Category Archives: Special Places

Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood

(Written while Writer-in-Residence, Hawthornden Castle, Nov-Dec 2015)

 

20151204_092718

After the snow, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The news is given casually over dinner.

Not the bombing, but:

‘It is snowing.’ The first

Of the winter. I venture out.

A white and black world

A game of draughts.

The chill exchange of one mass

For another. Boots sink into

Two, three inches. The castle

Is illumined in fairy tale

Perfection. I hold my

Breath, not wanting to

Break the spell.

The forest beckons.

It is night, but the path

Is lit up by itself – silence

Is dislodged, a thousand

Muffled falls, as though

The undergrowth teams

With wildlife. It is the stuff

That panic is made of.

Risk perverse, I stray

beyond the pale.

The forest revels in its own beauty,

Every lineament delineated by

Kohl and crystal. A deadly

Glamour. This femme

Is fatal. An ice-bound cailleach.

The snow falls unconscionably,

White fists of rage,

A furious silence

Demanding to be shattered.

I slip and stumble

On the chancy footing,

Inches from the tumbling

Black Esk precipitously

Below. A splintering crack

Shatters the night –

Wooden lightning, a tree

Toppled by the weight of the

White nothing.

A cave mouth screams,

Empty eye sockets stare

As I pass. My impertinence

Goes unpunished.

The picturesque provides

a pleasant distraction

As bombs begin to fall

In Syria. There, snow

is ash, buildings, homes,

Skin and bone, up in smoke.

Lives vaporized by a passing tornado.

Whitehall shadow falling

In negative, an optioned winter,

Radicalising the earth.

 

Featured in Lost Borders, Chrysalis, 2015

 

20151203_201125

After the walk, Hawthornden, Dec 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Garden of Stones

derek-jarman-garden-prospect-cottage-dungeness_original

Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s garden, Dungeness

If you have nothing then start with that. The best outsider artists do just that, working with whatever scrap materials are at hand. There are countless back garden Gaudi’s, pains-takingly raising their own Sagrada Familias; and numerous unsung Andy Goldsworthy’s, attempting their own landscape art (as on the Isles of Scilly, where the stone labyrinths known as ‘Troy Towns’ have spread across the archipelago after the first was apparently fashioned by pebbles by a bored light-house keeper). There is something about beaches that is conducive to art – perhaps not surprising when one considers the numinosity of liminal places. We have been drawn to make art and icons and leave offerings at such thresholds for millennia – as acts of propitiation against forces beyond our control (death, illness, war). Prompted by a diagnosis that he was HIV-positive, visionary film director Derek Jarman (1942-1994) moved to Prospect Cottage, a small shack near the Dungeness Power Station, in the late 80s. There he continued his film-making, celebrating his new location in a feature-length film, The Garden (1990), writing, and art, creating a sculptural garden on the shingle with small circles of flints, painting poetry onto the black timber (John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’), and basically transforming a wasteland. Of his beloved garden, Jarman said: ‘Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. Others are like bad children, spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals.’[i] In the shadow of a nuclear power station and his own terminal condition, Jarman’s garden was, and still remains, a poignant and brave act of creativity.

[i] http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/derek_jarman_garden_prospect_cottage_dungeness [accessed 15.02.2016]

Previous: Finding TAZmania

Next: Towards Shamanarchism

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

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/

 

The Sci-Fi Croft

wp_20160913_19_34_55_pro

Sunset, the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

 As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).

wp_20160910_10_43_18_pro

Rush-hour at the croft. K. Manwaring, September 2016.

Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.

wp_20160906_09_36_20_pro

View from the conservatory at the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, September 2016

For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.

And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).

WP_20160913_13_43_52_Pro.jpg

The light across the bay was, at times, breath-taking, but perhaps distracting!                          K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.

I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.

WP_20160910_14_35_31_Pro.jpg

Running in the Torridons – not for the faint-hearted! K. Manwaring, September 2016.

