There is a light in the darkness of the world that gleams – and the true of heart, the doughtiest of pilgrims, will finds its flame in the gloom. They know, in their ‘deep heart’s core’, as WB Yeats put it, that it exists – and that the maddening world is changed by its existence. Even the darkness is redeemed. The fallen Earth is transfigured. Even if only one frail light flickers somewhere there is hope. It cannot be put out as long as one person believes. The King of the Wood patiently awaits in His grove of peace, where the world of the noise fades. There, the first bold bird breaks the silence of the long night. Its vigil is over as it heralds the coming day. Even though it cannot be fully seen yet, the first bird knows the true light of the risen sun is on its way, and it starts to sing. The promise of the nimbus is enough.
Arriving to stillness. The patter of tiny raindrops on the slender tent; the baaing of sheep; the wind through the birches; and a distant murmur of life beyond the moor – yet here I feel the delicious solitude. I have arrived at my first destination: the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor – a small stone circle, surrounded by at least seventy cairns – within a birch grove (nearby is the village of Birchover). It feels good to be on my way – and wild-camping at last (much better than a campsite, which I nearly went to, fatigued from my journey and floundering – yet I persevered; found the Cork Stone entrance and parked up). I made myself some food before striking out across the Moor in the twilight – eager to find the stones and pitch my tent before it got…
Bardfest ’22 was as an evening of creativity in celebration of community across borders. Initially due to be held at the Bridport Arts Centre, but due to the management changing their mind at the last minute (concerns about the Bridport Carnival turned out to be ill-founded), it eventually found a home at the Women’s Institute Hall on North Street. Despite this unfortunate disruption after months of planning, the evening went ahead and flowed smoothly thanks to the good will of all involved and all who came.
After the signage, soundchecks, seating, and altar setting up (in front of the stage by Susan Paramour, who performed later with her band) Bardfest was ready to go. The evening kicked off with the local Wyld Morris, who raised the spirits and blessed the hall with their lovely music, singing and dancing. After a short intermission for folk to mingle and check out the book stall, the main part of the programme got under way.
The organiser and MC, 3rd Bard of Bath and Bridport newbie Kevan Manwaring, introduced the evening with a short meditation on ‘home’ and an original poem written in the early Spring shortly after moving to the town (just as the war in Ukraine was starting in earnest): ‘The Blackbird’s Shadow is Brightness.’ Next, Estelle Phillips was welcomed to the stage who performed a couple of poems from her debut collection published by Jawbone, including ‘Reaper’, which has been translated into Ukrainian. You can watch the powerful video here. This was followed by Estelle’s publisher, Peter Roe – a poet in his own right. His poem about the Cold War was especially resonant. Continuing the run of local talent, we next had Ged Duncan, Rob Casey, Tom Rogers who entertained us with their brilliant monologues (Arthur Thwartle; Wayland the Puppet) and poems. We finished off the first half with a fantastic tale of the Crow King from the Ukraine, by Martin Maudsley. What wordsmiths of West Dorset!
After the break we had talent from further afield – starting with Stroud-based storyteller, Anthony Nanson who regaled us with another Ukrainian tale – that of ‘The Baal Shem Tov and the Flaming Tree’. Next, Tick Rowley, 22nd Bard of Bath, performed her lovely poems; followed by a great story from Kirsty Hartsiotis (also of Stroud and Fire Springs along with Anthony, her husband). Then we returned briefly to Bridport for a muscular performance from poet Dylan Ross. We finished off the evening with two musical acts: Car Dia – a pagan ‘supergroup’ from Glastonbury, Avebury, Salisbury, and the edges who enchanted us with their mighty magical songs; and then Dr Space Toad -all the way from the 7th (or possibly 77th) Dimension, whose Spanish guitar and soulful songs eased us back down to earth.
The evening raised over £200 for the UN Refugee Agency, and was a heartwarming affirmation of creative, inclusive community.
The spoken word & music scene is thriving in the West Country.
