Tag Archives: Anthony Nanson

A New Awen



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevan Manwaring, 8 December 2016


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

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

Souls of the Earth

Soul of the Earth launch Waterstones, Bath, Spring 2011

When I published Soul of the Earth in 2010, it felt like the culmination of the small press I started in 2003. Awen’s first book, Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, was the outcome of a course I ran on ‘creative writing and the environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre. It was a group effort: I encouraged the students to contribute not only their words, but also to the editorial, design, and marketing process. Our modest vessel was joined by a number of other, more established writers, and I am pleased that familiar names from back then reappear in this later anthology. When Soul of the Earth was launched at a splendid event in Waterstones, I felt conscious of how far we, as a press, had come (in our craft; in our thinking) and how far we, as a species, still had to go (in our collective effort to live in more sustainable, harmonious ways).

As I write this the world looks in even worse shape than it did then. Not only are rapacious ideologies and practices continuing which damage this precious Earth (so much so that this epoch may be designated the ‘Anthropocene’ because of the lasting legacy we will leave in the Earth’s fossil record due to our massive impact upon the biosphere), but humanity seems intent on tearing itself apart. Conflict in the Middle East, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere continues to create human suffering on a massive scale. The war in Syria has resulted in the largest migration since the partition of India. The European project is fracturing. Right-wing extremism is on the march once again. Campaigners lobby for the closure of borders, for breaking away from the EU, for increasing parochialism. With such a bunker mentality, with selfishness, fear and loathing, and a perpetual heightened state of terror becoming the ‘new normal’, it is perhaps more poignant than ever to think of ourselves as ‘souls of the earth’.

The title I came up with for this collection, finely curated by Jay Ramsay, seems increasingly resonant. Perhaps we need to have the perspective of British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station and remember what unites us: the sheer unlikeliness and precariousness of our existence on this fragile blue jewel. To remember our common humanity. If I may paraphrase the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: the only nation is the imagination. We can choose hope or despair. In the Anthropocene epoch, perhaps, rather than allowing ourselves to be paralysed by the magnitude of what we face, we should reframe it as a ‘call to adventure’. Rather than leaving a legacy of environmental denudation, of ecological catastrophe, of mass extinction, why not a fossil record of artistic activity? We need to live here and now, of course. And ensure the planet is left in a better condition. But it is also wise to take the long view and hope that what will survive of us will be the love we lived by: for each other, the planet, and all that lives upon it.

With that wish we cast this message in a bottle into the ocean. May this new edition find sympathetic shores.

And we do hope you spread the word. If you believe in our vision, please spend a few minutes to share your reviews, comments, and thoughts through whatever medium you revel in. Words matter and, combined with meaningful deeds, can help to make a difference.

Kevan Manwaring

PS Happy Birthday, Jay 20 April!

Available thru Awen: http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/soul_of_the_earth.html

Deep Time, Deep Love

Saturday 9th May: Deep Time launch, Stroud


Saturday saw the culmination of a lifetime’s obsession – the publication of my friend Anthony Nanson’s first novel, Deep Time. This 300 thousand plus word magnum opus Nanson has been plotting and planning consciously since the mid-Eighties, but as a charming childhood booklet, The Lost World, revealed read out by Anthony’s father, the author had been haunted by dinosaurs and the depths of time for a long time (in human terms). Many friends and family gathered at the ‘British School’, behind the popular Star Anise Café at the bottom of town, to celebrate Anthony’s 50th birthday on – and what a way to celebrate: with the launch of the handsome trade paperback edition of Deep Time by innovative Stroud-based publisher, Hawthorn Press. The dress code was ‘tropical’ and some guests had made a real effort with the costumes. We were invited from 7pm although things didn’t really kick off officially until nearly 9pm – Anthony wanted people to have plenty of time to mingle and browse the book, or rather books, as it was a double book launch – the other title, Ecozoa, published by Permanent Publications, is the new collection by radical Frome-based eco-poet, Helen Moore (another dear friend from my Bath days). Anthony, in his typically gracious way, shared the limelight with Helen – their work was thematically simpatico, and she also celebrated her birthday – as well as with other bardic friends. David Metcalfe, long-time host of the Bath Storytelling Circle MC ed the evening with his usual gravitas, starting with the crowd-pleasing Big Yellow Taxi (setting the ecobardic tone of the evening). Local poet singer Jehanne Mehta – another birthday girl (on the actual day itself – Helen and Anthony’s straddle either side of it) recited a couple of stirring poems about Albion (another Blakean nod) and Wales. Poet and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay introduced Helen most eloquently and passionately. Helen performed 4 poems from the collection, one from each ‘zoa’ (the collection is structured on the 4 Zoas of Blake) with her trademark sincerity and clarity.

Some of the glamorous inhabitants of the Ecozoic - poet Helen Moore (centre) with friends. By Kevan Manwaring

Join the Party! Some of the glamorous inhabitants of the Ecozoic – poet Helen Moore (centre) with friends. By Kevan Manwaring

Then fellow Bath Spa lecturer Mimi Thebo introduced Anthony, singing his praises, before Anthony introduced the book and the long journey of its evolution. Jay was invited back up to recite his epigraphic poem, before Anthony regaled us with an extract recited, impressively, from memory. Holding the book like some peripatetic preacher wielding his bible for authority (as John Wesley probably did, preaching from a butcher’s block in the Shambles, when he used to pass through Stroud), Anthony conjured up his vision of deep time with conviction and storytelling brio. He held the audience spell-bound. Some earlier drumming by Jay and local artist Herewood Gabriel evoke some kind of tribal aesthetic, and Anthony’s word-sparks now conjured up the story fire of the rainforest, the textual simulacrum of such now brought to life with his living breath. Afterwards, glasses were charged for some heartfelt toasts – to his publishers and to his parents, most poignantly his mother, whose ill health prevented her from attending. Anthony’s father took to the stage to share the embryo text from Anthony’s childhood palaeome. Finally, David finished off with his stirring version of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’. And then the revels continued for a little while longer – dinosaur cupcakes were to be imbibed (raising money for a children’s’ cancer charity) and hearty Adnams ale from Southwold, courtesy of Kirsty’s generous stepfather, Dave. There was much clearing up but many hands made light work. The babies’ respective heads had been wetted, and guests departed heart-warmed by this double-birth spectacle, but more from the quality of love that poured towards the man at the heart of it all, enjoying the harvest of half a century.

Deep Time is available from Hawthorn Press: http://www.hawthornpress.com/books/art-and-science/deep-time/

Read Anthony’s blog (with guest poet from Helen) here: https://nansondeeptime.wordpress.com/

Ecozoa Cover

Ecozoa is available from Permanent Publications: http://permanentpublications.co.uk/port/ecozoa-by-helen-moore/

The Golden Room

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

On the 24th June, 1914, two days before the birth of Laurie Lee, a famous literary gathering took place in Gloucestershire. Just outside the village of Dymock, a group of friends met at The Old Nail Shop – the home of Wilfrid Gibson and his wife. Also present were fellow writers Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. There they shared their poetry, their words, their wit and wisdom and dreams. They went on to inspire each other to write some of the best-loved poems in the English language (‘Adlestrop’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘The Soldier’ among others), many of which first saw light in their self-published anthology, New Numbers. They became known, years later, as The Dymock Poets. That first night was immortalised by Gibson in his poem ‘The Golden Room’ and on Saturday modern writers (many of them from Stroud and Gloucestershire) gathered in the Subscription Rooms to celebrate their legacy.

