Tag Archives: Fire Springs

Houdinis of Bewilderland

Creative Escapology in the Age of Austerity

by Kevan Manwaring

This article was written as a commission for the Doggerland journal –  to make it more web-friendly, I will serialize it here in digestible extracts. It’s initial title was ‘Prepping for the Art-apocalypse: creative survival in the Age of Austerity’ but I decided that just fed into the current Neoliberalist, survival-of-the-fittest, paradigm and its predilection for ‘disaster-porn’. I want to offer a more  positive approach, although the question I started it with still stands:

In an era of philistine-funding cuts in the arts, corporate-controlled channels of consumerism, and a fear-fuelled conservatism in commissioning and programming, what strategies are available to us to foster artistic survival?

houdini_photo_20

Part One

Welcome to the Smeuse-House

The whole is made up of holes. We stitch together our rags and tatters and make something out of nothing. Slowly the picture emerges. Metonymically, to the arrhythmia of the new fin de siècle. Fragments are offered. And we make of them what we will, piecing together a narrative of (all)sorts. The future archivist looks back and sees the crumb-trail, the pioneering projects, the unseen visionaries, the coteries and communities, the salvage-culture sculptors, apocalypso bands, escape artists of an imploding neoliberalism. Those who have found the gap in the hedge and wriggled through. Houdinis of Bewilderland, the artists and poets who wander amongst the ruins of the failed project of civilisation and etch broken songs onto singed codices.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

Next: Rhizomes with a View

This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:  http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.

http://www.doggerland.info/

 

 

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Dragon Lines

6-13 April

Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.

In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington).  In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.

Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.

I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.

Here it is…

Kernow

In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.

A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.

The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –

Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur …  into the mist.

The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers,  inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.

Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.

Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.

Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.

from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004

On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…

Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.

Life as a Cabaret

Life as a Cabaret

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd

I never got into thesp-dom, but perhaps it’s not too late to start! Within the last seven days I’ve experience theatre from both ends – as performer and punter – and I love it.

Over the last few weeks me and my bardic chums in Fire Springs (Anthony Nanson; Kirsty Hartsiotis; David Metcalfe) have been busy preparing for a commission we got for the Bath Lit Fest 2012 – a show called ‘Forgotten Voices, Inspiring Lives’, about historical personages from Bath’s glorious heritage. It was premiered at the Holburne Museum last Sunday – straight after the Bath Half Marathon, which had taken over Great Pulteney Street (not exactly helping access to our venue). You’d have to be a bit of an athlete to get to it – jumping the various hurdles and weaving through the madding hordes. With David as our bardic anchor-man – providing a through line in the voice of Bladed, Bath’s legendary founding father – Anthony, Kirsch and myself portrayed historical characters we had picked from Victorian times to the Dark Ages. I opted for Walter Savage Lander – an eccentric and cantankerous poet renowned for his strong opinions; and John Riggs-Miller, husband of Lady Miller, famed for her vase and poetical contest in Bathetic (a kind of Georgian eisteddfod). It was great fun dressing up and getting paid for it – although it was a lot of work and quite scary. The show was more challenging than our usual comfort zone of traditional storytelling. Unlike our usual extempore low-phi style, this was semi-scripted, and in costume – we ‘channelled’ the personalities, adopting their voices and manner. My gruff voice for Lander was enhanced by a sore throat! The show seemed to go down well with the audience we had – could have had a few more there, as ever, but considering it was a glorious sunny afternoon and everyone and their dog was slogging the streets of Bath, we did well. I hope we get to do the show again – perhaps at a small theatre in the city, or as part of some cultural event…?

Getting us in the mood and showing how far we have to come as actors, was an impressive one-man show Anthony and I went to see on Friday night with a couple of fellow storytellers, La and Mark, at the Rondo Theatre in Lark hall (where we made our professional debt as Fire Springs over a decade ago with our first show, Arthur’s Dream). Phoenix Rising – about the early life of DH Lawrence – was performed with complete authority and commitment by the astoundingly talented Paul Slack. His was a committed and intense tour-de-force – embodying not only the older Lawrence, but also his younger self, his mother and father, his first muse and flings. It was astonishing to see – it was as though Lawrence was in the room with us, and considering we were in the front row – up close and personal at that. It was such an embodied performance – and was not only a feat of memory, but also energy. Yet he kept the small but attentive audience gripped until the end. This wasn’t just our good will – but because he was magnetic, exuding Lawrence charisma, his atavistic lean. Both down-to-earth and visionary – cutting through the crap with his unpretentious Northernness, while at the same time pushing the envelope of the times – Lawrence was a flawed prophet who reached beyond his age. We chatted to Paul afterwards and he was very approachable and generous in his respect for the storytelling craft. He had performed the show about sixty times – right across the world – and was looking forward to a change now. Having spent a lot of time with Lawrence, one can perhaps understand his need to move on. DH might have been one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but he was probably difficult company.