April Doyle’s debut novel imagines a near future Britain ravaged by the impact of Colony Collapse Disorder, and its knock-on effect on the pollination of crops. With the devastating decline of bee populations – a keystone species in the ecosystem – the consequences on food production are catastrophic. Doyle’s Britain is not that dissimilar to the one we already live in – with food banks in more demand than ever, and parents having to make hard choices about how to feed their children – but taken to the extreme. With the rationing system and the constant background gnawing hunger of the characters it feels reminiscent of WW2 and the lean Post-War Years. Folk are forced to rely on their ingenuity, or willingness to transgress the narrow line between civilisation and barbarity. All of this could have been rather grim – Children of Men, Survivors, The Road … we’ve seen it all before: the cliché of dystopia; the tropes that have been done to death. But here, Doyle does something refreshingly different. Although the shadows are clearly present in this starving Britain (and sometimes devastatingly centre-stage) the author on the whole chooses to focus on her small cast – a farmer and his wife and their two young daughters, an old friend, a scientist and her assistant, a boyfriend and an ex-lover. Although they all endure hardship (or worse) their struggles have a life-affirming quality to them. Due to the nature of the scenario Doyle posits, food takes on an almost sacramental quality, as does the ‘miracle of nature’ itself – the wonder of bees, the cycle of life. The entomological aspects are well-researched and are intrinsic to the plot. Use of ‘found’ paratext from scientific journals, documentaries, and so forth deftly weave in exposition between the chapters, providing an interesting shift of register and scale. These could have come across as just a way for Doyle to show her research in an unleavened form (rather than working it into the fiction) but it becomes apparent the orthography of these infodumps have narrative relevance. The novel gains new energy with the addition of nanodrone technology (courtesy of an old flame), developed as replacement pollinators, and this conflation of nature and science is fascinating to read. In the hands of another author (e.g., Michael Crichton) this would have been a tech-thriller, but although this element catalyses things Doyle pulls back from punchy, full-throttle prose. Indeed, it is least convincing when she is forced to describe violence (although the death of one of the main characters is very moving). The chapters sometimes feel too brief, and the final reveal lacks foreshadowing (it is set up, but then strangely forgotten by the characters). Nevertheless, it is a well-told tale, one that was an engaging, enjoyable read. With ‘soft force’ it nudges the reader to think about food and where it comes from. By focusing on a single aspect of the ecosystem – bees – Doyle’s book has greater resonance and authority than those that adopt a wider approach. It is a welcome addition to the growing canon of ecofiction.
This year certainly has been one of peaks and troughs. Which year isn’t, I hear you say! But 2021 has been ‘peakier’ and ‘troughier’ than most for me, with some amazing highs and some real lows. Of course, we live in especially challenging times – the debacle of Brexit overwhelmed by the omnishambles of the UK government’s response to Covid-19 and its variants, and in the background the vaster wave (like the iconic Japanese woodblock print, The Great Wave) of the Climate Crisis: the real tsunami threatening human ‘civilisation’, such as it is. I argue that this creates an underlying mental health crisis across the country, even before the vicissitudes of life exacerbate things — a Zabriskie Point everything must struggle upwards from. But, I am here to celebrate a rich year! So, if you would allow me to put that triple-headed apocalypse aside for a moment, I shall sum up the highs (and lows) of my last twelve months.
The most exciting development of 2021 (for me) has been securing tenure as a permanent Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth (AUB). I started there in April, and have enjoyed getting to know the staff, students, campus, and surrounding area – including morning runs along the promenade, and swimming in the summer. A hub of the creative industries, it is a colourful place to work. Originally coming from a Fine Arts background it feels like a good fit. For Earth Day (April 22nd) I organised a 2-day symposium on creative writing and the environment, with guest speakers, workshops, a book launch (my British Library anthology, Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes), and an ‘Earth Bards’ showcase for the students.
At the end of the academic year I headed to Cumbria to work on an eco-SF audio drama with my new lovely friend Chloé Germaine, a writer and academic based at Manchester Metropolitan University. We had an inspiring, and industrious week – writing 6×30 minute episodes, which Alternative Stories and Fake Realities are due to produce in the new year. I also enjoyed getting back into roleplaying games with her, husband Jon and friends – something I hadn’t done for decades. Things have moved on a lot since I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulu, and Traveller with my schoolmates. There is an explosion in indie game design, with some brilliant reimaginings of classic genres and tropes. It is a fascinating form of collaborative storytelling, which is often ‘ecological’ in its design as well as content (I also organised some more traditional storytelling concerts with friends at The Henge shop, Avebury, to celebrate the turning seasons).