The day was co-organised by Stroud-based poets Kevan Manwaring and Jay Ramsay, with the former arranging the daytime programme of speakers and presentations, and the latter, the evening showcase of poetry and music.

The day started with a keynote speech from Chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets, Jeff Cooper, who had come all the way down from his native Lancashire to introduce the Dymocks. As he is the grandson of their founder, Lascelles Abercrombie, this was especially resonant.

Next we had Anglophile American Linda Harte (a long-term resident of Malvern), the author of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire, to give a more detailed survey of the Dymocks, focusing on her fellow compatriot Robert Frost. She brought with her rare editions of Georgian Poetry (the movement-defining anthology of the era) and a complete set of New Numbers.

After the break we had the first of two short films by Scott Anthony and Geoff Poole – evocative interpretations of the works of Edward Thomas in music and image, and a welcome break to overheating left-brains.

There followed an engaging presentation on editor and critic Edward Garnett by Anthony Nanson, related to Garnett through his grandmother Barbara Newstead-Garnett. This once key figure, who mentored major literary figures of the early Twentieth Century (DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, HE Bates, WH Hudson, and Edward Thomas among others) was justly brought into the limelight at last. Nanson emphasised not only Garnett’s perspicacity as a critic, but also his conviction that literary worth should be the chief criteria for publication, not commercial potential. This, and his championing of writing with environmental sensibilities, makes him an avant-garde and topical figure.

After lunch we were shown a film about composer and First World War poet, Ivor Gurney, entitled ‘Severn and Somme’, named after his iconic collection. This was made by Bristol-based film-maker Diana Taylor, who showed up just in time to answer questions about her self-funded, and moving portrait of the impact and tragedy of war.

Richard Carder, a composer and poet from Bath (Chair of the English Song and Poetry Society) followed this up with a presentation on Gurney and his music, giving several examples of his pieces – settings of the works of Thomas, himself and others – some of which Carder himself plays on in the recordings selected. Musicality and awareness of musical genres (folk, classical, music hall) run through much of the Dymocks’ work so this was a welcome addition to the day.

The final paper of the day was by Kirsty Hartsiotis, Curator of Decorative arts and Designated Collections at the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. She talked to us about ‘Cotswold Characters’ – focusing on Dymock poet John Drinkwater and his connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds in a fascinating and well-illustrated presentation which unearthed many treasures – some of which can be found in the Wilson!

The daytime programme concluded with a plenary discussion about the themes of the day. Creative fellowship is the main thread that underpins not only the Dymock Poets story, but also the very special Stroud scene, which this was largely the fruit of (and which the evening showcase especially illustrated). An environmental sensiblity (what Nanson, Manwaring, Hartsiotis & Metcalfe term ‘ecobardic’) and a strong anti-war sentiment were also perennial themes that the works of the Dymock poets convey to us across the century, making their legacy more relevant than ever.

The evening showcase, hosted gracefully by Jay Ramsay, kicked off with the hypnotic sound of the HangHang Duo – Barry Mason and Lina Lotto playing the Swiss hang drum. There followed an exemplary succession of strong Stroud voices: Adam Horovitz, Marion Fawlk, Steve Morris, Gabriel Millar, Jay himself, followed after the break by Rick Vick, Jehanne Mehta, Karen Eberhardt-Shelton, Polly Howell, and Anna Saunders (from Cheltenham Poetry Festival). Each poet took at least one of the poems of the Dymocks and responded to it in their own way – conducting a conversation across a hundred years. These creative responses critically brought the focus of the event into the present day – for these are (some of) the Gloucestershire writers living and working in the county today, and, each in their way, carry on the work of the Dymock Poets, especially through the spirit of creative fellowship which pervades in this remarkable town.

This long, hot day of poetry and colloquy celebrated a special gathering and in doing so created its own ‘golden room’ – and whenever kindred spirits and creative souls gather together and share their awen, that golden room lives on.


For Kevan Manwaring, co-writer (with Terence James) of the Dymock Poets screenplay, The Road Not Taken, this event was the culmination of several years’ interest. His ‘Dymock fever’ brought him to the county and he hopes that he and his fellow contributors managed to pass it on to the audience by the end of the day!

‘I feel inspired by the ethos and imaginative vision of the night and feel Stroud has a lot to teach Cheltenham. I’ve written two new poems since the event and feel that many of the poems I heard, have now influenced my own aesthetics.’ Anna Saunders, Director, Cheltenham Poetry Festival

Awen 10 Celebration


On Thursday night, October 31st – Samhain, Summer’s end, the time of honouring the ancestors, of death and rebirth, the Celtic New Year – a celebration was held in Stroud at Black Book Cafe to mark 10 years of Awen Publications. I founded the small press in Bath a decade ago with the launch of Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words (with proceeds going to the local Friends of the Earth group). Since the start Awen has been a community publishing initiative with an ‘ecobardic’ flavour – this quality was articulated by Anthony Nanson, who discussed the small press’ list. Anthony and I (along with his wife, Kirsty Hartsiotis, and David Metcalfe) were founded members of Fire Springs storytelling company and in our pamphlet ‘An Ecobardic Manifesto’, published by Awen, our creative ethos was explained – offering a ‘new vision for the arts in a time of ecological crisis.’ The performers who contributed to the evening’s showcase all exemplified these ‘core values’* – in their eco-conscious poetry, storytelling and music. I hosted the evening – kicking things off with a brief speech about Awen’s origins. There followed a packed programme: Anthony’s mini-lecture; poems for the late Mary Palmer read by Verona Bass and Jay Ramsay; poems of the late Simon Miles read by his brother (it felt apt to honour these two departed Awen authors on Samhain); next up was eco-poet Helen Moore from Frome; Jehanne and Rob Mehta offered a song and a couple of poems; then Gabriel finished the first half with her perfectly crafted poems.

The host and his lovely 'assistant' :0)

The host and his lovely ‘assistant’ :0)

After a short break we had a poem read on behalf of Margie McCallum, down in New Zealand (Awen is a small but our authors hail from Europe, North America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Then Dawn Gorman (host of Words and Ears in Bradford-on-Avon) read, fresh from her book launch in New York; Jay stepped up and performed a small selection of his poetry, including one of his Sinai sequence – aided briefly by Kate on rainstick; then Kirsty (author of Wiltshire and Suffolk Folk Tales from The History Press) offered a lively Japanese folk tale; before we had a sneak preview of work by two poets published by Chrysalis Poetry – a long-term initiative of Jay’s – Kate Firth and Angie Spencer. The evening was rounded off by the dulcet tones of Chantelle, who sang a beautiful version of the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’.

It was an emotive evening – the summing up of ten years’ of my life, of alot of effort (a team effort, mostly, with various talented editors, typesetters, and designers involved), and a cornucopia of inspiration. Under its aegis so many fabulous events have been held – book launches, showcases, forums, podcasts…

Awen’s future is uncertain – a dearth of funding and exhaustion on my part means it is unlikely to continue. But it is good to honour what has been achieved. Very rarely in life do we get a chance to bring closure to something – to ‘end well’ – and I hope that has been achieved.

I’ve been fighting off a cold all week, and promoting and running the evening took alot of energy – I feel ready to hibernate now, or, as I like to put it ‘smooring the hearth’ – preserving my flame through the dark winter days ahead, so that it can rekindled in the Spring – reborn with fresh inspiration and energy.