This week I visited London – ostensibly to see another one-man show – although the highlight was actually catching up with a dear old friend from Northampton, Rob Goodman – an actor. He’s been living in London for a number of years now and has been in several films, TV shows and ads, as well as treading the boards as both actor and director. A true thesp, he’s also very down-to-earth (comes with being Northampton born and bred…) and amusing. We had a lot of catching up to do – twenty years worth … but it felt like the ‘old days’, back at 13 East Park Parade – where a weird convergence of artists, occultists, actors and ‘perfumed ponces’ gathered in the early Nineties. It was pure Withnail and I – with myself cast as Marwood. I won’t say who Withnail was!

Watching the play called The Attic – about the Scottish poet Alan Jackson, going out of, or rather into his mind, when he decides to spend a year staying in an attic room in the heart of Edingburgh – reminded me a bit about those intense times back then! It was an uncompromising self-examination and shamanic ‘vision-quest’ into the dark night of the soul. The belly of the whale and back. Very demanding on the audience, and the actor, Andrew Floyd – a fellow Stroudie – who gave the role natural gravitas. The performance took place in the tiny, quirky Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead – home of much legendary bohemian luvviness over the years. You had to get to the auditorium through the box office, like a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole. The stage took up half the space, so it felt like we were in the attic with this ‘poet on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. There was nowhere to hide – and Alan/Andrew explored every nook and cranny, every wart and flaw of his psyche. ‘I am going to go and stand in my own fire’, wrote Jackson, and so he did. The dispatches from the fiery abyss are dense, coded, with flashes of lucid luminescence and righteous ire. At times I wondered if this would work better on the page, than the stage – and it risked becoming a terribly self-important and self-indulgent anthology show of Jackson’s life and works. And yet you have to admire the old goat – standing on his isolated mountain precipice, looking down on the world with scorn and wonder. The fact that he survived, and was able to articulate his experience is an achievement in itself. Poetry redeemeth the man – as art can so often redeem life. It transforms the raw materials we are given into something if not always wonderful, then certainly memorable – we have existed and we have left our mark. Our daubings in grease-paint and ink occasional touch another life – and we pass on the fire.

The Fecund Earth

Resurgence Camp 25-26 July

Resurgence Camp

Green & Away, Bransford

Just returned from an inspiring time at the Resurgence Readers Camp, the annual gathering for readers of the fabulous magazine ‘at the heart of Earth, art and spirit’. This was held at Green & Away, an eco-conference centre near the Malverns. Both organisations are inspiring, taking positive steps to live in harmony with the planet and each other – seek them out!

I was booked to give a talk on Awen Publications and its ecobardic ethos (as summed up in An Ecobardic Manifesto by Fire Springs) Sunday morning, thanks to my friend, poet Jay Ramsay – who was down to run a poetry workshop there. Fellow Bard of Bath Helen Moore was due to perform but had to drop out, so I stepped in: Number 3, rather than 8!

I rode up on Saturday afternoon in the sun, after dealing with ‘bikefright’ (a flattish battery). After a productive, but full-on week (getting to the end of Book II of The Wounded Kingdom; preparing The Well Under the Sea for publication; writing the introduction to Mary’s posthumous collection, Tidal Shift…gathering in the harvest) perhaps my batteries were low too, but it was worth the effort. The site is beautifully managed, in a permaculture way – lots of green things growing amongst the tents – used throughout the summer and run by a core team of G&A volunteers who have clearly put love into the place. Food was laid on, which was a pleasant surprise – and a relief – as after I’d loaded the bike with Awen stock and my tat there wasn’t room for any cooking stuff!

Saturday night’s main entertainment was with Ashly Ramsden, who performed an impressive solo show that last over 2 hours! It was a narrative woven around the wise stories of Sufi folk hero, Nasruddin, stories Ashley has made his own. There was some musical accompaniment from Jay, his friend artist Hereward Gabriel and others, which helped to break things up a little. It was a testimony of Ashley’s skill (& stamina) that the audience stayed the distance until the end, gone 10. We had been well and truly ‘hodja’d’!

Afterwards, I enjoyed the campfire and the ‘village pub’ before deciding on a whim to experience the sauna/sweat lodge. I stripped off, my poncho serving as a towel/robe. It was an intimate session – just five of us. We sat in the steaming darkness, ommed, sang daft songs and gave thanks. I get folk to do an awen, which really resonated there – so I repeated the activity the next day at my talk. Afterwards, emerging naked into the night, felt wonderfully alive, gazing up at the stars whilst enjoying a shower!

