all there to support the young bards and provide the most conducive space possible for them to perform in. Adam Horovitz gave them some top tips to help them use the mike and the space to the best of their ability. To step up to the mike and perform from memory two poems in front of a crowd of people takes a lot of guts – something I couldn’t have done as a young schoolkid (without serious coaching). But it is enormously empowering – it builds confidence and self-esteem, and such public speaking skills will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life, as will a poem or two up your sleeve: life wisdom at the drop of a hat. I can vouch for this having won the Bard of Bath competition back in 1998 with a feat of memory and creativity (my epic poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath). That was for me, a defining moment, and one that launched my creative career. Perhaps for some of the young contestants of Poetry by Heart, their participation will be the start of a life-time association with the spoken word – it will certainly be a significant experience that will stay with them. Poetry becomes not just something to study, and then forget, after school, but a life-long companion.

Learning a poem by heart embodies its rhythms and wisdom – internalizing it in a way that no intellectualizing could by itself. It becomes a visceral experience that can set your heart pacing. In the same way that performing an exciting myth, legend or folk tale can be a thrilling experience, so too with poetry. You are living the words. The electric current of the initial inspiration is restored to the text and you get a frisson of what inspired the writer in the first place. The poem is resuscitated with meaning, coming alive off the page. It is a phoenix-like act as a poem decades, or even centuries old, becomes a living, breathing thing again – having resonance and vitality to modern ears and minds. The young poet learns the power of the conscious utterance – the magical power of language. They learn to listen, to speak wise and beautiful words, and they learn the power of memory. To make the effort to learn a poem, reciting it again and again until it becomes fixed within the long-term cortex (downloaded to our internal hard-drive, as it were) is to be given the keys to the palace of memory. That vast temple reveals itself and a lifetime of discovery awaits. Away from the ubiquitous devices that dominate modern life we rediscover the breath-taking potential of the human mind.

And surely this is something that all teachers and schools should be supporting – with the funding from government to make it viable. The training of memory is a significant by-product, but more than this it is to return heart and soul to education.

Poetry is good for the soul’s growth. It ennobles us and deepens our humanity. 0012_012

 

Initiatives such as Poetry by Heart enable all to tap into and experience the living Bardic Tradition. To discover more about the Bardic Tradition, check out:

Tea with the Bard: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/tea-with-the-bard

Day of the Bard: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/day-of-the-bard

Bard of Hawkwood Contest: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/bard-of-hawkwood-competition

The Bardic Handbook by Kevan Manwaring (Gothic Image, 2006): http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html

Copyright Kevan Manwaring 14 February 2016

The Intoxication of Memory: Laurie Lee & Cider with Rosie

CiderWithRosie.jpg

Cider with Rosie, 1st Edition, 1959, Hogarth Press

Origins

Cider with Rosie by Stroud-born author Laurence Edward Alan ‘Laurie’ Lee (1914-1997) was published in 1959 by Hogarth Press, with illustrations by John Stanton Ward (who had previously worked on HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May, 1958). Stanton Ward’s exquisite line drawings as as locked into our aesthetic experience of the book as John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (150th anniversary 1865-2015) and Through the Looking Glass. They evoke the organic life oozing from every page of the book; their unfinished lines suggestive of the impressionistic quality of Lee’s writing. Published as ‘Edge of Day: boyhood in the West of England’ in 1960 in the US, it took two years to write, and three drafts.  Becoming canonised as part of the national curriculum, it became known to countless school-children and has sold over 6 million copies worldwide. With the royalties Lee purchased Rose Cottage in his beloved Slad. It has been adapted for stage (initially by James Roose-Evans), radio (narrated by Kenneth Branagh) and screen (1971; 1998; 2015). Cider with Rosie was not its first title – earlier versions were called Cider with Poppy and Cider with Daisy. Although the eponymous ‘Rosie’ was later identified as Rosalind ‘Rose’ Buckland, Lee’s cousin by marriage, who died in 2014, a few days before her hundredth birthday) a perhaps telling detail (Laurie Lee liked his women; but also, the way Lee has shaped his memories to his purpose). This subjectivity is acknowledged by Lee is a Note preceding the text:

The book is a recollection of early boyhood, and some of the facts may be distorted by time.

From the writer’s own admissions and the analysis by Valerie Grove’s in her 2000 biography, (The Well-loved Stranger; republished as The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee in 2014) we can interpret ‘may be’ as ‘undoubtedly’ (distorted by the writer’s imagination).

