Category Archives: Journal

Italy – a Longobardo Odyssey

29th March-6th April

In the land of the Longobardo!

In the land of the Longobardo!

It is hard to know where to begin to sum up my 9 days in Italy. I was booked to run storytelling workshops with teenagers in aschool in Udine, NE Italy, by a fellow teacher, Silvana Muzzati, whom I met when she attended my creative writing classes at the University of Bath, where she was teaching Italian. Now back in her native Italy, she teaches English to pupils at Liceo Scientifico Statale Giovanni Marinelli, a scientific college. Last year her recommendation got me a couple of days workshopping in Asti, in the Piedmont region. This time I had longer – a full seven days to run workshops for the whole 4th Year -13x2hr workshops, plus a teachers’ inset in creative writing – making a marathon 28 hours teaching in total (to approx. 300 pupils and teachers). This was always going to be a test of stamina, but it was undoubtedly worth it. The kids were great, the response was positive – so it felt like it had ‘worked’. And every afternoon and evening I had free to enjoy Italian cuisine and the delights of the region, courtesy of my wonderful host, Silvana. I stayed at her place in Spilimbergo – a lovely house built by her father, next door to her sister – and she was extremely hospitable, making me feel comfortable and feeding me up like a typical Italian mama! I had never eaten so well for so long – each meal was another epicurean pleasure, as Silvana took my palate on a tour of the province. During the week I was treated to lovely local fare, including Fricco – a delicious cheese and potato dish; a yummy ‘peasant bean stew’; grilled polenta with fabulous cheeses; gnocci; porcini & truffles; the best risotto and best tortellini I’ve ever had. Italians enjoy good food, slowly. Lunch can last a couple of hours – it certainly did for us, as school finished at 1 o’clock. Evening meals normally are served around 8pm – a little later than I’m used to and my body clock needed to make some adjusting to the diurnal rhythm, starting with an 6.15am alarm call to get to school for an 8.05am start. I have never been so active so early for so often! …But I soon got used to it. What I like about Italian culture is the way meal-times involve ‘slow food’ and are family affairs when possible (some must grab a quick bite depending on their job, but most shops shut between 1-3pm and everything goes quiet as the nation takes lunch!) Also, I like the early evening stroll when folk wander into town for an apertif – often taken standing up on the pavement at tall tables, for the focus is on people watching and socialising. Everyone it seems goes for an evening constitutional – teenagers, young parents with bambinis, workers, the elderly – it’s the time to ‘see and be seen’. Even a smallish town like Spilimbergo comes alive at such times and the atmosphere is pleasant. Unlike Britain, there isn’t a booze culture. Drinking always revolves around food – and many bars serve ‘starters’ to go with the early evening aperitif. As soon as you order you get a bowl of crisps or other nibbles. In the trattoria you get a basket of bread.  There’s no chance of starving in Italy! I was starting to feel like Homer Simpson by the end of the week – as Silvana put it, a bit ‘Michelinos’, after the Michelin man! But my workshops kept me on my toes – as they involved quite alot of movement and energy. I don’t know how teachers keep going – I was wiped out after each morning, but I guess I was putting my all into a 2 hour ‘blast’ rather than a slow burn term-long approach. Still, I have respect for teachers who have to do this all year long! I spent most of the week spaced out with fatigue – not really having a chance to recover from travelling. And everything being different – the language, the culture, the country, my diet, my working week, & domestic arrangements – made ‘the basics’ tiring. Everything required more effort than if I was, say, in my comfort zone back home – and of course it’s healthy to be pushed beyond that zone, but it made the week a tiring one.But it was nevertheless, a pleasurable, memorable experience. Not only had I a lovely host who was good company (but knew the importance of ”time out’) but most afternoons I was taken to somewhere interesting.

Here’s some dispatches written in situ…

Bard and the Bora - a windy day in Spilimbergo

Bard and the Bora - a windy day in Spilimbergo

Tuesday 31st March, Bottega del Caffe, Udine

Sitting at a cafe in the centre of Udine, Northern Italy, watching the proprietress sweep the floor in the wind, the leaves swirling about her skirts, her long sienna hair teased into gorgon tendrils of terrible beauty. Fiercely, she sweeps, like the Spring winds, magnificent, proud. The spirit of Spring, of Autumn, of Winter. Of change – life’s inexorable cycle. The spirit of youth – as irrepressible as Spring’s sap – and even perhaps the spirit of death – katabolic, cathartic, the dark crone of dissolution, the stern widow who will suffer no fools gladly. Who sees through the lies of men. Who attracts the eyes of men. The dark sickle of her cleavage every time she bends to sweep draws the gaze like iron filings to a magnet.  A grey nun on a bicycle rides by, men on motorbikes joust traffic, chic shoppers hustle and bustle, young mothers – bambinis dangling between their breasts or in pushchairs. Scooters buzz. Wheels turn… The fresh wind swirls the trees, snaps off a branch that falls on my table, brings new weather as old as the hills, relentless energy moving forward forever, the Spring tide of life, a wave ever building, never breaking. Onwards! Tidal wave of tomorrow. The boot of Italy – a leg allegro, striding forward. Best foot. A country of movement. A verb nation. Reverberation. A seismic rumble from the gods of industry and fashion. Chic business. A Catholic work ethic – work hard, play hard – focussed flamboyance. La dolce vita. The opera of life.