The next day, I penned this poem in Jay’s ‘edges’ poetry workshop:

A Green Way

The fecund earth

breathes

damp green goodness.

Plums ripe on the tongue

release their slow sunlight.

Naked in the dark, glistening,

reborn from the hot, wet womb

wearing a skin of stars.

Fireworks explode,

fruit of light.

I met a man looking

for a mirror in the dark.

Songs in the silence,

prayers swirl in steam,

skirls of smoke.

Swimming in sleep

we plunge into the river’s dream.

***

After a final plenary, when feedback and ideas were shared, we all struck camp – barrowing our tat back to the carpark like post Peak Oil hoboes. Bid fond farewell to Jay & Hereward and hit the road – a long ride home in the rain, (any ride in a downpour is too long) but it certainly worth it.

A magical place – a lovely group of people. Recommended!

***

A sad coda – I got home from this inspiring event to discover the Big Green Gathering had been cancelled. It sounds like the Blue Meanies did their very best to make it impossible for the organisers to continue, and so they were forced to pull the plug. This is a damning indictment of the kind of skew-whiff society we live in, when such a positive, creative event gets squished. The Big Green Gathering has been running since 1994, emerging out of the Green Field at Glastonbury Festival, and is the best, big festival around for my money. When so many festivals have huge environmental impact and implode on themselves after three days, bloated beasts of mainstream consumer culture, the Big Green pioneered a low-impact sustainable approach, with many wind, solar and pedalled powered stages, recycling, permaculture, compost loos, organic and fair-trade fare … long before such concepts became trendy. At BGG it wasn’t about big name bands who are deemed successful by how much money they make for the corporate coffers, but grass-roots creativity. You could spend five days doing fabulous green craft workshops; getting ‘genned’ up in the Campaigns Field or Green Forum; hanging out in lovely cafes, or the beautiful magical spaces made with love; hearing mind-expanding talks in the Earth Energies field; receiving healing vibes in the Healing Field; dancing to some up-and-coming band or festival favourite; meeting old friends and making new ones… The BGG is an inspiring expo of green solutions. It is more about lifestyle, than superficial fashion. Attitude than income. You get the feeling that the majority of BGG contributors walk their talk – they live it, year round, not just for one weekend a year. If the authorities stop something as positive as this, then that shows how morally and intellectually bankrupt they are. We can see all around us signs that the ‘System’ is not working – indeed it is collapsing before our eyes, as banks and big businesses go into tail-spin – the BGG, in its colourful way offers alternatives. Which, do you think, is more valid? Which ark would you rather be on? Long live BGG! May it rise from the ashes of small-mindedness.

Read The Guardian article by John Vidal here

Big Green Gathering - a beautiful festival

Big Green Gathering - a beautiful festival

Talk in the Mountains

1st-4th May

Talk in the Mountains

You ask me, ‘Why dwell among green mountains?’

I laugh in silence; my soul is quiet,

Peach blossom follows the moving water;

Here is a heaven and earth, beyond the world of men.

Li Po, 8th Century

In Padarn Country Park, Snowdon in the background

In Padarn Country Park, Snowdon in the background

The Ecobardic Minifest was a small gathering exploring how we can use the Bardic Arts (poetry, storytelling, song-writing and music) to raise awareness about environmental issues), inspired by An Ecobardic Manifesto (co-written with Fire Springs) at Eric Maddern’s amazing place in North Wales, Cae Mabon – an eco-retreat centre founded in 1989. Eric, an Australian born storyteller who has put down roots in Snowdonia, was inspired by the manifesto and felt it warranted its own special event.