There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.

wp_20160910_15_40_47_pro

The End of the Road? No, actually just the single-track down to South Erradale (admittedly, a road which terminates at Redpoint…). K. Manwaring, September 2016.

In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.

WP_20160913_16_44_16_Pro.jpg

Lighting the darkness. View from Gairloch Sands. K. Manwaring, September 2016

The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.

I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.

wp_20160910_10_54_28_pro

Croft-life. Out of this world. K. Manwaring, September 2016

Bard of Hawkwood 2016

20160502_142809

The winner of the Bard of Hawkwood contest 2016, Anthony Hentschel, sits on the Bardic Chair. Behind stand fellow contestants & judges (from left to right): Katie Lloyd-Nunn, Anthony Nanson, Chantelle Smith, Dominic James, Steve Wheeler, Richard Maisey.

Founded by Kevan Manwaring in 2014, the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is part of a modern bardic tradition stretching across Britain and beyond. The Bardic Chair belongs to its community, the winner is its steward, and the gorsedd (i.e. the bardic circle which supports it) its guardians. It is a celebration of local distinctiveness, and a platform for creative expression. 

The 2nd Bard of Hawkwood contest took place on May Day bank holiday Monday at Hawkwood College’s lovely annual Open Day. The dark clouds gathered but didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. However, we wisely chose to hold the contest inside, as opposed to the front lawn where it has been held (and in 2014, announced) in previous years. This was a smart move as we had a full house in the Sitting Room as everyone piled in out of the rain! The judges this year were outgoing bard, Dominic James, folksinger Chantelle Smith, and our ‘chairman’ Richard Maisey (who kindly lent his original Eisteddfod chair from 1882 for the contest, kickstarting the whole thing off). They each took a turn, showing they know their stuff – with Chantelle getting everyone to singalong – then the contestants were introduced and took turns to perform, according to lots. I conjured up some awen with an excerpt from my poem ‘Dragondance’, then the bardic gloves were off. First up was storyteller, Anthony Nanson (author of Gloucestershire Folk Tales and co-author of Gloucestershire Ghost Tales with Kirsty Hartsiotis), who performed a gripping tale from New Caledonia with great gusto, voices, and gestures. The expressions of the younger members of the audience were priceless! Next up was creative powerhouse Katie Lloyd-Nunn, who shared a lovely song with a heartfelt introduction and accompanying statement. Katie was followed with dignity by Peter Adams, well-known local homeopath, activist and poet, who shared his wise owl poem complete with night-sounds! The penultimate performer was wordsmith Steve Wheeler, with a very engaging and amusing story about his childhood home and that yearning is shared through the generations. Finally, we had Ruskin Mill’s own Anthony Hentschel, who performed a barnstormer poem on the theme (The Way Home). From toddlers to senior citizens, the audience were mesmerized throughout. The judges left to deliberate and I MCed some impromptu floor spots. We had an impressive green man praise song from our resident jack-of-the-woods, Paul; a punchy poem from Jehanne Mehta; a bold contribution from Gill; and I shared my ‘Robin Hood’ poem, Heartwood. Then the judges summed up, praising each of the contestants in turn, before announcing the winner with a drum roll from me: Anthony Hentschel, who had impressed them all with his tour-de-force. The awen had been clearly with him, and the choice seemed to be popular.

Bardic Chair of Hawkwood 1882The new bard was robed, and holding the silver branch of office, sat in the Bardic Chair while everyone blessed him with three awens – and so we ended on a note of harmony. Anthony Hentschel offered a Shakespearean sonnet as his winning piece, and the spirit of The Bard was very much with us (along with the shade of Blake). Anthony will now serve as the Bard of Hawkwood for a year and a day, honouring his bardic statement, and choosing the theme for next year, when the contest will be once more held at Hawkwood’s Open Day. Anyone who lives in the Five Valleys around Stroud can enter an original poem, song or story on the theme. Details will be announced by October 31st. The Hawkwood College website will post information. An anthology will be produced of the contest. All contestants and judges from this contest and previous years are invited to be part of an ongoing bardic circle. Anybody else who wishes to be involved are asked to get in touch.