Five ‘ecobardic’ principles:     

(1) connecting with one’s own roots in time and place while celebrating the diversity of other cultures and traditions;

(2) daring to discern and critique in order to provide cultural leadership;  

(3) respecting and dynamically engaging with one’s audience as a creative partner; 

(4) cultivating the appreciation of beauty through well-wrought craft;   

(5) re-enchanting nature and existence as filled with significance.  

From An Ecobardic Manifesto, by Fire Springs, published by Awen 2008

Find out more about Awen at www.awenpublications.co.uk

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.

Blazing Bright in the Year’s Midnight

28th October-2nd November

James Hollingsworth setting the night on fire at the first Garden of Awen - photo by Crysse Morrison

Now the light falls

Across the open field, leaving the deep lane

Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon

(East Coker, TS Eliot)

Finally have a chance to catch up after a hectic few days of bardic busyness – it’s that festival feeling again, as a flurry of events occur around Halloween, the deadline of the year (in Celtic Tradition the festival was celebrated as Samhain, summer’s ending, and Celtic New Year – for Celts, midnight was considered the middle of the day, and so the ‘midnight of the year’ – as I feel Samhain is, more than the Winter Solstice, which has a glimmer of light, as the sun is ‘reborn’ – would similarly be its negative axis – the dark pole around which the wheel of the year turns).

As Mary Queen of Scots put, stitching the shortening threads of her alotted time: ‘In my end is my beginning’ and as TS Eliot added in The Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end.’  It is an Alpha/Omega time of year (although in truth, things are always ending and beginning – it just depends on when our awareness starts). With the nights drawing in, it feels like a shift of focus, a turning inward – nature hunkers down – but life, alas, has other plans for us human animals! Hibernation is not an option!

Wednesday saw another Guest Writers in Conversation with fabulous female poets, Helen Moore and Rose Flint talking at Bath Writers’ Workshop, the event I co-run with screenwriter David Lassman. Helen and Rose’s work and ethos shared some common ground but also has interesting differences – teased out through the insightful talk and critical response they gave. They both performed a selection of their work and answered questions from the audience. Another superb evening – it was fascinating to hear the poets talk about the evolution of their work and themselves as writers. Lesser know writers rarely get a chance to discuss their work in such depth and have a fellow writer interview them and offer an insightful response. Both are great poets – check them out!

Thursday, after an exciting test run of a beautiful Triumph Legend – my next bike! – I went to Bristol with David for the Cafe of Ideas, a monthly forum. I was invited to be on a panel discussing narrative with a bank manager, professor and BBC presenter. Held at Co-exist, an arts collective based at Hamilton House, the space was transformed with performance poetry, music and a buffet. A sister event (same theme, format and panel) will take place at the Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, on November 26th.

Friday I was a guest performer at What a Performance! – a monthly open mic held at St James Wine Vaults, Bath. MCed by Richard Selby, keeping the spirit of Dave Angus (it’s founder and original host) alive and kicking. The evening was dedicated to the writer Moyra Caldecott – in her eighties and now unable to perform her work due to a stroke. Moyra has been a great influence and inspiration on me – she has supported my work for the last ten years – so it was a pleasure to participate in this event to honour her. I read out 3 of her poems as well as my own 14 page epic, Dragon Dance (from memory). My fellow guest performer Kirsty was on form with her three fabulous tales – and there were many other great contributions.

A Bard and a Druid at Stanton Drew by Helen Murray

Talking to Ronald Hutton at Stanton Drew

Saturday I attended an OBOD open ceremony at Stanton Drew, a stone circle not far from Bath. It was very moving, as we were asked to think about those we have lost, and what we wanted to let go of. A pint in the Druids Arms afterwards  helped to bring us back into the land of the living! Later, for something ‘completely different’ I went to a ‘Halloween Chic’ party. It was interesting – two very different ways to celebrate the same festival!

into the barrow by Helen Murray

Entering Stoney Littleton long barrow - something watches from inside...

Sunday looked like it was going to be a washout but the skies miraculously brightened after midday and I went for a quick rideout to Stoney Littleton long barrow, travelling back five thousand years as I crawled into the narrow Neolithic burial chamber to remember my ancestors at the time of Samhain.


Anthony Nanson launches Garden of Awen with a spooky tale - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, 1st November 2009

Later, I hosted the first Garden of Awen at Chapel Arts Centre, Bath – an event I put on with Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson, whose Icepax Productions did the business once again. A guest, Rosie, said she had never seen the venue look so good. A Bath Spa art student, Jennifer, painted two great backdrops to help create an Arcadian feel. Foliage was festooned on screens. Green candles and poem flowers decorated the tables. Chapel technician Jonathan provided some snazzy lighting. Svanur brilliantly choreographed the acts: Anthony Nanson, storyteller, got things going with a gripping and stylish start with an atmospheric tale about a vampire. Nikki Bennett launched her new poetry collection, Love Shines Beyond Grief, with a bang (or a pop and a fizz – as we wet the baby’s head with flutes of Cava). David Metcalfe ended the first half with a powerful set of British death ballads and his spine-tingling poem, The Last Wolf. The second half started with a tune from Marko Gallaidhe, just back from Bampton Festival, but with still enough puff in him for a song. Richard Austin shared his poetry with aplomb. Marion Fawlk, also from Stroud, looked regal on the stage in her lovely velvet dress – sharing her deeply felt goddess poetry. The evening ended with a blistering set from guitar-shaman and sublime songsmith, James Hollingsworth. He was ‘resurrected’ for a stunning encore of Led Zep’s classic ‘In My Time of Dying’ – a suitable way to end our evening themed on ‘Death & Rebirth’.  And so, the 1st November, Celtic New Year, saw the birth of a sparkling addition to Bath’s literary firmament – a professional spoken word showcase on the first Sunday of the month. Writer Crysse Morrison, in her blog said: ‘

‘Great to see such an atmospheric venue join the local network of alternative entertainment.’

The Garden will return with its ‘high quality diversity of spoken word and music’ on the 6th December with an amazing line-up. Check out www.awenpublications.co.uk for details.

Meanwhile, I’m going to get me some quality zeds…

Sleepwalking on the Isle of Dreams

Iona Hostel,Lagandorain

Friday 11th September 2009

Sailing to Iona (ferry from Mull)

Sailing to Iona (ferry from Mull)

Arrived yesterday early evening on the ferry from Oban (via Mull). Beautiful golden light – the skies clearing as we approached the island. Smooth crossing after a bumpy ride on the Mull bus with a grumpy driver. The night before we had stayed at Anthony’s friend’s place – Peter, an old university friend, who was most hospitable – offering us a beer from his fine collection (I had a bottle of ‘Ossian’). His wife made a lovely meal, and the company was pleasant (another of Anthony’s old college friends happened to be staying as well – Andrew) but I was too tired to really enjoy things and went to bed as soon as dinner was over. It had been a tiring few days – with the preparation for the trip and the launch of Mary’s book at Waterstones the night before we departed – which was a big event for us.

