Tag Archives: bardic

Singing into the Storm

Image from Natural World Photography

I had postponed the inevitable for as long as possible – seeking refuge in a pub in Ullapool to escape the high winds that were pounding Ardmaire Point, site of a popular Caravan and Camping Park, that stuck its beak out into Loch Carnaird towards Isle Martin, and the Summer Isles beyond. Although it was tempting to stay for a dram, I was on the bike, and fatigued from a long, epic ride 170 mile ride along the North Coast 500 from John o’ Groats. I had nursed my single pint of Black Sheep as long as possible, but the light was going and so I zipped up and headed into the damp dusk.

Back on site I accepted my lot – to spend the night in my 2-man tent in the middle of a gale. It was like being inside a paper bag continually being flicked by a bored school-boy. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, as Shakespeare put it. They kill us for their sport. Here though I felt (yet again) at the mercy of the Cailleach, the Mountain Mother. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to survive a night in a small tent in a storm. When walking the Coast-to-Coast last year I experienced ‘tempest camping’ on the exposed Blakey Ridge in my tiny ‘coffin’ tent. Knowing I had weathered that storm gave me some ballast. I recalled my strategy: you have to surrender to it. There is no point fighting a storm – it is stronger than you. It is in charge. You just have to yield yourself to its elemental might.  Laughing at the craziness of trying to camp in such conditions, I cracked open a bottle of Dark Island (a delicious Orkney ale), and entertained myself with singing, digging into my repertoire of walking songs, which I’ve accumulated over my annual long-distance walks. I found this to be a fine way to keep my spirits up. On long slogs it keeps you going, and in this instance, it felt like a way of not only surrendering to the storm, but celebrating it. Getting a little merry and singing my heart out into the dark felt slightly bosky – but exhilarating. I picked songs that seemed appropriate: David Dodds ‘Magpie Song’; Chantelle Smith’s version of ‘Mist-Covered Mountains of Home’; Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’; John Martyn’s version of ‘Spencer the Rover’; Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’; Swarbrick and Thompson’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’. I bellowed them out above the howling wind and they probably sounded awful to my neighbours (sorry!), but it felt great to do. I didn’t have any comments or complaints in the morning, so I suspect the din of the gale mercifully drowned out my drunken warblings.

Apart from recommending this as an unorthodox bardic survival technique (!), and because it feels life-affirming and fun, I would like to extend the metaphor of this – singing into the storm – to life in general, especially during these dark times. We are face with a ‘perfect storm’ of multiple threats (in the United Kingdom: the triple wave of Covid-19; Brexit; and Climate Chaos), and although we must not deny them, indeed we must do everything we can to prevent them, prepare for them or ameliorate them, I think to give up our creativity is to snuff our the flame of if not civilisation, then our humanity. For we are more than just survival machines. The songs, stories, and poems of our ancestors flow through us, and we can create new art, new life, every day – celebrating the miracle of our sheer existence and the beauty of the manifest world. The darkness encroaches and the storms of the world gather strength. Let us keep our frail flames alive, and sing, sing into the howling night. While even one of us refuses to fall silent – with our creative outpourings in the face of the overwhelming forces – the stultifying forces of philistine Neoliberalism will not have won.

Shaking the Silver Branch

 

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The foliate mouth, Kevan Manwaring 2016

 

Twenty five years ago I published my first collection of poetry, Remembrance Days, which celebrated the wheel of the year. It was crudely produced, typed up in upper case (why? Was the shift key on my typewriter stuck?), photocopied and stapled together, and yet three of the poems within it – The Bride of Spring, One with the Land and Summer’s Wake – I still perform today. I had worked late into the night high in the ‘art block’ of Coventry Polytechnic typing it out … one finger at a time (no wonder it took so long!). By the time I was finished I found myself locked in. Everyone else had gone home and I had spend the sleeping under my desk to be awoken in the morning by the cleaner’s vacuum cleaner humming near my head. An auspicious start! My first print run was modest – I printed 20 copies off to force upon friends and family as Yule presents; and have been inflicting similarly ever since, albeit with better production values. Over the following two and half decades I have put together around a dozen such collections – from chapbooks to professionally published volumes. To celebrate this anniversary I have decided to gather together all of my bardic poems together in one volume, entitled Silver Branch, it is to be published by Awen next year. I discovered very early on that few people are willing to read poems from an unknown poet, so the best way to ensure an audience is to perform them – which I started to do at ‘open mics’. I quickly realized that learning them by heart is far more effective than merely reading them out – there is no barrier between you and the audience, and there is a level of kudos about committing work to memory. Folk appreciate the effort. So, the essential criteria for this next collection – what defines them, in my mind, as bardic poems – is the fact they have been performed in public, from memory, at some point. And many were written with that in mind – thus I embedded within them the kind of mnemonic devices that have served bards, scops, skalds, mimesingers, etc, for centuries: alliteration, assonance, consonance, end-rhyme, anaphora, refrains, imagery, and other kinds of oral/aural patterning. Some have been commissioned (e.g. Dragon Dance), some have been composed as part of a book (e.g. The Taliesin Soliloquies, for The Way of Awen), or for a larger collaborative performance (e.g. material for the Fire Springs shows ‘Arthur’s Dream’, ‘Robin of the Wildwood’, and ‘Return to Arcadia’). One sequence won me the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon (Bath) in 1998: Spring Fall – the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath. They have been written for protest (e.g. ‘The Child of Everything’, performed from memory spontaneously in front of thousands of people at an anti-GMO rally, on a podium by Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square); for celebration (e.g. ‘The Wheel of the Rose’, for a friends wedding in a castle in Scotland); for healing (‘Heather’s Spring, for a friend dying of cancer and used several times since); and for ceremony (‘Last Rites for John Barleycorn’, and several others in my previous ‘bardic’ collection, Green Fire). Common themes running through all of the poems include an evocation and honouring of the sacred as manifest in all living things; a celebration of numinous places and remarkable people; the passionate defence of the fragile web of life and the precious glory of this planet we call home; and a mythic sense of negotiating reality.

Poetry has been there from the start of my journey as a writer and it has informed everything I do. First and foremost it is an act of perception – a way of seeing and being in the world. I find it effective at capturing the little epiphanies of existence, moments of heightened awareness, of beauty and truth. It has enriched my prose, my performances and my life.

I look forward to sharing my awen with you. May it inspire your own.

