Tag Archives: Bloomsberries

Creative Fellowship

This post was written as an article for Literature Works; but I’ve added it here as it relates directly to the Cotswold Word Centre project.

Soul of the Earth book launch, Waterstones, Earth Day 2009 - organised by Kevan Manwaring, including the much-missed Mary Palmer (in blue)

Soul of the Earth book launch, Waterstones, Bath, Earth Day 2009 – organised by Kevan Manwaring, including the much-missed Mary Palmer (3rd from left), plus bards from Bath, Stroud and Frome

In the summer of 1914 a group of friends gathered in a village in Gloucestershire to share poetry, ideas and support each others’ creative journeys – they were Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke and they became known as the Dymock Poets. The imminent First World War was to have a devastating effect on their coterie, but for a brief while the poets and their families enjoyed the fruits of creative fellowship. On their famous ‘walks-talking’, Frost and Thomas would range far over the fields and hills, discussing the intricacies of poetry and their lives. Around campfires and country cottage feasts the poets shared their poetry – washed down with plenty of cider – inspiring each other to write some of the best loved poetry in the English language: ‘Adlestrop’; ‘The Road Not Taken’; ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’; ‘The Soldier’ – many of which first saw print in their own self-published journal, New Numbers, produced in their homes, a literal cottage industry. The shadow of war reached to even this sleepily idyllic corner of England, and tore apart the Dymocks. Thomas and Brooke went to war and did not return; Drinkwater, Abercrombie and Gibson did their bit on the homefront; and Frost returned to America, where, with his reputation as a poet made by his friend and renowned critic, Thomas, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize no less than four times, reading at JFK’s inauguration and becoming known as ‘America’s beloved poet’ – and yet he never forget his time with the Dymocks and maintained his friendship with Thomas was the ‘the closest friend I ever had and I was the closest friend he ever had.’

I find the story of the Dymock Poets deeply moving and inspiring – enjoying some of that fellowship in the co-writing of a feature-length screenplay about them (with Terence James, former ITV news editor) over the last 4 years. I have been inspired by other similar creative fellowships – notably the Inklings (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others) who met every Tuesday lunchtime in a pub in Oxford to share their work-in-progress – including drafts of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. I wrote a radio drama about their story – ‘The Rabbit Room’ – and that has resulted in a collaboration with a Stroud-based theatre company, Spaniel in the Works, who have performed it script-in-hand at their scratch theatre nights and recorded it for an audio CD.

Of course, there are other famous creative fellowships – the Bloomsberries (Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Brooke, et al), William Blake and the young Samuel Palmer; Rimbaud and Verlaine; George Sand, Chopin and Alfred de Musset; and in popular music, the perfect storm of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant, and others.

Whatever the intricacies of these often volatile (but productive) liasons, what is the benefit to the modern writer?

Creative fellowships can offer mutual support; camaraderie; the creative buzz of sharing ideas and generating new ones; discussing theories and trends; experiencing and critiquing other creative works; a group identity and shared vision; a collective marketing presence which enables a bigger ‘pull’ and impact; and dear friends to share the highs and lows of one’s craft.

For ten years I ran a small press, Awen Publications, and I organised several successful book launch events and showcases – great evenings made more special because they are the culmination of a shared creative journey. By the time I handed over the reins Awen represented over thirty international authors on its lists – and I saw this as an artistic eco-system interpenetrating the wider communities in which the authors existed – cross-fertilising within the group, but also with the outer world, sharing out and drawing in inspiration (soil, water, and sunlight into oxygen). Such organic grassroots structures creates resilience in their communities – mutually empowered and sharing the load, we feel stronger. Our roots are deep – embedded in where we live, our love for our particular patch of Earth, our neighbourhood and local ‘scene’ – and our branches reach far, making creative connections.

Writers’ Cafes, writers’ networks (such as Literature Works, or the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network, co-ordinated by Rona Laycock), e-bulletins (e.g. Spoken/Written Newsletter, produced my Shane Wolfland), open mics, small press anthologies, lit-fest showcases, group book launches, and so forth, can help to facilitate these fellowships. If you lack one, and want one, then the best way is to start one – put the word out and see who comes out of the woodwork.

Here, in my neck of the woods I have recently created the Cotswold Word Centre, in collaboration with Hawkwood College, as an umbrella for all the wonderful word-based activity in the area – writing groups, book clubs, small presses, live lit performances, commissions, walks, etc.