Civvidalle - East to the Alps

Civvidalle - East to the Alps

Civvidalle 4th April

Sitting outside the Caffe’ Longobardo in Civvidalle – a town on the border between Italy and Slovenia – and still enriched by its Longobarda heritage. It straddles the Natisone river, which courses through a gorge dramatically splitting the town. This is crossed by the Ponte el Diavolo, the Devil’s Bridge. My host Silvana kindly brought me here after school finished – 4 more to go! We had a nice lunch in the trattoria opposite the school – crespelle with spinach and ricotta. It was a hot afternoon – the temperature in the car when we left was 24 degrees. We were both tired after our classes. We parked the car and walked to the diabolic bridge – stunning over the turquoise waters. You could see trout basking a hundred feet below. Swifts darted under the tall arches. We crossed and sat in a park facing the bridge, enjoying the view of the town, river and mountains facing East to Slovenia. We talked for a while and then happily sat in silence – enjoying the peace. Silence at last after alot of talking. A week of words. A river of words. I thought about languages flowing into each other here at this crossing place – Slavic, Italian, Friulian (the local ‘language’), English, German – flowing together and flowing to the sea. Mother tongues into mother ocean. Becoming one again – after Babel.

Devil's Bridge, Civvidalle

Devil's Bridge, Civvidalle

Afterwards we visited an incredible underground temple – L’ipogeo Celtico. When Silvana mentioned there was a Celtic temple in the town my ears pricked up. A must! To gain access you have to collect the key from the local bar. We let ourselves in and flipped on the lights from the fusebox. A stone staircase lead downwards. We descended into the dripping darkness.

L'ipogea Celtico, Civvidalle

L'ipogea Celtico, Civvidalle

The rockcut catacombs immediately reminded me of the Hypogeum in Malta and it had a similar acoustic ambience. I tested this by intoning in different parts of the ‘temple’ – starting low like a Tibetan monk. Eventually found a pitch which harmonised with the space according to Silvana.  A higher register. I awenned and asked for peace to the ancestors and the genius loci. Silvana found the atmosphere slightly creepy and sad – as though something had happened here … not murder, but suffering of some kind. She imagined people hiding here. Although it has been long associated with the Celts (the Longobarda were the local tribe) the latest idea is that the Jewish community used it (it is close to the synagogue) and maybe they were forced to gather here in times of pogrom. Perhaps in the Second World War? The town is very close to Austria. I imagined them singing their songs of sorrow and solidarity. I imagine the place was used by different people over the millenia and cannot be claimed by one culture. It is a negative space into which people have poured their feelings or projected their fears. I felt that whatever S. had picked up here could be released by singing. Vernon Watkins wrote in ‘The Feather’: ‘Unless I make that melody, How can the dead have rest?’ I could imagine the Celts bringing out the skulls of their ancestors at sacred times, eg Samhain, placing a candle within them and communing. Placing offerings of food, liquor, song. S. was relieved when we left. Three masks had been cut into the rock – I had found two. Returning the key Silvana discovered from the barman  there was a third. She asked me if I wanted to return to see it. I said to ‘leave a little bit of mystery for next time’. When we emerged from the subterranean temple I stood in the narrow street in an epiphanic glow, my senses on fire after being ‘deprived’.

Back in the sun - outside the L'ipogeo Celtico

Back in the sun - outside the L'ipogeo Celtico

We visited an oratory when local nuns sang – the Christian equivalent of the sounding chambers of the L’ipogea – but my soul was still underground. I didn’t want to listen to some turgid commentary on a dodgy ipod. It seemed rather sterile after our visceral experience and after a week at school I wanted to ‘bunk off’. I feel Silvana is so used to being a teacher that she forgets adults aren’t school-children sometimes! I don’t want to be spoon-fed history lessons. I prefer to enjoy the ambience in my own way. Hearing some boring recording is not the best way to really experience a place.My ‘rebellion’ caused some hilarity anyway, and in good spirits we carried on our way – passed the oldest house in Civvidalle, and going down to the river side where I bathed my feet in the icy mountain water.

A cafe I could relate to!

A cafe I could relate to!