Book launch at Waterstones, 08.09.09

Book launch at Waterstones, 08.09.09

Our trip to Iona is, in a way, a pilgrimage for Mary: last year I published her book iona and this year we are taking copies of her new book to the island – to the Iona Community Shop. Anthony has managed to arranged a reading on Tuesday night, so it feels like we will be honouring our friends memory in a meaningful way – it marks the end of the journey that began earlier this year. In January I suggested to Mary a collection. In June she died. Three months after her death we published Tidal Shift, and now here we are. We were asked to bring up a 20-30 books for the shop – we couldn’t quite manage that (!), but still 10 books each on top of all our kit made for a heavy load, and with the provisions we bought in Glasgow, even heavier. The worst bit – in terms of effort & endurance – was the hike from the quayside in Iona to the hostel, right up the north end of the island. Yet the evening was beautiful and was euphoric to have finally arrived on an island I have been meaning to visit for a number of years. I feel it was clearly not meant to happen until this year – in the wake of Mary’s death and the launch of her book it is especially resonant. What with my publishing Mary’s Iona collection last year and her Tidal Shift this year, and our planned reading on Tuesday it feels like we are participating and even contributing to the island – not just being ‘consumers’. Regardless of these connotations and plans, I wish to experience the island as itself and let it work its own magic on me. I come with no agenda or script. I want to open and receive, savour and relish. The island awaits to be explored, discovered. It is like a present awaiting to be opened.

May it also open me.

arriving at the hostel

arriving at the hostel

Stunning day of glorious sunshine. Walked with Anthony to south end of the island, via the Iona Community Shop, where we dropped off the copies of Tidal Shift for Tuesday. We lazily ambled along the coves, stopping often to soak up the sun. We had no map or itinerary. It felt wonderful, after days of intense, time conscious activity – meeting deadlines, etc.

view from Iona - north end

view from Iona - north end

We stopped at high bluff overlooking the sea around the southern end of Iona and had our lunch of soup and sandwiches, relaxing in the sun. Then we wended our way towards what turned out to be Columba’s Bay, where he apparently landed. Here we stopped to write on separate outcrops and ended up having siestas. Afterwards, we made our way back north, stopping on the Hill of the Lamb to talk about woundings – our conversation had turned in this direction after I mentioned how Columba was probably suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when he arrived in Iona, and guilt – having been the cause of a massacre of 3000 warriors in a calamitous battle back in Erin. He had chosen the white martydom – never to see his homeland again – as the ‘bay of the back of Ireland’ suggests. Perhaps he hoped that the isle of druids – the first place he made landfall – would purge him of his sins. He arrived, a man wanting to be shriven. The island worked its magic and turned him into the legend he is. Finally finding a track (we’d spent most of the day bog-trotting) we headed back to ‘civilisation’ – the tiny hamlet where a bar and a cold beer awaited. We couldn’t resist as we passed one by the quayside, where we sat on the terrace enjoying the Mediterranean climate and vista: turquoise sea, brightly coloured boats, dramatic mountainous backdrop. We were truly blessed on our first full day in Iona with one of the best days of the year here. We returned to the hostel in the ‘hollow of the otter’ satisfied and pleasantly weary. Tea and ‘tiffin’ awaited. As Anthony prepared dinner (taking his turn) I watched the full disc of the sun slip over the horizon – the end of a perfect day on Iona.

Saturday 12th September
Bay of the Woman of the Dislocated Shoulder

We both slept well and so were in better shape the next day, which was just as well. After a relaxing start to the day – no timetable, no rush – we packed some lunch and headed up to Dun I, the tallest peak on the island. Here we sat against the walnut whip-shaped cairn and read and wrote in silent contentment. Anthony read to me the first draft of a new poem, composed on the spot. I shared some musings and we discussed various literary arcana. Then we descended, following the north-west coast of the island around – wild and unvisited – a rocky terrain interspersed with spongy bogs across which we trotted. It was satisfying to just strike out into wild country, with no map, following no path. Of course, we had the reassurance that on a small island you can’t get lost. We stopped in a cove for lunch, laying back against a perfectly sloping rock by some ‘flotsam art’.

flotsam art, the pebbly beach

flotsam art, the pebbly beach

I got up and walked to a rock ledge, where I sat – enjoying the crashing waves, when something caught my eye – it was a stoat of some kind (a pine marten?) popping up its head from behind a ridge of rocks to my right thirty foot away. I froze and it deliberated whether I posed a threat or not. Thinking better of it, it retreated, but I felt blessed by the wild. We finally made it to Ban bay mid afternoon – a beautiful wide beach – the sand made of ‘granules’ of shells. Here, we took off our boots and socks and bathed our hot feet in the chilly Atlantic waters. We bumped into a Dutch lady staying at the hostel. Anthony had had a good chat with her and her friend Yvonne the night before. She wandered off as we went for a paddle. Then we saw her waving from the rocks. At first I thought she wanted to take a photo. We went closer – still I couldn’t make out what she was saying. Then we were within earshot. She had hurt her arm in a fall. I inspected it and it felt like something was sticking out, but not breaking the skin – a dislocated shoulder or a bad sprain, I couldn’t tell. I fashioned a sling from her scarf and appraised the situation. We had to extricate her from the awkward rock pool area she had trapped herself in, which took some doing. I went in front, Anthony behind. We had to wade through a slimy pit of seaweed. Fortunately nothing nibbled our toes and we made it to the sand. We sat her down on my fleece and tried to call – no signal. I ran up to the rise and tried again, to no avail. So we decided that Anthony would stay with her and I would go for help – so taking a swig of water, off I ran. Ali had left her hire bike by the gate back by the road – I leapt on this and pedalled furiously in search of help. I came to a house on the left – and ran up to the front, where an old lady was sitting outside, a local I ascertained. She was very helpful, ringing round – first we tried the hostel, figuring John there would have first aid, no luck. Fire Station – no response! She tried various friends – there was a nurse, but ‘she wasn’t in the first flush of youth’. So we decided to try and collect her in their car – Douglas, her husband turned up and was not flapped at all. He drove his family car back to the beach – I opened and closed the gates. He managed to get his car all the way to the top of Ban Bay. We helped Ali up to the car, and she was whisked off to the nurse, who it turned out had broken her arm recently as well! She couldn’t do much to help – the doctor on Mull was rang and they advised Ali was taken over on the ferry. Douglas instantly agreed to do this, bless him – and Anthony went with them, as Ali didn’t want to be alone. I took Ali’s bike back to the bike hire and caught my breath, writing a couple of postcards by the quayside. What an afternoon! So much for a relaxing siesta on the beach…but it was good to be there to help Ali. I wearily walked back to the hostel, and informed John – who was going to the ferry. He didn’t see Douglas or Anthony there so we assumed that A was stuck on Mull. Fortunately, he had got an earlier one back and was rendezvousing with Ali’s friend, Yvonne – breaking the news to her. Meanwhile I recovered over a cuppa. A new guest, a German guy living on ‘an island’ in Switzerland’ offered me the rest of his spaghetti – angels appear when you need them.