And this summer I am co-organising a centenary symposium on the Dymock Poets, along with my friend and fellow poet, Jay Ramsay, celebrating Gloucestershire writers past and present. We wish to encourage creative responses to the works of the Dymocks, (who were writing in the shadow of the First World War); but more than just commemorate that vast tragedy, I wanted to focus on the creative response to conflict, and to the voices of those living in the area now – so we are not strangled by heritage, but have a conversation with it across time. It is respectful to honour the great writers of the past as long as it doesn’t turn the present into a museum, e.g. ‘Jane Austen’s Bath’. We can be inspired by the creative fellowships of the past in the stimulating connections we seek and make – helping us to survive and thrive in the modern world.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring April 2014

Cotswold Word Centre: a platform for language, literacy and literature (based at Hawkwood College, Best Venue in the South-West, Spark Awards 2013) http://cotswoldwordcentre.wordpress.com/

The Golden Room: a celebration of writers of Gloucestershire past and present, takes place at the Subscription Rooms, Stroud, Saturday, 26th July. www.subscriptionrooms.org.uk

The Rabbit Room

At the sign of the 'Bird and Baby', Oxford, by Kevan Manwaring

At the sign of the ‘Bird and Baby’, Oxford, by Kevan Manwaring

The Inklings have been in the news alot recently. Who were they? A group of writers who met on a regular basis, sharing their work in progress (often over a pint) might not be extra-ordinary, but when you consider their core members consisted of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and others, whose works have become some of the best-loved books in the English language, it is worth taking note. Recently the 50th Anniversary of CS Lewis’ passing was acknowledged in the media with various documentaries and radio plays. Of course, the latest instalment of Peter Jackson’s ‘re-imagining’ of The Hobbit is coming up (The Desolation of Smaug, 13.12.13), and Tolkien’s birthday is on the 3rd January. So it seems like a timely time to revisit the Rabbit Room, the name of the snug bar they used to gather in the Eagle and Child, Oxford… I have written a radio drama about this, but here is the short story version, featured in my Oxfordshire Folk Tales (The History Press, 2012). Pull up a chair, sip your pint, and enjoy…

The Rabbit Room

by Kevan Manwaring

Memorabilia adorns me now. Quiet photographs of the legends I once accommodated. A plaque commemorating their presence. Hordes of tourists come to visit, take snaps, film it with their phones – gasping in delight at how tiny the snug is, how quaint. They pretend to enjoy a pint of tepid English beer, the stodgy food. Enthusiasts linger. Writers stay even longer. Sitting in the corner – the hallowed corner – trying to imbibe the atmosphere, to capture the ambience. They ponder on literary immortality while trying to ensure a place for their own ink-stained soul in the bardic firmament. Here is as good a spot as any cathedral or mosque. This last homely house, this Prancing Pony, is a wardrobe, a wood between the worlds, a portal to magical lands – to Middle Earth, Perelandra, Narnia, Logres. Once it was the rabbit hole to Wonderland and now it’s a knife-cut gateway to Jordan College, to quantum worlds beyond reckoning. The new chap has been in, of course, raised a glass to his antecedents, two fingers to Jack. Perhaps one day they’ll be visiting his old haunts? The God-botherers and the pagans, the atheist scholars and fanatic movie devotees in costume. All those who come to pay homage here. To breathe in the same air – well, almost – it no longer swirls with pipesmoke and cigarettes, but the fire still crackles in the grate, the pumps provide the same local ales, the kitchen offers its homity pie, the barflies their homilies, and when its quiet, when the customers don’t drown out the silence with their chatter, the voices come back, the ghosts in the wall stir, those lost lunchtimes are replayed – a decade of Tuesdays – recorded like voices from long ago on wax cylinder and reel-to-reel, by the wooden Akashic record of my walls. Listen… Hear their voices …
JRR ‘Tollers’ Tolkien, pipe-smoker, RP, but at times fast and low; CS ‘Jack’ Lewis, donnish, slight trace of Ulster, at times stentorian; Owen Barfield, solicitor, softer educated voice; Charles Williams, poet, novelist, occultist, North London accent; and now and then Charles Blagrove, landlord of the Eagle and Child, an Oxfordshire man.
One by one they would share their work and offer gruff, honest feedback. They would share tells from lands far away, and sometimes closer to home…
‘Once there was a beautiful Queen who lived in a beautiful house. It had many elegant rooms in which to entertain elegant guests. And even more lovely were the gardens. The parterre had four-and-twenty square beds with Irish yews at the corners; the Italian garden has a large ornamental pool enclosed by yew hedges and set about with statues; beyond, was a wild garden, with lime-tree avenues, shrubs, a stream and pond.
It had not always been so lovely.
When they had inherited this kingdom, her husband, the king, set his servants to work, restoring it. It was a difficult time – the country had just gone to war – a land that is always there, waiting for the foolhardy to visit.
Many brave men went to the land of war and never returned.
The Queen invited her beautiful friends, the Bloomsberries, many of whom did not believe in living by the sword. Some called them Conchies and accused them of cowardice. From the cruel tongues and the consensus madness them came seeking refuge. The bright, the brilliant, the beautiful – philosophers, poets, novelists, peace campaigners, aristocrats and socialists… They had many lovely parties where conversation flowed like champagne. To escape the war they worked on the land. The gardens prospered as the Queen’s house became a sanctuary of sanity in an insane world.

