Tag Archives: Albion

Ballads Across Borders

Off by yourself you could sing those songs to bring yourself back.

Gary Snyder, ‘Good, Wild, Sacred’

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Offa’s Dyke Path, descending southwards from the Jubilee Tower, 1821 ft (555 m) .                   K. Manwaring 2016

Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.

I felt very much like a pilgrim – a bit crazy and off the beaten track of reality. I was delighted to discover in Thoreau’s iconic essay on walking (slipped in with my other essentials) that the word ‘Sauntering’ is derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense [sic] of going a al Sainte Terre’, to the Holy Land. Apparently children used to call out, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer!’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. Thoreau notes that some derive the word from ‘sans terre’, without land or home, ‘which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.’ This, Thoreau suggests, is the secret of successful sauntering, something I bore in mind as I wended my way southwards. Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.

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Halfway from nowhere. K. Manwaring 2016

Some of the songs I selected explored and expressed issues to do with land rights and freedom of access, rites of roaming, if you will. This was inspired, in part, by the show ‘Three Acres and a Cow: A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story’, by Robin Gray and friends, which I saw in Stroud, in June. That came with its own songbook and, in the spirit of the ‘creative commons’ philosophy of the show (which encourages other productions through its online wiki), I cannibalised some of it.

My first day was spent singing the Sydney Carter classic, ‘John Ball’, about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was inspired by Ball’s motto: ‘When Adam delved and Eva span, who then was the gentleman?’ There was no hierarchy or class system in Eden, between humans, at least. Indeed, there seemed to be ‘democracy for all beings’ – human and animal living in harmonious equality. ‘John Ball’ is a great song to sing at the break of day striding out into the world, making one feel as though it is possible to sing creation into existence. As the Venerable Bede says of the poet Caedmon: ‘Sing me Frumsceaft’. The parable is worth relating here in full:

One evening when Caedmon was feasting with his friends he saw the harp being passed towards him around the hearthfire and, feeling shy about his lack of skill in singing, he gave some excuse about having to look after the animals and slipped away. Out there in the barn he fell asleep, and in his dream an Angel came to him and said, “Caedmon, sing something.” He answered and said, “I cannot sing so I left the feasting and came here because I could not.” He who spoke to him again said, “Nevertheless, you can sing to me.” He said, “What shall I sing?” He said, “Sing me the Creation.”

(cited in Sing Me The Creation, Paul Matthews, Hawthorn 1994)

In a way, this mirrors my own experience. Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years, until recently when I’ve started to learn the guitar and joined a community choir. I found it a lot easier to sing in a crowd and this bolstered my bruised confidence. However, it’s still hard to sing in front of people. Away in the middle of nowhere, it’s a different matter. I can sing my heart out from the hilltops. And here I was, away from the circle of community like Caedmon, walking the Offa’s Dyke and finding my voice amongst the animals … and over the next few days I had several profound non-anthropocentric encounters which affirmed something ‘Caedmon-ish’ was happening.

On the third day, I sang ‘Brimbledon Fair’ as I hiked from The Griffin Inn where I’d camped back to the acorns (the white acorns which delineated the national trail). I had to pass through a field of cows, frisky young bulls, who rushed over to me, looking like they were intent on stampeding me to death. Quickly, I turned on them and increased the volume of my voice. My singing seemed to stop them dead in their tracks. They huddled around, placid, curious, spellbound. I sang them ‘John Ball’ too, changing the lyric to ‘John Bull’. When I finished they followed me to the edge of the field. I crossed the stile and they lined up at the five-bar gate, watching expectantly, as though waiting for an encore.