Finally, the winner of the Bard of Hawkwood 2016, Anthony Hentschel, gave the following statement:

I believe, as John Cowper Powys put it, that “Man should be capable of believing Everything and Nothing.” Thus the rational insights of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens and the mystical insights of Rumi or Llewelyn Powys are to be equally applauded. The title Bard of Hawkwood will hopefully furnish me with the confidence to carry the living Word of Poetry into local schools, prisons and Retirement Homes. If anyone out there would like to invite me, and perhaps some of my friends, to such institutions, please get in touch via my email: anthonyhentschel@hotmail.com.

Awen for All

/|\

Founder & Grand Bard of Hawkwood, Kevan Manwaring 2nd May 2016

http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/

The Bardic Handbook: complete manual for the 21st Century bard 

by Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image, 2006

http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html

 

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/

Walking the Talk: Practice-Based Research

Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring - The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014

Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring – The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014

As part of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester – a novel-based project dramatizing the diasporic translocation of folk traditions from the Scottish Lowlands to the Southern Appalachians – I have explored various forms of practice-based research. Chief among these is of course the writing of the novel itself. A recent QAA Benchmark Statement on Creative Writing[1] validates the notion of writing-as-research, when it states: ‘Original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’ (4.6). Of course, research may also explore the critical discourses around the subject, the reader experience, creative process, publishing, performance and multi-media platforms. In the first of a series of three seminars hosted by the Open University’s research group, ‘Contemporary Cultures of Writing’ at Senate House, London (which I attended on Tuesday, 3rd November) research students and staff explore issues around ‘Creative Writing Research’[2]  What constitutes research and how it can be validated within the rigours of a PhD continue to be explored and expanded by those working within academe. The pressure of having a thesis rubber-stamped and passing one’s viva means institutional validation of ‘proper’ research is all too critical, and maybe constraining the often instinctive, protean and multifarious methodologies of writers. Often we ‘do it anyway’, writing blind, in the white heat of the moment, following hunches, gut feelings, flashes of inspiration, synaptic tight-rope walks, and tangential cat-a-loops … then back-extrapolate the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ afterwards, trying to sound intelligent and conscious in our creative processes.