I travelled up with fellow Fire Springers, Anthony and Kirsty. Anthony gave me a lift from Bath – after a false start, waiting in the rain for half an hour at the wrong bus stop (it was May Eve and the Good Folk were already making their presence felt!). It was nice to have time to chat with Anthony, and then his partner Kirsty, on the long ride up. Our job was to keep Anthony awake with our conversation – a challenge for 6 hours, even for bards! We made pit-stops at the Cravens Arms and Oswestry before heading ‘into the wild’. The roads became increasingly dramatic as we headed into the heart of Snowdonia. The half-full moon seemed to be leading us all the way there (perhaps not surprising, since we were heading west but it was a reassuring ‘moon illusion’) Around midnight we paused at Pen-y-Pass, at the highest point of the Llanberis Pass, and got out to enjoy the magical moonscape. The golden section of moon sat on the dark craggy outline of the mountain, beneath a field of stars. It was a cold, clear night. Anthony drew my attention to the sound of the water running down the mountainsides, gathering in streams – skeins of silver on satin – near and far, their soft song countless murmuring echoes in the darkness. We savoured the acoustic spectacle, letting the place work its ancient wordless magic upon us. It felt right to pause at this threshold place – both physical and temporal, as we crossed ‘over’, for it was the witching hour of Beltane Eve, when the veil is thinnest. What could be a more dramatic portal than Llanberis Pass at such a time? This pause before the plunge was important – it helped us to adjust to the different reality we were about to enter. Three days of sacred time in a sacred place. The gentle magic of the water had helped us to smooth some of the brittleness of the journey. We were ready to proceed – completing the final stage in a kind of dream. Certainly the access to Eric’s place was like something from a Winsor McCay cartoon – Little Nemo in Slumberland, or perhaps more appropriately, Dreams of a (Welsh) Rarebit Fiend – as the car negotiated increasingly more absurd hairpin bends and slopes. Somehow, we made it to the small carpark – surreal in the middle of a wood on a mountain side – and lugged our packs down the fairy path into Cae Mabon’s magical kingdom, strange in the darkness, with only Anthony and Kirsty’s headlamps lighting the way. ‘Behold the shining brow!’ Anthony alarmed slumbering hobbits trying to locate our chalet. Eventually we found our cabin – Eric had kindly left on the lights – and we gratefully dumped our stuff. I cracked open a bottle of Wild Hare to celebrate our arrival/Beltane Eve and to help me get to sleep. It was nearly 3 am. I sat in A&K’s room briefly while we ‘decelerated’. After an exhausting journey – when we were all in danger of nodding off – now we suddenly felt (relatively) wide awake. As soon as we had arrived and had stepped out of the car, it felt like all the effort of the journey had been worth it – the fatigue had melted away. I felt like I could of stayed up until dawn – and see in the May – but I wanted to be able to function the next day, so I made myself go to sleep. But no sooner had my head hit the pillow, I was off into the Land of Nod.

Cae Mabon roundhouse

Cae Mabon roundhouse

Despite being so late to bed I was the first one up for breakfast – my stomach is the best alarm clock! I made my way down the path to the hall – enchanted by the beauty of the place in the daylight, beholding it for the first time. Cae Mabon consists of a small ‘village’ of eco-buildings: a cob-house, hogan, roundhouse, longhouse, hobbit hut, etc. Many had turf-roofs with blue bells growing on them. The shapes were rounded, organic, as though they had grown out of the land, responding to the aesthetics of place – the curves and kinks in the landscape with slate, wood, thatch. I can see why Cae Mabon has been named the best eco-building project in Britain. Seeing a place like this gives me hope for the future.

Cob-house, Cae Mabon

Cob-house, Cae Mabon

I met Martin – our incredible chef for the weekend – and Keith, a chippy who lives on sight. I got to have first pickings at his wholesome breakfast – fruit porridge, freshly baked bread, fresh eggs, gallons of tea – as the other participants started to appear.

We gathered officially at ten for our first meeting and discussed what we wished to do over the next three days. The weekend programme evolved in a very organic democratic way. Eric had a gentle hand on the tiller.

We agreed to create a ceremony to celebrate Beltane (May Day) later that day, but the morning was given over to a general discussion about Ecobardism – triggered by Anthony’s excellent ‘keynote’ speech. After the first of increasingly superlative meals, we had a session on ‘Mapping the Fields’ – the territory of Ecobardism. Basically what it means, what it involves, what it tries to tackle.

After this brainwork, we set to work devising our ceremony…

Eric, in his ‘creation myth’ of Cae Mabon, wisely writes:

‘One thing that is common to many groups is the creative use of ritual and ceremony. It seems that for many the old religious rituals do not serve any more. But they cannot dispense with ceremony entirely.

‘The impulse to ritual – the symbolic use of words and actions to intensify experience, to create meaning and to dignify the individual – is deep. In a place like this it is possible to devise rituals that pay homage to ancestors, that honour Nature, that appreciate beauty, that draw on traditions, that reflect the life stories and dreams of the people involved.’

