Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring – The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014
As part of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester – a novel-based project dramatizing the diasporic translocation of folk traditions from the Scottish Lowlands to the Southern Appalachians – I have explored various forms of practice-based research. Chief among these is of course the writing of the novel itself. A recent QAA Benchmark Statement on Creative Writing validates the notion of writing-as-research, when it states: ‘Original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’ (4.6). Of course, research may also explore the critical discourses around the subject, the reader experience, creative process, publishing, performance and multi-media platforms. In the first of a series of three seminars hosted by the Open University’s research group, ‘Contemporary Cultures of Writing’ at Senate House, London (which I attended on Tuesday, 3rd November) research students and staff explore issues around ‘Creative Writing Research’ What constitutes research and how it can be validated within the rigours of a PhD continue to be explored and expanded by those working within academe. The pressure of having a thesis rubber-stamped and passing one’s viva means institutional validation of ‘proper’ research is all too critical, and maybe constraining the often instinctive, protean and multifarious methodologies of writers. Often we ‘do it anyway’, writing blind, in the white heat of the moment, following hunches, gut feelings, flashes of inspiration, synaptic tight-rope walks, and tangential cat-a-loops … then back-extrapolate the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ afterwards, trying to sound intelligent and conscious in our creative processes.
Nevertheless, some activity is informed and intentional. As part of my novel project, I decided that a spoken word performance dramatizing some of the Border Ballads would be an interesting way to bring alive my research, widen its accessibility, and get diverse audience responses. And it would also be great fun. And so with my partner Chantelle Smith, a folk-singer, we devised a show based upon our trips to the Scottish Borders – in the summer of 2014 we walked Hadrian’s Wall from coast to coast, then pushed beyond the current Border, visiting ballad sites. Drawing upon this shared experience we devised ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, a storytelling and acoustic music show bringing alive the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – whose thematic symmetry I find fascinating. Initially last forty minutes we premiered it at the SEED Festival, Hawkwood College, in July 2015; and have performed it at three other events since, expanding it to a full hour with extra songs and an additional folk tale. The response has been favourable. One audience member commented afterwards: ‘Loved the interplay of word, music, choreography, and the unexpected humorous asides – and also the landscape of folkloric detail.’ I have also performed a solo version of the show in the States, on a recent field trip. The show’s strength, however, is in the dynamic created between my partner and I on stage, and the alternation between modes of narrative: primarily storytelling (myself) and ballad (Chantelle). Harp, shruti box, bodhran and bells are also used to create ambience and weave the spell. The shift in register between my (spoken) voice and my partner’s (sung) voice modulates the aural experience and demands of the listener. We shift in and out of character, not fully acting, not fully ourselves, but inhabiting a third space, and breaking the fourth on occasion with the odd humorous aside, responding to the actuality of the performance space – noises off, a mobile phone, a passing siren, etc. The show inhabits a liminal space – in terms of its location/s (the Scottish Borders; Elfhame); its gender politics; the creative tension between the magical and the mundane; the cross-fertilisation of art-forms; the chancy terrain of national identity (Anglo-Scottish fault-lines); and in its rich symbolism. In many ways liminality is the key note of both ballads – both physical (hillside; tree; stream; crossroads; well) and temporal (twilight; midnight; Halloween) motifs crop up, often echoed in each ballad. In ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ it is the male protagonist who is our ‘Everyman’ – it is he who undergoes initiation, gaining the gift of prophecy (‘the Tongue that Cannot Lie’) and the appellation of ‘True Thomas’. In ‘Tam Lin’ it is Janet of Carterhaugh who facilitates listener identification – it is her Third Person Limited Omniscient perspective that we follow – as she undergoes her own rite-of-passage into woman-hood and self-actualisation. Both Thomas and Janet experience a change of status, brought about by what RJ Stewart has termed the ‘Underworld Initiation’. The Queen of Elfland is the catalyst behind both – more directly in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ Morgana Le Fay-way in ‘Tam Lin’. She is ostensibly the same queen but seems very different in each ballad: in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ she appears as the Muse figure, a Gravesian ‘white goddess’ on her white horse, with her bells and spells. In ‘Tam Lin’ she is a Kali-figure, goddess of vengeance, cursing Tam Lin for his ‘faithlessness’ – terrifying and implacable. As the male performer in the show, I naturally channel Thomas and Tam Lin; my partner similarly channels the light-and-dark queens and the feisty Janet. The experience is visceral and deepens our understanding – and compassion – for all aspects. They seem part of a spectrum. I have devised, based upon this practice-led insight, a workshop and accompanying diagram I call ‘The Wheel of Transformation’, which I field-tested at both a pagan camp in Britain and in America. In both cases I was impressed and surprised by the results. Participants role-played scenes from the ballads – and, without much prompting, took on characters of different genders, ages and backgrounds to their own. It seemed liberating to all involve – that we could move around the ‘wheel’ and inhabit any of the roles, fith-fathing like Tam Lin in Janet’s arms. All participants managed to find something to relate in the ballads – there are universal patterns being played out in them; akin to the Orphic (Orpheus and Eurydice ) or Eleusinian (Demeter and Persephone) Mysteries, in terms of their ritual and archetypal. It would seem the ‘Fair Maiden’ (the anima; or untainted soul seeking the grit of experience) is perennially being lured to the Underworld by some dark, charismatic Lord – where the chymical wedding occurs, and the nigredo of the soul’s dark night leads to the gold of transformational rebirth. For self-knowledge to be achieved, the Underworld journey must be taken and the Shadow embraced.
And so the journey begins. The wheel of transformation keeps turning and these pliant ballads are re-invented in new forms with each performer, each performance. The fith-fath does not threaten their integrity, only strengthens it. Their mutability is part of their resilience, their enduring appeal. This practice-based research has deepened my understanding of them – and consequently some of the core themes underlying my novel, underpinning its mythic resonance. It gives the creative/critical endeavour of my research a breadth and groundedness, making it feel less abstract, more embodied and owned. I walk my talk, and the material becomes a living reality.
Kevan Manwaring 7 November 2015
 Anthony Nanson, SEED Festival, 2015