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‘Sing John Bull…’ Animal magic on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

Another day, setting off after a wet and windy night from a wild-pitch (and a bracing strip-shower by a cold tap) I sang Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as I passed through a flock of black-fleeced sheep. On the Dyke you pass hundreds if not thousands of sheep, and you get used to them panicking as soon as they see you, as though they’ve never seen a human being before – even though their field is on a national trail. They always bolt. But not the ewe and her lambs before me on the path. Mothers with their lambs are especially skittish, but not these three. They seemed to listen even closer as I sang ‘And was the Holy Lamb of God/on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The ewe came up to me and sniffed me hands. One of the lambs let me give it a scratch behind the ear and run my hands through its soft fleece. They were not afraid.

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‘And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The music-appreciating ewe and her lambs. K. Manwaring, 2016

Was something Orphic going on? Who knows, but it would appear not to be a unique phenomenon, as Gary Snyder points out in The Practice of the Wild: ‘All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.’ However it worked, I continued my ‘talking across the species boundaries’, as he put it, in intuitive, unexpected ways.

Another day, I came across a rabbit by the side of the path. I was still and as non-threatening as possible. It gave me an inquisitive glance, then carried on nibbling not a yard from me. A shrew I nearly trod upon reacted in the same way, its tiny pip eye clearly registering no threat. I sang to a donkey that insisted on blocking my way; to a trio of ducks who invaded my tent every half an hour in the hope of crumbs; to horses and their foals; and to the skylarks trilling above the meadows and the birds of prey circling and swooping over the rocks and roots.

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Mind your step! Esglwseg Crags, a friable path on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

 

All the while I walked the Offa’s Dyke Path, which at one time delineated the border between England and Wales. Now it wove back and forth like a slippery caduceus. The songs carried me over the border, connecting me with other cultures, countries, or times; and they carried me over the border of species too, and seemed to facilitate inter-species communication. It was a sole/soulful way to travel. As Gary Snyder says: ‘Our ‘soul’ is the dream of the other’. It extends the borders of the self until it connects with all of creation.

On a practical level, the songs I sang really helped to keep me going: they kept my morale up and put a spring in my step. Whenever I sang a song with gusto, fatigue was forgotten, my feet took care of themselves and the miles melted away.WP_20160708_17_00_48_Pro

And it was empowering to sing songs of protest, of commoners’ rights, of victories won by the people (e.g. the Countryside and Right of Way ‘CRoW’ act, which the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the campaigning by the Ramblers’ Association and others finally achieved in 2000 for England and Wales). Could the sharing of ballads be used to help heal division across wounded communities? We need to hear one another’s songs. Listen and share. Nothing breaks down barriers better than a good singalong. If there is an organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières (one of many reasons why the great humanitarian nation of France deserves our respect and support in its difficult time) then why not Songs Sans Frontières? Perhaps there are initiatives out there of a similar spirit already doing good work – if so, I salute them.

The healing or the re-enchanting of the land by song has been happening for a long time.

In Australia, the Songlines demarcating the Dreamtime windings of the Rainbow Serpent, tribal territories, hunting grounds, springs, sacred lands and so forth were and are maintained by Aboriginal elders singing their linear narratives while on ‘walkabout’.

By repurposing Offa’s geomorphic act of hubris as a songline for the Welsh/English border, it can be turned from a military power statement to a conduit of harmony between cultures, communities, and even species.

One day I would love there to be a ‘Mabinogion Way’, connecting all the associated sites across Wales (perhaps along four ‘branches’), enabling one to cross Cambria reciting the tales and poems of its ‘national’ cycle (as conjured into being by Lady Charlotte Guest); but for now, I had cobbled together my own psychomythic songline – the Animals of Albion Amble perhaps.

As if to confirm this, on the last day, when I concluded my walk on the Wye Bridge, Monmouth (having walked the final section to Chepstow several years ago), foot-sore but satisfied with my partner, the folk-singer, Chantelle Smith (who had joined me for the last two days, augmenting my modest repertoire with her extensive song-bag and beautiful voice), I cast into the turbid waters of the Wye a stone I had picked up from Prestatyn beach, at the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path. The noise of passing cars and my partner’s somewhat debilitated state (understandable after thirty plus hard miles in two days…) threatened to diminish what should have felt like a euphoric moment – the goal of eleven days achieved – but then, just as we turned to leave, I noticed a ring of ripples where I had cast my stone. In a flash of sunlight, the most gigantic salmon I’d ever seen leapt out of the water a good three feet, flipping over like Tom Daly in mid-dive, before plunging once more into its liquid mystery.