We decided to stay in Civvidalle until it was time to go to Udine for dinner. We found a lovely cafe in the central square, Caffe Longobardo appropriately, where we enjoyed an aperitif and the pleasant atmosphere. My hearing seemed sensitised after the L’ipogeo. I listened to the bells peal. Pop music from the bars. Children laughing, pedalling their small trikes across the cobbles.  Friends talking. Clatter of crockery. Loose change. Mobiles. A froth of noise in a sea of sound. I wrote in my notebook as Silvana went into her own space – both in companionable silence. I have felt a greater connection with this place than anywhere so far – probably because of the Celtic connection (this was a pleasant surprise, but shouldn’t have been with Austria so close. Hallstat, cradle of Celtic culture was just over the other side of the mountains which dominated the northern skyline). The L’ipogea was an exciting discovery – an unexpected treasure (S. had not visited it before, so it was a first for her too). The fact that the region is associated with the ‘Longobards’ endeared me to it! Something I could relate to. After a week immersed in another culture I felt yearnings to connect to my own – not out of homesickness, but to stop myself feeling completely ‘drowned’ out. To regain a sense of self. Watching a couple of British movies at Silvana’s gave me a temporary fix (Elizabeth: the golden age & The Other Boleyn Girl). I have enjoyed this ‘different life’ but such experiences make us appreciate our own even more. For me feeling connected to the land in which I live is essential. Iain Sinclair said: ‘We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live’. We can be ‘universal citizens’, travel the world, enjoy different cultures, geographies, but to flourish you need roots.

Isle of the Dead, Venice

Isle of the Dead, Venice

5th April, Isola di San Michele, Venice

I write this on an Isle of the Dead in the sun – the funerary island of Venice, which reminds me of  Bocklin’s famous paintings of the one in Florence. It is thrilling to be here – walking in myth. I was keen to visit this ‘lost island’. Silvana reluctantly joined me on this visit to another ‘spooky place’, as she charmingly called it. We took the vaporetto across – a very busy ferry service full of distinctively alive passengers! Alighting at the wharf, we got a map and discovered there were various ‘celebrity’ graves. We made a beeline for Stravinsky’s grave in Rec. Greco and Brodsky’s in Rec. Evangelo, but could not find Ezra Pound’s, not matter how much we wandered around (‘he was a Nazi anyway’). His grave, like his work, remains obscure to all but acolytes.

The place is peaceful – a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the most beautiful city on Earth. It is noon and I am light-headed with hunger (breakfast, at 6.30am seems along time ago). I have snacks but there is a taboo here against eating – the living should not partake of the bread of the dead. In many stories there is a taboo against the food of the otherworld – for it can force you to stay, as it did Proserpina/Persephone who partook of the pomegranate seeds of Hades, Lord of the Dead, and is forced to spend three months every year under the Earth. In ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ the Queen of Elfland warns: ‘All the plagues that are in Hell dwell in the fruit of this country’. No photographs can be taken in the cimitero either – out of respect for the dead (and no doubt their living mourners). Ironic, perhaps, since tourists often take photoes to remember – it is a place of remembrance. I was surprised by how many contemporary burials there were – the cimitero is still very much in use. Rows of ‘high-rise’ mausoleums stretch out in every direction – death’s council estate. Italian cadavers are rarely cremated – as Catholics believe in the resurrection, for which mortal remains are required. The often opulent graves – thick slabs of marble, plinths, pedestals – are adorned with a photograph of the deceased, who beam back from beyond the veil, smiles fixed like the bloom of plastic flowers, bouquets of which festoon the cenotaphs, rendering the chic kitsch. Most touching are the graves of children whom death took too soon – from the dates some are evidently stillborns. Time stands still here. … But we must return to the land of the living before we fade. The dead can keep their peaceful sanctuary, the tranquility broken only by birdsong and footsteps on gravel. With almost palpable relief we saw our reliable Charon approach.

Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge

Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge

By the Grand Canal, Stazione Venezia di Santa Lucia

Sitting by the Grand Canal,

hypnotised by blue and gold ripples.

A fabulous tapestry. The warp and weft of

vaporetto, river taxis, shuttling to and fro,

disgorging snap-happy tourists in ridiculous hats.

The farting boats pass

ochre palaces, mustard, pink –

architectural confections the colour of ice-cream,

a gelatteria of mouth-watering delight.

A thousand accents jostle in the campo.

A city of dreams and desires,

of remembered wishes,

Here we project our happiness,

a classic movie – flickering phantoms overlap the view –

we experience the real through cinematic sunglasses.

The Bridge of Sighs is obscured

by a massive fashion billboard,

advertising designer bling.

The heat of the day eases.

The Earth breathes.

The stones exhale their warmth.

Shadowy Calla keep their shuttered secrets.

Temples and churches, mansions and penthouses.

Months of honeymoons,

romance laps against the seaweed steps.

The world is benign today.

The moon, a newly formed pearl,

hangs in the sky, waiting

for a daring Eros to snatch it.

Love sighs from every bridge.

Venus waits in the waves.