Structurally the book is arranged into thirteen thematic sections:

  1. First Light
  2. First Names
  3. Village School
  4. The Kitchen
  5. Grannies in the Wainscot
  6. Public Death, Private Murder
  7. Mother
  8. Winter and Summer
  9. Sick Boy
  10. The Uncles
  11. Outings and Festivals
  12. First Bite at the Apple
  13. Last Days

There is a loose chronology about this sequencing, from his first arrival at their new home in Slad, aged three, to his loss of ‘innocence’ (First Bite …), to his ‘birth’ as a poet. The book is a self-penned creation myth, describing the evolution of the writer. A serious illness (Sick Boy) leads his awakening into ‘valley consciousness’, with the sensibilities of a poet. The book ends with him picking up the pen to start writing poems.

Published collectively as the ‘Red Sky at Sunrise’ trilogy along with As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. The title comes the saying: ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning’ which flags up the disenchantment at the heart of this cycle, from rural ‘innocence’ to war-torn ‘experience’. In this regard to trilogy could be regarded as a bildungsroman, charting Laurie Lee’s development from infant to adult, from boy to man.

Opinions          

Cider with Rosie is a supremely impressionistic memoir – one that draws upon ‘sense-memory’ more than verifiable fact. Lee himself said he wanted to evoke the genius loci, to capture what it felt like to live in his beloved Slad valley (a boy’s paradise, ‘scragging apples’), to chart it through the seasons, the turning of the wheel and the impact on village life of the modern and the ancient (BBC Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire: the storyteller’s landscape). This work in particular, out of all of his works, is indivisible with place, with the past, and with his passions (food; women; nature). He was, in essence, a sensualist, in love with life.

Cider with Rosie has been criticised as a work of nostalgic romanticism, painting an overly-idealised picture of village life, a Cotswold Arcadia (yet within the book there is a sense of a ‘spell that is breaking’, via the legacy of the First World War and the inexorable creep of Modernism) but this is redeemed by both its ecological awareness, (the book is bursting with fecundity and decay, the living landscape a huge presence in the daily life of Slad-folk, even invading the Lee family household; in every chapter the natural world is never far away and is not always benign) and the second and third books in the trilogy, which show a deepening political awareness. In effect, Cider with Rosie represents a lost ‘Golden Age’, as does the first half of ‘As I Walked Out…’, but this is deconstructed by the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and its aftermath (charted in A Moment of War; and A Rose in Winter). Together, they depict a journey to knowledge, from the solipsistically provincial to the worldly and battle-worn. It begins at the end of the Great War, and concludes in the midst of another.

Despite this backdrop of realism, the trilogy (and, by extension Laurie Lee’s life) has the quality of a folk tale – telling of a young lad from a sleepy village who goes off to a magical kingdom, with only his fiddle, wit and luck, and brings back the (Spanish) sun to re-enchant a damp Gloucestershire valley. Lee had no small part in forging this legend, being prone to self-mythologising, and the deliberate obfuscation of the memoirist. By shaping his past, he prevented others from doing so (until after his death). In this he shared the fears of Hilary Mantel who, terrified, that others would misappropriate her past, took it upon herself to get there first.

 

As a child raised in a family of women (his father left home when he was 3) – his mother, 3 step-sisters (and 2 brothers, one Jack who went on to become a film director in Australia), his formative years were shaped by the feminine, colonised his imagination, and shaped his writing (and lifestyle) for the rest of his life. He had numerous ‘muses’ throughout his life, but the most important, by far, was the glamorous ‘society beauty’ Lorna Wishart. When she left him for the painter Lucien Freud (Laurie Lee developed a romantic attachment to her niece, Katherine, whom he went on to marry – they had went Laurie was 21, Kathy was 5: sitting on his knee, so his wife was to reveal, she knew in that moment she would marry him. When Kathy gave birth to their daughter Jesse (born on the same day as Lorna’s child by Lee, Yasmin – a long kept secret from the family), Lee sang the praises of his ‘first-born’, and later the ‘two women’ in his life – Kathy and the infant Jesse. He was renowned as a ‘charmer’, a ‘lady’s man’, who seemed to be more at ease amid female company, the prettier the better.

Laurie Lee was, as a poet and an artist, a lover of beauty. His depiction of his childhood in Slad, written over half a century later, is infused with these sensibilities. They transform the landscape through his artist’s (and lover’s) eye. As such, his project echoes the mood of a 1911 painting by the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, ‘I and the Village’ – a dreamlike overlapping of internal and external landscapes, infused with the artist’s memories of his place of birth and his relationship to it. In both works (Cider with Rosie; and ‘I and the Village’ there is a sense of ‘village-consciousness’, or ‘valley-consciousness’ – a breaking down of Self and the Other, of the human and the natural world. (This is lucidly articulated in the chapter entitled ‘Sick Boy’ when the young Lee awakes from a fever with a heightened perception of his locality – we seem to eavesdrop upon the birth of the poet). This way of seeing is also echoed in Dziga Vertov’s docu-poem, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which dances through the diurnal round of ordinary lives. As someone who worked on documentaries in the Second World War (for the GPO film unit), whose brother Jack became a film director, Laurie Lee would have been familiar with this cinematic language, if not this actual work. A recent exhibition of Lee’s paintings (Museum in the Park, 2014; and publication of his artwork) shows how important art was to him. Lee’s memoirs and poems are intensely visual and imagist. He paints with words. Sometimes the brush-work is loose, Turneresque, at others, he renders vivid miniatures of rural life (or perhaps field-sketches in the case of the Spanish books). It is contextually interesting to note that a contemporary of Laurie Lee, fellow poet Dylan Thomas (born in the same year, 1914), wrote his own impressionistic account of village life, in his case a fictionalised version of Laugharne, ‘Llareggub’, in his BBC ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood (1954) – preceding Cider with Rosie by 5 years. Both had worked on documentaries during WW2.

