Tag Archives: CS Lewis

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

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

Ox Tales and Inklings

24 Feb-10th March

Over the last month I have been performing stories from my History Press collection, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, at venues around the county – on 24th Feb, at the Woodstock Arms (by a lovely crackling fire – much appreciated after a chilly bike ride over the Cotswolds); and on 10th March, at the funky Albion Beatnik Bookstore, in the city of dreaming spires itself. A member of the audience at the latter said of my show:

           ‘Truly magical stories and wonderfully told – really transported me to where the story came from.’

Such responses make it all worthwhile and I am looking forward to returning to the city in April when I am going to be performing more ‘ox-tales’ with my bardic buddy, Wayland – on the 19th April at the Eagle and Child (the pub where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others used to meet for a drink and to share work-in-progress) and on Sat 20th April at the Old Fire Station as part of the Oxford Folk Weekend – hurrah!

On Friday 8th March, my play about the Inklings, The Rabbit Room, finally got performed – thanks to John Bassett and his company, Spaniel in the Works. The cast was spot on and the rehearsed reading went down very well with the audience at Mr Twitchett’s cafe bar, the Subscription Rooms. The audiences response confirmed that it ‘worked’ and it was suggested the play would work very well in pubs. A pub tour would be fab – must start that ACE application…(unless a brewery wants to sponsor us…)!

First performance of my play The Rabbit Room, Sub Rooms Stroud, 8th March 2013

First performance of my play The Rabbit Room, Sub Rooms Stroud, 8th March 2013

We hope to perform The Rabbit Room in situ – in the ‘Bird and Baby’ itself (as the Inklings called their local), during the Ox Fringe (24 May-9 June). This would be a dream come true and is guaranteed to be a special night. A recording will be made for posterity – you could be in it (as ‘pub customers’) if you turn up on the night! Watch this space!

Old Hobbits die hard

4th January 2009

Yesterday I decided to hold a birthday party of ‘special magnificence’ in honour of JRR Tolkien, born on Jan 3rd 1892. I invited a select group of ‘elf-friends’ around to join me in raising a glass to the Gandalf of Fantasy, and to test-read my new radio play based upon the Inklings called ‘The Rabbit Room’. This is the only way to gauge whether something works or not – with a live reading. David Metcalfe played ‘Tollers’ (Lewis’ nickname for Tolkien); Anthony Nanson played ‘Jack’ (CS Lewis), Mika Lassander played Owen Barfield and Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson Charles Williams. David’s partner, artist Ione Parkin, was VO – the voice of the Rabbit Room, Anna Dougherty was the BBC announcer, and Maarit – Mika’s wife – the landlord and the Minister of Health (or Elf, as I punned). It was thrilling to hear the play come alive after slaving away on it in solitude since November. To write it I immersed myself in Inklings arcana – and tinkered with it obsessively over the holidays, finishing it just in time for the party, which provided an appropriate deadline.

After providing a vegetarian feast for my guests – piles of good plain English fare, which both Bilbo and Tolkien would have liked – I read out an extract from the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring – about Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party and disappearing act. For this, I asked my guests to take off their shoes and socks, so we could all be Hobbits together! Bare-footed and waist-coated, I read out the text in a suitably merry fashion. We toasted JRR, and then we attended to the main after dinner entertainment. I assigned roles, handed out scripts and we begun. It took a hundred minutes (perhaps it should have been 111) but it was a cold reading and slower than it would be when rehearsed. Some sections really flowed, others were perhaps inevitably murdered, and some evidently need work – but it was wonderful to hear it out loud. I was filled with feelings of loving warmth for such a lovely fellowship. Truly friendship is one of the most important things of life. Without it, a man is impoverished. But last night I felt ‘wealthy’ from having such beautiful talented souls as my friends.

Tolkien extolled the virtues of simple pleasures (‘fire and lamp and meat and bread, and then to bed, and then to bed’) and Lewis wrote about friendship as one of the Four Loves – and I whole-heartedly agree: there is very little better than gathering around the hearth with good friends, sharing good food, drink and conversation. The home is a sacred thing, and true fellowship is divine – a meeting of hearts, souls and minds – is a piece of heaven on Earth.

Afterwards, there was useful feedback from the group (Svanur is a playwright and director; Anthony fellow creative writing teacher; David fellow performer in Firesprings; Mika religious students research student; Maarit child psychologist and Anna an Oxford English graduate). Tolkien I think would’ve liked hearing the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic spoken that evening in my living room (his three favourite languages, except his own invented ones!) – although he might have corrected some of us on pronunciation (but not the native speakers, of course).

The hour was getting late and David and Ione departed – to relieve their babysitter from her duties. We tucked into some late Xmas pud, and then Anthony shared a sample of Tolkien’s ‘manifesto’ poem – Mythopoeia. There followed a suitably Inklings-ish discussion on a number of subjects (art, politics, popular culture) before the alcohol and awen ran out. Around midnight folk departed, except Anthony who crashed over – saving the drive back to Stroud for the morning. He agreed that we had well and truly celebrated the unique anniversary. I was pleased to have ‘premiered’ my play on Tolkien’s birthday – my way of honouring such a huge inspiration to many. The world is richer for his contribution. His vast imagination and unparalled elven-skill has provided a gateway for us all.

Long may his name and the fellowship live on!

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien's 111th

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien Birthday Party