SILVER BRANCH: bardic poetry by Kevan Manwaring forthcoming from Awen Publications 2017

www.awenpublications.co.uk

The Bard and the Bardic Tradition

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

As we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Swan of Avon, William Shakespeare, who died on his 52nd birthday, April 23rd, 1616, it is timely to consider his other epithet: The Bard. For many people this is probably their only association with the term. It originally denoted one of a tripartite caste in ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Britain: the druid (priest/ess; philosopher; lawmaker); ovate (Seer; healer); and bard. The latter became associated with the Welsh oral and literary tradition (and as Fili, in the Irish) where they lived on, preserving many of their original functions: genealogist/historian; storyteller; poet; wisdom-bearer; magician of words; and remembrancer. I would like to consider these in detail here and see if Shakespeare and his ‘complete works’ (chiefly the 37 plays penned by him in brief, astonishingly creative life) fulfill any of these.

Genealogist/Historian: The Iron Age Bard would relate the genealogies of the tribe – the ancestral bloodlines, stretching back through the generations, validating the claims of chieftainship, of a tribe’s association with the land it lives on. Shakespeare continued this aspect of the bard, drawing upon the pseudo-lineage created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 13th Century History of the Kings of Britain, for lives of the Romano-British Cymbeline and the mythical King Lear (the son of King Bladud of Bath, who is also mention by Geoffrey, but is not honoured with the Shakespeare treatment). Throughout his plays he raids the ‘myth-kitty’ for magical, folkloric elements (Herne the Hunter; Robin Goodfellow; Puck; Ariel; Caliban; the 3 witches; spells, prophecies, curses and customs) – the smoke and mirrors of theatre offering a sympathetic magic for depictions and deconstructions of enchantment. Yet much of Shakespeare’s uncanny shenanigans are framed by ostensibly historical settings, giving them verisimilitude. The uncanny and the actual jostle on stage as we are spell-bound by bloody history.

Through his History Plays[1], Shakespeare is, for many, their first introduction to the infinite complexity of English history. In his dramas, relating the rise and fall of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, we see recurring themes of hubris, madness, revenge, fateful misunderstanding, fatal flaw, nobility and infamy. The good, the bad and the ugly. He engages our hearts and minds more than any history book could – bringing alive other centuries in an immersive, full-bloodied way. Before hit TV shows and movies, before historical novels, this was the only way to time travel in Elizabethan England: The Globe was Shakespeare’s TARDIS. We visit it not for historical accuracy, but for emotional accuracy, for escapism, a ‘mirror to our times’ and a visceral experience.

Storyteller: Shakespeare is a consummate storyteller in both his plotting and characterisation. We would not remember his histories if not for the storytelling. For the way he brings these dusty figures from the past alive, gives them immortal lines that will live on in the English language long after we have forgotten who spoke them. Through his comedies[2] and tragedies[3] (some of which slip between the two) he reveals all the foibles of the human condition: the cruelty and kindness, pettiness and greatness, hilarity and horror – the whole gamut of emotion. He tells, through the particular, archetypal stories which have been adapted into virtually every medium and translated into almost every major living language – for they express something universal.  As though he plays the three strains of the harp – the bard’s classic instrument – Shakespeare can make us weep (Goltai), laugh (Geantrai) or soothe us into a peaceful sleep (Suantrai). So well-crafted are Shakespeare’s plots that they have been cannibalised by countless writers and directors either directly (e.g. the legion of adaptations of the plays in ballet, opera, TV, film, computer game, prose fiction or manga form) or indirectly (e.g. West Side Story; Kiss Me Kate; Kurosawa’s Ran or Throne of Blood; Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books). Even just a quote from a Shakespeare play can provide a drama or novel with imported gravitas and thematic coherence. Shakespeare oeuvre has become the DNA of drama, its coding interlacing with the genetic material of the author’s own imagination, creating endless mutant variations. The ‘Swan of Avon’ virus has permeated every aspect of culture.

Poet: Every line of his plays fizzes and crackles with poetry, to the point that it is almost pointless to select any examples. One simply has to read a page at random from his Complete Works. Metaphor. Simile. Alliteration. Assonance. Consonance. Metre. Shakespeare’s English shows what can be done with the language – it is multi-layered and exquisite to the ear. It takes a moment to attune to but when we do, we realize what a watered down version of our mother tongue we get these days. To drink deep from Shakespeare is to drink from the source.

So many of Shakespeare’s lines have entered the English language and imagination to the point that they have become as familiar and loved to our linguistic landscape as daffodils, chalk figures, Stonehenge, the village green, and ruinous castles by winding rivers have become icons of this ‘sceptred isle’. Here are only a smattering of examples:

“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” (As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I).

“Off with his head!” – (King Richard III, Act III, Scene IV).

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II).

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see”. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 6).

“Why, then the world ‘s mine oyster” – (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene II).

“What ‘s done is done”.- (Macbeth, Act III, Scene II).

“‘T’is neither here nor there.” – (Othello, Act IV, Scene III).

“I have not slept one wink.”. – (Cymbeline, Act III, Scene III).

We spout Shakespeare in our daily conversation but do not realize it, and we turn to Shakespeare – to his plays, to his sonnets – to help us fathom and articulate every permutation of the human heart, of which he is our most eloquent ambassador.

Wisdom-bearer: What distinguishes a bard from a mere minstrel is the deeper understanding of the symbols and meaning behind the words, the stories. Bards do not simply repeat ‘classics’, like a pub singer doing hoary covers. They have connected to the living reality of the story or song or poem, inhabited it, lived and breathed it, and embodied it in their daily lives. They are able to impart the underlying wisdom behind reality and offer an insight into the human condition. This is what separates them from the average wordsmith – the hack journalist, potboiler novelist, copywriter, political speech-writer – who push words around their screens like so many fridge-magnets, never going beneath the surface, the veneer they are creating. The bard conveys wisdom, not simply knowledge – a hard-won wisdom tested by life’s ‘slings and arrows’, by solitude and deep journeying. Shakespeare, whose life was struck by hardship and tragedy (e.g. the loss of his son Hamnet, aged eleven) does this time and time again. His plays dredge the depths of humanity and reaches to its heights. Even in the darkest scenes of his plays there is a sense of majesty – that is, in the sheer creative effort of learning lines, acting, choreography, set design, lighting, costume, music, directing, and active listening, one is glimpsing what humans are capable of when we transcend our differences and collaborate.