I have long been concerned about the environment (organising my first fundraiser concert – for Greenpeace –in 1991), and I have been running creative writing and the environment events since 2003, but in the last few years my writing and research has increasingly focused on this area, and in 2021 I pitched a proposal to Palgrave, and authored a chapter for a forthcoming book on bioethics from Routledge (Coastal Environments in Popular Culture), and an article on Coleridge’s ecological vision for the English Review. Since starting at AUB my research activity and profile has increased dramatically. Being supported in my research with a designated ‘research day’ in my timetable, and being now eligible for funding as a member of staff means I’ve been able to apply for various grants. I’ve won a RKE Fellowship to undertake field research next summer on environmental aspects of Fantasy (and to deliver a paper at the ‘Once and Future Worlds’ conference in Glasgow in July), and I have been made a finalist in the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers 2022 scheme! This is particularly exciting, as if I make the final selection I will be able to make my very own programme for BBC Radio 3, as well as appear on various panel discussions.
In terms of my own creative writing I haven’t stinted either, penning a new novel about the city of Bath in the 1990s (when I used to live there) and the 1750s (slightly before my time!). This was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2021, and garnered keen agent interest.
Over the summer I walked the 136 mile Wessex Ridgeway from my current home on the Marlborough Down to Lyme Regis (having a peak experience on Pilsdon Pen) and I have been returning to the Jurassic Coast a lot since. In the autumn I was the module leader for a unit on place-writing, and took the students on various lovely field trips in the area. And in the new year I am moving to within a couple of miles of that stunning heritage coastline. So, big changes!
As lockdown eased over the summer and the nation got jabbed up it was so lovely to celebrate my birthday in August with a small group of friends at Manton. Over my birthday weekend I hosted the annual Bardfest online, with a great line-up of contributors performing to raise money for Water Aid.
Back on campus in September I organised two new monthly events – Outside the Box transdisciplinary research seminar series, (where I invite two guest speakers to discuss their research) and L’arte Laureates: an open mic I set up for our creative writing students, which has taken on a life of its own, being now co-hosted by the Writing Society. It’s been lovely seeing the students strut their stuff while socialising off-campus. The more real world stuff like this we can off the better in my books.
Despite this busyness I jealously guard my downtime to ensure quality of life – making sure I have time to savour the simple pleasures: ‘fodder, flax, fire, and frigg’, as the Norse put it! I have made the most of living up on the Marlborough Downs – going for frequent runs, rides, and rambles and getting to know the local wildlife well (it was lovely to see the brown hare in the Spring, and the red kites are a constant in the big, open skies). The green space has been a lifesaver during lockdown, and after a busy week, and I have enjoyed getting into a bit of en plein air daubing on the downs.
But most of all, I’ve especially enjoyed quality time with friends – going on walks, or spending an evening with them for a good, old heart-to-heart: these are my true family – kindred spirits who ‘see’ me, and value my company. They are very dear to me, so it has been upsetting to discover two of my dearest friends have cancer – both are fighting it valiantly, but it is a sharp reminder to appreciate people while they are around.
I decided to enjoy a late summer trip to Cornwall, where I stayed at a vicarage with German friends, and got to experience the amazing St Just Ordinalia – a religious cycle that is only performed every 20 years. Afterwards, I camped on the Lizard peninsula, and developed lighthouse awareness.
I have loved being able to see films at the cinema again. The blockbusters I saw left me cold, unfortunately, but Nomadland (rereleased after its Oscar triumph), and The Green Knight were amazing – the latter was definitely my film of the year. Read my review of it here. Other cultural highlights including visiting exhibitions such a Downland Man (Eric Ravilious) at the Wiltshire Museum, The Museum of Mystery and Imagination at Bridport Arts Centre, and Unseen Landscapes at St Barbe’s, Lymington. It’s also been good to hear live music again, although I’ve only managed to catch a couple of bands. I didn’t fancy going to any festivals, but it was nice seeing folks enjoying themselves out and about again.
Yet the year was not without its challenges. Viruses are very much in the air, but with my good immune system, constitution, and level of fitness (e.g. I ran the Bournemouth Half Marathon) I normally shrug them off, but in March I went down with a really nasty infection, which absolutely floored me for a week. This however resulted in a most profound experience, which I related in The Star Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed getting back into cycling, but in May I had a nasty tumble on my mountain bike while riding on the tracks near my home on the Marlborough Downs. After heavy rains the tracks were flooded in parts and very muddle and I ended up face down in the gravel when the bike suddenly went from under me. Fortunately I was wearing goggles and helmet, but I still had to be rushed to A&E by my partner covered in mud and blood. The abrasions and gouges on my face, hands, and knees took quite a while to heal and really shook my confidence. I liked the return to face-to-face teaching, but not in this instance! As Mike Scott and The Waterboys sing, ‘Everybody Takes A Tumble’, but the trick is to get back up, and, in this case, get back on two wheels. I joined the Cyclescheme at work, and purchased a really good gravel bike (hybrid road/mountain bike), which I have been using mainly for commuting to campus from my temporary accommodation in Bournemouth during the week, but over the summer I ‘broke it in’ undertaking a 4 day 225 mile off-road trail, the King Alfred’s Way. I loved cycling the Ridgeway and the South Downs, and the highlight was wild-camping on Butser Hill. You can read an account of my trip here. I am certainly looking forward to more cycle-camping trips, although have my reservations about ‘bike-packing’ (the trendy name for it, with attendant overpriced gear)! Panniers, and a good map are all you need.