Sunday 13th September

One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone. (III, 8 )

Yesterday Anthony and I decided to ‘do our own thing’ – not through any fall-out, just to take it easy. As with all our decisions so far, we came to it quite quickly and effortlessly. One of the joys of this holiday has been the spontaneity and commonality of feeling. We’ve decided to do things in the moment and with ease. Having had three days together, the preparation and long journey up on top of the book launch made for a tiring schedule we’ve slowed to an island pace of doing things, the Iona groove. Although we usually wake around 8, and begin the day with a solo walk along the beach – as today (enjoying the glorious morning along an unspoilt stretch of sand) we haven’t been leaving the hostel til 10ish, often being the last. Today, I was even later – deciding to have a crack at my novel, The Wounded Kingdom, which has a section set on versions of Iona and Staffa. I sat in the dorm room (#1) and read through some of it on the laptop, tweaking and enhancing my description of the island. It was difficult to get into the zone with all the comings and goings, (3 older American ladies who had stayed in our dorm, one in the top bunk above each of us – Anthony, myself and the Glaswegian geologist – were in a flurry of leaving, to continue their 3 week tour of Britain and Ireland, turned out to be nature writers) but at least I made a start. That morning, before breakfast (porridge, honey & apricots) I walked to the ‘White Strand of the Monks, its beautiful name and appearance belying its bloody past: here in AD806 Viking raiders massacred 63 monks. As I went to urinate (the toilets taken over by the morning rush) I noticed a white stone in the sand – I picked it up. It was a smooth pebble of quartz – it seemed an apt souvenir of Iona, an island of ‘white peace’. I walked along the pale sand, taking in the vista of mountains and sea, slowly waking. I spotted some tracks that I speculated could have been those of the kind of stoat I saw yesterday. I tracked them as they wove along the beach, between the rocks. I reached a buttress of rocks where I recited my morning praise, glad to be alive. The weather here has been fair for three days now – and I feel truly blessed by it. Reaching the far point, I walked back through the long, dew-soaked grass, silvering in the waves of wind and sunlight.

Finally extricating myself from the hostel – it was a glorious day and it would be a shame to waste, though it was nice to indulge in some finger-tapping – I walked along the road to the Iona Community Shop opposite the Abbey, and waited contentedly for it to open at noon, it being a Sunday. Inside, I noticed with pleasure the lovely poster they had done for the reading Anthony and I are giving there on Tuesday. I purchased the excellent map of the island with all the fabulous place-names on. I scrutinised it with pleasure over a cup of coffee (‘cheaper than Starbucks!’ I had joked to another customer). With this in hand I headed back along the lane to the start of the footpath up to Dun I – from there I took a bearing to the Big Hill of the Querns, where I hoped to find the legendary Well of the North Wind. It was satisfying to strike out with a compass and a map by myself. Away from the main attractions, Iona quickly becomes wild. I didn’t see anyone for the next two or three hours as I made my way across the boggy landscape to the rocky outcrop of the Big Hill. Here, at the far end, I discovered the Well – a circular enclosure beneath the far western cliff. It could easily be mistaken for a sheep-fold. Perhaps it was, but I couldn’t see anything else that fitted the description. After enjoying my packed lunch I descended to it and made my ‘offering’ – a length of plaited material I had found. I asked for a blessing on The Windsmith Elegy, then I found myself singing a melody that rose up with conscious thought – two parts, alternating, interweaving. It would have probably sounded painful to the casual listener, but it felt good to do it, to give voice to the wind.

The Hermit's Cell, 'remote hollow', Iona

The Hermit's Cell, 'remote hollow', Iona

Feeling I had honoured Boreas, I went to the ‘Hermit’s Cell’, the remains of a roundhouse nearby: a low circular enclosure of stones, with a doorway facing South West (for maximum light). I entered and immediately lay down on the soft grass opposite the entrance and nodded off, feeling deep peace in this secluded spot. It seems I have spent the last few days having naps in beautiful places – it could be a new outdoor fad like wild-swimming: wild-sleeping. Could I get a book deal for a book about sleeping my way across Britain, as the late Roger Deakin did with Water Log and swimming? I could see why a hermit chose this spot – it lacks a decent view, hemmed in on three sides by rocky outcrops, but is sheltered and feels miles from anyway, when in fact, it’s only a kilometre from the Abbey. Yet it might as well be in another world – for the whole hour I was there, in the middle of the day, I saw no-one, even though its meant to be on the ‘Pilgrim Route’, the trail that loops around the island which I was trying to follow, but with clear signs, I soon lost it and found myself once more bog-trotting (another new Olympic sport?) as I headed southwest towards the Bay at the Back of the Ocean through dramatically rugged country. Somewhat anti-climactically, I emerged from this wilderness onto a golf course, of all things. Half the island seems to be taken up by its manicured fields – God’s fairway. I reached the glittering bay and flopped into a sandy hollow. By this point it was hot enough to go for a swim but it was too exposed and frequented to consider skinny dipping. Having run out of water, I was forced to head back to the village, retracing my steps from yesterday at a rather more leisurely pace. On the way I ended up chatting to a lovely old couple from Ayrshire, up with a party of fellow Christians. We talked amicably about how lovely it all was. I bid farewell to them at the quayside and bought myself an icecream, which somewhat restored me – enough to get me back to the hostel in good time to cook (my turn – curry) before the daily feeding frenzy started.

Highland Coo

Highland Coo

Of Stars and Toads

After our ‘Wetherspoons special’ of veg curry and lager, I freshened up and decided to accompany Anthony to the Abbey for the evening ‘quiet space’ service. As we left, the sky was a dramatic sandwich of dark cloud, orange horizon and dark sea, which reminded me, somewhat prosaically, of a Jaffa Cake. When we arrived, just before 9pm, the Abbey was lit up with candles and looked beautiful. It had been fashioned with local stone had a wonderful ‘rough-edged’ quality to it, no doubt partly due to its destruction and reconstruction. It was a painless ecumenical service, with little in the way of liturgy, the focus being on (mostly) silent prayer – although the reverent peace was challenged by my spectacular sneeze at the start, then further coughs, etc, from the congregation. I enjoyed the ambience, the chance to taste a little of Iona’s sacred heritage and tradition, and also the extract of Thoreau read out by the American reader, which seemed uncanny considering our encounter earlier that day with the nature writers (they claimed the US had given the world nature writing, something A & I amusingly debunked). The service was short and sweet – a nice end to the week – and as we stepped outside into the night we were greeted by the most spectacular star-field, at which we gazed in awe. It felt like the interior of the Abbey, with its rows of candles had been turned inside out and magnified beyond comprehension – and now we worshipped in the cathedral of the stars. We walked along the lane and passed St Oran’s Chapel, glowing in the night, from which emanated haunting plainsong in some Eastern European tongue. A large image of a saint could be seen, eerily, framed in the doorway.

St Oran's relicary, Iona

St Oran's relicary, Iona

We decided, on a whim, to go for a beer – Ali, having returned, arm in truss, from Mull, had given me back the deposit for the bike she had hired. So I bought us drinks with it in the third place we tried (the rest were closed) Martyrs Bay Bar, which was lively for a late Sunday. After a local ale, I sampled a shot of the local malt, ‘Iona’, hoping its medicinal properties would help the cold I felt coming on. We wandered back merrily to the hostel, talking about Star Trek. I spotted a shooting star and thought of a loved one back home. We came across two toads in the road – feigning Kirk’s unique cadence, I asked ‘Spock’ to attempt a mind-meld. Alas, this devil in the dark remained taciturn. We also stopped to admire a long-horned snail with our torches. At last, we were back in the ‘hollow of the otter’. Contentedly, but clumsily, I returned to our dorm while Anthony read in the common room. In the darkness I became the cartoon drunk, trying to clamber into my bunk, before falling effortlessly to sleep – even Anthony’s anti-snoring device of an umbrella failed to disturb me from my slumber.

Monday 14th September
Fingal’s Cave

This morning we decided to go to the world famous Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. The weather was overcast for the first time in four days, but the seastate was fine and visibility was okay and, despite feeling a bit grotty, I decided to go, accepting that the forlorn weather created a suitably melancholic air for visiting such a Romantic iconic landmark, immortalized by Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Mendelsson. We parked and walked down to the quayside to catch the Iolaire, which happened to have two spaces spair. The skipper was a charismatic Scotsman with a great accent and line in yarn-spinning. He had a good local knowledge, which he was happy to share as he worked his way around the boat. I was feeling ‘under the weather’, which I was worried would impair my enjoyment of the place, but as we raised anchor and put out into the Sound of Iona, my spirits raised. It was great to be sailing to a magical island. Along the way, we spotted baby seals on the rocks. Anthony, a keen twitcher, scanned the waters for the sea-birds: the shags and cormorants. Before I realised, we were there. I stood up and was greeted with a full view of the island: amazing.