Magician of words: The classic bard channelled the awen (Welsh, f. noun, ‘inspiration’) the creative force behind existence, through their words and music. Shakespeare in his plays, in his poetry, provides evidence of this gramarye. He re-enchants language, gives it a spell-binding, incantatory, talismanic quality – one that could conjure worlds, draw tears and laughter from the audience, make us look into the recesses of our own souls and the fabric of our lives. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, we have, in the character of Prospero, an alter-ego for the playwright himself, adept at conjuring and dispelling worlds with his words:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot 2055
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice 2060
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder 2065
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth 2070
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 2075
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.   (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1)

Remembrancer 

Finally, I would add to the list of Shakespeare’s bardic credentials that of Remembrancer. Traditionally, bards had to learn an impressive repertoire of 350 tales, as well as grammar, glosses, oghams, orations and poems, over a 12 year training period. Before literacy was commonplace bards were the walking libraries of the tribe. They had stories for every occasion: wooings and weddings, births, battles and funerals. Shakespeare, as an actor, had to line a large and adaptable repertoire. His own company, The King Chamberlain’s Men, had to master many of his plays, his long poems, and other popular pieces of the time. As Polonius says, such as they are:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.

And, finally, with his incredible legacy, Shakespeare has inspired countless actors – from schoolchildren to veterans of the stage – to memorize and master his exquisite words. Whenever Shakespeare is performed live we experience the power of memory combined with the beauty of language. In this regard, the Shakespearean tradition is in effect a bardic one, a global bardic college which specializes in the development and dissemination of the bardic arts: word, memory and wisdom.

And so I would conclude that William Shakespeare, a priest in the Chapel of Memory. does indeed live up to the epithet of ‘The Bard’. And I do not think the definite article here is too presumptuous – for as an actor and a writer who skilfully straddled the worlds of the stage and the page Shakespeare showed he could ‘walk his talk’, and his incredible legacy – both prolific and of the highest calibre – qualifies him in my and many people’s eyes as the greatest bard that ever lived and wrote in the English language. And if his epithet makes the curious look closer at the origins of the word, and the tradition it denotes, then that is a many-splendoured thing too.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 25 April 2016

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

 

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

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.

North of the Wall: Eildon Tree

Eildon Tree

The Rhymer's Stone - marking the spot of the Eildon Tree. Photograph copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

The Rhymer’s Stone – marking the spot of the Eildon Tree.
Photograph copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Two slim trunks entwine like lovers.

Words, ripe as rowan berries

hang poised for the plucking

from the quickening air.

Here, at the Rhymer’s Stone

worlds meet

and poetry is born.

The sun shines its benedictions down,

a fey breeze stirs the trees.

A nameless bird sings,

is replied to.

Stillness after the city,

meeting the Muse for a coffee,

hoarse from the Fringe,

heartsore from love’s disappointments,

she points me the way on the battered road atlas –

three roads to choose from:

cairn or kirk or loch.

Roots snake deep into the peat,

draw up the sap of inspiration

conjured from the alchemy of

sunlight, rain, wind and night.

I lay like Thomas of Ercildoune on Huntlie Bank,

and the Queen of Elfland rides into view –

a woman cyclist in her lycra and helmet,

exchanging a bit of banter with two old characters

about the secrets of the gates

known only to them.

They had been sitting behind the hedge

putting the world to rights.

Had I overheard?

The Eildon Hills in the distance - and a visiting Bard on a Bike. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

The Eildon Hills in the distance – and a visiting Bard on a Bike.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Beneath the Eildons’ three peaks,

split it is said by a demon that

wizard Michael Scot confounded,

still to this day failing to make rope

from the sands of the Tweed,

the magical and the mundane rub shoulders.

The upper and lower get acquainted.

The unfathomable realms of man and woman,

the eternal mystery of their dance

come alive in timeless tableau.

Climb up behind the Queen,

let her guide you to her hidden kingdom.

The jingle of her rein sends you into a trance.

Long hair coiling, blood lips enticing,

the tendrils of her song

piercing your heart.

Follow her siren call

to the end of all that you know.

Be prepared to not be

the same upon your return.

The Rhymer's Stone photography copyright  Kevan Manwaring 2014

The Rhymer’s Stone
photography copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Kevan Manwaring Summer 2014

Oxford Folk Weekend

Kevan, Wayland and Dave perform at the Eagle and Child - drawing by Merlin Porter

Kevan, Wayland and Dave perform at the Eagle and Child – drawing by Merlin Porter

This weekend I rode across the Cotswolds to Oxford to perform some of my Oxfordshire Folk Tales with my old bardic buddy, Wayland. We teamed up with a talented young harpist and singer called Dave Tomlison on Friday night for a very special evening in the Snug Bar of the Eagle and Child – the Rabbit Room where the Inklings used to meet for 23 years, on a Tuesday lunchtime, to share the words of wonder. To perform in the very same room as those legends of literature, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others, was a lifetime’s dream come true. Kerry the landlady was most obliging – making us feel welcome and plying us with pints. Dave wove his magic with his harp, which helped to win over the noisy Friday night clientele. He did a couple of lovely ballads – and then I introduced the evening. We started our set with a shared version of the Rollright Stones – then alternated material. By the beginning of the second half we had a good sized audience who listened in enthralled. The awen truly flowed and it felt like we conjured up something special with tales of doomed love, white horses, vengeful smiths and rabbit holes. We left on a high, talking about possibly setting up a regular night there. The chemistry worked between our three voices and styles – a good mix. Afterwards, we had a well-earned pint in the Fir Tree on Iffley Road. We clinked glasses to a successful night!

Wayland and Dave in the Rabbit Room

Wayland and Dave in the Rabbit Room

The next day, a little bit groggy, we ventured into town – making the most of the glorious sun – along Iffley Road, passing scores of runners, following in the footsteps of Roger Bannister, who broke the four minute barrier there. It took us slightly longer to wend our way to the centre, we came upon Border Morris clacking sticks on Broad Street by a craft market. The Oxford Folk Weekend had begun and the colourful Morris sides were out. We made our way to the Old Fire Station – the centre of the folk fest, where we performed later that day. It felt great to be part of such a lively weekend of bardic excellence. With our artist’s wristbands we enjoyed some great music – including Jackie Oates’ fabulous  concert that evening. By then I was ready to nod off – it had been a full weekend, and a worthwhile one. Here’s to next year!