The end the year with a complete change of scene (much needed after 2 years of lockdown and limited travel) I am finally travelling to Iceland to spend time with my Icelandic friend, wife, and family, and my German friend who is joining us. I am looking forward to (hopefully) seeing the northern lights and that epic landscape of ice and fire.
I am glad to say I am carbon negative after planting over 200 trees with Tree App – and I heartily recommend it to all (see below). It has been satisfying planting a tree in various conservation projects around the world every day, and I am looking forward to putting down roots on the Jurassic Coast.
Wherever and however you celebrate (or not) – noisily, peacefully, alone, or with family and friends – have a great new year and I hope to see you along the road!
Recovering from a serious infection, the accompanying enforced detox and fast resulted in a life-transforming visionary experience with profound implications…
I had been off sick for a week with an unexpected illness. For the first couple of days I didn’t know what it was, and prompted by my fluctuating temperature, I booked a Covid test, which fortunately came back negative. I finally got a diagnosis and some antibiotics, but these turned out to make matters for worse – triggering nausea and nocturnal vomiting. In my weakened state I had to trek into town to get the right meds, but from Saturday my infection started to clear up. I was able to go for a triumphant walk down to the Devil’s Den – our local prehistoric monument all of twenty minutes away, although it felt like a twenty mile hike in my debilitated condition. I was unable to eat anything solid. Sunday I was beginning to feel a lot better, although I was weak from a lack of food and the exhausting night’s I’d been having (Saturday night I purged the last of the previous prescription out of my system). I felt bruised and battered, and relieved to be no longer feeling nauseous. But I felt I needed to lie down. So I lay on the bed, with the lights off, staring at the ceiling. A particular cluster of Artex seemed to contain a matrix of ancient letters, which threatened to coalesce if I focused too long on them – like an alphabet version of the scene from The Queen’s Gambit … sentences in arcane tongues, rather than chess moves, rearranging themselves above me.
And then it happened.
It felt like all the lights went on in my head. I was looking at it from the inside, and could see every neuron and synapse, like some kind of encephalogram scan. The ‘brain scan’ pulsated like coral in the endless darkness. I likened it (at the time) to a ‘glass cathedral’ – but it was no longer possible if I was looking at my mind or a map of the universe. Ultimately the distinction seemed to dissolve into irrelevance. Spellbound, I gazed upon nebula … the birth and death of stars, the auric fields of gas giants, white dwarves and supernova: everyone a world, a civilisation, a consciousness. I felt like I could see into the heart of the universe, into the heart of the Great Creator – and it did strike me that this pervading intelligence was sentient, benign, and compassionate. It cradled its creation with care – a master craftsperson admiring their handiwork. I felt myself rising through my skull towards this cosmic centre – it felt like the most natural thing in the world to simply float ‘upwards’ towards it; but then a voice or sound disturbed me (my partner’s, I think) and I descended once more.
But still I felt bathed by this revelation – electrified by it. I had an incredible clarity, and felt I could turn my consciousness to anything and perceive its inner ‘cathedral’, and if a blockage of any kind occurred, I would want to fix it, to allow the flow to continue – like a cosmic plumber, or perhaps, more profoundly, a physician. Every being had this unique cluster of energies – a grid of life. It is only natural to want to allow it to flow.
But then, in the next phase I had a somewhat disturbing, but equally as fascinating experience: as soon as I ‘broke through’ to this higher level, as though a space rocket breaking through the stratosphere and other layers of Earth’s atmosphere, I was descended upon my a host of powerful presences, who appeared to me as grotesque faces, gurning at me from the abyss. They seemed curious, but worse, territorial, almost colonizing – if I had let them I felt they would have flooded my consciousness, and taken me over. I had not slept properly all week – I was exhausted, and just wanted to rest – and so I imagined a sphere of hard light, and expanded it infinitely, pushing these presences away. I had to do this two or three times before they finally got the message, and left me in peace. Another time I might have been curious to ask them questions: Who or what are they? What do they want? Yet, I was just relieved I could control, to a certain extent, this giddying revelatory experience. I had experienced enough in that time – how long had passed, who can say? Half an hour? Two or four? I felt an incredible crystalline clarity, combined with a deep compassion for everything.