Fingal's Cave, Staffa by KM

Fingal's Cave, Staffa by KM

From a wave-smoothed granite base rose the basaltic columns to a ‘head’ like a giant stone muffin, an island with elphantitus. It was weird – a mixture of the organic and artificial, like some alien spaceship. And the famous cave was dramatically dark and, well, sexual.

The sun had broken through at this point and created a dramatic play of light and shadow, revealing the variegated delineations of colour – black to ochre to rust, indigo to slate blue to grey.

The formation by the jetty was weirdly beautiful, the columns bent in every direction, like polyps on coral frozen in motion. It looked like a piece of modern art, the Gugenheim itself planted into the Atlantic, an Atlantis of art.

sculptural shapes on Staffa

sculptural shapes on Staffa

We alighted and made a beeline to the cave. Visitors nervously edged along the side of a narrow ledge that led a little way into the cave. An orange power boat took other visitors right to the back – I half-expected a giant eye to flick open and then a vast maw to open and devour them, but it was me who was nearly gobbled up! As I made my way along the line and stood looking in awe at the sight out of legend, one of the day-trippers brusquely pushed past me and nearly tipped me into the dark waters below with not a word of apology – completely unaware of his clumsy actions, it seems. I teetered on the brink, but the Cailleach didn’t claim me this time!

on the threshold of Fingal's Cave

on the threshold of Fingal's Cave

When the crowd thinned Anthony and I tried an awen. Our voices reverberated amongst the cathedral-like columns of the cave. It was a magical moment, spine-tingling. The rocks seemed to respond, come alive.

Anthony on the Wishing Chair, Staffa

Anthony on the Wishing Chair, Staffa

Afterwards, we picked our way back along the columnar stepping stones, stopping to make three wishes in the wishing chair. An old fella sat in it, looking content – further on, I’d asked him if his wishes had come true yet. He said he had been coming here for thirty years, so maybe he had – at that age (he looked ninety) another year of life might be all the wish you need. Then we ascended the steps up to the ‘roof’ of the island, covered with squelchy grass, but our time was running out. An hour isn’t enough to do the island justice, and reluctantly we made our way back to the boat. We were the last to return and I was the last to step aboard.

boarding the Iolaire, Staffa

boarding the Iolaire, Staffa

Our skipper put out and we left Staffa, admiring its stern flanks one last time. It had certainly been worth it, a dream come true.

seal pup seen from Iolaire - Staffa cruise

seal pup seen from Iolaire - Staffa cruise

Returning to Iona, we had tea at the Argyl hotel, being persuaded into brownies and shortbread by the Aussie waitress. Yet the pots of tea were capacious and it was pleasant to sit by the shore and reflect on our experiences, although serious writing was rather hampered by the chatty Lancashire ladies on the adjacent bench (A was able to pinpoint their accent – 15 miles from his hometown). A bought a couple of stamps from the tinshack postoffice – a wonderfully ramshackle affair – and posted my postcards, hoping they will arrive. Then to the Spar for essentials, before checking out the Iona bookshop, as elusive as Brigadoon to catch open. I wasn’t feeling up to serious browsing by this point and headed back for lemon and honey and the soothing tones of Jennifer Crook on my laptop.
Man Flu
Tuesday, 15th September

Down with a cold so took it easy today, staying in, nursing myself & feeling sorry for myself (Argyll Gazette: ‘Outbreak of Man Flu on Iona – island in quarantine. Vaccine of malt whisky and DVDs flown in. Girlfriends on round-the-clock breakfast & massage duties). Wrote this morning – well, worked on book. The weather had turned and was wet and miserable so felt quite happy to stay. It brightened up later, so managed go for a little walk around the headland after lunch and practised the poems I was going to read later for Mary – Anthony had managed to arrange a reading at the Iona Community Shop. I tried to save myself for this, having a very lazy afternoon. I cooked with our dwindling supplies. Then we set off. It went well – we had a twenty folk there, which for Iona is a crowd. It felt well received and very poignant to do – the end of a journey for us, in terms of the book’s creative arc, but hopefully the beginning of the book’s journey. We shifted eighteen (10 stock, 8 sor) so our bags will be a lot lighter going back! Leaving the shop in the gathering dusk, I felt unburdened. It is done.

Anthony & I after reading for Mary - Iona Community Shop

Anthony & I after reading for Mary - Iona Community Shop

16th September
All’s Well that End’s Well

Today we went on a final walk around the island. I was feeling a lot better – my head was clear and it felt like I had some life in my limbs. And so, in our usual way, we bimbled about and final left about 11 – but made a full day of it, not getting back to gone 9pm. We started off heading back up Dun I, to visit the Well of Eternal Youth, which is lodged in a gap in the northernmost crag. The setting is spectacular. We both drank – Anthony, being the eldest, went first. We both took three sips – I for youth, maturity and age. The idea of being young forever is not appealing. I think each age of a person’s life has appeal, like the seasons – we should experience them all fully. What is Spring or Summer without Autumn and Winter?

drinking from the Well of Eternal Youth!

drinking from the Well of Eternal Youth!

From one well, we walked to another – I lead A to the Well of the North Wind by the Big Hill of Querns, or at least what I thought it was. But closer inspection of the map revealed it was slightly further north. We managed to find it – a boggy corner under a rock – and was disappointed. Preferred my first choice. But it was still satisfying to locate it. We sat in the Hermit’s Cell for a while as well. Very peaceful – we imagined living there a hermit life.

Headed on to the Machair – the stretch of common land abutting the Bay of the Back of the Ocean, glittering in the sun. The tide was out. We sat and took a sip of water, then pressed on to the Bay of the White Stones, to have our lunch on a little grassy knoll in the lee of the wind, watching the spectral spumes of water from Spouting Cave.

writing stop, port of the white stones, Iona

writing stop, port of the white stones, Iona

We stayed here for a while, writing and reading. Anthony was clearly inspired and could have stayed all afternoon! But we had an island to circum-navigate, so onwards we went, ascending to the southern plateau where we navigated to the Cairn of the Back to Ireland, where St Columba was said to have done just that, turn his back on his homeland, taking the ‘white martyrdom’. Here we were content to sit in the sun, enjoying the dramatic views over the southeastern end of Iona and the shimmering sea beyond. Here we found peace and wisdom.

At the Cairn of the Back to Ireland, South Iona

At the Cairn of the Back to Ireland, South Iona

As the afternoon was pressing on, we headed east to the Marble Quarry in the southeastern quarter – a strange postindustrial site of Heath Robinson like machinery, rusting and broken, and gigantic piles of marble blocks, cut and abandoned, like some Maui-esque Easter Island cult.