The Salmon of Llyn Llwyd or not, it felt as though my effort had been acknowledged. That my ‘song line’ was complete.

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Perfect pitch at Pampwnton, K. Manwaring 2016

A Walker’s Songbook compiled by Kevan Manwaring

Day 1. John Ball (Sydney Carter)

Day 2. The Manchester Rambler (Ewan MacColl)

Day 3. Brimbledon Fair, or Young Ramble Away

Day 4. The Wild Rover

Day 5. Jerusalem (William Blake)

Day 6. The Lincolnshire Poacher

Day 7. Spencer the Rover

Day 8. Carrick Fergus

Day 9. John Barleycorn

Day 10. Caledonia (Dougie Maclean)

Day 11. Crazy Man Michael (Thompson/Swarbrick)

 

 

Thank you to the songwriters, the Offa’s Dyke Association for maintaining the path, to the animals, the nice campsite owners, and to my intrepid partner and fellow songwalker Chantelle.

 

 

 

 

 

A Praise Song for Albion

In 2004 I was commissioned to write a choreo-poem by the artist Beth Townley. The actual performance didn’t take place, but the poem ‘Dragon Dance’ was completed. Here is a youtube clip of me performing it from memory. It is in five main sections – each section honouring one of the corners of the British Isles and Ireland: Logres (England); Kernow (Cornwall); Erin (Ireland); Alba (Scotland); Cambria (Wales). This is not to see them as political units, and nothing of that sort is implied by their association here. I see them as geological facts – ‘a small clusters rocks brought together by fate’, and by celebrating their differences, I hope to encourage a holistic vision of their shared journey. In short, Unity. I have attempted to honour the genius loci – the spirit of place – as she manifests in each part of these remarkable islands. Over the last few years I have started to perform it in each part of the land – in the Fens, in Cornwall, in Wales, in Scotland…(Erin next!) I have found it very powerful to recite in situ. It is my way of giving something back, of saying thank you to that place for its inspiration, ancient monuments, stored ancestral wisdom and legacy. It has been performed en masse at the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge as a liturgy by the Cotswold Pagan Society during a private access ceremony – a proud moment! If the poem inspires you to visit the locations mentioned, do let me know. I’ll be delighted.

Stories to Save the World

26-29 November

A flurry of fabulous events over the last few days – a feast that I’m still digesting…

Thursday I was invited back to be a guest panelist in the Cafe of Ideas, this time held in Bath at Chapel Arts Centre – once again discussing narrative and its impact on things. The audience was ‘intimate’ – it was hard to compete with a Hollywood movie star turning on the lights – but it was a quality event nonetheless, with a thought-provoking discussion evolving from questions from the host, Pete, and the audience. I talked about one of my favourite themes, the Hero’s Journey, and cited as an example the event up the road: the celebrity switch-on of Bath’s Xmas lights, relating it, with a nod and wink, in mythic terms (the discussion had been largely dominated by economics – perhaps not surprisingly as a banker was on the panel)… A benighted land devastated by the great dragon, Recession, needs a hero – fortunately one lives close by (until recently a house in the Circus, and Midford Castle). A man called Cage comes to aid of the townsfolk, who have gathered together in anxiety – hoping their prayers will be answered. Cage is the Lightbringer – with his electric power he banishes the night and, all hope, the dragon Recession, bringing prosperity and happiness to the town once more. The tills rang out and the shopkeepers lived happily ever after. The end.