After this I slept profoundly. There was so much to write down, to record, but I also needed to rest.
The next day I woke up ostensibly ‘better’ and able to have breakfast at last – but then I experienced a nosebleed (I used to have them lots as a child). It didn’t last long, but really had an effect on my energy. It felt like the plug had been pulled out of me. I experienced a plummeting blood pressure. My partner had gone off and I was left by myself. Whenever I tried to do something the nosebleed threatened to come back. By midday I was forced back to bed. I can’t remember when I saw the email – something about a job application – but it triggered a galloping panic attack, which was not something I had experienced before and was really horrible. I felt like I went from heaven (on Sunday) to hell (on Monday). I really struggled and seemed to go through an existential crisis. It felt like I was being tested or ‘judged’ in some way by vast forces, and so … I surrendered to the Great Creator. Ultimately I was a leaf on the wind, and not really the captain of my destiny.
As soon as I did so, I felt ‘held’ by a giant star-bear type energy (this is the only way I can describe it, but of course even at the time I knew it nothing so relatable: it was beyond analogy, beyond comprehension even), who embraced me to their warm bosom. I gave myself over to this vaster power. I was nothing. So frail. So easily extinguished. I made vows of pilgrimage, oaths of loyalty to a truthful life. I devised a simply blessing – the quartered cross – to protect myself in this dark night of the soul. Later, after I had tried to relate this to my partner, to my dismay she fled upstairs and shut herself in her room! She had tirelessly looked after me all week, but this was too much. I had glimpsed the half moon and realised that ‘full truth’ was something to work at, and not something one should inflict on another without their consent. I realised I had to be mindful about who I shared my revelations with, and how. I had to be a little circumspect, when my very instinct craved complete clarity and openness. I stared at the whorls in my wooden desk, and realised that in any given situation there are rings of complexity – one could go microcosmic, or macrocosmic. But the other party needs to be willing to participate in this level of scrutiny. I felt a little like Ray Milland, in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. I could see how one could go mad with such consciousness ‘switched on’ all of the time. Having rocketed from heaven to hell within twenty-four hours I felt I needed to find a healthier, more sustainable balance. And this began with eating good, nourishing food. The first food I really tasted after unexpected ‘fast’ were olives – and they tasted like the food of the gods. I felt all the toxins and cravings had been blasted out of me – I no longer desired coffee, alcohol, stodgy food (anything that would dampen my consciousness). I want to remain fully ‘awake’. I have had glimpses of this kind of perception before (a long time ago, and fleetingly, on mountain summits, etc) but this feels like the most tangible vision yet. It felt like a bona fide revelation about the true nature of the cosmos. I feel blessed by it, and chastened by what followed: don’t climb too high, too soon, otherwise you risk crashing back to Earth.
For days afterwards I was haunted by this vision – and I sought out sympathetic, ‘spiritual’ friends to discuss it with. At the time it felt like an intensely visceral, and real confirmation of a transcendental reality. There is no doubt in my mind that what I perceived was the ‘real reality’ – one I had long intuited. The challenge was to live every day as if this was so – while not coming across like some ‘born again’ idiot, keen to evangelise to all and sundry. Whatever I experienced was not something that could be pigeon-holed easily within one religion. It was beyond such narrow divisions. It was felt like a direct encounter with the divine consciousness at the heart of the cosmos – beyond the intercession of priesthoods, liturgies, ceremonies, and rites. Such a transcendental experience has transformed the way I perceive things, and made me reconsider my priorities while in this body, on this Earth, living this life. One of the initial lingering effects was an ego-less compassion for all. The clamouring for status, wealth, materiality, etc, we fill our days with felt so silly. We are here to help each other; and to help every soul find its way home. To return to the stars – not in a literal sense, but by connecting to the cosmic mystery inside all of us: by thinking ‘beyond’ while simultaneously being grounded, fully alive in the moment, in one’s body. Like the whorls of the wood-grain – it is a spiral both outwards and inwards. There is no end or beginning, and after such a revelation the challenge is to continue living in an everyday way. The key is to embody this awareness, while not feeling oneself special. To fully live in the moment. Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
There is endless wisdom to digest and reflect upon here – perhaps a lifetime’s worth – but the key lessons I take away from this are ones that were encoded into me in an intensely visceral, embodied way (a ‘system reset’ as my friend put it that I shall never forget): we are an infinitesimal but significant filament of cosmic consciousness and the more fully we are truly awake in the world, the better we serve this higher purpose; and to surrender to the grace of this humbling realisation — that despite all of our hubristic self-determination we are never fully in control – and you will be held.