A Bard Day's Night at the Rabbit Room

A Bard Day’s Night at the Rabbit Room

Song of the Windsmith

‘I am the windsmith … I summon the air…’

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

A year ago, sitting on a cliff overlooking the Severn Bridge with my friend James Hollingsworth, we sketched out a show based upon my series of novels, The Windsmith Elegy. By a bonfire, we watched the sun set over the Welsh hills – it was the Spring Equinox. The awen flowed and ideas fell into place – using nine bones (boiled down from a five volume, half a million word novel series) we blocked out an outline, a story arc, around which songs (from James’ repertoire) would be woven. A year on and we have just come back from the sixth performance of Song of the Windsmith – the multi-media show which resulted in that initial equinoctial brainstorm. As the project developed other artists came on board – Jonathan Hayter, a shadow-puppeteer from Cornwall; Miriam Schafer, a belly-dancer from Munich; and Rob Goodman, actor and director from London. Each artist brought their own talent, experience and ideas; it was exciting seeing how they re-interpreted the Windsmith story in their own way. They took the initial inspiration and danced with it – in from these component parts we fashioned an ‘insane machine’ of Edwardian fantasy. Thus was born The Steampunk Theatre Company – our DIY, Heath Robinsonesque approach mutating my sometimes fey ‘visionary epic’ intp the trendy subgenre of Science Fiction, Steampunk (in brief, the past’s vision of the future). Suddenly we were as cool as Dr Who! Adopting a slightly whimsical approach, our motto became:

‘Backwards into the Future!’

Picture

The Lit’n’Roll show based upon The Windsmith Elegy – Song of the Windsmith – was launched at the Castle of the Muse, Argyle, Scotland, on 22nd September. James Hollingsworth & Kevan Manwaring, co-founders of The Steampunk Theatre Company, took the high road to the wilds of Scotland to perform a special preview of the show to a select audience of international guests. The response was overwhelmingly favourable. Here’s a review by Lilian Helen Brzoska

These guys are BRILLIANT Bardic Performers. James Hollingsworth is on the guitar, a wizard of flying fingers and glorious tones. He also sings spectacularly well. Kevan Manwaring’s ” Song of the Windsmith” is a perfect winged chariot for them both to fly, lifting through many spheres and dropping to the Earth’s Core with adept aplomb and engaged Heart energy. Kevan is a beautiful Being with great acting talent and a wisdom far deeper and wider than his youthful surface might predict, should you be hooked on looks. They are both beautiful to behold and deeply moving as they perform this mythic treat and mystical performance power-sharing to awaken the soul of each listener, each seer, each brother and sister Bard. If you get a chance to experience a performance of ” The Windsmith ” grab the tickets with both hands and take along your whole family. Your will all hear a very fine story told with Light, Love and Honesty. Teenage sons and daughters, will find older brothers with whom to explore the inner reaches of the Human Condition with warmth, political awareness and Eco-Centric Wisdom.

Visit http://www.educationaid.net for information about ongoing events at the International Institute of Peace Studies and Global Philosophy.

Watch some of the actual performance on Youtube here

After the premiere, we soared in our steam airship to the southern ‘hemisphere’ of the United Kingdoms. Anchoring our zeppelin off St Michael’s Mount, we performed at the Acorn, Penzance – this time joined by  ‘Ze Baron’, aka Jonathan Hayter, shadow-puppeteer extraordinaire – who VJed his lightbox puppetry with digital animation. Wunderbar!

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

A show in my home town of Stroud was essential – at Open House Hall. In the audience was Kim Kenny, from Theatre Gloucestershire, who said afterwards:

‘Surprising and refreshing – something I would like to see more of… I loved the music and how it underscored your powerful storytelling. The visual images too added another dimension.’ (Kim Kenny, Theatre Gloucestershire)

As a result, we took part in a Made in Gloucestershire showcase at the Cheltenham Everyman in early Feb. It was perhaps too much for the nice folk of Cheltenham HQ. We realised it was for a niche audience, ie one with imagination!

Picture

We ended the year with a performance for the Wessex Research Group in Totnes, organised (I use the term loosely) by our friend Jeffrey Gale. We hibernated over the winter, to rejuvernate our bardic batteries, before hitting the road last week for a very special homecoming gig on the Spring Equinox in Northampton – Kevan’s old home town – at a fab monthly bardic night hosted by my old partners in rhyme Justin Thyme and Jimtom. It was most touching to have some old friends in the crowd – folk I hadn’t seen for years. Out of all the audiences we’ve had so far, this lot really got it.

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Feedback from Raising the Awen, Northampton Labour Club, 20th March

‘music was superb, brilliant voice … was really moved by 2 sections, the love/bit/section made my eyes fill’

‘Brilliant, fantastic storytelling and music, very animated and original’

‘fabulous meandering monologue and mystical marvellous music, more more more!!!’

‘Interesting, and the music was great … when the music started I was happily surprised, so thank you.’

‘I liked the songs reminded me of The Who. Can see the whole thing being made into a bigger production with lots of visual. A very professional performance.’

‘Top quality. Excellent music and storyline.’

‘They can come again pleeeeaaaassse!!!???’ twice!

‘Swept away by the the words, music and song.

‘A magical story so perfectly musicated.’

‘Guitar Genius’

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

On the Saturday after (23rd March) I did a book-signing in Waterstones, Northampton. This was part of a fabulous Steampunk Season, which involves a month of related author events. The nice in-house events team did do some brilliant posters. Despite the lovely signage, footfall was low – kaiboshed by unexpected cold-snap. Wintry easterlies brought snow and ice – which made the ride home extremely challenging. Nearly got frostbite (I couldn’t move my hands at one point – not good on a bike!). It’s hard being a bard…

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Signs are out there...

The Signs are out there…

We have one more show scheduled (so far) in the Bath Fringe, June 9th – at a masonic hall! (Old Theatre Royal, Bath). After this, who knows where the windsmiths will blow next…? There is a plan to record the show for posterity – and create a CD or DVD of it. The O2 Arena gig will have to wait until we have finished making holograms of ourselves. Oo-lllaaaa!!!!

I’ll leave you with the words of our elusive Steampunk propheteer, Bartholomew Copperpipe:

‘Yesterday’s future is ours!’