The queen took a lover and found happiness.
For a while, all was bliss.
Yet amongst them was a traitor, a turncoat, who weasled his way into their hearts until he won their trust and learnt their secrets – and then, when he left with their love and praise ringing in his ears – he wrote poisonous things about them. Some say he was blinded – others, that he had true sight and saw things as they truly are. A scandalous book was published, mocking them, and the spell of the palace was broken. The parties stopped, the gardens became neglected and overgrown, and the Queen and her husband, the King, moved out.
For a while there they had pursued and found happiness. They had held off the barbaric tides with their cultured ways, but they could not fend off the enemy within – the worm in their hearts and the fool who saw.’
The room settled back into its silence. There was a cough.
‘I detest allegory,’ Tolkien responded with a jab of his pipe. ‘At least it didn’t have another effing elf in it,’ quipped Jack, raising a glass to his old friend. The others pitched in, pulled the tale apart, yet always with good humour and a deep fondness for one another. Yet somehow, the enchantment remained – lingering in the air like pipe smoke as the conversation flowed.
Mingling with the voices – other sounds … The clink of coin and chink of glasses. Laughter. The strike of a match. The puff of a pipe, and the crackle in the grate. The rustle of papers. Murmurs of appreciation or snorts of good natured mockery. Ripples of warm applause. Coughs and scraping of chairs. Farewells…
They kept meeting throughout the war – here and at other pubs in the city, unless prevented by ‘no beer’. Later in the war, before the D-Day landings, the American soldiers would come and drink the city dry. Yet the Inklings sustained each other from deeper wells – sharing work in progress, making conversation, supporting one another, living by their myths.
Yet man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. One of them would die a week after the war ended – yet his brief time with the Inklings left its mark – one of them would find his muse again; another find joy in an unexpected guise; two would rise to fame…But this you know. My story now has ended. But if you chance to visit the city of dreaming spires, pay the Bird and Baby a visit, sit in the Rabbit Room and raise a glass – to the Inklings. Whose doorways lie open still, waiting for you to enter.

Notes: During the Thirties and Forties, in The Eagle and Child, a pub in Oxford, every Tuesday lunchtime a group of writers met who called themselves the Inklings. Amongst them were a couple of Oxford dons who would become two of the most famous writers of the Twentieth Century, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and some less well known, but equally influential to the group, including Charles Williams. Here, working drafts of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia novels and other works of literary importance were read out for the first time. Sitting in the Snug Bar, called the Rabbit Room, sipping a local ale, one imbibes something of the atmosphere that made the sharing of tales by this group of friends so conducive. It is a numinous place where storytelling, literature and listeners converge – a Mecca for all pilgrims of the imagination.
The embedded tale, which I call ‘The Queen of the Bloomsberries’, was an invented one about the beautiful Society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrel, who held famous literary soirees at the lovely Garsington Manor, on the outskirts of Oxford. She was fêted by the Bloomsbury Set – among her elite clique were Bertrand Russell (her lover), Aldous Huxley, Rupert Brooke, and others. The Manor no doubt its fair share of tales to tell too. These days it hosts annual opera gala – so I’ll end this narrative perambulation of the county with a fat lady singing.

From Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Kevan Manwaring, The History Press, 2012