‘…he finds himself in the infinite room that lies inside the axis of our wheeling space. Space, like the world, cannot but move. And like the world, there is an axis. And the axis of our worldly space, when you enter, is a vastness where even the trees come and go, and the soul is at home in its own dream, noble and unquestioned.’ DH Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent
To date I have written 13 novels over the course of my writing life. It is interesting to look back and consider this harvest of the imagination – what connects them, if anything? Certainly a strong strain of the Fantastic – most are explicitly within the Fantasy or Science Fiction category, with just a couple of anomalies: my first novel, which could be categorised as Weird or Timeslip; and my latest, which is my most ‘mimetic’ to date – being set entirely in this world, with no element of the Fantastic (except perhaps through the combination of extraordinary characters in an extraordinary place – albeit both within the purview of the possible). From the very first a strong sense of place has been a key element of my fiction. I am also inspired by myths, legends, folk tales, and folk songs, so what I call ‘mythic resonance’ permeates all my work (indeed, I called my Fantasy novels ‘Mythic Reality’). Nature has always been more than a backdrop in my writing – an ecoliteracy informs them all. And increasingly, there is a keen sense of the Climate Emergency – this has manifested most tangibly in Black Box and Thunder Road. Finally, I think I am drawn to hybrid, marginalised voices – characters caught between worlds in different ways. These are the voices that interest me the most.
So far, only 8 have been published (one as an interactive novel), although my SF novel, Black Box, has manifested as an audio drama via Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. Hopefully, the others will see the light of day at some point. Otherwise, to keep writing them without guarantee of publication is a kind of madness – I call it my Obsessive Narrative Disorder. I just can’t stop writing. I have so many ideas, and novels just pounce on me and don’t let me go until I’ve written them. With my current novel, The Bath Circulating Library Society, I have set up what I hope to be a long-running series – I have several plot ideas already sketched out, enough probably to keep me busy until the end of my days. Let’s hope I get a publisher for them soon!
The Ghost Tree (1994 – unpublished)
The Long Woman (2004, Awen) – Arts Council Award winner
David Lowery’s haunting, hallucinatory re-imagining of the 14th Century Middle English verse romance, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, was delayed from its original May 2020 release because of the pandemic. Fended off like the fatal blow of the antagonist several times since, it has been worth the wait. Lowery has adapted the source text in a structurally bold and visually stunning way. It makes striking acknowledgement of textual sources – suggesting through a rapid flickering of fonts the many versions and variants. ‘Gawain’ is a cultural virus that has mutated through the centuries, being re-translated and retold in myriad forms. There have been scholarly and poetic tellings from Tolkien, and the former poet laureate, Simon Armitage; theatrical and operatic versions – most notably Birtwistle’s; adaptations for the small and silver screen (most faithfully in David Rutkind’s lucid 1991 version); and numerous usages of key elements of the story in comic book, computer game, and TTRPG. But Lowery, with his dreamlike, visionary style, has reclaimed ‘Gawain’ for the big screen – but with a storytelling style that has its roots in European art-house cinema more than Hollywood. This feels wilder; riskier: it is hard to predict where it will take you, or what astonishing image will appear next. And yet there is narrative traction, and a thematic coherency about it: the leitmotif of the circle binds the film together – in the Round Table, King Arthur’s crown; the sinister ritual of shadowy priestesses; Gawain’s shield; and the famous ‘green garter’ or belt of protective spells, which is given him by both his mother (a dominating Circe-like presence played by Sarita Choudhury), and ‘The Lady’.