Silvana and Kevan by the Grand Canal, Venice

Silvana and Kevan by the Grand Canal, Venice

Trieste & Duino

6th April

My final two workshops finished I was free! It was another gloriously sunny day (the weather has improved over the nine days I’ve been here). We grabbed a pannini in a cafe opposite the school frequented by staff and pupils alike – and run by ex-pupils, so it had a mildly chaotic air. And I tried a ‘strong ale’ called significantly (to me) Ceres (7.7%!) I wouldn’t normally drink at lunchtime – I don’t at home (otherwise I wouldn’t get anything productive done in the afternoon) but here it became part of the ritual of lunch. After four hours of workshops it was a good way to wind down – by then I was often hot and dry-throated. We set off for Trieste – about 90 miles away. The feeling that ‘school was out’ put us in good spirits, even though we were tired. The riding there was pleasant, through a shifting geography – we crossed an altiplano of dramatic carsiche rocks before descending into Trieste along the stunning coast road. Parking up along the seafront we hit the town – an impressive place. A university town, it has a sophsticated air about it. It drips culture, as well as being a busy urban centre. I’ve never seen so many bikers – on modern fat scooters pretending to be bikes and real bikes. There’s a factory here apparently – but its also part of Italian culture. A nation in love with speed and business, in the industrialised north anyway. The Futurist dream that came true. We didn’t have much time so we headed swiftly for Cafe S. Marco, Joyce’s favourite haunt, on the other side of the centre. Unfortunately it was closed (many do on a Monday), but my disappointment was somewhat compensated by coming across Joyce’s statue (we had passed one earlier to a local poet, Saba).

Joyce statue in Trieste

Joyce statue in Trieste

Photo opportunities out of the way, we decided to go to the cafe frequented by the intellectual elite (the wealthier caste, as opposed to Joyce’s impecunious crowd and the political agitators who frequented the cafe on the square). Here we hoped to imbibe its cerebral ambience, but both felt too shattered to do more than share inanities. ‘I would be happy to watch a cartoon!’ I joked. After a week’s teaching and intensive communication this was all I was capable of! Still, it was an elegant place, even though it took so long to get served I had to go and buy another parking ticket (we’d been stung for one the other day, day-dreaming in Civvidalle). I felt revived after my Earl Grey tea (an Englishman needs his tea – and it’s been devastatingly rare this week). We set off for our final site visit – the Rilke walk in Duino. This was a simple pathway through a stretch of woodland straddling the cliffs of exquisitely eroded carsiche rock. It was a moving experience, to walk in his footsteps, to breathe the ‘same air’ as he had done, enjoy the same noble vistas over the Adriatic. We walked up through the shady resinous woods to a view point, where we simply sat and soaked in the magnificence. It was a peak experience. We were both filled with the sublime grace of its genius loci. It provided a epiphanic ending to our week and my time in Italy. We didn’t feel the need to go far – just ‘stand and stare’. It was good to be still after so much travelling (S. had done alot of driving this week, commuting back and forth between Spilimbergo and Udine, and ferrying me places of interest – it was a shame she hadn’t got more help from her colleagues). Earlier in the week I had posted on Facebook that I was off to ‘walk in the footsteps of Rilke’ and a German friend asked me to read out a poem for him (‘Say one poem for me for Rilke, one of the worlds truly bardic poets. Now this is one of the few Germans where i am glad I can read the original…nothing like his language…makes speric music out of the old teutonic brawl.’ Karola). We didn’t make it that day because S. was wiped out (it had been pretty much 24/7 for her). But I read out an extract of the First Elegy today. It was moving to read out Rilke’s words in perhaps the very place he had composed them (the Duino Elegies – he stayed at the nearby castle, the guest of the fabulously named Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenloe). The section I had selected seemed deeply resonant:

Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it.
A  wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,
or as you walked under an open window,
a violin yielded itself to your hearing.

All this was mission. But could you accomplish it?
Weren’t you always distracted by expectation,
as if every event announced a beloved?
(Where can you find a place to keep her,
with all the huge strange thoughts inside you
going and coming and often staying all night.)
But when you feel longing, sing of women in love;
for their famous passion is still not immortal.
Sing of women abandoned and desolate
(you envy them, almost)
who could love so much more purely
than those who were gratified.
Begin again and again the never-attainable praising;
remember: the hero lives on;
even his downfall was merely
a pretext for achieving his final birth.
But Nature, spent and exhausted,
takes lovers back into herself,
as if there were not enough strength
to create them a second time.

Rilke’s words strike seams of fundamental truth. They are a draught from a deep cool well. A cry from a lofty place. My words were carried out to sea. We let the silence settle. We walked a little further, our senses delighting in the Spring woodland gilded by an early evening light. White hawthorn flowers shone like stars in the fecund shadows. S. told me of the places dark past – the deep defiles were infamously used in WW2 by internecine partisans, who would cast unfortunate rivals down them. This chiaroscuro – unbearable beauty tinged with unbearable tragedy is so perfectly Rilkean.   We can to another viewpoint, looking out over jagged cliffs – like Easter Island giants ready to topple into the sea. A helicopter buzzed overhead. I tracked a seagull far below across my field of vision, out of sight. I savoured this moment of stillness before my long journey home. Everything was numinous with poignancy. Perhaps because I was tired and it was the end of a long, hard week, but I felt quite emotional – but in a satisfying way. The release of relief, I guess. It was accomplished. My work here was done – the coast stretched tantalisingly into the haze of the east, but for now, it was time to return. Further discoveries awaited for another trip.

On the Rilke walk, Duino

On the Rilke walk, Duino

TS Eliot famously wrote in ‘Little Gidding’::

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

This sums up so perfectly the experience of returning home after a long journey. I remember how I felt when I wandered my home town after seven months abroad travelling around South East Asia. Nine days in Italy was not in the same league, but I still felt deeply appreciative of my own neck of the woods the next day, as I went for a walk in the late afternoon sun, my senses keenly aware, and one of the real benefits of such a trip is that it resensitises you to the wonders on your doorstep:

An early evening walk on Bathwick Hill

the familiar transfigured

by a traveller returned.

Scruffily ambulating passed

the dignified Georgian architecture,

the uxorious blossom of magnolias,

Wordsworthian daffodils,

crocuses, budding bluebells. The sun,

a medallion of butter,

melting into evening.

The pale dubloon of the moon

rising over Smallcombe’s ghosted groves.

A kestrel hovers above the hedgerows,

dancing a tarentella with the wind,

a flamenco femme fatale.

The April wind is a cold hand,

shaking the grass. A biting contrast to

the swooning heat of an Italian afternoon.

The subtle shift of palette – golds, ochres,

dusty olive to a rainbow of greens.

With inexplicable pride I behold

an oak tree with leaves of flame.

A Union Jack untangles its crosses in the breeze,

defiant on a flagpole – and for its first time its colours,

its design, seems beautiful.

Is it strange to love to the country you live in?

Browning’s words echo in my head. Yes,

it is good to be England now that April’s here.

To awake and behold my walled garden,

hear the sweet birdsong. The joyousness of Spring.

To savour it like Odyssesus, senses renewed.

Every homecoming makes an Ithaca of the familiar.

KM 10.04.09

PS A sad post-script to this is the 6.3 earthquake which hit central Italy in and around L’Aquila on Monday night – which came to light when we touched down at Bristol International, near midnight. The news was just breaking on the rolling news that sleep groggy passengers watched while waiting for their luggage on the carousel. Today, Good Friday, is a national day of mourning in Italy for the hundreds dead and all those affected. The British Red Cross has set up an appeal and you can donate via this link:

The Green Wave

A rainy Sunday after a shower of creativity this week. Last night I took part in a group book launch, organised by Peter Please of Away Publications. He invited twelve artists/poets to create mini-booklets sampling their work – in a unique format Peter calls ‘concertina books’: high quality, limited edition art books, quirkily collectable. I contributed two poems for a collection I called ‘Wildblood’ – Roebuck in a Thicket, and Wolf in the City – exploring the animal in the human and the human in the animal. I performed these at the launch – the wolf one is always fun to do (it brings out my ‘inner lycanthrope’). Peter, Skip (who typeset the books), Helen Moore (fellow Bard of Bath), John Moat (co-founder of Arvon) and others performed. Wine was quaffed and people mingled. It was a charming event, held at Widcombe Studios – and it shows what you can do collectively. I said to Peter afterwards, paraphrasing the African saying: ‘A man by himself can go faster, but a tribe can go further’. This seems to be the way things are happening more and more these days – the way ahead. While the big companies and financial instutions collapse around us, we get on with things at a grassroots level, taking the power into our own hands – no longer waiting for the blessing of the powers that be to make things happen. The creatives have become the producers. With advances in technology (DTP, internet) the methods of production and to an extent, distribution, are now in our hands. It is also so much more enjoyable collaborating like this. We can go so much further, and enjoy the journey at the same time.

The previous day Jay Ramsay visited and I went through the proof copy of his new book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness) with him. It’s due out on the 20th March with an ecobardic showcase at Waterstones, Bath – so the pressure is on, but deadlines make things happen (they say a poem is never finished, only abandoned – basically, you can only do what you can in the time given). It is looking good and it’s been a pleasure working with Jay, a fine poet who gets my vote for the next Poet Laureate. On the 20th I am going to host an evening of poetry, storytelling and acoustic music with friends and fellow performers. The focus of the evening is ecobardic – and one of its core principles is this idea of creative collaboration.  Working with Fire Springs, with Away, with Phoenix, with Cae Mabon, with ARC, with David Lassman (with whom I co-run the Bath Writers Workshop) … it feels like a movement is growing. It’s exciting – although times are difficult it feels like there’s all kinds of creative possibilities out there, and there’s hope. Perhaps it’s the optimistic energy of Spring – ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, as Dylan Thomas put it. A creative surge – intoxicating, exhilarating. One has to ride the wave or go under.

Running the Dragon

Running the Dragon

1st March, 2009

Worms' Head - half way point - looking towards the Devil's Bridge

Worms' Head - half way point - looking towards the Devil's Bridge

Midday at Worm’s Head, Penrhyn-Gwr, on St David’s Day. A good place to be, in the Spring sunshine. The gulls and gannets shriek, the withdrawing waves roar in indignation (‘you may have won the battle, but not the war…’). The sea is turquoise – sky, a chalk-blue. A few wisps of cloud on the horizon – more over Devon and Somerset, south to England. Visitors seem to be queuing up to ‘run the dragon’, waiting for the tide to retreat sufficiently for the causeway to be safely exposed. Serendipity is with me today as I arrive at the right time to cross. Low tide is 14:40 and there’s a two and half hour window either side of this, so at 12.10 I will cross. For now, a moment to catch my thoughts.

Here at the dragon’s head I honour the spirit of Wales and its finest son of song, Taliesin – Penrhyn-Gwr to Penbeirdd…Hail!

A good place to reflect on my journey of a bard, as I reach the completion of the Way of Awen – may the dragon give me a final burst of awen!
The very end of the Worm’s Head – a dramatic stack – is approximately a mile out. Reaching it requires a tricky scramble over jagged rocks and running the gauntlet of the tide. Time it wrong and you can get cut off! It takes me fifty minutes of energetic effort to reach the end – carrying a twenty pound backpack as well, which nearly made me lose my balance and fall into a gulley at one scary point. Good job I’m wearing my tough motorbike gloves to stop my hands getting shredded. With enormous relief and satisfaction, I reach my goal…

Sitting in the sun on the head of Worm’s Head on a grassy ledge, eating my sandwiches, restoring my energy levels, and watching mighty waves rolling in. Standing on the endstack was literally a peak experience. I realised my nine month journey had come full circle – from Orme’s Head to Worm’s Head, from the far North of Wales to the far South – a satisfying symmetry. Which one is the head, which the tail? Or does the dragon have two heads? Then it dawned on me – it is Ourobouros, the dragon eating itself. The story does not end. One ‘tale’ begats another – each ending, another beginning. We have to join the story somewhere, but there is always a before-story and after-story, and many other paths along the way.

My story started back in the East Midlands – which seems like another universe compared to here, to my current life. The landlady of the B&B said, rather presumptuously, ‘you’re as Welsh as me’ – meaning what exactly who knows – but a little know fact is my middle name is Gerald, as in Giraldus Cambrensis: Gerald of Wales. Although I have no Welsh blood (as far as I know) this is a reassuring foreshadowing of what has become something of an obsession for me – what could be called Cambria-philia, a love of Wales.

So, I hail Wales, Cambria and the Cymru on St David’s Day and, of course, Taliesin Penbeirdd. May his name endure forever. I felt complete. A good place to ‘end’ my book, but not my journey along the Way of Awen. Like the dragon encircling the world – it has no end or beginning. A circle with no edges, whose centre is everywhere.

Reaching the end of the Worm’s head is like crossing the Bridge of Leaps to Scathach’s Isle of Shadows – one has to traverse razor-sharp rocks, perilous pathways and the Devil’s Bridge. It has a mythic initiatory quality to it. I imagine Caer Sidi on the end-stack and set off. All the time the clock of the tide is ticking, making the blood pump with excitement. There’s an element of Kêr-Ys here, or Cantre’r Gwaelod – the sea is always present, threatening to inundate the land at any moment, jealousy seizing back what it had given. One feels humbly in the lap of the goddess.

White Rainbow

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

5th February

Just walked back from the station through heavy snow – the world turned into a snow-dome.  Heavy snowfall in the Bath area over last couple of  days. The first wave came on Monday and brought the nation to a standstill – a flurry of snow and it all grinds to a halt! We just can’t cope, it seems. I can hear my Icelandic and Finnish friends laughing. But I think it’s more than just Anglo-Saxon ineptitude. I think it’s just a secret excuse to bunk off work and go and have a snow ball fight. Snow brings out the child in all of us (perhaps because, for people my generation, most memories of decent snow are related to childhood, when we used to have ‘proper winters’). Monday saw a wave of ‘mass-skiving’ strike the country – as evidenced by Facebook confessionals, photoes, videos, texting, twittering, etc. A adultlescent dawn chorus. A snowfall seems to turned even the hardest cynic goofy. It was wonderful, going for an amble up the hill this afternoon – usually a quiet loop around the National Trust slopes overlooking the city – to see it populated by a swathe of snow-junkies, young and old, making snowmen, sledding, throwing snowballs, juggling snowballs, rolling about in it giggling – high on snow. Toddlers pulled on tiny sledges by parents. Teenagers on tea-trays. Three men on a binlid. Snowfolk of various sizes and skill. An inevitable snow-penis – like a white May-pole – around which the snow-children played. We are made innocent again. The world is reminted, layered in broken slabs of Kendal mint cake.

Leaving the slope of fun, I headed for virgin fields to leave my Man Friday prints, the compacting snow making a polystyrene sound.  The familiar had become a film set. A special effect. I had to take photoes to remind myself what I was seeing – my neck of the woods, re-rendered as a Brueghel painting. 

I saw other snow art on the way to London later that afternoon. A snow-couple – the snowman and his wife, sitting watching the 15:13 to Paddington. Other spirits of the snow sat stoically considering their inevitable dissolution in backyards and parks. Michelin families rolled up winter into a ball, leaving negative slug-trails of naked grass. In Hyde Park, by the Serpentine Gallery, someone had sculpted an impressive snow-head, like the head of Bran the Blessed, singing still, stopping time – as snow seems to – until the strong door of reality is opened once again. Bran’s head was taken to London by the heart-weary seven who survived and buried beneath the White Mount, where now the Tower of London stands. The ravens (Bran’s bird) there have their wings clipped, because it is prophesied that if they were to ever leave, the country would fall. Bran’s head was buried facing France to protect the land from invaders, like the striking oil refinery workers who wished they could hold back the inevitable tide of market forces. ‘British jobs for British workers’ and yet even Bran’s role as tutelary guardian was usurped by another ‘foreign’ incomer, Arthur, who dug him up. Even magical protectionism can fail. As I passed the statue of Peter Pan, a raven landed nearby and looked at me with its black Odin eye. I doffed my cap to both – the forces of joy and death – and continued onto my evening class at Imperial College, a session on genre-busting with my writing students.

I returned home late. Tired. The night turned into a swirling flurry of TV screen static, stuck between stations, whispering from its glass world.

Exactly a year ago on this day, my Dad was cremated. In the summer, just before what would have been his 70th, my mother, sister and myself took the urn (heavy as mortality) over to one of his favourite haunts – where he used to take us walking the dogs as children. There, on a perfect sunny day we scattered the ashes. They made a summer frost on the green blades. I picked some up and let it run through my fingers, watching the particles dissipate in the light breeze. Then gently, so, so gently, I brushed the dust of my father into the earth, leaving no sign of his passing visible to the world. Only a white absence remained inside of us, as cold and as silent as snow.

Now we have planted a silver birch tree for him there (the first tree to establish itself after the icesheets withdraw) and the whiteness has taken on a new significance – a white of potential, for it is the colour that contains all colours. It is the beginning of the spectrum. A white rainbow.

The Bone Orchard

At the weekend I went back to the old home town, Northampton, to plant a tree for my Dad with my Mum and sister a year on from his death – a positive thing to do at an otherwise gloomy time. This is the fourth time I’ve had to do this for a loved one or friend (fifth, if you count a green burial I went to about 20 years ago – the first in the county). It seems the greenest way to go – far less damaging to the environment than cremation, although ashes make good compost, encouraging new growth. A woodland burial is the ultimate form of recycling, and certainly my preferred choice. A memorial tree is a positive symbol of new life and can be visited by loved ones for years to come. Here is the sonnet I wrote for this most recent occasion:

Poem for Memorial Tree

Belov’d slender sapling of tender years

Earth-bidden you are to set spirit free.

From this soil, may your soul soar heavenward

Aspiring skywards like limbs of this tree.

In good measure, may the sweet, sweet rain fall

And water with precious tears thy young roots.

Though bewintered and bare be your branches

Memory offers the rarest of fruits.

Soft, soft light of sun smile benign on thee,

In fertile shadows feed deep from good earth.

Spring come! Bring forth bud, shoot, flower and leaf.

And let all who wander here see your worth.

Hallowed corner, with our loyal hearts we lease.

Where kith and kin shall pilgrim, be at peace.

Kevan Manwaring

Return of the King

20th January


A truly historic day, when the world changed: the day President Obama was inaugurated, becoming the first African-American Commander-in-Chief of  USA – and the first intelligent holder of that post for at least eight years. Eight long hard years that are finally over – the end of a bad dream.

Obama’s election is a victory for diversity, for equality, for common sense, for hope. His campaign ticket was ‘change’ – something this world sorely needs, in its current beleagured state. It is interesting that this momentous day takes place a day after Martin Luther King Day (an echo which no doubt Obama was deeply aware of) and on the day of St Agnes Eve – when it is said young women would dream of their future lover (as immortalised in Keats’ poem, The Eve of St Agnes). Well today proves dreams can come true. Obama’s inauguration earlier in a chilly, but sunny Washington was in many ways the culmination of Luther King’s dream.