Summoning our last reserves of energy we headed north across the Plain of Wine, dreaming of our evening meal, which we enjoyed at St Columba’s Hotel – a treat to end our fantastic week on the island. Tomorrow, we sail back to the mainland, and our lives – but we take a little bit of Iona back with us, inside.

waiting for the ferry back to Mull

waiting for the ferry back to Mull

The journey home was a long one – 18 hours – but it was made agreeable with Anthony’s company (we jokingly modulated our accents the further south we went – from hammy Scots to Brummie!) and gave us a chance to reflect on our time on Iona. I arrived at Bath Spa station – after 2 ferries, 2 buses and 4 trains – at midnight. Wearily, I lugged my pack home, knowing at 5am I had to be up to get to Stonehenge to run a ceremony for Jamie George of Gothic Image tours – no rest for the bardic! Although it was an effort, the morning was cold, clear and beautiful and to return to England in such a manner, from Iona to Stonehenge, felt a privilege and gentle reintroduction to the wheel – from one sacred site to another, from the Island of Stones, to the Great Circle of Stones. I blatted back along the virtually empty pre-rush hour roads, had a long soak to thaw out the chill of the dawn and then dived into my delightful bed to blissful oblivion, glad to be finally back home.

Iona - a place of peace

Iona - a place of peace

Bardic Birthday Bash

40th Birthday Bardic Showcase

22nd August

the green man at 40 - birthday bash, Bath

the green man at 40 - birthday bash, Bath

Oh, my head…!

I turned forty last Wednesday (had a lovely dinner party in my garden with close friends) and decided to push the boat out with a big bash at Chapel Arts Centre on Saturday. Having had a few quiet birthdays, I mulled over how I would like to spend my fortieth and decided that I could think of no more agreeable a way of celebrating than having a bardic showcase featuring my friends, and so, with this in mind I set to work.

I planned it months in advance, but as ever, everything seemed to need doing at the last minute. After a fraught week it all fell into place.

My good friend from Iceland, Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson secured the venue, prepared the buffet and MCed the evening – what a giant! He had returned from his homeland the day before (I half expected a beard rimed with hoar-frost, fresh back from the ‘land of ice and snow’ but he was, as ever, freshly shaven ;0) We caught up over a quick drink at the Brazz and then…we set to work.

While we ‘hunted and gathered’ for the buffet in the sterile wilderness that is Sainsburys, Jonathan the venue manager for the night set up the sound and lights.

Everything was prepared, ready – and looking great (cabaret style seating, atmospheric lighting, a showreel of embarassing photos, good tunes…) by the time the first guests arrived.

And the party began!

Svanur introduced the evening and got everybody to sing happy birthday to me in Icelandic!

Happy Birthday in Icelandic - courtesy of Svanur

Happy Birthday in Icelandic - courtesy of Svanur

Then I came on and did a couple of ‘old classics’ of mine: Maid Flower Bride (for all the women who’ve blessed my life – and had to put up with me!) and One with the Land (my green man poem – for all the guys). I got everyone to join in on the second one – and it seemed to work. Relieved of my bardic duties, I then got down to the serious business of making merry.

I sat back and was entertained by my dear, talented friends…

Jay Ramsay, poet and psychotherapist from Stroud, did some wise and heartfelt poems, delivered with complete authenticity and passion.

Brendan the pop poet, and 6th Bard of Bath did a couple of his classics on request.

Brendan the pop poet rhymes again

Brendan the pop poet rhymes again

Saravian, sexy jazz siren performed some lovely cool numbers.

Anthony Nanson, fellow storyteller of Fire Springs, performed an amazing feat of memory with his wonder voyage of Bran mac Ferbal. A lost island myth close to my heart!

Then … no Bard of Glastonbury, (lost in the mists of Avalon…?) and so we went straight to the break, as we were running a ‘bit behind’.

This was fine – allowed people to chat, for me to mingle with my guests and be inundated with more presents, rapidly filling up the front of the stage. Oh, and drink more champagne (mixed with mead in a dangerous concoction called ‘Druid’s delight’ – although after the hangover it gives me I think it should be renamed ‘Bardic blight’)!

Things were going swimmingly –  the second CD had kicked in, ‘Dancin’ Pants’ and the atmosphere was buzzing, the hall looking pretty full  – there had only been a couple of technical hitches. We couldn’t get the Chapel’s system to play my first prepared CD, ironically it was called ‘Let the Ceremony Begin’! And the projector proved temperamental – at one point the photo showreel disappeared completely and Jonathan struggled to get it back. He finally gave up, but suddenly, during the second half we had my desktop projected onto the stage. I struggled to relaunch the showreel – my cursor wavering behind the heads of the performers. Hilariously, I wasn’t able to see the image clearly as I didn’t have my glasses – so I just had to hit and hope and fortunately, it kick-started the photos again.

There was a fantastic crowd, but also absent friends – and I missed my dear old Dad (rest his soul), brother and sister not being there – but many of them were represented in the photos, which was an inadvertent portrait of my relationships/friendships over the years as much as anything.

Marko - a man you don't meet everyday

Marko - a man you don't meet everyday

After the break we had Marko Gallaidhe, a man you don’t meet everyday. He was somewhat caught on the hop and in the gap – while he made his way to the stage – everyone sang me happy birthday, which was very touching. I felt truly blessed.

After Marko did a couple of fine tunes (‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Between the Tweed’) Richard Selby came up and did a great story.

Another Fire Springer followed, Kirsty Hartsiotis, with a tale and a beautiful poem by her mum, inspired by me called ‘Bard Song’ (below), which blew me away.

Then, it was the turn of Wayland, who was delighted to see had made it down from his Smithy in Oxfordshire to perform a fine story. A former bardic student of mine – he has come into his own as a good performer.

The first of a pair of friends from Northampton came next, Jimtom Say – a true shaman bard who shared some of his incredible poetry and a song.

Peter Please was next on, but was nowhere to be seen – but then he turned up right on cue, just arrived from his singing group … and, a true pro, was able to go right on stage and deliver his great stories.

Finally, it was the turn of my oldest friend, Justin, who delivered a blazing set of poetry and music, culminating in a poem especially written for me, for my big day – based (bizarrely, but brilliantly) upon the Billy  Joel tune ‘He Didn’t Start the Fire’: ‘2009: A Kevan Odyssey’! Hilarious and impressive:

‘He didn’t start the fire, but he his Bardic learning helped me keep it burning.
He didn’t start the fire, but he helped me light it … though I tried to fight it.’

(J. Porter, after B. Joel)

Justin gets his groove on - Birthday Bash, Bath

Justin gets his groove on - Birthday Bash, Bath

I thanked everyone and then … it was time to dance! I was looking forward to this and it was great to ‘cut some rug’, even if we risked looking like the adults that were embarrassing to watch dancing when you were a kid! But that’s was all part of an old git rites-of-passage I guess!

It was great to get down with my friends.

you can dance if you want to...

you can dance if you want to...

Alas, all good things …. after a few stomping tunes, we’d passed the curfew and the music was turned down – but I had allowed for this, arranging to go around the corner to the Lounge. About twenty of us left for this ‘promised land’ – Sara insisted I led my merry band, mead horn in hand. We piled downstairs, where we took over the room. Unfortunately the music was rather jarring – hard techno – so I went back to get my CDs only to discover their machine ‘couldn’t play them’. Instead, Marko did a rousing ballad after I had revived him with a glass of wine. And then Justin led the Southern Baptist song ‘Down to the River’, which we all joined in with in a drunken religious fervour! It felt like the foundation of some kind of guerilla folk republic – but it was short-lived, as the music came back on. Fortunately, this time it was decent Latin Jazz, and suddenly we were up dancing. It was a great way to end the evening. After that, things went downhill – J got a round of tequilas in, then knock them over before we could knock them back. Maybe should have seen that as a sign…It was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had to be helped home – the guys managed to get a taxi to take me after some difficulty. I somehow got home and into bed – it’s all a blur…

The next day, I suffered…In the immortal words of Withnail ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head’. A weak, pathetic bed-ridden thing unable to hold anything down or even hold a conversation for long, I wallowed in my self-inflicted misery. Fortunately, the guys got it together (three of them had crashed in my living room). My old friends Justin and Jimtom went back to clear the place and collect my stuff – stars! – amazingly I hadn’t lost anything in my drunken stumblings. They dropped Wayland off at the station – and hit the roads themselves … onto another party!