Gawain, played with conviction and charisma by the brilliant Dev Patel (who is carving a name for himself in ‘colour-blind’ literary adaptations, such as Armando Iannucci’s Great Expectations), is an ignoble, compromised figure: a hedonistic, amoral Prince Hal we hope will become our Henry V. King Arthur is depicted in full Fisher King mode (played intensely by Sean Harris), and yet Gawain is no Parsifal. His sorceress mother appears to set in motion a series of events that will lead to her son’s betterment, either societally or in terms of his maturation. Gawain is a pawn, but a self-aware one, at one point asking is it ‘A game?’ Arthur replies: ‘Perhaps. Yet the Beheading Game that is instigated by the dramatic arrival of the uncanny Green Knight at Arthur’s court is deadly serious – one with inexorable consequences. A moment of valour leads to a year-long countdown to a gruelling journey into the wild north. Here Gawain is tested by tricksters, ghosts, giants, and apparently friendly hosts, along with the more-than-human world of nature itself. Indeed, an ecolinguistic subtext rises to the surface in The Lady’s extraordinary pagan paean. And it is tempting to see the Green Knight himself as the very scion of environmental justice. Yet the mighty antagonist Gawain must face feels less the vengeful face of nature, and more a moral and spiritual catalyst. In a mind-bending dilated alternative timeline, we behold a possible fate for Gawain in true ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ style. This is foreshadowed by the ‘death’ of the protagonist in the forest: the camera panning around the seasons like the rotating backdrop in the puppet show. Gawain is bound to Fortuna’s wheel – a victim of circumstance until he finds his own moral compass, his inner chivalric code. After being tested by the irresistible Lady Bertilak (played with sensuous power by Alicia Vikander) and her husband (played with earthy vigour and sexual ambivalence by Joel Edgerton), Gawain finally arrives at the Green Chapel and reaches a kind of apotheosis, sitting in Buddha-like contemplation beneath the ‘Bodhi tree’ of the sylvan lord. What risks being an anti-climax transforms into the most astonishing sequence in which Lowery – both writer and director – strays fullest from the well-trodden woodland path. To discover what the errant ‘knight’ finds in his personalised heart of darkness, you will have to seek the film out. There is only one misstep in my mind in this otherwise masterful revisioning of the poem – the CGI fox, which feels like a concession to a younger audience, a stray from another kind of ‘fantasy’ movie. Perhaps it only jars because Lowery has otherwise served up a feast of Fantasy of the highest order, one that deftly straddles the medievalist and the modern – in music, costume, and mise-en-scène. It knowingly weaves in its sources, while simultaneously transcending them. This is the best Arthurian movie since John Boorman’s 1982 Excalibur and is a worthy inheritor of the crown. Go on a quest and hunt it down in a cinema: it’ll reward your effort.
OUTSIDE THE BOX – transdisciplinary research seminar series
Autumn Programme 2021
Tuesday, 5th October – AUTHENTICITY & CREATIVITY
There’s a reason people don’t swim in dresses – Sally Tissington
Sally Tissington mixes performance art and creative writing in order to energise her writing and art practice (imagework, and arts-based autoethnography) through taking greater creative risk. The risk-taking involves stopping self-censoring and instead acting on all ideas that arise from the unconscious, making these ideas visible as a piece of art. She then uses the art pieces as inspiration for her creative writing.
Sally Tissington is a writer and artist with a published novel and many short stories. She has worked at the universities of Warwick and Coventry teaching creative writing and writing for wellbeing. Recently she has worked with Headway, the brain injury charity, designing and delivering an art and creative writing for wellbeing course. Website – makingstrange.me
‘The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge’: researching a historical novel – Kevan Manwaring
In researching a dual narrative novel, set in both the mid-18th Century, and the Nineties, Kevan Manwaring drew upon historical research and autobiographical experiences of living in the city of Bath for 14 years. Bringing to life figures from Hanoverian Bath, was coupled with the ethical and aesthetic challenges of fictionalising memories from twenty years ago. Bound to a specific location, writing the novel involved researching circulating libraries, architecture, secret societies, folklore, and local history. Autofiction collides with the counterfactual, blurring notions of authenticity and fictionality.
Dr Kevan Manwaring is the Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth. He is the editor of Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes from The British Library; Ballad Tales: traditional British ballads retold; and author of the prize-winning novel, Black Box, adapted into an audio drama by Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. He is a contributor to New Writing, Writing in Practice, Axon, TEXT, Revenant, and Gothic Nature. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.