Cider with Rosie is a quintessential Post-War project, alongside Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s praise songs for lost England, broadcast to the nation in his popular TV monologues. It offers a healing of a traumatized England, the re-membering of a shattered nation-self. Amid the swagger and quiff of the 1950s, the Angry Young Men and kitchen-sink realism, Lee offered a Horlicks-ish comforting window onto the past. In mythologizing his own neck of the woods, Lee created a mythscape that would appeal to millions. His bucolic pastoral conjures an almost pre-lapsarian state. The very title, Cider with Rosie, is ripe with metaphorical freight, with mythic resonance. It intimates the irretrievability of innocence, alluding to the original apple (from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, partaken of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps not surprising to note that in the surrounding Gloucestershire landscape are place-names plucked from the Bible and its imagery: Purgatory, Paradise, the Horns, the Heavens. The ‘First Bite of the Apple’ chapter in microcosm, the book in its entirety, and the trilogy in a wider sense, track a kind of rite-of-passage, in 3 stages:

  1. Temptation
  2. Transgression
  3. Transformation

This cycle would seem to play out through the rest of Lee’s life. He was forever trying to get back to the garden, whether through women, drink, living off of his own one-man heritage industry, or the numerous tourists who would come to pay homage. He was, for many years, amenable to sharing a tale or two over a pint in his local, The Woolpack. One of his favourite anecdotes was telling of a young visitor who asked him ‘where Laurie Lee was buried’. When he died in 1997 (13 May, aged 82), he was buried in Slad churchyard. His gravestone is engraved with a line from one of his most popular poems, ‘April Rise’:

If ever I saw

blessing in the air

I see it now in this

still early day

Where lemon-green

the vaporous

morning drips

wet sunlight on the

powder of my eye.

On the other side it reads: ‘He lies in the valley he loved.’

Legacy

Still loved by millions, Cider with Rosie has become, for the residents of Stroud and the Slad Valley, a kind a talisman, helping to ward off housing development several times. Lee himself was instrumental in this. When a development was planned in the 90s he wrote to all the national newspapers and fronted a campaign to stop the proposed housing scheme. Lee’s last public reading was at Stroud Town Hall, as part of an evening of local writers raising awareness about the campaign. As with Hardy’s Wessex, Dickens’ London, Jane Austen’s Bath Lee’s works have transformed how people ‘read’ his native landscape. It is almost impossible now to not visit Slad and to disassociate it from Lee. He is on the map. In 2014, the year of his centenary, a Laurie Lee Wood was created (opened by Cerys Matthews) and the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way was launched by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, with a signposted trail leading visitors around his village and valley. Lee’s poems are printed on perspex, so you can literally ‘see’ the landscape through his words.   Up the road, at Sheepscombe, the picturesque cricket ground was purchased by Lee and given to the local cricket team. The view is preserved through the power of his literary legacy. In his centenary year further ‘landmarks’ were added, included a mural in the Shambles, Stroud centre, and an exhibition at the Museum in the Park. Every midwinter, local musician Johnny Coppin performs a popular concert of his music, which includes poems of Lee’s set to music. Coppin recorded an album of Lee reading extracts and poems set to music, entitled Edge of Day, a nod back to the American edition. Stroud-based poet, Adam Horovitz (son of Michael and Frances Horovitz) wrote a memoir about Lee, A Thousand Laurie Lees, published in 2014 by The History Press. Kevan Manwaring produced a map of literary Gloucestershire for the Cotswold Word Centre, featuring Laurie Lee and other well-known writers of the area (incl Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Dennis Potter and others). Lee has become part of a local ‘pantheon’, and continues to draw literary pilgrims to the area and inspire the county’s vibrant writing community to this day.

Kevan Manwaring

Stroud 13 April 2015

Notes for ‘The Secret Life of Books: Cider with Rosie, presented by Joanne Trollope’

BBC4, 9 November 2015

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06nxssd