Bards on the Wing

Cover by Steve HambidgeImage
Spring is sprung
The grass is ris’
I wonder where the birdies is
The bird is on the wing
But that’s absurd
I always thought the wing was on the bird
anon
Spring Equinox – the dawn of the year. Here, in the quarter of the east – associated with air – it is an apt time to consider my bardic series of novels, which are about to take flight ….
After half a million words and a decade of vision and dedication 2012 sees the culmination of my ten year project. The Windsmith Elegy, my five volume ‘mythic reality’ series, reaches its grand finale this winter with the publication of the final volume, The Wounded Kingdom. The series began in autumn 2002 – while studying Creative Writing at Cardiff University I penned the opening to what would become the first volume and my first published novel, The Long Woman. Under the tutelage of a very fine writing mentor, award-winning author Lindsay Clarke, I wrote 60,000 words for my  Masters project. I finished this over the summer of 2003 and in autumn 2004 the book was published with the support of The Arts Council of England – who funded a month-long book tour. In 2006, the second volume, Windsmith, was launched with support from Sulis Underground (who also generously supported a month-long tour). In 2009 The Well Under the Sea was published; and in 2010 I worked on the fourth volume, The Burning Path, while Writer-in-Residence in El Gouna, Egypt. This year, each volume will be reissued with stunning new covers and fully revised text, culminating in the launch of The Wounded Kingdom this winter. A tour is planned – I am delighted to announce that I shall be joining forces with guitar-shaman and sublime songsmith, James Hollingsworth, who has been working on a Song of the Windsmith. Watch this space!
For now, I hope you enjoy the tale of Dru the Windsmith, which started it all one rainy day in Eastbourne…

The Tale of Dru the Windsmith

Picture
‘When the monks of Wilmington had finished building their priory they set about their next task – to construct a windmill. For they had much good land thereabouts, and from it they reaped fine grain – and so they needed a mill to grind it, to make their flour, to bake their bread.   ‘The prior, who was a wise old man, thought it might be as well to invoke the offices of the Wind Smith, the surveyor of windmills. There was one who lived up on the Downs named Dru, who was a curious fellow – tall and thin, wearing a threadbare but clean white smock, a straw hat upon his head, wreathed with an oak garland, he wielded a staff in each hand, his sighting poles, and roamed the Downs, living off of beech-mast, berries and water from dew ponds. He was seldom seen, except when his services were required.‘At this the sub-prior, who was zealous and ambitious, cried out in anger. He condemned that vagabond of the Downs for not attending Mass, calling him idolater and one of the Devil’s own. Now, the old prior practised the tolerance he preached, and thought it best to build bridges with those who walk other ways. But the sub-prior petitioned his fellow monks and with their support persuaded the prior to let him have his way.‘So the monks set about building their mill, sighting it without consulting the Wind Smith, and when it was finished they were pleased with their handiwork. All was in place, and so on the next windy day the prior made the sign of the Holy Cross and with loud cheers from the villagers the miller-monk struck home the striking rod. But the sails did not move, which was odd, for there was a fair breeze blowing. The monks tried to get them going by hand, but still the sails would not turn. The windmill was examined from top to bottom and everything seemed to be in working order. They were baffled and out of breath.

‘Then the prior took matters in hand, sending a monk to find the Wind Smith. The brother returned to say that Dru would come in a week to ten days, which is an old English way of saying that he would come in his own good time! But, Dru had warned the monk there were to be no crucifixes or bells rung. “They upset my ears and eyes,” he said.

‘A fortnight later Dru the Wind Smith came striding down Windover Hill, and without a word set to work. He walked about the windmill, shaking his head, then started to pace back and forth across the hay meadow: plunging a staff into the soft soil here, then another one there – and sighting between the two. He would squint, tilt his head, stand on one leg, lick his finger, test the air, and then start all over again. Dru did this all day long, until the sun was low over the Weald and the shadows were long. Then finally he found the spot – hung his oak garland over the staff marking it, and walked off with the other, back up Windover, not asking for reward.

‘The monks ascertained from this strange behaviour that the new location had been dowsed, and so, with great reluctance, they dismantled their lovely mill, and rebuilt it, brick by brick and beam by beam, on the spot marked by the staff and oak leaves.

‘The mill was finished, and on a windy day the striking pin was struck home – and this time the cogs span and the millstones ground together. Success! Quickly, the hoppers were filled with grain – which rattled down between the stones, coming out as good white flour. The prior ordered for the bells of Wilmington to ring out in thanks, but as soon as their peal was heard over the meadow the windmill ground to a halt. One by one the monks returned to the mill to see what the trouble was – and as soon as the ringing stopped, the sails started to turn once more.

‘This was proof enough for the sub-prior that the windmill was indeed the Devil’s work. But the monks needed their flour, and so a compromise was reached – no milling at High Mass. Thus, this extraordinary situation became the routine – though little it pleased the sub-prior – and so it was for a whole year, until the old prior, ill in health, passed away. The sub-prior took over his mantle, and he hated the sight of the windmill – it mocked him from the meadow, a symbol of Satan on his doorstep.

‘One night as he tossed and turned in vexation he had a vision – of Saint Boniface, or “Bishop Boniface” as he was back then, famed for cutting down the pagan groves. He would send for Boniface, and the next day this is what he did. Seven days later a great ecclesiastical host was seen approaching from the west, and at their head was Bishop Boniface himself, in bishop’s mitre, wielding his golden crozier. The new prior welcomed his esteemed guest, lavishing upon him the best food and wine from the stores. After dinner, the situation was explained in full, and Boniface said, “This shall require only a minor miracle – but first, we need to celebrate High Mass!” The new prior wanted to explain that the windmill would not work if the bells were rung – but he wasn’t going to argue with a saint, was he?

‘As the bells pealed across the meadow Boniface strode to the mill. “Strike home the striking rod!” he commanded, and struck it with his golden crozier. Immediately, the sails began to turn. Rejoicing, the monks poured their grain into the hoppers and out of the millstones came good white flour. They filled sack after sack, until the all the grain was gone. Then the striking rod was pulled out – but to their horror they saw that the windmill would not stop! The sails turned, the cogs span and the millstones ground together – scattering sparks on to the flour-covered floor, threatening to set the whole thing on fire! They had to keep the stones cool, and so a human chain was formed from the well in the Priory, and pails of water were passed along it to douse them. But the monks could not keep that up for ever! What were they to do? For once, Bishop Boniface seemed powerless.

‘Then from down Windover Hill came Dru the Wind Smith. He stood on the edge of the meadow, shaking his head. “Back, Devil’s own!” warned Boniface. Dru just shrugged and watched as the line of water ran out. The well was dry, someone cried out. Red in the face, Boniface knew he had to ask for help. “Remove your curse!” Dru just stood there and smiled. The windmill was beginning to catch fire. “Remove your curse – and ask your price,” Boniface spat in disgust. Dru watched him, impassive. Boniface was desperate now. “Remove your curse and I will make sure you shall be remembered long after we are all dust!” Dru seemed to consider this, but wavered. “You know I am a man of my word. By the cloth I do as I say!” Dru stepped forward, raising his staff – he looked angry in the firelight. Boniface flinched, but Dru ignored him and began walking backwards around the windmill. Three times he circled it, faster and faster, until he stopped dead and struck his staff against the mill. The stick split in two and the sails creaked to a standstill. Then a great gust of wind blew out all of the flames and the monks off their feet. Dru looked pale and shrunken. He gazed at them sadly with his green eyes, then walked off, back up onto the windswept Downs – never to be seen again.