Narrative is all around us – the myths we live by, the consoling fictions, the grand narrative that dominate the Way Things Are. By being aware of them, we can work with them, even change them. Certainly change our own. The world needs different ‘stories’ to live by, because the ones we have are clearly not working.

And without narrative, life is meaningless – we are storytelling creatures, pattern-makers. Story is how we make sense of the world, our messy lives.

And even the storyteller needs to be to told a story now and again – to simply listen and be held by another’s narrative.

On Friday I went to see a play of my friend and fellow gardener, Svanur – a two-hander called The Big Deal, followed by a play called The Small Print – a brilliant ‘double-act’ (the two talented actors played different roles in each – a suicidal woman and an ‘angel’; a Council worker and an inquisitive old woman). As great concept often are, it’s very simple – a play in a pub – but I haven’t seen it done so well before. The staging, production and direction was all professional. The show is going to Clifton, Bristol, later this week – the Lansdown Inn, Thurs-Sat. Worth catching!

Saturday was the event of possibly the year – Heaven’s Gate, Stroud’s first festival of storytelling, poetry and music, co-organised by my friend Jay Ramsay and Rick Vick to celebrate William Blake’s birthday. It was a night of a thousand bards (but only one bar – which unfortunately closed before I could get a well-deserved beer … waiting til after my set, which wasn’t until gone eleven! It had been a long-haul – a Bard Day’s Night) I was performing along with a fantastic line-up including Robin and Bina Williamson (they bumped into me while looking for the venue); Phoenix (the supergroup of Stroud – Jay and friends); Kirsten Morrison; Aidan and his lovely pianist companion from Prague; Anthony Nanson, storyteller; William Ayot; Paul Matthews and a host of other poets – plus, most magnificently of all, Irina Kuzminsky, who had come all the way from Melbourne to launch her book, Dancing with Dark Goddesses, published by my press, Awen, with an incredible dance-recital tour-de-force. After the gig, I popped the champagne to wet the baby’s head with Irina and Angela, the designer – a fab team effort, as was the evening in a larger sense, a collective act of art. Everybody shone and the audience were very supportive and appreciative – the Sub Rooms, a large venue, were packed out. A fantastic success!

I performed a story I wrote especially for the event, The Gate, inspired by Blake’s phrase – Heaven’s Gate (reclaiming it from its associations with Michael Cimino’s ‘disasterous’ overbudget flop). I responded to Rob Hopkins challenge in a recent Resurgence:

there are a paucity of stories that articulate what a lower-energy world might sound like, smell like, feel like and look like. What is hard, but important is to be able to articulate a vision of a post-carbon world so enticing that people leap out of bed every morning and put their shoulders to the wheel of making it happen.

This, coupled with Blake’s gate, was my inspiration, and that is what I set out to do with my simple parable, which I kept deliberately ‘light’ (following the notion that we can enter the kingdom of heaven as children – by letting ourselves be ‘held’ by a story, in a state of Keatsian negative capability, or Blakean innocence). The response was very positive. I believe art, at its best, is a gateway (rather than a mere mirror of the world) and get us closer to achieving this goal. We need stories of hope and deep beauty to defeat the gloom, the paralysis of despair, and the denialists.

The next morning we had a post-gig breakfast in Costa (the only cafe open in Stroud on a Sunday. We would have preferred lovely independent wholefood eatery, Star Anise… Instead, we turned this chain into the Left Bank of the Cotswolds for a couple of hours, as the surviving bards gathered). We were all wiped out from an epic night – but this broke down any remaining barriers. There was warmth, there was awen – and something wonderful happened. For a little while, the gate opened… Such a huge act of love will not go unnoticed by the universe! Well done to Jay, Rick and all those who performed and made it happen. Absolute stars, all of them – shining beyond the light pollution of the mainstream, the gaudy dazzle of the Media. Blake would have been touched by such a show of artistic solidarity … the City of Art descended and Albion’s children shone.