Nevertheless, some activity is informed and intentional. As part of my novel project, I decided that a spoken word performance dramatizing some of the Border Ballads would be an interesting way to bring alive my research, widen its accessibility, and get diverse audience responses. And it would also be great fun. And so with my partner Chantelle Smith, a folk-singer, we devised a show based upon our trips to the Scottish Borders – in the summer of 2014 we walked Hadrian’s Wall from coast to coast, then pushed beyond the current Border, visiting ballad sites. Drawing upon this shared experience we devised ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, a storytelling and acoustic music show bringing alive the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – whose thematic symmetry I find fascinating. Initially last forty minutes we premiered it at the SEED Festival, Hawkwood College, in July 2015; and have performed it at three other events since, expanding it to a full hour with extra songs and an additional folk tale. The response has been favourable. One audience member commented afterwards: ‘Loved the interplay of word, music, choreography, and the unexpected humorous asides – and also the landscape of folkloric detail.’[3] I have also performed a solo version of the show in the States, on a recent field trip. The show’s strength, however, is in the dynamic created between my partner and I on stage, and the alternation between modes of narrative: primarily storytelling (myself) and ballad (Chantelle). Harp, shruti box, bodhran and bells are also used to create ambience and weave the spell. The shift in register between my (spoken) voice and my partner’s (sung) voice modulates the aural experience and demands of the listener. We shift in and out of character, not fully acting, not fully ourselves, but inhabiting a third space, and breaking the fourth on occasion with the odd humorous aside, responding to the actuality of the performance space – noises off, a mobile phone, a passing siren, etc. The show inhabits a liminal space – in terms of its location/s (the Scottish Borders; Elfhame); its gender politics; the creative tension between the magical and the mundane; the cross-fertilisation of art-forms; the chancy terrain of national identity (Anglo-Scottish fault-lines); and in its rich symbolism. In many ways liminality is the key note of both ballads – both physical (hillside; tree; stream; crossroads; well) and temporal (twilight; midnight; Halloween) motifs crop up, often echoed in each ballad. In ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ it is the male protagonist who is our ‘Everyman’ – it is he who undergoes initiation, gaining the gift of prophecy (‘the Tongue that Cannot Lie’) and the appellation of ‘True Thomas’. In ‘Tam Lin’ it is Janet of Carterhaugh who facilitates listener identification – it is her Third Person Limited Omniscient perspective that we follow – as she undergoes her own rite-of-passage into woman-hood and self-actualisation. Both Thomas and Janet experience a change of status, brought about by what RJ Stewart has termed the ‘Underworld Initiation’. The Queen of Elfland is the catalyst behind both – more directly in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ Morgana Le Fay-way in ‘Tam Lin’. She is ostensibly the same queen but seems very different in each ballad: in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ she appears as the Muse figure, a Gravesian ‘white goddess’ on her white horse, with her bells and spells. In ‘Tam Lin’ she is a Kali-figure, goddess of vengeance, cursing Tam Lin for his ‘faithlessness’ – terrifying and implacable. As the male performer in the show, I naturally channel Thomas and Tam Lin; my partner similarly channels the light-and-dark queens and the feisty Janet. The experience is visceral and deepens our understanding – and compassion – for all aspects. They seem part of a spectrum. I have devised, based upon this practice-led insight, a workshop and accompanying diagram I call ‘The Wheel of Transformation’, which I field-tested at both a pagan camp in Britain and in America. In both cases I was impressed and surprised by the results. Participants role-played scenes from the ballads – and, without much prompting, took on characters of different genders, ages and backgrounds to their own. It seemed liberating to all involve – that we could move around the ‘wheel’ and inhabit any of the roles, fith-fathing like Tam Lin in Janet’s arms. All participants managed to find something to relate in the ballads – there are universal patterns being played out in them; akin to the Orphic (Orpheus and Eurydice ) or Eleusinian (Demeter and Persephone) Mysteries, in terms of their ritual and archetypal. It would seem the ‘Fair Maiden’ (the anima; or untainted soul seeking the grit of experience) is perennially being lured to the Underworld by some dark, charismatic Lord – where the chymical wedding occurs, and the nigredo of the soul’s dark night leads to the gold of transformational rebirth. For self-knowledge to be achieved, the Underworld journey must be taken and the Shadow embraced.

And so the journey begins. The wheel of transformation keeps turning and these pliant ballads are re-invented in new forms with each performer, each performance. The fith-fath does not threaten their integrity, only strengthens it. Their mutability is part of their resilience, their enduring appeal. This practice-based research has deepened my understanding of them – and consequently some of the core themes underlying my novel, underpinning its mythic resonance. It gives the creative/critical endeavour of my research a breadth and groundedness, making it feel less abstract, more embodied and owned. I walk my talk, and the material becomes a living reality.