Tuesday, 9th November – ECOPOETICS & FEMINISM
Poetry / Landscape: ecopoetry as restorative act – Helen Moore
In examining and decolonising notions of landscape, I show how my ecopoetry is an interdisciplinary practice with its roots in animistic European traditions. Drawing on poems inspired by landscapes in Australia, the north of Scotland, Somerset and Dorset, I illustrate socially and ecologically engaged work with an activist intention, which aims to highlight and restore ecological and cultural dimensions that Western industrialised societies, in particular my own (white British), have marginalised/erased. It is poetry as restorative act. A signpost towards regenerative cultures, where we value the Earth, and particularly the land/bioregion we inhabit, as our community.
Helen Moore is an award-winning British ecopoet with three collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins(2012), ECOZOA (2015), acclaimed as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (2019) exploring British colonial history. Helen has shared her work on international stages, including India, Australia and Italy. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, which guides people on a creative writing journey into deeper Nature connection. Her work is supported by Arts Council England, and she is currently collaborating on a cross arts-science project responding to pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems. www.helenmoorepoet.com
A Girdle Round the Earth – Mary-Jane Holmes
‘The future of feminisms is in the transnational and the transnational is made through translation’ Olga Castro states. Within this transcultural context, through a deep engagement with poetic form and formal transference I hope to extend the possibilities of language beyond essentialist constructions of genre, race and sexuality while finding expression for a new set of experiences.
My creative project experiments with poetic devices ‘borrowed’ from a medieval Iberian strophic fixed form called the Muwashshaha; devices such as diglossia, interweaving several languages together, codeswitching, voice appropriation and contrafacture, as well as translating the Muwashshaha into an English version of itself with the potential of opening a discursive, transnational space for female poets seeking to express themselves on their own terms.
Mary-Jane Holmes is currently studying for a PhD funded by the AHRC in poetry and translation at Newcastle University. Mary-Jane’s poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. Her award-winning pamphlet Dihedral is published by Live Canon Press her novella Don’t Tell the Bees, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction and a new Flash fiction chapbook is published by V.Press on September 6th.
Tuesday, 7th December – GEOPOETICS, DANCE, & MOVING IMAGE PRACTICE
Circling and Circling (again) – Ceri Morgan and Anna Macdonald
This presentation reflects on Circling – an interdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory project on persistent pain. Bringing together geopoetics, dance and moving-image practice, we devised prompts/scores for participant workshops, with the aim of fostering different ways of thinking about and experiencing pain. The project led to six new films (Anna Macdonald), along with writing and images by participants. The artworks can be viewed in an online artefact, Circling (again): http://www.circlingartproject.co.uk/. Collectively, they offer a sense of the way pain can affect everyday journeys, and change people’s senses of scale and perspective.
Professor of Place-writing and Geohumanities, Ceri Morgan works on geopoetics as a participatory practice, leading workshops or ‘happenings’ on a variety of themes, including mining, food, and deindustrialisation. Anna Macdonald is a dance and moving image artist, based at Central St Martins Art School (UAL), who specialises in participatory and interdisciplinary arts practice.
All events will be on Zoom 6pm-8pm. To register contact Dr Kevan Manwaring, Arts University Bournemouth: email@example.com
The Allsop Gallery, Bridport Arts Centre, 15 July-20 August, 2021
Imagine if Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico had been born in the British Isles; if they had still turned out to be artists (and that presupposes that artists, and not just poets, are born and made: are natured, not nurtured). Would they have created their distinctive visionary blend of Surrealist and Symbolist art with an Anglo-Saxon sensibility? So, indirectly, this exhibition speculates – that there is a particular British form of these traditions that, it is argued, predates them. It is glimpsed in the works of William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Lewis Carroll, David Jones, and Leonora Carrington – tangible influences in the works on display here. An eclectic exhibition of paintings and ceramics, populated by strange creatures and creations from the fringes of consciousness. It is like walking into a fairy tale forest, or Cocteau’s castle from La Belle et La Bête: this is a place of chimerical metamorphosis, and ambiguous, amphibious dream-like imagery. People and animal blend into fluid hybrids, take on iconic potency in their postures and expressions. Some have the stained-glass clarity of tarot cards, or the rude energy of church grotesques. The natural world cross-fertilises with the human. There is a sexual frisson to many, but the female gaze dominates. The images suggest a chthonic female experience erupting into the waking world, defiant and empowered. A cat and a mermaid make strangely compatible companions. A naked woman hovering between two chairs explodes with flowers. In an age of heavy realism, this celebration of the imagination – blossoming out of the enforced interregnum of lockdown – is a welcome escape hatch.
Kevan Manwaring, 7 August 2021
Thank you to the staff of Bridport Arts Centre, who kindly let me in to view the exhibition while building work was under way.