‘After the mill was repaired and working once more, Bishop Boniface honoured his agreement with the Wind Smith. He ordered the monks of Wilmington to cut out his shape on the side of Windover Hill, removing the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. And there he stands to this day – remembered long after Boniface and his kind became ashes and dust.’

FIN

Extract from The Long Woman, by author, Awen, 2004

With thanks to Derek the storyteller for first sharing it with me at ELF, and the late Ronald Millar, its creator.

Release dates 2012:
  • The Long Woman – 1st February
  • Windsmith – 29th February
  • The Well Under the Sea – 31st March
  • The Burning Path – 30th April
  • The Wounded Kingdom – 31st October

Bards on the Wing

 
Image
 
Spring is sprung
The grass is ris’
I wonder where the birdies is
The bird is on the wing
But that’s absurd
I always thought the wing was on the bird
anon
 
Spring Equinox – the dawn of the year. Here, in the quarter of the east – associated with air – it is an apt time to consider my bardic series of novels, which are about to take flight ….
 
After half a million words and a decade of vision and dedication 2012 sees the culmination of my ten year project. The Windsmith Elegy, my five volume ‘mythic reality’ series, reaches its grand finale this winter with the publication of the final volume, The Wounded Kingdom. The series began in autumn 2002 – while studying Creative Writing at Cardiff University I penned the opening to what would become the first volume and my first published novel, The Long Woman. Under the tutelage of a very fine writing mentor, award-winning author Lindsay Clarke, I wrote 60,000 words for my  Masters project. I finished this over the summer of 2003 and in autumn 2004 the book was published with the support of The Arts Council of England – who funded a month-long book tour. In 2006, the second volume, Windsmith, was launched with support from Sulis Underground (who also generously supported a month-long tour). In 2009 The Well Under the Sea was published; and in 2010 I worked on the fourth volume, The Burning Path, while Writer-in-Residence in El Gouna, Egypt. This year, each volume will be reissued with stunning new covers and fully revised text, culminating in the launch of The Wounded Kingdom this winter. A tour is planned – I am delighted to announce that I shall be joining forces with guitar-shaman and sublime songsmith, James Hollingsworth, who has been working on a Song of the Windsmith. Watch this space!
 
For now, I hope you enjoy the tale of Dru the Windsmith, which started it all one rainy day in Eastbourne…

 

The Tale of Dru the Windsmith

Picture
 
‘When the monks of Wilmington had finished building their priory they set about their next task – to construct a windmill. For they had much good land thereabouts, and from it they reaped fine grain – and so they needed a mill to grind it, to make their flour, to bake their bread.

   ‘The prior, who was a wise old man, thought it might be as well to invoke the offices of the Wind Smith, the surveyor of windmills. There was one who lived up on the Downs named Dru, who was a curious fellow – tall and thin, wearing a threadbare but clean white smock, a straw hat upon his head, wreathed with an oak garland, he wielded a staff in each hand, his sighting poles, and roamed the Downs, living off of beech-mast, berries and water from dew ponds. He was seldom seen, except when his services were required.

   ‘At this the sub-prior, who was zealous and ambitious, cried out in anger. He condemned that vagabond of the Downs for not attending Mass, calling him idolater and one of the Devil’s own. Now, the old prior practised the tolerance he preached, and thought it best to build bridges with those who walk other ways. But the sub-prior petitioned his fellow monks and with their support persuaded the prior to let him have his way.

   ‘So the monks set about building their mill, sighting it without consulting the Wind Smith, and when it was finished they were pleased with their handiwork. All was in place, and so on the next windy day the prior made the sign of the Holy Cross and with loud cheers from the villagers the miller-monk struck home the striking rod. But the sails did not move, which was odd, for there was a fair breeze blowing. The monks tried to get them going by hand, but still the sails would not turn. The windmill was examined from top to bottom and everything seemed to be in working order. They were baffled and out of breath.

   ‘Then the prior took matters in hand, sending a monk to find the Wind Smith. The brother returned to say that Dru would come in a week to ten days, which is an old English way of saying that he would come in his own good time! But, Dru had warned the monk there were to be no crucifixes or bells rung. “They upset my ears and eyes,” he said.

   ‘A fortnight later Dru the Wind Smith came striding down Windover Hill, and without a word set to work. He walked about the windmill, shaking his head, then started to pace back and forth across the hay meadow: plunging a staff into the soft soil here, then another one there – and sighting between the two. He would squint, tilt his head, stand on one leg, lick his finger, test the air, and then start all over again. Dru did this all day long, until the sun was low over the Weald and the shadows were long. Then finally he found the spot – hung his oak garland over the staff marking it, and walked off with the other, back up Windover, not asking for reward.

   ‘The monks ascertained from this strange behaviour that the new location had been dowsed, and so, with great reluctance, they dismantled their lovely mill, and rebuilt it, brick by brick and beam by beam, on the spot marked by the staff and oak leaves.

   ‘The mill was finished, and on a windy day the striking pin was struck home – and this time the cogs span and the millstones ground together. Success! Quickly, the hoppers were filled with grain – which rattled down between the stones, coming out as good white flour. The prior ordered for the bells of Wilmington to ring out in thanks, but as soon as their peal was heard over the meadow the windmill ground to a halt. One by one the monks returned to the mill to see what the trouble was – and as soon as the ringing stopped, the sails started to turn once more.

   ‘This was proof enough for the sub-prior that the windmill was indeed the Devil’s work. But the monks needed their flour, and so a compromise was reached – no milling at High Mass. Thus, this extraordinary situation became the routine – though little it pleased the sub-prior – and so it was for a whole year, until the old prior, ill in health, passed away. The sub-prior took over his mantle, and he hated the sight of the windmill – it mocked him from the meadow, a symbol of Satan on his doorstep.

   ‘One night as he tossed and turned in vexation he had a vision – of Saint Boniface, or “Bishop Boniface” as he was back then, famed for cutting down the pagan groves. He would send for Boniface, and the next day this is what he did. Seven days later a great ecclesiastical host was seen approaching from the west, and at their head was Bishop Boniface himself, in bishop’s mitre, wielding his golden crozier. The new prior welcomed his esteemed guest, lavishing upon him the best food and wine from the stores. After dinner, the situation was explained in full, and Boniface said, “This shall require only a minor miracle – but first, we need to celebrate High Mass!” The new prior wanted to explain that the windmill would not work if the bells were rung – but he wasn’t going to argue with a saint, was he?

   ‘As the bells pealed across the meadow Boniface strode to the mill. “Strike home the striking rod!” he commanded, and struck it with his golden crozier. Immediately, the sails began to turn. Rejoicing, the monks poured their grain into the hoppers and out of the millstones came good white flour. They filled sack after sack, until the all the grain was gone. Then the striking rod was pulled out – but to their horror they saw that the windmill would not stop! The sails turned, the cogs span and the millstones ground together – scattering sparks on to the flour-covered floor, threatening to set the whole thing on fire! They had to keep the stones cool, and so a human chain was formed from the well in the Priory, and pails of water were passed along it to douse them. But the monks could not keep that up for ever! What were they to do? For once, Bishop Boniface seemed powerless.

  ‘Then from down Windover Hill came Dru the Wind Smith. He stood on the edge of the meadow, shaking his head. “Back, Devil’s own!” warned Boniface. Dru just shrugged and watched as the line of water ran out. The well was dry, someone cried out. Red in the face, Boniface knew he had to ask for help. “Remove your curse!” Dru just stood there and smiled. The windmill was beginning to catch fire. “Remove your curse – and ask your price,” Boniface spat in disgust. Dru watched him, impassive. Boniface was desperate now. “Remove your curse and I will make sure you shall be remembered long after we are all dust!” Dru seemed to consider this, but wavered. “You know I am a man of my word. By the cloth I do as I say!” Dru stepped forward, raising his staff – he looked angry in the firelight. Boniface flinched, but Dru ignored him and began walking backwards around the windmill. Three times he circled it, faster and faster, until he stopped dead and struck his staff against the mill. The stick split in two and the sails creaked to a standstill. Then a great gust of wind blew out all of the flames and the monks off their feet. Dru looked pale and shrunken. He gazed at them sadly with his green eyes, then walked off, back up onto the windswept Downs – never to be seen again.

  ‘After the mill was repaired and working once more, Bishop Boniface honoured his agreement with the Wind Smith. He ordered the monks of Wilmington to cut out his shape on the side of Windover Hill, removing the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. And there he stands to this day – remembered long after Boniface and his kind became ashes and dust.’

FIN

Extract from The Long Woman, by author, Awen, 2004

With thanks to Derek the storyteller for first sharing it with me at ELF, and the late Ronald Millar, its creator.

 
Release dates 2012:
  • The Long Woman – 1st February
  • Windsmith – 29th February
  • The Well Under the Sea – 31st March
  • The Burning Path – 30th April
  • The Wounded Kingdom – 31st October

Bardic Yuletide

Yuletide Gathering at the Cauldron, Dec '09

Yuletide Gathering

19th December

Although I am not a Christian (but not un- or anti-) and Christmas means little to me in terms of its specific religious symbolism I can appreciate the wider mythic meta-tropes at work in narratives about the return of the light in the depths of winter – be it in the form of an avatar, sun king, solar deity, or simply the sun itself – and I enjoy Yuletide with all its festive trimmings. I love the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe, the tree, the candles, the wassailing, the rosy-cheeks of the carol singers, the shining eyes of the children and most of all – the gathering around the hearth and connecting with loved ones. Beyond all the consumerism and emotional blackmail (the Scrooge story hauled out every year to make curmudgeonly humbugs buckle) this is ultimately what the season is all about, as encoded in the message that is often forgotten in the stressful run-up to the big day: Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Mankind. A message often drowned out in the endless partying, the booze-ups and bust-ups, the relentless television and shopping frenzy. Yet I decided to try and ‘do my bit’ and acquit myself socially by opening my doors to friends last night for my Yuletide Gathering.

I spent the day preparing the house – cleaning, decorating (with holly and ivy I had gathered outside), making food, sorting out music and so forth. It was quite relaxing – especially the cooking: nothing elaborate, just a vegetable winter stew, mulled wine and mince pies. Once the fairy lights were up and I had hung the mistletoe and lit the candles and some frankincense and myrrh, I felt I had created a lovely Christmassy ambience. All I needed now were some guests … I guess I shouldn’t have expected anyone to turn up on time, but when it was 7.30pm and still no one had arrived I was starting to feel a little anxious … the nasty goblin in my head telling me ‘you don’t have any friends, nobody likes you!’ – then I heard footsteps and they all started to arrive. Suddenly the party was happening!

I served up goblets of mulled wine as folk arrived – wrapped up on a chilly night (it did try to snow earlier; and the country is beset with wintry conditions – flurries of flakes on the tracks!) and offered them some stew. Folk brought offerings and soon the kitchen surfaces were overflowing. After the majority of the guests had arrived and made themselves comfortable I asked for some peace to start a session of sharing – beginning with a poem about stillness, to tie in with the time of year. I talked briefly about how the solstice means stillness: the atmosphere changed, became ‘sacred’ – just through the simple act of going round in a circle and sharing. People offered poems, songs, anecdotes. There was a poem in Icelandic by my friend Svanur and a song in Korean by Jin (a government-censored protest song about ‘dew’). I ended the first session by getting everyone to read out a verse of Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, The Twelve Days of Christmas, from the Radio Times – very topical and amusing in places. It allowed those who didn’t have a chance to join in.

Later, I asked people to sit round once more to share the meadhorn – an ‘old tradition’ of mine, which actually has precedents dating back to the Dark Ages. It’s mentioned in Beowulf and in the 13th Century a custom was observed that involved toasting ‘Wassail!’ and replying ‘drink hail!’ before passing on the wassail bowl/meadhorn – with a kiss. Everyone joined in this with gusto – the first time, folk were a little embarrassed and came out with relatively trivial toasts, a little glib or silly. The second time it got a little bit more authentic, and the third time, folk were being far more genuine. It worked its simple magic. A powerful but effective way to create sacred space.

And then the partying started in earnest – whether it was the mead, or the tension release, but suddenly, dramatically the atmosphere changed to something far more merrier than before. Songs were sung and everyone joined in – corny Christmas carols, but good fun. There was some Icelandic blues (!) from Svanur and other ‘campfire classics’ like the Pete Seeger song, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ It turned out to be truly great night. There was the perfect amount of people there, and a good mix. Everyone seemed to get on and didn’t seem to want to leave…

The best sign of a good night is the atmosphere of the room afterwards. There was a lovely warm glow. Good vibes. Everyone was said goodbye with hugs and kisses. There wasn’t too much to clear up – the worst was tidied away, the washing up left til morning. It was late. Went to bed in good spirits and awoke with fond memories. – and a head not too fuzzy, considering. A good fry-up and a walk in the winter sun and I was feeling on top of the world.

Changing of the Bards

20th December

Jack Dean, the 14th Bard of Bath

On Sunday night I went along to the annual contest for the Bardic Chair, this year held at ‘Back to Mine’, a nightclub – another first! Each bard gets to stamp their identity on it. Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath, being our youngest to date (until tonight!) has appealed to a younger demographic with his hiphop style and topical lyrics. Tonight he pulled out all the stops to create an entertaining night blending poetry, music and dance.

The dancefloor ‘well’ was transformed into a grove with Christmas trees from the farm of one of Duncan’s contacts. Birdsong was piped through the PA, creating an effect very similar to my Garden of Awen, started two months before… Ah, well – a sign of flattery I suppose. The first half consisted of a cabaret of various acts: a powerful singer-guitarist; a rapper; a flamenco guitarist; and a rather raunchy dance troupe called Nice-as-Pie.

swansong - Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath. Final performance as Bard

After the break, MC Duncan performed a couple of his poems as his final performance as Bard of Bath, before the contestants were called up. A coin was tossed and called. ‘Tails never fails’, said Jack Dean, and sure enough it was, though Duncan thought it was ‘heads’! Perhaps he had a suspicion that it would have been easier on Dave Selby, the other act, because Jack’s blistering tour-de-force was a hard act to follow. Not wanting in ambition, he interpreted the theme, ‘The Last B—-‘, in a Biblical sense, telling us he was going to do a version of the Bible! Although this wasn’t strictly the case, he did cover the history of the universe up until 2012, ending in a kind of armageddon – the finale being an ‘8 Mile’ rap battle between Jesus and Jack! Funny and technically impressive, as he performed over his backing track in perfect time.

The other contestant, Dave Selby, had a tough job following that, but soldiered on like a trooper. Although hampered by a Withnailian weakness, he entertained the crowd with a grim fairy tale delivered in a louche Dave Allen style. Quite distinctive! He made people laugh, and it help make it a contest – and should be applauded for his contribution.

Throughout the performances, Richard Carder, chief druid, held his hands over his ears, sitting next to the other two judges, like one of the three wise monkeys (hear no evil). The effect was unintentionally hilarious.

While the judges deliberated the dancers came on – like a pared down Pan’s People – doing very well in such a small space!

Then finally the judges returned and Master Duncan announced the winner – milking it for dramatic effect, X-Factor style – no surprise to hear it was Jack! He was called up, stumbling over a stool (life is full of unintentionally comic moments, don’t you find?) Duncan handed over the robes and Jack performed a poem, receiving a warm round of applause. He was clearly a popular choice.

Then the Bards of Bath present were called up – which I wasn’t keen to do, being ‘off duty’ and because the ceremony is so naff. We stood in a circle, held hands and Richard half-heartedly took us through the Druid Vow (x2) and an awen (x1). It seemed ludicrous in that setting, but has become ‘tradition’. Lords know what the crowd there thought of it all! The day after we perform a proper inauguration ceremony at the Circus – noon on the solstice: this is the time for ritual, not a night-club. It was a very poor attempt to create sacred space, and I suggested to Richard the next day that we skip this element.

Miranda, who embroidered the Bardic robes and Chair backing, said to me it had lost its spirit – no mention of the solstice, or what it all means. A fair point. Tim, its much-missed founder, had a knack of relating to widely different audiences. Richard, who took over as Chief Druid, should have gone up at the start and introduced things, put it into context, but he was late arriving. I wonder how many people who came along that night realised what it was all about…? In hindsight I could have done some leaflets to place on the tables – a little background about the Bardic Chair, or had my Book of the Bardic Chair on sale… (if I hadn’t been stupidly busy over the last few days). Still, it was a ‘successful’ night – a good atmosphere, some great performances, and a promising new bard. Whether we like it or not, the Bardic Chair has a life of its own now – and looks like it will continue, in one form or another – with new blood revitalising it every year. And since the next generation are our future, garnering their interest is essential for the Bardic Tradition’s vitality and longevity.

If Dr Who can have a young actor fill the role (Matt Smith hailing from my old home town, Northampton) then perhaps we can too! As with the super-annuated Timelord, the subsequent inheritor’s of the title, have become increasingly younger (like Merlin, or Benjamin Button, living in reverse). Our annual ‘changing of the bards’ has become as much a part of the modern Yuletide celebrations (in Bath) as RTD’s rebooted Who has on Christmas Day telly – but of course, our entertainment is live, grassroots and community-focused. Long may it continue.

As I left it started to snow.

***

Jack Dean, the new bard, and Master Duncan, outgoing bard

The following day – the ‘official’ solstice – a small group of us gathered in the Circus in the centre of Bath to hold our traditional winter solstice ceremony and inauguration of the new bard. It was freezing and icy underfoot as I made my way (carefully) to the Circus, through the crowds of Christmas shoppers. I got there at noon to find Richard the druid and the two bards, outgoing and new. That was it. We were joined by Thommie Gillow, the 12th Bard, her wee bab and a couple of her friends from Cardiff. So, our small and merry band set to work. Richard led the ceremony of ‘Alban Arthuan’, as modern druids like to call it, and kept it mercifully brief. We used scripts, which isn’t my preference, but they helped since most of the participants had little experience in such things, but they all joined in in good spirits. We called the quarters: I had to call the east, my usual (Richard didn’t even ask, knowing that’s my preference – although on such a chilly day, calling the fire in the south would have been a better option!). We recited the Gorsedd Prayer and did an awen. Jack was welcomed to the Gorsedd and asked to perform a poem. Master Duncan also shared one. Halfway through the ceremony, Thommie suddenly dashed off, as though filled too full of awen – a traffic warden had spotted her car! She caught him just in time, but had to move it. All the while, her little toddler never made a sound but just stood there, with enormous gloves on, looking astonished (the default look of toddlers). Richard brought the ceremony to a brisk end … I suggested three cheers for the new bard (although in the cold, it came out as ‘three chairs’!). I took a couple of photographs for the press release and archives and then we separated, leaving only Richard and I to decamp to the Chequers for some much-needed refuelling… It’s been a Bard Day’s Night!

Sulyen Caradon, Druid of Caer Badon

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And the bardism does not end there – tonight is the tenth anniversary of the Bath Storytelling Circle, which should be a special evening. I am going to be one of the three hosts, as one of the organisers of the circle (along with Anthony, its founder, and David, its current ‘chair’). There should be a feast of fine storytelling, poetry and song … what better way to spend the longest night of the year?

The oral tradition is very much alive in Bath … but don’t tell anyone I told you so ;0)