We discussed what elements we wished to include: a honouring of the Green Man and the Goddess; contributions of poetry and song; the four elements; use of the immediate environment as a ritual landscape; Welsh May customs, including a lighting of a sacred fire from nine native woods, the procession of the Cangen Haf, the Summer Pole, and a Welsh Calan Mai carol. These later, indigenous elements, were given authenticity by the presence of two Welsh speakers – Gwynn, a man from the north and Angharad, a woman from the south. Because of arrivals and departures around 5pm we had a finite amount of time and a tight turnaround. We were given half an hour to prepare – select a branch from our chosen tree, gather rags for the Summer Branch, create a posy for the Spring Goddess, prepare the fire, etc – but the time limit galvanised us into action and it all came together really well. The spontaneity of the ceremony gave it a vitality – the spirit was with us. Eric gathered us in the roundhouse with a blast of his horn. He introduced the ceremony, speaking briefly about Beltane, before lighting the Bel-fire, onto which we cast our branches, one-by-one. Then we processed nearby, following the Summer Branch to the main outdoor circle, flanked by upright slate ‘megaliths’ and a tree stump carved with a green man. Here I asked people to connect with the Earth – by forming a circle as a symbol of the planet and feeling it beneath their feet and all around them. I performed my jaunty green man poem, One With The Land, which I had first performed for Beltane about seventeen years ago, ending with the declaration ‘we are one with the land’ as we bent down and touched the earth. Then we moved onto the stream side, where An gharad performed a beautiful poem in praise of Blodeuwedd, whose lovely effigy we could behold opposite, carved into the flank of an oak tree. Then we crossed Aber Fachwen (small white stream) to place the garland at the goddesses feet, before briefly communing with her as we passed. Then onto the grove of bluebells, where Eric asked us to connect with water as Eliot sang his lovely water song. Gwynn then shared his Calan Mai carol, before we tied our rags to the Summer Branch, stating our intention for the coming year. We ended with a suggestion from Kirsty, three cries of Joy as the Greek Nymphs used to shout on the Arcadian mountains: ‘Hara!’

Our Cangen Haf

Our Cangen Haf

The ceremony had flowed beautifully, and afterwards we were all buzzing. I felt like I needed to reflect on the experience and I went for a walk up to the waterfall, shown the way by Ken the Kiwi. I felt sensitized after the ceremony and the sun-dappled forest through which the white stream gurgled, seemed especially beautiful. Ken took me into Padarn Country Park, which Eric’s land abuts, to a viewpoint overlooking Llyn Padarn and Snowdon. Here I enjoyed the stunning view, before descending – much in need of a snack and a sit down.

We had an early evening chat while we waited for dinner – Eric regaled us with tales of his recent ‘bee-line’ around north Wales, travelling by foot, bicycle and horse to perform his ecoshow, What the Bees Knows, at various venues. His itinerary included walking over Snowdon and spending a couple of wild nights at Dinas Emrys and on Cader Idris – which he nearly got blown off of, but survived, coming down a ‘dead mad poet’ (the legend goes if you can spend a night on the mountain, you will come down either dead, mad or a poet). We were joined by a pleasant young American guy called Elias from Oregon. We partook of an excellent feast from Martin. Afterwards we gathered in the roundhouse for stories, songs and poems. Kirsty performed her funny First Nations dogs tale, Anthony shone with his ‘A Cobra Hissed’ literary recitation. Ellie sang a wonderful wolf-song, accompanying himself on his haung – a flying saucer style steel pan. I shared my Aristaios the Apiarist of Arcadia, story – which provided an entertaining way of exploring ‘why the bees are dying?’, a worrying contemporary environmental issue. It was late and it was smoky by the time I went on, so I don’t know if I, or the audience, were at their best by then (after 5 hrs sleep the night before and a full day), but the evening passed pleasantly enough. I chipped in The Child of Everything towards the end (round midnight?), my anti-GMO poem. Eric entertained us with some great eco-songs – notably his Long Time Coming cosmic ballad. But then I was ready for bed. It had been a bard day’s night!

The next day we packed a lot in – there was second intensive session of Mapping the Fields, a long session discussing Ecobardic Projects, a salmon feast and ceremony, and a hot tub. The highlight for me was performing my long poem Dragon Dance in the dragon snug, followed by a session on using ceremony and ritual in performance. It was powerful to do it on Beltane, in North Wales (where the dragon in the land is so evident) beneath a ‘dragon’ mountain no less, as Eric informed us.

the Dragon Snug - the perfect venue for Dragon Dance!

the Dragon Snug - the perfect venue for Dragon Dance!

The salmon feast is worth mentioning. A salmon became unexpectedly available, and Martin showed his culinary excellence in preparing for lunch – it looked magnificent. To honour its spirit, Elias played his bagpipes (a totemic variant on piping in the haggis). Afterwards, we performed a brief ceremony, casting its bones back into the stream – much to the distress of the onlooking cat.