What pleased me most about today’s ceremony – on a microcosmic scale – was the inclusion of music and poetry amidst the pomp and ceremony. Four world class musicians performed a piece composed by John Williams; Aretha Franklin sang an ‘alternative’ National Anthem; and Elizabeth Alexander, Yale Professor of Poetry, performed her Whitmanesque ‘Praise-Song for the Day’ – these contributions framed the vow-making and made it feel quite bardic. They provided a symbol of a renewed harmony – after nearly a decade of discord – hopefully ushering in a new era, as when Aragon sings at his coronation in Jackson’s  version of ‘The Return of the King’, which today’s ceremony in Gondor-analogue Washington echoed, visually at least (although there was no bowing to Hobbits, unless you count Obama’s charmingly present and colourfully attired daughters, or the fact that Obama began his speech by saying ‘I am humbled’… in a similar way to Aragorn’s ‘this day is not for one man, but for all Men’). After too many bad kings it seems the Western world may finally have a good king – let’s hope Obama achieves all that he sets out to do in his inspiring, but practical speech – for all our sakes. He is a master orator and his eloquence is heartening, especially since it seems matched with ability, commitment and integrity. Here is a man of action as well as words. Yet his fine words show how powerful the ability to express oneself can be – to match one’s thoughts and feelings with phrases of pertinence, of eloquence, that do them justice. When words and the world collide, synchronise, make each other real.

Here’s to better days ahead: may they be ‘the Days of Peace’.


Banishing the Bad Spirits

18th January

On 17th/18th January across Somerset (and these days, as far afield as America) Old Twelfth Night is celebrated with the wassailing of the apple orchards – from which the famous Somerset cider is made. A libation of cider is poured on the roots of the oldest tree, chosen to represent the Apple Tree Man. The tree is ‘toasted’ with toast soaked in the Wassail bowl – usually an alcoholic concoction. The Bad Spirits are banished with loud noises and the Good Spirits welcomed in with Wassail carols and general merriment. It’s a great community event encouraging people to connect with the land and its natural cycles.

I managed to miss two such events on Saturday – it was lashing down by the evening, which didn’t make the prospect that enticing, even to a ‘hard-core’ apple wassailer. I had also been invited to a 60th birthday celebration to perform, but I still felt a little disappointed to miss out, especially since I was looking forward to seeing the Weston Mummers. But I made up for it the next day – it felt like a very different world. The storm had blown itself out and there were patches of blue sky aboive, spring shoots pushing through below.  What really thrilled me was the prospect of going for a spin on my recently repaired bike (I finally got it back on Friday after two months of nightmarish entanglements). I got suited and booted and, checking everything over, took the bike on one of my favourite short blats – to Stoney Littleton long barrow. The narrow lanes were strewn with storm detritus and flooded in parts, so it was a good back lane test of my riding skills. I got there okay and enjoyed the walk up to the barrow in the sunlight. I ventured inside the ancient Neolithic ‘tomb/womb’, crawling to the very end chamber. There I crouched in the dripping darkness – savouring its anonymous shadow, silence and stillness, before emerging ‘reborn’ and ready for what the new year may bring. It felt like a symbolic enactment of my ‘Underworld’ journey of the last year – a difficult year for many, by all accounts. With a flurry of personal good news last week, it felt like that had finally come to an end and the new cycle was beginning; the Bad Spirits had been banished – and thank goodness!

This is happening on a grand scale tomorrow with the inauguration of the new President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, and it feels, with the departure of Dubya, that the world is waking up from a bad dream. I ardently hope so.

Tomorrow, humanity should rejoice at the dawn of a new era: one that proves, with enough vision and will, another world is possible.

This new ‘buzz’ seemed to be present in microcosm later when I made it over to Willsbridge Mill, Somerset Wildlife Trust’s HQ, which was holding its annual wassail. Hundreds of ‘Shire folk’ turned up – families with little ones, all wrapped up warm – to enjoy the numerous craft activities. I joined in – carving toast (to make letters of the wassail song to hang on the Apple Tree Man); making a musical shaker (to make noise); and a crown of greenery (to present to my Apple Queen later). I sat around the campfire, toasted bread and enjoyed some spread with local honey (a rare commodity, with the worrying decline in the bee population). A local primary school did some Morris-dancing, complete with hobby horse – it was lovely to see some young ‘uns doing it – they looked like little fairy folk (the Morris scene is apparently struggling to recruit new blood and is also in danger of dying out): no wonder I get accosted to join every time I watch some). A wassail queen was chosen to pour the libation, plus a princess and a ‘holly lad’ to beat the bounds. It was a charming affair, which brought a smile to my face. It felt like the first inklings of Spring, and also wonderfully Hobbity: a scene from the Party Field, beneath the Party Tree, in Hobbiton.

By riding there and back again (in the dusk) I too banished my own bad spirits, dispelling any ghosts of November. I enjoyed the freedom my wheels afforded and look forward to ride-outs this coming year.

I can’t wait to head for hills. Here’s to brighter days ahead. 100_00742