I went to bed.

Yet, despite my sufferings – it had all been worth it. Without a doubt, one of the best night’s of my life. I glow with happiness at the memory of it all. Never had I felt so truly blessed. It felt like the first forty years of my life had … meant something.

That evening, slowly recovering, I savoured opening the many presents I had been showered with. I have a pile of beautiful things, for which I am deeply touched, but, of course, true friendships forged (old and new) are the greatest gift of all.

To all those who made the effort to come, and made it such a success – thank you!

PS there were many talented friends there at the Chapel – not all of them could perform, but I would like to share some of the beautiful words they gave me (stars all):

To Bardic Kevan

Shaman of his clan,

word spinner,

story weaver

from the warp and weft

of Celtic love.

Miner of the Loadstone

of Arcana,

May you wear

your star studded

cloak of wisdom

with youthful ease,

even as this birthday

heralds a milestone

in your timeline.

Brian Goodsell

Stuff and Nonsense

‘They’ say that life begins at forty

but ‘they ‘are really rather naughty

for life, we know, starts on day one

and only ends when all the fun

and games are well and truly done

No-one can say when that will be

It is the greatest mystery

of many that elude our knowing

so all our days can be spent growing

and intimations of mortality

serve just to make us feel more free

forty’s not old if you’re a tree!

‘live in the moment’, ’embrace the now’

though nobody can tell you how

it’s no rehearsal one time show

you write the script, as you well know

So I hope today we’ll celebrate

and dance and sing until it’s late

and night brings sleep and golden dreams

and all that is and isn’t seems

to melt into a tale of things

yet to be told by Kevan Manwaring…

…within these pages perhaps

Happy Birthday!

Yvonne (accompanying a lovely journal)

Bard Song

He sings the song of the earth.

Finds among the rocks a small seed,

nurtures and tends

and from it grows

The tale.

Rooted and strong limbs stretching,

Reaching, unfurling.

The words seek out the shy creatures,

Give colour to the flowers

And music to the hum of life.

He sings the song of the sea.

Words like waves

Rolling, flowing,

Tell the tale.

From deep and secret caverns

The bubbles rise and burst,

Rush to the shore

and sparkle, glowing.

He sings the song of the air.

Flying free, words like wings

Tell the tale.

Up over the green earth

Over the blue, grey sea.

As one.

He sings the song of the world.

Brings life into the earth song,

Finds depth in the sea,

Spills light into the air song.

And gives, of himself,

The tale.

To Kevan, Happy Birthday from Cherry Wilkinson

Licking the Toad

16th-22nd May

It’s been a busy week of teaching and barding about. I’ve been running creative writing workshops at King Edward’s School (est. 1552!) around the story of King Bladud, for a Bath Fringe 2009 event, King Bladud’s Pageant, a celebration of Bath’s legendary founder to coincide with the Bath Pageant, an enormous event that took place in Sydney Gardens in 1909. Hundreds of local people joined in, as can be seen from the fabulous photos. It’s a shame B&NES Council didn’t get behind this event and encourage all to take part. Richard Carder, the organiser, was originally refused funding but eventually managed to get some from somewhere – and so me and fellow poet Rose Flint got the green light to run our respective workshops. I was chosen to run workshops for Year 7 at Richard’s old school (where he taught music for many years). Rose ran goddess-writing workshops for adults and has written a libretto to be performed on the day. In Parade Gardens on the 7th, between the start at The Circus at noon and the concert in Chapel Arts Centre at 3pm, I’ll be performing extracts from my poem Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath, which won me the Bardic Chair of Bath in 1998. It has been republished by awen in a special 10th anniversary edition which includes my prize-winning short story, Taking the Waters – deemed so controversial Le Bath Chronic was too scared to publish it!

Bath Pageant 1909

Bath Pageant 1909

Monday evening I went along to the Bath Storytelling Circle at the Raven – I wasn’t hosting this month, although I collected performers’ names before Anthony arrived, who was on MC duties tonight. The last guy I asked, a classic grumpy old man, wanted to know ‘what was I selling’ – duh, it’s a free event! I was offering him a chance to perform at our volunteer-run evening… Ah, well. Some people have their own ‘scripts’ and no matter what you say, they only hear what they want to hear. I performed an Irish eco-myth, The Yew Tree of the Disputing Sons. There were fine contributions from Anthony, Richard, Marks I & II, Verona and others. Inspirational local author Moyra Caldecott, frustratingly limited in her speech now due to age-related symptoms, asked me to read out a poem for her:


I lie


in the green cocoon

of my garden

spun of sunlight

and leaves…


to be born.

Tuesday I did another session at King Edwards, getting the kids to write poetry on the theme of flight, to link in with the lesser known aspect of the Bladud story. In the evening I blatted over to Chew Valley School to run my creative writing workshop there for adults. A good session, but I wished I could have been at the Bardic Finals in Glastonbury (when the new Bard of Glastonbury was chosen) but there you go. No rest for the self-employed.

Wednesday, I had my last session with members of BEMSCA, (Bath Ethnic Minority Citizens Association) at Fairfield House, where Emperor of Ethiopia and Rastafarian god, Haile Selassie, stayed during his time of exile (1936-1941). I had been asked to help them produce a booklet of the members’ life writing (all first generation, post WW2 immigrants). They all have incredible stories to tell – and many of them were keen to tell me! I was shown lots of photos – some very old and rare – of numerous relatives and achievements. It was touching and I felt privileged to be allowed a window into their world, to be trusted with their treasures, their precious memories. When the book, Life Journeys, is ready there will be a launch at Fairfield House. I hope to be there to celebrate the residents’ achievement, which is in small measure because of the hard work of the staff there and Norton Radstock College’s support (they’ve been running IT sessions there since last Autumn – and now they’re all surfing the web). Quite rightly, it has become an award-winning project.

Wednesday evening I ran the Bath Writers’ Workshop at the New Inn. This has been going well since we moved to our new home in January – the snug bar of a great back street pub – and since I joined forces with the inimitable Mr David Lassman, esq., master self-publicist and screen-writer. Next week, for our monthly Fourth Wednesday session, we have 2 guest writers in conversation: fantasy novelist Jessica Rydill and Chrissy Derbyshire, whose first collection, Mysteries, I published last year thru Awen.

Thursday I turned to my stack of marking from the Open University – for A215 Creative Writing – I had hoped it might have diminished if I ignored it long enough, but no, it was still there…like a squat toad, waiting for me to snog it. I hoped its inky skin would have edifying properties.

Somehow, amidst all this I have been able to make significant inroads into my new novel, the fifth and final Windsmith novel, The Wounded Kingdom – about 9000 words. This is all that keeps me sane! As long as I can write every day I feel as though I am honouring my own creativity.

All I need now is an agent who gets me a five book deal…

Tonight, though, it’s the opening of the Bath International Music Festival with a big free Party in the City – time to dance in the streets!