Cae Mabon - a place of healing and inspiration

Cae Mabon - a place of healing and inspiration

We had a mini-session in the round-house, with Gwynn relating an amazing ecobardic epic, which we encouraged him to send to a radical Welsh poetry radio programme and try to get published. Eric treated us to a sample of his What the Bees Know? Eco-show, with songs, stories, poems and bee-facts. This prompted a discussion on the thin-line we tread with such shows between preacher and performer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore this further as it was dinner time. Another magnificent feast from Martin – this time with a mountain of a pudding, dripping with ice-cream, which excited Elias into Homer Simpson-esque euphoria. He couldn’t wait long enough to finish his greens to tuck in.

That night, everyone was rather wiped out – so we didn’t have another roundhouse session. Instead, we had a free evening. The hot-tub was fired up and most of the men took the waters (the prospect of sitting in it naked with men somehow didn’t appeal to the ladies of the group!). It was wonderful to be immersed in the hot water underneath the stars and trees and the glowing moon, Aber Fachwen gurgling merrily passed. I recited The Song of Wandering Aengus to my fellow bathers to celebrate the magical moment. This seemed to fire up the young American with the ‘fire in the head’. Elias erupted skyclad from the tub to chase his two young friends who had been fire juggling, casting dancing shadows around time in the darkness. He seized the fire spear from them and swirled with it in the stone circle – the very picture of a young Celtic fire god. Lugh lives!

The last morning I was awoken by Anthony knocking. The meeting had started and everyone was waiting for me! I had overslept – and the meeting had been brought forward half an hour without my knowledge. I groggily dressed and dashed down to the hall, to grab a mug of tea and some porridge as we discussed our final activity: a story walk. Anthony pulled this together well welcome lucidity and alacrity. We each were asked to find a place in the locality to tell a story about, or recite a poem or song. I knew immediately what I wanted to use – a yew tree, for The Yew Tree of the Disputing Sons, a bleak Irish myth of eco-karma. I hadn’t rehearsed it – and now found myself with 30 minutes to do so. I was also asked to end the story walk with a ceremony! A good job a bard can think on his feet – and as last night’s naked hot-tub performance proved, he is never without material!

The story walk started with a poem by Liz Clarke, youth worker from Bath, who was there with her cute toddler, Lily, who won over everyone’s hearts – and became our ‘Mabon’ for the weekend, the golden child we should never lose within ourselves. Next, we processed up to the hives area, where a drainage pit had been dug. Here, Kirsty performed the story of the Green Children, from St Mary-in-the-Wolf-Pits, Suffolk. A few yards on, I performed my yew tree story, talking about the significance of the tree. We processed over the stream into the sessile oak forest, where had a moving rendition of the Passenger Pigeon tale from Anthony; Elias’ storytelling debut with a parable about the man who sold his heart to Mammon, relocated to Uist in the Western Isles, (Llyn Padarn serving as a loch); then Ellie shared an amusing tale from Africa about the alligator and the hare (at which point a steam train chuffed by, Ivor the Engine-like – along a narrow gauge track once used for transporting slate to the Menai Straits, now tourists). We wound our way back to the grove of the Summer Branch, via a tree where Gwynn shared a poem in Welsh. We gathered, feeling a little chilly – so I got everyone to raise some chi and blow on their hands before we held them! Then I shared my praise-song to creation, encouraging the circle to give thanks in their own way. I ended with a call-and-response Celtic valediction and three shouts of ‘Hara!’

The final lunch was an incredible curry feast – setting us up for the long journey home, or perhaps preventing our departure! It seemed unlikely we would achieve ‘escape velocity’ from the lovely vortex of the place with such a pay-load! We made our final farewells, swapping emails and gifts. Our group had been small, but that meant we had all mattered in a more obvious way than in a larger group – and we had all connected. Friendships forged, a connection with the land renewed, commitments made to ‘carry the fire’ of the Cangen Haf and our intentions into the wider world, we hit the road.

Rather than go straight back to Bath, which would have felt too abrupt – as though I had been thrown off the end of a conveyor belt, I decided to share the lift back with A&K to Stroud and stay at a friend’s place. It gave us a chance to ‘debrief’ and have a kind of plenary session. There was a lot to process from the weekend and it was nice to chat about what we made of it all. The sun shone and the pleasant scenery of the Welsh Marches eased us back into ‘reality’.

The next day I went to the open day at Hawkwood College, Stroud, where I participated in Jay’s poetry workshop. He read out a poem from Rumi, ee cummings and Mary Oliver, and asked us to think about the effect poetry has on us, which prompted this poem of mine:

Poem Flowers

Poetry is the opening of a flower –

beautiful explosions

of sound and consciousness.

Sonic orchids scattered

in the mind’s stream.

Flimsy petals of luxuriant richness

drawing us in,

intoxicated by exotic scent,

colours of a different palette.