Kevan Manwaring 7 November 2015

https://taleandsong.wordpress.com/

http://www.chantellesmith.co.uk/

[1] http://www.qaa.ac.uk/publications/information-and-guidance/publication/?PubID=2986#.Vj4rmbfhDnB

[2] http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/contemporary-cultures-of-writing/events/creative-writing-research-investigation

[3] Anthony Nanson, SEED Festival, 2015

Midsummer Glory

 

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

It was an epic solstice weekend which began with me riding on my Triumph Legend motorbike down to Avebury, picking up my partner on the way for a solstice eve picnic on the banks of the mighty henge. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain and for my money the most magnificent. Many folk gathered here for the solstice sunrise (but nowhere near the insane numbers of Stonehenge) but it was peaceful enough to enjoy a pleasant picnic in the early evening sunlight. In the distance the obligatory drumming circle had started; and behind us a cricket match was just finishing. You could almost hear the land hold its breath in anticipation of the longest day of the year. For once, it truly felt like summer, and what a glorious place England is to be at such times – the golden green of the rolling hills and trees, the white of the chalk downs and the cricketers, the trilithons of Stonehenge and the cricket stumps, the strawberries and cream, cheese and cider, summer frocks and druid robes.

After I bid farewell to my companion I jumped on a train to London where I was scheduled to pick up a coach-load of sun-worshippers – to take to Stonehenge for the summer solstice sunrise. This meant a 12.30am departure, arriving in the carpark at 3am. It was surreal experience – with me having to articulate about neolithic archaeology in the middle of the night. Still, we got ’em there and we all witnessed the most spectacular sunrise I’ve seen at a stone circle for many years – the full orb rising over the Heel Stone. Truly awesome. A moment that is bigger than all of us (even the 37,000 at Stonehenge) putting everything in perspective. Whatever our faith, or lack of it, we can all worship the sun.

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

After I had dropped off my neolithic pilgrims back in London I jumped on a train to Swindon, where I met my partner for a solstice coffee (the actual solstice was at 10.51am), before heading north to Northampton (my birth town), some 70 miles up the road. There, in the grounds of my beloved Delapre Abbey (where I used to walk my dog as a kid) I snoozed on the lawn until my sister and wee bairn turned up. We enjoyed a cuppa and a cake, while we caught up. I ran through my stories in the glade, fighting off the fatigue. I felt a 1000 years old and could have turned into a tree myself at that point! I reminded myself that the solstice means the ‘sun’s stillness’ and savoured this all too brief hiatus from the heat and dust of the road.

Glade to be alive. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Chillin before the gig. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Then it was off to Rockingham Village Hall, near Corby, for a one-hour storytelling gig. This was a fundraiser for the lovely village hall, and was organised by big-hearted Jim. I was made most welcome by him and his wife in their very picturesque thatched cottage. Jim is an old-school biker himself and showed me the awesome chopper he had built in his garden shed. It was a serious mean machine. I freshened up – somewhat flagging considering I hadn’t had any sleep for 36 hours! This seemed to do the trick as I performed my set without any gaffs. It seemed to go down well, going by the feedback (‘once again many thx for the great stories ,  you have made an impression up  here !!’).

Sadly I wasn’t able to stick around afterwards to enjoy the beer and ceilidh band – I had to get back, even though it meant a 3 hr slog late at night – for my final booking the next morning… And so I said a fond farewell to Jim and his Scottish crew – until next time!

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Although I was exhausted and chilled by the time I made it back at 1am I was glad to be able to flop out in my own bed (41 hrs without proper sleep!). I had 7 blissful hours before I had to get up and get ready to lead a 3 hr literary ramble with 17 people from Hawkwood College – no rest for the bardic!  The weather was glorious as we set off for Slad – and the rest is related in my previous post (‘Walking with Laurie’). By the time I was able to slump down in the garden at Rosebank Cottage with a Pimms, to listen to the poetry and fiddle, I felt as old as the hills, but at one with the land.

The summer solstice is the most expansive, joyous time of year – the time of maximum daylight (and sunlight if we’re lucky) and energy in the northern hemisphere. It feels possible to have such (relatively) epic adventures – because the engine of the year is behind us, the vast CCs of the sun, the ultimate hot-rod, cruising through the cosmos – the Lord of Light in his leathers and shades, long -hair flowing and Hendrix on the headphones, blasting across our skies.

Stone Temple Biker - Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Stone Temple Biker – Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian