Tag Archives: Bladud

Rider on the Storm

Births, Deaths and Marriages

5-16 June

Sometimes life seems to challenge us – events come along to test what we’re made of, what we believe. It’s been one of those fortnights … but with positives that give me hope.

Within the last two weeks I’ve had to attend the funerals of an old friend from Northampton who committed suicide and a dear friend from Bath, who died of cancer last Tuesday: fellow poet, Mary Palmer, whose funeral is today – making two in a fortnight. This one will be a different affair from the one I attended in Northamptonshire for Sarah B, mother of two, who tragically took her own life on the 1st of May. Her ceremony took place at Olney Woodland Burial site. About twenty years ago I went to the first woodland burial in the county, for a lady called Jackie. Whether it was at this site or not, I cannot recall, but it is now a small forest. Many gathered in the carpark – and it was sad to think she took her life, when she had so many people who cared about her. I had ridden over the Cotswolds to be there for 2pm. I had ten minutes to spare, but Sarah’s partner and their daughter kept everyone waiting – turning up 50 minutes later (it must have been a huge ordeal for him and the kids). Many old faces were there. While we waited my bardic chum, Jimtom brewed me up a welcome cuppa in his van, which helped me to thaw out from the ride. I chatted to friends I hadn’t seen in ages, making surreal small-talk. Then, finally, we were ready to start. A guy with a flute led us in procession to the graveside. The haunting sound carried across the groves of remembrance and was deeply moving. A simple ceremony took place at the graveside, by the whicker casket. A poem of Sarah’s was read out. The casket was lowered into the ground. As everyone scattered in some flowers, we chanted ‘the river is flowing…’ led by the daughter and a friend. It was heart-breaking seeing the family, clearly decimated by their loss. Afterwards, we decamped to the United Reform Church in Yardley Hastings, just up the road, where no less than three religious ceremonies took place: Pagan, Christian and Buddhist (showing Sarah’s interests and tolerance), plus a moving presentation of her life – with photoes and music. There was a meal sometime in the evening – but not having had any lunch, I was spaced out and flagging, so I left to visit my Mum, whose 65th birthday it was that day – and the initial reason I was visiting Northampton then. It was a shame it was all on the same day, but it some ways it balanced it out: birthdays, deathdays… And the next morning I visited my sister and her wee bairn, Kerry, now a year and half old – eyes full of shining wonder. The cycle of life continues.

I rode home – wiped out from the draining experience, the funeral and a night around the fire in the rain with my ‘frenemies’, trying to rekindle some of the old Earth Rhythm magic and failing. God bless ’em – but I probably won’t be seeing them until the next one. Once we were close, but now we just get on each other’s nerves. It’s telling it took Sarah’s death to bring us together. A shame, but … people move on.

In extreme contrast to my grim time back in the old town, in Bath I went to a talk by Marina Warner on fairy tales (part of the International Music Festival) at St Michaels church, then onto a private view – my friend, William Balthazar Rose’s new show ‘Horses, Hats, Cooks and Cleavers’. Ah, it’s good to be back in Bath!

The next day I took part in King Bladud’s Pageant, despite not feeling particularly keen to read long complicated texts in large public spaces!

Looking every bit the Bath old fogey I read in John Wood's The Circus

Looking every bit the Bath old fogey I read in John Wood's The Circus, from The Bath Chronicle

Life continued, demanding attention, effort!

I had a heavy week, workwise, with a stack of marking to do – but on Tuesday, a bombshell hit. I received a call saying Mary Palmer had passed away early that morning at Dorothy House Hospice. Her sister was present. Having seen her (fortunately) last Thursday I knew she was on death’s door, but it was still a huge blow. Three months ago she had been performing at Waterstones. The cancer had come back and claimed her very quickly. I read to her in the hospice, and she seemed to be soothed by this, and took solace in the fact her words would live on – we’re publishing her selected poems. In the last few weeks she was able to edit her old work and write new material, up until the last week. It will be a poignant legacy to a brilliant poet. The way her friends have rallied around to help is so heartening.  We are all working hard to ensure her work will survive.

Tuesday night, despite receiving this awful news, I still had to teach somehow, as I was due to do my evening class at Chew Valley School. The session seems blighted – for it was on Tuesday a month ago I heard of Sarah’s suicide. I somehow dragged myself out of the house to go to the lesson, only to find my batteries were flat – and maybe just as well, as I wasn’t really in a psychologically fit state to ride. And today is Mary’s funeral – followed by the class. Not easy, being in the public eye!

Thursday morning I had been booked to run a private dawn ceremony at Stonehenge, through Gothic Image tours. I got up before sunrise and rode there – it was beautiful, seeing the sun rise over the misty, ancient landscape of Salisbury Plain. It was a stunning morning at the stones (for once). Introductions over, I led the small group from the States, Australia and Singapore into the stones, using my wolf-drum to lead the procession. We gathered in the circle and I started, casting the quarters with the help of volunteers (almost one from each corner of the world). In the gorsedd I performed Dragon Drance, which was a thrill to do in the stones, although at 6.30am I wasn’t at my best!  Still, it seemed to move people. A lovely bloke from Kansas wrote to me afterwards saying: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed and was moved by your poem at Stonehenge.  I’m not easily moved, but your words and your voice resonated deeply with me.’ He sent a photo too.

Bard on a Bike at Stonehenge, dawn 11.06.09

Bard on a Bike at Stonehenge, dawn 11.06.09, thanks to Larry Philips of Kansas

After the ceremony, we went back to the hotel they had been staying in, in Marlborough, for a very welcome cooked breakfast. It was nice to chat further with Jamie’s tour group. I don’t normally run ceremonies, but this was a pleasure. The sunshine makes all the difference!

Bon voyages over, then it was back home and down to earth with a bump for more marking!

The slog must go on!

Saturday, I, unusually, ran another ceremony – a handfasting at Stanton Drew, aka ‘the Wedding Stones’. This was only the second one I had done – the first, on my birthday a couple of years ago at Swallowhead Spring, near Silbury Hill, was for John and Colette. They recommended me to their friends, Nigel and Sophie. It was very special, to conduct the ceremony in the stones. Once more, I found myself leading a procession of people (this time much bigger – about 100) across the fields – negotiating an electric fence, cow pats and stampeding cattle (the cows, hearing our bells and seeing the line of movment may have thought it was feeding time – or was just overly curious. After a couple of attempts to join us or cut us off, they opted for circling a 4WD parked nearby, watching the gathering with frisky intent)! The sun broke through as we began. It was a beautiful ceremony – the couple clearly loved it, going by their beaming faces and comments afterwards. Many there hadn’t experienced anything like it before, and the responsive was overwhelmingly positive. Back at the lovely home of Nigel and Sophie (after a further trepidatious trapse through the cowfield) in the capacious garden, where marquees, dance floor, bar, buffet, chill-out yurt and fire had been set up, I led the toast to the newly weds with my poem, ‘The Wheel of the Rose’, and then entertained the guests with a wedding set, which seemed to go down well. My work done, it was time to hit the road – back to Bath, to say farewell to my friend Svanur, who was going back to Iceland, with a much welcome meal at Anna’s place.

Sunday, I needed a day off! I went on a great walk with fellow Fire Springer, Anthony, on the Malverns – managing to do a full circuit, from Swinyard Hill to Worcestershire Beacon and back again in the glorious sunshine, walking in the footsteps of Tolkien and Lewis, conversation flowing. It was ice-cream weather and a pint of a local ale in the Wyche Inn went down a treat too!

Last night, we held a Bath Storytelling Circle at the Raven especially dedicated to Mary, who was a regular attendee over its ten years’ of existence. Many moving tributes were shared, songs and poems performed in her name – and I can’t think of a better tribute than the way we gathered together in poetic fellowship, remembering her with beautiful words from the heart.

And today, the day of her funeral, I am sure many more moving words will be spoken. I’ve been asked to read out  a poem at the service and also speak in the celebration of her life afterwards at the Forum. It is hard being the bard sometimes – the one who remembers, the one who must stand up there and articulate what everyone is feeling (while being assailed with those feelings themselves), but that is my role and it seems destiny has made sure I fulfil it, by thrusting me into these situations. Bombarded by life (and death). It has been a maelstrom of emotion, these last couple of weeks, and at times it felt the only way I could survive was to ‘lash myself to the mast’, like Turner famously did. One has to ride with it, or be overwhelmed – back in Olney, poet William Cowper, captured this in one of his famous Olney Hymns of 1779, ‘Light Shining in the Darkness’:

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

King Bladud’s Pageant

King Bladud's Pageant7th June

King Bladud’s Pageant

Yesterday I took part in King Bladud’s Pageant, celebrating the legendary founder of Bath, and the centenary of the original Bath Pageant. I had been asked by the organiser, Richard Carder, to run a series of creative writing workshops in King Edward’s School with Year 7, leading up to the event. I got the kids to write stories based upon the local legend and poems based on flying. On the day I was heavily involved in performing – the event began at noon in The Circus with a simple public ceremony. Medieval minstrels (Sulian Early Wind Quartet) played catching the attention of tourists, the sound of the pipes skirling around the incredible space with its triple echo. I had to read out some writings from its architect, John Wood the Elder, from 1749. Not very exciting! Then we proceeded down to the Abbey Churchyard in a raggle taggle procession, led by the musicians and Rob in his white stag head-dress. We turned some heads as we wended our way down Milsom Street, the main shopping artery. We snaked through the milling shoppers, passed the busy busker-pitch outside the Pump Rooms and rendezvoused with the Natural Theatre Company, who had been hired for the event – dressed up as Queen Elizabeth I, Beau Nash, a Roman senator and King Bladud. They looked impressive between the massive ‘chess pieces’ of bull-man and hare-woman created by artist Sophie Ryder. Here I had to read out the whole of the Elizabethan charter, which bequeathed the waters of Bath to its citizens. Unfortunately, Thermae Bath Spa and the council seem to have ignored this fact. It was hard work, getting my way through the chewy Elizabethan legal English to say the least – projecting as best I could in the noisy public space. I found it tedious to read, so no doubt the audience did to listen – but this was what I had been asked to recite. And it was probably the first time in four hundred years Bath’s charter had been heard in its streets. Afterwards the Natural worked the crowd while I caught my breath, chatting to Sheila who did the poster. As we talked a bird crapped on my leg! A sign from our winged king? Or just bloody annoying. I was given tissues to wipe the worst of it off, but my trousers were ruined and I had to go home to change them. On the way back I was struck again – on the shoulder of my nice summer jacket! I must be very lucky! I had to laugh at this, but by the time I got to the Parade Gardens where the picnic was taking place I wasn’t in a great mood – and I needed to just sit down and eat something, so I missed my slot (to read out some of my own work). Fellow poet, Rose Flint, had read some of her work out and with participants placed ricepaper blessings in the Avon, where the hot springs flow out – to counter-act the curses written on lead-scrolls cast into the sacred spring by Roman bathers. People in the park joined in, including the Mayor – who had come down to judge the banner contest (unfortunately there were only 2!). A little restored I made my way to Chapel Arts Centre, where the main concert was due to start at 3.30pm. Here, Richard had ensembled an impressive woodwind orchestra and choir. After some Purcell, I was called up to recite Canto X, Book II of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. It went better than I expected after the dreary Wood and Charter – Spenser’s lyric were far more oral, designed to be recited in court, methinks. The jaunty rhythm made it rattle along at a fair clip and the saucy allusions made more than the ladies of court giggle. Next, came the main event: Richard’s impressive cantata, especially composed for the event, ‘Bladud and the Goddess’. He used some of the verses from my Spring Fall, and it was amazing hearing them set to music and sung out by an impressive baritone (William Coleman). Rose had her words recreated in similar fashion by Pamela Rudge, mezo. They made an excellent Bladud and Sulis. Before the finale I was asked to read out some of my Bladud and Sulis colloquy from Spring Fall – I enlisted the help of fellow ‘Bladudian’, Caroline Gay Way (middle name after her ancestor, the poet, John Gay, of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ fame), who read the voice of Sulis. It was a poignant and pleasant surprise to perform with her – she had directed the original production of Spring Fall which one me the chair in 1998. It hasn’t been performed publicly in its entirety since, although I brought out a tenth anniversary edition last year. Richard’s Cantata ended with a stirring finale – and I thought it was a splendid achievement. ‘Bladud and the Goddess’ deserves to be heard more widely – and performed in Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths. Carder is a local ‘Birtwistle’, in what he has accomplished, our own folkloric cycle.

The second half started with some suitably mythic Purcell (The Gordian Knot and the chacony from King Arthur); followed by poems from Rose Flint and her workshop participants; then a stirring new piece composed by Michael Short, which captured the soul of water; local harper, Jennifer Crook, followed with two divine pieces, Lady Marion (Clannad) and Minerva (one of her own). Some more Purcell finished the proceedings.

Afterwards, the core crew – by this time very thirsty – decamped to the Hobgoblin for a much needed and well deserved pint.

Feeling relaxed and in the festival spirit, we decided to check out the play in the park, The Raven and the Rose, which was a good team effort by community theatre Fullsail, and pleasant to watch, though a little chilly and damp – sitting in the rain! But since the play was about the Deluge, and what happened to Noah’s avian emissaries, perhaps the rain was part of it and at the end, though we weren’t treated to a rainbow, there was a lovely sunset. A fitting end to the ‘solar day’ of King Bladud’s Pageant, but …time to thaw out and – find some food!

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:

Cocoon

I lie

curled

in the green cocoon

of my garden

spun of sunlight

and leaves…

ready

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!

Mummery on Boxing Day

26th December

Boxing Day (so-named because servants and tradesfolk were given gift-boxes on this day by the larger houses – although now it seems synonymous with sales at places like Ikea – different kinds of boxes! Perhaps it should be renamed Flat-pack Day), AKA St Stephen’s Day is a traditional time for Mummers Play, at least round these parts. The oldest is in the Cotswold village of Marshfield, just north of Bath – now famed for its icecream and flapjacks! –

The Old Time Paper Boys by Kevan Manwaring

The Old Time Paper Boys by Kevan Manwaring

where at noon today the Old Time Paper Boys gather to perform their seasonal rite at five locations along the High Street (which is just as well, because it’s often hard to catch what they’re saying if they happen to face the wrong way, or if the wind is up – none are professional performers, so we shouldn’t expect them to project. The cast is drawn from a motley of real local characters – the butcher, the baker, a farmer, a postman, etc. They become such memorable moochers as ‘Saucy Jack with his family on his back’, Beelzebub with his club, Ten Penny Nit, Old Father Christmas, St George of course, and the Doctor (Who is now I regular feature on Xmas TV!).I once shared a flat with a guy – Marshfield born and bred – whose grandfather used to take part: the costume of paper rags was stored in their house, along with the script, such as it is (at one point, apparently, the costumes were made of leaves – which thrilled me with the thought of some primal fertility rite taking place in a forest clearing; this notion was somewhat disabused when I discovered the Mummers, the oldest in the region, probably only date from the 19th Century like alot of ‘ancient’ folklore). Still, it is wonderful to behold and gives Yuletide a refreshingly real, earthy quality after the tinsel and 2-D entertainment of Christmas – a sobering shock to the system, standing in the rain or freezing fog, watching a death and resurrection show. The script is fabulously nonsensical, tantalisingly fragmentary – like some half-understood radio transmission, cultural Chinese whispers (rather like the Mabinogion, the 13th Century collection of older oral Welsh tales written down by unwitting monks). There’s other Boxing Day Mummers locally in Southstoke and Keynsham. And on New Years Day the Widcombe Mummers perform their play – this has only been going for five years, and is open in its ‘newness’, featuring an anachronistic cast of traffic wardens, hobby horses, fools, and local figures such as ‘the King of the Beggars of Holloway’ (which my friend the late Tim Sebastion Woodman researched and first performed – indeed the last time I saw him fully conscious was in the Widcombe Social Club, New Year’s Day, 2006, when he had just watched the Mummers – too ill to perform that year, my friend Ian Davidson stepped into the role. Tim allowed the Mummers to use his Wassail Bowl – which was passed onto me after he died a month later). Every year, the Widcombe Mummers incorporate some topical issues, for instance a satirical stab at the Spa fiasco. This year they plan to bring in King Bladud’s Pigs, which stormed the city this summer.

I’ve been working on my own plays recently – dusting off the Mummers Play I wrote in 1994 (‘The Head of Winter’) which has only been performed once publicly so far, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in 1998 in a commedia dell arte style in a chilly Walcot Chapel. My Bardic Chair winning poem, Spring Fall, was inspired by the ancient Mummers mask found under Stall Street, and now on display in the Roman Baths museum. It got me wondering what kind of play would have been performed in the Temple Precinct (a theatre was also discovered). And so I set about writing a mystery play about the springs – Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath was the result.

I also dug out a play I wrote about the perils of genetic engineering – an updated version of the Taliesin legend called ‘The Child of Everything’. This I typed up and sent off to a script competition at the Bristol Old Vic. I love the idea of grafting modern themes onto ancient myths (and vice versa). Mummers have always brought in topical references – witty asides to cock-a-snook at whoever deserves public mockery, usually those with too much money and power and too little sense. Guised in their shaggy costumes, often with blacked up faces, their anonymity allowed the Mummers a degree of satirical freedom. Their identities were kept ‘mum’. The pantomime is a later derivation of the Mummers Play and indeed the Mummers – relating right back to early Greek tragedy, performed in static masks – could be seen as the prototype of theatre. The masks of tragedy and comedy are still the symbol of theatre, summing up the most ancient repetoire and the bittersweetness of life.  (Incidentally, on Christmas Eve, the playwright Harold Pinter died of cancer of the liver, aged 76. One of the greats of modern theatre).

Yesterday, enjoying a quiet Christmas, I wrote the first draft of a new play, ‘Wassailing Avalon’, which dramatises the wassailing traditions of the West Country, which commonly take place on Old Twelfth Night, 17th January, weaving in local mythology… I hope one day to see all of these performed!

A friend gave me a copy of Hugh Lupton’s and Chris Wood’s ‘Christmas Champions’, which I heard when first broadcast on Radio 4 a couple of years ago and I highly recommend it – an enchanting and moving evocation of a tradition that connects people and place, combining storytelling, poetry, song and archive recordings of the original players. Put it on, pour yourself a glass of good cheer, sit back and enjoy.

Long live the Mummers!