Their pollen sticks to us

and we pass it on.

Its soul-nectar sweetens

our heart’s hive.

During the workshop I could hear the strains of the May-pole dancing music drifting across, inspiring this piece:

The Bright Ribbons of May

The bright ribbons of May

plait the pole of the World-Tree.

The children laugh,

eyes shining with story wonder.

Young men and maidens

dance the ancient dance.

The land smiles again.

The widow of winter

changes into her summer dress.

Hope whispers from the hedgerows.

The seven sisters in their bright dresses

circle in the night,

eyes flashing, spells in their hair,

knowing truths

unspoken on their lips.

And between two fires

the stoic herds are driven

to fairer pastures.

***

After Jay’s workshop, we squeezed into the tipi, to catch some of the excellent storytelling by Kirsty and Fiona. Packed in amongst the little ‘uns, we all became children again, entering the kingdom of the imagination. Unfortunately, I felt myself nodding off after a whirlwind fews days. It was all catching up with me.

Afterwards, we decamped to the Woolpack in Slad, Laurie Lee’s local, where, over a pint of Budding, I read out my new poems, ‘ink still wet’, to my creative friends – Anthony, Jay, Gabriel and Miranda – in our poets’ snug. Jay and Anthony shared theirs, then it was time to go – I had a train to catch – but we walked up to Laurie Lee’s grave to pay our respects to the Bard of the Five Valleys. Then Miranda dropped me off at the station, and I caught the train to Swindon and onto home, wearily lugging my pack up the hill to my hobbit abode, glad to be finally back.

It had been a May Day to remember – I felt I had well and truly celebrated it and been fired up by beauty, friendship and awen.

Eric, whose vision has created Cae Mabon over the last twenty years should be applauded. If you can ever make it up, I highly recommend it. Otherwise, check out his show What the Bees Know, if he’s in your neck of the woods. FFI: http://www.caemabon.co.uk

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The Green Wave

A rainy Sunday after a shower of creativity this week. Last night I took part in a group book launch, organised by Peter Please of Away Publications. He invited twelve artists/poets to create mini-booklets sampling their work – in a unique format Peter calls ‘concertina books’: high quality, limited edition art books, quirkily collectable. I contributed two poems for a collection I called ‘Wildblood’ – Roebuck in a Thicket, and Wolf in the City – exploring the animal in the human and the human in the animal. I performed these at the launch – the wolf one is always fun to do (it brings out my ‘inner lycanthrope’). Peter, Skip (who typeset the books), Helen Moore (fellow Bard of Bath), John Moat (co-founder of Arvon) and others performed. Wine was quaffed and people mingled. It was a charming event, held at Widcombe Studios – and it shows what you can do collectively. I said to Peter afterwards, paraphrasing the African saying: ‘A man by himself can go faster, but a tribe can go further’. This seems to be the way things are happening more and more these days – the way ahead. While the big companies and financial instutions collapse around us, we get on with things at a grassroots level, taking the power into our own hands – no longer waiting for the blessing of the powers that be to make things happen. The creatives have become the producers. With advances in technology (DTP, internet) the methods of production and to an extent, distribution, are now in our hands. It is also so much more enjoyable collaborating like this. We can go so much further, and enjoy the journey at the same time.

The previous day Jay Ramsay visited and I went through the proof copy of his new book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness) with him. It’s due out on the 20th March with an ecobardic showcase at Waterstones, Bath – so the pressure is on, but deadlines make things happen (they say a poem is never finished, only abandoned – basically, you can only do what you can in the time given). It is looking good and it’s been a pleasure working with Jay, a fine poet who gets my vote for the next Poet Laureate. On the 20th I am going to host an evening of poetry, storytelling and acoustic music with friends and fellow performers. The focus of the evening is ecobardic – and one of its core principles is this idea of creative collaboration.  Working with Fire Springs, with Away, with Phoenix, with Cae Mabon, with ARC, with David Lassman (with whom I co-run the Bath Writers Workshop) … it feels like a movement is growing. It’s exciting – although times are difficult it feels like there’s all kinds of creative possibilities out there, and there’s hope. Perhaps it’s the optimistic energy of Spring – ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, as Dylan Thomas put it. A creative surge – intoxicating, exhilarating. One has to ride the wave or go under.

A Feast of Friends

A Feast of Friends at Ruskin Mill

A Feast of Friends at Ruskin Mill

7 November

 

A Feast of Friends

Ruskin Mill, Nailsworth

 

This event was organised by poet and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay, whose seminal Psychic Poetry I read long before I actually met him. In the Eighties he held an event called Angels of Fire at the Albert Hall – which might be seen as influential as the Beat readings there in 64. He performed with his poetry group, Phoenix, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in a freezing Walcot Chapel – it was amazing their harper, Fred Hargender was able to play, consider his fingers must have been numb! This event was far cosier, in the beautifully renovated old paper mill – we were in a downstairs which had a real fire roaring in the corner. This was to be another ‘fiery’ combination, between Phoenix, and our group Firesprings – a fecund meeting of bards. The line up was going to be Firesprings members Anthony (who started the evening with an ecobardic epic called ‘The Story of People on Planet Earth’), David (who offered a spine-tingling trio of ‘death ballads’), and myself, plus Bath-based poet and Awen author, Mary, who performed some of her ‘Iona’; the second half was predominantly Phoenix poets Jay, Gabrielle, Ella & her partner, Sam, playing didgeridoo, plus Geoff offering us amusing Andalucian tales to end with accompanied by flamenco guitar from his friend Dave.

 

I had had an exhausting week – with all of my teaching, with a new class starting Friday afternoon, with 5 new students to add to my other 114! When I got back home I was shattered, and just flopped. When I awoke it was practically time to go out again, with no time to eat. I was hoping to grab some chips on the way, but didn’t think I had enough time. I should have made time, as my energy levels sank dangerously low before the performance. Fortunately, Jay offered me some chocolate and I had a can of Red Bull, which was just enough to see me through the first half. Luckily, my fifteen minute slot was then. As always I got nervous before hand – worried that my fatigue would impair my performance, but as happened once in the Bath Literature Festival, during our ‘Voices of the Past’ show, when I was spaced out with a cold, I turned in one of my best performances. With nothing left to lose, I tapped into something real, something edgy.

 

I had rehearsed down by the water in the moonlight, which helped to centre me and to evoke the atmosphere I wished to evoke. I performed my ‘winter set’ – wolf in the city, the wicker man, wild hunt, one with the land, and finishing with the ‘Prophets of Los’, which I preambled by saying with imagination anything is possible (as the events earlier in the week had proven). I had been deeply inspired by Obama’s winning speech on Tuesday, which showed the power of the spoken word. I was feeling perhaps less noble though and less on an even keel than ‘No Drama Obama’ – my separation from Jennifer had left me feeling miserable, wounded, and like a wounded beast I snarled and bit back! My wolf poem performance is always a crowd-pleaser, but tonight it had real bite – at one point I made a girl in the audience gasp with shock (although afterwards she came up to thank me for my poems, and roared – she had got in touch with her own beast). I introduced my set by saying ‘There’s an animal inside all of us, and sometimes it comes out!’. Bang – straight in. A short, punchy, pithy, preamble like that is far more effective than the flabby openings I hear some people come out with – sometimes longer than the piece itself, deflating any tension it may have, making it a long-winded affair. I kept my links to a minimum. I made sure I really connected to the audience – looking at them hard in the eye, defiant, prowling, like a cornered wolf. Unashamed of what I am or what I was offering them. A performance is not the time to hide one’s light under a bushel (or as I like to say, it can ‘set your bushel alight’). You should blaze – but not at one pitch. Like a fire, vary your radiance. Flicker and glow, flare up, die down, blaze. This keeps the attention up – makes it unpredictable. Spontaneous composition.

 

I had set a book stall up upstairs – Awen’s titles nearly covered the whole table, with the addition of the newest titles, Simon’s poetry collection, The Book of the Bardic Chair launched the previous weekend. I sold some, which helped to make the event even more worthwhile. But what made it a buzz was the full house – the energy was reciprocated, unlike the gig at the Victoria Art Gallery the week before. A small audience, however willing, is harder work. Your get less energy back for your efforts.

 

We all ended the night feeling on a bit of a high – Jay was keen for us to keep the flame burning. This kind of creative collaboration we felt to be the way forward. A new working model, which we expound upon in our manifesto – due to be launched at the end of the month. It would have been nice to have had a drink with folk afterwards, especially since it was Kirsty’s birthday the next day and it was nearly midnight, but I had a face-to-face tutorial with my Advanced Creative Writing students the next day and David was the driver. Plus I was starving, and there was a chance I might catch a takeaway on the way home, which I gratefully did. It was nice to have time to chat with David, a very decent bloke, an excellent bard and a true professional.

 

This latest experience has renewed my enthusiasm for Firesprings, which I admit was flagging. Joining forces with Phoenix, in these irregular events, has given it a new lease of life. The next one is due the end of the month, on William Blake’s birthday – Blake being another rallying point, the ‘William Blake Congregation’ as Felicity Bowers and Helen Elwes like to call it. ‘Hear the Voice of the Bards!’